Finding the Northern Lights in Iceland

Updated: 3 days ago

Tracking down the Northern Lights in Iceland 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 travelers. 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. Nonetheless, 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.

Blue, pink and green lights across a night sky over a beach scene. The Northern Lights in Iceland are reflected in the ocean water.

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. However, seeing the Auroras is a must in our things-to-do-in-October article too. 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 colors of the Aurora.

Couple hand in hand in winter gear in a winter landscape. The Northern Lights in Iceland appear in the sky.

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.

How do I increase my chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland?

As we said, the Aurora is 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 colors 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 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 so 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.

Silhouette of a figure standing on a rock with arms outstretched. The sky if bright green with the Northern Lights in Iceland.

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 nighttime driving conditions. Your expert guides will know all the best places to see the lights and your driver will be practiced in Iceland's 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. If you're traveling on a budget, the best 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 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!