The Northern Lights: Everything you need to know

Travel Advice

The Aurora Borealis is a remarkable natural phenomenon, and witnessing it first hand is mesmerising. We've put together this handy guide to the Northern Lights for anyone who's hoping to tick this magical display off their bucket list.

What are the Northern Lights?

In myth, the Aurora Borealis was thought to be spirits and souls dancing across the sky, or a fox sweeping his tail across the landscape spraying snow up into the sky. In reality this spectacular light show is triggered by a high speed collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere. This causes the rarefied gases there to glow green, red and purple across the sky in an enchanting display.

The first part of an auroral display usually comes from the east, as the earth rotates into the area of maximum activity. You'll most likely see a pale green column first, but this may then grow into billowing sheets. If you're really lucky, the whole sky will be full of curving, twisting shapes. The formations can arise at any moment, filling the sky at an incredible speed.

Northern Lights over Svalbard

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

With the Midnight Sun bathing the Arctic in up to 24 hours of daylight in the summer, your best opportunity to see the lights is in the winter months when the sky is dark. Aurora activity is most commonly witnessed between the months of September and April, preferably under a clear, cloudless sky between 9pm and 3am.

One of the greatest barriers to witnessing the Northern Lights is cloud cover, as they are simply not visible when it is overcast. January and February are often considered to be the best months to go in search of the Northern Lights due to the clearer skies, but of course there are no guarantees.

Hurtigruten Northern Lights cruise

Where can you see the Northern Lights?

To further increase your chances of experiencing the Northern Lights, experts recommend spending as long as you can around the Arctic Circle in an area known as the auroral oval. The auroral oval moves around depending on the level of geomagnetic activity, but northern Norway, the North Cape and Lapland are your best bet.

Within this area, the Northern Lights may be seen almost every night, but are seen less and less as you travel south. You should also get away from any light pollution, which is why an Arctic expedition cruise is perfect, taking you away from towns and cities.

Hurtigruten Northern Lights cruise

What can you do on a Northern Lights cruise?

You can combine a Northern Lights cruise with a range of exciting activities and excursions, such as visiting a snow hotel, husky sledding or even snowmobiling through the frozen landscape. Make sure you read Sharon's review of her recent trip with Hurtigruten for an idea of what a Northern Lights cruise involves.

Huskies in Norway
Edwina Lonsdale
Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and, together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Adventures.

More about Edwina

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