January in Iceland: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Thomas H. Mitchell / Getty Images

January can be the perfect time to visit Iceland. It does feel like you’ve been dropped into a snow globe if you find yourself in the country after a fresh flurry. There are also far fewer crowds than during the summer months, which bring travelers looking to experience the midnight sun and the blooming of the Arctic Lupine. But the very best part about visiting Iceland during the winter may just be the Northern Lights; the cold weather and short days provide the perfect formula for a fantastic light show.

Don’t let the cold temperatures or severe driving conditions turn you away. There are plenty of tour operators that offer experiences out into the countryside that will also pick you up in Reykjavik. And it doesn’t get cozier than Reykjavik under a blanket of snow. The locals have a perfect handle on how to ward off the seasonal blues and enjoy the natural environment that comes with being a small, Arctic island in the middle of the ocean. 

Ahead, you’ll find everything you need to know to prepare for a January trip to the Land of Fire and Ice.

Driving in Iceland in January

With January, comes some of the country’s most unpredictable weather. Expect to see white-out conditions, rain, strong winds, sun, and hail all in an afternoon. Given these weather patterns, many of Iceland’s roads will shut down for days—sometimes weeks—due to undrivable conditions. It’s best to check the country’s weather site, Vedur, for up-to-date road closure information. 

January is a great time for spotting the Northern Lights, as the days are quite short and it’s often clear enough to spot the aurora borealis. For the best views, you’ll want to head far from the city lights, which isn’t too hard to do given the multitude of tour operators and how easy it is to navigate the country by car.

Iceland Weather in January

As mentioned before, it’s unpredictable. Average temperatures range from 30 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit, but you also have to take the windchill into account. All of this being said, it can be warmer in Reykjavik on some days than it is in New York City in January.

Not necessarily weather-related, but another aspect to take into account is the length of the day. January and February bring with them some of the shortest days, with the sun shining between four and six hours during this time. While the summertime is great for planning long road trips fueled by the midnight sun, the winter is better for taking it easy and exploring some of the country’s relaxing hot springs.

What to Pack

A packing list for Iceland looks relatively the same no matter which season you’re visiting. What’s different about packing for a January trip versus packing for a trip in July is that you’re going to want to make sure every piece of outerwear you bring is waterproof—and warm. Waterproof puffer jackets were invented for this very trip. Make sure to have a warm, insulated waterproof jacket; base layers made of wool, synthetics, or silk; lots of socks, waterproof gloves, a scarf, a warm hat, and waterproof boots. Those are the most essential pieces, paired with your usual hiking, city strolling, and general tourist-ing outfits.

If you forget anything, there are plenty of warm weather gear shops in Reykjavik, and the larger cities around the country. Icewear and 66°North are great local spots for buying jackets, hiking gear, shoes, and other woolen gifts.

January Events in Iceland

An events calendar of things to do in Iceland during the month of January wouldn’t be filled with festivals and other celebrations. The weather makes it tough to be outside for long periods of time, but there are a few really unique experiences that can be had during the winter in Iceland.

  • Þorrablót, the Feast of Þorri: This midwinter festival is all about enjoying traditional Icelandic foods (congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach) with friends and family.
  • Dark Music Days: Every year in late January, Harpa hosts a series of concerts celebrating well-known and up-and-coming Icelandic composers. 
  • Reykjavik International Games: Think of this as a regional Olympics, with competitors going head-to-head in sports ranging from powerlifting and skiing to fencing and figure skating.
  • Tour the Ice Caves: Due to unpredictable ice melt patterns, the ice caves in Iceland can only be accessed during the wintertime with a guide. Check out the caves of Vatnajökull glacier—there are plenty of tours offered with pick-up in Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and some in Reykjavik.
  • Northern Lights: For you to be able to see the aurora, it has to be dark and cold—two things that most definitely describe Iceland in January.

January Travel Tips

  • Don’t plan on driving the highland roads—they will be closed. Additionally, expect road closures and delays if you plan on driving out of Reykjavik.
  • Pack extra socks and make sure your outerwear is waterproof.