Northern Lights in Alaska - Talkeetna – Paxson Woelber via Flickr
Aurora Guide

11 Things You Need to Know to See the Northern Lights

Seeing the aurora is on your bucket list, right? Heck – it’s one of the most popular bucket list activities in the world! Watching the northern lights dance across an inky black sky dotted with countless stars… It sounds like a dream. But it’s real – and it’s really possible to see the northern lights.

I grew up in Alaska, which is part of what inspired me to be so interested in astronomy, space travel, and now astrotourism and space tourism. I was fortunate to see the northern lights frequently as a kid, and I’ll be honest – I took it for granted. Now that I’m older, I know how much I should appreciate those memories, and I’ve started traveling to see the aurora again in different parts of the world.

Based on my own experience “chasing” the aurora (people who love to see the aurora are often called “aurora chasers), I’ve put together this list of essential tips to see the northern lights. Some will make a ton of sense, others will surprise you, and hopefully you’ll feel better equipped to plan your own aurora trip.

Featured photo credit: Paxson Woelber via Flickr

1. You Need Travel to a Northern Latitude

Northern Lights in Russia - Unsplash

As their name suggests, the Northern Lights are visible in the northern hemisphere. (There are also Southern Lights that are visible in the southern hemisphere, but they occur due to the same phenomena.)

That means you’ll likely need to travel north to see the Northern Lights, unless you already live in an area where the aurora is visible. The aurora is visible on a band that circles the earth in the northern latitudes; this is called the auroral oval. The auroral oval is based on the geomagnetic (north) pole, which is not the same as the geographic north pole. Also, as an oval the aurora is not distributed equally at the same latitudes around the globe; the aurora is seen roughly around the 65°N latitude in Scandinavia, and at the 50°N latitude for North America.

On occasion, the aurora has been seen as far south as 35°N, but this has only been during times of strong solar and aurora activity – which is rare.

There are so many incredible places to see the northern lights, it’s hard to choose which ones to recommend. I have a list of the best places to see the northern lights, but here are my top:

  1. Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
  2. Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
  3. Thingvellir, Iceland
  4. Tromsø, Norway
  5. Murmansk (Мурманск), Russia

But seriously, it’s so hard to choose only five; check out all of my aurora guides for tons more places.

2. Northern Lights Occur Year-Round…

Northern Lights in Finalnd - Nellim - Angeline You via Flickr

Most people are surprised to learn that the northern lights occur year-round. Yes, even tonight, the aurora might be happening at those northern latitudes I just mentioned.

After all, the sun is active every single day, emitting the solar wind that causes the northern lights. For this reason, the earth’s magnetic field captures and funnels the solar particles to the high atmosphere all the time.

So why can’t we see the aurora year-round at those northern locations? As you might have guessed…

3. … But They’re Only Visible When it’s Dark

Northern Lights in Canada

The northern lights are only visible when it’s dark enough to see them – even though the aurora can occur any time the solar activity is strong enough.

Because of the earth’s axial tilt, we experience seasons; those seasons are more dramatic for the far northern (and far southern) latitudes. This is why the arctic and antarctic have long summers and long winters.

During those long winters in the northern hemisphere, it’s dark enough for long enough to see the northern lights regularly, if the solar activity is strong enough to cause the aurora.

What does this mean? You need to plan your aurora trip during the dark seasons in the northern hemisphere: late autumn, winter, and early spring.

5. There are Aurora Forecast Tools…

Northern Lights in Ireland - Malin Head - Michael Gill for Tourism Ireland
Photo credit: Michael Gill for Tourism Ireland

Once you’ve settled on the place you want to see the northern lights, you want to maximize your chances to see the aurora. To help, there are a number of aurora forecast tools. Many are localized to a specific country or region, but others will help you understand your chances of seeing the northern lights anywhere in the world.

Some of the tools I recommend the most include:

5. …But They’re not 100% Accurate

How to See the Northern Lights - Faint Aurora over Acadia National Park

Even with all these great tools, a strong forecast, and the perfect conditions, there’s no guarantee you’ll see the northern lights right after you step outside on that one night you’ve chosen to try to see the aurora.

The reality is that some people spend years chasing the aurora, because even when everything seems perfect scientists can’t guarantee the aurora will be visible. This can be for a number of reasons, but in short, it’s important to remember that there are no guarantees about seeing the aurora.

Instead it’s important to plan patience into your aurora trip: plan to spend the time it takes – whether that’s multiple hours or multiple nights – to try and see the northern lights.

6. If You Can, Be Flexible in Travel Plans

How to See the Aurora - Northern Lights and Clouds in Scotland - Michal Ziembicki via Flickr
Photo credit: Michal Ziembicki via Flickr

As such, try to be as flexible as you can in the logistics of your aurora travel plans. What I mean by this is to plan a day or two extra into your trip in case the northern lights aren’t visible on the first night you plan to try and see them.

Here are two stories to demonstrate why you want some flexibility.

  • On my northern lights trip to Alaska, I had three nights to try and see the aurora (which is what I recommend) and saw the aurora every single night.
  • I’ve heard of people who have spent a week in Iceland during peak season and not seen the northern lights even once.

I recommend giving yourself at least three nights in a given aurora destination to try and see the northern lights. If you only have one or two nights and the skies aren’t clear or the aurora isn’t strong, you’ll regret not giving it just one more night. Obviously, if you can spend even longer, that’s better!

7. Plan for Cold Weather

How to See the Northern Lights in Finland - Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr

Speaking of planning, in general, I advise planning for cold weather. While you don’t have to visit arctic destinations to see the northern lights, visiting the northern latitudes during the darker months of the year means that in general it’s likely to be cold. Let’s just say this: you can leave your sunglasses and shorts at home.

That said, there are some great windows to try and see the northern lights when it isn’t the frozen heart of winter. Aurora activity actually peaks around the equinoxes (September 20 and March 20); in some aurora destinations, that’s still relatively balmy autumn or spring.

If you need more specific advice, I always recommend packing layers. It’s much easier to take layers off if it’s not freezing – but if it’s -25°F like I experienced in Fairbanks on my most recent aurora trip, you’ll be glad to have them!

8. You Often Have to Stay Up Late to See the Northern Lights

How to See the Northern Lights - Aurora and Star Trails in the Yukon - Naoki Natsume/Ishii via Flickr
Photo credit: Naoki Natsume/Ishii via Flickr

I’ve mentioned it already, but the aurora doesn’t appear based on a forecast or schedule. That means that sometimes during your attempts to see the northern lights, you’re going to stay up late… like really late. Several nights on my last aurora trip, I was up until 2 or 3 am! Aurora activity tends to peak around midnight local time, when the sun is shining on the opposite side of the earth. So you’ll need to stay up until then to even see the aurora start to be visible, and the best shows often occur much later.

(There are also lots of one-off stories from long-time aurora chasers about incredible northern lights just after sunset or just before sunrise. That does happen too, but it’s less common and you want to plan for the most likely scenario for your northern lights trip.)

9. …So Don’t Plan Morning Activities On Your Aurora Trip

If you’re staying up until 2 or 3am, and then have to peel off all your winter layers, brush your teeth, and crawl into bed… you’re going to be tired in the morning! Give yourself a break and try not to plan any activities, flights, or meals in the morning if seeing the aurora is your number one goal. You’ll thank me later for this tip!

10. Explore Your Destination During the Day

How to See the Northern Lights - Northwest Territories - Anson Chappell via Flickr
Photo credit: Anson Chappell via Flickr

Despite the last two points, I want to wrap this up with one more travel tip: don’t make your trip 100% focused on seeing the northern lights. Be sure to plan some fun daytime activities too! This will be a bonus if you do have great chances to see the aurora; if the weather stinks or the aurora is weak you’ll be glad to have other fun activities to enjoy during the times between your aurora chasing sessions.

Given that the aurora destinations are all in northern latitudes with interesting cultures, you might research activities like:

  • Dog sledding
  • Reindeer encounters
  • Indigenous, Native, or First Nations cultural activities
  • Snow sports

This is just meant to inspire you! While seeing the northern lights is part of your goal, you should also learn about and appreciate the rest of what each aurora destination has to offer.

11. The Northern Lights Look Different in Photos

How to See the Aurora - The Aurora Hunter via Flickr
Photo credit: The Aurora Hunter via Flickr

Last, and definitely not least, don’t let these photos fools you. The photos I selected for this post are gorgeous, right? But the aurora doesn’t look like that to our eyes.

Cameras are much better able to capture the photons of light and render them in colors than the human eye, so aurora photos always look more impressive than the in-person experience. That shouldn’t deter you from trying to see the northern lights though! It’s still an awe-inspiring experience.

You can also try your hand at aurora photography: here’s my guide on how to do that.

Those are the things I need everyone needs to know before planning a trip to see the northern lights. Do you have any questions about your own aurora chasing plans? Let me know in the comments!

Share this to help others enjoy the night sky!

Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She decided to start the site after realizing how many friends and family had never seen the Milky Way, and that space tourism was going to unlock the next great travel destination: space!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *