Updated: Apr 13
Iceland is a land of extremes. With its glaciers, volcanoes, and hot springs, this is where the contrasting elements of fire and ice collide. We have all heard about the Midnight Sun, but does Iceland get Polar Nights too? How many hours of daylight and darkness can you expect if you visit in the winter months and what is it like to experience life on the edge of the Arctic Circle?
In this article, we explore these questions and also take a look at some holiday activities for the darker winter days. Iceland truly is a country like no other, and this sky-high phenomenon just adds to its sense of otherworldliness.
What is a polar night?
Essentially a Polar Night is the ‘polar’ opposite of the Midnight Sun. With the Midnight Sun, the sun never really sets. On polar nights the sun never actually rises above the horizon. In fact, although Iceland is famous for its Midnight Sun, it does not experience Polar Nights.
And even when the Midnight Sun is at its height, the sun will still dip just below the horizon for a short while. This happens around the summer solstice in June. Although the sun does effectively go down it never gets completely dark. There is still quite a lot of light in the sky from the barely set sun.
A true Polar Night is a full 24 hours of darkness. This is balanced out by a full 24 hours of daylight on the other side of the earth. This natural phenomenon only occurs at the North Pole and the South Pole. Even though Iceland lies on the edge of the polar circle, it is just far enough down for the sun to peep over the horizon in mid-winter. These ultra-short days fall around the winter solstices both in the northern hemisphere and in the southern hemisphere.
Having said that, there are some villages in the mountains of Iceland where the inhabitants won’t see the sun all winter long unless they travel out of their village that is! There will still be scattered light in the sky for several hours. But the sun won’t rise high enough over the horizon for it to reach them over the mountaintops.
How many hours of darkness does Iceland get in winter?
The least number of daylight hours that Iceland gets is between 4-5 hours, depending on where you are. The winter solstice falls on December 22nd, and for about a month on either side of it, the days are very short. In the depths of winter in Iceland, the sun rises at around 11.15 am. Then promptly the sun sets again at about 3.30 pm. This is something to keep in mind when planning your trip. If you are visiting Iceland with hopes of seeing all the sights quickly, then a summer trip might suit you better.
The Midnight Sun
As with all extremes, you also get the opposite. So around the June summer solstice visitors to Iceland can experience the Midnight Sun. At this time of year, you will see the sun rising at about 3 am. It will have dipped just below the horizon not long after midnight. During those three hours in between, the sky will glow a sunset red and orange. There will still be plenty of light in the sky for any outdoor activity you might like to do though.
With the Midnight Sun in Iceland bringing all those extra hours of daylight, you can get a lot done. This is the prime time of year for camping in Iceland and for a self-drive road trip with your motorhome rental.
The beauty of this time of year is that you can enjoy sightseeing late into the night. You can go hiking without worrying about nightfall or see the busy sights at quieter times. You could take a whale-watching trip in the morning and then tour the full Golden Circle in the afternoon. The daylight means that you can just keep on going!
Visiting Iceland in winter
Yes, the days might be short but there is something very special about visiting Iceland in winter. There is a certain kind of magic to seeing the landscapes twinkling under a blanket of snow. This is, of course, the perfect time for spotting the Northern Lights. Winter is a wonderful time to visit Iceland. It simply asks that you plan your time wisely and don’t try to fit too much in.
Winter activities in Iceland
There are so many exciting winter activities to enjoy. And actually, winter in Iceland is not as cold as you might think. The average temperature hovers at around zero degrees Celsius. So not too icy after all!
As long as you come prepared with the right outdoor kit you can spend lots of time outdoors, from hiking across glaciers to delving into ice caves to scooting on snowmobiles. There are lots of wintery activities well worth wrapping up for. Iceland also has several ski resorts where you can ski and snowboard. Many slopes are floodlit by night so you don’t even have to confine snowy activities to daylight hours.
Of course, the Icelandic people get this every year so they know how to deal with long nights. Winter festivals, cozy restaurants, and cheery Christmas and New Year celebrations abound during December in Iceland. And absolutely nothing can beat the magnificence of seeing the Aurora Borealis. This incredible natural phenomenon lights up the night sky over Iceland every winter.
There’s no knowing exactly when or if it will appear. But your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in winter are high. You will need a clear and crisp night without a bright full moon ideally. You should also be out in the wilderness, far away from light pollution caused by towns and cities. If seeing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, then check out our guide to Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland. And a winter visit is most definitely a good start!
Make the Most of the Light!
One other thing to mention is that there are a good 1-2 hours of twilight at both ends of the day in winter. So as well as your 4-5 hours of daylight, you can add another two at least of half-light. This means that those renting a campervan or car can factor this into their driving time. Night driving is, of course, an option. But add to that winter weather conditions in Iceland and you would be wise not to drive too far by night. Besides, if you are driving across such sublime snowy landscapes, you are definitely going to want to see them!