How to See the Northern Lights

When you ask people what’s on their travel bucket list, many say they’d like to see the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, a natural “light show” caused by disturbances on the sun pulling on Earth’s magnetic field.

It’s kind of cool that something so many people want to see costs exactly zero dollars, however, getting to a place where you can see them won’t be free for most of us, and even if you get to a location where there is Aurora activity, you still might not be able to see them. Perhaps a big part of the allure of the Aurora is that there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see them.

After trying, and failing, to see the Northern Lights in Iceland in 2018, Kara and I decided that on the next attempt, our trip to Norway this year, we’d do everything possible to maximize our chances – within the constraints of our trip. That’s all you really can do, then hope for the best and a bit of luck. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Location
First off, while it’s not impossible to see the Aurora below the Arctic Circle (people have even spotted them as far south as Michigan), you increase your chances of seeing them if you’re near the Arctic Circle, because there’s more activity up there. This means you should try to get yourself to a latitude of approximately 66°33′ north of the equator, or higher, which includes portions of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States. Once Kara and I booked our trip to Norway this year, I googled: “Can you see the Northern Lights in September in Norway?” which thankfully came back as a “yes.” Then I googled, “Best Places to see the Northern Lights in Norway.” I looked into a few cities that popped up on various blogs, and we picked Tromso, which was two hours north of Oslo by plane and had other interesting things to do in the area. Because you can’t guarantee you’ll see the Northern Lights due to conditions outside your control, you’ll want to pick a place to stay that has interesting things to do and see, so you won’t feel like your trip was a bust if you don’t see the Aurora.

Light in the Sky
When you travel to a location in the Arctic Circle, or anywhere more north or South than you’re accustomed to, it’s a good idea to check on sunset and sunrise times. I do this on most international trips anyway, just to have an idea as to how much “day” we will be working with. There are times during the year when it never gets dark in the Arctic known as the Midnight Sun, which is the enemy of would-be Aurora viewers, as total darkness is optimal to see the Lights. In early September, when we went to Norway, the sun set in Tromso at about 8 p.m., but twilight lingered in the sky until about 10 p.m., when it got completely dark. I am normally asleep by 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, so my internal clock was all messed up by this trip, but it was worth it. You’re going to need to be awake during peak viewing times, which in our case was between 10 p.m. and about 3 a.m., when daylight started to reappear for the upcoming 5:00 a.m.-ish sunrise. You’ll also want to avoid a full moon, a factor that contributed to our big fail in Iceland. You can research daylight and phases of the moon, as well as other helpful information for any given time and  place, on this handy-dandy website: https://www.timeanddate.com. After visiting the site and seeing there was a full moon toward the end of our trip, we decided to head up to the Arctic Circle as early as possible during our nine days in Norway, to make the moon less of a factor.

Location, Take 2
If you do decide to stay in a heavily populated area, you’re going to need to escape any light pollution the city throws off during your peak viewing hours. To do so, you have a couple of options. One is to have a company take you out to a darker location on an Aurora tour. If you take a tour, which we did in Iceland – twice because the tour operator was gracious enough to give us a second chance – you are stuck going out at the predetermined times for the tour. I’m grumpy enough when I’m up past my bedtime, but put me in a bus with a bunch of tourists (I say, like I’m not a tourist) late at night and that just adds to my grump factor. This might be your only option, depending on your trip. But, if you have some flexibility, you can find a short-term rental outside the city, so you’ll be posted up all night in a good viewing spot. For Norway, I searched outside – but not too far outside – Tromso, and landed on an AirBnB glamping dome (glorified tent)  with a heated floor, wood stove and clear panels for Aurora viewing that was a 30 minute drive from the city center. Bonus, it was on a horse farm. Double bonus, we made use of a FIRE TOILET in the host’s nearby vacant tiny house throughout our stay there. The dome ended up being the right choice, because we were successful and saw the Northern Lights!

There’s an App for That
Travel apps can be very useful. Two we used are Norway Lights and My Aurora Forecast & Alerts. Norway Lights was decent and a “nice to have,” but poking around on My Aurora Forecast while we were in Iceland trying to see the Lights was incredibly helpful for me to learn and understand all of the conditions and factors relating to seeing the Northern Lights. If you’re serious about trying to see them, I recommend downloading that app and opening it up before you go. It shows where there’s activity at any given time and place in the world, which was why we knew there was Aurora activity overhead in Iceland where we were in 2018, but we weren’t able to see it due to weather and light conditions. Speaking of which…

What You Can’t Control: The Weather
If this article came with a “womp womp,” sad trombone noise, it would be about the weather. You can plan for everything I’ve discussed so far – location, the moon, dark sky, when and where you go, but you will always ultimately be at the mercy of Mother Nature, unless you’re a lucky slow traveler who can spend a lot of time or even live in an Aurora area. When we got to Tromso, it was very cloudy and rainy, and I wasn’t too optimistic about our chances. With only two nights in the area, our odds weren’t looking good. At least we were staying in a cool location with a glamping tent, fire toilet, our grocery store charcuterie picnic dinner, and fun things in town like a Michelin star restaurant, cable car overlook and Troll Museum. After resigning myself to another fail, I went along with the plan to stay up and try to see them, though the sky was totally full of clouds and seemed to take forever to get fully dark. But the plan worked, and Kara spotted them the first night around 1:00 a.m. It went on for about 20 minutes to a half hour, just the most incredible, otherworldly sight. We jumped up and down like kids and high-fived each other. Bucket list achievement unlocked! It’s a good thing, too, because the second night was even cloudier and rainier, with a nearly zero-percent chance of seeing the lights.

There you have it. Hopefully what we’ve learned will help you plan your Northern Lights adventure.


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