Chasing the Northern lights!
Ah the northern lights... the elusive, magical lights in the sky. The first time I ever came across the northern lights was in that Disney movie, brother bear in that scene where the spirits are dancing in the sky. Of course at the time, being 12 years old and completely unwordly I had no idea what it was. Years later and after i'd moved to the other side of the world I started hearing about and seeing advertisements for the northern lights, i looked it up and as soon as I saw a picture of them it rocketed to the top of my 'to see' list. A few people have asked me if it's worth planning a trip to see the lights, their reason for hesitation being that you're not guaranteed to see them. Like a lady of the night they come and go, quietly, swiftly, unassuming... and almost like a dream you wonder if they were ever there at all. I of course had the very same worry when i was booking my own trip, but i took the risk and boy did it pay off! so my answer to that question is yes, it is worth it. Yes you're gambling with the fact that you may not see them but the northern tip of the globe is beautiful regardless. I went to Iceland to chase the lights and I suggest doing the same, because it's an incredibly beautiful island with so much more than just the northern lights to offer; Iceland, your must read guide! so my advice is to plan a trip not to see the northern lights but to visit Iceland and if you do so happen to see the lights while you're there in the land of fire and ice, consider it as a bonus. But of course there are things you can do to increase your chances of seeing the lights in all their fantastic, jaw dropping beauty... so here they are;
My top tips to give you the best chance of seeing the northern lights;
1. The best time of year to see the lights;
The best time of year to see the Northern lights is when it is very dark and most likely to be clear skies. March and early April are a good bet, as are late September and October. We went in early April and out of the 8 days we were there we only had one that was good conditions for the lights, and it was on that one night - our very last night in Iceland! that we saw them. The rest of the time that we were there, there had been too much cloud cover. The winter months will be nice and dark, but cloudy a lot of the time and in summer it will be too light. You can never predict the weather but if you go at the right time of year, the odds will be in your favour.
2. Hire a car or go on a tour?;
We hired a car and sought the lights out ourselves, I highly recommend doing it that way - bearing in mind that my experience was in Iceland so these tips will be of most use to you there. We hired a car through a company called 'Geysir' https://www.geysir.is/#/home they were excellent, we had no troubles or delays hiring the car at all. If you don’t feel comfortable driving in unfamiliar territory, in the dark, and also on roads that are likely to be a little snowy/icy then go on a tour. If you’re going to do that though I suggest a small group tour with only a couple of others in a minibus with a smaller company such as ‘Gateway to Iceland’ http://www.gatewaytoiceland.is/northern-lights rather than a 52 seater with 50 other people. I’ve heard that the bigger buses which are operated by the major tour companies are impersonal and they don't put in as much effort. The big buses will all go to the exact same spot which doesn’t make for a very magical experience whereas smaller companies such as Gateway to Iceland will put in a huge amount of effort to make sure that you not only see the lights, but that you also get the best possible experience.
3. Track the weather and solar activity forecasts.
You can do this at; http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/is this is the website that the tour companies use to track the aurora activity and to establish where the clearest skies will be, they don't have access to some secret info! So if you check that site you won’t have any less knowledge than they do about the best spot to see the lights.
See above, where you see white is where the skies will be clearest, the darker green it gets the cloudier it will be. And to the right of that you can see a prediction of the strength of the lights for each day, 0 being the weakest and 9 being the most vivid.
It’s so worth doing it yourself, my partner and I had the most romantic and memorable night of our entire relationship the night that we saw the northern lights 🙂 it was easy too because Iceland is so simple to navigate! we checked the forecast everyday and it was only on our very last night that the aurora activity jumped up to high, we planned our route to get to the spot where the forecast predicted the clearest skies and as soon as it was dark, off we went. We drove an hour outside of Reykjavik, we even spotted a random Arctic fox along the way! we thought for sure that must be some sort of good omen right? and sure enough not long after spotting the little guy the lights starting appearing in the sky. We were beside ourselves, it was such an exciting moment! They grew stronger and got more vivid with each minute until they were that incredible bright green colour that you see in the pictures, it was so surreal. We parked ourselves on top of a hill in a perfect isolated spot with an uninterrupted horizon and with our thermos in hand we watched the lights dance over our heads for an hour. They were magnificent and put on an incredible show, it left me in complete awe. Even thinking back to it now it feels like it was all just a very realistic dream.
What to take with you;
- Take a thermos with you on your quest for the lights! It was so cold standing out there in the snow in the middle of the night and our thermos of coffee was just the perfect little comfort that we needed - we took disposable coffee cups to drink from.
- Dress warm! i'm talking super warm, layer upon layer of clothing. And make sure that somewhere in all those layers you've got a thermal layer on! you'll need warm socks, warm gloves, a beanie, a scarf, and an enormous fluffy coat. It was SO COLD out there! bearing in mind it's 10:00pm at the earliest before the sky is dark enough (in April it was anyway) to see the lights, so by the time we saw them it was the middle of the night and as you can imagine it was freeeeezing! you can't possibly wear too many clothes.
We only had regular cameras and they didn’t take good pictures of the lights, I suggest not bothering with cameras unless you’ve got a top of the range camera with which you can quickly snap some top shots and then put it to the side. I think alot of people spend the entire time the lights are out taking pictures, trying desperately to get a good shot and then all of a sudden the lights are gone and they've spent the whole time looking at them through a lense rather than taking the time to enjoy it. You musn't get carried away taking photos, this is a once in a lifetime chance for most of us... an experience which you may never have again so don't forget to make the most of it! relish every minute that you get to spend in the company of such a wonderfully rare and breath taking phenomenon. You can always steal photos online that are similar to the lights that you saw – that’s what I did and I’m glad I did it that way rather than spending an hour trying to take a good picture and not actually enjoying the moment.
I hope you guys get lucky! if you follow these tips - especially tracking the forecast for the lights then you're chances will be good.
Over & out.
photos by; cdn images & glosweather