Image credit: CC BY SA 2.0 (Lars Tiede, 2012)
It is considered one of the planet’s most mysterious and exciting natural shows so witnessing it first-hand is, undoubtedly, an unforgettable travel experience to cherish a lifetime.
In Europe, the likes of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden that dutifully pledge streaks of emerald and scarlet piercing the night sky for several months per year during winter, keep countless visitors enthralled and awaken in many others the desire to quickly traverse the globe for a glimpse of the marvellous Aurora Borealis.
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But to catch it in its full glory, first-time travellers should plan accordingly to increase their chances of seeing it clearly. Experts and industry insiders in the continent tell Quotient what nature lovers should consider for their maiden Northern Lights adventure.
Know exactly where and when to look up
Scientifically, the magical Northern Lights are caused by charged particles from the sun, which strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, causing the sky to light up so vividly. Typically, the phenomenon takes place in countries in the Northern Hemisphere including Alaska and Canada in North America, where the hours of darkness increase gradually as you delve up further north allowing you to catch this majestic phenomenon.
Don’t start congratulating yourself on getting the location right, yet, as there is more to the equation than the right latitude.
Geologist Bjorn Hroarsson of Extreme Iceland noted that the prime viewing time for the aurora in Iceland is during the night from 15th September to 15th April; the best time is also when the moon is new or, at least, not full. According to him, first-timers often make the mistake of going on evening tours just outside the capital city of Reykjavík, where it is often cloudy and turns watchers back to the hotel before the lights show themselves.
For Iceland-bound aurora seekers, Hroarsson recommends Hveravellir geothermal area, Landmannalaugar in the highlands and the impressive Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the southeast — there are no man-made lights in those spots so the chances of spotting the beautiful displays are high.
Over in Norway, which is considered the centre of the Northern Lights zone, the probability of catching the lovely phenomenon is between 70% and 90% in cloudless conditions between August to mid-April each year in places such as Tromsö, the Lofoten Islands, Bodø, Narvik, Harstad, Vesterålen region, Alta, Kirkenes and Svalbard.
If it’s a Finnish light-up you are after, Sara Jäntti of Visit Finland pointed out that with “plenty of luck” you can enjoy the aurora right from Helsinki, the capital. However, most sightings of the phenomenon are from the northeastern part of the country; Saariselka in particular is a popular destination as it boasts a surreal-looking igloo village located only a 10-minute drive away.
The best time to see auroras is between 9pm and 1am in the months of February, March, September and October, added Jäntti. The general rule of thumb is the darker the night, the better the chance but being by a lake or up on a hill provides that vastness of sky and therefore infinite views.
Arm yourself with patience
To see the lights in their full glory, yes you do need clear skies — but also patience aplenty. On an overcast day, there is little chance of spotting the Northern Lights but Arctic weather is fickle so don’t be disappointed if the forecast is unfavourable. Before going for a hunt, check the forecast, which will indicate how much activity there will be that night in the area and be prepared to wait for a while. Visit Norway recommends mobile applications that help track down the Northern Lights; over in Iceland, you are advised to take a look at the weather forecast before planning your trip.
A common mistake first-timers do is giving up too easily after only 20 minutes of watching the sky, often confusing the lights with those of the moon or even cities! Visit Finland’s Jäntti explained that chases can last up till two hours and the sighting can last from 10 minutes to all night long, depending on factors such as solar wind and magnitude.
Evgenia Egorova, marketing manager of Northern Norway Tourist Board, concurred that not being patient enough is really the biggest mistake ever.
“Aurora is a diva, sometimes she makes you wait for her, sometimes she comes early,” she said. “Aurora hunting is not something you can do in one hour. You have to… become a patient hunter and enjoy the magical rewards!”
Learn how to photograph the auroras
For many travellers, capturing unique photos of the Northern Lights is a goal in itself. The good news is that you don’t have to be skilled photographers to snap aurora beauties.
According to Egorova, the essential equipment for photography lovers includes a digital camera that has a manual mode and interchangeable lenses as well as a sturdy tripod, a remote control release to make sure your photos are as sharp as possible, a wide-angle lens with high light sensitivity and spare batteries and memory cards. A flash light is also a must – the best pictures are taken as far from the light pollution as possible, so you will need an extra light to work with your camera; a headlight might also come in handy.
To capture beautiful shots, keep in mind that complete darkness is not a must to highlight the allure of the Northern Lights; actually, a certain glow over the horizon might enhance the uniqueness of the photographs. Some recommended timings are an hour before and after sunset as well as — ironically — during a full moon.
The surrounding, stressed Hroarsson of Extreme Iceland, is essential to take good photos of the Northern Lights; the environment, to him, is more important than the lights themselves as the photographer can play with the composition to capture unique images.
Northern Lights photographer Markus Kiili similarly advised that travellers keen on capturing some unique shots, should arm themselves with a DSLR camera with wide-angle lens and a tripod. He highlights that travellers often make the mistake of not bringing a tripod hence minimising their chances to use techniques such as long exposure, which adds a wonderful effect to images.
Kiili highlights that one other important aspects in freezing temperatures is that your camera freezes too. After a night of aurora hunting, you’ll be looking forward to the warmth of indoors but do remember that your camera has been exposed to an average temperature of -20 degrees Celsius for some time and condensation will surely spell disaster for your equipment. Before stepping inside, be sure to place your camera into a plastic bag or keep it in your camera bag for several hours, he cautioned.
Amateur photographers should check your camera settings in daylight before going for the aurora hunt as it is much easier to make changes beforehand without worrying that you won’t capture the Northern Lights at the right moment, added Kiili.
Pepper your adventure with exciting activities
It’s important to keep in mind that while your trip’s main highlight is catching a glimpse of this phenomenon, it would be a waste of your winter sojourn to only pursue the aurora.
From magical pearly-white landscapes where snow crunches under your boots to fairy-tale ice hotels and surreal glass igloos from where you can watch the lights flicker in the heart of the night to adventurous husky-sled rides in the midst of peaceful forests to villages teeming with indigenous peoples, the northern countries boast plenty of reasons why you should start thoroughly exploring them.
To get a real taste of Iceland during the Northern Lights season, Extreme Iceland’s Hroarsson suggested visitors try activities such as glacier hiking, snowmobiling, super-jeep action, ice cave visits and lava tube caving. Do note, however, you will require a valid driver’s license to drive a snowmobile.
In Norway, activities include cruises along the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes to experience the inky Arctic sky peppered with bright-coloured lights, cross-country skiing or attending lectures at the Polar Light Centre in Laukvik in the Lofoten Islands.
Egorova of the Northern Norway Tourist Board also highlighted Narvik, where you can ski with the magical fjord as a background, Tromsø and Bodø for museums, shopping, galleries and city atmosphere as well as beautiful Svalbard, the northernmost destination in the world known for rare blue aurora, ice caves, husky trips and snowmobile expeditions in the kingdom of the polar bears.
Finland, too, isn’t short of options for outdoor revellers to fully experience the thrill of this great Arctic natural occurrence experience — lap up activities such as picnics under the starry sky, chasing the lights by jetboat, enjoying a traditional outdoor sauna or going on a reindeer safari.
Respect the Arctic climate dress code
As this Arctic phenomenon is known to be incredibly elusive, you will probably end up spending hours on end spotting it, so to venture into the cold with confidence (don’t forget the Arctic temperature typically falls below zero), the key is to wear layers such as a wool thermal base, a middle layer which strengthens heat insulation and an outer layer made of breathable material to better distribute the body heat.
In addition, Egorova cautioned that travellers ought to pay more attention to their feet. As it is said that in the Arctic the cold comes from the ground, not wearing proper GoreTex shoes can spoil the whole experience. For those intent on photographing the aurora, wear gloves that allow you to have ample control of your fingers so that you can easily maneuver your camera, and do also bring an insulation pad to stand on — you will be surprised what a difference it can make.
Plenty of first-time visitors, particularly from Southeast Asia, will have little clue about dressing right for a Northern Lights experience but there is no need to fret as tour operators generally provide basic gear such as warm winter expedition suits and even boots for adults so do check with your travel planner before packing your bags. Additionally, you should pack a hat, sturdy boots and swimming gear for the hot tub.
Lastly, do throw in a fair bit of understanding. Aurora seekers can exercise the most rigorous planning and follow every single expert tip, and yet still be thwarted by Nature. If that happens, it’d really be down to a case of bad luck for not just yourself but all chasers within the area as many operators actually tip off others about sighting locations and intensity. Your travel planner as well as guide will be as disappointed as you are, but on the bright side, you will be more likely to go on another Northern Lights holiday and treat yourself to amazing Arctic experiences all over again!