Is It Possible to Explore Iceland by Campervan in Winter?
Updated: May 5
The short answer is most definitely yes! But let us go ahead and look at this in a little more depth. Traveling through Iceland by camper van in winter comes with its own set of challenges. But there are also many wonderful things about a visit to Iceland at this time of year.
In fact, for some people, this is the very best time to travel. The snow and ice of the winter months transform the already beautiful landscapes of Iceland. Sweeping views of mountains and glaciers become almost otherworldly with their dusting of snow and dramatic winter skies.
With the short days of the winter in Iceland, the golden light of sunrise and sunset almost link up. If the skies are clear, then this magical light glowing across snowy vistas is a treat to behold. Add to that the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, and you have all the ingredients of an incredible trip. In this article, we will take you through the various considerations for a winter camper van road trip.
From what to watch out for on the road to what you can expect from the weather. We’ll cover some top tips for travel at this time of year and some of the best road trip routes and activities. This is your one-stop blog for everything about campervan travel in Iceland in winter.
The winter weather in Iceland
The Wintry season in Iceland starts from November and, depending on the year, can stretch as far as April. Iceland is famous for its wild and changeable weather. Sitting high up in the icy Northern Atlantic, it’s really no wonder.
With chill winds blowing over the ocean from the Arctic, things can get ferocious indeed. But the Iceland weather is often not as extreme as you might imagine. During the winter months in the south (December, January and February), temperatures often don’t plunge much below zero degrees Celsius. So, not too bad after all! Having said that, they sometimes do, and they are much more likely to be in the north of the country.
Storms can and do blow in and last for just hours or days at a time. It is unpredictable and changeable. Driving conditions can deteriorate quickly with strong winds and low visibility. So you do need to be flexible and prepared for all permutations of winter weather.
There are some great and accurate mobile travel apps out there. They monitor road conditions in real time and can give you a good idea of what’s coming up. You should keep a close eye on them and change your driving plans accordingly.
Daylight hours in Iceland and how to deal with them
One big consideration of a winter road trip is the limited daylight hours in winter. If you travel around Iceland at this time of year, then you need to be organized with your time. You will want to make the most of the daylight hours for moving around and sightseeing. That’s not too tricky once you get into the rhythm.
Contrary to what some people think, Iceland does not experience polar nights. There are around five hours of daylight in winter and then an hour or two on either side of twilight. In midwinter, the sun will rise at about 9.30 am and then head back down to the horizon by about 3 pm. These are approximate times and even when it is up, the sun is still quite low. If you have a cloudy and dull day, it can often feel like the sun hasn’t risen at all. Conversely, if the skies are clear, then you will be blessed with the incredible golden light of a low sun for hours.
Winter is a really popular time of year for photography in Iceland. That magical golden light just transforms the views and, in turn, the pictures that capture it. When it comes to driving, you will need to make sure that you use the light for moving from one place to the next. On driving days, you should breakfast by lamplight and get going at the first glimmer of light. You’ll see the sun rising over the landscape and probably be at your destination in time to explore it.
The best winter road trips in Iceland
For the best winter road trips in Iceland, we recommend sticking to shorter routes. South Iceland is a good place to start rather than the north. The southern roads are used by more traffic, so they are kept in good condition. Also, the weather is generally slightly milder in the south. It is also much more populated in this part of the country, so it’s safer if you get into difficulties.
Recommended routes are along the Icelandic Ring Road to the southeast. There are many great sights within a short drive of Reykjavík. Driving the Ring Road to Vik and the Vatnajökull National Park is a great 2-4 day road trip.
For something a little closer to the capital, then the Golden Circle is the perfect choice. If you visit Iceland at any time of year, you must see the Golden Circle. But in winter it is especially good as there are fewer visitors to share it with. One more great destination for road travel in Iceland is the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is just a two-hour drive from Reykjavík and it has several campsites and some beautiful scenery.
Things to do in winter
Exploring the winter wonderland of Iceland can yield some incredible experiences. As well as sightseeing at frozen waterfalls and bubbling lava fields, there are plenty more adrenalin-inducing activities. You might take a thrilling snowmobile ride to a distant glacier or ski off-piste in the north. You could go ice-caving or hiking and climb over a glacier. Some of the best things to do in Iceland in the winter include whale watching, dog sledding, or a photo safari.
One thing you will certainly want to do is go searching for the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis light up the dark night sky in all sorts of dancing colors. These magical lights are unpredictable, though. There are mobile apps to help you pick the best time to see them. If you are renting a campervan in Iceland, then you will be well placed to see them. They are best viewed away from urban areas where light pollution doesn’t obscure the view. If you are camping, then you are already quite likely to see them. You may simply need to look outside your camper window.
We definitely recommend factoring in a couple of days in Reykjavik during your winter trip. This city really knows how to do winter, and you’ll be able to enjoy it without the crowds of summer. During December in Iceland, you can mix your camper adventure with some Christmas celebrations and festivities.
If you are a culture vulture, then you might like to pick up a Reykjavik City Card. This versatile card gives you included entry into many museums, galleries, and hot springs as well as discounts at restaurants.
One final recommendation is to make the most of Iceland’s thermal hot springs. They are a great way to warm up on cold days. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as walking barefoot through the snow and plunging into a steamy outdoor pool.
Safety tips for driving in winter
The main recommendation for driving in Iceland during winter is to take it easy. Go steady and enjoy the drive. There is no need to rush through these beautiful landscapes. If you plan your time well, then you won’t need to drive in the dark or during rough driving conditions. Snow and ice can make driving more hazardous but you will, of course, have winter tires as standard. Some drivers may prefer to hire a 4 x 4 campervan for extra comfort and an added feeling of security.
High winds are common in Iceland, so do keep this in mind when driving on exposed roads. Go easy on corners and be extra careful when opening your camper van doors. One of the most common insurance claims in Iceland for hired cars and campers is for door damage. The wind can just snatch the door away from you! So make sure that your whole party is aware and always open doors slowly and mindfully. One more piece of road safety advice as you explore Iceland is to keep well topped up with fuel. When you pass a gas station, pull in and use it.
Camping in the winter
Winter camping in Iceland is very much doable and especially so in the south. This is where the majority of the campsites will still be open. Many of the more remote and northern campsites in Iceland will close for the wintertime. But the southern campsites often stay open year-round. They will provide power and water and for an extra fee hot showers too. One piece of advice is to head to the nearest town and make use of the swimming pool. There are excellent thermal swimming pools in nearly every town in Iceland.
Your rental company will cover the essentials for a warm and comfortable night’s sleep. Rental campervans come with a heating system, and a sleeping bag for each passenger is provided.
Packing essentials for a winter trip
If you are planning on camping in Iceland, then a bit of preparation is essential. For any trip to Iceland at this time of year, you will need a warm wardrobe. Microfibers work best for layering up and, of course, decent technical wind and waterproof jackets and trousers.
If you are traveling around Iceland, then mobile apps are very much your friends. You can use them in all sorts of situations. Track the weather, find out if the Northern Lights are likely to show, or look up sights wherever you are. For safety reasons, you will need a mobile phone to call for assistance if needed. So it is important to bring mobile chargers for your devices.
As we said before, if you hire the best campervan in Iceland, you'll have a heating system and sleeping bags included. Even so, you might like to bring some extras. Fleece blankets, bed socks, and hot water bottles can help make things even snugger. Snacks from home, refillable drinking water bottles, and a thermos or two are all good ideas.