How to see the Northern Lights.
How to see the Northern Lights or perhaps more accurately how to greatly increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights! Of course, being an intermittent natural phenomenon you can never guarantee to see the Northern Lights but you can tip the odds in your favour by doing everything you possibly can! It’s the difference between standing in a valley during a thunderstorm or standing on the top of a hill in a thunderstorm in a suit of armour. You massively increase your chances of being struck by lightning in the armour!
I’ve split it into sections below so you can either read the whole thing or just click on the bit you need.
Sweden, Norway, Greenland, Iceland and Finland were the most likely candidates. However, it also needed to be somewhere that’s easy to get to. Iceland was ruled out even though it’s perfectly possible to see the Northern lights from there, I wanted to get as far north as I could.
Greenland was ruled out due to being just a bit too far away and not having great flight coverage. Sweden and Finland were contenders but as I say I want to get as far north as I could. I’ve been to Stockholm in Sweden but didn’t see any. Norway, however, curls around the top of Sweden and Finland. So, Norway it is. And just how far North could we get in Norway? Tromso seemed to be as far north as we could reasonably get! It’s the gateway to the Arctic.
Having decided on the location, how to get there! It sort of made sense to fly Norwegian Air. Well, when in Rome etc! My local airport is London Gatwick and the flights go from Gatwick to Tromso via Oslo most of the time. Total travel time is 2 hours London to Oslo and 2 hours from Oslo to Tromso. And as longtime readers know, I’m not a great flyer but have overcome my fear of flying. It might seem odd to be a travel blogger who doesn’t like flying but who said life has to make sense! My love of exploring is greater! This time I went through Expedia for the flights as I had been awarded $500 for a scholarship!
If you haven’t come across Trover before, it’s a sort of social network where members share tips, inspiration and some great photos! And, even if you are not into photography. It might show you some breathtaking vistas that could possibly be from your next holiday destination!
There are so many tour operators to choose from, so it is a bit of a pin the tail on the donkey kinda thing! However, I’m happy to report that the guys we went with were good and knew their stuff! We used Viator, a TripAdvisor company. The reasons being, I trust TripAdvisor reviews and Viator is also on Topcashback, a UK company that gives you money back. I got back £26 on the tour we booked, a saving not to be sniffed at! Click on this link to sign up at Topcashback or here to read my Topcashback review.
A good tour operator will chase the lights, look for holes in the clouds and do their absolute best to find the lights in a picturesque setting. The company we used were called Arctic Explorers.
Also, the great thing about this particular company is that they supplied thermal suits and boots to wear so you didn’t get too cold. The night we were out, it was minus 13°C! And I found that plenty cold enough! In addition, the guide emailed the day after the trip with exact locations of where we had been and some photos he had taken that night. A very good service!
However, they are not cheap. Indeed, no tour is cheap with Norwegian prices! But, we thought they offered the best facilities and experience for the money.
Once again TripAdvisor reviews played a part of hotel choice, but the location was the biggest part! The Sydspissen Hotel was great, read the reviews on TripAdvisor, I couldn’t fault it!
Click for my full review of the Sydspissen Hotel. The staff were super helpful and went above and beyond with help when Norwegian airlines lost my luggage! A continental breakfast is also included in the price and the sea and aurora views from the hotel are priceless.
This was taken from the bedroom window in the Hotel! – How to see the Northern Lights
The day after our tour we were also treated to a show of the aurora out of the hotel window! The above picture was taken inside our hotel room through the glass! If we had chosen a hotel in the centre of town we may not have seen the lights on the second night!
Obviously, it’s a winter activity as you need hours of darkness to see the lights. Also, see if you can book during a new moon so it’s not too bright in the sky. With a very bright moon, it can wash some of the Auroras colours out and turn the snowscape into almost day!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a choice with our times so it was a full moon and did make the snow very bright! In fact, it was the brightest moon 2019 will offer. So if you have the luxury of picking your times, do.
The Northern Lights are caused by the solar wind hitting the magnetosphere. For the full explanation in a non-technical form see here. Of course, there are some very good websites to find out what’s going on with the Northern lights. The screenshot below is from https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast. Also, try Spaceweather.com. It’s a website that gives good information about the sun and earth and forecasts of the possibility of Northern Lights action.
And, as usual, these days, there is an app for that! The link to the Play Store takes you to the app. The app has a few adverts but the price is right, free! There are a few screenshots from the app, as can be seen below.
The basics are;
- Camera set to Manual or Aperture Priority
- Wide Angle Lens
- Maximum Aperture – F3.5 or as low as you can go
- Focus to Infinity – that ∞ symbol
- High ISO – Start at ISO 1600
- Set shutter speed to 20 seconds
- Use a Tripod
- Take photos with a remote release or self-timer to avoid camera shake
However, vary your settings wildly! If the aurora is moving fast lower your shutter speed. Click for my full How to photograph the Northern Lights guide. It’s got lots of hints and tips to help you take some good photos of the aurora.
How to see the Northern Lights – Conclusions
Because it’s a natural phenomenon, there will always be an element of chance in seeing the Northern Lights. But, the single biggest thing you can do to increase your chances is to go on an organised tour! Those guys watch the weather, the aurora apps and will chase the aurora. Indeed, that will give you the best chance of seeing them.
Also, having a hotel out of town, away from the lights was a good plan. We got a second show for free!
More from my Tromso Adventures
Disclaimer: In short, some of the links on this site are affiliate links. These means that if you click on the link and buy the item, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Indeed, the money helps go towards the upkeep of the site – so it’s a win-win for both of us! Any videos used on this site if not my own, are, of course, used within Youtube’s sharing guidelines.