They’re high on many travelers’ bucket lists – and now is a great time to plan your Northern Lights trip.
Winter is just around the corner, and with it comes the magnificent Northern Lights. Often referred to as the Northern Lights, this cosmic phenomenon is one of nature’s most captivating light shows. The visuals are mysterious and bewildering, and sometimes planning a trip to see them can feel the same way.
But hiking to the far north in winter isn’t complicated or expensive if you know what to expect and plan accordingly. Here are some key elements to remember when building an Arctic adventure of your own.
1. When to go
Winter is the primary season for the Northern Lights, as the skies are at their darkest and daylight lasts longer, especially near the Arctic Circle. Generally speaking, the Northern Lights (Latin for “northern dawn”) are visible from September to April, and shine most strongly from November to February. Of course, no one can predict the weather, and cloudy skies are a major reason why spectators miss the lights.
Another important variable involves the sun, the source of the light. The simple scientific background is this: The sun releases charged particles that travel through the galaxy via the solar wind. When these particles reach the Earth’s atmosphere (actually the Earth’s magnetosphere), they collide with oxygen, nitrogen and other gases to form light that appears to us as gray, green, purple, red and other colors. The Northern Lights are most intense near the South Pole and the North Pole, although some say they can be seen even as far south as Florida.
Therefore, a key part of any aurora viewing vacation is to plan plenty of time at your destination for cloudy nights and times when the sun is not so bright. Most people agree on a minimum of five days, but eight days may be wiser.
2. Where to go
With lower hotel demand and cheaper airfares, a trip north in winter can be surprisingly affordable. Just look for a town or park with minimal light pollution. In North America, you can start your search in a city with a nearby airport, travel agency and lodging options. Along the Arctic Circle, consider Fairbanks, Alaska; Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada; and Churchill, northern Manitoba (where Hudson Bay can produce some excellent reflections in the water). Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada, Mount Tongo National Park Park in Newfoundland, and Nunavik Park in the Quebec Arctic also await for dark views.
If you’re willing to travel further afield, consider the lovely little town of Tromso in Arctic Norway, which is more affordable thanks to cheap flights on Norwegian Air and a low Norwegian krone exchange rate. Thanks to the Icelandic Airlines deal, the island nation of Iceland is another well-funded destination. In addition, both Norway and Iceland have infrastructure for winter travel, which makes finding the right hotels and tour companies much easier.
Tip: Buy your tickets about two or three months in advance to lock in the best airfares.
Staying in remote areas is easier than you might think, especially if you’re okay with a modest hotel that offers comfortable beds and a powerful heater. Just book six to eight weeks (or more) out at the best price, and remember that hotels can bring irresistible bargains. If you’re looking for a more memorable stay, stay in an igloo or a dome with a panoramic view of the sky, like the Borealis Basecamp in Fairbanks offers. Or try the glass cabins at Northern Lights Resort & Spa in Whitehorse.
4. What to pack
When planning a cold trip to the Arctic in January, I asked a Norwegian for advice on packing. His response: “Bring a sweater.” I stand by this – especially for an enthusiastic fleece – and suggest investing in some thermal protection layers so you can wear it every day of the trip. (Tip: Uniqlo makes lightweight, affordable long underwear.)
Other winter travel essentials include: wool or thermal socks, heavy gloves or mittens, an insulated hat (that won’t blow off in the wind), a thick scarf or light yellow bandana, and waterproof boots that protect against snow and strong winds. Goggles or sports glasses are also smart to protect your eyes from the gusty winds and snow. It goes without saying that if you want to stay outdoors for more than 15 minutes, you must wear a waterproof, insulated jacket.
Arctic winters are no joke, so be prepared for the harshest temperatures of your life.
5. Photographic foresight
For many people, capturing the Northern Lights on camera is a central part of the experience and the ultimate souvenir. The best photos require a DSLR or a compact camera with manual settings, because to capture the aurora you need a large open aperture and a super slow shutter speed (my best photos take about 30 seconds each to take). Manual focus, adjustable ISO and f-stop, shutter timer and high-resolution image settings are also key. In addition, you’ll need a sturdy tripod.
But most importantly, be sure to dress as warmly as possible when shooting the aurora outdoors, as you can spend hours in pursuit of the perfect shot and start losing the feel of your fingers after only a few minutes below zero.
Tip: Set your camera on the recommended Northern Lights shooting settings ahead of time so you don’t have to fumble around in the field (where it’s usually dark and cold).
6. Rely on local experts
The most successful Northern Lights expeditions have been done with the help of local professional guides. So, following the second tip, consider destinations where experienced tour operators know how best to predict the location and timing of exciting light shows. On the bright side, since most of the best aurora views are from smaller cities, you don’t have to find good local guides from a ton of listings.
When booking, look for companies that offer multi-night trips (if there are no lights on the first two nights), and companies that can drive hunting style tours to multiple locations, as cloud cover may limit the view from different locations. You can also double check that the trip will be to places away from urban light pollution, such as parks and remote mountaintops. Some bars will even offer base camp style cabins or huts with skylights so you can stay warm indoors and maybe have a mulled wine or cocoa drink while you gaze at the sky.