Winter Activities in Iceland
Iceland winters are long, typically lasting from October to April. This is quite a few months to be exposed to the elements! We’re talking snowfall, blustery winds and blizzards. At least usually. The current winter of 2016/2017 is one of Iceland’s warmest on record–the last time temperatures were so low was 150 years ago!
Does that mean you won’t get to enjoy all the snow Iceland has to offer? Au contraire. Iceland’s weather is most notorious for its capriciousness, so expect blizzards and the occasional sunny day to continue on without interruption.
Adventures in the Snow
Winter in Iceland means short days and long nights, peaking at the winter solstice with its 4 hours of daylight. Though by no means high tourist season (you can look to summer for that honor), winter still has its fair share of attractions and activities–some only accessible come ice and snow. Other perks of visiting Iceland in winter are lower airfares, car rentals and hotel rooms.
Winter activities in Iceland tend to err on the extreme. You can spend the dark months huddled by your laptop or in a candlelit cafe with a good book–or you can hit the slopes in full adrenaline-mode. I’ve written up a few cool winter pursuits to get your blood pumping.
Just One Thing: If you do venture outside, go with a reputable guide. The terrain in Iceland can be dangerous, and in winter, doubly so! Even driving on the Ring Road has led to countless accidents. Do your research and book with a recommended guide. Also, make sure you dress warmly and in layers, with the best hiking boots available. Tour guides may provide auxiliary gear, such as helmets or rainproof jackets, but don’t rely on this–always bring your own weather-resistant outerwear.
CHASE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS.
Of course, top on the list is the Aurora Borealis, the most popular attraction in Iceland come wintertime. These luminous whips attract thousands of visitors per year! You can usually count on them in the season from October to March, but day to day, they tend to be unpredictable. Even tour guides will caution you that the Northern Lights are unpredictable–but most of them are generous enough to give you a free night should the first one be unsuccessful. For best viewings, drive out to the countryside away from any light pollution, on a night with little to no clouds. The show usually starts after 11pm. Check the weather forecast the afternoon before you hit the road.
WALK ON A GLACIER.
Making your way down an old glacier with nothing but a small ice axe and crampons is certainly an experience sure to set your adrenaline ablaze. Not all such glacier walks are as daring, however; you can book one that’s relatively moderate, as long as you bring the right boots. Glaciers cover around 11% of Iceland–so there’s plenty of terrain to explore! Climb across Sólheimajökull glacier tongue in South Iceland. Learn all about the nature and behavior of glaciers. Venture deep past icy ridges, deep-blue crevasses, and sink holes. Walking on a glacier is truly a magical, incomparable experience! My only recommendation? Always go with a guide–it can be perilous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Snowmobiling is widely popular in Iceland among locals and visitors alike, with hundreds of great destinations up in the highlands. The best part is that you don’t need to be an expert to sign up. As long as you have a valid driver’s license, and pass the age threshold, you can hop on a snowmobile for a crazy adventure over the glaciers. If you’re a total beginner, don’t worry, the guides are eager to show you how it all works. Commit to just two hours, or go all-in on a full day or multi-day expedition. Most snowmobiles have two seats, which means you can pair up together. Popular areas include Mýrdalsjökull Glacier and Langjökull Glacier, but the best views are undoubtedly in the unspoiled mountains above Akureyri.
Ice caves are natural phenomena, an exquisite sight that comes in all sizes and hues. Imagine deep blue crystals, ancient black silt, translucent whites and vivid ultramarine. Every summer, meltwater trickles down from the mountains, and carves out shimmering ice tubes, tunnels and caves. By winter, they’ve frozen into semi-stable spaces. Entering an ice cave is an unforgettable journey into the heart of an age-old glacier. Be sure to book your tour with a reputable guide way in advance, as spaces sell out. Extreme Iceland and Local Guides are both great companies to join on your icy adventure. You’ll want to make sure you are well-equipped, and fit enough to climb around difficult terrain. Nearly all of the best caves lie in Vatnajökull National Park, in the southeast part of Iceland. The park lies 5-6 hours from Reykjavik, so I recommend devoting at least two days. If you don’t have the time, you can check out the man-made ice cave at Langjökull in West Iceland. Get up close and personal with glaciers and learn all about their structure and behavior in these neatly carved ice tunnels.
Though you may not think of huskies when you consider Iceland, dog-sledding does exist here and there in pockets. Most tours are offered in the Bláfjöll Ski Area, in the southwest part of the country. You can book as part of a Northern Lights tour late at night. Be sure that you book your tour well into the winter season, so you have the snow necessary for sledding.
Cross-country skiing is hugely popular, though usually among locals. The aforementioned Bláfjöll ski area is the main region for skiing, just a short drive from Reykjavik. There are five well-equipped ski resorts open from November to May, with ski rentals and lessons for the beginner. It’s kind of an ideal terrain for skiing, as trees are surprisingly scarce in the highlands. The open-air slopes are perfect conditions for Alpine ski touring, cat skiing and heli-skiing.
Been on one of these Winter Tours and would love to tell us about it? We’d love to hear it; share in the comments!
Images: Shutterstock. Sled dog race/gillmar; Skaftafell glacier/Anna Om; Vatnajokull Glacier/Darren Baker; Skidoos/Ralf Siemieniec