What To Expect From A Northern Lights Trip In Iceland

If you’re heading to Iceland/Reykjavik this year, chances are you only have one thing on your mind – the phenomenon that is the Aurora aka the Northern Lights.

It’s the most obvious and most in demand excursion that everyone who heads to the country wants to do and we we were certainly no different, quickly booking ourselves onto a Northern Lights trip during our recent visit to Reykjavik.

We booked our Northern Lights excursion with Reykjavik Sightseeing (via Tui) in advance of being in Iceland which saved a considerable amount of hassle when we got there. Being a package holiday we didn’t have to worry too much about finding out how it all worked as both the hotel reception and Tui reps made everything really clear and easy to understand.

How do I know if the Northern Lights trip is going ahead?

Once the Northern Lights booking was confirmed, every day our hotel (the Skuggi) had a notice board in the reception area to let guests know whether or not the Northern Lights trip would be running that evening based on the expected conditions. At other hotels it was simply a case of asking the hotel reception desk if the tour would be running that evening as they are all in contact with the Northern Lights tour operators.

Where do you get picked up from?

When the trip was confirmed to go ahead for the evening our pickup time was 21:00 from one of the local bus stops. With so many people heading out on these tours it’s not difficult to locate the pickup point due to the size of the queue, unless of course you’re first there! The Northern Lights trip used a 100 seater coach so there were a couple of hotel pick ups around the city to do before heading off into the night.

Where are the Northern Lights viewed from?

The Northern Lights can be viewed from anywhere in Iceland so long as the conditions are right so there really isn’t a set location. During our trip the guide took us to a location where it had already been established that the conditions would be good for the evening – the location you are taken to could be 15 minutes away or 1 hour depending on the conditions. On our first night it was a golf course and on the second night a random hillside!

Several times on our trip we could see from the coach window that the solar activity was building so the guide would have the coach pull over and allow everyone off to avoid missing anything. You often have to be quick with the lights as they’re very temperamental so blink and you could miss them!

What happens if we don’t see the Northern Lights?

if you aren’t lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on your evening most of the tour operators will take you out for a second night free of charge to create a second opportunity. This was exactly what happened with Sarah and myself; our first outing resulted in nothing more than standing still looking at a starry night sky get cloudier and cloudier for 2 hours before giving up due to the no show – really disappointing!

On our second night out however we were a lot more lucky by not only seeing the lights but also experiencing the Geminid meteor shower with bright shooting stars frequently rushing across the sky. It was spectacular.

What should I wear to see the Northern Lights?

This one is really simple – warm clothes and plenty of them! The rule of thumb here is layer, layer, layer! When you don’t think you can get another layer on, put another one on anyway!

Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland basically involves standing around in a random location that’s fully exposed to the wind and certainly the cold for around 2 hours. You won’t be moving around much, it will be late at night and if you have a good clear sky with no cloud cover then the temperature is going to be, well, a little brutal! During our visit in December the temperatures were dropping to below -7 degrees C so I really can’t emphasise enough to wrap up warm.

To put this into perspective I was wearing 2 layers of thermal leggings under jeans, thermal socks under normal socks, a thermal tshirt under both a normal tshirt, fleece and ski jacket, normal gloves under ski gloves, thermal neck warmer under a scarf and then a thermal hat under a normal hat… I was still cold. And looked a little, well, chunkier than usual! You have been warned!

Finally I would advice to wear sturdy walking shoes or walking boots which to be honest should be a staple of visiting Iceland anyway. As you are in an unfamiliar location in the pitch black with just torch light to go by the terrain under foot can be icy and unpredictable so make sure you have stability – the last thing you want to do is spoil your trip by slipping over and hurting yourself and it will happen as we saw this happen to a few people on the trip.

What should I expect to see?

Like ourselves most people arrive in Iceland expecting to see the Northern Lights streaming across the skies in vibrant green bands just like in all of those photos you’ve been researching. Unfortunately you very quickly learn that this isn’t the reality at all!

The Northern Lights are created by different elements hitting earth’s atmosphere from the solar winds. What you see really depends on the levels of solar activity that night. The activity is measured on a scale of 1 to 9 with 1 being barely visible and 9 being a full on circus in the sky offering red, blue, green and yellow bands of colour. A typical evening will however present itself between 2-4 on the scale.

At the lower end of the scale the lights can appear to the naked eye but look more like white wispy clouds. If however you have the correct equipment with you to photograph the Northern Lights you’ll find even these cloud like formations are in fact green.

Make sure you check out the Aurora forecast at http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ before you set out for the night and you should have a good idea of what to expect.

How to take the perfect photo?

Let’s get straight to the point with this one – you’re very unlikely to get a good photo of the Northern Lights unless you are really prepared! Not only that but unless you’re a seasoned photographer you’ll find it difficult. Taking night photography is at the best of times very difficult to get a good shot. Add into the mix trying to take a photo of the night sky and/or people with the lights behind them and you’re likely to end up getting frustrated!

Now, don’t be too deflated by this as there are things you can do to improve your shot:

  1. Use a tripod.
    If you create even the slightest of movement on your camera you’re going to get a blurry shot. Keep things stable.
  2. Use a timer.
    As per the above, use a timer. You don’t want your shot blurry because you created movement when releasing the shutter.
  3. Download an app for your phone.
    Your standard phone camera app on iOS or Android won’t be good enough for the Northern Lights. You need to download an advanced camera app that allows you to control ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
  4. Use a DSLR.
    The king of cameras – use a DSLR and you’ll be looking at the best shots taken in your group.

So, did I manage to get any photos? Absolutely! I’m certainly not a professional photographer so despite many of my shots coming out blurry I was happy with these – evidence that I saw the lights!

The Northern Lights, Iceland

I also managed to capture the Northern Lights with a shooting star from the Geminid Meteor shower going through the Ursa Major aka The Plough/Big Dipper!

The Northern Lights & Geminid Meteor, Iceland

And with a bit of zoom for the mobile users!…

The Northern Lights & Geminid Meteor, Iceland
The Northern Lights, Iceland
The Northern Lights, Iceland

Best of luck with your trip to Iceland, we hope you manage to get to see this incredible sight.

Have you seen the Northern Lights? Did you manage to take any good photos? Let us know in the comments!

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