Witnessing the northern lights (aurora borealis) in Norway has always been at the top of my travel bucketlist. And in January 2016, I finally got to tick this off – three times over!
I don’t think I – or anyone for that matter – could ever get sick of watching the aurora dance night after night. When my husband and I went on an aurora hunt three nights in a row, we got to learn a few things from the guides, travellers we crossed paths with and ‘The Green Lady’ herself, and I thought I’d share these with you.
For those who are unaware, January is well into the Norwegian winter season. Add the polar nights on top of that when the sun just doesn’t rise (at least in Northern Norway where Tromsø is located) and you got yourself a ‘perfect’ setting for an aurora sighting!
DISCLAIMER: Although this post is specific to our experience in the area of Tromsø or Tromsøya, these tips are quite general and can be used as a guide in other aurora hunting spots.
Also, I don’t believe in ‘how to’ guides to seeing the northern lights because IT IS OUT OF YOUR CONTROL.
1. Dress for the occasion
The elements are unpredictable. You may feel comfortable, warm and cozy in your getup when you leave your AirBNB/hotel/hostel, but let me tell you: Mother Nature can be quite a b*tch!
Before we left Sydney, we bought a range of 80-100% Merino wool base layers (gloves, shirts, long johns, socks, scarves) to wear under our well-worn The North Face TriClimate jackets and insulated pants, thinking these would suffice. WRONG! When you’re aurora hunting for up to 10 hours night after night, you will start to feel the effects of the arctic winds/temperatures, snow and simply being in the open air. We were also averaging 4 hours of sleep because we were out and about all the time, so we were crashing and burning.
To give you an idea of what I wore: (head) merino base layer beanie, acrylic beanie, MyBuff merino bandana mask; (top) 2 base layer tops, wool jumper, The North Face TriClimate; (bottom) 2 base layers/long johns, insulated pants; (footwear) merino socks and The North Face hiking boots.
When you go on these aurora tours, they will provide you with the option to wear their bright insulated overalls and boots. You take that option. I mean it. Most guides will also provide some snacks (biscuits, sandwiches, sausages) and warm beverages (coffee, tea, hot chocolate), and a fire for you to thaw out. When you go on aurora hunts independently (for budget or travel-style reasons), then I suggest you rug up and hope to hell you know how to start a warm fire!
Also, you can purchase disposable hand/body/foot warmers from local sports and travel stores. These are great for providing additional/retaining warmth. We love The Heat Company as their warmers last for up to 12 hours.
I also recommend purchasing or hiring traction cleats/spikes for your shoes to stop you from sliding on ice/or help you walk in the snow. If you have the funds, there are also shoes you can get which have the spikes already incorporated.
Just another note on footwear: don’t wear them so tight. Leave room for the air to circulate so that your feet won’t sweat. You can have the warmest socks in the world but the second your feet sweat, it will be difficult to get them warm again. Sweaty feet = freezing feet = bye bye feet.
2. Northern lights is a beautiful phenomenon, but also one of the most unpredictable
When you’re planning your trip and scouring the web for inspiration, it’s hard not to get sucked in by all of the jaw-dropping images of the aurora borealis doing her thing. True, there are some websites and apps you can use that predict Kp levels, solar activity etc but use these only as a guide. Reality is, it’s up to a gazillion factors on whether The Green Lady will grace you with her presence.
If you want to know what causes the aurora borealis, I recommend visiting the Polaria Museum/Aquarium when you get to Tromsø. They often show a 15min 3D film on the northern lights. Alternatively, check out EarthSky.com for some insights.
3. You can only do so much, such as check the forecast, weather and Kp levels
Again, certain factors are just out of your control – such as the weather, for instance. You could have the highest Kp level reading in history but if there’s too much light pollution, or the clouds are hovering, chances are you probably won’t see it.
There’s also the issue of timing. The first night we went, the lights danced for nearly 4 hours! The second night went for much the same, but the third night, we were only treated to 1.5 hours.
4. Take a decent tripod and camera and practice, practice, practice
I shouldn’t talk – I only know how to point-and-shoot! Luckily, we met travellers along the way who were able to teach us the basics. In hindsight, I should’ve taken the time to learn the functions and settings on my Olympus OMD E-M1 before we left home.
But, if you’re like me and know nothing about cameras, it’s also ok to sit back and enjoy the show. I will always remember lying on my back in the snow by the beach in Tromsø, accompanied by a hump back whale singing close by, and watching the aurora dance for hours.
Although, I was quite perplexed seeing some travellers who only had their smartphones to capture the northern lights…
5. If you see her once, go again
Aurora hunting is addictive!
Once you see and experience it for yourself, I guarantee you will find yourself planning for the next night, and the next night, and the night after! If you choose to go with guides, I recommend trying different ones as they all have their own special aurora hunting spots. Often, they will also go into the borders of Sweden and Finland so depending on who you go with, make sure you bring your passport.
I spoke to a number of solo travellers who recommended Prestvannet lake or Telegrafbukta beach if you want to go solo hunting. Both are roughly 3o-40 minutes walk from Tromsø city.
6. Everyone has their beliefs, superstitions, folklore or native tales about the northern lights
Did you know that many see the phenomenon as good luck or good omen? The Chinese and Japanese cultures believe that a child conceived under the watchful eye of the northern lights will be blessed with good fortunes.
And then there’s also the bad luck and association with war, destruction and bloodshed. But we won’t go into that!
7. Don’t go for the sole purpose of seeing the northern lights; go for the destination
Why am I saying this? Well if you skipped passed point #2, then you need to go back and read it. Over and over.
As I mentioned previously, I have met Norwegians residing in various parts of Norway who’ve never laid eyes on the northern lights. Ever. So keep busy and look outside the box, as there are tons of winter activities to do in and around Tromsø or whichever region you’ve chosen. I would hate for you to plan a trip in the northern hemisphere just to see the aurora and to have her not show up at all!
I will upload a separate post on an example itinerary over the next few days, based on our experience.
Featured Image: One of the images taken by Jacek of Green Fox Guiding on our northern lights tour 4th January 2016