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Five Northern Lights Tips To Know Before You Book Your Trip

… This post is brought to you by The Aurora Zone …

Like most people I spent much of my life dreaming about seeing the Northern Lights, and so when I was faced with a big birthday with a 0 on it I decided that would be my very special birthday present to myself.

Of course it’s easy to say you’ll go on a holiday to see them, but whether you will or not is up to the Aurora gods. And boy did they keep me wishing and hoping at first.

I’ve now been lucky and have seen them in Norway, Greenland, Canada and Iceland, and each time they’ve been completely different and had their own special magic.

The first moved so quickly they looked like the flapping sails on a ship, the second didn’t move at all, and simply glowed above us in a peacefully hypnotic way, while the third started slowly on the horizon before it streaked across the sky above us, dancing and twirling, with a ribbon of red joining the bright green.

While you can never be sure when and where they will light up the sky, there are ways to improve your chances of seeing them for the first or thirtieth time.

So before you book that holiday, here are five Northern Lights tips you need to know…

Northern Lights tips include avoiding light pollution, Image Markku Inkila
The Northern Lights look so much brighter if you avoid light pollution. Image Markku Inkila

1. Pick the Right Place

As the name suggests, the Northern Lights are seen in the north. But that’s not to say they’re just anywhere up there.

Before I went chasing the Aurora for the first time I thought that certain countries like Norway were popular places to see them because they were also beautiful countries to visit for other reasons.

But the truth is, the Northern Lights appear as an oval around the earth’s North Pole, so it’s possible to go too far north to see them.

And because the lights react to the geomagnetic North Pole and not the geographical one, that means that they can be seen at a latitude of 65°N in Scandinavia at the same time as they’re being seen at 50°N in Canada.

In Scandinavia the best places to see them is in a band approximately between 66°N to 69°N. Sure they could appear in other places, but this sweet spot just above the Arctic Circle is where they’re most likely to put on a show. The Northern Lights also shine bright in Iceland which is another popular spot for aurora chasers.

I also love knowing that when you see the Northern Lights, the same show is happening on the other side of the world. They’re just a whole lot harder to see down there.

The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) are both created by particles from the sun entering Earth’s magnetic shield and being pulled towards the magnetic north and south poles.

Scientists have found that most of the time the northern and southern auroras are mirror like images of each other with the same colours and shapes. How beautiful is that?

Northern Lights tips will help you pick the best places to go, like here in Iceland at the Gullfoss waterfall, Credit ThorirNK and Iceland Pro Travel
Northern Lights over the Gullfoss waterfall, Iceland. Credit ThorirNK and Iceland Pro Travel

Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune also have auroras, and I love the way the Hubble Space Telescope has been able to share some, including this aurora over Jupiter.

While other planets are off the travel cards, the Southern Lights are also trickier to see as the best place to see them is Antarctica. And the harder to get to side.

When I went to Antarctica from Ushuaia in Argentina I was sadly on the wrong side of the continent to see the Southern Lights.

That said, sometimes you can see the Southern Lights in Tasmania down there at the bottom of Australia, while the Northern Lights sometimes make an appearance in the north of the UK.

But that’s hit and miss at best, and much more likely to happen when the sun is at it’s most active, during solar maximum.  The sun’s cycle takes around 11 years and we’re now headed towards solar minimum at the least active end of the scale, so it’s important to pick the right place to increase your chances of seeing the show.

2. Stay Away From the Lights

You know how amazing the stars look in the night sky when you’re out in the countryside? The way you can see whole constellations and sometimes even the milky way with your naked eye, whereas in the city you’re lucky to see a few of the brightest stars in the sky?

That’s what happens when light pollution gets in the way, and it’s the same with the Northern Lights.

Avoiding light pollution is a top Northern Lights tip, Image Credit Arctic Range Adventure Ltd
The Northern Lights can appear in different colours. Image Credit Arctic Range Adventure Ltd

When I talked about my Northern Lights memories earlier I didn’t include one experience because it didn’t even come to mind until I remembered light pollution. But I did see them a fourth time.

That time I was excited to see them, but they were on the edge of town and the artificial light got in their way. If I hadn’t been driving to the airport at the time I’d have driven straight out into the dark countryside to watch them properly, but sadly there was a flight to catch.

It still felt magical to see them, but believe me they were nothing compared to the other ones I’ve seen, so to see them properly you want to get yourself away from towns, cities, even large resorts, so you can enjoy their full power.

3 – Don’t Go Alone

Unless you’ve grown up in the area and know what you’re doing, heading out into the Arctic night by yourself is a really bad idea.

Weather conditions can change quickly, temperatures can drop below minus 30, and it can be all too easy to get lost out there in the wintery wilderness.

It’s not only much safer to go with a guide, but a good one will know the best places to go to avoid light pollution, and can find the best sheltered spots if a super cold wind kicks up.

While there are lots of companies that include the Northern Lights in their list of tours, there’s only one UK company that does nothing else.

The Aurora Zone’s sole focus is taking people to see the Northern Lights. They don’t do any other kinds of tours and so are a little bit obsessed, in the good way, with just where the best places are to go.

A good guide can help you get amazing Northern Lights photos, Image credit Antti Pietikainen and The Aurora Zone
A good guide can help you capture amazing Northern Lights photos, Image credit Antti Pietikainen and The Aurora Zone

They also work with local guides who spend almost every night from September to March chasing the aurora, and have a special sense when it comes to where and when they may appear.

Local guides are also experts on the right settings for your cameras and other tips for capturing the Northern Lights on film. But if I may suggest something controversial…

4 – Put your camera away

Don’t freak out on me now, you don’t have to do it forever, but do yourself a favour and the first time you see the Northern Lights get lost in the moment, not in your viewfinder.

I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t take photos my first time, and am so glad I did. When the aurora started its show most of the other first timers around me were adjusting settings and trying to get the shot, while I was staring at the sky, covered in happy goosebumps and drinking it all in.

Turns out I didn’t take photos any of the other times either as once again I didn’t want to split my focus and miss a second of the magic.

Do your research before deciding on a Northern Lights tour, Image Credit Arctic Range Adventure Ltd
You never know when or where the Northern Lights will appear, Image Credit Arctic Range Adventure Ltd

Although I have used my camera to check if something was a cloud or an aurora.

Sometimes the lights aren’t particularly well lit up, and can look more like a grey cloud than the greens you expect to see. But cameras see the aurora’s colours much more vividly than our eyes do, so all you have to do is hold your camera up to the mystery cloud and see if it goes green.

Maybe next time I’ll actually set my camera up properly and get some of my first aurora shots. But personally I wouldn’t do it on the first night they come out. Or the second. Which brings me to another very important tip…

Five – Do The Longest Trip You Can

The first time I went to see the Northern Lights I thought I’d planned it all perfectly.

My big birthday just happened to line up with solar maximum, I was going to Norway and was going to be away from light pollution, and because I’d always wanted to go to Norway I made it a nice long eleven-day trip.

Thank goodness I did.

For those who don’t already know, the KP Index is a bit like the Richter scale but measures the geomagnetic storms that create Northern Lights. They range from 0 to 9, and most storms are around a KP1 to KP3.

Every night I was there the KP Index was hitting 8s and 9s. And it was killing me, because every night it was happening behind heavy cloud cover.

Northern Lights tips can help increase your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis, image credit Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson Arctic Images
Expert tips can help increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, image credit Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson Arctic Images

Some of the people on my trip left half way through and saw nothing. Then one night the clouds finally parted, and there they were, dancing in the sky and it was one of the most incredible moments of my life.

While my Northern Lights dream came true that night there was a point when I wondered if I would see them at all.

Luckily I was loving Norway so much that I was having a fantastic holiday either way. Yes, I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen them, but there were so many other wonderful elements to my trip that I would have still come away with great memories.

And with that I leave you with my last Northern Lights tip: pick a place that you’d love to visit for other reasons so if the lights come out they can be the glowing icing on the cake.

This post has been brought to you by The Aurora Zone, which offers four different styles of Northern Lights trips from Relaxed to Active, catering for those who’d rather be zipping off on a snowmobile to those who’d like some spa treatments peppered in between the light gazing.

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