Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights, is a natural phenomenon that draws thousands of visitors to Iceland each year. In the words of Inga from Tiny Iceland, “the northern lights are not something Iceland can turn on or off”. In fact, the spectacle can be difficult to catch, particularly if you’re only in the country for a week or so. To give yourself the best chance, here’s a quick guide from some local experts.
Learning all about the Northern Lights
The Aurora Reykjavik Northern Lights Center is a treasured resource for visitors. In addition to showcasing photos and video of the lights, the center explains the science behind the phenomenon. The center’s founder and chief financial officer, Grétar Jónsson, explains how visitors not only come to the center in winter, but in summer too. “During the summer you can learn about this beautiful phenomena, read some old stories and myths and see a time-lapse video of them on a big wide screen. In winter, when travelers are here for northern lights hunting, it is a must to visit us.” The best months are between September and December when the lights are the most breathtaking, and you even avoid the extreme cold, because it can definitely get very chilly up there!
Booking a tour or going at it alone
Fortunately, in the words of Reykjavik City Walk tour guide Marteinn Briem “no one has a franchise on the northern lights”. This means that the northern lights, like many of the country’s natural wonders, are free to view and don’t require a group tour. That said, changeable weather and atmospheric conditions mean that a tour may get you some of the best views. As Grétar explains, “It is also a good idea to choose some northern lights tours, it increases your chances of seeing them, especially if there are clouds in the way. They have northern lights guides that will find the most likely spot to see them.”
Where to watch
If you decide to hunt the lights by yourself, the best tip is to stay away from light pollution. “Remember to account for approximately 40 minutes of driving,” says Happy Campers CFO Herdís Jonsdottir, adding that choice spots away from the city lights can be a 20- to 60-minute ride out of Reykjavik and from the Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel, Reykjavik.
What to take
As Kaelene Spence of blog, Unlocking Kiki, says, “You never know how long it will take for them [the northern lights] to make their appearance”, this means it’s essential that you wear warm layers. “This will be when you’ll really enjoy your Icelandic woollen sweater!” says Samuel Kohler of Something About Iceland. Happy Campers CEO Sverrir Thorsteinsson, recommends that aurora chasers take two pairs of gloves: one thin pair to allow for ease in operating a camera and “thicker gloves for when everything is set up” and your hands are free.
Capturing the lights
Photography enthusiasts are drawn to Iceland every year in search of that perfect shot, but getting it requires the right tools and technical knowledge. Professional photographer Sigurður William says that “a camera capable of shooting in manual mode along with a wide angle lens and a tripod is the key to success”. He also recommends using a flashlight, keeping the aperture as large as possible (low f-number) and trying a high ISO, but not so high that pictures become grainy.