Everything you need to know to see the northern lights
If you’ve been lucky enough to see the amazing natural fireworks known as the northern lights then you know what an awe-inspiring experience it is. If you haven’t had the pleasure, it should definitely be on your bucket list.
Most often seen north of the arctic circle, the northern lights are the result of collisions between electrically-charged particles from the sun and gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere.
Known as auroras and named after the Greek goddess of dawn, Aurora, these mysterious, magical dancing lights in the sky have long-inspired myths and legends worldwide, everything from signalling spirits to warning of war and plagues.
Read on to learn the answer to the most frequently asked questions about seeing the magical light show.
Where can I see the northern lights?
The closer you get to the Arctic Circle, the better your chances of seeing the northern lights. These locations include the northern parts of Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Alaska and Canada.
How can I best see the lights?
Just because you’re in the north doesn’t mean you’ll see northern lights. However, if you’re visiting around the time of a new moon and you’re out away from city lights at night and in an area with clear, cloudless skies, your chances do increase.
What is the best time to see the northern lights?
While the northern lights don’t appear on a schedule, people are most likely to see auroras between December and March in many Arctic regions.
In some areas like northern Norway, the season lasts from September until April. This is due to the longer hours of darkness in the wintertime, along with cold weather and clear skies.
Do I need special gear to see the northern lights?
While you don’t need any professional or specialty equipment to view this natural phenomenon, it is important to prepare for the elements, since the lights are best seen late at night, in the winter and in remote areas.
The most important consideration is your clothing. You should expect cool temperatures dipping below zero degrees Celsius so dressing in warm layers is a smart choice.
Other items to wear include thermal socks, comfortable shoes or boots, winter jacket, hat, gloves and scarf.
Additional items to consider bringing on your northern lights excursion:
- Memory card
- Extra batteries
How long should I plan a trip to see the lights?
Locals in the aurora hot spots are used to chasing the northern lights and many tourist companies have tailored tours to help visitors see these spectacular attractions.
However, the aurora borealis are unpredictable so it’s best to try and stay as long as possible in the north to account for the light’s fickle nature, as well as for unexpected winter weather. Aim for at least four days, although a week or more is better.
On top of only being visible during dark hours, the sky needs to be clear without clouds and solar winds present for the northern lights to put on a show.
When active, the lights can be visible for around 30 minutes at a time, every couple of hours. There are many complimentary activities available to make chasing the northern lights even more enjoyable like dog sledding, reindeer safaris or guided aurora tours. In some regions there are even glass igloos for spectacular indoor sky views.
When trip planning, also make sure to factor in the time it will take to travel to the area. While there are many flights up to northern cities, the further north you go the less available options there are.
How to photograph the northern lights
Here are a few suggested settings as a starting point:
Shutter speed: 10-20 seconds
White balance: 3,000 Kelvin