Chasing the Northern Lights: Tips & Advice

So you want to see the Northern Lights, huh? I won’t pretend to be an expert, but here’s what I learned from research, feedback from guides and friends, and personal experience.050

When to go: January to March is ideal. You have long dark nights and since its still winter, plenty of snow activities to keep you amused otherwise. That being said, Aurora Borealis occurs throughout the year- but it’s pretty difficult to see during the summer, especially when you’re far north as the sun doesn’t set for very long (or at all). I chose March because weather should be a little warmer, you get more daylight to play, and reading through message boards and posts from last year, it seems people who went out in March had a lot of success in seeing the lights. The downside to March is that the whales have moved out by then, so no chance as seeing killer whales in Norway.

One thing we didn’t consider was the phase of the moon. We went when the moon was nearly full. Some light chasers love the full moon as it adds a dimension to their photos. But if you have a weak aurora display (which was the case 2 of 4 of the nights we were there) and a full (or nearly full) bright moon, it can be difficult to see any signs of the aurora. That’s not to say you can’t see the aurora with a full moon…but it might hinder your odds. It could be that only your cameras can really pick up on it. The moon could also alter your pictures a bit because the sky is so bright from the moon, when you have a long shutter speed, the sky can end up looking like daytime.DSC_0531

The Chase Logistics: If you’re headed to a popular Northern Lights destination, chances are there are companies or groups that you pay to take you on a Northern Lights chase. The other option is renting a car and going it alone. In general, I don’t sign up for tour bus group outings, but in this case, it was never a question. We were going to hire a group to take us out and chase the lights.

Why? Well, I’ve had several friends go to several different locations to see the Northern Lights and opt to do it on their own…NONE of them had seen the lights on their holidays. That doesn’t bode well. Not to mention, one couple got their car stuck in a snow bank and had to be towed out. Which is something to consider. You don’t know the roads or what the road conditions will be in these remote areas, let alone what the weather will be and how it will impede upon your plans to drive across the country looking for lights.

Depending on the company, exact details and specifics of what you’re paying for differs.

Some things to consider when looking at groups/companies:

  • Size of the vehicle/group
  • Cancellation policy
  • Do they provide you with thermal gear/clothes
  • Do they provide you with anything to eat or drink
  • What are the general hours of the chases
  • How far (in distance) are they willing to go
  • What are their reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp saying

I really liked Arctic Explorers over Tromsø Safari because with AE, the group was only 8 people, they provided us with thermal clothes, they had a planned pee stop, there were a couple different breaks/stops when we saw activity, the first one we just would have hot cocoa/tea/coffee, the second one they would set up a campfire and with hot water we would have a “meal”. Don’t expect gourmet food- it’s freeze dried and cooks with hot water, but the taste was actually pretty good (texture a bit off) and there are plenty of options (from reindeer stew to chicken tikka masala). And you can’t forget about the Lefse!! Lefse is a thin, flat type of bread (think a sweet tortilla) and they put “brown cheese” (a weird, sweet Norwegian cheese) with cinnamon and sugar and roll it up. We consumed a lot of lefse on the trip.

Overall AE’s network seems larger and they have more resources to communicate and determine where is the best place to see the lights- they were willing to drive all the way to Finland. The downside only being that twice we all had to get out of the van and push it out of a snow bank (ha!) but I kinda just think the girl the second night wasn’t the best driver.

In comparison,Tromsø Safari didn’t provide clothes or fire (they did provide a hot drink and lefse), the bus was quite large (15 people or so), we had to stop on the way home to fill up the tank with gas (poor planning), and it didn’t seem they were willing to drive as far in the search for the lights.063

What to wear: More clothes. Whatever you’ve planned, you’ll need more. As stated, I think it’s worth paying extra just to be provided some sort of thermal suit. But even with that, you need lots of layers. I had brought my super intense Canada Goose coat and I think pretty equally intense Ugg Adirondack boots just for walking around in Tromsø, and I think that if I had brought (I didn’t) my down-filled snowboarding pants that my actual outfit would have been warmer than the thermal onesies we were provided. But most people do not have such intense winter wear. I have Chicago winters to thank for that.

You won’t be freezing for hours on end…you’ll be warm in the car. And the first couple hours generally always seem to be just driving. I always unzipped the suit and tied the arms wrapped around my waist and took off my hat and gloves in the car. But they understand you’re bundled up and won’t be blasting the heat until on your return journey when you’re nice and chilled frozen to the bone.

Once you find the Northern Lights you’ll get outside and might be out there for a while. You could stay out until that particular aurora passes and then drive some more until you spot another, or just stay out at the one location for a long time. But I felt that even when you were done and all back in the car with the heat on for the drive home, you never fully warmed up. I was pretty happy for the most part with what I was wearing and my level of warmth….but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have pretty painful cold parts. I just don’t know if it was humanly possible….

My issue was, which their provided clothes didn’t fix, and where apparently I lack in ridiculous outdoor wear, was the feet and the hands. My feet were so painfully cold. So, so painfully cold. We would get back to the hotel and I put on fresh (non-chilled) socks, climb under the covers and stick my feet under E’s butt until the throbbing pain stopped.

I thought my Adirondack boots were pretty legit, but turns out they weren’t enough on our last night chasing lights when we weren’t provided with clothes. But the boots provided by the companies weren’t any better. I thought the boots at the dogsledding were pretty adequate but they didn’t keep me warm the entire ride….I think the only time my feet weren’t cold was in the boots I got to snowmobile but that was during daylight hours and just a far less cold day. My hands were also constantly cold. The best mitten we got were dogsledding- they were legit, $200 a pair North Face mittens, and they did the job. But the mittens for Northern Lights were a bit old and sad and just not warm enough.

But what did I wear? They really recommend wool long johns- not cotton. I would wear 2 pairs of tights/long johns every night. The first base layer being either a pair of Icebreakers wool long underwear or Mizuno Breathe Thermo running tights (they have some weird technology where the fabric actually heats up upon contact with your body- so much so I can never wear them inside the house, and only on a Chicago winter -20F run). Then I would wear a pair of thick, Lululemon winter running tights over that.

For the top layer, I wore a sport bra (because I didn’t want to bother with straps falling down and trying to find them in the layers), an Icebreaker wool tank top, a long sleeve dri-fit base layer (like an Under Armor cold gear base layer turtleneck), and then a thicker, long sleeve quarter zip running top (Luluemon or Nike, quite thick).

My body was never cold. So if you’re getting a thermal suit- that’s the amount of layers I suggest on your body underneath the suit.

For your hands. Of course everyone provides mittens because mittens keep your hands warmer with your fingers being together. But I wore a pair of glove liners under my mittens, and I think that the double layer kept my hands warmer than having my fingers touch. And if you’re taking your mittens off sporadically to set up your camera or something like that, then you still have at least something on your hands when your mittens are off. So that’s my advice: use the mittens provided, but bring at least 1 (if not 2) glove liners or thin gloves to wear under them.

For your feet. It’s hopeless. When we were provided boots I was wearing a full size larger to incorporate all my socks. I was always wearing 3 pairs and still was always in pain. Seriously, pain. Arctic Explorers provided socks and I would wear those at the outer most layer, with thick Smart Wool ski knee-high socks as a base layer, then Heat Holders (check em out here- generally speaking the only things that keep my feet even remotely warm in wellies), then the provided thick fuzzy wool socks. And my feet were still freezing. I’m not sure what the solution is for warm feet above the Arctic Circle is….maybe those hand/foot warmers that your rub and they actually produce heat? If you can figure it out, let me know!042

What you need: So everything we read said how quickly the cold zaps your camera batteries and you need at least 4. I really didn’t want my battery to die halfway through the night so we went and ordered 2 more batteries. Our camera (and battery) is about 5 years old and let me tell you, the battery did not die, or even go half way down. So we bought a bunch of batteries for not. But…it’s probably not a bad idea to bring one back up.

I would definitely bring your chargers to charge everything up in your hotel room if needed, as well as plenty of memory cards and/or your laptop to upload you pictures nightly. I am paranoid about bad things happening, so I made sure to upload all the photos every night.

You 10000% need a tripod. You won’t be able to get a decent photo without- the shutter speed is way too long.

A wide-angle lens is advised. In truth, I think our normal lens (18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G) would have done the job decent enough, but we rented a lens to make sure, a 4-24mm f/2.8G. And if you’re not too serious about your photography- I highly recommend renting lenses. We rented a lens from America for our honeymoon in South Africa and then rented a lens for the northern lights. A great way to try new lenses or get what you need for the situation without the huge investment.DSC_0841

What to expect: This is probably the most important section in this post if you’re going to see the Northern Lights. I assumed everyone did lots of research and had realistic expectations before they went on a holiday of this sort, but as I learned with our bus mates, this is not always the case. So I am, as a little over prepared, nagging birdie, here to help you manage your expectations for your Northern Lights holiday.

Early and LONG nights – you’ll leave your hotel sometime between 5-7pm (so a very early dinner/late lunch needs to be planned) and might not get back until 4 am. There is ample opportunity to sleep in the van/bus/shuttle…but plan your itineraries accordingly. And don’t be surprised if you don’t get in until 3am.

 Tired – see above. You’ll be tired if you have daytime activities. If you’re going out the night before daytime activities, I would suggest booking exciting things that keep you awake. Snowmobiling and doglseeding do the trick. Cross-country skiing or a reindeer safari might destroy you. If you’re not planning daytime activities it’s fine- you can sleep in! But this trip (while amazing) was exhausting…not as exhausting as safari in Africa…but planning a nice lie-in on a day or two will be greatly appreciated.

Cold – see “What to wear.” You need to be kind of hearty for this type of expedition. No crybabies allowed.

Sitting – there’s a lot of time just sitting a bus/shuttle/van. You can’t call upon the aurora to just appear. You need to find it. So expect to spend a lot of time on your tailbone.

Photography – You can’t take photos of the Northern Lights with your iphone. Well I guess you can take super grainy ones if you buy a special app. But you also can’t expect to take your camera, point it at the sky, and click the button like you would at a family BBQ. While the guides seem to be very well educated and can help you with the ideal settings for you camera….do some research beforehand! Take some night photos at home playing with the different settings and knowing how to get to them and adjust them (you want as low ISO as possible with a fast maximum aperture, be able to adjust your shutter speed, turn off sound, and set a timer so that you don’t need to worry about your movement of pressing the button to impact your photo). And you should probably tool around with your tripod to make sure you can maneuver it effectively. I am not a photo expert. And since returning and researching more, I probably would have done some different settings on my camera…but I’m happy with our results.

But the amount of people on our group who had no idea that there required any camera knowledge/adjustments to get a photo was a little shocking.

Lights – There’s no guarantee to see the lights. And sometimes, even seeing the lights can be pretty disappointing. Sometimes, you just see a little bit of a cloud and only your camera can pick up the green. You have to be patient. At first maybe only your camera sees it, but if you sit around and wait it could grow stronger. I think it’s quite rare to have an entire sky of crazy green activity. We were pretty lucky and our first night was actually pretty amazing with some epic shows (the most amazing being while we were in the van driving down the highway looking for a place to pull over- so no pictures but so beautiful) and our night with the dogs was another good one. But the other two nights, I think I would have been a little disappointed if that was all we saw on the trip. Book in a couple nights worth of going out (I’d say at least 2, but would advise on 3). You might be able to cancel the extra nights if you have a great show the first night. On our 2nd night, the other 6 in our van were having their first night and they were super disappointed in the lights. One woman couldn’t see the green at all for some reason (maybe she was color blind?), and the overall response was, “Well this is it? You never see the sky all lit up bright green? That only happens with photo manipulation?” And I tired to tell them that no, it can be super incredible without rubbing it in that the night before was amazing. You never know, you have to keep trying. But then they all told our guide they wanted to cancel their other nights! I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t seem to understand that every night is different. Even on a beautiful clear night, there’s no guarantee to see any activity. You kind of have to be patient and diligent…and even still, you might not get to see an incredible showing. It’s a risk…but if you go all the way out there, I think you owe it to yourself to make a few efforts.009

Hope this helps if you’re planning your own trip to see the Northern Lights. I definitely recommend Tromsø!

Did you get to see the Northern Lights some place else? What tips would you add to this list?

2 Comments

  1. Mahek G

    Thank you for this. I found your article very informative. Could you please tell me on what dates did you see the auroras? I am looking at the solar activity forecasts to plan out my next trip. Thanks again.

    Reply
    1. Lauren (Post author)

      Hi Mahek – We went in March to try to maximize aurora possibilities but the weather was pretty rough. You need to make sure you have a long enough night. I think anytime from December-March works – it’s always a risk!

      Reply

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