Iceland Travel: How to See the Northern Lights
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Seeing the Northern Lights' uniquely beautiful natural phenomena 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 colors must have struck awe into many souls 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 mesmerizing light show. In this article, we'll look at the science behind the Northern Lights and also guide to how to see the Northern Lights in 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 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 science! These solar particles are affected by Earth's magnetic field 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 the 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.
Best Months to See the Northern Lights
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 entirely 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 or 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!
While many people traveling to Iceland would rather avoid the winter months, others choose them on purpose, to be able to enjoy the winter lights show of Mother Nature. Imagine Iceland's ethereal landscapes cloaked in a pristine blanket of snow with the auroras painting the sky. Those spectacular views are simply another level of beauty.
How do I increase my chances of seeing the Northern 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.
Ways to hunt for the Northern Lights in Iceland
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!
Northern Lights Guided Tours
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.
Northern Lights from a Campervan
Then there are several self-drive options. You could hire a camper 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 suitable 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!
Winter Trip to Iceland
We're not going to lie - weather conditions present the biggest challenge of a winter trip to Iceland. However, the benefits make it more than worth it. Average temperatures in Iceland during winter are not actually that low and don't often go below -5 degrees Celsius. Although this is somewhat misleading as the wind-chill factor can make it feel much, much colder.
With this in mind, bringing proper gear is a must. The weather is also notoriously hard to predict, so regularly checking the weather reports is highly recommended too. There are some great apps that you can download. The Vegagerðin App is essential for winter road trips, allowing you to access webcams and detailed up-to-date information on road closures and recommended or alternative routes.
Winter festivals in Iceland
Iceland is much less visited in winter, but the Icelandic people themselves stay put. Of course they have all sorts of ways of making life fun in winter. From the charm of twinkling Christmas lights, to some epic New Year celebrations and exciting winter festivals, there's plenty to celebrate. Lighting up the darkness of February is the Winter Lights Festival in Reykjavik with a fantastic and free program of events. Also in the capital there are winter festivals dedicated to design, folk music, film, fashion, electronic music and beer! Celebrated right across the country, Þorrablót is a wintery festival that falls in January and February. During the festivities Icelandic people celebrate their traditional poetry with public readings in bars and cafes. They will also feast on some quite unusual dishes… fermented shark anyone? The festival offers a fascinating insight into Iceland's traditions and history.
Other things to do in Iceland during winter
As well as seeing the aurora dance there are all sorts of activities to enjoy in winter. From glacier hiking and climbing to exploring ice caves and driving a snow mobile, getting out into the white stuff is always a lot of fun. Although Iceland isn't really famous for skiing and snowboarding there are a few good ski resorts. It is quite simple to hire gear and head out on the slopes for a few days.
Near Reykjavik you'll find the Skálafell and Bláfjöll ski resorts. Being close to the capital these are some of the busiest resorts in Iceland. They are still blissfully quiet if you are used to skiing in France or Austria though. If you'd like a glacier tour then the vast Langjökull glacier is an exciting place to visit. It has an 1800ft network of manmade tunnels and ice caves to discover and you can also take a monster truck tour across the surface of the glacier. Another excellent thing to do in winter is visit some of Iceland's hot springs and thermal springs. As well as warming you up, relaxing in their healing waters is a great compliment to all of these winter activities.