Since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Northern lights (Aurora Borealis). And over the past 4 years I’ve been lucky enough to see them several times in two countries; An experience I’ll never forget! However it’s worth noting that in that same period, I’ve been unsuccessful in seeing them in 3 occasions. Right place. Right time. Just didn’t happen.
I still feel lucky to have seem them at all! And 40% isn’t bad. However I’ve picked up some good tips along the way which I thought I would share. The Northern lights are the topic I’m asked about most, by family and friends interested in the places we’ve been.
Where Should You Go Where I’ll Have The Best Chance Of Seeing The Northern Lights?
Firstly, I would stress to only plan a holiday of this nature if you are going to enjoy other aspects of it. There’s a good chance the Northern lights won’t come out to play. In which case you may find yourself bored and frustrated. Luckily everywhere I’ll mention has tons to do and see. More than you can fit into one trip!
Secondly, it’s worth noting latitude isn’t everything. Seeing the Northern lights will depend on more than just your location. I visited Svalbard last Winter, which is the last country before the North pole. It’s used as a base for explorers going to the North Pole but is largely Arctic tundra. We stayed in Longyearbyen. A mining settlement now more known for it’s Scientific relevance (and Polar bears!). Longyearbyen airport is the World’s most Northernly commercial airport. Whilst you can charter helicopters or small aircraft to go further, your average holiday maker isn’t getting there.
We had high hopes for seeing the Aurora in Svalbard. We had clear skies and complete darkness for the entire time we visited. However we didn’t get to see them, as we were actually too far North for the band of Aurora circling the North pole missed us.
Based on this and my past experiences, Northern Norway or Lapland would be my recommendation. We didn’t see them in Lapland but it’s an ideal location. Tromsø in Northern Norway is in the right spot, has the right weather a lot of the time and loads to do. We saw them almost daily in Tromsø and they were intensely bright.
If you’re familiar with my blog and love for Iceland, you may be wondering why I haven’t recommended there as a good spot? I think that whilst the Aurora is touted as a major tourist attraction for Iceland, the unpredictable weather makes it really difficult. I have seen them in Iceland, on my way from the airport the very first time we visited. They were intense and spanned the whole sky. However since I’ve never been lucky enough to see them. As Iceland isn’t so far North -only one of it’s islands is technically within the Arctic Circle– you apparently need to be there for about 10 days to have a good chance of seeing them. Of course there are no schedules in nature, but this combined with highly unpredictable weather can be problematic.
In order to see the Aurora clearly, you’ll need the weather on your side. High cloud cover will ruin any chance, wether the lights are above you or not. If there is low cloud cover, you may be in luck. On our last night in Tromsø we drove towards the coast and managed to see them through a break in the cloud.
The Aurora Forecast
The Aurora forecast is really confusing. Thankfully there are some apps which can help break it down a bit. I like My Aurora Forecast Pro, as it tells you the KP (strength) and your probability of seeing them, taking into account cloud cover. Don’t get too disheartened by the KP, when we saw them in Norway it was at a maximum a 3.
Should I Go On An Organised Tour? Or Try & Find Them Myself?
Whilst it’s good fun trying to find them yourself, you may be looking in the wrong place. If the country is new to you, or the weather isn’t great, I would join an organised tour. In addition to having a higher chance of seeing them, your guide will tell you interesting info along the way. Guides share information with other guides and are highly experienced in finding the lights.
With that said, always check the weather and Aurora. In places like Tromsø they were very honest about your chances and would cancel trips. However in Lapland trips ran every night even when it was painfully obvious there was zero chance of seeing them. Only go if you have a fighting chance of actually seeing them!
What Will They Look Like?
A colleague once said to me that the Aurora only look the way they do in photos. I don’t think he’s alone in thinking that. Tours will want you to see the lights so often won’t let on if what you’re seeing is very faint. It’s true that if you take a photo with a long exposure you will capture more than you can see with the naked eye, when they are barely there. Clouds diffuse the light making them more of a green tinge.
However that isn’t how they always are. Far from it! They often begin as a faint green tinge which if watched intensifies and begins to move and change shape. The first time we ever saw them I was absolutely gobsmacked. We were walking through the centre of Tromsø and a green ball appeared, looking as though it was only as far away as the house it was behind. It danced frantically across the sky and then disappeared. It was so intense I could photograph it on my iPhone.
That was the only time I have seen them ‘dancing’. All the other times they moved slowly like clouds blowing in the wind, but very obviously changed shape before our eyes.
Depending on the gas, they can change colour but green is the most common. I’ve seen them when they’re green and pinky red.
How Do I Photograph Them?
I’m no expert, since taking these photos I’ve learned a lot and have upgraded my camera kit. Hopefully I’ll get to shoot them again and do a better job!
You’ll need an SLR or good bridge camera most of the time. And you will definitely need a tripod.
I put my camera on manual and use a remote trigger or set a 2 second delay. Use Aperture F2 or as low as your lens can go. Set focus to manual and using the lens focus just before infinity. I then set my shutter speed for 15 seconds. My ISO was trial and error, thus the blurred photos! But as they keep changing, you need to constantly make adjustments.
Planning Your Trip
In Arctic countries there will be some period of Polar night. The Winter period when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. In Iceland in December you get around 5 hours daylight. Tromsø 4 and Svalbard 0. The length of this period depends on how far North you go. It’s worth making the most of the darkness for optimum Northern lights spotting chances.
As I’ve mentioned above, nothing is guaranteed. Pick somewhere you want to explore, so the Northern lights would be an added bonus. Lastly check online for your intended destination to see when the highest chance of seeing the lights is. This will take into account the weather. Whilst it may be darker in December, the weather may be better in October along with a stronger forecast.
Seeing the Northern lights is my favourite travel memory of all. Even though they’re illusive, I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for them!