Iceland Weather: A Season-by-Season Guide
Updated: Apr 25, 2019
Simply the name Iceland, conjures up images of a frozen land adrift with snow and ice. In actual fact the Icelandic climate in much milder than most people might think. Average temperatures range between around minus 10°C and 0°C in winter, and 2°C to 20°C in summer. Not a huge range and not terribly cold either. Situated as it is, just shy of the Arctic Circle, this is somewhat surprising. The reason for this relatively mild climate is all down to the Gulf Stream. Warm waters flow towards Iceland on ocean currents from as far as the Caribbean. However, when these waves of warmth collide with colder weather fronts from the North Atlantic, the result is often tumultuous. Iceland sees a great deal of changeable and stormy weather, with wind and rains a frequent occurrence. Much like in the UK, the weather is a hot topic of conversation in Iceland. This is mostly because it changes so often. The old saying goes, ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’.
Here we’ve put together a season-by-season weather guide to help you plan your visit to Iceland. We’ve included information on the average temperature in Iceland and a little look at recommended activities and driving conditions for each season.
Summer in Iceland
Most first time travellers choose to visit Iceland during the milder summer months. There are all sorts of benefits to visiting at this time of year and it really is a glorious season. The summer season runs from June to August and is also high season for tourists in Iceland. This means it’s a little busier and some of the prices may be higher. Of course there are a few cons to weigh up against all the pros. One of the biggest benefits of summer travel is the Midnight Sun. With nearly twenty-four hours of sunlight at the height of the season, there is so much more opportunity to explore. The novelty of being able to go sightseeing at midnight is great fun. The oddity of it really contributes to that holiday feeling of stepping out of the ordinary.
Of course the weather in summer is warmer and brighter in general, but you can still get some chilly days. If a northerly wind gets up it can feel pretty fresh. A general rule of thumb is to come prepared. By all means wear a t-shirt, but be sure to pack some layers in your day bag. Do bring cold weather gear with you for a summer trip too, just in case a storm blows in. When it comes to the weather expect anything.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Iceland was 30.5°C, but that was way back in the late 1930s. In Reykjavik the temperature has never reached much higher than 26°C and usually hovers between 10°C and 20°C. How warm these temperatures actually feel is all down to which way the wind is blowing. That northerly breeze might have you reaching for your jacket. The presence of the midnight sun means that there isn’t that nighttime dip in temperature that you experience in many climates.
Driving in the summer months – The summer is the perfect time of year to hire a camper and take a road trip around Iceland. The roads will be passable throughout the season and you won’t need to worry about hiring a 4x4 or fitting winter tyres. Iceland’s many campsites are all open and the midnight sun gives you plenty of chance to explore.
Things to do in summer– Mild weather means this is a great time of year for leisurely sightseeing. Hiking, horse riding, kayaking, snorkelling and whale watching are all great simmer activities, to name but a few.
Autumn in Iceland
Although officially still summer, Autumnal conditions start to creep in in late August and stretch on through September and October. The nights start to get longer and the temperature takes a downturn. This time of year the weather gets much more changeable and it is often the rainiest season of all. The vegetation begins to take on the beautiful fiery gold colours of fall. It’s a beautiful time to go sightseeing, especially through the stunning landscapes of Iceland’s national parks. Hiking or tent camping is not so favourable as the rains can be heavy and the paths and fields can become quite muddy.
Driving in autumn - Driving right across the country is still very doable at this time of year until the snows begin. Snowfall generally arrives later in the season and the highland roads begin to close.
Things to do in autumn– This is a good season for a self-drive tour of Iceland. The roads will be quieter and the scenery stunning. Autumn is also a good time to see the Northern Lights, with properly dark nights lasting for around 10-12 hours. This is the time of year for a camper though, as tent camping might see you a bit bedraggled with all the rain.
Winter in Iceland
Icelandic winters are quite something. Visiting at this time of year is an incredible experience. Winter proper kicks in from November, but depending on the year and the part of the country you are in the snows can come much earlier, later, or not at all! Icelandic weather really is that fickle. As a general rule though the south coast will hang on to the milder weather longer. One of the most surprising things about winters in Iceland is the reality of those famously long nights. In mid-winter the shortest day sees only about four hours of partial daylight. And that’s a low-level daylight too, with beautiful slanting sunshine if you’re lucky and the sky is clear. The long nights are brightened up with Christmas lights and bonfires, and potentially the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis too!
The coldest temperature recorded in Iceland was an icy -38°C, in the winter of 2018! However, average winter temperatures are around 0°C in the South, dropping to more like minus 10-20°C as you move north, or up into the highlands. Reykjavik in winter averages at around 2°C, but ranges from -10°C to 10°C. Again those notorious weather patterns give the residents a lot to talk about!
Driving in winter– Winter can be a tricky time to drive in Iceland, though still perfectly possible under the right circumstances. You will need to be a confident driver and plan your trip well. Ring road trips are the best bet and this well travelled road is nearly always navigable year round. Venturing into the interior or to the northern corners of the country is not advised though. You would need a sturdy 4x4 and plenty of grit to tackle many of the roads. Still more roads are actually closed for the winter months. As mentioned though, the ring road is a great road to travel and there is still a good network of campsites open throughout the year. What you will need to do is check the weather forecasts daily and plan accordingly. You should also pack for cold weather with plenty of outdoor gear and warm bedding.
Things to do in winter– Wintry weather turns Iceland into a wonderland for snowy activities. There are all sorts of things to do, from glacier hiking and climbing to exploring ice caves and driving snowmobiles. There are also several good ski resorts in Iceland and snow sports are popular. Skiers and snowboarders will find slopes to suit all levels and floodlit runs so that you can ride through the hours of darkness.
Iceland in springtime
Iceland doesn’t really have an official springtime, but rather a slow emergence from winter. March and April are still quite wintry temperature wise, but the days are getting longer by the day. Depending on the year, there can still be plenty of snow falling at this time of year, so winter activities carry on well into April. The long nights mean that this is a good time of year to see the Northern Lights, and the longer days mean that there is more time for sightseeing. By mid to late May the country usually experiences what many might consider spring. The snowmelt is well under way and the fields begin to green up. A few spring blooms start to brighten the countryside and the gardens and the days are getting much, much longer. In Reykjavik there are around 18 hours of daylight by late May, so this is not a good time for spotting the Northern Lights.
The melting snow means that Iceland’s rivers and lakes are full to the brim. So experiencing the power of Iceland’s great waterfalls at this time of year is thrilling. May is often one of the driest months of the year, so hiking in certain areas is ideal. However, Iceland’s delicate emerging plant life is at its most fragile, so certain paths will be closed. Tramping boots can cause a lot of damage to tender stems, especially if the rains come and things get muddy.
Driving in spring– March and April, the months that many might consider springtime, are still very wintry in Iceland. So the same driving recommendations apply. From May onwards road conditions change quickly for the better. It’s a great time to hire a camper and head out on a low season road trip. The roads will be quieter and the prices lower. Many of the campsites will begin opening this month too and especially so on the ring road.
Things to do in spring– This is a shoulder season in Iceland so both winter and summer activities can be enjoyed, depending on the year and which end of the season you visit. Early on wintery activities abound, along with Northern Lights tours. Later you’ll have more daylight hours for sight seeing and hiking and you’ll also have wildlife watching opportunities. May is the start of whale watching season in Iceland and is also the time when puffins come to shore to begin nesting.