How to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
Have you been thinking of planning a trip to see the northern lights?
head to Iceland!
I made a promise to Dan that we would search for the Northern Lights before we leave Europe in the spring. While there is a greater probability of seeing them up in the Arctic Circle in Norway, Sweden, or Finland, we ultimately chose to visit Iceland instead because the climate is more temperate and there would be incredible activities and exploration options during the day.
While they say you can never guarantee the Northern Lights will show up, we took our chances and headed to Iceland for 5 days during the first week of January. Make sure to check out my tips for planning a winter trip to Iceland. In this post, I'm going to share everything you need to know to hunt for the natural phenomenon in Iceland. Fingers crossed that you get to see them dancing too!
What are the Northern Lights?
In short, the bright lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that break through the earth’s atmosphere. When people refer to the lights dancing, you’re actually seeing the particles move through the atmosphere. The green light is the most common color you’ll witness, but the lights can also be red, yellow, purple, and blue. If you’d like a more detailed scientific description, check out this article from Iceland tour company, Happyworld.
Why should I care?
Considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders, the Aurora Borealis, is one of the coolest natural sights. Imagine looking up to the dark midnight sky and seeing white and green stripes appear out of nowhere. It's like nothing you've seen before and you have to see it to believe it. The lights can be shy or really show off, but either way it's a sight to see. You can actually see them moving, swaying and swirling across the sky. They're thin and become thicker as they charge up and then may hide, but then come back again even stronger. Trust me, you'll want to make the trip to see them.
When to Go
In actuality, there is auroral activity all year long, but with near 24-hour daylight during the summer, you can't see the lights. You need complete darkness. The lights can be seen September-April with the best times to go being September and March because you're most likely going to have the best weather and more daylight for activities during the day. The lights are best seen 9pm-2am.
How to See Them
We spoke to a number of locals and each had their own opinion how best to see the Northern Lights. Here is a list of options along with their pros and cons. If you're there for a few nights, I would suggest mixing it up and trying your luck with a few ways. For all guided tours, you choose your pickup location and are typically given a 30-minute window. The time changes depending on the month, but figure between 8-9pm.
After weighing all the options, we wanted to make sure we went with the best and opted for a semi-private super jeep tour with Happyworld. People may tell you to go out on your own (and we did eventually), but there's no substitute for experts showing you the way.
If you don’t have a rental car, a semi-private super jeep tour is by far the best way to go. We did a ton of research and went with Happyworld given their rave reviews. Even if you have a car, I highly recommend going out with them for one night. We chose not to risk driving in the crazy Iceland weather (more on this in a post forthcoming) and opted for tours the whole time. These guys are the experts for a reason. With a 95% success rate, if Happyworld gives you the thumbs up for the weather, you'll hopefully see the lights. With that being said, they make the call by 6:30pm every day whether they're going to go forward or cancel the tour. In the event of a cancellation due to weather, you can either go out on the next night's tour or get a full refund. I recommend booking for your first or second night in order to give yourself ample time to see the lights in case of bad weather. In case you don't see the lights on a tour that goes out, you are welcome to go again during your stay for free. I should also mention that we spoke to a number of people who went out on our same night, but didn't see the lights because they were in a different area. It looks like we picked the right company!
Now why a semi-private super jeep tour?
Small groups allow you to be agile and move locations quickly if the weather changes. Happyworld uses 2 super jeeps with max 7 passengers per vehicle.
- Super Jeeps, basically tricked out trucks, have the ability to go down snow-covered and off the beaten paths. They are not stuck with just a few key spots. They can go anywhere. For example, on our tour, we had a semi-cloudy night and the clearest sky looked to be over Thingveller National Park. In order to get into a good area of the park, we had to drive down a closed road. No way even a car with four wheel drive would have made it down the road.
- If you don't have a camera, Happyworld can capture the lights and more importantly a picture of you with the lights. After your tour, Anita will send you a link to a Dropbox with pictures, so no biggie if you're not a photographer.
- Yes, of course the lights are the main spectacle, but they also bring out a serious telescope. We found a number of constellations and spent a while looking at the moon while we waited for the lights. Have you seen the moon "up close"? It's unbelievable! One of my cooler memories from the night.
- Hot chocolate and traditional Icelandic doughnuts, kleinur. The perfect snack to keep you warm come midnight.
- Finding like-minded travelers with whom to exchange tips and stories. While waiting for the lights in the cold, it's good to have some company to pass the time. I know I've found a high quality tour when I enjoy the interaction with the other guests. We met one woman in particular who was extremely helpful with our camera settings and who had some expert advice for our upcoming tours.
- They don't call Þröstur the "Aurora Whisperer" for nothing. You should have seen him tracking the clouds. He's a paraglider, adventure-seeker, and volunteer emergency responder, so he's had years of experience tracking Iceland's weather patterns. You couldn't be in better hands. Plus, he's an overall great guy to spend time with and learn more about Iceland.
- They're willing to go the extra mile. By midnight, when our tour was officially ending, we hadn't seen much. We were given the option to stay out because Þröstur thought the lights may show up again. We ended up staying out until 1:30am and boy was it worth it. With a small group, you can make the decision yourselves.
Of course, you're going to pay a premium for this type of tour. Overall, Iceland is a more expensive country to visit (more on that later as well), but this tour is worth the splurge in my opinion. Their success rate made the decision much easier. It sure beats the cost of another trip out to Iceland to try to catch them again. Cost: ISK 21,900 ($190 USD) per person
Small Bus Tour
There are a number of companies that offer small group tours on mini-buses with approximately 20 passengers. If you don't want to spend the money on a semi-private tour, I would definitely recommend going in this direction. Do your research and find a company with good reviews on Trip Advisor. Make sure to look out for a small-group tour and a solid refund policy in case of bad weather or the lights don't turn up. You'll have more flexibility than the large buses, but won't be able to visit the same spots as you would with a Super Jeep. Cost: approx ISK 8,000-10,000 ($70-$90 USD) per person
Large Bus Tour
Think of these tours as a way to get from point A to B. They pick you up in a smaller bus and then everyone consolidates into a few bigger buses with 50+ passengers each. Since they're so big, there are only a few spots they can park. I would really only use this option if splurging on another tour is too expensive for you AND you don't feel comfortable driving. You don't have flexibility and you're basically standing in a parking lot with a large number of people. You'd really only use this tour to get you to a location with less light pollution. Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line seem to be the two main companies. Cost: ISK 6,400 ($55 USD)
First thing's first, you CAN see the lights from Reykjavik if the conditions are right. You may just not see them as vividly as you would in an area with less light pollution. If you have a car and you're staying in Reykjavik, head up to the ski mountain, Skálafell, about a 25 minute drive from the city, if the forecast is promising (more on this below). If you're planning on staying anywhere out of the city, you'll probably have a good chance of seeing them from your guesthouse as well. Lastly, Dan and I got super lucky on our last night. We were staying at an airport hotel in Keflavik and our guide from that day, Gunnar (more on him later), suggested we just walk down to the beach and wait. "They'll show up," he told us. And that they did. Just like that around midnight, we got the most amazing show just a 10 minute walk from our hotel.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There are two main factors that must align in order to see the lights: a clear sky and aurora activity. The clear sky is the toughest obstacle to beat in Iceland. With continuously changing hard to predict weather, you must get lucky with a clear sky or find a tour company that can really understand the cloud movement and find the breaks.
UNDERSTANDING THE PREDICTIONS
The best website to reference for cloud cover and auroral activity is this one for Iceland. If you go with Happyworld, they take care of the hard stuff, but enjoyed following along and getting in on the game. There are three main components to look out for:
Cloud Cover - you want to look for areas without clouds (white) in the forecast from 9pm-2am. Like I mentioned above, the forecast is very hard to predict, but this will give you some indication of a good area to head to.
Aurora Forecast - you're looking for a Kp indicator of 3 and above. That being said, our guide told us he’s seen a beautiful lights performance with a Kp 1.
Magnetic Field Observations - when the lines start deviating from the center point, the lights are active. From the main site, choose "Aurora and the earth's magnetic field" from the links on the right-hand site of the page. Once on the page, scroll down to "Observations of the magnetic field in Iceland". You'll pretty much see a straight line, but once it starts to move around, you know there's increased auroral activity.
The Aurora Forecast for Europe can give you a general idea of the Kp index for the next 3 days, but use with caution as it changes frequently. Our guide didn't trust the forecast until at least the day of.
What to Wear and How to Stay Warm
It is so cold and you’ll be standing outside most of the night waiting for the lights to appear. You don’t want the cold to ruin your night and take all the fun out of the hunt. Here’s a list of what to wear (I’ve linked some of my faves):
- Thick winter coat with hood
- Snow pants (could also wear another layer of sweatpants underneath)
- Wool baselayer ( or thermal underwear) - top and bottom
- Wool sweater
- Fleece or second sweater
- Down vest
- 2 pairs of socks - one thick wool
- Warm gloves
- Scarf and/or neck warmer (helps protect your face tremendously)
- Snow boots - we rented great high performance boots from Gangleri Outfitters in Reykjavik
You may think this list looks aggressive, but the cold is no joke. Here's what Happyworld recommends. Make sure to always keep moving. It helps a lot. You should also continually kick your toes into the ground to keep the blood flowing. Once you lose feeling in your fingers and toes, it’s very difficult to get it back when you’re still out in the cold. I also recommend using hand and toe warmers. They can be found at most outdoor stores. You can also buy them from Happyworld when you purchase your tour.
How to Photograph
I think one of the most fun parts of the night was trying to capture the lights on camera. As an amateur photographer at best, I looked to the experts for advice. Dave Morrow has a great guide. Happyworld also recently wrote a blog post on the topic. If you have even a decent digital camera where you can shoot in manual, I would suggest bringing your camera and playing around. You will need a tripod for this type of long exposure photography! If you don’t have one, you can rent one from Happyworld. Most of our images were a bit blurry, so I’m looking forward to going out and trying again on a future trip. My biggest piece of advice is to play around with your camera BEFORE you’re out in the cold, so you know how to adjust the settings easily. For example, I missed the part about manual focus and setting it to infinity, so Dan and I were fumbling around in the cold trying to figure out how to turn off auto-focus.
You can also try downloading the Northern Lights Photo Taker app if you have an iPhone. We didn't try it, but somebody recommended this app as a way to take long exposure pictures with your phone. Report back if you try it!
As our guide told us, being a Northern Lights hunter is a high pressure job as you're often fulfilling peoples' life long dream and "bucket list" item. With such high stakes, expectations should be set given it's a natural phenomenon with such variability. Even if you see them, it's not guaranteed that they'll live up to your extremely high expectations. Below are some thoughts we wish someone had shared before our hunt; that said, even if you don't see the colors vividly, watching the lights grow and move is a spectacular show unto itself.
> No one seems to tell you this, but the lights are not as vivid in real life as they are in pictures. Cameras can capture the lights much better than you can see them, so what might be a deep neon green in the picture, may look fainter or even white to your eye.
> The lights can vary in color, but you'll most likely only see them in shades of green. Many pictures on the internet are from photographers who photograph the lights night after night waiting for the rainbow conditions. Plus, the pictures are then highly edited in Photoshop to bring out the colors.
> A show could last for a few minutes or the lights could dance for hours.
> The first night I saw them, I'm going to admit I confused the lights with clouds. If you don't know what you're looking for, it can be difficult to spot. Again, it all depends on the conditions and it always helps having someone spot them for you.
> Go out with a positive outlook that you're going to see the lights, but don't expect an incredible show. Hopefully, you'll get it, but enjoy the night regardless.