Planning a Northern Lights Trip? 5 Things You Need to Know.


The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that has been inspiring scientists, astrologers, photographers and travellers for many years.  It is becoming one of the most popular winter holiday choices for people who are buying a winter jacket and heading north to experience the lights for themselves.

But as you plan your Northern lights trip and before you get on the plane, there are five things you need to know to maximise your holiday, make sure your money is well spent and to avoid disappointment.

1.    Photos Can Be Deceiving

Many people arrive in the Arctic region in search of the Northern Lights, having seen inspirational photographs of vibrant colours dancing strongly across the sky.  Some of them expect to drive out to a dark location, look up at the sky and immediately see the same scenes with their naked eye.

This is not often the case.  Not only do you need the right combination of conditions – clear sky, strong solar activity, lack of light pollution and a picturesque location – the camera often captures more detail than the naked eye.

And this can sometimes feel underwhelming, although no one will admit it!  After all, it’s an incredibly fortunate moment to see the lights at all.


(This was an example of a photograph reflecting what my naked eye was seeing in the sky, with beautiful clear skies and an intensive Aurora display, peaking at a KP Index of 5)

Manage your expectations to avoid disappointment.  You may be one of the lucky ones who see a scene that resembles one of those fantastic photographs.  But you may not.  In fact…

2.    You May Not See Them At All

As the Northern Lights are a natural event, sightings are not guaranteed.  But knowing this makes it all the more incredible and rewarding when you do see them.

There are a number of ingredients to a great Aurora sighting, and they need to be mixed correctly to get the desired result.  But the reality is, most of these ingredients are completely out of your control.  That’s why the next point is important when planning a northern lights adventure…


Northern Lights_Kellie Netherwood-11


3.    What Else Is There to Do?

So if there is a chance you may not see the Northern Lights at all, how do you avoid going home disappointed and feeling like you’ve wasted your money?

Make sure there are other things to see and do whilst you are there.  And make sure these are things that suit your travel style.  If you want someone else to organise your day for you, choose a packaged holiday or tour that includes organised activities such as dog sledding, sight seeing drives around the location or visits to local galleries or museums.

If you prefer organising your own fun, make sure you’ve researched the options in the area, keeping in mind some things may not be possible during the winter months or the short daylight hours may limit your options.

Northern Lights_Kellie Netherwood-10

4.    The Weather can be Cold and Changeable.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”.  There is nothing worse than an incredible travel experience being ruined by feeling cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Arctic weather can be cold and extreme and the wind can be biting.  It can also be surprisingly mild.  In other words, Arctic weather is unpredictable and changeable.  You will be spending time both indoors and out and whilst outside may be hiking, photographing or standing still.  So how do you dress accordingly?

Layers, layers, layers.

A combination of non-bulky layers, including a thermal base, fleece mid-layer and a decent waterproof jacket is ideal.  As are waterproof boots and warm socks, gloves, a warm hat that covers your ears and a neck and/or face warmer.   Photographers will benefit from thin glove liners, or gloves with removable thumb and forefinger flaps to allow you to adjust the settings on your camera as required.

Northern Lights_Jokulsarlon Lagoon_Iceland_Kellie Netherwood-11

5.    How to Photograph The Northern Lights

People go to see the Northern Lights for different reasons.  Some simply want to soak up the experience of seeing them with their own eyes, some want to go home with a collection of great photographs as their souvenirs, whilst others (like me) want to soak up the act of photographing the lights in addition to seeing them.

If you want to return home with a great Northern Lights photograph, do some research into what equipment you need and how to photograph them before you go.  Northern Lights sightings can be brief and sporadic.  You may not have time to learn how to use your camera or work out how to set it up for a shot whilst you are standing under the lights.

Check out my post What Camera Do I Need to Photograph the Northern Lights and Photographing the Northern Lights: A Step-By-Step Guide for more information.

Northern Lights_Kellie Netherwood-9


So the reality is that seeing the Northern Lights with your own eyes may not resemble the amazing photographs you’ve seen in travel brochures and on the Internet.  You may not see them at all and if you do, you may be so cold you won’t enjoy the experience.  And photographing them with your iPhone is not going to cut it.

So is it really worth the time and money to go on a Northern Lights holiday?

If you keep the above realities in mind and do the right planning before you go, it is absolutely worth it!  The combination of a local expert, patience and some luck can reward you with a scene that resembles those photographs in the travel brochure.  And if luck is not on your side, choosing the right location can still provide you with an overall rewarding experience and memorable holiday.

Set your expectations, plan accordingly and enjoy the experience!



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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


  1. Hey Kirsty, great to hear from you twice today!! Good luck with your Iceland trip, it’s one of my favourite locations in the world! It’s definitely not too late in the season to see the lights, they are usually visible up until March. But yes, you are right, there are so many other factors that can work against you. But from all reports, it’s been a great winter for sightings, so fingers crossed! I hope to have my photography posts up this week or next, so should be in time for your trip.

  2. Great post! Its important to be realistic. I would have thought I’d be walking into a green light show!

    • I hope if you ever go to see them, you do walk into a green light show!! Actually, I was incredibly lucky, seeing them on all three nights I was there, even though was night was very faint and another very shot. But the one in the middle – wow, incredible. But it was everything else I did in addition to seeing the lights that made it a really great holiday!

  3. Perfect timing for this post – we’re heading to the Arctic soon and hoping to capture some northern lights. Wish us luck!

    • Good luck! There have been some great sightings this winter, so fingers crossed you are in luck. I’ll be posted a ‘step-by-step’ on how to photograph the lights today/tomorrow so keep an eye out, it may be helpful

      Have a great time!

  4. Great post! I’ll keep that in mind for our upcoming Nordic Trips (Norway this year) 🙂

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