Chasing the Northern lights

The Polar lights are one of the oldest secrets of nature and probably on almost every travel bucket list. This guide gives you all information about the Northern lights you need. Also, I will share my experience with you and answer the question if a Northern light tour is worth its money.

Northern Lights in Tromso

Seeing the Northern Lights was forever on my travel bucket list. In March 2022, I finally had enough money saved to book a flight to Tromsø, one of the most Northern cities in Norway. Tromsø is basically on every top 10 list for the best places to see the Northern lights in the world.

💡 Information about the Northern Lights
The Northern lights are part of different legends, myths, and sayings. In the past, people interpreted them as signs of god or deceased persons. Mostly they were a bad prediction and therefore were totally different seen than today.
The polar lights are a natural light in the sky caused by a disturbance in the magnetosphere released by the solar wind. They exist on both poles of the earth. The ones in the North are called Northern lights or aurora borealis. The lights in the South are called Southern lights or aurora australis. The Northern lights are more famous because they are easier to reach since most regions in the North are still inhabited. The lights can have different colours, the most common ones are the green lights. But they can be also red, violet, and blue.

Where can you see the Northern lights?

Usually, you can see the Northern lights from the sixtieth degree of latitude. Rarely do they appear even on a lower degree of latitude till middle Europe. This can happen if there was a really strong solar flare in combination with the right weather conditions (winter and clear nights). But obviously, your chances get higher with travelling more to the North. Besides North Norway (including Svalbard), they can be also seen in Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, the North of Finland, Sweden, and Siberia. The Southern lights are best seen from the Antarctic.

When is the best time to see the Northern lights?

Northern lights are usually best seen from September to March every year (the Southern lights can be seen in the reverse time from March to September). After this time, the days get too long and the sky too bright. During summer the sun does not set, it is called the midnight sun. In winter it is the complete difference. Especially from November till January, the days are dark (almost) all day long. Some days the sun does not rise at all and the whole day is more in the dawn. During these three months, the hours of the sun lie between 0.1 and 3 hours of light. But without light, it is also difficult to explore Norway.
The Northern lights are usually the strongest at the beginning and end of their season, therefore in September and late March.

I was very exciting seeing the Northern lights for the first time.

❗️ 5 Tips for your own travel
1) Bring enough time
First of all, plan enough time to actually see the polar lights. Not only good weather conditions are important but you will also need some luck. We stayed around one week in Tromsø to have several nights the chance to see the magical lights. In one night we were actually lucky enough.
2) Check the weather and the moon calendar
Looking for the weather forecast is a bit of nice but mostly useless advice since most of you probably book the flights way beforehand when the weather forecast is still more of gambling. Nonetheless, you can check the usual weather prediction of the destination in the particular month beforehand. Has one month more rain days than another? How many hours of sunlight do you have per day?
While weather forecast is harder to predict, this does not apply to the moon calendar. You can already check in advance in which moon phase the moon will be during your stay. Since the Northern lights are best visible in a dark sky you should choose new moon for your travels.
3) Install an aurora app
You will find many different aurora apps in the app stores. They usually show you a KP index (as higher all the more Southern you can see them, the maximum value is 9 and also describes the strength of the geomagnetic activity), how cloudy the sky will be (of course here less is more), and a percentage which calculates how good your chances are to see the Northern lights in the next minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. It usually also has an alert to tell you that you could see the lights in the next minutes at your live destination.
For Norway, you can also use this page from the official page of Norway:
4) Be mobile
The Northern lights are like stars best visible if the surroundings are dark. Therefore, you should make sure to be mobile and leave the city and its lights behind. You should choose a wide and flat area. The direct emergence of the Northern Lights usually is very hard to predict. If you rent a vehicle, it will be easier to reach the (mostly isolated) places to have the best view of the Polar lights. 
5) Be prepared
Waiting for Northern lights can be an ordeal. Make sure you are prepared with warm clothes, some hot drinks, and maybe even some food. In case, you want to take photos, make sure to bring the right equipment such as a tripod and spare charged batteries (the camera loses a lot of energy in the cold). Put the camera already in the right settings. Turn off your autofocus, and choose a low exposure time. Sometimes the Northern lights just appear for a few minutes and start fading fast, in that case, you should already be ready.

How do the Northern lights look like?

I once read everyone sees the Northern lights a bit different. I think, it is important to know, that the polar lights are not as strong with the naked eye as in the photos you know. It is way easier to see them on the screen of your digital camera. It was the same for me. I first saw the lights on my camera. But with time they got stronger. To me, the green intensity was less strong in reality than in the photo, but it was still visible as a glamorous shine, which looked like it was dancing over the sky. It was really magical to see them for the first time.  

The first photo of polar lights was taken in 1892 by the German astronomers Martin Brendel and Otto Baschin.

What can you expect from a Northern lights tour?

You will find a lot of different tour offers with a huge price range. Usually, the tour costs around 100 to 150 US$. The cheapest ones are usually large groups with up to 40 people. Take a look that the size of your group is not too big. In my opinion, this offers you a better experience. Choose a small bus with a maximum of 8 to 10 people and a guide who offers you some information about the Polar lights. Most guides will also help you with your (cellphone) camera settings in order to get the best photos. The tours usually also offer some different extras such as snowsuits, tripods, hot chocolate, some cookies, or even a whole meal. And usually, they also offer you their own professional photo material of the night so you can concentrate more on the actual event instead of trying to get the best photo of your camera.

Depending on the weather conditions and chances to see the Northern lights in different areas, the tour can take a different amount of time. The guide I chose told us that he calculates the chances in the different areas for the same day and therefore decides just a few hours before the trip where he actually goes. Sometimes he drives up to 2.5 hours to the borderline of Finland. Therefore, the tour can also take time from 2 to 9 hours, depending on how far the guide has to drive and at which times the Northern lights show themselves.

Northern Lights tour in Tromso, with a bonfire

Is a Northern light tour its money worth?

Altogether, I would recommend booking a tour but it certainly depends on how lucky you are with the weather on site. Sometimes the Northern light can even be seen directly over the city. However, most of the time, your chances will increase if you rent a car and take a look where the chances of seeing the Northern lights is highest that night. Especially if you are on your own and not particularly familiar with the area a tour can help you to release the stress of the previous planning. In addition, you will not need to be afraid of long journeys and tiredness on the returning ride. If it is your first encounter with the Northern lights the professional tour guide will help you to spot them faster. Because this is actually not as easy at first when the lights are only faint.

Most smaller guides are usually connected with each other in order to find the best spots of Northern lights. I had a really good experience with my guide since he was still totally hooked on the view of the Northern lights and wanted to share his passion as well as this unique experience with us.

A few final booking tips …

If you are thinking about booking a Northern lights tour now, here is a little tip for you: Schedule the tour at the beginning of your vacation. I understand the feeling of saving the best for the end but since you need some luck and good weather conditions putting it at the beginning of your travels will do you a favour. Because if necessary you will be able to postpone your trip. At least in Tromsø, there were so many tours offered that you could easily book one on the same day.
Ensure that your tour guide cancels a tour in case of bad (weather) conditions. Some tours have in their fine-written that they only cancel if it is too dangerous to drive around but not if in general the chance of seeing the lights is low (for example because it is too cloudy). This is especially important because you usually do not get any money back even If you were unlucky and did not see the lights. Some tours offer a second tour at half price if you were unlucky the first time.

❗️ Tip: For a cheap car in Norway
If you decide to chase the Northern lights yourself, in most regions you will be in need of a car to be more flexible and able to leave the city lights behind you. We rented the car from a car-sharing company which was in our case almost 60 % cheaper than the car rental places. We used Book a Wreck which is located at the airport of Tromsø. But you can find them also in other cities.

No matter what you decide, I wish you the best of luck and of course a lot of fun watching the Northern lights.

You have read the blog post Chasing the Northern Lights on My Travel Journal-Blog.

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