Enigmatic and ethereal, magical and mysterious: the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, may be many things, but beyond all else they can be mighty elusive. Believed by native populations of the past to be anything from dancing human spirits, in the case of Yukon Eskimos, to a mischevious arctic fox, by the Finnish, these lights have a significant folkloric history going back generations. If you’re looking to see these evasive beauties this winter, there’s a whole host of information which might help you in your hunt, from the best spots to what gear you should bring along for the ride.
What are the Northern Lights, and why do they happen?
Though they may look like the product of Norse gods, the Northern Lights actually have an entirely scientific explanation (though scientists still struggle to predict when they will and won’t appear, unfortunately). When charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere speed towards the earth and collide with gaseous particles in our atmosphere, these majestic lights come to fruition. The emerald green ribbons most wannabe lights-hunters will spot are thanks to low-altitude oxygen particles, while rarer all-red auroras come from high-altitude oxygen, and blue or purplish auroras are the result of collisions with Nitrogen.
Where should you go?
Because they centre around the magnetic poles, the Northern (and Southern) Lights are most easily spotted in parts of the Northern (and Southern) Hemispheres closest to said poles. Unless you’re a research scientist in the Antarctic or have a boat to take you into the depths of the South Pacific, the Northern Hemisphere offers you a significantly better chance of spotting them. The best places you can find within easy reach of the UK are undoubtedly Iceland, Lapland and Norway, though the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Yukon, Greenland and Alaska are all great picks if you want to spread your wings. You might get lucky in northern Scotland, or even the Peak District if the universe is really on your side, but you’ll need exceptionally good conditions.
Besides geographic location, the most important factor for Borealis-spotting, as with any attempt to hunt out objects of the sky, is light pollution: the less of it, the better. At a minimum, you want to be five miles away from the nearest town, much further if at all possible. The further from the light you are the more vibrant the sky’s dancing kaleidoscope of colour will be. Be sure to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and try not to look at your phone for at least 20 minutes, to allow your eyes to see the incredible colours as brightly as possible.
When is the best time to see them?
The best time of the year to witness the Northern Lights, especially in northern Europe, is undoubtedly in winter (let’s just say the midnight sun isn’t particularly helpful) because countries like Iceland, Finland, Norway and Greenland get very little, if any, daylight in the winter months. Though this darkness may have you feeling strange, it’ll improve your chances of spotting the lights tenfold. The weather conditions in your chosen location also play an important part in the hunt; you’re gonna want clear skies, low wind and no rain for your best chance of seeing the aurora.
For even better luck, clear your schedule and head out spotting several nights in a row – this way, weather becomes less of a factor, and you’ll be much more likely to get lucky. While you can head out on your own to try and find them, getting an expert involved is always a good idea. You’ll find dedicated tours in most Scandinavian countries.
Why should you choose an organised tour?
Though it is possible in some corners of the world to spot the Northern Lights from your hotel (or possibly even from your bed, if you opt for a glass-roofed igloo stay), thanks to Northern Lights wake-up services, your absolute best bet for seeing the lights is to head out on a dedicated tour. Not only will you have an expert guide who knows what to look for (and where to look for it), but you’ll likely be on the move, meaning you can chase down those elusive lights. It’ll make the experience more atmospheric and also increase your chances of spotting the lights for longer since where they go, you can go.
Your options range from specially tricked-out jeeps to horseback, husky sled or even snowmobile, so not only will you (hopefully) be seeing the bucket-list auroras, you’ll have an adventure while you do it. Another silver lining to this is that most companies will offer a second tour the following evening if you fail to spot the lights, so you’ll have two attempts for the price of one.
How should you prepare?
Even if you neglect to take everything else, there are two absolute necessities on a Northern Lights hunt: a coat and a camera. If you’re heading out in the best months, i.e., the depths of Scandinavian winter, you’re gonna need some serious layers to make this a completely enjoyable experience. It’s likely you’ll have to do your fair share of waiting around – the lights are nothing if not unpredictable – so warm clothes are an absolute must.
In Iceland, Finland and Norway you’re unlikely to get night-time temperatures above zero in winter, and it’s more likely they’ll be in the region of -5 to -15 degrees celsius, so bring your coats, gloves, scarves, hats, thermal undies and maybe even some of those cheeky little hand warmers if you’re really prone to a chill. If you opt for a tour your guide might provide warm drinks, but if not try to bring some along: you’ll be thankful for the warming hot choccy (or hot toddy) when you’ve been outside for several hours.
Finally, whether you’re a professional photographer or just want some snaps to show your mum when you get home, a camera is a necessity. For the best photos, bring a tripod and a DSLR with long exposure and night mode, or use your phone to create a magical, sky-dancing timelapse.