Planning a Northern Lights Travel Adventure: Common FAQs

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The Northern Lights have been calling out to travellers, photographers, scientists and astrologers for centuries.  They have been mystified and romanticised by indigenous folklore, they ignite and excite scientific minds, and they captivate the imagination of all who stand beneath them.

Wanting to experience the Northern Lights drives many winter travel itineraries and more and more tourists are braving the cold weather and short days to stand beneath one of the world’s most mesmerising natural phenomenon.

To increase your chances of seeing the unpredictable and sporadic Aurora and to maximise your overall experience, it helps to do an element of research and planning before you go.

 

Northern Lights: Answers to common FAQs.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a natural light display in the sky caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.

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What is the difference between the Northern Lights and the Aurora Borealis?

Absolutely nothing.  Northern Lights are the more commonly used name for the Scientific term Aurora Borealis (named after the Roman Goddess of dawn).

How can I guarantee seeing the Northern Lights?

You can’t.  The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and that means Mother Nature makes the rules and she can be moody and unpredictable!  A number of conditions, most of which are out of your control, need to combine perfectly for the lights to be visible to the naked eye.  These include a clear and dark sky, active and strong solar activity and a lack of light pollution.  Be wary of any tour operator or local guide who gives you a 100% guarantee of seeing the Aurora – no one can make that promise.  But there are ways to increase the possibility of a sighting so keep reading…

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Does the Aurora Forecast help with travel planning?

The Geophysical Institute has a great website with 28-day forecasts, short-term hourly updates and Aurora alerts.  But the forecast can be changeable and unpredictable and remember – it’s a combination of factors that increase the possibility of seeing the Aurora with your own eyes.  On a recent trip in the Lofoten Islands, the Aurora forecast was growing stronger by the minute but a blanket of cloud covered the sky and removed any possibility of seeing the lights.

Can I see the Northern Lights in the Southern Hemisphere?

Yes – but they are called the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis).  Whilst the sightings are reportedly just as impressive, they are more difficult to see.  This is because there is less inhabitable land towards the southern pole compared to the north.  Sightings are possible in southern parts of New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, and are frequent in Antarctica.  But unless you are wintering on a scientific base, you can cross an Aurora sighting in Antarctica off your list! 

What is the best place to see the Northern Lights?

The answer to this question is an unpredictable as the Northern Lights themselves.  But the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights increases in locations where the Aurora is most frequent.  This is generally between 66° and 69° and includes Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Southern Greenland, Northern Siberia, Alaska and Northern Canada.

The best place to see the Northern Lights within these countries is away from the light pollution of cities and towns.

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Can I see the Northern Lights in a city or town?

Whilst it’s not the best place to see the Aurora, if the sky is cloud-free and the Aurora activity is strong enough, it’s possible to see them in a city or town.  But the urban lights may pollute the sky with an orange tinge, distorting the magical display of the Aurora. 

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What is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights?

Although the Northern Lights are active all year round, they are only visible in dark skies.  This makes late August to early April the best time of year to try and see the lights, when days are short and nights are long.  A common myth is that the lights are more visible in colder weather.  The reality is that cold weather is more likely to produce clearer skies and this is what you need to see the Aurora.

The Aurora is often more active around the equinoxes in September and March and for many people, these are popular months to travel north.  The longer days and autumn/spring weather create more opportunities for outdoor activities than the winter months.  The skies tend to be clearer and if you are unlucky and miss a Northern Lights sighting, you still have the opportunity to enjoy a range of other activities in the Arctic region.

But if you don’t mind the cold, don’t discount November-February.  Longer nights create more hours to hunt for the Aurora, and experiencing the polar nights is an experience in itself.  Locations with short days produce magical blue light, a treat for landscape photographers.  There is also more likely to be snow on the ground during these months, which creates a spectacular and atmospheric backdrop to the lights in the sky.

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What is the best time of night to see the Northern Lights?

The most common time of night to see the Northern Lights tends to be around midnight when the skies are at their darkest, but this is not a hard and fast rule.  On my recent trip to the Lofoten Islands we saw them as early at 6pm.

Can I see the Northern Lights in summer?

The Northern Lights are active when the sun sends electrons and protons towards earth in the form of a solar wind.  And this can happen at any time during the year.  But the polar days that the Arctic regions enjoy in the summer months prevent the visibility of the Northern Lights.

What colour are the northern lights?

Green is the most common Northern Lights colour, although sightings have been recorded in pink, red, blue and violet.

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How long does a sighting last?

A sighting can last a few minutes or a few hours and the strength, form and movement of the Aurora rarely stays constant.

Should I avoid travelling to the Northern Lights during a full moon?

This common advice is due to the lights being easier to see in a dark sky.  But a full moon does not prevent a sighting and can light up foregrounds to create a spectacular scene for photographers.

Can I photograph the Northern Lights with a camera phone or compact digital?

Technically yes, but it’s challenging, your options are limited and you are more than likely going to be disappointed with the results.  So in other words – no!  For  photography equipment advice, check out this post.

Do I need a tripod to photograph the Northern Lights?

A strong, sturdy tripod is essential if you want to take a great Northern Lights photograph.  This is because Aurora photos require a long exposure time (on average between 10 and 30 seconds) and a hand-held shot at this exposure will create too much camera shake.  And camera shake equals blurry photos.

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How do I photograph the Northern Lights?

If you have a tripod and a camera that allows you to manually focus and adjust the ISO, aperture and shutter speed, then you can photograph the Northern Lights.  Check out this Step-By-Step Guide for more information.

Should I Join an organised tour or travel independently?

There are pros and cons to both options and the answer depends on the type of traveller you are, the amount of time you have available and your budget.  Organised tours tend to be expensive, although it’s possible to reduce the cost by arranging your own flights and accommodation and hire a local guide for an evening.  But hunting for the lights with local experts increases the likelihood of finding a dark and picturesque location.

Travelling independently can be cheaper and gives you more flexibility.  But if you prefer to travel independently, be sure to research the area before you go, to maximise the time you have available for seeing the lights instead of searching for suitable areas.  Also make sure you research the conditions of the road and don’t take chances if don’t have experience driving on ice and snow.

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So the Northern Lights are unpredictable and changeable.  There is nothing you can do to guarantee a sighting.  So why spend the time and money to try?  Because being unpredictable and changeable makes hunting for the Aurora an exciting, adventurous and ultimately rewarding experience.  Those who are lucky enough to see them are treated to one of the greatest displays the natural world has to offer.  And who can resist that?

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Hi Kellie I’ve just revisited your website for the first time in years! What an absolute treat! My goodness, you have certainly got around! And you seem to be doing so very well and winning awards too – very well done! My dear husband is encouraging me to go hunting for the Lights again. I did a short trip to Iceland early in 2013 but didn’t see them. Sal sounds keen to join me 🙂. You blog is very helpful. I have one question; Which did you enjoy the most; Greenland, Norway or Sweden?

    • Lovely to hear from you Jane. But what a tough question! As an overall trip, I loved Greenland, it was one the best locations I’ve ever been. But if you are specifically looking for a northern lights trip, I think Abisko in Sweden is up there, as the weather/climatic conditions make clear skies a higher probability than other areas in the region. It really depends on the length of time and whether your trip is mainly to see the Northern Lights or whether it’s to see a particular area where seeing the lights would be an added bonus.

      • Thanks so much Kellie. Sal would only be able to be away for a week or so and as The Lights are the main objective, Sweden sounds like the best option. I saw your tour was specifically for photographers – which may well be Sal’s choice! – but it is pretty pricey isn’t. Any suggestions as to how we could do it slightly cheaper? You’ve become my travel agent of choice! Greenland looks amazing….maybe I’ll go there next?!

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