The Northern Lights are pretty cool. Like big, bright curtains dancing in the sky. I grew up watching them, and they still fill me with wonder every single time. I totally get why some people travel all the way to our little country at the edge of the world to see them. But they can be elusive, and many don’t really know where to begin. I get asked about this a lot when I meet visitors on my walking tours and other activities, so I wanted to put together a few tips for seeing the Northern Lights during your visit in Iceland.
Make a Plan
First of all, if you’re dead set on seeing the Northern Lights, and that’s a big part of the reason you want to visit Iceland, make sure you plan accordingly. Plan to try to see them early on in your visit, so you have plenty of time to try again. Obviously, the longer you stay, the better, if you want to maximize your chances to catch the Aurora, so I would plan to stay for at least a week.
There are of course no guarantees, so make sure you have realistic expectations. The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon, and it’s very hard to predict when and if you get a chance to see them. There are ways to increase your odds, but there is also a very real possibility that you’ll be disappointed. Iceland has many other great things to offer, so make sure you check out all the other great stuff you can do as well, in case you miss out on the Northern Lights.
That said, keep reading for some tips to maximize your odds.
Visit in November or December
You can see the Northern Lights any time it’s dark, really. But generally, if you ask the experts, they’ll tell you that November or December are the best months. Mostly because those are very dark months. In addition, January and February tend to have worse weather, so it’ll be more likely to be overcast. That said, as long as it is sometime between September and April, you always have at least some chance to see the Aurora. May through August are too bright, so that is obviously not the right time.
The general rule of thumb is that the more hours of darkness the day has, the longer you have to hunt down the Northern Lights. And in late December we have about 4 hours of sunlight per day, so you do the math.
Get Away From Electric Lights
Aurora Borealis come in varying degrees of strength. Some nights they’re very bright and easy to see, and other times they’re barely visible. For this reason it’s very important to get away from electric lights, because they make the Northern Lights much harder to see.
So take a little drive out of the city if you want to have the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights. It’s much likelier to see them when it’s pitch dark than in the lights of the town. Also, if you leave town, whether driving yourself or on a tour, it’ll be easier to find a clear sky – and obviously you need that if you want to see anything other than clouds.
Tours vs. Self Driving
There are many great companies that offer a variety of Northern Lights tours, to suit anybody’s tastes. Many also offer do-overs, so if you don’t see them one night, you can come back and try again, with no extra charge. In addition to basic bus tours there are also great options available, like Jeep tours or even to go by boat, which is magical. The guides on these tours are professionals who are very experienced when it comes to seeking out the Northern Lights. So I would certainly say that doing a scheduled tour can very much be worth it.
That said, there is also something to be said for renting a car and driving yourself. It gives you a wider time frame, for one thing. You can choose to stay out all night looking for the perfect area, if you like. You’re only limited by your ability to stay alert enough to drive safely.
Do keep in mind that conditions can be precarious on Icelandic highways in the wintertime. If you’re not experienced driving in ice and snow, I think you should probably stick with doing a scheduled tour with a professional driver. If you’re confident that you can handle it, however, I think driving yourself can be a great experience, however. And if there are a few of you it can save you some money, too.
Of course, there’s a bit more planning to do, if you decide to venture out on your own. You need to look at Aurora Forecasts (and do a bit of reading to make sure you interpret them correctly), weather forecasts and road conditions, and plan accordingly. Of course, you can use your phone to monitor this as you go along and keep updating your plan on the road. I recommend familiarizing yourself with these sites and keeping your plans fluid.
If you drive yourself, I can’t stress enough how important it is that you stay safe and do not underestimate the elements or the roads. In certain areas in Iceland the roads are very narrow, and in winter conditions they can get pretty tricky. Also, if you leave the main road it is very important that you let authorities know where you are, in case something happens. To that end, you should get the 112 app. It tracks you through your phone’s GPS, and in case something comes up, search and rescue can come get you in no time. You probably won’t need it, but in the unfortunate event that something does come up, it can literally save your life, so never leave the city without it.
Where to go?
One thing I want to stress is that you don’t need to go far to see the Northern Lights. I’ve seen some posts online suggesting that it’s better to go to the North of Iceland. I don’t think this is actually true. All of Iceland is very far north, and I don’t think there’s a better chance to see the Aurora if you go a few dozen kilometers further. Just make sure you find a place with clear skies, away from electric lights and where the Aurora forecast looks good. That might be south, rather than north, in fact.
Bringing a Camera Can Be Worth It
If you have a nice camera, bring it along. Cameras tend to see the Northern Lights a lot better than human eyes. If the lights are there, but pretty faint, your camera can probably pick them up a lot better. It can see colors in them that your eyes might miss, and they’ll look a lot brighter on your photos, especially if you nail the right settings. While it’s obviously not as magnificent as seeing bright Northern Lights with your own eyes, it can still make for some pretty great pictures, so a camera and a tripod are well worth it.
Aurora Reykjavik – The Northern Lights Center
If all else fails, the next best thing is to visit the Northern Lights Center. They have great exhibitions on the Northern Lights, including a very relaxing space where you can see them on projected on a big screen and listen to relaxing music, and great VR experiences that almost make you feel like your there. It’s obviously not the same as seeing them yourself, but it is a lot of fun (and pretty cheap too). If you don’t have any luck, or you happen to visit Iceland in the summer, I think it’s a great place to visit.
Well, that’s about it. I hope these tips for seeing the Northern Lights come in handy and help increase your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.