Ever since I got back from my Scandinavian trip, people have been asking me for tips on catching the Northern lights, so here I am! This post is dedicated to those who are planning a trip to catch the northern lights. Hopefully it is helpful! 🙂
*Disclaimer*: The Northern lights are really elusive, and there is no way anyone can guarantee that you will see the lights. However, you can increase your chances by being in the right place at the right time.
To find out more about what the northern lights are about, click on the following link!
There are 2 major conditions for the Northern lights to be visible to the naked eye.
- The sky must be cloudless. (or at least, most of the sky should be clear)
- You should be at a location that is completely dark and free of light pollution, including moonlight. Take note of the sunset timings before you plan your aurora hunt, so you can plan your meals around it, and maximise the stuffs you do during daylight. Although it is possible for you to see the lights in the city on nights where the aurora is really strong, this is kinda rare. (I think on the night I saw it, it was visible in the Reykyavik!) Basically, your chances of seeing the lights are pretty high when you see a clear starry sky without any moonlight.
Where to see them?
As the name implies, you technically have higher chances of seeing the Northern lights as long as you are in the Northern hemisphere. The further up north you are, the higher your chances are. Personally, I have tried catching the lights on two separate trips, once in Finland for 6 consecutive nights, and another time in Iceland. In Finland, I did not see the lights at all with my naked eye, even though my camera captured a few faint streaks of it in the sky. If you have read up about the lights, you will know that the lights are always there, its just a matter of whether you see it with your naked eye or not.
When I was in the Finnish lapland during mid winter, the constant snowing prevented me from getting clear, cloudless skies. Even though the clouds did clear up on one of the nights, the full moon basically overpowered the lights. It was always one thing or the other that prevented me from catching the lights when I was in lapland.
One tip I have for people is to go to the Artic North not just for the northern lights, but rather, for the destination itself! The lights are just way too elusive, and there is no way anyone can guarantee that it will appear. Even without the lights, there is every reason to appreciate the Finnish lapland.
During my trip to Finland, I got to try all the winter sports that I have never had the chance to such as snowboarding, husky sledding, riding the snow mobile, reindeer sledding, and staying in the famous Glass Igloo village Kaklausttanen for a night, just to name a few. Every one of these experiences were super amazing, and even if you were just simply walking in the village, the view around you was just breathtaking.
How to prepare for chasing the lights?
Be prepared to be standing in the cold, facing wind chill temperatures that are sub zero (depending on when you go). Make sure you are dressed appropriately and be ready for the wind. If you are into photography, prepare your wide-angle lenses, camera, a strong tripod, and your remote control. This setup would allow you to have some time to enjoy the lights when you are leaving the shutter open during long exposures.
Start following the weather forecasts once you arrive. The Icelandic meteorological office has a really accurate website that will be your best friend when you hunt for the aurora in Iceland. When I visited Finland, I hired guides to take me out every single night (and it wasn’t cheap!) as I did not want to drive in the snow at night, so I did not really have to follow the weather forecasts. If you are trying to catch auroras in Finland, this is a useful website that provides weather forecasts in Finland. Auroras in Finland
Here are a few sites/apps that I religiously checked multiple times each day during my time in Iceland.
This is a super amazing website because the cloud cover forecasts are very accurate. The panel on the right side of the page gives you the aurora forecast, which is an indication of how strong the auroras will potentially be for that night. The website gets updated daily at 6pm, so I would suggest you look at this before you head out because cloud conditions might change. Considering how Iceland’s weather is always so unpredictable and erratic, I think this app is really amazing.
On the first night that we caught the aurora, it was at Grade 6. All we did was drive in the direction of the “white” portions indicated on the map, and we saw the lights! 🙂
#2 App: Aurora Forecast
An app that provides you with all the professional data which you need to see the northern lights. Very comprehensive information on the northern lights (and southern lights!) as a whole. It also tells you the possibility of seeing the lights with your naked eye based on your current location.
#3 App: More than Aurora
A crowd sourcing app where you can be notified of aurora sightings based on sightings by other users around you. All you have to do is to place a marker stating that you are trying to hunt for the aurora at a certain site, and you get notifications when users around you see it. Only problem with it is probably people can use the app anywhere, and when we were there, we saw a pin from someone in Bangkok saying that they saw the lights there? Apart from this, I thought this was a pretty cool idea.
#4 App: Aurora Alert
This app basically tells you whether it is possible to see the aurora based on your location. Of course, this does not take into account the weather conditions such as cloud cover, moonlight, etc.
One other tip that I have would be to follow all the aurora hunters or photography sites by various photographers in the Artic circle, as it would give you a sense of where the lights typically appear. In my case, following the photographers from Iceland on Instagram and Facebook made me realise that Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon was a common spot for sighting the aurora. We decided to head to the lagoon after dinner to try and wait for it, and we were rewarded the moment we stepped out of the restaurant.
After having a few days of crazy erratic cloudy and rainy weather, I was really excited to see that we were getting the ideal conditions to see the Aurora based on Vedar’s prediction. After dinner, we walked out of the restaurant, and as we looked up, we saw a tiny streak of green light. Initially, we were not sure if it was the lights or just clouds illuminated by city lights. However, within 5 seconds, the streak got stronger, and grew into 2 streaks! One of our friends who had seen the lights before confirmed that this was probably it, and the rest of us started getting crazy excited. As we drove towards the lagoon, we stopped at a random dark spot and stayed there for 30 minutes when the sky began to be filled by various streaks of lights. The lights put on a really beautiful show for us. From 2 streaks, it became 5 streaks, and before long, it was directly above us! It was a crazy amazing experience, and the 4 of us were just screaming in awe the entire time, hugging and jumping in joy!
This is a picture I took when we stopped randomly by the road as the entire sky got transformed into green! You can see cars driving toward us because we literally stopped at a random parking lot in the middle of nowhere.
After this, we drove on to Jokulsarlon where we were in the afternoon, and I have to say the place itself is CRAZY PRETTY in the day as well. We spent a good 40 minutes just watching the sunset in the day.
This is a not so typical shot but one of my favourite from the lot.
When we finally got to Jokulsarlon after dinner, we were greeted by a spectacular show put on by mother nature. It was crazy crazy amazing. At one point, the entire sky was engulfed in a sea of eerie green lights. It was really intense, and nothing could contain our excitement when we saw the lights. The lights danced, changed in shape, and the brightness level waxed and waned continuously. We were literally turning left and right the whole time because a super strong green streak might just disappear before it comes back on 5 minutes later in the form of 5 streaks in another direction, and the sky can become completely dark the next moment.
We watched the lights from 6-9 pm before deciding to drive towards our accommodation in Hofn. The lights were so crazy that even the locals told us that they have never seen it this strong.
On the second night, we headed out at 6pm and drove towards the “white patches” based on the forecast. On this night, the aurora forecast was grade 4. We drove out of the city where we were, and kept our eyes peeled on the skies, having had experience the previous night. The skies were just overcast with clouds, and we were prepared to give up when the clouds suddenly cleared up, and streaks began appearing in the sky. We stopped the car in the middle of some random street off the main road, and mother nature began rewarding us with another beautiful lightshow. It definitely paled in comparison in terms of strength compared to the previous night, but it was still a spectacular display.
I will add in more photos and updates when I get more time to look through the rest of my photos.
The above are just based off my personal experience, and I hope it helps you with your planning! 🙂
Good writeup Eva, especially the apps part .
Thank you for the kind words. 🙂
Hello! Which camera do you usually use to take your travel photos ?
Hi Mei Ling,
I usually take my photos with a Nikon D90 camera with a 17-55mm f2.8 lens. 🙂
Great pictures and nice tips ; thank you !