If you’re in Iceland in the winter, you’re probably at the very least a little bit curious about the best way to see the northern lights. If not, you should be. Here is everything you need to know about hunting the northern lights.
Can I see the northern lights from Reykjavík, or any city?
It’s not impossible, but you’re much more likely to see them from outside the city. To spot them, you need certain things to be just right, namely:
- there has to be a mostly clear sky (clouds would block your view);
- the lights need to be active, and;
- it has to be dark.
If you’re standing in the lights of the city, the activity has to be pretty strong for you to see them, and then they’d be even more powerful outside the city.
Do I need to be high up, like on a mountain?
No. The distance to the auroras is about 80km (50mi) up to 640km (400mi). The height of the mountain is not relevant, unless it helps you get to more darkness.
Do I need to take a tour or should I just rent a car and drive myself?
You can absolutely drive yourself: if the sky is clear and the northern lights are out, you should be able to see them. However, a tour has the following benefits over a car:
- Most tours come with a free do-over if you don’t see anything, but if you rent a car you don’t get to go again for free.
- The guide literally makes a living finding the lights, every night, so they know where to go, and the company loses money if they don’t find them. So, we have no statistics to back it up, but we’re pretty sure they have a better chance to see them.
- You get to let someone else worry about driving the car in the dark, and you can focus on looking out for the lights and figuring out your camera.
- It’s a great chance to make new friends on your tour.
How do I know what night will be a good one?
You check the designated aurora forecast. Yes, that’s a real thing. The white patches represent “clear sky” and the dark green means “cloudy.” Then the activity level is on the right, but that’s less certain in our experience. Basically, if the sky is clear, you have a chance to see them.
To a certain extent, you never know. If it’s your last night, you should always take the chance, and if you’re taking a tour, you should go out at the earliest possibility, since then you have more opportunities to go again if you don’t see them.
How long should I stay in Iceland to try to see the northern lights?
We usually advise people to come for at least a week, since you’re not likely to get bad weather for seven days straight, but sometimes it will be cloudy for two or three days. Plus, there are plenty of exciting tours and activities to take during the day so you won’t be bored.
Should I go up to North Iceland?
Not to see the northern lights, but you should go for many other reasons. In Iceland, you are already in the north, so you don’t get a better chance of seeing the lights by going farther north.
What’s the best time of year to see the northern lights?
November-December has become a very popular time to join the aurora hunt. For those who don’t like crowds, try from January to March. The season reaches all the way into April, but we would recommend November-December for two reasons:
- December is by far the darkest month, meaning more hours to spot the lights.
- The weather is often worse in January-February, with more rainfall, and therefore more clouds.
I went out and couldn’t see anything but white in the sky, but then when I took a photo of it, the lights looked green. It’s all a scam!
This is a complaint we’ve heard a handful of times. What happens is that with longer exposure time, your camera collects photons from a longer period of time in a single frame, so they can look stronger or more pronounced on your camera than you can see with the naked eye.
But even though this sometimes happens, and they “only” look white, they often look green, purple or even red to the naked eye.
And even if you “only” see white lights appearing in the sky when you go out hunting, that’s still a magnificent natural phenomenon, and you absolutely have seen the northern lights. But hopefully you’ll see them in all possible colours.
What’s the best time to see the northern lights?
There’s no telling. Sometimes they come out at 21:00, sometimes 05:00, sometimes they stay for five minutes, sometimes five hours. We’ve heard it’s better between 20:00 and midnight, but we’ve never heard any science behind it. You basically just have to decide how much you value your sleep and then stay out as long as you can.
What’s the best way to see the northern lights?
Well now, “best” is a very subjective word.
We think the most exciting is a superjeep tour – you go with a small group and it has a personal touch, and riding in a monster truck is fun and exciting. Plus, if you encounter an obstacle, the jeep can drive over snow and through rivers for the best possible view. You can even get the version with a lobster dinner included.
Another fantastic way to see the lights is by going on a boat tour – if it’s not too windy, being out on the sea in a ship is very cosy and romantic; and you can put on warm overalls supplied by the tour operator, so you won’t get too cold.