The Earth is a remarkable place – and even this may be massively understating its brilliance. There are so many beautiful things to see and do and feel, but there are very few places more amazing and more awe-inspiring than the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.
This giant bright dazzling light is an aesthetician’s wet dreams. It looks and feels more like heaven’s curtains than something you expect to see on Earth, lighting up the sky in all its majestic brilliance and magnificence.
In case you ever plan or are currently planning to take a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, we have prepared this comprehensive guide for you to help familiarize yourself with certain facts, helpful tips, and other travel guides that will surely prove invaluable all through your journey.
But before we dive into it, here are some quick facts about the Aurora Borealis:
Quick Facts About the Northern Lights
Even though it appears more like rainbows touching down on Earth and performing an ultra magnificent techno dance, the Aurora Borealis is an optical illusion caused by charged particles from the sun getting trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field.
What causes the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights? The different colors observed in the Northern Lights is due to the fact that different ions in the atmosphere produce different colors, meaning, for example, that whereas an oxygen atom will produce a green color, a nitrogen atom emits an orange or red color and so on.
The Aurora Borealis is visible from space, and satellites have been known to take magnificent photos of the Lights from space. Even more magnificent there, some would say, than it is on Earth. But then again, isn’t everything just grand when seen from space?
The lights are present not just on Earth, but on other planets too.
The Northern and Southern lights are different. One takes place near the southern pole and the other in the north. Aurora Borealis is the scientific name for the Northern lights, while the Southern lights are often called Aurora Australis. Nothing complicated. The main reason why Southern Lights are not so popular is due to the extremely remote location. Most travelers are not willing to fly thousands of miles just to see this fascinating event in real life, whereas the Northern Lights’ places like Iceland is more accessible and unique.
Now that you’re even more excited about the Northern Lights, the next question is why exactly should you choose to see the lights in Iceland and not any other place?
Well, for starters, the frequency of occurrence is very high in Iceland, and when you go at the right time, you may even get to enjoy the magic of the Northern Lights practically every night.
Also, despite its name, Iceland is known to have relatively warmer temperatures than Alaska, Canada, and most Scandinavian countries where the Northern Lights can also be observed.
It is super convenient to find dark, appropriate and comfortable spots for your viewing pleasure thanks to the relatively low population.
When To See the Lights?
First, like the wise Jedi masters would say, to see the light, you must have patience. But a few doses of proper timing doesn’t hurt either.
As it happens, the very absolutely certain time to experience the aurora is during what is known as the solar maximum – when the sun is at its most active point. The solar maximum, however, wouldn’t occur till 2024.
But not to worry, the aurora occurs very frequently even before the maximum, especially between September till March every year, which is widely regarded as the perfect time for optimal northern lights viewing experience. The equinoxes also happen to fall within this period.
The Winter Solstice in Iceland is also another excellent period for aurora hunting, as darkness can last up to nineteen hours – an aurora viewer’s dream!
So yes, your plan to see the lights in 2020 is still very sound, sane, and totally achievable.
It is also advisable, however, to never go during a full moon; five days before a new moon is optimal.
How it Feels to See the Northern Lights the Very First Time
To whet your appetite some more (as if you weren’t excited enough) I’m going to share a little story about my experience seeing the Aurora Borealis for the very first time.
“I had everything planned, and sure enough, everything went almost as planned. Twenty-four hours in, camped outside on a long beautiful night with my camera and gears all ready, the aurora came out and my god it was wonderful!
It was like watching beauty itself. The pure, abstract conception of what the thing itself should be. It was art in its pure, unadulterated form. And not just that, but it was heavenly too!
I felt as though I was one with something so beautiful, transcendent. I almost shed tears. Maybe I did. Perhaps I didn’t. Well, moving on…”
Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
There are generally three optimal places I recommend for you to have the best viewing experience of the northern lights in Iceland.
1. Near Reykjavík
The lights can be seen clearly and enjoyed right in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavík. The Grótta lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula is a famous viewing center in the suburbs.
For a more personal and slightly more optimal viewing, you can also choose to drive a few ways away from the city and find the darkest place around and stay awhile until your eyes adjust to the darkness.
You can also choose to book a more guided tour if you can afford it.
2. Near Hella
Another awesome place to get a hold of the lights is in Hella. This place is perfect due to the presence of the Hotel Ranga which is one of the best hotels for seekers of the aurora in Iceland. (We’ll get to that later)
Among the various amenities that make it especially remarkable are the presence of an aurora alert service, on-site observatory, and a relaxing outdoor hot tub.
Skógar is a peaceful small town in Iceland perfect for aurora hunting amongst other things. The presence here of the Skógafoss, a beautiful waterfall that reflects the aurora, doesn’t hurt either.
The scenery is just magnificent and perfect for taking fantastic photographs.
Best Northern Lights Hotel in Iceland
Aurora hunting is swell and everything, I mean driving out into the brave land in search of a guiding light which also happens to be your destination is like the major theme of a million classic novels.
But if you’re not prepared to take the deep plunge into the cold night, you can, you know, stay at a hotel and witness a stunning view of the aurora.
Here are the three best hotels I found perfect for a fulfilling aurora experience:
1. Hotel Ranga
The Hotel Ranga has been mentioned before above as one of the best locations for a proper aurora viewing and deserves mentioning again on the list of the best hotels that serve the same purpose.
Beautiful facilities, personalized services, and, most importantly, numerous amenities tailored specifically at ensuring you not only enjoy your stay but have a splendid aurora viewing experience makes this place stand out among the rest.
As mentioned earlier, they have a legitimate sky observatory with experts and instruments that ensure you get the most flawless vision. There’s also an alarm that wakes you when the lights start to come alive!
2. Hotel Husafell
This place literally gets engulfed by northern lights at its peak time. The beautiful dancing lights spur to live in the skies just above, and you get to enjoy the magic right there, underneath the brilliant skies.
They also have remarkably good food and breakfast, one of the best around and the aesthetics are just my style: simple, elegant, and Nordic. The total package.
3. Hotel Laxnes
A few ways from the capital city of Reykjavik, Hotel Laxnes completes the list of the very best hotels for viewing the northern lights in Iceland.
With very comfortable accommodations and a very appealing and well-maintained environment, you get to enjoy the phenomenal atmosphere of the lights in a serene, communal atmosphere of your own.
Can You Still Enjoy the Lights During the Minimum?
As mentioned above, the best time to see the Northen Lights is during the solar maximum when the sun is at its most active point. And also during the moments when it is almost at this point.
But since this guide is for 2020 and the maximum doesn’t occur till 2024 – which is still four full years away – is it safe to assume that the sun is at its minimum now and so there isn’t any hope to see the northern lights?
Of course not. First of all, the sun has an 11-year cycle to reach its peak point, which means we’re very much past the solar midpoint. And even regardless, you can have an optimal aurora viewing experience during the minimum, and guess what, the lights tend even to last longer at the minimum than they do at the maximum.
So yes, you can enjoy the lights at the minimum. But you have to be a plan and prepared for it, which brings me to the next point on how to pack for the perfect aurora viewing.
How to Prepare for an Iceland Trip to See Northern Lights – Equipment Guide
Now that you know the essential details about seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, the next logical step is to familiarize your self with the necessary tools and accessories that you might or will need on your journey.
Here are the gears you shouldn’t do without. Some depend on the kind of adventures you plan to have, while some are a must-have regardless of the scenario.
Size notes: Jacket offers a standard fit. Please choose by US size.
You are going to Iceland, after all. And even though I mentioned earlier that it is relatively warmer than other viewing locations, it is still Iceland, and you still have to pack for the cold, especially when visiting in winter.
You can find places to shop for windproof and rain-proof coats in the capital city of Reykjavik or online at a lower price.
You might think these are just embellishments, but when you’re camped out in the dead of night waiting on the aurora, you’ll find that these babies are lifesavers.
Or most appropriately, you won’t be freezing, which, trust me, is exactly want you want to feel and not a harsh piercing cold in your clavicle and through your fingers. Make sure you bring as many as possible because you will need them.
Just as important as the gloves and scarfs are the wool socks. Do you know the saying of having cold feet? Well going to Iceland without enough socks is a sure way to develop cold feet. Only instead of running away from the alter, you’re going to be cooped up in a room instead of being outdoors like everyone else enjoying the magical atmosphere of the northern lights, which, by the way, you went there for in the first place.
A compass always comes in handy on any journey and I always make sure to bring one along on all my travels. You probably should too, although it basically depends on just adventurous you’re willing to be.
Should you just be traveling alone, not only are you going to be exploring unknown territory, but you’re also going to be in one where Google map might not be as effective due to the irregular service availability in different parts of the country.
You’re going to be needing some pair of solid boots to serve as a four-well drive functionality for your weary legs. Trust me, you can’t thread the terrain alone, especially if you decide to hunt for the aurora on your own. You will find yourself in certain situations where only your solid boots can literally get you out of.
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It’s no secret that during winter our lips tend to become uncomfortably dry and irritating. And that’s where the lip balm comes in.
The aim here is to remove and even proactively guard against any form of inconvenience as rigorously as possible. An all-natural lip balm might just be the tool that saves you from having a remarkable experience soiled by a few minor irritations.
Another one of those minor inconveniences? Thirst and dehydration. Chances are you’re probably going to be doing a lot of walking around and sightseeing, and you may even wander into remote places where you might not have access to packaged water.
Having your filled water bottle handy at times like this is a lifesaver. Plus, you can easily refill in one of the rivers around. And yes, they are very clean and totally drinkable.
There is no way this can ever be a bad idea. Just as much likely as you are to get thirsty you’re almost equally likely to get a bit famished and in need of replenishment.
A handy nutritious energy bar or snacks is one of the best backpacking food as it not only makes sure you’re alright in terms of quenching your hunger, it also makes sure your body has its fill of the needed energy to make it to your destination.
Because without pictures, did you even see the aurora? Did you see the lights? Did you? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know. But with a proper camera handy, you get to preserve a fantastic memory forever.
Yes, your high-quality iPhone may be able to get the job done, but sometimes you need more than just a phone quality photo, and trust me this is one of those times. The lights are magnificent enough and deserve no less than the highest quality you can afford.
Is it Worth Doing a Northern Lights Tour in Iceland?
The Northern Lights frequently appear in the sky over Iceland during the winter months (typically from September to March). You can’t always see them because during winter, it is usually cloudy in Iceland.
However, you are quite likely to have aurora spotting if you encounter a moonlit winter night.
It isn’t difficult to see the Northern Lights on your own if you rent a car, but it is probably worth to book a Northern Lights chasing tour if you don’t want to drive or deal with light pollution.
You can find some of the best Northern Lights night tour packages on Viator and TripAdvisor.
How to Photograph Northern Lights?
Follow these steps to take perfect aurora shots every time!
Get ready for your camera equipment. It can be a professional DSLR or smartphone. Ensure there is sufficient battery.
Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.
Look through the viewfinder and move the camera to prepare for the best shot composition.
Set the focus by putting something in the foreground. This crucial step ensures sharp images of the Northern Lights.
Enable night mode (iPhone 11 and some Android phones only).
Change to RAW mode if you intend to do further processing in post (recommended).
Increase the ISO adequately to allow higher light sensitivity.
Open the aperture to allow more light coming through.
Capture as many shots as you can. Aurora changes patterns and colors fast. Also, try shooting in timelapse for a more interesting effect.
Review the photographs and make changes to the focus, exposure, shutter, and more settings accordingly to get the desired results.
Edit your work with phone apps or professional image editing software like Lightroom and Capture One. (Most aurora images you see on the web were edited with boosted brightness and adjusted colors)
What are the best iPhone / Android smartphone apps for Easy Handheld Northern Lights Photography?
Night Sight Mode (Found in newer flagship smartphones, iPhone 11 Max Pro, Google Pixel 4 XL, Huawei Mate 30 Pro, Samsung Note 10)
There you have it! Your ultimate, comprehensive guide for seeing Iceland’s Northern Lights. You can now rest confidently knowing you now know all you have to about seeing the lights in Iceland and having a more than optimal vacation experience.
Have fun bathing the brilliant magic of the Aurora Borealis. Don’t forget to let us know how you feel and how your journey was in the comment section below!
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