What It’s Really Like to Find the Northern Lights in Iceland
November 26, 2019
The northern lights. They’re absolutely magical. You know it. Seeing them is on everybody’s bucket list. You see the stunning photos all over the internet. You might think if you just go north far enough and look up into the sky at night, it will be full of blue and green dancing lights. Wrong! Seeing the northern lights is actually not an easy thing to do. While scientists can give their best guesses, it’s truly unpredictable and based on so many factors. Conditions have to be perfect. And even still, you’ll need a fair amount of luck. That’s why I’m going to share my hilarious, exhausting, and ultimately rewarding experience on my quest to find the northern lights in Iceland.
Where to Find the Northern Lights
Iceland is one of the places that is most famous for the northern lights, just as Scandinavia is. But you can also see the northern lights regularly in Canada and Alaska, and occasionally in the rest of the northern United States and United Kingdom. It’s also possible to find them in Russia and Greenland. Each country has their own legends about what the lights mean – which is fascinating. Keep reading to learn about some of them!
Side story: The summer after college I was living in Syracuse and I was just getting home, rather late in the evening. As I was walking into the house, I noticed some bright green light in the sky. What the heck? It seemed to move a little, but I was clueless as to what it was. It wasn’t until the next day that my questions were answered. It was the northern lights. A rare occurrence in Syracuse, the news reported that a large solar flare earlier in the week caused New Yorkers to get a glimmer of the dancing lights.
Because of the longer nights and angle of the earth compared to the sun, you’ll have the most luck finding the northern lights during late fall, winter, through early spring. September and October tend to be peak season in Iceland, so plan a trip later in the season to avoid the crowds and save money.
Legends of the Aurora Borealis
When I booked our tour for the northern lights, it included a visit to Aurora Reyjkavik – The Northern Lights Center. I was so grateful it did, because it gave us some history about the lights and the way they are interpreted around the world. Not to mention the amazing photography and scientific explanations! Give yourself about an hour to enjoy the museum and read all of the information. It’s definitely helpful to visit before you go exploring to find the northern lights!
For my fellow craft beer lovers, don’t miss Bryggjan Brughus across the street from Aurora Reykjavik. It’s one of the rare places to find craft beer in Reykjavik and a great place to hang out. We spent a fair amount of time there chatting with our fellow American, bartender Donbird.
The Northern Lights Tour
First of all, just because you book a northern lights tour, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen! This is SO important. Because sometimes the weather just won’t cooperate and there is no reason to waste the company’s time or yours, so tours are always tentative. Be sure to keep an eye on the company’s website (and/or your email) to see if the tour is planning to go on as scheduled. With that said, be sure to book your northern lights tour earlier in your trip rather than later. That way, if the tour is canceled or you just don’t see the lights, you have time for a back up.
Pro tip: You can also keep an eye on the aurora forecast in the days leading up to your tour. Because the solar flares take a few days to be noticed on Earth, scientists are pretty good at predicting the lights’ activity a few days in advance. There is a 10-point scale that indicates the likelihood of seeing the northern lights.
No two northern lights chasing tours are the same. The bus drivers and tour guides check the weather and the radar to see where they think they’ll have the best chance of seeing activity. It should be no surprise that the trips venture out into the countryside, since you need to get away from the ambient city light. But, you might venture an hour north, east, or west of Reykjavik trying to find the best spot. The good tour companies operate multiple buses each night, and the tour guides are in constant communication about what spots are good or bad so they can adjust. Long story short, get comfy on the bus and be prepared for a long drive.
It’s likely that if the skies aren’t perfectly clear and you’re not having much luck finding the lights, your tour will make multiple stops throughout the night. And don’t expect that just because you make a stop that you will see lights. Sometimes you’ll stop with the hope that the skies will clear up and you’ll see something. Patience is key!
Don’t worry about being bored when you stop and there aren’t any lights. That just means it’s snacktime! At least, that’s what it meant on my tour with BusTravel Iceland. Because I did my tour in winter, snacktime meant hot cocoa and cookies. Yum! But the tour guides also offered another snack… fermented shark. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds disgusting. And…. it is. Seriously though. It smelled really bad and tasted worse. But, as the guides say, if you want to ‘be a viking’, you’ll try fermented shark! So…. we did. Part of me regrets it and was happy to wash it down with cocoa. Even the little bite was strong. But then again, travel is all about new food and experiences, so why not?
What if you don’t see the lights?
Luckily, most companies operating northern lights tours understand the difficulties and unpredictability of seeing the lights. The conditions have to be just right based on solar activity and local weather. So if you don’t see the lights on your trip, you’ll be able to go again for free. Until you see them. No matter how many tries that takes!
Our first night we didn’t see the lights.
Our second night we didn’t see the lights.
On our third night, we were exhausted. We only had one more night left in our jam-packed week in Reykjavik. It wasn’t looking good. My friends had given up and were too exhausted to go a fourth time. Our tour guide had had high hopes of seeing the lights, but after two stops we’d had no luck.
Then… a miracle happened. Our bus driver pulled off the side of the highway and our guide shouted for everyone to get off the bus. We were half asleep, but boy did we wake up fast! We scurried off the bus, bypassing the people who thought it was another false alarm. Once we were outside, it was magical. The sky near the horizon was bright green, and the colors really did dance in the sky. Because the street lights were in the way, we ran across the highway (in retrospect, probably not our wisest decision in the middle of the night) to get a better view across the road. It was magical. I honestly could have stayed there for hours staring up at the sky.
But don’t be fooled
The northern lights were magical. Truly. But I want to be honest with you. It’s not going to look like it does in all those amazing photos you see online. It takes years of practice, some high quality camera equipment, and a lot of luck to get those photos. Most of the photos on travel blogs use stock images because they just can’t capture the beauty. So when you see the northern lights, appreciate them and understand that you’re lucky to see them. Don’t worry about getting the perfect photo, or that it doesn’t seem as bright as you imagined, just be grateful that you were lucky enough to see the natural wonder.
Your tour guide will probably give you some advice on how to get the best photos of the northern lights. Longer shutter speeds, a higher ISO, and low aperture are the key settings. There are also some apps that say they help, but you can see my results below. (Plus I was in a rush to get photos, so I got frazzled playing with settings!) But it’s also important to know that the pictures don’t do it justice. Not even close. Make sure that you spend time away from the lens to just take it all in and enjoy the natural beauty.
Have you ever seen the northern lights? Where? Tell me about it in the comments or share your photos with me by email!