A Traveler’s Guide to an Icelandic Winter Roadtrip
As far as dream vacations go, your first choice might not be a roadtrip around the country in a camper van. But it should be! A roadtrip is always our preferred method of exploring a new country, however with scandinavian prices choking any hope of a budget holiday we needed an alternative to booking a rental car as well as accomodation. We took the plunge, took advantage of the off-season price tag, and adventured through Iceland in a campervan in the winter for 9 cold days.
If you’ve spent the money on a flight to Iceland, don’t stop at Reykjavík. Don’t get me wrong, Reykjavík is a beautiful city and even the golden circle has some attractive sights, but if you want to see more of Iceland you will need to rent a car and go exploring! And what could be better than doing so while sleeping DIRECTLY under the northern lights? You don’t have to book expensive tours for an experience like that, all you need is to rent a campervan.
We had everything we needed in that little campervan. It came equipped with a gas camping stove, a fridge that we didn’t need (between 2ºC and -5ºC outside temperature!) a water tank and utensils for cooking. For sleeping we could rearrange the seating area with table, into a full sized bed that fit three people. It was nice and snug and WARM! The campervan came with a heater that sources it’s electricity from a separate battery to the car battery, so don’t worry about leaving the heater on all night, you won’t be stranded the next morning. We were also provided with heavy duty sleeping bags, so unless you switched your heater off at night (which we did, one night, and one night only..), you will have toasty nights of sleep.
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The Good and the Bad
The best thing about a camper van is of course sleeping wherever the road has taken you. However, since 2015 that’s only half true. Iceland has introduced a new law that restricts camper vans from sleeping anywhere but on designated campsites unless given permission by a land owner. What this means is that you can still sleep under the northern lights, and you still have more freedom than if you had booked an AirBnb. Unfortunate, but necessary, for a country with an ever gaining tourism interest. If you prefer sleeping without restriction in true wild camping style, book a camper van in Norway instead.
The average cost, as of day of writing (2018), for a campsite (per person) sets you back about 1500 ISK (12 Euro) a night. If you think that’s steep, you really don’t want to go to Iceland in Summer. Going in winter will have the advantage that you pay off-season prices pretty much everywhere you go.
Most attractions are free outside of Reykjavík. To get you out of the city expect to pay about 202 ISK (1.6 Euro) per litre of diesel. Most rental vans run on diesel, and more importantly for my American readers – most of them have manual transmission. To really get the most out of your budget camper van, you should cook most of your meals with the gas stove as well. Find a ‘Bonus’ (cheapest supermarket) and stock up on instant noodles, bread, cheese, and whatever else you can think of to cook in the back of a van. Pack a flask because hot chocolate never tasted better on a cold winter morning.
Camping in winter in harsh weather is not for everyone so if you feel brave you can experience a bit more of Icelandic nature without a head of crowds at every attraction. The temperatures were surprisingly mild despite what some may think of Icelandic winter. However, we have experienced incredibly rapid changes in weather conditions. In winter, you can experience snow, black ice, and incredibly strong gusts of wind. In fact this is one factor that was remarkably terrifying. On our first night in Iceland we were warned of a storm running south. Having already booked a glacier tour we couldn’t simply go north as we were advised. Needless to say we were in for a few wild nights of the van shaking back and forth and sideways and some panicked moments on the road. Don’t underestimate the wind. Park facing the wind when possible, be extremely careful when opening the doors (some unfortunate travellers have had their doors ripped off their car), and do not drive in a storm. It can get ugly.
In general, the Icelandic paved Ring Road is easy to navigate, and it is along this route that you will find the most famous attractions. The Ring Road takes you around the entire country, though Iceland is so small that you could technically drive the entire way around in just under a day of travel. This is of course not recommended. Instead it is widely suggested to plan a one week road trip to make your way comfortably around the island. The distances between towns and villages can be quite long especially the further away you drive from Reykjavík. You will also notice fewer facilities such as a medical clinics. I had a bit of an emergency with an earring stuck in my ear canal with the closest medical clinic a 2 hour drive away. The best advice I can give is to thoroughly plan your route. Make sure you have enough gas between stops and know exactly where you will be spending the night.
You will have very limited daylight time to drive in Winter, roads are not well lit in the rural countryside, and snowstorms can cause poor visibility. Drive slow and don’t attempt to do too much in one day.
As previously stated, wild camping is no longer allowed. The beauty about winter camping in Iceland though is that you do not need to book a campsite in advance. In fact, you CAN’T book a campsite in advance. All campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis and since there are so few people camping in winter, you are guaranteed a spot every time. This means that you can change your plans and be as spontaneous as you like.
Most campsites had fully plumbed bathrooms with running water and hot showers (for an additional fee) and often came with a little communal area equipped for cooking, and socialising. Some campsites even offered Wi-Fi.
I urge you to fully make use of these campsites, as there are no public bathrooms on the Iceland roads in winter. You can stop at some gas stations (few and far between), and some restaurants or shops, however they are not open 24/7.
You may be restricted in seeing absolutely all attractions Iceland has to offer in Winter. This is partly due to a lot of road closures towards the northern side of the country, especially the so called F-roads or mountain roads. They are closed to the public from September to May and must only be accessed with a 4WD vehicle otherwise. This does impact some of the Icelandic Highlands attractions included in the popular Golden Circle route. Regardless, you will have a ton of options! Here are our favourites from our trip:
Skaftafell Ice Cave, Vatnajökull National Park
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
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As previously mentioned we unfortunately didn’t make it all the way around the Ring Road. The weather is too unpredictable so be prepared to be spontaneous and make peace with the fact that you may not get to see everything you set out to see. In conclusion, we did save a ton of money going the campervan route in the depth of winter, especially when you have a friend or two to split the cost with (make sure it’s a friend you don’t mind sleeping in close proximity with), and we did have an absolute blast. Even when things got a little ways out of hand such as the day we got snowed in, or having to get an earring gouged out of my ear because it fell in while sleeping in the van – I still wouldn’t tour Iceland any other way!