7 Tips for Your Northern Lights Expedition
You’ve decided to cross this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity off your bucket list, so what’s the next step?
A trip to see the northern lights is like no ordinary weekend escape for a student studying abroad. There’s much more you’ll need than a simple plane ticket and a hostel booking.
Whether you’re planning to see the spectacle in Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia or perhaps Russia, you’re going to need some luck and some good planning beforehand. My friend and I travelled to see the northern lights in the remote Arctic Circle of Sweden in a small town called Abisko, which only has a population of 80. The northern lights themselves are unpredictable and there’s never a surefire way to tell when exactly they’ll come out. When you’re making a trip to see the auroras, which are often in remote places farther north than you’ve ever been to before, you want to make sure you’re doing whatever you can to maximize your chances of seeing them. We got lucky and saw them on both of the days we were up north in Sweden. Along the way, many lessons were learned.
Here are 7 basic tips to make the most out of this special trip:
1) Bring a camera
Simple advice, but bring a camera. A good one.
We thought we would be safe bringing our iPhones and that we would be taking selfies in no time. Photographing the northern lights turns out to actually be an art form. The green auroras illuminate the sky and are a treat for the eyes, but that doesn’t mean the same for standard cameras. Most phone cameras are incapable of capturing the auroras. Excuse me while sounding technical, but to capture the northern lights on-camera, you’ll need a digital or DSLR camera that has a high ISO and exposure. Low light photography is a challenge in itself, as to get it right without creating blurry photos you’ll also need a standard tripod. The air in the Arctic is frigid, so holding that camera still is just twice as hard as it always is.
Be familiar with your DSLR’s settings. Play around with it at night at home before going up north. It’s much wiser to practice taking photos of stars and the moon at home before even attempting to shoot the auroras on vacation. For the inexperienced photographer, we recommend taking photo tours offered by companies near the auroras. They have the settings on their high quality cameras already perfected and will take you to the best spots to see the auroras. We recommend Lights Over Lapland in Abisko, Sweden.
2) Dress warm. Really warm.
Being a Canadian from one of the coldest capital cities in the world didn’t stop my eyelids from freezing shut. My friend from Rome bought entirely new gear for the trip – snow pants, a ski mask and some ski gloves. I scoffed at all the gear – again, being Canadian. The weather isn’t uncomfortably cold, but face it: you’re outside for hours looking in the wilderness for the auroras at night. Cover up and don’t underestimate the Arctic. When I was skiing outside by myself for just 10 minutes while my friend was having hot cocoa, one of my eyelids froze shut. That was just 10 minutes. Which brings me to my next point.
3) Travel with a friend
I’m a self-proclaimed advocate for solo travel. I love it and it’s how I travel probably 75% of the time. But when you’re up north in complete darkness in a town that maybe has only about 80 people, cabin fever and this overwhelming feeling of isolation can get to you. As well, you’re going to be outdoors a lot in the pitch black in an open wilderness you’re not familiar with. Snow covers the entire landscape and you sometimes never know what you’re walking across. You can be walking over a shallow lake and not even know it. Have a friend come along, share the experience with them. They might even have a backpack with extra gloves for you to share. That’s how best friends are made in the Arctic.
4) Brace yourself for the unexpected
I wish I could tell you when the best time to see the northern lights is. I’d be the most famous travel blogger on the internet, as no one – not even top scientists – have been able to answer that question. Nature’s unpredictable and the northern lights aren’t the exception. We were lucky to have seen the northern lights on each of our two days in Swedish Lapland. Very lucky. Some tourists will come to the Arctic and never see them because of cloud cover. Nothing’s in your control, but don’t fret. You’re making a unique gamble when booking your flight to the Arctic. To keep your odds high, we recommend you plan a three day trip just to be safe.
Don’t arrive pessimistically, though. You can be surprised pleasantly. I remember all of the tourists in our hostel were sitting around drinking coffee talking about how the lights were never going to come out one day. After all, we hadn’t seen them all day. A guy in a sweater and snow pants stormed into the kitchen with the widest smile. “Come!” he shouted. And there they were, as if the sky had exploded – the green lights all over the sky just outside the door of the kitchen.
5) Go between January and March
Planning a trip to see the northern lights is a gamble. Like all gambles, there’s always ways to increase the odds. To do that you have to travel between January and March. The Arctic is a place of extremes and the amount of sunlight in the winter and summer proves just that. When the Sun does come out in the spring and summer months, it never goes away. The phenomenon is known as the Midnight Sun, in which the Sun never fully sets. Most Swedes in the Arctic have to invest in serious blinds to sleep properly. On the other hand, in winter, places like Swedish Lapland become engulfed in almost complete darkness between the months of January and March. The northern lights can only be seen by the naked eye during these periods of darkness, so naturally January and March are ideal times. You can always try between September and December as well. I especially recommend these months to those who don’t want to bear the bitter cold.
6) Plan and book early
This isn’t your weekend trip to Paris. Despite the isolation of the Arctic, you’ll realize that you weren’t the first to put the northern lights on your bucket list. Hostel space is limited in small Arctic towns, especially during the high tourist months of January and February. These small, remote places weren’t made to accommodate thousands at a single time. We recommend booking your flights and accommodation at least a month in advance. If you’re going to be seeing the northern lights in Scandinavia, take SAS Airlines from any major Scandinavian city to an airport in an Arctic location. Students can get up to 40% discounts off tickets, making a trip to an otherwise remote location inexpensive.
7) Don’t just go for the auroras
It’s all about the journey and not the destination – though the destination in this case is just spectacular. The Arctic – especially Swedish Lapland – is the most picturesque winter wonderland you may ever see. Swedes dogsled through the streets casually, the streets are always covered in a thin blanket of untouched powder and the towns are surrounded by scenic dwarf trees. Lapland in itself has been proudly proclaimed Europe’s last wilderness. There’s more to the north than just the northern lights. Embrace the coziness and uniqueness of the territory and do some activities on the side when you’re not looking for the auroras. Go dog sledding, cross country skiing or maybe even ice fishing. The north begs for adventure.