Tips and tricks for seeing the northern lights
By Sarah Marshall
Fickle, mysterious, but undoubtedly magical, the aurora borealis is one of nature’s greatest wonders. A cascade of electronic streamers dancing across the northern hemisphere’s night skies, the lights can occur at the right latitudes whenever there’s enough activity and the sky is dark.
A whole tourism industry of hotels, tours and even cruises has sprung up around the activity, all aiming to give people a better chance of witnessing the event with their own eyes.
Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed. But there are some ways to improve your chances…
Which is the most convenient place to see the northern lights?
When it comes to successful aurora hunting, Norwegian city Tromso has a lot to offer. Located on the coast, it’s set against a backdrop of dramatic, spiky mountains, with plenty of decent accommodation options at various price points, and direct flights from Norwegian in non-Covid times. Best of all, it sits right underneath the aurora oval – meaning it’s one of the best places for a neon-streaked sky show, even if activity is low.
Although officially Arctic territory, it only dips to an average -6C in mid-winter, thanks to the Gulf Steam – so there’s no need for bulky insulation suits every time you step outdoors.
Are there any ways to beat the crowds?
Avoid mass market coach tours and go solo with a hire car. Most buses with big groups race to the Finnish border, where skies are often clearer and sightings more reliable. But you don’t need to travel so far or frantically. Favoured by local guides, Kvaloya (Whale Island) is a 40-minute zip from the city centre, and ideal for empty road drives leading to fjord-side solitude.
If you’re travelling in a bubble, Pukka Travel’s Northern Lights Tesla Experience is an excellent choice.
Accompanied by an aurora guide/driver, the electric cars carry a maximum of five guests, and the emphasis is on exploring wilderness areas. Glide silently through snowy, people-free landscapes and stop to make a campfire and watch the stars.
What about more remote destinations?
Leave city light pollution behind to maximise your chances of seeing the aurora. For cosy isolation within easy reach of Tromso, take a ferry from Belvik to Vengsoy island, where sea eagles easily outnumber inhabitants. Stay at Vengsoy Rorbuer, a huddle of three neatly equipped fishermen’s cabins gazing out to a network of icy fjords.
For impressive scenery, it’s hard to beat the island of Senja – under a three-hour drive from Tromso. Camp Tranøybotn’s self-catering lighthouse has a 360-degree view of frozen fjords and big skies. Follow local photographer @seffis on Instagram for inspiration on other places to explore.
What are the advantages of exploring inland?
Away from the coast, skies tend to be clearer, meaning more opportunity for the aurora to shine. Given three quarters of the country is covered in trees, Finnish Lapland has a good selection of secluded woodland hideaways.
Come in autumn to watch the lights reflect on Lake Inari; Nellim Wilderness Hotel is an affordable option. If you prefer refined to rustic, head over the border to Sweden. Logger’s Lodge in Harads is separated by five kilometres of dense forest from the nearest neighbour.
What about travelling further afield?
Geo-magnetic waves ripple around the globe, so aside from Scandinavia and the Nordics, it’s also possible to hunt aurora in Canada, Alaska and Greenland. If you’re prepared to make the trek, Yellowknife in Canada has extremely reliable sightings. Bone-chilling temperatures bring clear skies and a 98% chance of seeing the lights. To completely cut off from the real world, try Blachford Lake Lodge. Unreachable by road, the only access is by ski plane (blachfordlakelodge.com).
Are there any decent apps to download?
SpaceWeatherLive shows the current Kp index (the measure used for activity) and has lots of charts detailing solar winds and magnetic fields. AuroraNow gives a simple percentage probability of seeing the northern lights in your location. Both are free to download.