A quick guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland
The nights in Iceland are growing steadily darker, which means that autumn is upon us. It also means that, after a summer hiatus, the northern lights have returned.
What is the Aurora Borealis?
The northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a sight unlike any other found in Iceland. And whether it is your first time or twentieth, they are bound to stop you in your tracks. Seeing them is an incredible experience, but the conditions must be right. The lights are caused by solar flares that send charged particles speeding through space. When they collide with the gases in Earth’s atmosphere, it can cause different-coloured lights to explode across the night sky. Read more about the science (and myths) behind the northern lights here.
What will you need?
If you are lucky enough to be in Iceland during one of these solar events, the next bit of luck you need involves the weather. The lights appear way above the clouds, so a clear sky is your best friend. Thankfully, there are several websites that you can check for solar activity and cloud coverage: the Icelandic Met Office and the Aurora Forecast. These sites can be tricky to read and understand, so we’ve mapped out how to use them properly.
But the northern lights do not come on command, and even if the forecast looks promising, there is no guarantee that we can see them. You will need a great amount of patience and a good attitude. Sometimes it can be cloudy in one area but clear in another. So you might have to jump back in the car and hunt for those open spots in the sky.
Where to go?
If mother nature obliges, the rest is up to you. The city lights won’t do you any favours, so we recommend getting out of Reykjavík and into the countryside where there is little to no light pollution. Several tour companies offer northern lights tours, from bus coach to boat to superjeep – all of which will take you out of the city to an optimal viewing point.
While the bus tours are pretty standard, some of the superjeep and boat tours will take you to spectacular locations so that even if you don’t see the northern lights – they are famously fickle – you will still get to have an adventure! If you don’t see any lights, nearly all companies will allow you to return on a tour for free until you do.
If you cannot get out of the city, you want to find a dark area without much light pollution. Check out some of our favourite spots around Reykjavík that can provide you with the best opportunity to see the northern lights.
Photographing the northern lights
And of course, you will want to capture the moment to share with your friends and family. While photographs of the northern lights do not quite capture their majesty, you can still manage to take a picture that will impress. But it isn’t easy! Follow these steps to bring the northern lights to everyone back home. With rapidly advancing technology, newer smartphones can now capture the aurora pretty decently – although you may need to download some apps. However, the best results come with a camera on a tripod, long exposure, and a low aperture.
Remember to dress warmly when out hunting the northern lights. It can get very cold out, especially while waiting patiently for the aurora to appear. Some tours offer free hot chocolate, which certainly helps! Take some provisions just in case the weather turns, and, if you are heading out on your own, make sure you let someone know where you will be.
Whether you are out in the countryside on your own, with a group on a tour, or meandering around in the city, the northern lights will never fail to impress. Keep your eyes on the forecast and your cameras ready!