Tracking down the Northern Lights is up there on many a travel bucket list. Gazing at this unique natural phenomenon is sure to stir the spirits of even the most seasoned of travellers. These magical shimmering lights that dance across the night sky were once thought to have been the spirits of the dead. Today we have science to explain them to us. None the less seeing them in person decorating the sky above the incredible landscapes of Iceland makes a big impact. The one problem is that they are never 100% guaranteed to put in an appearance. There’s really no knowing when or if they will appear in the night sky. However there are plenty of ways to increase the odds. In this article we will take a look in more depth at what causes the lights to appear. We will also answer all of your questions on the why, what, where and how of a Northern Lights hunt.
Can I see the Northern Lights in Summer?
The Northern Lights could be dancing across the sky at any given moment. However unless the sky is dark you won’t be able to see them. So that little thing called the Midnight Sun scuppers almost any chance of seeing them during the summer months in Iceland. This is from about May to towards the end of August. Iceland’s location so close to the Arctic Circle means that in the height of summer the sun never actually sets at all. Instead it skirts around the horizon at a slightly different angle each day. In late August there are some hours of almost darkness so there may be a visible glow in the sky. But to see the Northern Lights in all their glory you need a pitch-dark night sky.
So when is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The best time to see the Northern Lights is when the sky is perfectly dark. So the winter months from around November through to February or March will give you the best odds of seeing them. In the deepest and darkest months of mid-winter there are close to 22 hours of complete darkness. In fact the sun never actually rises. There might be a glimmer of light on the horizon. But before you know it the sun will have dipped too far again to send its rays into the skies above Iceland. This really increases your chance of seeing the colours of the Aurora.
So in winter you will have plenty of hours of darkness to see the Northern Lights. However, if you are visiting Iceland with the idea of sightseeing in mind then you won’t have so much opportunity for that. If you do choose to visit Iceland at this time of year then city breaks are probably the best option. You can enjoy city life and then join a guided tour to hunt for the Northern Lights.
The best time to visit Iceland if you’d like to see the Aurora and do some sightseeing is during shoulder season. We are talking from late April to May and then Early September to October. Visiting at this time of year means that you’ll also have plenty of hours of complete darkness. And you’ll also have some daylight hours for sightseeing and driving in Iceland.
How do I increase my chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland?
As we said the Aurora are best appreciated in complete darkness. So to see them at their best you should be far away from any light pollution. City lights and any other form of artificial light will brighten the night sky and wash out the colours of the Aurora. If the Northern Lights are faint then any artificial light could obscure them completely. Therefore heading into the countryside away from any urban settlements and street lighting is the ideal. Seeing the Northern Lights from one of Iceland’s National Parks is a good option. So if you have a rental camper you can head to one of the national park campsites.
Even if you are far from any light pollution you will still need a clear night. Cloud cover will mean that the night sky is obscured to there will be no chance of seeing the Aurora. So if you are determined to find the Northern Lights you will need to check the Iceland weather forecast regularly. There is also an official Aurora Forecast available that will let you know when they are more likely to appear. Remember that anything that brightens a clear night sky can decrease your chances of seeing the lights. So a very bright full moon will do the same.
What causes the Aurora Borealis?
These mysterious lights are caused by solar particles entering Earth’s atmosphere. These particles are effected by the magnetic field of the planet so can be seen at both its poles. Iceland is located so close to the Arctic Circle that it falls into the perfect latitude for seeing the lights (64° to be precise!). The solar wind and the intensity of the particle activity determine the appearance of the lights. And this is hard to predict. Add to that all of the other factors mentioned above… So you can see that spotting the Northern Lights is as much down to luck as planning.
What are my options for a Northern Lights hunt?
This really depends on your preferences and at what time of year you visit Iceland.
Tour operators run Northern Lights tours right through the season. If you travel to Iceland in winter then joining a tour is probably a good option. You won’t need to tackle tricky and dangerous night time driving conditions. Your expert guides will know all the best places to see the lights and your driver will be practiced at Iceland winter driving. Your guide will also offer tips on how to successfully photograph the Northern Lights.
If you visit Reykjavik for a city break then seeing the Northern Lights might be combined with a tour of the Golden Circle. The most budget friendly option would be a larger tour bus tour. For a more intimate experience you could go for a private jeep tour instead.
The other option is to take a self-drive tour in search of the lights. You could hire a car for a couple of days and cross your fingers! But to be in with the best chance of seeing the lights a camper rental is a great option. If you have more than a few days in Iceland during the shoulder seasons then touring by rental camper is ideal. You can keep an eye on the forecasts and plan to stay in the more rural campsites as much as possible. Many campgrounds in Iceland are in or near the national parks. This means that they are naturally far away from artificial lights. Sleeping under the stars will up your chances of seeing the Northern Lights considerably. Just remember to set your alarm if the odds are looking good. You don't want to sleep through the show!