I reached into my coat pocket today looking for change and pulled out one of my Icelandic wool mittens, the only souvenir from my trip to Iceland. Putting on the mittens brought back a flood of amazing memories from my quick four day weekend trip to Reykjavik. When planning my holiday, I had a host of adventures to choose and each was more intriguing than the one before. Would I soak in the Blue Lagoon, go all out on adventure with a Skaftafell glacier hike or adventure by snowmobile, chase the Aurora lights on a Northern Lights tour or do the Golden Circle? Just a few of the options I had to consider. There is surprisingly so much to do in Iceland all year round – you need to balance the amount of light in the day, your activity level and your interests with your time and budget. For a winter visit to Reykjavik (Iceland), here are a few things to consider when planning your trip.
Iceland Gear Needed (aka Reason to Shop)
For my winter visit to Reykjavik, I needed to do a few extra steps for my trip (aka shopping for gear). All of those steps involve layers – finding the right level of comfort in the layers of clothing necessary for all of your adventures. Plus finding a good backpack for your gear/layers – Iceland is not about bringing your handbag or heels with you, in my opinion. I loaded my backpack with camera, backup battery, extra layers (scarves, gloves, socks, hat, etc.), bottle of water, a few snacks such as a protein bar and/or cashews. I stuffed my suitcase with layers, sweaters, fleece and a ton of wool socks. All this is my “light adventure” packing because truth be told, I’m just a bit more adventurous than I look but not all out REI poster child. Iceland can cater to all activity levels which is great.
For my first trip to Iceland in winter, I bought a (much-needed) new coat that was waterproof and had a hood. I replaced worn winter boots with stylish and comfortable hiking boots by Ugg (I had no clue they made boots either but they were fashionable and functional!). I became an instant fan of Smartwool clothing and accessories. For me, the new clothes and boots could definitely be used at home after this trip during the harsh snowy winters or just going to an Eagles football game – I was layered up and ready to go to Iceland!
Winter Light in Iceland
What I wasn’t quite ready for was the light, or lack of it. The first day I awoke at 6 a.m. in the dark (normal for winter most places), then left the hotel at 7 a.m. to find breakfast in the dark – the streetlights still on casting a glow that felt more like midnight than early morning rush hour. I ate breakfast by candlelight and tried to keep feeding my body on its normal schedule despite the lack of light. The tour pick up was at 9 a.m. and while the sun wasn’t quite out, there was a bit of grey light. The dusky moody light made for more of an impact and raised my senses to be more aware, to look further afield. My photos of the landscapes took on new importance because I was seeing angles and light and nature in a new (and exciting) way. The ever-changing light, in and of itself, was actually a perfect natural filter for the winter scenes.
Iceland Glacier Visit
When I toured in and around Reykjavik, I had expected glaciers and ice everywhere but was surprised by the small village feel of the city surrounded by rugged landscapes filled with waterfalls, geysers and open vistas reminiscent of the Western U.S.– drives of nearly an hour with only nature filling up your eyes on all sides. I would have two glacier encounters on my trip, both consequences of the tours I chose – one for a glacier snowmobiling adventure (I was the only “no” in the group but rather than wait behind I suited up and joined the group) and the other for a walking tour of the glacier (while waiting for the glacier hikers, we dropped off earlier, to finish their trek).
If you’ve never hiked on a glacier, I highly recommend it as an amazing experience and unique opportunity. What’s great about glacier hiking is that you can set the level of adventure – I’ve put crampons on my feet (spiky fittings for your boots), have used an ice pick to descend a glacier wall (yes, my “big girl curvy frame” balanced on a (very) strong rope to walk down the glacier wall (reverse rock climbing in a way) and also trekked in the snow. If I can do it, you can do it too! In Iceland, the nice part was that you don’t need a helicopter to the top of the glacier (as I did in New Zealand at Franz Josef Glacier), you can get outfitted and be off with your guide pretty quickly for a most memorable experience (and definitely social media worthy).
Northern Lights Adventure
After a day of adventure, there’s still so much more to do, see and taste in Reykjavik and it’s best done before your muscles figure out what you’ve done to them (you will be sore in the morning most likely). In winter, the Northern Lights should be on your “must list” and with the weather forecast, you should plan accordingly. The tours leave late, usually between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., and return around 2 a.m. if they go at all (check out the Aurora forecast site for chances of a sightings).
The backpack and layers I mentioned at the beginning, this is where they come into play. Wear your layers and bring the backpack with additional layers, snacks and water but note there’s no bathroom on the tour. Before you pack your camera, make sure you understand how to use the manual settings for long exposures to photograph the Northern Lights in order to capture the incredible sights above you.
Plan Your Winter Visit to Reykjavik
There’s so much to do in Reykjavik and I’ve only touched upon a few of my favorites. The key is to do research and map out a plan (subject to change if the Northern Lights are involved) plus know that one visit isn’t enough. Reykjavik and the surrounding area will exceed all of your expectations and you’ll want to return to see the country in a new light – literally! Those that have visited in summer with the midnight sun talk about returning to see the Northern Lights and snow, while those who have visited in winter, like me, wish to see the stunning landscapes and waterfalls with the warmth of the sun and the light exposing a new mood (and lighter packing). No matter when you visit, the wool mittens will be waiting – it is Iceland after all and you need a souvenir and mitten memories of your own.