Headed On a Northern Lights Tour?
The Northern Lights are widely considered to be one the wonders of the natural world and each winter, countless visitors now flock North to catch a glimpse of their majesty. We’ve all seen the soul-stirring pictures of magical, bright, green swirls filling the horizon above pretty little snow clad towns and after seeing these pictures, it’s perfectly understandable why the Northern Lights are on more or less every bodies bucket list these days.
However, there are some things you really need to know before setting off for your Northern Lights Tour;
The Northern Lights are not guaranteed
The Northern Lights are natural phenomena and are dependant upon a number of variables. Primarily, they are caused by solar activity in outer space which can only be predicted at very short notice. The weather also plays a huge factor in their appearance as cloud coverage effects visibility so if a rainstorm hits then you are not going to see anything regardless of how strong the solar activity is. There are some steps you can take to increase your chances of seeing the lights such as visiting in Winter when there is more darkness whilst still trying to avoid the rainier months, but ultimately, you’re relying on chance and luck. I have met several travellers who have visited Scandinavia on numerous different occasions and yet never seen the Northern Lights despite taking more than one Northern Lights tour.
Svalbard is a great place to see them during the long winter because of the abundance of darkness and lack of light pollution.
You can increase your chances of a sighting by researching the best time of year to see the Northern Lights, in your particular destination.
The Northern Lights can be expensive
Despite being a naturally occurring phenomena and arguably one of the gods’ great gifts to the world, the reality is that the lights are rapidly being commoditised and seeing them can be very costly. Firstly, they are mostly viewable in Scandinavia which is the most expensive region in the world. Accommodation and food in Scandinavia is very costly for travellers so even if you do a DIY lights tour, your budget is still going to take a whacking purely by being on the ground. That said you can save a bit of your accommodation costs by signing up to Air B n B through this link where you will get $35 free credit. Furthermore, the reality is that you may well need to join a Northern Lights tour as, being a complete novice in town, you probably don’t know where to go for the best view or how to get there. Many of the best viewing spots’ (high elevation places with limited light pollution) have now been occupied by tour operators who won’t appreciate you trespassing on their land without firstly paying a fee.
There are a number of apps you can download or sites you can visit if you want to check the solar activity yourself.
Your camera will see more than you ever will
Here is the real heartbreaking bit, a little known fact about the Northern Lights is that there luminous, supernatural colours cannot really be seen by the human eye.
When I returned from Norway I had a roll of great pictures which wowed my friends with the long, green, light spectres dancing across the horizon. In reality, though, all I saw was a grey wisp of cloud which I only realised where actually the Northern lights when somebody told me. Apparently, they are sometimes more vivid and impressive to the human eye but on relatively rare occasions so don’t expect the tear inducing, a quasi-religious experience that you may be hoping for.
The Northern Lights are not easy to photograph
I should elaborate on the last point. Your camera will only see the lights if you set it up properly. Night photography is a specialised skill set and capturing the Northern Lights is even more so. Firstly, Smartphone camera’s cannot capture the Northern Lights because they don’t have the capabilities and don’t allow the user to manually adjust the settings enough. You are therefore going to need to get a proper DSLR camera and to also learn how to use it because the auto-settings just won’t cut it here. To properly capture the lights you need to manually adjust the shutter speed, exposure, x, y. You could also do with a tripod as holding a camera perfectly still during an extended exposure is humanly impossible although I managed to improvise a tri-pod with a commandeered coffee jar.
If you take a Northern Lights tour then the guide will probably be able to help with your camera settings if you are really struggling.
You need to be patient and you need to get cold!
Once you get to Scandinavia, find a recommended spot and get yourself ready, the next thing is to wait. Even if the Northern Lights do show up, there is no predicting precisely when they will make their appearance so it could be an hour after dark or it could be an hour before daybreak. This means that to see them, you need to be ready to sit up all night out in the freezing cold staring at the sky. You can’t even light a camp fire to keep you warm as the smoke and light will compromise your viewing experience.