One of the most sought-after travel experiences is to seek out nature’s most spectacular light show, the Aurora Borealis, named in the early 1600s by Galileo after the Roman Goddess of Dawn “Aurora” and the Greek name for the north wind “Boreas”. The vivid colours of green, yellow, red and occasionally purple can dance all night long and are caused when different gases in the atmosphere enter the earth’s magnetic field as solar particles.
Always difficult to predict when and where – and nothing is ever guaranteed – however they are best seen during the winter months near or above the Arctic Circle. Add to your chances by planning your arrival about five days before a New Moon, or better still, close to one of the two equinoxes of the year when there are equal hours of daylight and darkness – and then all you need is a little luck and dark clear skies!
Here is a list of our top places to scan the skies:
THE YUKON & NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, CANADA
BEST TIME: from late August to mid-April
The Yukon gives a front row seat to the Northern Lights sometimes before the first snow has fallen. Be mesmerised by the ribbons of colour as they dance across the sky as you cosy up in a wilderness lodge sipping hot chocolate whilst looking up; dogsled to the remote wilderness and gather around a campfire, then sink into a bubbling outdoor spa. Alternatively head to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories boasting fine, clear winter weather where neon lights colour the sky spanning the horizons – best viewed from a lakeside tepee at the Aurora Village where the odds firm to a 95% chance … if staying for 3 nights!
BEST TIME: from mid-August to late April
There are numerous places across Alaska where you can see the Northern Lights, but the country’s second largest city, Fairbanks, sits in a prime geographical location under the “aurora oval” – a circular shaped zone with frequent aurora activity. Just north of Denali National Park, the area offers a host of additional things to do and see such as ice fishing, dog mushing and ice sculpting, or perhaps schedule a visit to the Aurora Ice Museum, the largest year-round ice environment in the world located at the Chena Hot Springs Resort.
BEST TIME: from late August to late March
Visible approximately 200 nights of the year, there is more chance of catching the lights the further north you head and with a fabulous choice of unique accommodation styles to gaze upwards on a wintry night – even if the sky doesn’t shine, the surroundings will be memorable! Search for the lights through glass roofed igloos located in the remote wilderness whilst snuggled up in your ice-carved bedroom, or step into a reindeer pulled sleigh and chase the lights in the eerie blue polar twilight– the stunning landscapes never disappoints.
BEST TIME: from late September to March
There is more chance of aurora spotting if you arrive in northern Sweden in the middle of winter, when the sun is down around the clock and the sky hardly brightens at all. Travel to Jukkasjärvi to the famous Icehotel, constructed every winter with snow and ice from the Tome river; perhaps head to a Swedish ski resort and put on your snowshoes to plough across the shimmering snow under the neon bands, or just relax at Aurora Spa and enjoy a pine oil sauna whilst being entertained by the sky show through glass windows above.
BEST TIME: from early September to late April
On the southern edge of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 65°N means Iceland is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights during the winter solstice when the nights are long. With Iceland’s dramatic landscape, there are plenty of stunning locations like spending a magical night sleeping under the stars in a transparent glamping bubble! Closer to Reykjavik and just a short drive to hunt down the lights is Thingvellir National Park; or plan a stay in Hella at Hotel Ranga which features an on-site observatory with astronomers in-house.
FAROE ISLANDS, DENMARK
BEST TIME: from November to February
This little-known destination is now on travellers’ radars due to amazing photographs pinned to social media sights of gigantic lakes set atop mountains, jagged cliffs, remarkable waterfalls, quaint villages and lots of beautiful puffins! The “Lake over the Ocean” sits on the edge of a steep cliff and appears to be above the crashing sea below – all an optical illusion. Aurora watching may also be an illusion dependent on weather, but at least the magic of the surrounding landscape will enhance your experience of this rugged archipelago, settled by Norsemen in 800AD.
BEST TIME: from late September to March
Head north of the Arctic Circle during the period called the Polar Night (from around mid-November to mid-January) when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for prime dark conditions to see the illuminated sky. Peak viewing territory is at Tromsø in the middle of the aurora zone when it is best to head out of the city and chase the lights in the Lyngsalpene mountain range; or go offshore to the remote Svalbard archipelago with an additional bonus of seeing polar bears and reindeer.
Jackie recently joined one of the popular Hurtigruten voyages in Norway, following the dramatic coastline sailing through Arctic fjords from Kirkenes to Bergen, an experience so far away from everyday reality and with a sense of adventure that also included hoping to witness the magic of the Northern Lights.
However, Mother Nature does not always turn on the lights or the weather – which unfortunately was the case for Jackie! There were still many highlights and moments of wonder – and what she did learn was tips on how to capture the iconic neon bands that we would like to share with you – so that if you are lucky to experience this natural phenomenon, you too will know exactly what to do!
General Settings for Digital Cameras
ISO: 400, 800 or 1600 (the darker the sky, the higher the ISO needed)
White balance: daylight setting
Shutter Speed (Tv): 10-30” (might not be adjustable on most cameras)
Focus: manual focus (set to infinity)
Self-timer: set to 2” (reduced camera shake)
LCD: low brightness
Additional Settings for Digital SLR Cameras:
Shooting mode: manual (M)
Aperture (AV): lowest possible (depends on your lens)
Lens: wide angle (below 35mm)
UV or Polarising Filter: remove
Additional tips for getting great shots of the Northern Lights
Have your gear ready to go (batteries charged, space available on memory cards, warm weather gear ready, etc.)
Use a tripod or the ship’s railing to stabilise yourself when shooting
Be respectful of other photographers
Be patient – conditions can change. The lights often change their intensity and appearance throughout the night.
After reading our recommendations, why not give us a call as we have a range of tours and accommodation styles to help you tick the Aurora Borealis off that never-ending travel list!