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.

Northern Lights - Norway

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

What to pack for a Northern lights cruise.

First and foremost - wear layers! We recommend a cosy base layer, like wool or silk, followed by a fleecey item or two for insulation (because it really does get this cold!) and waterproof trousers are a must as a third layer to keep you dry. Make sure that your insulated jacket is windproof too with plenty of room for you to move around in. Take a hat and gloves to keep your head and fingers warm and plenty of thick, woolly socks.

As for your downtime on the ship, expedition cruises tend to embody a more relaxed approached to on-board attire, thus you'll likely not need gowns and jackets for dinners, with normal holiday wear being perfectly acceptable.

Northern Lights - Hurtigruten cruise

Next up, don't forget to take your binoculars! You will likely need them to hone in on the incredible wildlife and terrain.

A good camera is a must have for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and make sure that you have enough batteries and memory cards while you're exploring because there likely won't be any way of buying more. Nothing worse than your camera breaking down when you're in Iceland just as you spot a killer whale in the distance.

How do you photograph the Northern Lights?

As you stand beneath one of nature's most sought-after nights you'll certainly want to snap a photograph or two to take back home with you. Some recommended equipment for keen photographers includes a tripod and cable, with longer lenses useful for tighter compositions. Taking off any lens filters, including the UV filter, is key to avoiding aberration on your images. Adjusting your aperture to as wide as your lens allows and switching from auto-focus to manual will help you to take a perfect photograph.

Aside from the actual "taking" of a photograph, the hallmark of a successful photo is its composition. You can, of course, take a photo of the striking green sky but to show it in the context of your surroundings will enhance and add a new dimension to the picture. Are you, for instance, near a forest, a lake or a mountain range? Experiment with your angles and you'll be a landscape photographer in no time!

Northern Lights - Tromso, Norway

Of course, there is no perfect set of rules for photographing the Northern Lights, as the quality of photos is reliant on light; thus there are elements of trial-and-error involved. However, experimenting with photography is half the fun, and no two auroras are the same, so play around with your settings and you'll find that you come away with a set of interesting and unique photographs.

Edwina Lonsdale, Mundy Cruising
Meet the author

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

More about Edwina

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