For our two year wedding anniversary we wanted to see the northern lights in Norway. We wanted something special and memorable, a bit off the beaten path as well. Seeing the northern lights in Norway has been on our wish list for a very long time, so we thought if not now, when?
We created a Norway itinerary for ourselves and went on a 2-week road trip around Norway which included a stop for a few days in Tromsø from where we hoped to take a few day trips in search for the elusive aurora borealis. Here is our guide to witnessing the northern lights in Norway, including tips and tricks to make your night even more memorable.
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What are the Northern Lights
The northern lights are created from a collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the atmosphere of the earth. These lights can be seen above the magnetic poles in the northern or southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere, they are called the northern lights or Aurora borealis. In the southern hemisphere, they are called the southern lights or Aurora australis. The aurora display can appear like a celestial dancing spectacle in shades of red, yellow, green, blue and violet. Those eerie glows can also take many forms like small patches, clouds of colour, rippling curtains and dynamic rays.
Here's a really interesting fact: the colour of the aurora is determined by the type of gaseous particles which collide between our planet's atmosphere and the charged particles from the sun. For example, the common greenish aurora is produced by oxygen molecules located at around 100 km above the Earth. The very rare all-red aurora is produced by high altitude oxygen molecules located at 300 km above Earth. The blue or purple aurora is produced by nitrogen molecules. So you see, every aurora dance is unique and special in its own way. Once you see the northern lights once, you become addicted to this incredible natural phenomena and you'll want to hunt them all across the globe.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights
The northern lights can be observed from late August until mid-April, although for maximum chances you should probably expect to see them from late September until late March. We saw the northern lights in Norway on the 1st of October. The best time to see the northern lights is from 6 pm to 4 am. Chances peak around 10 pm, which is why most tour operators start their hunt at around 6 - 6:30 pm.
We know there is a so-called 11-year cycle for auroral displays. Basically the most restless the sun, the more chances to see the aurora. The last year corresponding to an increased solar activity was 2013. Usually, halfway through the 11-cycle, there is a minimum solar activity with smaller and smaller chances to see the aurora (the last one was 2006/2007). The next maximum solar activity year is expected in 2024 with its minim solar activity year being around 2019/2020.
Northern Lights in Norway
To see the northern lights in Norway, we recommend positioning yourself as further north as possible. We stayed in Tromsø and took a few days trips from there to try and hunt for the aurora. Most people go to the Lofoten islands in Norway in search of the northern lights. Try to check the weather forecast in advance and book a few nights for this purpose alone. We stayed for 4 nights and only got to see the northern lights only once. If you want to see the northern lights in a remote cabin somewhere in Norway, then we recommend booking at least a week. Check past weather forecasts as well. Remember that to see the northern lights you need clear skies. So if it's about to snow, it means it's usually cloudy which makes it impossible to see the aurora.
Basically, when you hunt for the Aurora, you try to find a patch of clear skies during the high solar activity. As mentioned, we decided to go to the Arctic circle to increase our chances of seeing the northern lights in Norway. We monitored solar activity for a few days and picked the best two nights to hunt for the northern lights.
Best places to see the Northern Lights in Norway
In short, the further north, the better. We went to the Arctic Circle to maximise our chances. Tromsø is one of the best places to see the northern lights in Norway for several reasons. It's just a short plane ride away from Oslo, it's still a city, which means you can find decent accommodation, and there are several tour operators which can lead you into the wilderness in search for the aurora. You are also close enough to Lapland if needed so sometimes, tour operators take you as far as Finland to hunt for the lights.
The Lofoten Islands are another prefered spot in Norway for chasing the aurora borealis. Another option is going to Svalbard for the Aurora, which is even wilder and more remote than the beautiful city of Tromsø.
What to expect from the Northern Lights in Norway
There are a few misconceptions about the northern lights. For example, in pictures, the aurora really looks different. Sometimes, you will see it very faint on the sky, but once you take a long exposure, the lights will look bright and glorious on your camera.
The northern lights in Norway are a natural phenomenon which means nobody can really predict how they are going to look like. You might be lucky and see a gorgeous dance with bright lights, or see just a tiny faint strip of green on the sky. Either way, it's a beautiful thing to see, so make sure you enjoy it.
When you do see the northern lights, please make sure you take some time to just admire them. I know you totally want to get the camera out to document it, but really, take a moment to just look at how incredible the green hue dance is.
Tour or no tour
Ah the dilemma: should you go on a tour or not. Well, it depends. If you know how to hunt for the clear skies and are a confident driver (can drive in the dark on potentially narrow, snowy roads) then you can probably do it on your own. This option is great for experienced adventurers who want something fun and exhilarating. I mean chasing the lights is a pretty great adventure.
However, if you just want to relax, enjoy the ride and let someone else take care of the chase, then a tour is definitely better. We did both. We went out to see the aurora on our own and we also went out with a tour.
Although I am an experienced driver, I don't love driving at night, so it wasn't the best choice for me, to be honest. We also ended up going off the beaten path quite a bit, on tiny roads. It was pitch dark, driving next to a lake. If you are not a local, maybe this is not ideal. Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of fun and it was an amazing adventure, but we always say safety first!
The second day we went out with a tour and obviously things were much better. They drove us places, showed us how to take photos of the Aurora, made a fire and offered us food and cakes. So from a comfort point of view, a tour obviously wins. It's also nice that tour operators offer you thermal costumes which make your time outdoors much bearable. Those are made to withstand crazy low temperatures and winds.
The only downside of a tour is that it's quite expensive and of course, they can't guarantee you will actually see the northern lights. But then, nobody can really. It's a hit and miss and most tour operators will sometimes drive for hours (as far as Finland) to make the tour a success. It's nature, so it's unpredictable. Value wise, paying £150 per person to be driven to off the beaten path locations, get a mini-course in photography on how to actually photograph the aurora, get thermal suits which cost a fortune, have good company by the fire and get warm food... well we'd say it's worth it.
Northern Lights in Norway
Even if you decide to drive on your own or get a specialised northern lights tour, we still recommend that you check the aurora forecast. We recommend this website. We booked our tour when the KP number was on 2. The higher the number, the higher the chances of seeing the northern lights from lower latitude. Now, the KP number is not the only thing you need to take into account: you need to check the weather and ensure you get clear skies and also use services like dark sky.
By checking these tools, you can make an informed decision about booking a tour or not. We delayed our tour by one day because of all data we checked about the aurora. Ultimately, you want to ensure you maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights and don't waste so much money.
Here are a few extra tips to make your trip memorable:
- make sure you bring thermals and warm layers. Even if you decide to go on a tour, make sure you bring warm clothes with you. Bring a hat and gloves. Read more about packing for Norway.
- if you have a wide lens, then bring it with you. If you don't, ask the guides if you can rent lenses in advance.
- if you decide to chase the aurora on your own, bring a good sat nav with you, check the weather conditions and make sure you have a GREAT car, ideally 4x4. You don't want to get stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere.
We hope this guide will help you make the most out of your northern lights adventure in Norway. We can't wait to visit Norway again and hopefully see the aurora again. It really is something of a dream. Did we miss anything? Please leave a comment in the section below to tell us more.