You Will Never See The Northern Lights Without These 10 Expert Tips
They’re on everyone’s bucket list, but the Northern Lights—currently raging—are a tricky phenomenon to successfully see. You’ll often see vacation packages offering tours that appear to make observing the twisting, shimmering and always romantic aurora just a case of booking. It also comes with an asterisk and smallprint that promises nothing.
It’s not easy to see the aurora—but it is currently simpler than for about a decade.
Here’s what you need to know to see the Northern Lights as they wax towards their most intense and most frequent:
1. Get to the Arctic Circle
Yes, the Northern Lights can occasionally be seen near the US-Canada border and in northern Scotland, but don’t ever go to these places in the hope of seeing them—it’s so rare. You’re way better off heading straight for the Arctic Circle, where they most often occur around 65º to 70º North latitudes. That means Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland, Lapland (northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and northern Russia.
2. Go somewhere remote
Booking a hotel in, say, Reykavik or any semi-large town specifically to see the Northern Lights is a huge mistake. You want darkness. Lots of it. That doesn’t mean you have to stay in a lonely cabin in the woods because there are a lot of small hotels and guests houses in remote locations in Arctic regions.
3. Check with the Moon
Purists and astrophotographers always go to the aurora zone around New Moon when the night skies are at their darkest. It’s certainly better to plan a trip away from full Moon (certainly the week before and most of the week after) to avoid a bleached sky, but in practice it doesn’t make too much difference if you’re somewhere remote. In fact, moonlight reflecting off snow and icy lakes is so beautiful … and it makes photographs of the Northern Lights over wintry landscapes very pretty because the foregrounds are automatically lit-up in long exposure photographs.
4. Auroral activity is currently increasing
The Sun is getting more active—and that means more frequent and more intense displays of aurora. The solar cycle, also known as the sunspot cycle, is a roughly 11-year period during which our star waxes and wanes. The intricacies are irrelevant, but know that it’s on the cusp of a powerful “solar maximum” peak in 2024 or 2025. X-class solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are becoming more common and cause geomagnetic storms—which in turn means more intense displays of aurora.
5. The season is September through March
This isn’t because of any uptick in activity, but to maximize darkness. In January the days and short and the nights are long, but after equinox in late March the days quickly overtake the nights. That said, you could quite easily see aurora in mid-to-late August and April, but the wise aurora-hunter goes September through March. There is some evidence that geomagnetic activity increases around the equinoxes in late September and late March when the position of the Earth’s axis relative to the Sun puts it side-on to the solar wind, but there’s no guarantee.
6. Aurora can and do occur at any time of night
If anyone in the aurora zone tells you exactly when to expect aurora, ignore them. It’s so annoying common to hear statements like “they come at 8 p.m.” or “we never seem them after midnight” from hotel staff and locals. It’s complete trash. All they are saying is that they are asleep after midnight so never see them! Aurora can appear at any time of day or night (we just can’t see them during the day!).
7. Plan other activities, but not sleep
Fancy a cosy cabin in the woods and a pre-dinner display if Northern Lights before an early night? Forget it. Keep your snow boots by the bed, put your alarm clock on each hour and devote yourself entirely to not missing the aurora. The need for clear skies and a geomagnetic disturbance means they can be elusive on any given night or week. Even if it’s clear and active all week—and particularly if it’s cloudy and geomagnetically quiet—you’re going to want other things to do. Dog-sledding is often one option in Arctic areas. So is fell skiing, cross-country skiing, skidooing, snowshoeing and landscape photography.
8. Book a wake-up call
Some hotels in the aurora zone do offer aurora wake-up calls, but they hugely vary in quality. Some even give you a smartphone that they promise to send messages to, but most won’t wake you up after midnight. If such a service is on offer, interrogate the receptionist and request to be woken-up at whatever time of night.
9. Take all your warm clothes
Guess what? The Arctic is arctic cold! Not only is spotting the beginnings of a display of aurora through a window in a warm hotel room unlikely (you typically need a big sky to spot them), but once the display has begun you then need to stand outside for an hour (or five) to enjoy them, photograph them and see them change form and color. Dress in layers, take liner gloves to go inside your big gloves, and fill your pockets with snacks to keep warm. And a hot flask is always the ultimate travel accessory when sky-gazing!
10. Aurora photography is getting easier
“Night Mode” on your smartphone—if it’s relatively new—should be OK to get a souvenir shot of the aurora, though sadly most smartphones’ wide-angle lenses and inferior to their default lenses. Use the default lens and a basic smartphone holder and a small tripod to keep it still, as with any long exposure image (perch it on top of a vehicle, a picnic table/fence or balance it on the branch of a tree). If you do have a mirrorless or DSLR camera with manual mode then it will produce much better results. With a tripod and a wide-angle lens (14mm or similar is best) set to infinity/mountain focus, set it to record images in raw as well as JPG. Then engage manual mode and use your lens’ lowest f-number (say, f/4 or better still f/2.8), ISO 800 and a shutter speed of between five and 20 seconds. You’ll need to use Photoshop or the free Gimp software to “bring up” the aurora in your images, but it’s worth it (just don’t go crazy and oversaturate the color!).
Seeing the Northern Lights has not been as easy for a decade, but it still requires a lot of planning, some serious dedication and a good deal of luck.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.