During March 2018, following 9 days in Lofoten, I returned to Iceland to again experience this incredible country and its unique landscapes.
Iceland is a brutal land, harsh, raw, and exquisitely beautiful and diverse. To think of Iceland now conjures up images of volcanoes, black sand beaches, glaciers, raging waterfalls, ice caves, ice lagoons, icebergs, lava plains and of course the northern lights. Iceland in winter is snow storms, breathtakingly strong and cold winds, snow, ice, closed roads and scary driving. It is an adventure, and so much fun
Observations for the general traveller :-
Iceland is ALIVE. Iceland has active volcanos, active geothermal locations, calving glaciers, shifting tectonic plates….it is alive, and raw, and harsh, and very, very beautiful.
Winter is a beautiful time to visit. In 2015 in late February it was brutal, cold, grey and covered in snow and ice. Storms were prevalent with roads closed and driving was tricky. But, it was stunningly dramatic and beautiful. In 2018, in early March, it was blue skies, sunshine, clear roads mostly (except in the north around Akureyri). and easy travelling. We saw Iceland in a different light and it was also similarly enchanting.
The weather WILL be variable, this is the arctic. In 2015 it was cold, bleak, grey, miserable and little sunshine. In 2018 it was much the opposite, though cold, it was blue, clear skies and sunshine. It is however the wind chill that cuts right through you. Day temperatures might typically be around or a few degrees below zero. Night time temperatures could go to -10 degrees celsius as we experienced around Kirkjufell, but the wind chill was around -18 to -20 degrees celsius. In 2015 we had road closures in the south that locked us into Vik for a couple of days. You need to accept that the best laid plans will always be subject to the weather.
Travelling in Winter gives you the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Across my two visits to Iceland, I have had brief displays, and not strong, and have been fairly unlucky. When the Kp index has been up then the weather and cloud has impeded us. This can be very frustrating but you must be prepared for this possibility
The aurora is elusive, be prepared for misses, or for waiting, or for watching the various aurora sites and predictions. If in Iceland between probably September and the end of March, chasing the aurora is something you have to do.
Driving can be scary. A self drive is possible, but you need to be prepared for road closures or scarily slippery roads with fierce winds and little visibility. If you are not experienced in such conditions, then avoid. At the very least, respect the weather forecasts, the published road conditions and all the freely available information. In winter, hire cars will have snow tires and despite the snow and ice, driving can be readily managed. However, be prepared to forsake a destination in favour of safety. Your itinerary must be flexible, and allow for the possibility of road closures.
Daylight in February was from about 8am or so to 6pm, plenty of time to get out and explore. If sleep is not that important to you, get out pre-dawn and enjoy the morning sunrise in this beautiful place.
There are supermarkets of course in the towns within reach to buy groceries, food etc., in order to self cater. You will also find restaurants offering all kinds of fare, with pizza and hamburgers seeming to be a popular standard on any restaurant menu. In Akureyri, we went back 3 nights in a row to Backpackers for the Bernaise Burger and a couple of refreshing beers, and I would recommend it. Vik, Grundarfjordur and of course Reykjavik were other places we found restaurants to have dinner. We otherwise also shopped in Grundafjordur and Hofn at local supermarkets for dinner. The hotels we stayed at also offered some sensational food, but this gets expensive.
I would certainly suggest spending time along the south coast, as far as Hofn if you can manage it. Snaefellsnes is really beautiful and only a couple of hours from Reykjavik. Reykjavik and the Golden Circle is worth doing. Akureyri and the north of Iceland is out of the mass tourist hotspot and highly recommended being just 45 mins by plane from Reykjavik.
Akureyri was fantastic. It is a lovely city on the fjord, surrounded by mountains and with lots of snow and a stark winter beauty. We hired a car, and stayed just out of Akureyri at Skjaldarvik Guesthouse, and it was a lovely stay. We did a full day super jeep tour with IceAk that took us to Godafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss, and Myvatn. We were the only two people and had much of the locations to ourselves. This is the value of Akureyri, it is far from the tourist masses that have saturated the south. I would also highly recommend IceAk for a tour in this region.
Jokulsarlon is not to be missed. Though my 2018 visit was a little disappointing due to the lack of ice on the Diamond Beach, and due to my Ice Cave tour to the White Walker cave paling in comparison to my Crystal Cave tour 3 years earlier, Jokulsarlon remains for me one of the most beautiful places anywhere.
Ice Cave tours are becoming increasingly popular. I have seen photos of the Crystal Cave being wall to wall people. My first visit to the Crystal Cave was wonderful, with just us in the cave. My second visit we went to the White Walker cave and it was disappointing. It was small, narrow and not a lot of colour. Both tours I did with LocalGuides and they were great, but my advice would be, if fit and mobile enough, to take the longer tours to more remote caves that perhaps require a bit of a hike first across the glacier. You will likely see more beautiful caves with far less people to ruin the experience.
Snowmobiling is such a fun experience if this is something you want to do. We had a wonderful day with perfect weather up on the Langjokull Glacier, departing from Gullfoss. Pay the extra and get a solo ride…..much more fun.
Even in winter, Skogafoss, Seljalansfoss, Gullfoss, Geysir, Jokulsarlon and Kirkjufell have all been overrun by a new found popularity with the world’s tourists. You need to pick your time perhaps, but as a photographer at least, finding a shot without a heap of people impeding the shot is getting increasingly difficult.
The iconic places are still great and worth seeing, especially Jokulsarlon, but if you can, get to Akureyri, go as far as Hofn and Vestrahorn, and find some stunning landscapes that most people do not get to.
Accommodation is really expensive. We stayed in various FossHotels (Jokulsarlon and Nupar……nice, great food, expensive), Airbnb cabins on Kirkjufell (literally, and it was wonderful), an apartment in Reykjavik, and various cottages and guesthouses booked through booking.com. The fondest stays were at the smaller cabins, guesthouses, and cottages.
Dress appropriately for the cold. Thermals are good, particularly if it gets real cold. I often, however, did not wear thermals, and was pretty comfortable mostly in the waterproof/windproof pants, thick wool socks, t-shirt, fleece, and down jacket, beanie, balaclava and good gloves. The waterproof/windproof down jacket was brilliant and kept me pretty warm.
Our itinerary from the 2018 trip below gives some guide to how to allocate your time in Iceland :-
Day 1 Arrive Reykjavik, further flight to Akureyri
Day 2 Akureyri, super jeep tour with IceAk
Godafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss
Myvatn, Hverrir, Dimmiborgur
Day 3 Akureyri, self drive around Akureyri
Day 4 Flight to Akureyri, drive to Vik
Day 5 Drive to Jokulsarlon
Reynisfjara, Fradjargiljufer, Svinafellsjokull
Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon and Diamond Beach
Day 6 Drive to Hofn
Jokulsarlon, Hofn, Stokksnes, Vestrahorn
Day 7 Drive to Jokulsarlon
Vestrahorn, Jolulsarlon, Ice Cave
Day 8 Drive to Nupar
Day 9 Drive to Skogafoss
Vik, Reynisjara, Dyhrolaey, Skogafoss
Day 10 Drive to Gullfoss
Snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier
Day 11 Drive to Gundarfjordur (Snaefellsnes)
Gullfoss, Geysir, Bruarfoss, Pingvellir
Day 12 Self Drive Snaefellsnes
Kirkjufell, Snaefellsjokul, Longrangar
Day 13 Drive to Reykjavik
Day 14 Explore Reykjavik
Day 15 Depart Iceland
Observations for the photographer :-
Watch for condensation on your lens, particularly at night and if you want to shoot the aurora. There are many discussions you can find on the internet to assist you. I was hurt once by being ill-prepared one night where condensation was an issue.
Travel with a spare camera body if possible.
Bring at least 3 batteries I would suggest, though it wasn't so cold for us that battery life was adversely affected
Bring lots of memory cards. You will take lots of photos. I had 2 x 32GB and 3 x 16GB for three weeks of shooting in Norway and Iceland
Bring a means of backing up your photos. Every day, whilst retaining the images on the memory cards, I also downloaded my shots to a Macbook Air, and backed up again to a 64GB usb key and a 1TB external drive.
Get out long before dawn to capture the blue light, but also the lovely soft light as the sun finally breaks through and casts its glow over these amazing landscapes
Use a GND as needed. I carried with me Lee 3 and 6 stop soft GND’s and a Polariser.
Use a Big/Little Stopper or equiv., as you can. That is, a 10 / 6 stop ND, this gives you some amazing scope when shooting seascapes or running water as may be found in some delightful spots.
A sturdy tripod is a must, especially as the wind may be really blowing.
Have as fast a lens as is possible for shooting the aurora. I had a Canon 16-35L III f2.8. I also shot with a Canon 17-40L f4, and the extra speed of the f2.8 is important. The aurora can move fairly fast, and the shorter exposure will give you a greater definition. I was able to take well exposed Aurora shots at f2.8 with a 2 to 5 second exposure.