A place where glassy waves break over volcanic reefs with unparalleled views of huge mountains in the distance.
No, we’re not talking about the North Shore of O‘ahu or the coast of Guanacaste, Costa Rica – think colder, much colder.
Replace sand with snow, rocks with glaciers, and dolphins with orca whales.
Home of the Northern Lights, Blue Lagoon, and the oldest geyser in the world, Iceland is a Nordic Island nation whose incredible surf flies way under the radar.
Surfing in Iceland
No one can really know for sure how long these waves were kept secret, but what we can pinpoint is when they started to become popular — and it wasn’t very long ago.
Some of the first individuals ever recorded surfing in Iceland were actually Americans stationed at NATO’s Keflavik air base in the early 90’s.
Erlendur “Elli” Thor Magnusson, a distinguished photographer who has helped put the island on the world surf map, can recall hearing about the foreigners in his late teens.
A Reykjavik local, Magnusson’s first time on a board was when he was nearly 20 years old, almost a decade after he got into photography.
His work, in hand with colleague Chris Burkard’s, has transformed the sport of surfing in the last two decades, as the duo has been greatly responsible for bringing attention to the waves this destination has to offer.
Combined, Magnusson and Burkard have had images published in Surfer Magazine, The New Yorker, Patagonia, Surfline, and National Geographic.
Ingó Olsen is another important name to note, as he’s been referred to as the ‘father figure’ of Icelandic surfing.
A native like Magnusson, Olsen is an early pioneer in discovering breaks all over the island.
Today, he runs Arctic Surfers, a group of outdoorsmen who spend their time exploring the nation to organize “adventure vacations”.
Waves in Iceland
Iceland’s coastline stretches over 4,000 miles long, allowing for a variety of forecasts around the country.
From smooth point breaks to powerful reef slabs, on a good day Iceland has a spot for everyone.
There are often flat periods in the summertime, but once it’s winter in Iceland, Atlantic swells come from every direction.
Something to be mindful of here though is the unforgiving bottom. The island is covered in around 130 volcanoes, so the ocean floor is made up of basalt reef which, if you can believe it, has significantly less give than coral. Often sharp and shallow, Iceland is not the best place for anyone less than expert to experiment with waves bigger than they’re used to.
Gear Needed to Surf in Iceland
To most, surfing in below-freezing temperatures may seem rather insane, and while there’s probably some level of truth to this opinion, the right gear can make all the difference in the world.
Both visitors and locals should expect to suit up in the whole nine — or in this case, the whole four.
Thick, quality equipment can be pricey, but when you’re about to surf oceans cold enough to keep glaciers afloat, you’ll want gear you know you can trust.
The Best Surf Spots in Iceland
There are surf spots on every side of the island, but one’s best bet at scoring good waves will be the Reykjanes Peninsula which is located towards the southwest corner of Iceland.
An hour from Reykjavik, Sandvik is an exposed, black-sand beach break that typically offers more groundswells than windswells, with long rides into shore.
What’s neat about this beach in particular is that it has year-round potential for both lefts and rights.
Just be careful of rip currents – they’re not uncommon here.
Resting on the southernmost part of the Reykjanes Peninsula is Thorli, one of the most consistently surfed waves in Iceland.
The beach is renowned for its big swells that allow for lengthy, top-to-bottom surfing – the deep paddling channel also means no duck diving!
A true cultural meeting place in Iceland, this wave is currently in grave danger due to the potential expansion of Þorlákshöfn Harbor.
Hafnir Harbor is right in the middle of the western coast of the peninsula and is at its peak during the winter, specifically in the month of February.
Powerful waves can get up to the size of buildings at Hafnir, but in ‘warmer’ weather the surf is safe for beginners and small groms.
Off the coast of Hópsnes Lighthouse on its own mini peninsula within Reykjanes is Ollie’s Shipwreck.
Directly off the point are short rights, but the main break is a long left off to the side.
Ollie’s forms over volcanic reef so it’s best to paddle out during high tide.
Also directly in front of a lighthouse, Grotta is located on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, less than 10 minutes from Reykjavik.
The break works best when there are offshore winds, and its swell angle is coming from the west.
Clean waves are less common than blow outs, but when the conditions are optimal it’s a must if you’re in the area.
The Bottom Line: Surfing Iceland
You definitely have to have a passion for surfing to do so in Iceland with the freezing weather and sharp bottom breaks, but if you’re up for it and well-equipped, there’s no question it will be an unforgettable experience – especially if you go between December and March when you may get to paddle out beneath the Northern Lights.