The Northern Lights: what you need to know before you plan your trip

    7 February 2020

    Over the brow of a snow-covered hill a pale green light flickered into view. Like the sun rising, it blossomed slowly into a brilliant glow. Then, the sky exploded with waves of green and red. Beams of fuchsia coloured light fell like rain towards the white tundra. As the clock struck midnight, we stood in silent awe at the start of a new decade.

    At least, that’s how we imagined spending new years eve searching for the northern lights. Instead, we rang in 2020 in an icey layby in Finland, stamping our feet with the cold and staring at an empty sky. The northern lights are an elusive animal it turns out.

    We’d flown on Wizz Air from Luton to Tromsø, Norway’s most northerly city. The epic fjords around Tromsø are one of the best places to see the aurora during the winter months. It’s northerly location helps, but near constant darkness lends a hand too. The closest thing to a sunrise in a Tromsø winter is the three hours of twilight between mid-morning and lunchtime.

    With the cold and the dark in mind, we made sure to stop at Tromsø Outdoor to rent snow boots and arctic suits. They made us look like overweight car mechanics, but kept us warm on late night aurora hunts. The lady who fitted us seemed to think seeing the aurora was a sure shot. “Right now, the lights should be visible almost all the time,” she said cheerily. We drove out of Tromsø feeling optimistic, over the bridge and past its modernist Arctic Cathedral.

    A bit more research on our part would have kept expectations in check. The northern lights are prone to different degrees of intensity on any given night – five to be exact. The Kp index measures the magnetic storms that create the aurora. Anything below a level four on the scale means it’s unlikely to be visible to the human eye. We didn’t know that, of course, until a fellow aurora hunter told us a few days into the trip.

    Our base of operations was a cabin we’d found on Airbnb outside Skibotn, a village about two hours from Tromsø. Many Norweigans keep cabins as summer holiday homes and rent them out relatively cheaply in winter. Few tourists are mad enough to use them when it’s cold, so demand is low.

    Clad in black painted timber, ours was perched overlooking bleakly beautiful Lyngsfjord, with its slate grey seas, flanked by sheer rock faces. Inside, the cabin was a marvel of Scandinavian design, all pendant lights and mid-century furniture. Next to the woodburner, floor to ceiling windows framed the fjord.

    Fjord near Tromso in the Arctic Circle, Norway

    Fjord near Tromso in the Arctic Circle, Norway

    For all its aesthetic charms it missed some creature comforts. We were on a budget and had known the cabin was partially off-grid. Although it had electricity, there was no running water and the compost toilet was in an outhouse a few meters away.

    Trude, the owner, had left a sled to pull our bags on the walk up the mountainside and a note telling us there was an axe in the cabin’s equipment room – next to the snow shoes. When we needed to fetch water we could use it to break the ice in the well, she said. The spartan conditions didn’t bother us; venturing out to the well with a head torch, axe in hand, felt like part of the fun.

    For a couple of nights, we sat cosied up by the cabin’s wood burner in the hope of seeing the aurora from our window, but the weather was cloudy and snow was coming down. Realising we were going to have to put in a bit more effort, I downloaded some apps on my phone to find a better spot to find them. One forecast the cloud cover, the other, the path of the aurora through the night. It looked like our chances would be better if we headed inland.

    In the meantime, we decided to go in search of a less elusive beast. Camp Tamok, run by Lyngsfjord Adventures gives reindeer rides and the chance to meet with Sami, the people who traditionally herd them. After sledding through a valley of waist deep snow they let us into the reindeer paddock to feed the animals. Our guide produced a huge sack of lichen, the reindeer’s staple, and before we knew it, the reindeer were rearing up to take it from our hands. If only it were so easy to tempt to the aurora.

    Reindeer Sledding, Lyngsfjord Adventures

    On new years eve we drove the hire car across the border to Finland, forty minutes away, slowing to a crawl every now and then as we hit swirls of spindrift.

    Deep into the tundra, I began thinking we should’ve filled up at the last petrol station, but then we came upon a layby full of people. A minibus, from one of the many aurora safaris that go from Tromsø, was parked up and the guides had lit a fire to keep the tourists warm. We couldn’t see the aurora, but people were taking pictures of the sky, so we stopped to see what the fuss was about.

    “Something’s happening over there,” said one of the guides, pointing towards a group of  tourists with cameras honed on a nearby hill. “Have you tried using your camera to see the lights?”

    I set my camera to a long exposure and took a picture of the hill. The photo looked just like any of the northern lights you’ve seen. Ethereal lights filling the sky. To the eye, there was still nothing more than a faint glow.

    The aurora might have evaded us but driving through the wilderness of Finland and the fjords of Norway, the landscapes and a sense of anticipation made it worth the trip. That’ll stay with us, and it’s a good excuse to go back.

    How to maximise your chance of seeing the Northern lights

    • Popular choices for where to see the northern lights include northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, Alberta in Canada, Alaska and Iceland.
    • The best time of year to see the northern lights is between late September to mid March.
    • The sun has an eleven year solar cycle, which means that every decade or so there’s a spike in aurora sightings. The next peak in the solar cycle is set for 2025.
    • ‘My Aurora Forecast & Alerts’ is an app for Android and iPhone which predicts where the aurora are likely to appear, a few hours ahead of time.