Aurora Borealis – an extensive Northern Lights guide

Feb 18, 2018

Photographed in Iceland

A complete Northern Lights guide on how to actually chase legendary Aurora.

It’s true, not much compares to the beauty of those green (sometimes even red, white or blue) dancing lights in a starlit arctic night sky. Seeing them for the first time leaves you in complete awe. Intense Northern Lights are something you don’t witness often, not even living in Iceland. It’s a rare occurrence that they shine bright, fill the entire sky and create the most magical figures – like whirlwinds or phoenixes. It’s dependent on so many factors: clear sky, hardly any light pollution and a high Aurora activity, so-called solar winds. Three winters spent in the Far North and we might have seen them in all their incredible beauty for around ten times, if even. Whenever we did it left us speechless. Maybe because it’s something so unexpectedly ‘fairytale’, so utterly dream-like or because it’s a sight you just don’t expect in a cold and dark night sky. They dance. They really do. They twist and twirl, they blow up and shrink, the color gets more intense then fades again and it isn’t a slow change, it’s a constant movement above your head. Combined with that intense green, thousands of stars, shooting ones, even and – best case scenario – the incredible Milky Way it is a sight nobody will forget that easily. It’s a phenomenon worth chasing, something so unique and beautiful that it enriches your life witnessing it. Even Icelanders go hunt Northern Lights. Aurora is nothing you ever get enough of. Nothing that would ever become the ‘same old’. 

So many tourists flood the country during wintertime in hope of catching a glimpse of this spectacle but in all honesty, they are really, really lucky if they do. The first time we spent a few days in Iceland we met a journalist who already visited the country 8 (!) times to see them dance but he never actually did. There are so many tour operators offering expensive night drives to go see Aurora but well, chances are damn high you won’t see a thing. No guide can change the weather or intensity of the solar storms and they will still take you on that drive even though they might already know there won’t be any green phenomenon to be seen. Over the past three years, we did figure out how to calculate all given factors to have a realistic chance on seeing them, though and today we’re gonna share those tools and apps. So if you ever come to Iceland and you wanna check out what you’re chances are – you’re perfectly equipped to make the best out of your stay after reading this Northern Lights guide and will not spend hundreds of bucks on a guided tour without seeing any lights. The tour operators will probably hate us for saying this but as long as they don’t offer to cancel the trip when the sky is all cloudy or the Northern Lights forecast is not high enough OR at least offer something awesome, instead – don’t book a tour and rather opt for a rental car to go chase them yourself! 

Aurora Borealis.

A complete Northern Lights Guide

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The Greatest Show of all.
The real live magic to be chased. The utter dream to fulfill. 

There is three things you need in order to see the Northern Lights: a car to go somewhere without any light pollution (do NOT go to Grótta like everyone so blindly recommends, more about that later), the Icelandic weather forecast (really only trust that one) and a reliable app that tells you the actual Aurora forecast for the next couple of weeks. But let’s dive into those three factors a little deeper:

the three things you need to see Aurora dance

a Car

Good Weather

Aurora app

There are a lot of Northern Light forecast apps on the market and at some point or the other, we’ve tested them all. The one simply called ‘Aurora’ became our loyal companion and after using it for more than a year now we can say that it is highly precise, even weeks in advance. It tells you the exact KP index for any given moment and your exact location. It comes with a map where you can see where the Lights will be strongest that night and another one with the best locations to see them in the world, overall (Alaska, Canada, Iceland, northern Norway, northern Russia and northern Finland, that is). It’s best feature is not the daily overview, though but the forecast. It gives out the percentage of the viewing probability for your exact location for the next 25mins – so when you are already out and about you can check if waiting will be worth it or not. It also tells you the percentage of cloud coverage where you are at (if it’s more than 20% then don’t even bother – it’s most likely not worth it.) Next one is the KP index for the next hour. (KP index is the scale for geomagnetic activity). The best feature of them all is the long-term forecast, though. You get the estimated KP index for the next three weeks at your location. (We, therefore, know that this past Friday was a pretty good night to see the Lights but other than that February doesn’t look really good when it comes to seeing lady Aurora dance.) The app is free, so make sure you download it before you head out to Iceland. That way you can save a lot of money by NOT booking the expensive tours when there is a poor forecast OR invest your money well by booking the tour on a day where the forecast looks really promising.

By the way: some people are quite disappointed if they see a lightly green veil over the horizon that might just as well be a cloud and people tell them that this is legendary Aurora. Well, it actually IS the Northern Lights but at a really low KP index, with way too much light pollution. If you want “the real thing” you have to go where there is no light and the forecast is at LEAST a 3. We’ve never seen a forecast higher than a 7 – 8 and 9 are incredibly rare and indicate a massive solar storm. But really, catch a 5/6 (even a 4) somewhere where it is absolutely dark and your mind will be blown! Most of the nights, the Lights show up around 10/11pm and in the early morning hours, like 3/4am. Also, you can only see them in winter even though they occur all year round, but you need a very dark and clear, crisp sky to see them in all their perfection. Therefore, Aurora season is from mid-November to end of March, mid of April. It needs to be pitch black night in order to be really amazing.


timeanddate.com/sun/iceland is our personal recommendation to check for when the Astronomical Twilight is over and the night sets in – it’s also a great site to check for other Astronomical events like Super Moon and New Moon, for example, or for when it will be high and low tide.) If you want to have a chance to not only see the Northern Lights but the Milky Way, as well, then the nights around New Moon are perfect to do so since that’s when the sky is darkest!

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Aurora Forecast

Of course, a good Aurora forecast still doesn’t mean that you are actually going to see something as the sky has to be super clear, as well. Predicting the weather in Iceland is hardly possible, as ever-changing as it is. But the Icelandic MET Office is pretty accurate – if you wanna know what the weather TODAY will be like. Don’t use any other forecast, really – it will most likely be incorrect. http://en.vedur.is always is your best guess. Keep refreshing the forecast during the day and if the sky is still predicted to be clear in the afternoon then it’s your night to go chase Northern Lights!

Get out of the City!

The last important tip is to really go somewhere where there is no light pollution. We know that Grótta in Reykjavik is highly recommended but since we live just around the corner we can only suggest that you do not follow that advice. By now, it is so absolutely overcrowded whenever the Lights occur that you won’t even find a parking space. Plus, lots of people are highly ignorant (or uneducated) and leave their car lights and headlights on which leads to quite some light pollution and so the chance to see Aurora at that corner of Reykjavik is nothing but decreasing. Drive out of the city, go south rather or into the highlands and try to find yourself some spot where there actually is no light. The experience will be so much better if you leave the city behind!!

Road Conditions

Good places are on the mountains on the way to Selfoss or Þingvellir. Going west and around Hvalfjörður is also a good idea. Since Aurora can only be seen in winter you have to be aware that the road conditions most likely will not be awesome. Always check road.is before you head out to see if the route you choose is open and passable. Writing this while all main roads on the island are closed down due to a major storm we really are not kidding with this. Best is to book a 4×4 with spiked tires when there is tons of snow and ice since the winter conditions in Iceland can be incredibly crazy. Please always rather opt for being safe as you might be very sorry not to.

Happy Hunting!

With all this in mind, you should be able to figure out if there is a realistic chance to see the magical Lights during your stay in Iceland. If you don’t want to take a risk driving through very uncommon and uncomfortable road conditions then of course you can always go for the guided tours in order to increase your safety and therefore chances to witness the sky turn on it’s greatest show – especially now that you know with what background check to book them. (If you are seeking general information on how to best travel Iceland then make sure to check out our comprehensive 'Iceland Travel Guide' where you will most likely find whatever you are looking for!)

We keep our fingers crossed for you and wish you the best of luck in going out there to experience one of the great wonders of this planet. <3

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2 Comments

  1. Anna-Lena on September 6, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Hi,

    I’m using iOS and I can’t seem to find the right app for the Aurora. Do you have a link or something I can better find it with?
    Would be much appreciated.
    Also I’m a little undecided as to weather I will need a 4×4 for the ring road beginning of October. No highlands planned with this car. I heard from a couple of experienced Iceland travelers that it would be fine with a 2wd, but you say otherwise?!

    Thanks for your help,
    Your pictures look absolutely stunning 🙂

    Anna

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