Iceland Travel: How to See the Northern Lights
Seeing the uniquely beautiful natural phenomena of the Northern Lights is the holy grail of many trips to Iceland. The dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis are a magical sight. It is easy to see why they were thought of as benevolent spirits or omens of good fortune in the past. Those mysterious shimmering colours must have struck awe into many a soul before science explained them to us. Even so their beauty still makes a big impact. Today’s aurora hunters cannot help but be thrilled by nature’s mesmerising light show. In this article we’ll look at the science behind the Northern Lights and also guide you through how best to see them on a trip to Iceland.
What creates the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are created by solar particles entering the upper atmosphere. The brightness of the lights depends on the intensity of solar activity and the solar wind speed. Both of these are entirely unpredictable. Hence why the aurora hunt is on! There are various ways and means that can give a better chance of seeing the lights though. We’ll explore those in more depth shortly.
Back to the science! These solar particles are affected by the magnetic field of Earth and as such are only visible at its poles. They can be spotted above 60° latitude and below it. So Iceland with its proximity to the Arctic Circle at a northerly latitude of 64° is perfectly placed.
What time of year can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The Aurora can be present in the sky at any time of year. However the daylight completely obscures them from view. We all know that Iceland has this phenomenon of the Midnight Sun in summer (June – August). So when it is at its zenith there are 24 hours of sunlight in Iceland. The sun merely skirts around the horizon and the sky never truly darkens. There is little to no chance of seeing even a faint glow at this time of year.
So the optimum time of year to see the lights is during the darkest winter months. The longer the hours of darkness means that the odds are basically much higher. In mid-winter there are nigh on 22 hours of darkness in Iceland. So although you will have a great chance to see the lights you will have very little daylight for other types of sightseeing. None the less Northern Lights tours run throughout the winter months.
Our favourite times of year to hunt for the Northern Lights are September, October and April. In these months there are a solid 14 hours or more of darkness. The night sky goes completely black for a significant amount of time and you have a good chance of seeing them. If you are lucky it is possible to see the glow near the end of August too or in early May. But the aurora activity will need to be really intense to reach the eye. Also the green glow of the lights may be mixed with the pink glow of a sunset or sunrise. Very beautiful too!
How do I increase my chances of seeing the lights?
First things first you need darkness. So the time of the year is the biggest consideration. Between September and April are the best months. Next you need to be as far away as possible from any form of light pollution. If the aurora activity is intense then you can see the Northern Lights from urban areas if you head to the parks or woodland. However you won’t have such a good view of them. The city lights will lighten the sky and the colours and display will be far less vivid. For a really good view you are much better off heading out to the remote countryside or Iceland’s national parks. Seeing the lights dance over natural landscapes of glaciers, lava fields, mountains and ocean is all the more impactful.
Weather is another important factor. Clearer nights are of course the prime time. If there is dense cloud cover then your luck is out and you won’t see any aurora activity. Fluffy white drifting clouds in the moonlight can add another level of beauty to the experience though. You can find cloud cover and aurora forecasts on the weather forecast website and App Vedur. These forecasts are reasonably reliable up to a day or two in advance.
What are the different ways to hunt for the Northern Lights?
There are all sorts of options for viewing the Northern Lights. One of the most popular ways is to take an official Northern Lights Tour. These are organised trips with experienced guides so you’ll be in good hands. If the trip is cancelled or unsuccessful you will be given a second chance free of charge. These tours are a good option if you don’t have all that long to visit Iceland. You will head out of Reykjavik and taken to the best spots. The guides will also be able to help you photograph the Northern Lights effectively. This can be tricky!
Tour options include joining a tour bus (potentially combined with a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavik). Joining a group tour is the more budget friendly option. Another option is a super jeep tour. This is a more intimate and slightly more costly offer. You’ll be in a much smaller group so will have more time with your guide. You’ll get the optimum Northern Lights photo opportunity away from the crowds. You will also enjoy the excitement and range of a 4x4 super jeep ride. Trundling down rough tracks and fording rivers to get the best vantage points.
Then there are several self-drive options. You could hire a car and go off to find the northern lights solo. However winter driving in Iceland can be stressful and especially so in the dark. It’s a fair option if you are a confident driver though.
If you hire a campervan or motorhome then you will have a great chance of seeing the lights most nights. In a rental camper you will be mostly camping in rural areas away from any light pollution. So every night will be an opportunity! A great option is to hire a campervan with a skylight installed. Then you can snuggle up in bed and gaze out of the skylight at the canopy of stars. You’ll be able to wake at intervals and simply glance up to check the sky. If the lights are out you’ll be able to watch them from the warmth of your bed. Alternatively you could bundle yourselves into coats and adventure into the magic of the night!