A practical guide to visiting Iceland in the colder months

Iceland impresses with an epic landscape like no other. In summer, rolling green countryside glistens under the midnight sun, while in winter, sprawling snowscapes part only for thundering waterfalls and dramatic geysers. While both seasons attract many tourists, the latter is a favourite for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the magical Northern Lights. Visit between September and April for a chance to see the elusive phenomenon, and check out our top travel tips – so it’s just the lights, and not the cold, that take your breath away.

Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. Image: iStock/Dash_med

Prepare for all weather

From watching the sunrise with streaks of candy pinks and purples against the stark white expanse, to observing sheets of ice flowing down the river, the Icelandic landscape is gorgeous at every turn. For a country that’s made up of a little over 10% ice, there is much more depth to it beneath the snow – and it’s best to be prepared for all types of terrain. A waterproof coat with a hood is a must, but be sure to pack sunnies and an umbrella to keep you dry on those snowy evenings.

A strange occurrence, and one that demonstrates the contrasts well, is taking a dip in the natural hot springs of Laugarvatn Fontana in Þingvellir National Park. While the hours away in cosy 30- to 40-degree waters, cooled down to varying temperatures by water from a naturally freezing lake, but mind not to touch your hair with wet hands – the sub-zero temperatures will ensure your hair completely freezes into blocks of ice.

Hot springs in Iceland. Image: iStock/franckreporter

What to wear

On a Northern Lights hunt, you can be outside in the pitch black for hours in -15 degrees or colder, and the blanket of stars won’t keep you warm – no matter how dazzling they look. The nighttime is significantly colder than the day (-3 seems positively balmy when you’re strolling and exploring), so you’ll want clothes that will take you from day to night: layers!

Start with a base layer of a thermal vest and tights, or longjohns, with a long-sleeved top thrown over the top. Add to this a cosy jumper and durable trousers (ski trousers are best, but jeans are fine too), and a regular pair and a thick pair of socks. In the day, pop the thick pair of socks in your bag – the coverage from the tights and regular pair of socks will be fine – but once the sun sets, you’ll relish in the warmth of the additional pair.

Diamond Beach. Image courtesy of Tamsin Salfrais

A bobble hat and scarf will complete your look, while gloves are an absolute must. Nab a pair that works with your phone screen, as you’ll want to snap your way throughout the trip, without the icy fingers. Your thickest winter coat is, of course, your best option, but make sure you’ve got a hood – it will provide extra coverage if the wind picks up. When it comes to shoes, invest in a pair with warm lining, especially around the toes, and good grip. Snow traction cleats are also a great, cheap investment to stop slipping and sliding.

Being savvy and getting around

Iceland has earned itself a reputation for being a little harsh on the wallet, but you needn’t spend excessively to enjoy all the country has to offer. For those who enjoy a tipple or two, it’s best to follow the example of the locals and stock up on your alcohol at the airport’s duty-free – be sure to adhere to the unit restrictions, if you’re buying before you board the plane. Supermarkets pepper the residential areas in Reykjavik – there’s a 24-hour one right by the grand, 74-metre Hallgrimskirkja church – to satisfy any snack cravings, and the main shopping street, Laugavegur, has a plethora of options, so you’ll soon find one to fit your budget.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik. Image: iStock/f11photo

To explore sights further afield, such as the thundering Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the tiny village of Vik with its 300 inhabitants, or the entrancing Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, renting a car or joining a tour are a must. The latter is cost-effective for packing many sights in one smooth journey, transferred between each in a warm coach as you soak up knowledge from your English-speaking guide.

For those staying in the capital city, Reykjavik Excursions’ Northern Lights tour will not only cover the science behind the phenomenon, but also the country’s fascinating myths and legends that surround the aurora borealis. Tours mostly start at the well-placed BSI bus station in the centre, but for added convenience, the company will organise a complementary people-carrier to pick you up from a pre-determined bus stop near your hotel and drop you off at the main station. Airport transfers are also organised by the same company and are a great, simple alternative to catching a cab.

Reykjavik. Image courtesy of Tamsin Salfrais

If you’re staying in Reykjavik, walking is a great way to get around. The capital streets are easy to follow, the snow is powdery rather than slippery, and cars seem to give pedestrians right of way whenever you’re looking to cross (though this is down to the residents’ laid-back, friendly attitude, rather than actual laws). In the dark – which in winter is between 5pm and 11am – streets are well lit. Also, surprising for some perhaps, the 4G coverage is pretty good – even in the country’s most rural towns – so a map will never be far from reach.

Words by Tamsin Salfrais

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