If you are in Iceland during the winter (September-March), you are probably more than a little curious about the best way to see the northern lights. If not, you should be. The aurora borealis is a magnificent sight that you should aim to see if you are in Iceland anyways. Here are our helpful hints about how to see the northern lights, the best spots, weather and whatnot. 

How to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

Can I see the northern lights from Reykjavík?

You can easily see the northern lights in Reykjavík, but you are more likely to see them outside of the city, mainly because of light pollution. The lights are going to be brighter, more vibrant and easier to spot in the countryside of Iceland. If you are hanging out in Reykjavík and know that the forecast is good, we do have a guide for the best spots to see the northern lights in Reykjavík. If the lights are burning bright from your view in Reykjavík, or neighbouring towns, you might want to try and catch a tour because they are going to be much brighter outside of Reykjavík. 

Best conditions for the northern lights

  • Clear skies. Clouds will block your view. 
  • Darkness. The lights are bright but not brighter than the sun. The night is your friend.
  • Moonless. Again, any bright objects are going to interfere. The moon is just a big city light in the sky. 
  • It doesn’t have to be cold. It’s just a myth that the northern lights only show up when it’s freezing. 

Do I need to be high up to see the northern lights?

No. The aurora borealis happens about 80 to 640 km (50-400 mi) up in the sky. The height of the mountains in Iceland isn’t really going to get you much closer to them (the highest mountain in Iceland is Hvannadalshnjukur, which stands about 2 km high). However, a mountain is more likely to be in a secluded place, without street lamps and such so it’s going to be darker than usual up there. 

How to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

Do I need to take a tour or can I just rent a car and drive myself to the northern lights outside the city?

You don’t need to take a tour to see the lights. If the weather is good, the sky is clear, and the lights are out, you can jump in your rental car and go hunting. But, and this is a big but, going on a tour has plenty of benefits over driving yourself. 

Benefits of going on a northern lights tour

  • Free do-over. Most tours come with a free do-over. That means, if you don’t see the lights, you can go again. 
  • The guides. If you do go on a tour, your guide is a professional. They make a living on finding the northern lights. They have researched all the clues and spots. If they don’t find them, the company loses money because of the free do-over. So they will do everything in their power to make sure you see the aurora borealis on your first try. 
  • No driving in the dark in the space land that is Iceland. You get to let someone else worry about driving, and you can focus on spotting the lights. If you go on a 4×4 jeep tour, you are also going to reach places that you are unlikely to reach in your rental. 
  • Meet other people. Going in a group tour and sharing the experience is great fun, plus, you can make new friends. 
Find the perfect rental car here or check out all the northern light tours we offer here

How do I know what night will be a good one?

Keep your eye on the online aurora forecast. 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. We have a complete guide on how to read the aurora forecast, so you should be fine.

To a certain extent, you never know if they are going to show. If it’s your last night, you should always take the chance. 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 to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
Norðurljós á Þingvöllum

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?

Sure, but Not primarily 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.

4x4 jeeps can go where buses and cars can't
How to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
ATH RVKbréf

What’re the best months to see the northern lights?

From November to December has become a trendy time to join the aurora hunt. For those who don’t like crowds, try from September to October and 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.

What’s the best time of day to see the northern lights?

There’s no telling. Sometimes the lights come out at 21:00, sometimes 05:00. Sometimes they stay for five minutes, sometimes five hours. We’ve heard it’s better between 8 pm and midnight, but we’ve never seen any science behind it. You basically 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?

“Best” is a very subjective word. We think the most exciting is a 4×4 jeep 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. 

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. You also can put on warm overalls supplied by the tour operator, so you won’t get too cold.

What kind of Northern Lights tours are there?

Northern Lights Bus tours

The most cost-effective, no-thrills-but-gets-the-job-done way to see the northern lights is just to take a bus out of the city, with a driver who knows where the best viewing spots are and spend some time taking in the experience. The tour usually takes around 3-4 hours, but it could be longer if they think this means you will see the lights.

Pros

  • It’s the cheapest way!
  • The buses are warm and comfortable.
  • It’s easy to book and several different tour operators offer this tour

Cons

  • It’s not as easy to follow the lights since the bus has to stick to the main road.
  • This also means crowds, since there’s sometimes more than one bus parked in the same spots
Northern Lights by Boat

Northern Lights Boat tours

There’s no law saying you have to get out of the city by car, in fact, taking a boat to see the northern lights can be a great experience, seeing the city lights fade away, mirrored in the water. Even if you don’t end up seeing any northern lights, it’s still an experience to remember. (and as always, if you don’t see any northern lights, you can always see go again the next night for free.) The trip is usually around 2 hours, give or take half an hour.

Pros

  • Though not as cheap as the bus tour, it’s still relatively inexpensive.
  • You get to go on a boat, which is always fun
  • Even if you don’t see any lights, a boat tour is still an experience.
  • If the tour goes ahead but no lights appear, you sail again for free.

Cons

  • Boats are more weather dependent than land-based tours, since you don’t just need a good Aurora forecast, you need decent sailing weather.
  • Duration: 1,5-2,5 hours, occasionally a little longer than that.
RE_Bus_Northern_Lights-1

Northern Lights Jeep tours

Taking a modified jeep to see the northern light is a much more luxurious experience. Not only does the jeep take much fewer people, giving you a lot more privacy when viewing the northern lights, taking a jeep also gives you much more freedom to hunt the lights down, even over rough terrain. It’s exclusive and thrilling!

Pros

  • Smaller groups give you more privacy
  • More freedom to hunt down the lights
  • A knowledgeable guide is at your fingertips
  • You’ll see more of the country as well in a jeep rather than a bus

Cons

  • The availability is more limited – book ahead!
  • It costs a bit more
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Combo-tours for the Northern Lights

Combo tours include another activity in addition to the northern lights excursion, so generally speaking you’re getting more for your money. Activities include but are not limited to: Bathing in a hot spring, a boat trip to the Yoko Ono peace monument, a lobster dinner, horseback riding, the Horse Theatre, glacier hiking.

On the other hand, because these include another activity, some of them are not cancelled if the Aurora forecast isn’t looking good, and you generally don’t get to go again if you don’t see any lights. But this way you can be sure you do something awesome, and then the northern lights are more like a bonus.

Whales and northern lights

Do you want to see two of Iceland’s wonders? Then go on the whales and northern lights tour. This is a combo tour, which means you will go on two separate tours on the same day. First, you will go on a whale watching tour in Faxaflói bay. Cetaceans often sighted are minke whales, humpback whales, sei whales, fin whales and blue whales. After the tour, you have time to go for a bite to eat or just walk around. In the evening, you will go on a northern lights cruise. Sailing away from the bright city lights greatly improves your chances of seeing northern lights.

Book your northern lights and whales tour here.
Northern lights

Northern lights and stargazing

From September 1, you can go on small-group northern lights and stargazing tour. First, you are picked up at your accommodation and driven out of the city. The location is picked based on the weather forecast. The guide will try to go off the beaten path, so you will not be bothered by big crowds. On location, the sky is explored by a stargazing telescope revealing details of stars, planets and our solar system. The guide will take a photo of you and northern lights for free. And just when you are starting to get really cold, you will get a cup of hot chocolate and a kleina, a small Icelandic doughnut.

Book your northern lights and stargazing tour here.
Northern lights

Northern lights and snowmobiling

Snowmobiling in the dark, doesn’t that sound exciting? Well, that’s exactly what you will do during this tour. The pickup point of this tour is Gullfoss waterfall. You will be driven to Langjökull glacier, where you will gear up for a snowmobile tour. The headlight of the snowmobiles will be the only guiding light during this trip up to Iceland’s second-largest glacier. If conditions are right, this is the best place on earth to spot northern lights.

Book your northern lights and snowmobile tour here.

What are the Northern Lights?

Dancing spirits, a rainbow bridge and a fire fox

When the northern lights are really strong, they can turn the entire sky green. It’s not difficult to imagine that this must’ve had a great effect on our ancestors. Some Inuit believed that the northern lights were the spirits of their ancestors dancing in the sky. In Iceland, people used to believe the northern lights would relieve the pain of delivery. The expectant mother should, however, not look at the lights directly, as that would result in a shaky or cross-eyed child. In Greenland, the northern lights were thought to be the souls of stillborn babies and babies killed at birth.

In Finland, it was believed that the northern lights were caused by a “fire fox.” This fox would run so fast through snowy and mountainous landscapes, that its tail spread sparks into the night sky, creating the northern lights. In Sweden, people saw them as an omen for good times ahead, be it in the form of a good catch for fishermen or a bountiful harvest. In Norse mythology, one interpretation states that the northern lights were caused by reflections from the shields and armour of the Valkyrie, maidens of Óðinn who choose who dies in battle and take them to Valhalla. Bifröst, a burning rainbow bridge connecting Earth and the realm of the gods, is another explanation for the northern lights.

Northern lights Iceland

Solar storm, particles and radiation

Above mythical explanations for the northern lights are fascinating and beautiful, but science also has something to say about the phenomenon. Our Sun is about 150,000,000km away from Earth, but what happens on the Sun’s surface has a massive impact on our planet. Magnetic storms on the Sun’s surface can cause sun flares, which eject bursts of charged particles (electrons, ions, atoms) into outer space through the Sun’s corona. If this burst is in the direction of Earth, these charged particles can cause northern lights to appear near the Earth’s poles. Oxygen and nitrogen particles in the Earth’s atmosphere can collide with charged particles from the Sun’s atmosphere.

This collision causes the Earth’ particles to get in a high-energy state, and when they go back to their normal state, they release a photon, causing them to light up. This light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, reaching the Earth along with radio waves. When billions of these collisions occur, the oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere emit enough light for the eye to detect them, resulting in bright green, white, red and purple colours to dance across the sky. Northern lights extend from 80km to 640km above the earth’s surface. Green lights are caused by a collision with oxygen up to 240km in altitude, red lights by a collision with oxygen above 240km in altitude, blue by a collision with nitrogen up to about 100km in altitude, and purple by a collision above 100km in altitude. The oxygen and nitrogen molecules also emit ultraviolet light, which can’t be seen by the human eye.

See all the northern lights tours we offer here!

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