Iceland in the Winter Off-Season

We've assembled a handy guide for making the most out of your trip into Iceland's coldest, most spectacular season
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Nov 30, 2014 | By Mollie Busby

celand is defined by contrast. Aptly named the "land of fire and ice,” the country’s landscape is draped with waterfalls that cascade from rocky outcrops, dotted with hot springs and billowing steam plumes, and surrounded by wild ocean waves licking the dark, deserted beaches. Icelandic people are friendly — albeit sometimes stand-offish at first — and offer occasional warm smiles that immediately soften their weathered, tough exteriors. 

Known for welcoming droves of tourists during the lush summertime, Iceland can also be experienced in the winter for a fraction of the price. So if you’re a light spender and a winter lover, and are up for an adventure, grab some absurdly cheap flights to Iceland this season and venture off the beaten path in this visually spectacular, unpredictable locale. Here are a few tips to making the most of your Scandinavian winter adventure, while saving some coin in the process. 


10. Drive Iceland at your own pace. Skip the bus tours packed with tourists and rent a car instead. The roads are easy to drive and it’s difficult to get lost with one main road around the entire country. Renting 2WD with studded tires in the winter is do-able, but if you’re not confident with winter driving, consider splurging for a 4WD to navigate internal roads and northern routes. In the winter, studded tires are a must.

9. B&Bs make wandering easy. Consider booking your trip through Icelandic Farm Holidays. There are locals around the country that participate in this Icelandic version of Air B&B, and their easy-to-use online map allows you to find locations with amenities to suit your needs. The “Free as a Bird” voucher system (only available September to May) allows for extremely flexible travel plans. Breakfast is typically included in each stay. 

8. Pack layers and a sturdy pair of boots. The weather in Iceland is as varying as the scenery—and not for the faint of heart. One minute, the wind is howling and the next, the sun is casting a golden glow on the fjords as wild reindeer gallop into the distance. (Yes. It actually gets that cliche.) Pack smart and light — and plan to layer. Warm gloves would be smart. Said sturdy boots should be able to get wet and tromp through snow while keeping your feet dry and warm at all times.

7. The Blue Lagoon is worth it. Although it may seem like the epic tourist trap, especially considering it’s only a short drive from the international airport, the Blue Lagoon is the ideal first stop upon arrival. Your jet lag will melt away as you soak in a steamy, cerulean bath and acclimate to the chilly, arctic air.

6. Have your camera ready at every opportunity. One the best parts about Iceland is the feeling that you’re experiencing true wilderness. Each part of its landmass looks different — my crew and I captured Reykjavik on a dreary day, the southeast during the golden hour, the north during a freezing cold spell and the northwest during a blizzard. I’m confident each region could be experienced in a different way on a different day, and that’s the fun of it. The scenery changes from fjord to fjord, from corner to corner. Photo ops abound — don’t miss them!

5. Soup and Salad—the key to eating cheap. My husband and I aren't exactly “foodies” when we travel… we’d rather spend money on experiences. So if you’re like us, looking for a hearty, cheap meal, look no further than a soup & salad buffet. The buffets are often large and diverse, and especially on those extra cold days, soup is just the ticket to warm your soul.

4. Check out the horses. One of the most amazing things to see while driving around Iceland is horses. They’ve got a different look and feel to them, and rightly so — they’re the same breed that’s inhabited Iceland from seemingly the beginning of time. No other breeds of horses are found in Iceland except these. 

3. Try the shark. Any Iceland guide book will explain an Icelandic “delicacy” called Hákarl—it’s essentially rotten shark. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to the locals we met, but it was certainly an experience to try. We found a restaurant in Reykjavik that served it, and I tried a bite, which tasted a bit like rubbing alcohol shooting through your nostrils. “Not for the faint of heart” takes on a whole new meaning.

2. Have a hot dog. Or three. There’s something special about Scandinavian people and their penchant for hot dogs—and I agree. They are oddly satisfying at nearly any time of day. If you’re in need of a quick snack on the road, chances are the nearest gas station has hot dogs. Bonus if they have good toppings like fried onions. If you’ve got some time in Reykjavik, stop by Baejarins Beztu Pylsur to experience the best of the best.

1. Interested in backcountry skiing? Look no further than Aurora Arktika for your expedition. Imagine skiing up and down fjords using a sailboat as your base camp, fresh fish stew to warm your bones in the evenings, and northern lights on clear nights in the harbors. There’s nothing quite like it — just as there’s nothing quite like Iceland in the wintertime.

Mollie Busby is a skier girl married to a splitboarding beardsman, who lives in a remote yurt in Whitefish, Montana. She gets stoked on powder turns, international travel, & yoga.
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