Our dream came true! We found the Northern Lights when on our Iceland Road Trip over Christmas and we want to pass on our advice so that you can try do it yourself when you visit Iceland (and you will visit right?) plus show you some of the pictures we managed to grab before they disappeared.
Tip 1: Be prepared NOT to see the Northern Lights
We must say before this post begins that finding the northern lights in Iceland is pretty hard. If you are going to spend money on a trip to the polar regions, then you need to be prepared that you may not see them at all. Lots of conditions have to come together all at the same time and that’s not something that can be controls by us mere mortals. You should plan a trip with an itinerary that isn’t just focused on standing in a dark field looking upwards just in case!
Northern lights activity is common over Scandinavia and Iceland, so just by being in Iceland you have a better chance than many of us in the UK, as many disappointed sky-watchers discovered last month.
Tip 2: Visit Iceland in winter to see the Northern Lights
You can only see the northern lights when the sky is dark. This means that if you head to Iceland in the summer, you won’t be able to see them as the light created by the aurora is much weaker than sunlight and there’s around 20 hours of sunlight each day during summer in Iceland. With the sun never quite setting in summer, you just won’t get that pitch black needed to see the northern lights.
Tip 3: Don’t pay a tour company to see the Northern Lights
There appear to be quite a few tour companies all offering “northern lights safaris” within Reykjavik. We managed to see quite a few advertised wherever you looked, all with “local knowledge and expertise” about the best places to look. The reality is if there is 100% cloud in the sky, then even the tour companies can’t show you the northern lights and so it seems that their expertise is to simply look at the weather reports and know the areas to go with little light pollution. We heard that they offer those who pay, but didn’t see the lights, the chance to come back for free again until they do. However, with Reykjavik being a popular 3-night getaway, if you don’t see them in those three nights, that’s kind if it, unless you return again within two years.
The safaris in reality, are often coach-full of tourists, so if you like your experiences with a few hundred other people, then this is for you, otherwise we recommend hiring your own car and finding your own place to see the lights. We managed to see the lights in the south of Iceland (however, it’s not unheard of to see the lights in Reykjavik) whilst staying in a very lightly populated area by the mountains. There was no light pollution, apart from the hotel lights (which you can see below) and we had a 360 degree view of the whole sky.
Tip 4: Keep up to date on the weather daily
We looked at the aurora forecast, provided by the Icelandic Met Office: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/, every single day (even twice a day depending on how much the weather had changed in the day). First up, it tells you whether there has been much aurora activity. There has to be some magnetic storm activity for the aurora to show in our atmosphere (Lancs Uni explain it so much better here) and so, if there’s not much of that going on, even with the clearest of clear skies, you’re not going to see the lights.
If there is activity, then next up you have to hope that there clouds clear for you to see it. We were pretty sure one night that we could see some activity behind the clouds but it just wasn’t bright enough to really tell and the thicker the clouds got, the more doubtful we became.
Tip 5: If you see the Northern Lights, spend time looking, not taking pictures
So you got lucky? Everything has come into place! There’s solar activity, clear skies and it’s dark enough for you to see. Congratulations! When we saw the lights, we were sat in a hot tub thinking that first streak was a cloud. In fact, we were positive it was a cloud for about five minutes, until it twisted across the sky and stretched and contorted, with what looked like a mini green tornado at the horizon. There’s no picture of this because we didn’t have our camera at the time but the description is pretty accurate. We had neck ache from looking so much! The light pulsed in the sky, just like the stop-motion videos you can find of the northern lights on YouTube, but just much, much slower.
Only when we had to get out of the hot tub (as the owner wanted to drain it), did we run in and grab our cameras. It was worth just taking one on the DSLR as we weren’t sure if we’d see them again, but we’re glad we spent so much time just looking too. It’s worth noting that if you don’t have a camera that you can manually set the exposure with, there’s NO POINT taking pictures. Your smart phone won’t be able to pick up the light, your auto-flash will be useless and you would have wasted that time sodding about with equipment and not looking. There’s loads of really good tips for photographing the lights out there if you’re a shutter bug. If you’re not, then just enjoy the show!
So good luck to you and remember: Don’t worry if you don’t see the northern lights as Iceland is such an amazing country – you’ll want to go again. Trust us x