I’d never been so cold in my entire life. Who knows what compels a Texan to visit a place called Iceland in winter, during what is apparently one of the two coldest months of its calendar year? I tucked my hands deeper into my fleece-lined pockets and walked against the wind, hair whipping around like kite tails. I could feel sleet hitting my face and melting on my cheeks. Weather-proofed coats guaranteed for negative temperatures did a wonderful job insulating my middle body from the cold, but, coming from a place of inexperience and frugality, I didn’t own nor buy accessories that would mitigate the ice on exposed skin: earmuffs, woolen scarves, balaclavas.
Despite icicles for fingers, I was enamored with the visions of the countryside. Iceland is beautiful — probably one of the most beautiful places I’d ever laid my naked eyes upon. It has gained a lot of attention as a tourist hotspot, what with Beyoncé taking selfies in the snow in 2014, Bieber using the landscape as a backdrop for a music video in 2015, and countless photographers trekking there to share photos of Icelandic horses on social media. All of the hype is real. Waterfalls gushing over cliffs, mountains on one side and black-sand beaches when you turn your head; white frothy waves crashing against slate-grey basalt columns; white-out roads, clear skies salted with stars, the rippling, dancing northern lights changing color at midnight.
I traveled with a few of my favorite photographer friends: Jessica and Matt from LA, Kandise and André from Fredericton, Katie Jane from NYC, and Lauren from Edinburgh. We spent a week touring the south-west side of the island, going as far north as Reykjavíc and as far east as Vik. As far as visits go, ours is considered a shorter one, and I really hope to go back (perhaps during the summertime) to see the rest of the beauty Iceland has to offer.
For People Getting Married in Iceland:
If, for some reason you found this blog post in your Icelandic wedding-planning search, (hello!), I’d recommend keeping a few things in mind…
Everything is very spread out. It took several hours of driving in different directions to see a lot of these landmarks. Rent a car, be patient, and be aware that it will take a long time to take photos at a handful of locations.
Weather can change rapidly in Iceland (while waiting to take off at Keflavík, we saw a snowstorm blow in, dissipate within 5 minutes, sun come out, then another gale whistled in; repeat), so be prepared for all sorts of possible weather conditions.
Tips I’d Pass On to Folks Traveling to Iceland in Winter:
If you do any research at all, you’d find that about 2/3 of the island’s population lives in the greater Reykjavíc area, which means that the rest of the land is pretty sparsely populated. Most grocery stores are hours away if you’re not in the city — plan accordingly. Fresh produce is limited in variety. Dairy products, like thick Skyr yogurt, and lamb and fish are popular, so if you have dietary restrictions, take note. (Soylent came in very handy for me, personally.)
Gas stations are also few and far between. Fill up whenever you get the chance. Seriously! You could go 50 miles without seeing another town.
“Water-repellent” parkas may resist droplets of rain, but Iceland’s weather is not clear-cut. Geyser mist, sleet, freezing rain and snow, etc. can and will permeate your coat. I wore a parka from a well-respected brand that I tested by holding a sleeve under a running faucet and it seemed fine, but that mist sank in and got my clothes soggy. Sodden clothes make you cold. Bring a real raincoat cover if you want to stay dry!
Good things to pack: waterproof boots (I bought uninsulated Bean Boots so that I could use them as rainboots in Texas summer rainstorms as well; they were comfortable and perfect with an extra layer of wool socks), warm under-clothes like UNIQLO Heat Tech leggings and shirts, good gloves and hat. Don’t forget your bathing suit for geothermal pools. If I were to do it over again, I’d also bring a few packs of Hot Hands* to keep in pockets.
Also, it’s a good idea to keep a change of clothes in your car. Lauren and I both got hit by a wave within 5 minutes of arriving at Reynisfjara Beach and it soaked me up to the thighs. Luckily it was a “warm” day with the sun out, and my middle body was still dry, so it was just uncomfortable, but I would’ve been infinitely warmer and comfortable if I had dry pants and socks to change into.
If you’re going to chase the northern lights, bring a wide-angle lens and an extra battery (cold weather drains power faster). You don’t necessarily need a tripod; one of our group brought a mini tripod that was handy, but I braced my camera against a parked car and it worked out fine.
While I usually travel light with the Canon EOS M and I had one Nikon DSLR body with one lens, my biggest regret is that I should’ve brought more of my lens collection with me. Other photographers brought: the 40mm Canon pancake and a 105; a 35mm and a 60mm macro that doubled as a portrait lens; different focal lengths with her different digital/film cameras.
Take into account that some days are going to be really misty, rainy, and wet, and that you may not want to bring your gear out into that. I took photos of Gulfoss with my GoPro because it was the only camera I had with underwater housing — that’s how wet and miserable it was out there.
locations pictured: Blue Lagoon / Reynisfjara Beach / Skógafoss / Seljalandsfoss / Drangshlid / Thingvellir / Geysir / Sólheimajökull Glacier / Selfoss / Reykjavíc
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