Well, in short, my answer would be to go to Abisko National Park in northern Sweden. It’s often touted as the best place in the world to see them, and having seen them two of the three nights I was there, it’s easy to see why.
But moreso, after seeing them again this past week in Iceland, I wanted to take some time to go into what makes certain places good place to see the northern lights, and other places not as good.
In addition to going at the right time of year, there are three things you need: clear skies, little to no light pollution, and to be sufficiently north. The more you maximize each of these, the better your chances are.
How north is “north enough?”
While it’s not unheard of to see the northern lights from the northern United States or the United Kingdom if aurora activity is unusually high, you generally want to be above 61 degrees latitude. In other words, you’ll need to go to one of the following countries: United States (Alaska only), Canada, Denmark (Greenland or Faroe Islands only), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Russia.
How little light pollution do I need?
In general, this will not be a huge concern, as there just aren’t that many major cities that far north. I am mostly mentioning this so that you don’t book a trip to Iceland and stay in Reykjavik the whole time (which would be a huge mistake for other reasons too, considering how many beautiful sights there are to see outside of Reykjavik). If you are staying in Reykjavik (or another major city) on a night when there is a good chance of them being visible, it might not hurt to get out of the city while the sun I setting and wait for the lights in a more remote area. However…
If you see them, just sit back and enjoy them, rather than focus on getting to the best possible location
Hopefully, you’ve done everything you can to get as far away from city lights and cloudy skies as possible. But it’s possible that you may be in an area where part of the sky is still cloudy and/or there’s still some light pollution, and you still see them. While it may be tempting to get in the car and drive to a better location so that you can get an even better display, you can’t always count on the northern lights to wait for you. When I recently saw them in downtown Akureyri, Iceland (admittedly not much of a downtown given that the population is only 18,000), I thought I had the best idea ever by driving to an outdoor hot tub in a neighboring town with far less light pollution. Though it did provide me with the surreal experience of driving “into” the northern lights, by the time I got all settled into the hot tub, they were barely visible. Furthermore, capturing the northern lights over the roof of a house, or with a city’s landmarks in the background can often make for more unique pictures.
How do I know if I’ll have clear skies three months in advance? (or however far in advance you plan your trip)
You won’t. But most places generally have a predictable weather patter (though this is definitely getting less and less certain now that we’re seeing the impacts of global warming). But there is enough information on the internet about the winter weather of all potential northern lights viewing spots that you should be able to get a general sense. The more varied the weather is, the longer you’re going to want to stay. People associate Iceland with the northern lights more than probably anywhere else (in part because of their very successful marketing campaign to make it into a tourist destination, after its previous attempt to be successful by becoming a global financial capital failed), but the reality is that while Iceland is an amazing country with otherworldly sites everywhere you look, its frequent turbulent weather does not make it a great place to see the northern lights, and I would recommend going for at least seven nights if you want to see them there.
When to see them
Though they can occasionally be seen in August or April, a general rule is to go sometime between the fall equinox (September 21) and spring equinox (March 21). I also wouldn’t recommend going too far after the fall equinox or too far before the spring equinox for two reasons: first, auroral activity tends to be strongest closest to the equinox, and also because if you go up to the Arctic region in mid-December, you should be prepared to enjoy nothing but darkness, as the sun is only up for a few hours every day.
Once I’m there, how do I know if they have a good chance of coming out that night?
To know how far south you can see the Northern Lights, you’ll want to rely on something called the kp index, which is explained better on this page than I ever could. The higher up you are, the lower kp index you need. Given that the kp index usually doesn’t get much higher than 3, this is why it’s a good idea to be above 61 degrees latitude. Furthermore, it might help to consult a weather forecast to see where there might be the best skies.
What to look for
If you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is the northern lights, then you’re not seeing the northern lights. Trust me, you’ll know. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be looking for something exactly like you see in the pictures. The camera tends to pick up more green than the human eye can, so it may appear to be a more faint green.
How to capture them
I’m by no means a photography expert, but from my experiences with other people who are, you will first need a high-quality camera where you can adjust exposure settings (sorry, your cell phone camera, no matter how good it is, will not pick them up). Set the camera up on a tripod pointing at the northern lights (either with or without you in the picture), and use an exposure of 30 to 60 seconds (yes, this can mean standing still in the cold for very long).
What about booking a guided tour?
No! That’s why I’m writing this post! No need! Save your money!
While it’s OK to make the northern lights the primary reason for your trip, don’t make it the only reason. No matter how much you do to maximize your chances, there is no way to guarantee 100% that they will come out. Moreover, there often tends to be an inverse correlation between how good an area is for seeing the northern lights, and how much there is to do in the area. In other words, when you’re not chasing auroras, there’s not a whole lot else to do. So before you book a trip to a remote Arctic town, maybe first look into stopping off at a big city a little bit south, then catching a plane/train/bus (or driving) up North.
While I of course would have been disappointed had I not seen them when I went to Sweden last year, even if they never came out, I still had a great time exploring Stockholm. On the other hand, on my most recent Iceland trip, my primary goal was not to see the Northern Lights; as I mentioned above, it is generally not one of the better places to see the Northern Lights due to its unpredictable weather. I planned many other activities to experience the beauty of Iceland, and while I did end up seeing them twice in the eight nights I was there, I still would have had a great trip without having seen them.
I’m not going to have a chance to see them for a while; is there a way I can live vicariously through people who are much further north?
I would recommend following the live webcam from the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko National Park.
Other questions? Have your own tips that I forgot, or your own northern lights experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments or email me.
Photo credit: David Tse