We answer your questions on how to see the northern lights in Norway. From where the best places are to the best time to visit, this is your guide to seeing nature's light show.
After hours of searching, just as your hope is declining, you see it. A thin streak of pale green just above the mountain. Minutes later, delicate ribbons of colour dance across the Arctic sky in complete silence.
The aurora borealis is a major tourist attraction for northern Scandinavia, and Norway in particular. The internet is filled with great northern lights photography, which has placed an aurora-hunting trip top of so many people's bucket lists.
In fact, people travel all the way from Asia to see the lights. The numbers travelling from this part of the world had increased for several years prior to the global travel disruption of 2020-21.
But planning a trip to see them isn't so easy. The lights are not an attraction that you can just turn up to like a theme park or museum. There is no set schedule.
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What the lights actually are
Northern lights are caused by electrons streaming out from the sun in a solar wind. When they are caught by the Earth’s magnetic field, the electrons are forced into the polar atmosphere where they collide with atoms and molecules.
This collision creates tiny emissions of light. When that happens billions of times, it culminates in the lights we see from the ground.
If you monitor the Sun and observe strong disruptions, you can expect a display of northern lights a couple of days later. Although predicting the lights sounds technical, thanks to modern technology it’s no more difficult than checking the weather forecast.
Search for the ideal northern lights tour in Norway
In fact, that’s what you’re doing, checking the sun’s weather forecast looking for solar winds. Several websites predict the light display and although it’s not an exact science, it does give you a realistic idea of whether you can expect a display over the coming few nights.
My favourite resource for space weather watching is Aurora Service Europe. Most of the websites and app use the same source data so the differences are mainly down to presentation. Try a few and find your favourite.
What the lights really look like
On a recent cruise to Northern Norway, I met several people who were underwhelmed with what they saw. “But did you say that with the naked eye?” was all they would say when they saw our photos.
It’s a fair question. Photographs of the northern lights almost always make them appear a more intense colour. I thought that was a well-understood fact, but apparantly not!
This isn’t any kind of trick. It works exactly the same when photographing any city scene at night with a modern camera. Colours and light will always appear more intense on your camera screen than they do through your eyes.
But that’s not the end of the story. Most people complaining simply stuck their head out on deck, saw what they saw, and went inside. The truth about night vision for humans is it can take a long time for your eyes to adjust. Up to 15 minutes, I’m told.
I realised this when looking at stars from the ship. A friend of mine commented he could only see three or four, whereas I could see loads. I told him just to wait a few minutes. Then he was shocked! Suddenly he could see the night sky full of stars. Nothing had changed. His eyes had just taken time to adjust.
When you consider this together with the fact that the northern lights are always changing, it’s easy to understand why someone who doesn’t take the time will be underwhelmed.
Where and when to go
The most important thing to state upfront is there is absolutely no guarantee of seeing the northern lights in Norway wherever you go. However, it's true to say that you can do several things to increase your chances.
The basic requirements are simple: total darkness and a clear sky. This immediately rules out the summer months in northern Norway, as the midnight sun ensures light throughout the season, day and night.
It also means you should avoid coastal areas as there is a higher chance of cloud cover, and get away from the ambient light of built-up areas.
Luckily, Arctic Norway is made up of miles and miles of remote wilderness, offering some excellent vantage spots. The Lofoten islands are a top choice to enjoy surfing under the northern lights, if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time!
You should also avoid midwinter when the worst weather tends to hit the region. September-October and February-March are generally accepted to be the best times to chase the aurora borealis.
Where to stay
Chasing the northern lights is an incredible experience. Although seeing them can never be guaranteed, one thing can be: you will get cold.
Sometimes you will be standing outside in the cold for hours, and not matter how well dressed you are, you are going to feel the chill.
It really is worth investing in a hotel for a northern lights chase, and in the north of Norway that normally means Tromsø, or if you really don't mind the cold, Alta.
I've seen the lights overhead from the city centre of Tromsø so it's definitely possible to enjoy a display without leaving the city, but your chances increase drastically the further away you go.
Still, the small yet lively city of Tromsø makes an excellent base for your nighttime adventures. For one thing, there's plenty more to see and do in and around Tromsø. So, if the lights don't come out to play, you'll still enjoy your trip.
How to see the northern lights in Norway
The big decision to make is whether you take a guided tour or try going solo. If you have a car, it's worth considering a solo adventure, otherwise stick with a tour group.
Most groups are small and are facilitated by expert chasers who use the very latest technology to know when and where to drive.
Some groups have been known to travel hundreds of kilometres in one night. Some even drive across the Swedish and/or Finnish borders in order to find that elusive clear sky. Search for a northern lights tour here.
What to pack for northern lights travel
If you are joining an organised tour group, warm clothes, food and drink are normally provided (do check!) but nevertheless it is sensible to dress warmly. If in doubt, ask your tour provider what they recommend.
Many groups offer an outer layer body suit, but you will still need to be wearing at least three layers on top and two on the bottom. Good quality base layers are highly advisable, as is a woollen jumper, thick gloves, thick socks and sturdy boots.
A torch will come in handy, and if you bring a camera it is advisable to bring a spare battery, but keep that spare battery wrapped inside a sock or something else snug!
How to photograph the aurora borealis
I asked Trine Risvik, a guide from Tromsø Friluftsenter, how to take the perfect photo.
“You need a camera that is able to have a long shutter speed and a low aperture, which means generally a mid-range SLR camera, although the newer semi-automatic cameras that offer you a higher shutter speed and a lower aperture will give you most of what you need.”
“If there is a strong, playful northern light, you can accept a higher ISO and a shorter shutter speed, but with fainter, slower light, you need long exposure time and a lower ISO. Either way, you need as lower aperture as possible.”
Search for the ideal northern lights tour in Norway
Since I spoke with Trine, there have been astonishing advancements made in camera technology. That’s especially true in smartphones. The latest pro-level smartphones from the likes of Apple and Samsung have the capability to take fantastic photos of the northern lights.
But that doesn’t mean every smartphone camera will. So, set your expectations appropriately!
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