5 Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Winter and Summer
Some years are better than others. Bad things happen, the world changes, but for our little family (me, my husband, and two kids who are now 9 and 7), it was a magical year all because we saw the Northern Lights – twice! Catching the Northern Lights in Lapland and Iceland can be hit or miss, but luck was on our side, and we couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Northern Lights in Lapland and Iceland
We traveled to Lapland (northern Finland and Sweden) in January for a snowy adventure, with the Northern Lights being the main objective. They delivered, more than once. Then we traveled to Iceland in August, mostly for the puffins and natural beauty. The Northern Lights came out anyway a couple of times, and were an incredible bonus to the trip.
If the Northern Lights are on your wish list (and, in my opinion, they definitely should be!), here are a few tips for seeing them with your kids.
Give yourself enough time to see the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are weather, and like all weather, they’re unpredictable. If you just give yourself a long weekend in Iceland, there’s a good chance you’ll miss them.
The perfect conditions that make for aurora viewing magic are relatively rare, so you’ll need a long enough trip to give yourself a good chance of catching them. I’d say a week would be the minimum, but longer is better.
Both Lapland and Iceland are magical during the day, too, so you’ll find plenty of great things to do while you’re waiting!
You can’t control the weather, but you can plan around it.
There are several free apps, such as Aurora Forecast, that can give you a prediction of what the aurora will be like in the near future. Then you can decide whether it’s worth driving into the dark that night (see #3), or setting yourself a 2am alarm to check for them.
Hint: if there’s a chance of seeing the lights that night, it’s worth it. I found that Aurora Forecast did a decent, though not perfect, job of predicting when the lights would come out to play.
The other weather piece is cloud cover. No matter how bright the aurora is, if clouds are covering the sky, you won’t be able to enjoy it.
In general, the farther you are from the coast, the less likely it is that clouds and fog will obscure the view. This is why we spent part of our Lapland trip in Abisko, a town in northern Sweden that’s known for having clear skies. (Relative proximity to the Icehotel was a worthwhile bonus, but that’s another story.)
When we were in Iceland, most nights were cloudy; we only got a couple of clear nights in two weeks.
Get as far from artificial light as possible
The magic of the aurora can be subtle, and the darker the sky, the more you’ll be able to appreciate it. The farther you can get from civilization, the better.
We rented a car. When we had a clear night, we’d drive as far away from any artificial light as we could get. (This was made easier by staying in a tiny town in a very sparsely populated area. Worth it.)
People sometimes book a Northern Lights viewing tour, in which someone else will drive you out into the middle of nowhere. The problem with this is that you’re placing your bet on a single night to deliver on the bright aurora/clear skies magic combo.
If you’ve got your own car, then you can do your own Northern Lights viewing tour whenever the perfect moment arises. Also, the kids can crash in their car seats when they get tired.
This isn’t to say that watching the aurora from your hotel parking lot won’t be magical; the lights are always magical. We just found them that much more amazing in a dark sky, with all the subtleties of color and movement clearly visible.
Have a plan for staying warm
I’m sure it won’t surprise you that Lapland in January is incredibly cold. Even in Iceland in the summer, it gets chilly after sundown. Basically, places where the Northern Lights are visible are also cold places.
If you’d like to gaze at the sky for a while, you’ll be laying still and getting even colder. So make sure you have a plan for how to stay warm, or your aurora-watching may be cut short by cold. This is particularly true if you have kids, who generally aren’t as willing to tolerate discomfort as adults are.
When it’s seriously cold, frostbite is a very real danger. You will need to make sure you stay warm enough.
We used our rental car as a source of warmth when we were in Lapland. We’d watch the lights outside for as long as we could stand the cold, and then we’d hop in the car and turn it on with the heat on full blast for a few minutes. (This also kept the engine from freezing, which is a definite danger when it’s 30 below.)
We could still see the aurora from inside the car, though being outside was definitely better. Once we were all warmed up, we would turn the car off and hop back outside to marvel.
When we were in Iceland, we had the amazing experience of watching the lights from the outdoor hot tub of the house we were renting. This made it possible to just gaze at the lights for literally hours without getting uncomfortable.
I’m pretty sure that an outdoor hot tub could not exist in Lapland in the winter (and if it could, your eyelashes would freeze, for real), but in Iceland in the summer (still chilly at night), this was heaven.
Take care of your neck
When you first see the aurora, you probably won’t even notice the little pinch in your neck from tipping your head back to look above you. After you’ve been watching for a while (and you’ll most certainly want to watch for a while), that pinch in your neck will become serious pain.
Ideally, see if you can find a place to lie down, or lean way back (as in a lounge chair). Of course, if you are lying on the snowy ground, you’ll need to put extra effort into our tip about staying warm (found above).
Having put so much effort and time into planning your trip, you’ll be ready for that magical moment when you first see the Northern Lights.
Which brings me to a bonus tip…
Enjoy the wonder of the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights in Lapland and Iceland are as amazing as everyone says and then some. The magic of the aurora is hard to describe. The planning, waiting, and inevitable frustration of travel will all be worth it when the lights finally appear.
My kids’ eyes still dance with delight when they remember seeing the Northern Lights. Give yourself over to the creation of one of your most treasured family memories. Let yourself be overwhelmed by wonder.