They’re on everyone’s bucket list, but the northern lights – which are raging at the moment – are a difficult phenomenon to see. You’ll often see package holidays offering trips that seem to make observing the intricate, shimmering and always romantic northern lights just a matter of booking. It also comes with a star and small print that doesn’t promise anything.
It is not easy to see the Northern Lights – but it is currently easier than it has been in about a decade.
Here’s what you need to know to see the Northern Lights as they grow towards their most intense and 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 never go to these places hoping to see them – it’s that rare. You’re much better off heading straight for the Arctic Circle, where they most often occur around 65º to 70º north latitude. That means Alaska, Northern Canada, Iceland, Lapland (Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland) and Northern Russia.
2. Go somewhere remote
Booking a hotel in, for example, Reykavik or another semi-large city specifically to see the northern lights is a big mistake. You want darkness. A lot of it. That doesn’t mean you have to live in a lonely cabin in the forest because there are many small hotels and guesthouses in remote locations in arctic regions.
3. Check with the moon
Purists and astrophotographers always go to the northern lights around the New Moon when the night sky is at its darkest. It’s certainly better to plan a trip away from a full moon (certainly the week before and most of the week after) to avoid a bleached sky, but in practice it doesn’t matter much if you’re in a remote location. In fact, moonlight reflecting off snow and icy lakes is so beautiful…and it makes photos of the northern lights over winter landscapes very pretty because the foreground automatically lights up in long exposure photos.
4. Aurora activity is currently increasing
The sun is becoming more active – and that means more frequent and more intense displays of the northern lights. The solar cycle, also known as the sunspot cycle, is a period of about 11 years during which our star waxes and wanes. The intricacies are irrelevant, but know that it is 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 causing geomagnetic storms—which in turn means more intense displays of northern lights.
5. The season is September to March
This is not due to any increase in activity, but to maximize darkness. In January, the days are short and the nights long, but after the equinox at the end of March, the days quickly overtake the nights. That said, you can easily see the northern lights in mid to late August and April, but the wise aurora hunter goes from September to March. There is some evidence that geomagnetic activity increases around the late September and late March equinoxes when the position of the Earth’s axis relative to the Sun puts it on the side of the solar wind, but there is no guarantee.
6. Aurora can and does occur at any time of the night
If someone in the aurora zone tells you exactly when to expect the aurora borealis, ignore them. It’s so annoyingly common to hear statements like “they come at 8pm” or “we never seem to be them after midnight” from hotel staff and locals. It’s complete rubbish. All they say is that they sleep after midnight, so never see them! Auroras can appear at any time of the day or night (we just can’t see them during the day!).
7. Plan other activities, but not sleep
Would you like a cozy cabin in the forest and a view before dinner if the northern lights before an early evening? Forget it. Keep your snow boots by your bed, set your alarm clock every hour and devote yourself completely to not missing the Northern Lights. 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 especially if it’s cloudy and geomagnetically quiet—you’ll have other things to do. Dog sledding is often an option in arctic areas. The same goes for mountain skiing, cross-country skiing, skiing, snowshoeing and landscape photography.
8. Order an alarm clock
Some hotels in the northern lights zone offer aurora wake-up calls, but they vary greatly 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 offered, ask the receptionist and ask to be woken up at any time of the night.
9. Take all your warm clothes
Guess what? Arctic is Arctic cold! Not only is it unlikely to see the beginning of an aurora display through a window in a warm hotel room (you usually need a big sky to spot them), but once the display starts you have to stand outside for an hour (or five ) to enjoy them, photograph them and watch them change shape 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 heating flask is always the ultimate travel accessory when looking at the sky!
10. Aurora photography becomes easier
“Night mode” on your smartphone – if it’s relatively new – should be OK for getting a souvenir photo of the northern lights, although unfortunately most smartphones’ wide-angle lenses are inferior to standard lenses. Use the standard lens and a simple smartphone holder and a small tripod to keep it steady, as with any long exposure shot (place it on top of a vehicle, a picnic table/fence, or balance it on the branch of a tree). If you have a mirrorless or DSLR camera with manual mode, it will give much better results. With a tripod and a wide-angle lens (14mm or similar is best) set to infinity/mountain focus, set it to shoot images in raw as well as JPG. Then activate manual mode and use the lens’s lowest f-number (eg f/4 or better still f/2.8), ISO 800 and a shutter speed between five and 20 seconds. You’ll need to use Photoshop or the free Gimp software to “bring up” the Northern Lights in your photos, but it’s worth it (just don’t go crazy and oversaturate the color!).
Seeing the Northern Lights hasn’t been as easy in a decade, but it still requires a lot of planning, some serious commitment and a fair amount of luck.
Wishing you clear skies and big eyes.