Winter Road Tripping in Iceland
Sand, Snow, Steam, and a Little Bit of Sun
By Dayna Isley & Greg Smith
An American couple bundles up and sets out on a 5-day adventure around wintery Iceland.
Setting out on our first winter camping trip, we had big hopes. Would we see the Northern Lights? Would winter campgrounds be open and available? Could we make it around the entire island in five days, as planned?
We’d camped in Iceland before. In July 2015, we rented a camper van and drove around the Westfjords. It was an amazing trip–incredible scenery, roadside hot pots, well-equipped campgrounds, and puffins! The abundant summer daylight meant we could drive and sight-see at odd hours, away from the crowds.
What would a winter road trip be like?
We did a little reading up before we left, but most guidebooks and blogs cover summer camping, not winter. We read enough to know we needed to go out prepared and that campgrounds might be spotty the farther east and north we traveled.
Day 1: January 30, 2018
Once we picked up the van, we made a few stops before heading out of Reykjavik.
First stop: Food! We’d picked up a loaf of bread and pastries from Brauð and coffee beans from Reykjavik Roasters. Then we headed over to Frú Lauga for groceries. This posh little grocery store on the east side of the city has a great selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious cheese, and snacks.
Next stop: Swimsuit. Even in winter (especially in winter!), you need a swimsuit to enjoy the geothermal pools all over the island. I’d forgotten to pack one, so we stopped at Laugardalslaug where they offer a small selection of swimsuits for purchase.
With supplies procured, we headed out of town. We decided to tour the island counterclockwise, heading south and east first.
In Selfoss, we realized that we neglected one important component of our supplies-gathering: beer. One more stop at Vinbúðin, Iceland’s government-owned liquor store, and we were set to go.
Pro tip: Vinbúðin stores close early in the evening and are not open on Sundays and holidays. Plan accordingly.
With the camper van cooler now fully stocked, we continued on toward Vik.
The sun peeked out briefly as we arrived at Seljalandsfoss. We stopped to see the waterfall. (Parking requires a small fee. The facilities include a toilet.) We were surprised at the number of winter tourists. Very busy! Walkways near the falls were slick and some were closed entirely. After taking a few snaps, we ventured on.
Next up: Skógafoss. More buses. More people. More slick rocks! Some brave souls hiked up to the top of the falls. We did not. We did opt in for the fish and chips stand before getting back on Ring Road. Delicious food made by friendly locals.
A couple more quick stops, but the sunlight was long gone. Winds were ripping across the mountain pass, blowing snow and making the roads a little slick.
We finally made it to Vik and stopped for the night. Vik has a campground open for winter camping. A large, new market/restaurant/clothing store across the street caters to travelers and tourists.
Day 2: January 31, 2018
The next morning, we slept late and then backtracked to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Parking lot was already full with cars and buses, but the beach is large enough to accommodate everyone.
The basalt cliffs, rock formations, and black sand are beautiful. The farm nearby has been in operation since around 800!
Back to Vik to the smaller town beach to cook breakfast, enjoy a little sun, and watch the horses on the beach.
We had planned to enjoy the pool at Vik, but daylight is scarce so we headed out of town toward Höfn to make the most of daytime driving.
The drive between Vik and Höfn is beautiful: frozen waterfalls, farmland, and reflecting sunlight turning the distant mountains pink. The moonrise over the mountains was nearly full.
The sun had almost set by the time we made it to the glacial lagoon. Even in the almost-dark, the lagoon was so pretty. Icebergs glinted blue and grunted like cranky old men as they shifted and bumped into each other.
We continued on to Höfn. Our plan had been to have a night out in Höfn for New Year’s Eve, but hadn’t considered that most businesses would be closed for the holiday. We found one open restaurant (and a room full of tourists like us) and enjoyed langoustine pizza and a waffle for dessert. Delicious.
Without much to do in town, we decided to continue on. Heading out of town, we noticed a large woodpile off the road and people assembling around it. We stopped to check it out. Could this be one of Iceland’s infamous bonfires? We knew we were in for a show when the petrol trucked rolled up and gave the woodpile a thorough dousing. Soon, the torches came out, and the entire pile went up in a massive ball of fire. Then the fireworks started. Höfn really knows how to put on a show!
In America, fireworks and (much-smaller) bonfires are usually reserved for Independence Day on July 4th. Seeing this display of pyrotechnics in Iceland was a real treat.
On our way toward Breiðdalsvik, we saw two more bonfires and more fireworks displays in the distance. We also had our first reindeer sighting! Road conditions started to deteriorate so we stayed in Breiðdalsvik for the night and decided to evaluate road conditions to determine the best route north in the morning.
Pro tip: Road.is shows live road conditions and camera views around the island. Pay close attention; conditions change rapidly!
Day 3: January 1, 2018
Route 1 closed! Thanks to road.is, we learned we needed to continue on 96 out of Breiðdalsvik. A road plow was at work, and the road was in decent shape. We headed toward Stöðvarfjörður.
The sun was out in lovely Stöðvarfjörður, where we stopped to take in the harbor views and make some coffee. So nice to see bright, but brief, sun–all the more precious given the weather to come.
After passing through the tunnel at Reyðarfjörður, blowing snow reduced visibility, but roads were still passable. We decided to continue on to Seyðisfjörður, which we had heard was a fun little town on the water. In retrospect, venturing off of Ring Road in snowy conditions–even though road.is showed route 93 as passable–was not the smartest idea. Road conditions deteriorated over the mountain pass, and blowing snow made visibility almost impossible. Just at the top of the mountain, we found ourselves stuck in a snow drift with no help in sight and no shovel in the van. Greg used a plate and skillet from the kitchen kit to dig us out, and a passing snow plowed cleared a path that we were able to eventually get in. We continued to Seyðisfjörður slowly and carefully.
Once there, we found a quiet town–a very quiet town. The winter campground we’d read about was closed–the parking lot inaccessible due to all the snow. All restaurants were closed because of the holiday. The only place open turned out to be a hospital.
We decided to try to make it back over the pass to Egilsstaðir where we were sure we’d find more amenities and hopefully a place to camp. Mother nature had other ideas. The road conditions had deteriorated and were completely impassable. Seyðisfjörður was stuck with us for the night.
We found an out-of-the-way spot to camp for the night. Luckily, we had plenty of food (and beer!), and The Crown downloaded onto our computer to keep us entertained. We were nervous about what might happen if we couldn’t get out of the town the next day, but we had to wait it out and hope for the best.
Day 4: January 2, 2018
We woke up early to check road.is. Good news! Route 93 was open again. More snow was in the forecast, so we decided to head out of town and back over the pass while we could. This time, the road was in much better shape. We made it to Egilsstaðir, no problem.
Once in Egilsstaðir, we stopped at the town pool for a shower and a soak. Iceland’s hot pots are the best remedy to winter’s chilly temps. The showers and facilities are also a great resource for camper van travelers like us. After a soak and a shower, we were ready to continue north to the Highlands.
The snowy mountains were beautiful, and we saw another, much larger herd of reindeer.
Because we spent extra time in Seyðisfjörður, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the geothermal area of Mývatn. And we definitely weren’t going to venture off of Ring Road again; we’d learned our lesson!
Luckily, some of the geothermal activity is right off the main road. Very cool to see geothermal activity bubbling and steaming to the surface in east Mývatn.
We also learned that some adventure mobiles are larger than others.
We pressed on toward Akureyri, a pretty (and sizable) harbor town. We stopped for beers at the restaurant/hostel and ate cheese sandwiches from our own food stash.
Headed out on Ring Road. Skies were clear for the first time on our road trip. We stopped several times along the way in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, but no luck. Stopped in Borgarnes for the night.
Day 5: January 3, 2018
Last day! We saw a gorgeous sunrise on our way back to Reykjavik. Had to have the van back by noon, so we didn’t dilly dally.
Thanks for a great adventure, little camper van!
Read more: Hats off to Iceland, even on a solo trip!
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