Spot Auroras in Iceland during Winter
“It’s not easy to spot auroras in Iceland.”
I remember a friend telling us about this and not thinking too much about it. I figured that of the 12 days we had during winter in Iceland, we’ll definitely be lucky at some point. Social media seems to point in this direction as well. Just search #Iceland on Instagram and you’ll easily come across pictures of others spotting auroras all over the country.
Yet it wasn’t until the last day did we spot the elusive northern lights. As with everything related to nature, Mother Earth always has the final say. I guess that’s the beauty though, because when the skies lit up, the auroras meant so much more.
Now that I’m slightly wiser, I’ve decided to write this guide to help increase your chances of spotting them! This is 2 weeks worth of research plus experience put into one blogpost.
Here are the things you should and should not do to spot auroras in Iceland.
(See also: 12 Days Iceland Winter Itinerary)
(1) Do your research
Auroras happen when charged particles from the sun interact with the magnetic shield in our atmosphere. They concentrate at both the northern and southern points of earth where the magnetic field is strongest, which explains why there are both northern and southern lights. Iceland is strategically located along the aurora belt, and hence occurrences are fairly common.
Anyway to see auroras, the conditions need to be perfect. You’ll need:
- A dark sky (of course) – so winters are best as the nights are long.
- No clouds – otherwise they will be blocking your view since it occurs pretty high up.
- Solar activity – measured by kp index. Basically experts predict/measure the charged particles coming from the sun.
- A little luck – mother nature has the final say!
When we were in Iceland, we constantly used this official Iceland Aurora Forecast site to predict our chances. The top right hand corner shows the forecast, so the higher the (kp) number, the higher are your chances of seeing something epic.
The map shows cloud cover around Iceland. Look out for the white areas, cause that’s where cloud cover is low. I’ll touch on how to use this in a moment.
There’s a handy scroll bar that will help you in planning too. Generally just look at the forecast from 9pm – 4am.
Pro-tip: Check it regularly (like every few hours especially closer to the evening) cause mother nature is fickle and no one can accurately predict days in advance.
(2) Plan around the forecast (if possible)
While this might not be always feasible, try if you REALLY want to see the auroras. The idea is that you want to be at the white areas (see previous point) whenever the solar activity is high (kp > 3).
If you can, go free and easy, planning your activities with the forecast in mind as you go. However, as it is only a weekly forecast, I still recommend that you have a rough plan before heading to Iceland. Just be prepared for change. Even though our main plan didn’t centre around the forecast, we altered our plans so many times that I lost count.
Accommodation options are generally good during winter, but avoid the peak winter period from the week before Christmas to the week after New Year if you want flexibility. We had problems finding accommodation in Reykjavik on New Year’s Eve cause we tried to book it a few days before our trip. Thankfully Airbnb saved us.
(3) Be smart about booking accommodation
Stay at places away from Reykjavik and other towns so you can easily monitor the skies from the comfort of your home. The darker the better! Light pollution can really affect your experience aurora watching.
There are plenty of nice Airbnb places (check out the map view), hostels, and other bed and breakfast places that are great for this. Accommodation in Iceland is generally expensive though, and it’ll be crazy to be camping in winter so it can’t be avoided.
Airbnb’s map view makes it easy to find places away from the cities.
On one of the nights, we also stayed at this out of the world Aurora Bubble near The Golden Circle loop. Imagine sleeping outdoors in the comfort of a totally transparent bubble with the stars above you. While the auroras didn’t dance above us that night, we had a super epic view of the night sky. If you are adventurous, this is definitely for you. More about this on my itinerary post later!
View of the Aurora Bubble and the night sky.This is what I call a 5 million star hotel.
(4) Go on a road trip
Self-drive if you are confident of your driving abilities! This makes it a lot more flexible as you can go hunting for the auroras at night. Driving 30mins out can really make a big difference. Imagine your accommodation being just at the edge of cloud cover. Having a car would allow you to drive out and still see the auroras!
Iceland is very easy to drive as everything centres around the Ring Road (Highway 1), which goes around the entire country. Most of the sights are along or just off the Ring Road as well, so it’s a great way to travel.
Pro-tip: Bring snacks if you drive out as the wait can be long. :P
Everywhere is scenic. When the weather was good, we literally wanted to stop after every turn.
If driving is not an option, the best bet is to go with one of the many northern light tour operators from Reykjavik. They are experts and have a well connected network throughout Iceland so your chances are higher. But unless you hire a private guide (very expensive), you will still be restricted by a schedule and will have to return by a certain time. There’s less flexibility as well.
(5) Do not be overconfident about your driving abilities
Going on a road trip and hunting northern lights at night is great, but don’t be complacent!
Despite having plenty of experience driving overseas, we still managed to get our car stuck in the snow on our first night out aurora hunting. We were driving along a side road at a valley when we decided to turn around to hunt in another area. Somehow while turning, we drove the entire car off road and got stuck in ankle high snow. Mind you we had spikes on our tires and were driving a 4-wheel drive! What made it worst was that aurora activity was very strong that night and there were sightings around the country.
We had to do quite a bit of shovelling before pulling the car out. D:
Thankfully no one was hurt and we were staying at an Icelandic friend’s place 15mins away. Our friend managed to pick us up at night, and got their farmer friend to pull our car out with his tractor the next day!
Morale of the story, drive carefully while hunting for northern lights. Otherwise you’ll miss it altogether, or worse get hurt.
Pro-tip: Check road conditions every 3 hourly. Road.is is the site to go.
(6) Get ready to sacrifice sleep
People say that aurora activity is highest between 11pm to 2am. But on the night we saw the lights dance, it was at 930pm and 3am respectively. The mistake we made on some of the other days were to only come out hunting at 11pm. The people we met along the way also said that they spotted some between 9-10pm as well.
So if you are
Kiasu eager not to lose out, start looking out from 9pm onwards. If you’re lucky, you can even head back earlier for a rest after spotting them early! If you’re serious about aurora hunting, sleep might be something you have to sacrifice.
Some of the people we met even had a shift system going on. They were a group of 4 so they took turns throughout the night, watching the skies until something happened. They were rewarded for their perseverance though.
Alternatively, stay in a hotel that will alert you if there’s any activity.
(7) Be prepared for the moment
It is perfectly fair to say the auroras come out whenever they want and for however long they want. Aurora displays can be as short as a minute or last for hours.
For those who want to capture the moment on camera, get your settings ready! Play around with your camera while waiting, and set up your tripod. I was using a borrowed Canon 5D MKII and my settings were f/2.8, ISO 800, and a 30second exposure. Remember to set your camera to manual focus pointing towards infinity otherwise it might not take the shot on auto focus.
Things to do while passing time.
Other than that, stay warm too. Winters can be cold so make sure you have your warmest clothes on even if you are waiting in the car. You never know how much time you’ll spend outside.
Pro-tip: I suggest keeping all light devices, including your phones away so your eyes are used to the darkness. There are plenty of other thing to do for passing time. Makes it easier for spotting auroras!
(8) Do not give up
Aurora hunting can be a pain the ass but do not give up. I mean it took us 12days before we finally saw the aurora on our last night out!
It was quite demoralising at first because we had been hearing about people who were in Iceland during the same period spotting them on different nights. Really felt like I missed out when my friend saw it in the North West of Iceland when I was at the South.
Even if nothing happens, you’ll still have some pretty epic nights to remember.
But the conditions were just not perfect for us at first. Our car got stuck, there was a storm for 2 days (which made the 2 days before that gloomy and cloudy), and we didn’t know as much then as now.
When we finally saw the auroras, it happened when we least expected it. The skies were clear, but we just thought of enjoying the stars as the aurora forecast index was very low at 2. Yet it happened.
Pro-tip: If the skies are clear, camp out anyway cause you never know. Even if it’s faint, it’s better than missing it completely!
(9) Do not wait forever. Go see the Auroras now if you can!
You might have read about this, but the auroras generally follow an 11-year solar cycle. This means that every 11 years or so, the sun gives off more charged particles, resulting in wild aurora displays during this period. 2016 is on the tail end of this peak, so aurora activity might not be as crazy after this year.
That said, don’t be too disappointed as the auroras will still be around. One of the tour operators I spoke to said that the northern lights will just be happening 5/10 nights instead of 7/10nights (clouds permitting). They’ll also be less epic than they are during the 2-3 years around the cycle’s peak.
According to AuroraHunter, “We are on the backside of the Solar Cycle 24 peak phase. The sunspot count is declining but 2016 still holds great potential for some big solar flares. I remember from Solar Cycle 23 (which peaked in 2001) that some of the wildest displays occurred after solar max in 2003.”
If history were to teach us something, 2016 may be the best time to go aurora hunting.
All these said, if going to Iceland to see the northern lights is the only priority, you might be setting yourself up for potential disappointment. Most of us have fixed travel periods and limited time in the country, so there is always a chance that you might miss the auroras completely.
Furthermore auroras are often better in photos than in person. The cameras are able to capture more than what the eyes can see. We were lucky to see them dancing a little for a minute or two the first time round. But the second time it was just a slight green tinge across the sky until we pulled our cameras out.
Iceland is a beautiful country. The landscape is raw and beyond breathtaking. So if you’re heading there, make visiting Iceland’s sights the main priority, and let the auroras be a side activity at night instead.
Happy hunting but don’t let it define your trip! Hope you found this post useful. :)
Iceland in Winter Itinerary – http://pohtecktoes.com/iceland-winter-itinerary/
Iceland Aurora Forecast – http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
Driving Conditions in Iceland – http://www.road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather/
Iceland Northern Lights Information – http://www.northernlightsiceland.com/
The land of ice. Ice caves are best visited in winter as it is colder and the ice doesn’t melt. Summer is possible though the odds may not be in favour. Just take the cue from the tour agencies though, they are super professional and safety conscious! Photo by: @PeterAmberTravel #TheTravelIntern #IceCave #IcelandSecret