This past December, my boyfriend Gareth and I went on an Icelandic winter roadtrip in a campervan. I was uncertain whether a camping trip in the winter in Iceland would really be a good idea or not, but it turned out to be such a good time. Here’s everything you need to know about doing your own campervan winter roadtrip in Iceland.
Things to Be Mindful of When Planning an Icelandic Winter Roadtrip in a Campervan:
- You do have to be aware of the weather and check the road reports often. We purposely gave ourselves extra time on the roadtrip so that if we had a bad weather spell we could park and wouldn’t have to drive. The first few days we had heavy rain and then we had occasional snow flurries after that. I’ve read in Iceland travel forums about travelers having experienced extreme weather in the winter, but we didn’t really experience anything you wouldn’t see in the Midwest.
- There is a short window of daylight in the winter. They say it’s about 5 hours a day, but I think it was closer to 6 because there is still a bit of light at dawn and dusk. You will want to plan your sightseeing around the daylight hours. After dark was when we did our cooking and going to local pools. There are lots of museums in Iceland, so that would be a perfect pre-daylight morning activity.
- We avoided peak season crowds by going in the winter. We didn’t have to book anything ahead of time. The Golden Circle and Southern Coast had quite a few tourists, but once we hit the East Fjords we were often the only tourists.
- Be aware that Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit. We did it the budget way by visiting during off-season, camping, cooking for ourselves, and mostly doing free activities. We still spent about $5000 in 19 days, including airfare. It could easily be a $10,000 trip if you want to stay in hotels, eat at restaurants daily, and book lots of tours and activities.
Logistics of Renting a Campervan
We booked our van via Lava Car Rentals, which I definitely recommend. The thing that sets them apart is that the basic insurance is included in the rental price. Every other rental agency I looked at was charging over $500 just for insurance.
Make sure you rent your van very early. We booked ours when we booked our flights. This is especially important if you can only drive an automatic, as manual cars are more common in Iceland.
The van came with everything necessary for camping such as sleeping bags, a camp stove, and cookware. I did bring my own winter sleeping bag because I get really cold. The van had a heater, which was toasty. The downside was that the heater wouldn’t really run all night. I think that whatever battery it was connected to would lose its charge when the van hadn’t ran all night. By morning, it was cold again and one of us would have to jump out of our sleeping bag and start the van to warm it up.
We paid extra for a wifi box, which was essential for navigating around and finding things to do. Wifi in Iceland is superior. We were getting a better internet connection camping in a van in Iceland in the dead of winter than we did in our own house in Oregon.
Be ready to spend a lot of time in the campervan. It’s cold in Iceland in the winter, so you won’t want to venture out much after dark. We booked the lowest priced campervan we could get, and it was pretty cramped and we couldn’t stand up straight. The heat went out on it the first night and we had to return it to our rental agency. They gave us a free upgrade to a much larger, more spacious van that we could walk around in. I would say in the winter, it would be worth the money to get a larger van. In warmer weather when you can spend your evenings outside, saving money on a smaller van may be the better choice.
Having the campervan saves money. I’ve seen in online forums that people are saying once you pay the high daily fee for a campervan plus camping fees, it costs about the same as renting a car and staying in hotels. I don’t think that’s quite true. It’s still a bit cheaper to go the van and camping route as opposed to hotels and a smaller car rental.
So how much does renting a campervan in the winter cost? Our daily rate for the campervan was about $95. I did a quick search with the same company for a campervan for the summer, and the rate was closer to $250/day. So it definitely saves money to go in the winter.
I’ll get more into campsites below, but you can generally factor in a daily campsite fee of $10-15 per person. For two people, you’re looking at about $120 a day just for the van and camping.
From a basic search of hotel and car rates in the winter in Iceland, it would cost about $160 a day to rent a car and stay in budget hotels. A $40 difference between 2 people is not a huge difference. However, the real money saver is being able to buy groceries and cook your own meals. Meals in restaurants in Iceland are so expensive. A meal at an average sit-down restaurant costs about $40-45 per person, even more if you get an alcoholic beverage. Even a meal at a fast food restaurant is about $15.
I think the true value in having the campervan is being able to save money on food. If you’re staying in a hotel every night, you won’t have access to cooking your own meals. We’ll get more into cooking below.
What to Know About Winter Campsites in Iceland
Only some of the campsites are open in the winter. It’s OK because they are only an hour or two apart. It is something you need to plan you day around though. I used the above map of campsites, and it was accurate 90% of the time. It’s not my own map; it was made by CampEasy.
You have to pay for campsites per person. The cost is typically between $10-15 per person. There is usually someone who comes around to either collect fees or check that you’ve paid, even in the off-season, so you do need to pay. There were a few times we got lucky and the campsite host let us stay for free because we were the only guests.
They are not very cohesive from campsite to campsite in terms of how to pay. A few of the bigger ones allowed you to pay online. Most of the time, we needed cash to pay. Other times, you put money in a drop box. It would be great if the campsites could all get linked up with the same app, but for right not it’s a little confusing.
What you can expect from the campsites is having a bathroom building at least. There are usually showers for campers to use. Sometimes there are washing machines. Some of the campsites even have little kitchenettes where you can heat up water and wash your dishes. Campsites are not as operational as they would be in the summer. Oftentimes the whole building will be locked except for one bathroom stall. They bigger towns generally had better amenities in their campsites.
I usually just showered after visiting the local pools, as that was easier to depend upon than campsite showers and much nicer.
Food in Iceland
As I mentioned before, eating at restaurants in Iceland is so expensive. We only went out to eat a few times and tried to cook for ourselves for the most part. Groceries are a little more expensive in Iceland. I would estimate that each shopping trip costs $10-15 more than a similar haul would cost at home. The budget grocery store chains in Iceland are Kronan and Bonus. Try to shop at those stores and it will save a bit of money.
I did bring a bag of coffee from home so I would have what I liked and wouldn’t have to worry about it. Every few days, I indulged in an Icelandic coffee. They really have their coffee situation well established. They have these espresso machines that make the coffee for you, which normally I find kind of gross. But it actually tastes as good as if a barista made it. And there’s options for lattes, cappuccinos, americanos, and really whatever standard coffee you can think of. It does cost about $5 per coffee though, hence why I usually made my own.
The food at the grocery store in Iceland is very similar to what’s at home. It can be a bit tricky because the packages are labeled in Icelandic. Gareth has a nice app on his phone that scans the writing and translates it to English, so that really helped with our grocery shopping experience.
The van came with a camp stove, cookware, and a cooler. We were able to buy perishables and keep them fresh in the cooler during our travels. For most of our evening meals we made a combination of vegetables, sausages or Bratwurst types of meat, and pasta or rice. One thing we could have planned a bit better was our seasonings. A bottle of seasoning costs about $5 in the store. We really love seasoning our food, and we should have brought Ziplocs from home of spice blends. We bought salt and pepper in Iceland, and our meals tasted pretty basic as a result.
Another thing I’ll add about the grocery stores is yogurt. I don’t know what they’re doing to their yogurt in Iceland, but it is phenomenal. I don’t even really care for yogurt at home, but we stocked up on it whenever we went to the grocery stores. Their yogurt is very thick and creamy and often has real fruit mixed it. It has flavor, but not in an added corn syrup way. Even if you don’t usually eat yogurt, be sure to try it while you’re there.
The bakeries were more affordable than restaurants, so quite a few mornings we opted to buy pastries for breakfast. They do such a good job with their baked goods. I was never disappointed.
Navigating Iceland is much like navigating at home. We used Google Maps for the whole trip, and that was reliable. It’s also kind of difficult to get lost from the Ring Road in the winter. Many of the side roads are not plowed, so it’s obvious when you’re veering from the main road. All of the main routes are well marked.
We didn’t have a local phone plan. We just used the wifi box that came with the van. It worked very well.
You do need to check the Iceland road conditions daily. The administration in charge of roads in Iceland has a helpful map which we relied upon heavily. Weather can easily change in just a short distance and it’s better to make an educated decision on your driving route than end up in bad weather that you didn’t mean to drive into.
I referenced a handy website I during our trip that mapped out all of the hot springs, local pools, campsites, and waterfalls. This made it easy to find something fun to do everyday. If I read about something cool that would occur later in the trip, I saved it to Google Maps.
The entire Ring Road is only 800 miles or so, and we took over two weeks to do it. We really weren’t covering a lot of distance everyday. There is a lot to see in short distances in Iceland, so we really had to make the most of our daylight hours. We tried to be ready to go when the sun came up in the late-morning and then pack all of the sights into the daylight hours. Then we drove to our next campsite in darkness.
Money in Iceland
While in Iceland, I used Apple Pay on my phone because they don’t charge foreign transaction fees. I also had a travel credit card to use in situations where Apple Pay wasn’t accepted. If you’re going to pay for everything with your card, make sure that you won’t get charged foreign transaction fees. I couldn’t use my debit card because my bank charges $5 every single time I use it in another country.
I’ve read a lot of people saying that Iceland is nearly a cashless society, and just to bring credit cards. It’s true that most everywhere will accept cards. I wouldn’t exactly call it a cashless society because we usually needed cash to pay for the campsites. Change is needed to do laundry. I would say it’s pretty comparable to the USA in that most of the time you can just pay for things with your card, but it doesn’t hurt to have cash for some situations.
Covid Concerns in Iceland
Part of the reason we chose Iceland for our trip was because of Covid. Renting a van, spending time in nature, and being somewhat isolated from other people seemed like the safest option for an international trip. Iceland was also very intentional with their reopening plan and protocol. Since we were booking the trip so far in advance, we wanted to go somewhere than we would be confident would remain open to tourism.
When we were in Iceland, it was still required to wear masks indoors, which was not a problem. Most of our vacation was spent outdoors or in the van, so it didn’t even come up that often.
Check if the entry requirements for entry into Iceland have changed before you go. I found the process to be fairly smooth. We got Covid tests the day before our departure. As part of checking in for our flight to Iceland, we uploaded our passports and Covid tests online. After they were approved, Iceland’s customs department emailed a QR code. Once we arrived in Iceland, getting through customs was very easy. Someone scanned our QR codes to see that we were pre-approved for entry into Iceland. The whole airport process from getting off the flight to getting our bags only took about 20 minutes.
It was a stark contrast to returning to the USA. We spent about 4 hours in various lines at the Seattle airport trying to get back into the country. They were not organized at all.
What to Pack for an Icelandic Winter Roadtrip in a Campervan
Usually I travel with just a carry on bag. For this trip, we also had to check bags because of how bulky our winter gear was. Be sure to leave a little room in your bag for bulky souvenirs such as Icelandic sweaters.
- Sleeping bag. Most campervan rentals supply sleeping bags. I brought my own, so I’m really not sure if their bags were suited to winter or not. As I mentioned before, the heater loses it’s charge before morning and you may want to double your sleeping bags.
- YakTraks or some type of micro-spikes. It gets very icy in Iceland in the winter. These are a must have. You can buy them in stores in Iceland if you forget to pack them. I preferred the YakTraks over micro-spikes because I could still wear them inside restrooms, whereas the spikes you would not want to wear indoors.
- Headlamp. This is a necessity for winter in Iceland. You’ll need it to see outside of the camper in the dark.
- A travel towel. The local pools do not provide towels, and you will also need one for the wild hot springs.
- Nighttime activities. I brought a journal and my Kindle for evenings in the van.
- A battery pack. There was only one plug in the back for electronics, so rather than fight over it in the evenings, we would charge Gareth’s big battery pack during the day. There were several plugs in it, so we could then charge our phones, headlamps, and the wifi box. Remember that your batteries are going to die a lot faster in cold weather.
The thing to remember when packing clothes for winter in Iceland, is to bring things that you can layer on top of one another. Like a long-sleeve shirt can go under your sweater and you can wear your parka on top. And you can wear fleece-lined tights on the bottom and put your ski bibs over top. If you get hot you can just remove a layer.
I found that I pretty much wore the same few outfits in rotation. We were mostly doing outdoor activities, so I didn’t really need to dress to impress. Just bring a few warm and comfortable outfits, and you’ll be good.
Here’s what I packed for the trip:
- Parka. I wore mine almost everyday. I went with a Carhartt parka, and it was so warm. Don’t forget your hat and gloves as well.
- Ski bibs. I just bought a cheap pair on Amazon for this trip, and they worked fine. I did wear them often.
- A shawl/ large scarf. I have a beautiful shawl I got in Nepal a few years ago. I used it every single day in Iceland to either wrap around my shoulders or have in my lap as a little blanket.
- Fleece-lined tights. Again, I wore them often. I just got a cheap pair on Amazon that had pockets. I also brought a pair of tights that were not fleece-lined. If I were to have a do-over, I would just by two pairs of fleece-lined tights and leave the unlined pair at home.
- Joggers. These were so comfy to wear in the van, and I could also put tights on underneath.
- Sweaters and sweatshirts. I bought a wool sweater in Iceland and wore it often. They are very cozy. They don’t really break the wind, so wear something over top if it’s really windy. I also had a big sweatshirt from home I wore often.
- Winter boots. These are a must-have. I wore them daily. I think I brought a pair of sneakers as well, and didn’t really use them at all.
- Booties. I slept in booties and wore them around the van at night. I already owned this pair, but you could probably find a good deal online if you looked around.
- Swimsuit for the hot springs and pools.
- Sweatpants and sweatshirt to sleep in.
- Undershirts, socks, underwear, etc.
- A city outfit. I only wore my jeans in Reykjavik. For me, it was worth it to have a nice outfit to wear in the city. For others, you might not care to drag around clothes you’ll only wear once or twice.
That’s the bulk of what you need to know for an Icelandic winter roadtrip in a campervan. While it’s not the ideal time to travel in the far northern hemisphere, it is a more affordable alternative to seeing an otherwise expensive country.