9 Tips For Chasing The Northern Lights In Iceland
Witnessing the Northern Lights in Iceland was an absolute dream come true and one of the most unreal experiences of my life. I took a yoga retreat group to visit the country in late October 2017, and while of course there were no promises of seeing the Northern Lights and we had tons of epic daytime adventures planned, we did put them on the flyer. Talk about pressure! We did as much research and planning as we could for a chance at catching a glimpse, but the reality is we just got really lucky with the weather.
Night after night our group suited up in big warm suits, poured a glass of hot tea or wine, and watched the sky light up and dance for hours. We actually had nights where we had to call it and go to bed before the show was over so we would have enough energy for the exciting day ahead. Spoiled! Check out my top 10 tips for chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland!
Set yourself up for success.
All the Northern Lights really need to come out and dance is a dark night at a high latitude and the right weather conditions. Iceland and other countries near the Arctic Circle provide the best chance at seeing this wild natural phenomenon, but they’re also a thing in not so exotic places… like Minnesota. I digress. For your best chance at seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, visit between October and March, when the Earth’s tilt provides way more dark hours than light.
Since you are at the mercy of clear weather, experts recommend that you stay in Iceland at least 7 nights to up your chances. And one more pro tip when it comes to setting yourself up for success… be aware of the sun’s life cycle, which can dramatically affect the way the light hits the Earth’s particles, and thus the display of aurora borealis. Read all about it here.
Stay in the countryside.
Okay, so Reykjavik is the only real city in Iceland, and it is a super fun one at that! But, if your main goal is to see the Northern Lights, I suggest you stay in the countryside for the majority of your trip, reason being because you need to be away from the lights and any pollution of the city to see the lights on most nights.
We loved our accommodation at Hotel Ranga, a cabin in the remote village of Hella, located about 90 minutes outside Reykjavik. Hotel Ranga had all the hookups when it came to the Northern Lights, like wake up calls at any hour if you want them, huge warm suits and tea, and a beautiful viewing deck out front.
The darker the night, the better.
Don’t get me wrong, if it’s a super clear night, you can definitely still see the Northern Lights during a Full Moon, and sometimes the moon even enhances the glow of an intense display. For the most promising visibility and if all other things are equal, plan your trip around the New Moon when the night sky is at its darkest.
The clearer, the better.
I touched on it above, but you really need a clear night to see the lights. Iceland doesn’t technically have a rainy season, but precipitation and snow storms peak November - February. For this reason, it’s often advised that the shoulder months of October and March can be spectacular for the Northern Lights! We definitely got lucky in October!
Use tracking apps.
The jury is out on whether apps like the Aurora Forecast actually work, as it’s quite unpredictable. They can help you know what the local cloud and wind patterns look like, but since it’s cold when you’re chasing the Northern Lights though and you probably don’t want to get up for nothing, I recommend using the Sky Camera App to help you see through the ceiling of your cabin and know what’s going on up in the sky.
Actually look north.
I thought this was a funny one! The observation deck at Hotel Ranga faced north, and we were told it was because of where we sit latitudinally, it is most likely that we’ll see the first hint of activity in the north sky. This is different than in Greenland, where one would typically look south. A lot of times, the whole sky is lit up different colors in every direction and you’re not sure which way is up, down, alien territory, or your own imagination!
Observe sacred silence.
The Northern Lights are super exciting! And especially if you are in a big group, it’s easy to get carried away with reactions to the sky and taking photos. I encourage you to take at least some time to observe sacred silence and observe the what is happening above you. Really take it in. Not just for the Instagram picture. Not taking it in through the words of others, but your own senses. At places like Hotel Ranga, etiquette is expected. You don’t have to be silent, but be respectful of anyone in the viewing area so they can have their own experience too. I only say this because we got kindly asked to shut up one night! Ha!
Organize a tour.
If you are planning to stay in the city, it’s not a bad idea to book a tour out into the country one or two nights so you don’t have to worry about where to go or driving on winter roads. A quick google search will give you several reputable tour companies. Our group didn’t go on a Northern Lights tour, but we did have outstanding experiences with every day tour we organized in Iceland. Adventure is in Icelandic people’s blood, and we found that they are really happy to share the magic of their country.
Be prepared for the unexpected.
Sometimes you read how to articles, plan accordingly, and don’t have any luck. And then other times, out of nowhere, aurora borealis strikes in the middle of a cloudy night in downtown Reykjavik. In general, it’s a good idea lose your expectations and just take in the wild geology of the country that’s present no matter the weather; but to always be prepared with a camera in Iceland. It’s unpredictable, and you are going to want to document everything from the hikes to the city and every activity in between.