Also known as Auroras, the Northern Lights are one of the most stunning shows nature can offer, but also some of the most elusive and unpredictable. What causes the aurora borealis to appear? Where can you see them? When do you have the best chances of seeing them? Here’s my little guide to chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland so that you can too witness this unique and breath-taking phenomenon.
Featured photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash.
As I mentioned in my yearly review, seeing the Northern Lights had been on my bucket-list for the longest time, and being able to see them in 2022, during my 6-day trip to Iceland was nothing short of a dream come true. I visited Iceland between February and March, and while we tried not to get our hopes up about Northern Lights, we certainly tried to maximise our chances of seeing them. So here’s everything that I learnt and experienced!
- What are Northern Lights?
- Where can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
- When can you see the Northern Lights?
- What is the best way to see the Northern Lights?
- Is a Northern Lights tour worth it?
What are Northern Lights?
Let’s start with the basics. The Northern Lights, also called aurora borealis or just “auroras”, are a natural phenomenon that occurs at night in the Northernmost regions of the Earth. They look like giant streaks and flows of light dancing in the sky and are usually green but can be of many different colours (red, pink, blue, etc.).
Simply put, this stunning light show is the result of solar particles ejected from the Sun, reaching our atmosphere and being deflected to the Earth’s magnetic fields (North and South pole). Then, when these particles collide with our atmosphere, it creates the beautiful display that we all know. The different colours of the auroras correspond to the different gases that you can find in our atmosphere!
Catching auroras in Iceland
Where can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
To witness nature’s most beautiful light show, you’ll need to get as close as possible to the North pole, and Iceland is perfect for it because you can see the auroras pretty much everywhere on the island, thanks to its proximity to the Arctic circle.
However, the main condition to see the Northern Lights is to have dark skies, so if you want to maximise your chances of seeing them, it is ideal to find a place with little to no light pollution. Luckily, there are plenty of such places in Iceland, and you can see them even if you are in Reykjavik, but driving a bit further away is recommended if you want to be sure to see them.
When can you see the Northern Lights?
The first thing to keep in mind when talking about auroras, is that they are unpredictable. This means that you could be there at the perfect time, in the perfect place, and still you won’t see any. It also means that one could last just a few seconds or a lot more. There is no way to know in advance.
Now that this has been said: when is the best time to see the Northern Lights? Here are the two main conditions to be met:
- The sky has to be dark, so the best time of the year to see them is from September to April, when the nights are longer. It can happen in other months too, but the chances to actually see them are much slimmer.
- The sky has to be clear: you won’t be able to see auroras in the middle of a snow storm, so you’ll just have to wait and hope for a clear night where you can see the stars. It doesn’t matter if there are some small clouds here and there though!
To help you in your Northern Lights quest, you can refer to the Aurora forecast website for Iceland, which shows you the cloud coverage of the island and the forecasted aurora activity on a scale of 0 to 9.
What is the best way to see the Northern Lights?
Once all of the above conditions are met, it is pretty simple to see the Northern Lights: you just have to look at the sky and you might be blessed with this stunning sight. You can be lucky and just “stumble upon” an aurora unexpectedly, but you can also go about chasing them and try to wait outside for a bit. It goes without saying that if you decide to do this, you should wear appropriate warm clothes and stay close to your car/accommodation as the weather can change very quickly.
Another option is to book a “Northern Lights tour”, where an experienced guide will take a group of people to chase the auroras in specific places. They are very popular and you can find hundreds of them that also combine visits of other famous landmarks. We opted for a simple one, the “Northern Lights Bus Tour from Reykjavik” on GetYourGuide, that I would really recommend because it is quite cheap but really convenient! If you are wondering whether you should book such a tour, here are my thoughts below!
Is a Northern Lights tour worth it?
There are different things to consider when deciding to book a Northern Lights tour: your budget, your itinerary, whether you have a car or not and of course the number of days you have overall in Iceland. I personally would highly recommend it, especially if it’s your first time in Iceland, if you don’t have a lot of time there or if you are only staying in the capital.
From my experience, we would not have seen the Northern Lights if we hadn’t booked a tour, even though we had a car and had some nights in the middle of nowhere with clear skies. This is because our guide knew how to recognise a faint aurora from the beginning. So when he saw a very faint green light, he knew it was the beginning of an aurora that would get brighter and brighter, taking up the entire sky. And in fact it did, and it was one of the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
Important tip: if you book a “Northern Lights tour”, make sure that it offers the possibility to reschedule a second tour if you can’t see the auroras on the first one. Then, try to book the first tour at the beginning of your stay, so you still have time to do a second one!
The Northern Lights are one of the most stunning displays of nature and a unique, bucket-list-worthy experience. Some people are lucky and see an unexpected aurora on a random night, while others go on tours several times before they catch their first glimpse of them.
So, if you’re planning a winter trip to Iceland with the sole purpose of seeing an aurora, you might very well be disappointed, but there are still so many amazing things you can see! To get more ideas of things to look forward to during tour trip, you can read my list of the best things about winter in Iceland and keep your fingers crossed for the Northern Lights!