Aurora Borealis is one of the most famous natural phenomena in the world and a great reason to visit Scandinavia in the winter. Even people who hate the cold won’t hesitate to travel to Norway in January, just to catch a glimpse of the spectacular dancing lights.
What exactly is the Aurora Borealis, when and where can you see it, and what should you know before you go around chasing the Northern Lights? You can get the answers to all those questions below, so keep on reading to learn everything you need to know about the Northern Lights!
The Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon that is a result of the sun’s solar storms or sunspots disturbing the Earth’s magnetosphere. When these disturbances from the sun are really strong, aurora activity is high, with bright lights that are often red in color. And when the disturbances are minimal, aurora activity is low and produces more faint green lights.
The Northern Lights are just one type of polar light. Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) also exist in the Southern Hemisphere. So, if you just want to see some of the most spectacular colors in the sky, you can do so both in Norway and in New Zealand. Polar lights are actually a common occurrence in the places that are closer to the North and South Poles – the higher the latitude, the better the chance of seeing the phenomenon.
That is not to say you can’t or will never see Auroras further towards the equator. Back in 2013, the Aurora was even visible where I live in Switzerland. It was a lot weaker and is certainly rare, but it does happen during significant solar storms.
The Aurora Borealis shows up on clear and dark nights, anytime from September to April. The polar night period in Norway (mid-November to mid-January) is thought to be the best time for Northern Lights chases. The sun never rises during the polar night, meaning it’s almost always dark enough for the aurora to show up.
However, the weather can be brutal during these months. Precipitation is high, which actually decreases the chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Because of that, most people agree that the best months to see the aurora in Norway are September, October, February, and March. But keep in mind that the weather in Norway is very unpredictable.
Witnessing this spectacle in action is not as simple as peeking out of the window of your hotel room. You will likely have to chase the Northern Lights, meaning going from one lookout spot to another, hoping that they will show up.
It’s time-consuming, pricey, and requires a lot of dedication. Also, if you’re doing it all on your own, you’ll have to become a pro at reading aurora weather forecasts. Geophysical Institute of Alaska has a great forecast that notes the probability of the aurora showing up, as well as the level of activity. Low activity means the aurora is faint and barely visible, while high activity means you’re in for a spectacular show.
Most aurora forecasts include a KP index that predicts the level of aurora activity. KP index ranges from 0-9, and the higher the number the higher the aurora activity. The index describes the level of disturbance of Earth’s geomagnetic field. This is caused by the solar wind, and the faster the wind blows the higher the disturbance.
Just to give you an idea, 0 means low aurora activity of faint lights that will barely show up in photographs. On the other hand, 9 means bright, dynamic, and colorful aurora, with a very high probability of red lights. However, you should always take KP index forecasts with a grain of salt – it exists to give you an idea of what to expect, but it’s not set in stone.
There’s a reason why tours that take you to see the aurora are called “chases”. Even on an extremely clear and dark night, in the best possible place in the world, it’s still not 100% guaranteed that the lights will show up. You need to know that, and you need to be prepared for the fact that you could be sitting out in the cold for hours without the reward for all your hard work.
That’s why it’s best to go on a guided tour if you only have a few days, and why you’ll need to go out night after night if you’re there just for the aurora. You’ll need to be persistent and chase the lights across different cities, and maybe even countries if you’re up for that.
The Aurora Borealis can be observed in places far north, from Alaska to Finland. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are the most popular places in Europe because they’re easy to reach, and the chances of seeing the Northern Lights are high.
Tromso, Norway is generally considered the best place in the world to see the Aurora Borealis. It’s in the center of the aurora zone, and it offers the highest chance that you’ll actually see the spectacular natural phenomenon. Even when the aurora activity is low, chances that you can see it from Tromso at very high.
The latitude of 69.6° N is right in the middle of the Aurora oval, and the polar night means that aurora sometimes show s up at 5 PM. However, nothing is guaranteed – the polar night in Tromso is generally from later November to late January, which means that the sun never rises during this period. Yes, Northern Lights will sometimes appear at 5 PM, but they might not appear at all due to high precipitation. It either rains or snows in Tromso almost every day in December, which actually decreases your chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis – you need a dark and clear sky, after all.
Also, Tromso is easily accessible from all over Europe, with direct flights from London, Krakow, Frankfurt, and others. Even WizzAir offer direct flight to Tromso from UK and Poland, meaning you can get to Norway in under 4-hours for less than $200!
If you’re in Norway only for a few days, your best bet to see the Northern Lights is to join a tour. Northern Lights tour guides are exceptionally skilled at reading weather forecasts to figure out when and where it’s most likely that the phenomenon will appear. Joining a tour is great for people who don’t have a car and don’t want to rent one, since you’re provided with transportation to and from the observation spot.
Going on a Northern Lights chase with an experienced guide will sometimes mean you end up in Finland or Sweden, which just goes to show how committed these guys are to ensuring you get what you paid for. The tours are usually 4-7 hours long, so you’ll want to get some sleep in during the day.
We’d highly recommend going on a Northern Lights chase with an experienced guide if you’re on your own in Norway. It eliminates the need for planning, reading forecasts, comparing KP indices, and renting a car. But the tours are expensive – it’s usually anywhere from $150-200 per person, and it might not make sense if you’re traveling with a large group of people. So, check out some tips on chasing the Northern Lights!
If you’re fine with driving in and around Tromso to see the Northern Lights, you have a lot of options. It’s a good idea to set some boundaries though, like how far you’re willing to drive. This will also help you organize everything for the chase, like downloading offline maps of the area and filling up the gas tank. Plus, it’s better to let everyone in the car know you’ll be driving to Finland, instead of surprising them with a quick trip to a different country.
Check if you have enough gas for the return trip. If you haven’t decided just how far you will drive, the smartest thing is to get a full tank. It’s probably best that you don’t drive too far if you want to return home once the light show is over. And if you feel really tired or sleepy, get some rest before hitting the road again.
Make sure you know which direction is north. They are the Northern Lights after all, and they generally start in the north. So, whether you’re sitting on the bank of a lake or staring at the sky from the top of the mountain, make sure you’re facing north and you might be the first one to spot the aurora.
Also, here’s a barely-ethical pro-tip: call the tour guides and ask questions about the tours. Ask them what the chances of seeing the aurora are on a given night, and ask about the time and place of the tour. Make up an excuse like your pregnant wife wants to know how long the drive is or something like that – if you can get the when and where out of them, you can just drive up on your own without spending an hour reading the forecasts.
The number one spot for seeing Aurora Borealis near Tromso is Brosmetinden Mountain. It’s about an hour of driving from downtown Tromso, and the view from the top of the mountain is breathtaking during the day – just imagine how spectacular it is with aurora in the sky.
One thing to note about this location is that there’s only road-side parking. One option is to park close to the trailhead and hike to the top of the mountain for about 30-45 minutes. The out-and-back hike is less than 4 kilometers, and if you have some bright headlamps you’ll have no issues getting back to the car in the dark.
Lake Kattfjordvatnet is the better option if you’d rather not hike in the dark. It’s only 30 minutes outside Tromso, featuring a spectacular mountainous landscape.
Skulsfjord is 25 minutes north of Tromso, and it offers some of the best aurora views in Norway. The mountainous area is far from houses, with no artificial lighting – perfect conditions for spectacular Northern Lights.
Ersfjord is about 30 minutes from Tromso, and it’s one of the most popular places in Norway for photographing Aurora Borealis. The narrow fjord is absolutely magical with green lights dancing above it, and it’s without a doubt one of the best places in Tromso to catch the show.
You can still see the Northern Lights in Tromso if you don’t have a car and if you refuse to join a tour. There are a few spots close to downtown Tromso that are great for seeing Aurora Borealis, and they’re all easily accessible by public transport. It might not be the most spectacular view, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
Ride the Tromso cable car up to Floya Mountain – it’s a 30-minute walk (or 5-minute taxi ride) from the center of Tromso to the cable car station, and only a 4-minute ride up to the mountain. Floya Mountain offers great views of the aurora over Tromso, but they’re not quite as magical as in some darker places.
The second best option is Lake Prestvannet. It’s a 10-minute taxi ride or a 25-minute walk from Tromso Cathedral to the lake, making it a great destination for all of you who don’t have a car. The scenery here is always beautiful and looks even more wonderful under the dancing lights. Pro-tip: the lake freezes in the winter, which makes it popular for ice skating and hockey. Bring a pair of skates for an even more magical night under the Northern Lights!
Ersfjord again! You can get there by bus or taxi, in 30-40 minutes and it’s absolutely worth it.
Chasing the Northern Lights is not as simple as getting in your car and driving off. There’s a lot of preparation included, from looking up the KP indices and checking which latitudes will have the highest aurora activity, to packing enough food and drinks for the trip.
Aurora chases can sometimes take up to 7-8 hours and more, so you’ll need to be adequately prepared. Remember that you’re in Norway, usually in the winter – temperatures can drop down to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), and unless you’re equipped for extreme cold, you’ll most likely give up before the aurora even shows up.
Preparing for a Northern Lights chase means packing enough food and drinks to last you through the night. It means wearing multiple layers of warm but moisture-wicking clothing, so you don’t freeze in the dead of night. It’s also a good idea to bring insulated sleeping bags and warm blankets, for that extra warmth you’ll need after spending hours out in the cold.
On top of that, pack a change of clothing in case your clothes get too sweaty, dirty, or wet. If you’re planning to take photos or film the aurora, pack a spare battery and an SD card for the camera. It’s also smart to have a power bank for your phone because the extreme cold can drain your battery faster.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.