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Northern Lights: When and Where to See them

Are you like many, wondering when and where is the best place to see the Northern Lights? In the last few years, you can see more and more photos of the northern lights (Aurora Borealis or Aurora) on the Internet and social media in particular. For that reason, a trip to see them is becoming a bucket list destination for many of us.

Where is the best place to see the northern lights? Somewhere north!
Photo by Tobias Bjørkli from Pexels

Like any other natural phenomena, the Northern lights are very unpredictable. Here are some tips for you to optimize your chance of seeing this incredible show.

Where Is the Best Place To See The Northern Lights

If you want to see the northern lights, you have to go North! Far north! The aurora zone is between 65 and 72 degrees north. Occasionally, and depending on solar activity, you can see them further south, but it is not all that common.

Where to See The Northern Lights
Northern light zone

So where is the best place to go to see them? In Europe, the best place to go to is Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. In North America, the Yukon, The North West Territories, and Nunavut in Canada, Alaska, in the United States.

Several companies offer packages that include accommodation and tours to see the lights. Indeed, it could be a good option because they usually offer small huts to warm up while waiting for the Aurora to appear.

Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights? This is a hut in Norway.
Photo by Stefan Stefancik from Pexels

Alternatively, if you prefer to do do it yourself, you will need to go and scout a good location with a clear view of the northern sky. You will also need to find a spot with no light pollution to see even the faintest light. For that reason, you will have to be outside any major city or town, industrial areas, or street lamps.

Northern Lights displayed over a cabin
Photo by Benjamin Suter from Pexels

My best advice would be to ask the locals for help. Some hotels in Iceland have a wake-up service in case the northern lights become visible.

Remember, you might need to be outdoor for an extended period in winter close to the polar circle. For this reason, I strongly suggest you find a place that offers an area to warm up once in a while because it gets frigid.

Can I see the Northern Lights on an Alaska Cruise?

Many people ask me if it is possible to see the northern lights during an Alaska cruise. First, you will rarely see the Northern Lights from a Cruise.  First, the Alaska cruise season is in the summer when it is difficult to see the Aurora. Secondly, most Alaska cruises don’t travel far enough North. If you want to maximize your chances to see the northern lights during an Alaska cruise pick one that departs or arrives in Anchorage at the end of the cruise season (best if in late September).

When Is The Best Time To See The Northern Lights

If you want to see the Aurora, the sky needs to be dark. For this reason, you must go between the end of August and the beginning of April. After the end of April, the sun rarely sets so far north, making it impossible to see the northern lights.

As I mentioned before, going to the arctic circle in winter, it can get really cold. Another problem is the weather. If you want to have a clear view of the Northern Lights, the sky needs to be clear of clouds. You can see in the photo I took a while ago in the Yukon Territory the Aurora was barely visible between the clouds.

Northern Lights on Cloudy Evening
Northern Lights on Cloudy Evening

To be sure you can optimize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, you should plan on spending at least three nights at the destination. That will maximize your opportunities in case of bad weather.

Are the Northern Lights Always Visible?

The Northern Lights, AKA Aurora, is a natural phenomenon caused by the interaction of solar activity with the earth’s atmosphere. For that reason, there are days that the northern lights are very active, and other times that are not visible at all.  Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about that.  However, you can improve your odds by downloading an app.  For example, several free apps monitor solar activity and the northern lights.

The two apps I like to use are Aurora and Aurora Feast.  They are both pretty intuitive and easy to use.

Interactive Map on Aurora Forecast helps indicate the best place and time to see the northern lights
Interactive Map on Aurora Forecast

When is the Best Time to See The Northern Lights

Wondering when the best time to see the northern lights is?  To be sure, be prepared to stay up very late!  Specifically, under normal circumstances, the best time to see the Northern Lights is in the middle of the night. As I mentioned before, some hotels have special wake up services.  For example, they might call you in the middle of the night if the Aurora becomes visible.

Some hotels in Norway and Finland have unique rooms with the glass ceiling to allow guests to see the Aurora directly from your room, Amazing!

Will My Photos of The Nothern Lights Look Amazing?

The short answer is no.  Indeed, it’s incredibly challenging to photograph the Northern Lights.  Yes, you might see a fantastic show with your naked eyes.  But then, if you try and take the photo with your phone, you might not get the intended result.  And to be sure, your photos will likely not be the same as those you see online. Keep in mind the images you see are taken with long exposures, with high sensitivity camera settings and processed in postproduction. For that reason, a camera can capture even the faintest light.

However, if you stay in the dark for a few minutes before going out and looking at the Aurora, your eyes will be adapted to low light conditions.

What do I Need to Take a Good Photo of the Aurora?

To take a fantastic shot of the Northern Lights, you’ll need a camera that allows you to increase the ISO (1600 or 3200 work well).  Also, the camera will need to be able to keep the shutter open for a few seconds.  Third, a wide-angle lens (minimum 24mm) and an excellent tripod are the best accompaniments for your camera.

Then, look for a very dark place with a good clear view of the northern skies.  Also, set your camera on a tripod and point it north.  Finally, take photos at regular intervals, because sometimes the Aurora is very faint that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but your camera will.

Photo by Pexels

Can you take northern lights photos using your phone? Yes, it is possible you still need a tripod to keep your phone nice and steady. Secondly, you need to know how to change your phone setting to have a long exposure.

In conclusion

Keep in mind that the northern lights are natural phenomena. Many variables can affect your chances of seeing them. As a result, go for the destination and consider the Northern Lights a bonus for your trip. Secondly, I recommend using a specialized tour company. They know the best places and times to see the Northern Lights.

Additionally, they often have experts to help you to photograph the Aurora. Lastly, be prepared, wear warm clothes, warm hats, and gloves.  Indeed, the nights in the arctic are cold.

I hope these few notes inspired you to go and see this incredible nature show. Let me know in the comment below.


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  1. Hi. I have a travel and tour in the Philippines. I would like to feature your post about Northern Lights on my FB page, TripAvenue Philippines. Would it be okay? Thank you in advance! I am planning to travel Europe this 3rd quarter of 2020. Hopefully, this COVID-19 pandemic will be over soon. Best regards!

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