Drifter’s Guide to the Northern Lights

The night grew colder and darker, and the city lights too distant to be noticed. On a deserted road on the edge of a fjord, we waited for Aurora. Her presence we’ve heard is majestic. A promise that was enough to soften the crisp -5 degrees outside and the icy arctic wind, 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. And as green as hope, a mist of light cuts through the dark night. Suddenly and softly, Aurora introduces herself and dominates the night sky.

Northern lights guideThe Northern Lights are one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena in our world.. Even the most beautiful photos cannot depict the humbling and spiritual feeling you experience when you are in their presence. Something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

What exactly are the Northern Lights? These beautiful lights are the results of the electrically charged particles coming from the Sun, caught in Earth’s magnetic field. These electrons collide with the resident atoms and molecules found in the atmosphere resulting in the stunning dancing light display across the sky. The color of the lights can be determined by the altitude of the collision and the type of the interacting elements. However, it should be said that these Solar winds that bring the electrons to Earth do not happen every day and everywhere. But don’t worry, we’ll tell you where and when to go in order to maximize your chances of seeing them.

Northern lights guideThe Myth: In ancient times, some people believed that the lights are spectral warriors and horsemen, clashing with each other in battle. Some indigenous people in the Arctic Circle still believe that the Lights of the North are the spirits of their ancestors which they will be joining after death. In mythology, Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn and Boreas was the god of the Northern wind, hence the name “Aurora Borealis”

Northern lights guideWhat They Don’t Tell You: The Northern Lights depend on a lot of factors that are unpredictable and out of your control, but this shouldn’t discourage you from the experience of a lifetime! Just make sure to be patient with Mother Nature, and don’t just go for the lights. Enjoy the various opportunities that the north has to offer, the nature, the people, the food and of course, the magic of the lights!

Northern lights guideWhere to Start: There are a few things that you should know prior to starting your adventure. The highest chances of seeing the Northern Lights are in the Arctic Circle. The further north you go, the more chances you have of seeing them. That doesn’t mean you need to go straight to the North Pole, as there are many towns that are perfectly suited for visitors. one of such cities where the Northern Lights tourism is booming, is Tromso, Norway. Other suitable locations are the far north of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland or even Russia.  Wherever you decide to go, set up base in small towns or villages, as the light pollution and smog coming out of big cities can severely disrupt visibility, reducing the lights to a disappointing white smudge in the sky.

Northern lights guideWhen to Go: During the arctic summer, the sun would still be shining at midnight! And what can be considered as nighttime is nothing more than a couple of hours of twilight, making it unsuitable for Northern Lights hunting. So the best time to go is from late September to March, preferably in autumn or early spring when it’s not freezing cold, the weather is a bit more cooperative and the skies are still clear, as heavy winter clouds can also block out the lights. Once you are there on location, there are many Northern Lights Forecast websites although these can be unreliable at times, as the weather in the Arctic can change in a matter of minutes. The hours between 9pm and 2am are the best to catch a glimpse of these magnificent lights.

Northern lights guideWhat to bring:  Temperatures will most likely be quite cold, and you may find yourself standing for hours gazing in awe out there, so the first thing you need to think about obviously is warm clothing, which means you have to stack up on thermal layers, a puffy jacket, some mittens, a beanie that covers the ears, and a thick scarf or something to cover your face with. The second thing to consider is of course the camera and a tripod. A mid-grade SLR with low aperture and slow shutter speed (around 10 sec) should do the trick. Lastly, you should probably do yourself a favor and get a thermos of some hot beverage and a snack or two, as that’ll help you keep warm. Keeping in mind that if you decide to go on a tour, which is definitely something I highly recommend, there’s a big chance they’ll be providing you with a thermal suit and decent snow boots, a warm meal and drinks, photos, and the tour guide should be able to assist you with your camera needs as well.

Northern lights guideOther options: You might have to wait for days for a clear sky and a strong light dance to be seen, so think positively! Until then, at least you have time to explore your surroundings! These small, northern towns are all surrounded by wonderful nature. You can go mountain or glacier hiking or a forest trip on a snowmobile. Enjoying a hot drink in an old village pub is also a great experience. If you are in a coastal town, you can go on a boat trip to the fjords. Bottom line is… Northern lights are unpredictable, so it’s always good to have a plan B!

Once the time is perfect, you can then go out and watch the lights swivel and swirl around you. As you stand under the night sky, the lights will dance above your head, swelling, expanding, and decreasing, changing colors in ways you couldn’t even imagine.

So get ready and start packing, because now you know every important thing there is to know about the Northern Lights. And while there is no promise that you will see them, it is guaranteed that this will be one trip that you’ll never forget!

Recommended Tour Operators (Both operating from the city of Tromso, Norway)

Arctic Explorer: Their tours are extremely well organized, their guides very experienced, and they offer an all inclusive experience.

Arctic Experience: For a smaller, more personal experience, this tour has a maximum of 8 guests which ensures a personal and comfortable setting.