Catching the Northern Lights can feel a bit like the roll of a dice – and while there is a bit of luck involved, following our expert tips can increase your odds.
What causes the Northern Lights?
First up, it is good to have a basic understanding of the science behind them. The lights you see are charged particles from the sun that are colliding with atoms as they enter the earth’s magnetic field.
This activity is always happening but there are factors that affect how bright the lights are – or if you can even see them at all.
Understanding the Solar Cycle
There’s a connection between how bright and active the lights are and the Solar Cycle, which has been mapped by scientists and astronomers as a rolling 11- to 15-year period. There are times when the sun has less flare activity (Solar Minimum) then it works its way up to its highest level of activity (Solar Maximum) and back down again. These peaks and troughs are tracked by organisations like NASA.
NASA data shows that 2020 is currently at a Solar Minimum, with a potential Maximum due in 2025.
Just because it’s a Solar Minimum period doesn’t mean you won’t see the lights. But the lights you see likely won’t be the brightest or the most active that they can be. So tracking the Solar Cycle is a factor to consider if you are chasing the best possible show.
Where to go to see the lights
It isn’t just about going as far north (or south) as possible; the Aurora zone is actually an oval-shaped halo around the poles that can shift slightly.
As a rule of thumb, if you are going north, look for destinations that sit around the Arctic Circle, such as Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Northern Canada, Northern Finland, the Northern Highlands of Scotland, Northern Norway, Far North Russia and Northern Sweden.
When choosing to go, take into account what other activities you’ll want to do on your holiday. Do you want to ski? Go horse riding? Double up and have a city break in a popular destination like Reykjavik? Don’t base the entire trip on the lights.
When to see the Northern Lights
Aurora activity happens all year. But in the north – when the days are very long and the sun may not even fully set – you won’t get a long window of time for potential viewing. So contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t need to be winter but you do have a better chance during those long winter months.
The peak viewing window across the north is September/October to March/April.
Another consideration should be your tolerance for the cold. If you can’t stand the snow, consider going around the shoulder seasons in September or April. If you’re itching to strap on your skis or skates then December and January are your best bet.
Other key factors that affect visibility
- Cloud cover: The main weather challenge will be cloud cover. Look for places that have less precipitation around the time you want to go. For example, Abisko in Sweden has a reputation for being the country’s driest place in winter and has favourable sky conditions for viewing the lights.
- Ability to escape light pollution: Light pollution obviously affects your chances of viewing Aurora activity. You really have to leave big cities. So if you’re visiting Iceland, you should certainly spend a few days enjoying the scene in Reykjavik but for a better chance of seeing the lights, leave room in your itinerary to stay in a more rural area.
How long to stay
The longer you can stay, the better your chances. As a guideline, many resorts geared towards seeing the Northern Lights offer packages for four to five days.
Picking the right accommodation
Look for hotels or resorts that offer services such as:
- Wake-up calls: Get some rest in your warm bed and let the hotel advise you when it is time to run out.
- Winter gear: Avoid packing (or buying) a giant suit and moon boots. As a bonus, most suits are one piece and easy to pull on quickly.
- Observatories: Look for facilities like designated viewing cabins with retractable or glass roofs and telescopes.
- Experts: Some places even have in-house experts who host tours on clear nights.
While your resort may have boots and suits on hand, these other items are essential for keeping warm:
- Heavy-duty gloves or mittens: Your regular knitted woolies won’t cut it. Get something durable and waterproof, such as Gore-Tex.
- Touchscreen gloves: If you’ll want to use your phone outside, keep a back-up pair of lighter gloves with touchscreen fingers in your pocket.
- Water-resistant socks: Invest in some good, thin but warm socks designed to keep your feet dry. Merino-wool blends are best. Pack a few extra pairs as your feet will have a tendency to get damp and wet feet will make you miserably cold.
- An external battery pack for your phone: Phone batteries do not cope well with the cold and can easily shut down. Keep a charged battery pack handy at all times.
- Hand and foot warmers: Keep them inside your gloves and socks.
- Hat and neckwarmer: It seems obvious but ensure you have a well-fitting hat (and not just a band or ear warmers). A neck warmer that can pull up over your face and tuck down inside your jacket will keep you extra-cosy and is muck less bulky to pack than a scarf.
- A small flashlight: If you’re outside in the dark to watch the lights, this will come in handy in case you drop anything in the snow.
- Thermal layers: A simple thermal top and pair of tights to wear under your regular clothes will make a world of difference.
Photographing the light is challenging as you are working in very dark conditions. This is the minimal equipment you will need to get a capture:
- The right camera: A DSLR that allows manual focus, exposure control and has a high ISO setting of 6400+. (ISO is a setting that allows you to artificially increase exposure.)
- A tripod: With the dark skies you will need to have your shutter open longer. Your images will be very blurry without a tripod in these conditions.
- Extra, fully charged batteries: Batteries don't last as long in the cold. Bring a spare or two out with you and ensure they are fully charged.
Other useful resources
- My Aurora Forecast App: This app comes highly recommended by guides and locals. It tracks all Aurora activity showing where the best viewing locations are in real time and offers a local forecast (one hour, a few hours, a week) based on weather and predicted solar conditions. Available on the App Store and Google Play
- Aurora Borealis Forecast and Alerts: Another user-friendly and popular app with similar forecasting capabilities as My Aurora Forecast. Learn more
- NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center: This site offers a 30-minute Aurora-probability forecast for both the northern and southern hemispheres with simple-to-read, colour-coded heat maps. Learn more