Norway is famous for its Northern Lights, but seeing the dancing Aurora Borealis is no easy feat.
Before I get into my experience, what exactly are the Northern Lights?
The Aurora Borealis is a natural light phenomena. They originate millions of miles away on the surface of the Sun during the electromagnetic explosion, which creates a stream of solar particles, known as Solar Wind. When the wind goes into Earth’s direction – this is when we can see Aurora.
The Aurora usually have different forms – they might appear as a glow of light or create ‘curtains’ or ‘arcs’. They might be quiet, or evolve and move through the sky – commonly referred to as ‘dancing’.
Generally, winter months are the best time (November – March) to see the lights when the nights are longer and it gets dark earlier in the evening.
I’d heard Tromsø is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, but tried not to go into the trip with high hopes after being let down during a holiday to Iceland a few years ago when we weren’t able to hunt for the lights at all because of a huge snow storm.
Snowstorms aside, the Aurora Borealis is unpredictable, there’s never a guarantee she’ll show up.
We planned to hunt for the lights on our second night in Tromsø, but left our final two nights open just in case we had to schedule additional tours.
Luckily, there was no need for that. The show we saw on our first time out was incredible.
We knew the tour we’d select would play an important role in whether we saw the lights, and as such, opted for a small-group chase. After reading lots of reviews of TripAdvisor, we decided to go with Arctic Explorers Tromsø. All of the reviews touted how attentive the guides were, and it was only of the only providers that could accommodate the eight people we had in our group without a private van.
How big was our tour group? 12 people total. Small group operators usually take between 2-14 people, so you’re in a small van vs. large tour bus. This point is important because it means you can go down narrower roads and reach off-road spots easier than the big bus operators. In our case, it meant we could pull over wherever we pleased.
Most Northern Lights small-group tours cost between £130-170, we paid £150 per person.
Yes, but worth it. Price was one of the reasons we only booked one tour- we wanted to see what the showing was like on our first night hunting before booking additional tours.
Another reason we waited before booking additional tours? You can spend between 6-10 hours hunting depending on the weather and visibility. We didn’t want to commit so many nights of our trip if we didn’t need to.
Our tour didn’t just include a guide, the price also covered warm thermal suits and boots, professional photographs, hot chocolate, soup and toasted marshmallows around a campfire.
The reason the tours can take up to 10 hours is because location for hunting changes based on the weather. On cloudy nights, you may venture as far into Finland if the conditions there appear to be better.
On the night of our tour, the guides told us we were very lucky- there were almost completely clear skies. And, weather reports predicted it’d be a good night for showings based on sun flare tracking (more on that to come!).
So, the guides decided to stay relatively close to Tromsø. At most, we were 30 minutes from city centre. Staying so near to the city meant our hunt was only 5 hours, but no one complained- we were all pretty pleased to get back to our hotels by midnight.
Leaving central Tromsø at 7 pm (after hotel pick-up and changing into thermal suits), our hunt started off wonderfully. 20 minutes into driving, our guide spotted the Aurora and so we pulled over to a lake adjacent beach to watch.
It’s true what people say- the lights look very different in person. Being able to photograph them is key, they’re much more visible through the lens of a camera. But, even seeing faint green slivers appear in the sky and reflect off the lake below was magic.
Knowing professional photos were covered, I experimented with trying to capture the lights on my iPhone X.
There are countless articles on Pinterest about how to increase your odds of capturing on a phone. In the end, I downloaded a free app called Northern Lights Photo Taker. It was awesome for helping me see some of the fainter strips in the sky, but ultimately photo quality left something to be desired (a bit to blurry to be the only photos captured of the night).
Our guides were so friendly they let us try to take our own photos of the lights with their equipment so we could feel like we had a role in capturing the phenomenon.
In total, I’d estimate we stayed at the lake for about an hour. Next, we drove around for about 20-30 minutes before spotting the lights over a mountain ridge and pulling over to watch.
This time, the lights were stronger than the ones we’d seen over the lake- the colours were more vivid and there were more arcs in the sky.
Seeing the green arcs in the sky felt special enough, but when a purple line began to intersect the arc and brightness intensified as the lights bounced around the night sky, we were left breathless.
Watching the lights dance across the night sky is something I’ll remember forever.
In our new location, the lights continued to appear and dance for about an hour before fading. Our guides explained that’s normal- sometimes the lights appear strong then disappear before reappearing later in the night.
While we waited for a reappearance, our guides built a bonfire and we enjoyed warm drinks and snacks.
Right before we were about to leave, the lights appeared again- weaker than before but still beautiful.
We opted to leave once the lights weakened, and although our guides were game for driving around (since it’d only been 4.5 hours at this point), our entire group felt we’d been treated a spectacular show and were okay with heading back to the city.
Some people balk at the time you spend outside in the middle of the night in the Arctic Circle, asking, ‘Isn’t it cold?’. Yes, it’s cold, but because Tromsø is located near the coast, it has a relatively mild climate. Going further inland in Norway or Finland means it’s much colder.
Nonetheless, none of us really felt cold. The thermal suits and winter boots provided kept us so warm.
Below mine, I wore thermal leggings, yoga pants, and a bunch of Uniqlo HeatTech gear- tank top, turtle neck, fleece pull-over. I also wore a fleece headband, fleece hat, cotton gloves, ski gloves, two layers of socks and leg warmers. Oh, and I brought a pair of HotHands to keep my fingers warm throughout the night. At times, I felt too warm, which was remarkable- I was prepared to freeze.
Would I hunt for the lights again? Absolutely. In fact, I’m toying with the idea of a winter weekend in Lapland, Finland someday to see them in another environment.
Chasing the Northern Lights was nothing short of magnificent.
Have you ever tried to hunt for the Northern Lights?
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