When the skies danced and your lights fell
And our words rose to meet you
Beyond the earth’s snow-capped summits
Reflecting the starlight’s hue
In jagged rhymes a polyphony swelled
Reaching for your green and blue
As you came and went and eluded sight
And the euphoric faiths of us few.
Do you believe in magic? On one cold autumn night, deep in the Arctic wilderness, we had our first tryst with the elusive lady of the north. She appeared suddenly and engulfed the entire sky in the most majestic and exquisite way in a matter of seconds. She shimmered and swayed all night leaving us spellbound. And believe us, the enchantment has still not worn away.
Aurora Borealis, Nordlys, Northern Lights, Polar Lights, Fox Fire – several names describing one of the most magnificent phenomena of nature. Like many, the Northern Lights have been a childhood dream for us. We had just started dating, and whilst sharing our bucket-lists and crazy fantasies, Auroras happened to be numero uno for both. The exorbitant prices to pay for viewing these natural wonders made them more of a pipe dream, however. Well, you know how it is being two broke students.
We had come across Northern Lights trips from London costing £2500 per person for just 5 odd days! To add to that, there was no guarantee that you would actually get to see them! Sounds like a gamble right? And a very expensive one at that. Needless to say, we put off our Arctic plans on hold for a very long time.
The Northern Lights needn’t be an expensive far-fetched dream.
In the fall of 2016, we finally planned our first trip to the Arctic – an epic 2-week adventure in northern Norway. Nothing has captured our imagination quite like our Arctic sojourn. As you would expect, we were bitten by a serious case of a polar bug. This addiction led to further adventures in Iceland, Sweden, Finland and even Svalbard. Above all, we were lucky to witness these magical lights multiple times in all of these countries.
And now, you’re thinking… aren’t all these countries crazy expensive? Yes they are, but here’s the secret… the Northern Lights needn’t be a pricey and implausible dream.
With our experience, we’ve curated an exhaustive guide to the northern lights covering all the aspects required to plan an Arctic adventure. Let’s begin with some Aurora Borealis FAQ’s, shall we?
What is Aurora Borealis?
Okay, the lights do seem to be spun by a powerful wizard or magician. However, there is a scientific explanation as to why these occur. Electronically charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field and get funnelled downwards towards the earth’s North and South Poles. Later, they interact with the earth’s atmosphere and we see beautiful displays of lights in the sky. Oxygen gives off green and red light whereas Nitrogen glows blue and purple. If you’re near the North Pole, it is called an aurora borealis or the Northern Lights. At the other end, it is called an aurora australis or the Southern Lights near the South Pole.
A spectacle as extraordinary as the aurora borealis, it’s no surprise that it features prominently in Nordic mythology. One of our favourite stories is from Finland, where they believed that the lights were caused by an arctic fox running rapidly across the snow, its bushy tail causing sparks to fly into the night sky. The Vikings believed that the lights were reflections or glow from the shields and armour of the Valkyrie, female warriors tasked with leading Odin’s warriors to Valhalla (the warriors’ paradise in Norse mythology).
The Vikings celebrated the lights as they believed they were manifestations of Gods. Conversely, the Sami (indigenous people of Lapland) considered them to be a bad omen. It was believed that whoever disrespected the lights incurred bad fortune, which could result in sickness and even death.
Despite the science, it is these stories that intrigue after all. Every time we experience the lights, we find it hard to believe that there isn’t a higher force at work creating the magic of a surreal order.
Where can you see them?
The Northern Lights circle the globe in an elliptical oval near the earth’s magnetic poles which is the auroral oval. The areas within the oval have the highest probability of seeing the lights. This makes the regions within the Arctic circle in the northern hemisphere and Antarctica in the southern hemisphere top choices. Svalbard, Iceland, Alaska, Antarctica, Northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Canada pretty much sum up the list of countries.
Best time to see Northern Lights
Darkness is the key to view them because technically auroras occur throughout the year. In higher latitudes like the Arctic, where they are visible, the sun never sets in summer. As a result, they are impossible to view then. Therefore, the best months are from September to March. Statistically, auroral activity peak during the autumnal (22nd September) and vernal (20th March) equinoxes due to strong geomagnetic storms. Moreover, there is light and darkness during these periods and the temperatures are mild as well. A complete win-win.
Our favourite time is around the end of September, as we can comfortably stay outdoors all night. In peak winters, be prepared for temperatures below -10 C. Another misconception is that it needs to be cold to see them. This isn’t true as the temperature has nothing to do with it, you only need clear dark skies.
Do I need to take a Northern Lights tour to see them?
No. Northern Lights are natural phenomena. Do you pay to see the sun? Likewise, there’s no need to spend on tours or Aurora hunting trips or exorbitant ice hotels. We got to watch the most spectacular all night display from an entirely private cabin – miles away from civilisation – at a cost of £10 per night.
Book a hotel or Airbnb in the countryside and you will be able to see them from your courtyard. Book a guided tour if you are visiting for a limited time or only plan to stay in the city and decide on not renting a car. With darkness and the right conditions, you can certainly see them from everywhere.
Essential tips to plan your Northern Lights trip
- Give enough time – Northern lights are elusive and highly unpredictable. You need clear dark skies in addition to solar activity. In the Arctic, especially, weather can pose the biggest challenge. Therefore, give yourself time to wait out the bad weather. If you have only 3-4 days, there is a chance you will miss them. Despite once spending five nights in Finland, we didn’t get to see them. So a week in the Arctic is a minimum; while the longer you stay, the more chances you have for the perfect sighting.
- Get away from cities and light pollution – Though you can see the Northern Lights from big cities like Reykjavik and Tromso when the activity is strong, they aren’t as dramatic, since the bright city lights dim them. Your best bet would be to book a couple of days in the rural countryside away from residential areas or drive away from the cities in the evening to hunt for the lights.
- Go for the destination, not just for the lights – Planning a whole trip just for the lights might lead to disappointment, so ensure you have other activities planned up. Moreover, why not indulge in popular activities like dog sledding, snowmobiling, skiing, visiting reindeer farms, and glacier hiking to name a few?
- To repeat, the Artic is breathtakingly scenic and has a lot to offer so enjoy your time and don’t merely visit for the lights.
An Arctic trip by itself will leave you smitten. Think of the Northern Lights as an added bonus.
- Check weather forecast websites like weatherchannel or weatherspark in advance to know precipitation levels and temperatures for the month you plan to visit to optimise your chances. For instance, precipitation levels (cloud cover) are high in December and January in Norway and Finland. In other words, it’s difficult to spot the lights despite the polar night.
- Use aurora forecast apps like AuroraCast, My Aurora Forecast, My Aurora forecast and Alerts and Norway Lights to check auroral activity levels, cloud cover and the best spots to visit on the day.
- Stay up late – Now, this is important… Be prepared to put in some effort to see them. Experts say the optimal time is between 9 pm to 1 am. But as with mother nature, this is almost impossible to predict. We have seen some strong displays at 6 pm in the evening and even at 4 am in the morning. Without a doubt, patience is the key here. We remember setting our alarm clocks for every hour between 11 pm to 3 am to make sure we weren’t missing something; and trust us, the sleepless nights are worth it.
- Bundle up – If you’ve to stay outdoors for hours in the freezing cold, layering is indeed crucial. It helps if you can view the lights from your accommodation itself though. That way, you can hop in to warm yourself up every now and then. If you are outdoors with no room or car to warm up, we’d suggest you carry hand warmers, a hot drink in a thermo flask and some snacks to make the experience more comfortable.
To repeat, the countries in the Arctic circle are notoriously expensive! In order to see the lights, you would want to plan a longer trip which isn’t cheap. Nonetheless, the following tips will help you plan your dream trip without your budget going into a tizzy.
- Choose your destination wisely – Many places in the Arctic are remote and hard to reach. This increases costs. For this reason, it’s imperative to plan your holiday wisely to optimise your chances whilst staying on budget.
- Arctic Norway, Sweden and Finland are all easily accessible even in winter months and have good public transport links. Iceland, for instance, doesn’t have public transport so you will have to either rent a car or rely on tours. Norway is our personal favourite although we’ve had great experiences in Sweden too.
- In case you are pressed for time, we would suggest a week combining Tromso, Norway and Abisko, Sweden. They are well connected by public transport and hence easy to access.
- In fact, Abisko is known to be the best place in the world for northern lights. It’s located in the centre of the Auroral oval with mostly clear skies and perfect conditions. Furthermore, the area receives less rainfall compared to the rest of Sweden. We were told that you often have a blue hole in Abisko even if the rest of the sky is covered. You’re almost guaranteed to see the Northern Lights if you stay for just 4 days. There are hostels and Airbnb options here as well.
Our top Northern Lights Experiences and suggested itineraries is coming soon.
- Choose accommodation with a kitchen – Eating out in Nordic countries can cost a fortune, so cook your meals instead. Frozen food, pasta and ready to eat meals are not only cheap but also quick to prepare. Shop from supermarkets and stay in Airbnbs or hostels with cooking facilities. Eating out in restaurants can cost you around £30 per meal taking your weekly food expenses to £420. Supermarket shopping, on the other hand, will cost you a fraction of this amount.
- Buy discount train tickets – Trains in Norway are expensive hence we recommend booking your tickets months in advance. Norwegian railways offer special fare advance tickets known as Minipris that costs around 249 to 300 NOK (£22) for the entire route. You can do really long rail journeys at a fraction of the cost by booking them directly from vy.no up to 2 months in advance. They sell out quickly so the earlier you book, the more options you have. This certainly helped us travel extensively while simultaneously keeping our expenses low.
- Using public transport – Taking buses is another way to save some moolah. They run even in the most remote areas of Scandinavia, albeit only once or twice a day. Weekends are usually worse so check the time table beforehand to be sure.
Using public transport + cooking your own meals is a sure shot way to save money in Scandinavia.
- Take a Hurtigruten Cruise – The Hurtigruten Cruise is not only fun but also a great budget option. They sail all along the Norwegian coast through spectacular fjords, scenic towns and remote archipelagos right into the High Arctic. A 7-day cruise (full board) costs around €800 per person. For Norwegian standards, this is undeniably a steal. You can use it to travel between ports for a few days and needn’t do the entire trip. We once did a 21-hour journey as foot passengers (without a cabin) between Nesna and Lofoten in order to save money, certainly a crazy experience and well worth it.
How to photograph the Northern Lights?
Firstly, we aren’t professional photographers. Secondly, we didn’t own any fancy equipment during our northern lights trips. You’d be surprised to hear that we used our 10-year-old entry-level DSLR for all the pics you’ve seen on this post. Just the kit lens, nothing else. If we can do it, so can you. Here’s how you can take some decent pictures of the Auroras:
- You don’t need an expensive camera though you would need a camera with manual mode functionality.
- A good quality tripod is a must as it’s generally dark, cold and windy. We’ve had our tripod blow away a couple of times. Yikes! Not to mention, our lens almost broke once. So, be careful things can get rough.
- Set your camera focus to infinity to ensure your pictures are sharp at the far horizon you’re trying to capture. In case you don’t have the infinity ∞ symbol on your lens, select manual mode and focus on the farthest point like a distant house or the moon. Finally, mark your focus at that position.
- Make sure the flash is off.
- Set the aperture as wide as possible. The smaller the f-number the more light the camera lets in. We set it to f3.5 as that was as small as it got on ours.
- Select an ISO of 800 or higher. The higher the ISO, the poorer the quality.
- Shutter speed – You need to set this between 5-30 seconds depending on the speed of the Aurora. If they are bright and moving fast, 5-10 seconds are more than enough. In case, they are dim, you should set your camera to 20 seconds or even longer.
Knowing basic night photography techniques is more important to capture the Aurora than fancy equipment.
- Get a remote shutter release – Stability is the key for night shots. In fact, even pressing the shutter to click a picture can shake it. Therefore it’s worth investing in a remote shutter since it allows you to take pictures without touching the camera. It’s great for time-lapses as well as taking photos of yourself. If you don’t have one, use your camera’s self-timer to avoid blurry pictures.
Capturing pictures of Auroras sure make a great memory but remember to enjoy the experience as no picture can replicate the joy of watching myriad colours dancing across the sky.
Our Arctic odyssey has truly been a trip of a lifetime! Moreover there’s nothing that equals the exhilaration and awe of standing under the Artic sky set ablaze by the Northern Lights. Hope this guide helps you plan your northern lights sojourn. So are you ready to embark on this magical journey?