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Northern Lights Travel Guide

Green aurora borealis

Delicate ribbons of colour dance across the Arctic sky: These are the northern lights in Norway.

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.

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.

Want more? No problem! You can download How to see the Northern Lights: an exclusive eBook by Life in Norway. Designed for tablets and smartphones, this PDF digital download also looks great on larger screens with plenty of full-colour photography to inspire your trip planning. Download it now

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.

Aurora borealis above a frozen landscape

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!

Skagsanden beach in Lofoten
Lofoten

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.

Want more? No problem! You can download How to see the Northern Lights: an exclusive eBook by Life in Norway. Designed for tablets and smartphones, this PDF digital download also looks great on larger screens with plenty of full-colour photography to inspire your trip planning. Download it now

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.

Search for hotels in Tromsø

Search for hotels in 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.

Waiting for the aurora on a beach outside Tromsø
Waiting for the aurora on a beach outside Tromsø

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 across the Swedish and Finnish borders to find those elusive clear skies.

Want more? No problem! You can download How to see the Northern Lights: an exclusive eBook by Life in Norway. Designed for tablets and smartphones, this PDF digital download also looks great on larger screens with plenty of full-colour photography to inspire your trip planning. Download it now

What to pack

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.

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

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.”

Want more? No problem! You can download How to see the Northern Lights: an exclusive eBook from Life in Norway. Designed for tablets and smartphones, this PDF digital download also looks great on larger screens with plenty of full-colour photography to inspire your trip planning. Download it now

Inspired to see the northern lights in Norway? Why not share your plans on Pinterest? There's a pin for that:

Northern Lights in Norway

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

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