A Photographer’s Guide to an Icelandic Winter Roadtrip
While a road trip in a camper van might not initially top your list of dream vacations, trust me, it should! With Scandinavian prices putting a squeeze on our holiday budget, we looked for an alternative to traditional travel opting to skip hotels and pricy tour companies. We took advantage of the off-season rates in winter and seized the opportunity to explore Iceland for nine exhilarating days in a campervan.
If you’ve already invested in a flight to Iceland, don’t limit yourself to Reykjavík. While the city boasts its charm and the Golden Circle offers captivating sights, there’s so much more to see! By renting a campervan, you unlock the freedom to roam and discover Iceland’s hidden gems, all while having the extraordinary opportunity to sleep directly under the northern lights. No need for pricey tours—just hop into your camper and let the adventure begin!
„Touring in a campervan in winter isn’t a terrible idea.“
Our cozy campervan was a complete haven, offering every essential amenity for our adventure. Equipped with a gas camping stove, a fridge (though unnecessary with outside temperatures hovering between 2ºC and -5ºC!), a water tank, and cooking utensils, we were well-prepared for delicious meals on the go. For sleeping, the versatile seating area which included a table easily transformed into a spacious bed, comfortably accommodating three people. Thanks to the efficient heater, powered by a separate battery from the car, we enjoyed snug warmth throughout the night without worry of being stranded the next morning. Plus, heavy-duty sleeping bags ensured that even on the coldest nights, we drifted off into cozy slumber. (Unless you turn off your heater at night —don’t do that.)
The Good and the Bad
The average cost for a campsite per person in Iceland is approximately 1500 ISK or 12 Euro per night. If you find that steep, you may want to reconsider visiting Iceland in the summer. Opting for a winter trip offers the advantage of off-season prices nearly 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: Gullfoss Waterfall Skaftafell Ice Cave, Vatnajökull National Park Kirkjufell Mountain 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!