See the Northern Lights in Iceland through the roof of a campervan
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is one of those bucket list travel experiences. The magical sight of those dancing lights never gets old, and seeing them for the first time is just mind-blowing. Of course that little thing called the Midnight Sun gets in the way in summertime. So if you’re an aurora explorer you are going to have to travel to Iceland in winter, spring or autumn. There are pros and cons when you visit Iceland at any time of year, but in this post we are making the case for a winter trip. We’ll also share our top tips on the best way to go about it. Did the title give it away? Yes, that’s right, a campervan with a panoramic sunroof is definitely the way to go!
The beauty of winter
People love traveling in Iceland during the winter months for some very simple reasons. Seeing Iceland’s ethereal landscapes cloaked in a pristine blanket of snow is one of the main draws of a winter trip. A dusting of snow elevates the already spectacular views to another level of beauty. It really is a winter wonderland and there are so many activities to enjoy too, from skiing or snowboarding to winter hiking and exploring ice caves. Despite all this and the Northern Lights, winter is low season in Iceland, with far fewer tourists to share it all with. Although there are not as many daylight hours at this time of year, those few hours can be seriously beautiful. When the skies are clear the low sun creates a magical atmosphere. An incredible golden light illuminates the landscape and the most amateur photographer will be able to take some stunning pictures.
Winter festivals in Iceland
Iceland is much less visited in winter, but the Icelandic people themselves stay put. Of course they have all sorts of ways of making life fun in winter. From the charm of twinkling Christmas lights, to some epic New Year celebrations and exciting winter festivals, there’s plenty to celebrate. Lighting up the darkness of February is the Winter Lights Festival in Reykjavik with a fantastic and free program of events. Also in the capital there are winter festivals dedicated to design, folk music, film, fashion, electronic music and beer! Celebrated right across the country, Þorrablót is a wintery festival that falls in January and February. During the festivities Icelandic people celebrate their traditional poetry with public readings in bars and cafes. They will also feast on some quite unusual dishes… fermented shark anyone? The festival offers a fascinating insight into Iceland’s traditions and history.
Weather conditions in winter
We’re not going to lie - weather conditions present the biggest challenge of a winter trip to Iceland. However, the benefits make it more than worth it. Average temperatures in Iceland during winter are not actually that low and don’t often go below -5 degrees Celsius. Although this is somewhat misleading as the wind-chill factor can make it feel much, much colder. With this in mind, bringing proper gear is a must. The weather is also notoriously hard to predict, so regularly checking the weather reports is highly recommended too. There are some great apps that you can download. The Vegagerðin App is essential for winter road trips, allowing you to access webcams and detailed up-to-date information on road closures and recommended or alternative routes.
What to pack for a winter visit to Iceland
If you’ve ever packed for a skiing trip, then you’ll have a good idea of what your wardrobe should look like. Layers are key, so a good merino base layer, a microfiber mid-layer and a good quality windproof jacket are all essential. You’ll also need a warm woollen hat, good quality gloves, leggings to go under your trousers, hiking boots and plenty of decent socks. We really recommend a balaclava or snood for those really windy days. A good quality sleeping bag is a must, and also some pillows for comfort. Just imagine yourself tucked up in your campervan waiting for the light show. You’re going to want to be comfortable. To make sure you have a cosy camper, consider taking things like a travel lamp, portable speaker, blankets and perhaps a corkscrew. You’ll be spending quite a bit of time in your camper on a Northern Lights hunt, so make sure it is super comfortable.
The practicalities - Campsites and gas stations in Iceland
You might have heard that Iceland’s campsites are closed during winter, but this is not strictly true. As more and more people choose to explore Iceland by campervan during winter, many of the campgrounds have extended their opening season to accommodate. Some are even open year round. The majority of these campsites are located along, or near, Iceland’s famous ring road that loops around the coast. Having said that, they are fewer than in summer and with longer stretches in between, so it is best to be prepared. If you do a little research and plan your drives in advance, you’ll be fine. Gas stations are another consideration. Again, on the ring road route there are plenty. Note though that they may sometimes be unmanned, so you will need to take a credit card to pay for your fuel. Just use the touch screen to select the UK/US flag symbol and the instruction language will switch to English.
Winter driving in Iceland
Road conditions in winter can be tricky, so you will need to have your wits about you to a certain extent. If you drive the ring road (advised) and don’t venture far off of the main route, you won’t need a big 4x4 vehicle. As long as you have decent winter tyres and pay attention to weather forecasts you’ll be fine. As mentioned there are several great apps that you can download to help you plan your route. Another top tip for winter driving is to be mindful of wind! Iceland can get pretty windy in winter. Many people end up damaging their hire vehicles by opening car doors too quickly in windy conditions. So, think about that when choosing your parking position and approach car and camper doors with caution! Do pay attention to road signs too. There are certain roads that can only be driven by 4x4 vehicles. As well as staying safe, you won’t be covered by your insurance if you break down or need recovery from a road you are not supposed to be on. Don’t worry though as all road restrictions will be clearly marked.
Other things to do in Iceland during winter
As well as seeing the aurora dance there are all sorts of activities to enjoy in winter. From glacier hiking and climbing to exploring ice caves and driving a snow mobile, getting out into the white stuff is always a lot of fun. Although Iceland isn’t really famous for skiing and snowboarding there are a few good ski resorts. It is quite simple to hire gear and head out on the slopes for a few days. Near Reykjavik you’ll find the Skálafell and Bláfjöll ski resorts. Being close to the capital these are some of the busiest resorts in Iceland. They are still blissfully quiet if you are used to skiing in France or Austria though. If you’d like a glacier tour then the vast Langjökull glacier is an exciting place to visit. It has an 1800ft network of manmade tunnels and ice caves to discover and you can also take a monster truck tour across the surface of the glacier. Another excellent thing to do in winter is visit some of Iceland’s hot springs and thermal springs. As well as warming you up, relaxing in their healing waters is a great compliment to all of these winter activities.