Chasing Aurora - Planning a Northern Lights Trip
The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis are as mysterious as they are beautiful, and it’s this mystery that makes them so alluring. Viewing the Northern Lights sits at the top of many bucket lists, with people from across the world heading north in the winter to catch a glimpse of this natural phenomenon.
Chasing The Lights
In Finland the Northern lights are known as revontulet, (Fox Fire), with folklore describing an arctic fox creating the sparks in the sky by brushing against the snow. Generations of Vikings saw the lights as dancing maidens, while in North America, Inuits believed they are spirit of hunted animals.
The lights are also thought by some to be a bad omen, reportedly appearing above London during the blitz and in the USA the night that Pearl Harbour was bombed.
The lights are in fact caused by charged particles from the sun, sent 140km towards earth by solar storms, eventually crashing against atmospheric gases and creating beautiful colours in the sky, the colour dependant on the type of gas. Green is the most common colour but you can also see shades of red or violet.
When is the best time to see the northern lights
There are certain times of the year when you will stand a better chance of seeing the lights. The best time to get a good view of the lights is in the winter, and although you can see them as early as August, the best times are from December to March when the nights are longer and the night skies clearer. We prefer February when the days are slightly longer, meaning you can add more daylight activites to your trip. Remember, the lights are never guaranteed to appear so you want to be sure you have other things planned so you don’t come home disappointed if you aren't lucky enough to see them. You could try glacier hiking or take a ride on a snowmobile.
You might also want to avoid December when flight prices can be higher as families travel towards Lapland to see Father Christmas. As the lights can be quite faint, they can be washed out by a bright full moon, so try and schedule your trip around the new moon if possible for the best chance of seeing them. You can still see them when the moon is full in the sky, but they may not appear as prominent. Although you can’t be sure when the light will appear, by tracking the weather you can try and poinpoint when the skies might be clearest. There are several site and apps that track the lights to give you an idea of the best time to view them. Try Aurora Service, the go to resource for Aurora chasers.
The best time of day to see the lights is unsurprisingly in the middle of the night midnight to 2am to be precise. A number of hotels in the Aurora hot spots will offer to wake you up if the lights come out so you don’t need to stay up and wait.
Where is the best place to see the northern lights
If you live in North America, you can travel up to Alaska and Canada. Yukon is thought to be the best place for a good view, or stay at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, an international dark sky park right on the Canadian border. If you fancy a trip to Alaska, Fairbanks sits under the ‘Auroral Oval’, a concentration of activity meaning you stand a good chance of seeing the lights.
In Europe you should head to Iceland, Greenland, Finland, Sweden or Norway. Norway is considered to be the centre of northern lights activity, check out Tromsö, Bodø or Narvik. The caveat is although Norway has the most activity, it doesn’t always get the best weather conditions for a really phenomenal display. For the best weather head to Abisko in Sweden. Located between ethe mountains and a lake, you are statistically likely to get lower cloud cover, giving you a better chance of getting a cloudless view of the sky. Wherever you go, you need to find somewhere with little light pollution and a good clear view of the sky.
For something a little different, you can also find Northern Lights cruises from a number of cruise lines including P&O, Fred Olsen and Princess. For a real expedition experience, try one of Hurtigruten’s dedicated northern lights cruises. This expedition cruise line has cruises designed specifically with the lights in mind so will give you the best chance of seeing something spectacular. You could also opt for an arctic expedition and combine chasing the lights with Igloo building and dog sledding. Check our Quark Expeditions for a variety of tours. . Another option is to try and view them from the sky. Choose a flight that flies overnight close to the arctic circle to get a great view. You can also head out to Russia and Norway by train to get a view from the comfort of your train seat, take a look at Vacations By Rail.
You’ll want to take a good camera. A good quality digital SLR camera will give you the best results, and you’ll also want a tripod to keep the camera steady and get a good long exposure shot. Batteries run down faster in colder temperatures so make sure you have a spare, and make sure you take a flashlight, you’ll be out in the dark so you’ll need to see what you’re doing. Experiment with the length of the exposure, up to 30 seconds will give you a great shot.
Make sure you pack for the weather. You’ll be spending a lot of time outside, and there won’t be clothes shops that you can pop to out in the wilderness, so make sure you prepare. As well as a good coat and thermal layers, you will also want something warm to put on your head and often overlooked, you’ll need good warm footwear.
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