Winter in Iceland can be beautiful. It can also be harsh. Either way, winter time in Iceland is unique. First, it is not as cold as its latitude would normally dictate. This is because Iceland’s climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream; a flow of warm water that travels all the way up from the tip of Florida. The Gulf Stream has the effect of moderating Iceland’s climate. In fact, the average winter temperature is approximately around the freezing mark. Many visitors are coming from places that get much colder.
That fact belies another reality of Iceland’s weather; it changes a lot. You can experience 3 seasons in one day in the winter. It might snow, melt, rain and then snow again in one day. So, don’t necessarily expect a winter wonderland. Sure there’ll be snow at elevation but, the low lying areas are not always snow-covered.
Wind. Iceland, especially in Reykjavik, can be quite windy. I am not talking breezy. I mean wind that whistles. This can make for a condition that is referred to in Iceland as “window weather;” it might look nice outside but once you step outside, it’s not so pleasant.
Length of day. When you are at high or low latitudes, you get big extremes in the length of day. In the winter time you’ll get about 4-7 hours of daylight, depending on which month you go. January and February have the least amount of daylight, with an average of about 4 hours. I can remember going to work in the morning and it would be dark. The sun would rise at around 11 am and start setting around 3 pm. So I would also go home in the dark. For Icelanders, this is normal. They might not like it. But they are used to it.
Maybe none of this makes Iceland sound like a particularly desirable vacation destination. It’s not for everybody. But let me say that Iceland in winter can be a magical place. It is truly unlike anywhere else. I have experienced winter days that were breathtaking. And, I personally like the challenge of Iceland’s weather. Preparing for an Iceland tour into the country or just running errands, you need to be prepared. That means layers, good boots, warm socks, hat, gloves, rain proof jacket – the works. I don’t know but somehow, there’s a positive feeling created by this; a satisfaction in facing Iceland’s meteorological tempest.
I now live in sunny San Diego and the weather here is the complete opposite. The only preparation needed is maybe sunscreen. Oh, and you might want to wear flip-flops and sunglasses if you are going outdoors. I think this lack of pressure from Mother Nature, this atmospheric certainty, fosters complacency. You forget the fun of being challenged by weather. I miss needing an umbrella. My winter clothes are in deep storage. People here complain when it gets down to 60 F. That’s a good summer day in Iceland.
So don’t hesitate to visit Iceland in winter. Bring warm, waterproof clothes. Go out and tromp through the snow or puddles until your feet get cold. Chase after the northern lights. That’s what I like about Iceland in the winter, it’s a little wild and wooly. I think we need a little of that sense of uncertainty to find ourselves again. And, you might as well do this in one of the most exotic, beautiful and unspoiled landscapes on the planet.