Seven things you didn’t know about going to see the Northern Lights

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It’s here again, Northern Lights viewing season (it actually begins as early as August!), and as one of the most popular bucket-list destinations in the world, I’m sure there’s many of you plotting that trip. Now, we were fortunate enough to get to see them on an epic trip earlier this year – which involved everything from spending a night in minus 5-degrees at the IceHotel, to reindeer sleighing, but more on all that in another post – but there were some important takeaways from the trip that I wanted to share.

While painstaking research and the help of on-the-ground experts ensured that we got the best out of our trip, we learnt a few things that that you can only really learn when you’re there, in remote Arctic country! So, we decided to share some of that insider insight – OK, well, some of it is just fun facts – which can go a long way in helping you ensure that you do get to see the lights (because let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than planning a long, expensive trip, to then return without having seen them – and as a natural phenomenon, that is something that can happen more often than we’d like!)

Disclaimer: We went to Sweden and Finland to see the Northern Lights. So, this guide is aimed at people travelling to northern Scandinavia, not North America and other such places which are also popular destinations.

  1. Autumn is the best time to go. While the season runs from about September to March (And November to February is considered high season), when the ground is covered in snow as far as the eye can see, the resulting brightness makes it harder to view the lights, and makes it less vivid. During autumn, the skies are dark enough, and so is the earth.
  2. Full moon nights are bad news. Following on from this, a full moon and a reflective snow-covered landscape means the night feels unusually bright, which, as any Aurora-chaser will know, doesn’t bode well. (The Aurora Borealis is best viewed on dark, clear and cloudless nights).
  3. You can actually hear the Aurora Borealis too. Well, it can be heard, in theory, we were told. We didn’t actually hear anything, but one of our guides, who, as a local resident has seen them too many times to count, claimed she has. And apparently, it sounds like a motor in the distance (which, considering the number of snowmobiles that are usually afield around popular resorts and viewing spots, makes us slightly sceptical…)
  4. The different colours are caused by elements in the atmosphere. You probably already know this, but the phenomenon is caused when charged particles (usually electrons) from the sun collide with gaseous substances in the earth’s atmosphere. So, the most common colour that is seen is a yellowish green, which is caused by oxygen. The other common colours are purple or pink, and hints of blue, which is caused by nitrogen.  Red is the rarest colour, also caused by oxygen but at a much higher altitude (no, we didn’t see red!).
  5. The phenomenon takes place all year round. Yes, it’s not actually a seasonal thing! The only reason you only get to see them at certain times of the year and there is a ‘Northern Lights tourist season’, is because the rest of the year, it’s just too light and bright (remember, this is also the land of the midnight sun). Which is why, when choosing where to go, try and get as remote as possible, to optimise your viewing opportunity – the closer you are to civilisation, and with it, city lights, the lower your chances of getting to see the Aurora Borealis.
  6. Inter-country travel within the region is difficult and expensive. So, when you look at it on a map, Lapland appears small and easy to navigate, and crossing over from, say, northern Finland into Sweden, looks like a breeze. It isn’t so, though! There are no flights connecting towns in different countries in the Arctic circle – so, for example, if you wanted to get from Kiruna (which is in northern Sweden) to Ivalo (northern Finland), or somewhere in northern Norway, as the crow flies it may be easy enough, but for us humans, we’d have to fly back down to Stockholm, connect to Helsinki or Oslo, then fly north again. Crazy, right? So, when planning the trip, either commit to any one country and stick to that, or else, be prepared to either spend precious days zigzagging across countries, or pay a hefty price for taxis; car rentals aren’t an option either, unless you’re planning to round-trip it back to your starting point, as otherwise, it becomes prohibitively expensive.
  7. And finally… wait for it… according to Chinese and Japanese mythology, conceiving a child under the Northern Lights brings good fortune! That probably explains the masses of Asian tourists we found in this extremely remote region… ahem, just hope the hotels’ laundry systems are all A-OK!
    Re. images on this post: We have access to loads of stunning professionally shot photographs of the Northern Lights. But the ones you see here are all our own, shot on a decent camera, but with hands trembling from the bitter cold, devices freezing over at key moments, and all the other perils of being north of the Arctic circle! But, we wanted to share our experience, both with words and images, so...


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