what you need to know if you're trying to see the northern lights
In a world where we’re often faced with an “Instagram vs. Reality” situation, certain things in the world can exceed our expectations. High on that list is undoubtedly the northern lights. Looking up and seeing the aurora dance might be the closest thing to real life magic you can experience. Colors ranging from white to red, vibrants greens, and even the rare blue can appear to glow from the horizon. If you’re lucky, you may even have the opportunity to take in the light show from every direction in the entire sky. It’s beauty is such that you may have to keep reminding yourself that it is in fact...reality.
If seeing the northern lights is something that’s been on your bucket list, there are a number of crucial considerations to take before planning your trip, as well as once you get to your sight-seeing destination. Like so many things in life, we can’t guarantee success, but we can put in the work to give ourselves the best chances possible.
Location, Location, Location
This is quite possibly the most important decision in your adventure. People travel to Northern locations from all over the world for a chance at this once in a lifetime experience. The northern lights are most commonly seen closer to the magnetic poles in an area known as the aurora oval. The aurora oval extends further South as activity increases. This means the further north you are, the less you will need to rely on stronger aurora activity. It also increases the chances of seeing the aurora higher in the sky or directly overhead which is generally more impressive and exciting.
Places like Fairbanks, Alaska; Yellowknife, Canada, Iceland, Norway, are all popular destinations due to their geographical locations. Once you’ve traveled to these or other Northern locations, it’s important to escape light pollution as much as possible. While you may be able to see the aurora from within city limits, they will appear much more impressive from a darker viewing location.
Photo by Jack Fusco
What time of year?
Between mid-August and April is generally considered “aurora viewing season.” While the aurora can be active year-round, these Northern locations lack darkness in the late spring and summer months. While the winter months bring frigid temperatures, especially as we travel further north, the long nights increase your chances of success.
Look out for the Moon!
Once you have your location and a general time for your visit picked out, it’s important to look at the Moon phase. You’ll want to pick dates close to the New Moon for the darkest skies possible. While the aurora can still be visible along with the Moon, some of the dimmer colors can be difficult to see.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have breathtaking views of the aurora the entire night. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Even on active nights, the brightness and intensity can change quite quickly. Nights that start off quiet can pick up in the late hours or even in the early morning. Be prepared for the cold conditions, this will help ensure you don’t call it a night too soon. Layer up with items like the Tundra Quilted Hooded Jacket or Nordic Quilted Vest.
Photo by Jack Fusco
Predicting the unpredictable
The aurora can be elusive and unpredictable. Within a few days, you’ll start to have a rough forecast of possible aurora activity. If you thought snowfall predictions were wildly inconsistent, I have some bad news for you. There are so many factors that can impact aurora activity that it’s best to be ready at a moment's notice. Keep an eye on websites like Aurora Service and
Space Weather that give both daily predictions and current conditions.
Aurora activity is most commonly measured from 1-9 with something called the Kp index. A higher number most often means more activity and higher chances of viewing.
You can also download an app called My Aurora Forecast. Giving this app access to your location will allow it to provide alerts if it believes there’s a chance of seeing the Northern lights.
Outside of these options, many hotels will offer “Aurora Wake-Up” calls! If you see this as an option, you’ve picked a good spot. If you end up in Yellowknife, Canada, see if you can spot the lighthouses throughout town that change color when activity is kicking up!
Photo by Jack Fusco
Keep an eye on the sky
If you’ve traveled to one of these remote Northern locations, don’t let a seemingly disappointing aurora forecast keep you from heading out. Factors outside of normal aurora forecasting can create favorable conditions that wouldn’t exist further south. If you can see the stars, there’s a chance you can see the aurora.
While you can pick a random Northern location on a map, book a flight, and end up seeing the northern lights, taking the time to consider everything above- this will definitely increase your chances. It may seem like a lot of work, but it’s an experience you’ll never forget.