The Northern Lights are one of the most magical natural phenomena you can see on your trips. Seeing bands of light dancing in the sky above you can seem unreal and is an experience you will never forget.
When we planned our trip to Lapland, we didn’t know much about the Northern Lights. All we knew was that our chances were low but that we still wanted to at least try and see them. And it was totally worth it! The lights danced above us for hours as we stood in the snow, taking one picture after another and not even noticing the piercing cold.
While there’s no guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights on your trip, you can increase your chances of having an unforgettable experience. Here are ten things that will help you spot the aurora and that we wish we had known before going.
How to see the Northern Lights
#1 What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are bands of lights created by solar activity. From time to time, solar winds hit the atmosphere, carrying charged particles with them. These particles collide with gases in the atmosphere, which then emit light – that’s the auroras you can see.
Most auroras will appear green, but the colour depends on their altitude. Green auroras typically appear at an altitude of about 100-250km (60-150 miles), while red auroras are higher. Auroras can also appear pinkish, violet or blue, and sometimes, their colour is not visible to the human eye at all, and they will seem white.When we saw the Northern Lights, they seemed white to us. Yet, in all of our pictures, they look green. Often, the camera can uncover the colours that the human eye can’t see.
Not all auroras appear as bands of light. Sometimes, they are just a glow at the horizon, which you can easily mistake for light from a nearby city.
#2 Don’t just go for the Northern Lights
If you only take away one piece of advice from this list, make it this one. Don’t just visit a destination for the Northern Lights. Choose a place that you think will be fun to see anyway.
Auroras don’t appear every night, and when they occur, they might be hidden behind clouds. There’s a chance you won’t see them at all, which is why it’s essential to choose a destination that you’ll enjoy regardless of the Northern Lights.
When we took the Santa Claus Express to Rovaniemi, in Northern Finland, I was convinced that we wouldn’t see the Northern Lights. They appear on less than half of the nights, and in winter, the sky over Rovaniemi is usually covered in clouds. But I knew that no matter what, we would enjoy Rovaniemi because you can find lots of other things to do.
We visited the Santa Claus village, we walked through the snow, and we took cute reindeer pictures. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to rent cross-country skis and explore the wilderness. That alone would have been enough to make our trip fantastic.
The Northern Lights were just a bonus on top.
#3 The Aurora Zone
If you want to see the aurora, you need to go far enough north or south. Depending on the solar activity, you might be able to spot the Northern lights as far south as Mexico. But these events are extremely rare, so don’t plan on it to happen. Instead, go to a place that is known for its aurora displays.
Generally, seeing the Northern Lights is easier than seeing the Southern Lights. It is much easier to travel to Northern Canada, Alaska or Lapland than to go to Antarctica. You can also get lucky in Australia, New Zealand or Patagonia in the southern hemisphere, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Around the world, you can find a zone called the “Aurora Zone”, which is between 2000 – 3000 kilometres away from the magnetic pole. As I said, we went to Lapland, which was a fantastic choice. Northern North America is also great, as is Iceland. If you want to travel off the beaten path, then consider travelling to Russia. While we haven’t been personally, we are sure that it’s a fantastic experience, no matter if you see the lights or not.
#4 Avoid the clouds
When you want to see the Northern Lights, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. But here’s a fun fact that we weren’t aware of: The aurora is visible from very far away. That means that you will still look at the same Northern Lights even if you drive a hundred kilometres.
Being in the right place at the right time is therefore not about being close enough to the Northern Lights. It’s about being in an area with no cloud cover. Even if the aurora is dancing high above you, you won’t see it if the clouds don’t clear up for at least a moment.
If you join a tour (which we highly recommend), your tour guide will study the weather forecast and take you to places where you have a good chance of clear skies. They might even communicate with other guides, so they can take you somewhere where the aurora is visible.
If you’re going by yourself, ask locals about the best spots. They might be able to recommend a place where you have decent chances.
#5 You need dark skies to see the Northern Lights
Light pollution is your enemy when it comes to the Northern Lights. Ideally, you want the sky to be as dark as possible.
The aurora often dances above Rovaniemi, but locals only occasionally see it. That’s because light pollution makes the auroras invisible unless they’re glowing brightly. And light pollution isn’t easy to escape. Make sure to get away far enough from any cities and towns, or you won’t stand a chance.
Going on a night of full moon can also make it harder to see the Northern Lights, although it won’t be impossible. But be prepared that if the lights are very weak, you won’t see them well with a full moon in the sky. On the other hand, the full moon is perfect for taking pictures with a nicely lit foreground.
#6 The middle of winter is not the best time to see the Northern Lights
Like many people, I always thought that the middle of winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights. That’s when the nights are longest, so that’s when they should appear most often, right?
But that’s not the case at all. Solar activity is highest around the equinox, which occurs in March and September each year. That means that autumn and early spring are even better times to see the Northern Lights than winter.
In theory, you can see the aurora all year long. Since you need dark skies, though, the chances of spotting it in summer are pretty low. Therefore, you should go between August and April. We were in Rovaniemi at the end of February / beginning of March, which worked out well. It’s a time we highly recommend. The days are not as dark as in January, you still have snow, and you have lots of chances to see the aurora.
#7 If you want to take pictures, you need a tripod
We loved taking pictures of the Northern Lights. Our guide briefly showed us the camera settings, we set up our tripod, and then we took hundreds of images.
Photos of the aurora need a long exposure to capture the light – so long that you can’t hold the camera in your hands. If you want great photos, you need to take a tripod. You also need a camera that you can set to manual to make sure you use all of the correct settings. The automatic mode is great for snapshots, but it can’t figure out how to take aurora pictures.
As we travelled through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia before arriving in Finland, we didn’t want to carry a tripod with us. We thought it would be easy enough to rent one once we arrived in Rovaniemi.
Well, it wasn’t. It took us a long time to find a tour operator with tripods for rent that we could take along. Therefore, if you want to take your own photos, you will need to bring your own tripod – or organise a tour in advance where you’re sure you will have access to one.
#8 Look in the right direction
If you join a tour to see the Northern Lights, you won’t need to remember this point. Your tour guide will point it out to you.
If you go on your own, this one is crucial.
Most of the time, you need to look north to see the Northern Lights. This depends on where you are, of course, but most places where you can see the aurora borealis are south of where the lights appear. Always double-check this with a local before you set out aurora hunting, though, just to be sure!
When you look for a suitable place to see the Northern Lights, choose a spot where you have an uninterrupted view towards the north. You don’t want to end up in a place where a mountain or a thick forest hides your view. You can also play with this knowledge by choosing an interesting landscape as a foreground for your Northern Light pictures.I once saw the Northern Lights from a plane window when coming home from Vancouver. Our plane was flying so far north that I actually had to look south to see them. But this was an exception. If you’re down on the ground, you usually won’t be that far north.
#9 Dress up in warm clothes
As we already established above, the best time to see the Northern Lights is not in the middle of winter. That means that you can go in autumn when the temperatures are not quite as cold yet.
But even if you travel in autumn, you will need to take warm clothes. You will spend many hours outside, and the longer you stay there, the more you will freeze. It’s even worse in winter. When we went in late February/early March, our tour company gave us warm whole-body suits to put on top of our regular clothes.
I was still cold!
Make sure to dress up enough. Take a thermal bottle with hot tea with you. Wear multiple layers, and don’t forget your hat and gloves. You will need them!
#10 Join a tour
A lot of luck is involved in seeing the Northern Lights. But you can multiply your chances if you decide to go with a tour guide.
These guides know all of the perfect spots to see the Northern Lights. They can tell you where to look, and they can even watch out for the aurora while you warm up in the car. A guide knows the weather forecast and can take you to places with little cloud cover.
It’s not unusual that people who set out on their own won’t see the Northern Lights, while on the same night, those who join a tour get to see a fantastic display of the aurora.
When shopping for tours, always make sure to compare offers. How many people will be joining the tour? How far will the guide drive? Do they go to different places or always to the same one? Is there a campfire or other activities involved? Asking those questions will help you choose between the various offers.
To get you started, here is a selection of tours in Rovaniemi from GetYour Guide. This will help you get an overview of what kind of tours are available:
We hope you now have a good idea of how to see the Northern Lights. While nobody can guarantee that you see this magical spectacle, following the above advice will help you increase your chances as much as possible.
If you have ever seen them or have anything to add to that list, we’d love to hear from you. What was your experience?
Also, check out our other resources about Rovaniemi, which will help you plan a perfect trip:
- What is it like to work for Santa Claus? Interview with an elf in Santa Claus Village
- The Santa Claus Express – everything you need to know about the night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi
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