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What Nobody wants to tell you about the Northern Lights

Aurora borealis, northern lights or foxfire – whatever you call them, they’re a natural phenomena on many a traveler’s wish list.

Requiring a remarkable coincidence of clear skies and high solar activity, it can be a difficult thing to witness. Still, we brave the cold, the considerable expense and the possibility of missing them completely, for the mere chance of gazing up at the sky in awe as the lights dance above us.

Some fail. Some succeed. And us?

We saw them on our very first night in the aurora belt. It was -27, the skies were clear, and aurora activity was high, so we knew there was a good chance of seeing them in all their glory. Staff at our hotel claimed that they’d shown themselves 3 nights in a row, so our expectations were high. We bundled up, getting more and more excited with each layer of clothes, and stepped out onto frozen Lake Inari, eyes turned upwards.

Within minutes, we spotted a light greenish glow in the sky, but couldn’t be sure if our eyes were deceiving us, or if this was a trick of light pollution and hope. Slowly, the glow began to deepen and move and shift across the sky. I wouldn’t call it dancing exactly, but there was definitely something happening in the sky.

A faint glow

A faint glow

From behind us, a group of Chinese female tourists, begin oohing and aahing and giggling, their laughter, making us chuckle too. It was obvious that they were super excited about seeing the lights.

I wish I could say we felt the same.

But what we see above us is underwhelming. Pretty, but underwhelming. There. I said it.

I didn’t think it could happen, but it’s possible to witness the northern lights in person and feel somewhat bored. Truthfully, the photos we took of the aurora are MUCH more vivid and dramatic than what we saw in person, and I am definitely not a professional photographer.

If you want some tips for photographing the northern lights, check out this post.

This looks much more brilliant and exciting in pictures than in person

This looks much more brilliant than in person

Of course, with northern lights tourism making up a huge percentage of the industry of Lapland and Finnmark, no brochure or website is going to tell you that most of the time, the lights are kind of ho-hum. What we saw, was a green glow moving across the sky, but in kind of a blobby way, not a flickering, dancing way. I’m not saying that you won’t see the fantastical lights show if you come here, but odds are slim…even if you do manage to catch the lights in some form.

You might see this...but probably not - marketing in Ivalo Airport.

You might see this…but probably not.

In fact, just 2 days before we arrived at Engholm Husky in Finnmark, Norway, they’d been treated to a 2 or 3 hour show of epic proportions. Yes, it was in fact, the very day, we’d been watching our green glow blob across the sky in Finnish Lapland.

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If only, we’d come north 2 days earlier…if only…

Our frustration grew exponentially over the next 2 nights, as we were treated to a sky, dense with a layer of clouds, and reports of extremely high auroral activity, that we of course, could not see. The following 2 nights were reasonably clear, meaning you could see stars, but auroral activity had dropped to almost zero, making it impossible for anything, but the camera to catch the very faintest of green glows in the sky. Meanwhile, people as far south as Scotland were seeing the lights. ARGHGHGH!!!

Nothing but clouds in Karasjok, Norway. At least the dogs are cute.

Nothing but clouds. At least the dogs are cute.

Looking back with the advantage of hindsight, and knowledge of what it’s like to travel in the Arctic Circle, there are a lot of things I would’ve done differently to give us a better shot at seeing the lights the way we wanted to see them…because they were there, WE were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tips for Maximizing Your Chance of Seeing an Epic Northern Lights Show

1) Go in the middle of winter, not at the end
Global warming is a fact. During our time in the Arctic Circle, temperatures reached as high as +5. Snow was melting everywhere during the day and freezing at night, basically creating the world’s largest skating rink. Snow should not be melting in the Arctic Circle at the end of February. At least I don’t think so.

Warm enough in Karasjok to be outside without a coat

Warm enough in Karasjok to be outside without a coat

The point is that colder weather, usually means clearer skies. Not always, but usually. Go in the thick of winter, and I think the odds of clearer skies will be greater. It certainly won’t rain…like it did for us one day.

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2) Get as far north as you possibly can
We were 2 hours south of Karasjok on the fateful day that the lights appeared, and it made all the difference in the world. Where we got a green blob floating across the sky, they got 2-3 hours of the most intense lights they’d seen in awhile. One staffer described them as, “like flames.” Gahhhh!!! Go north, young traveler.

3) Check auroral activity levels daily and book hotels on the fly (preferably an igloo or aurora bubble)
The Aurora Service website tracks daily auroral activity for Europe, North America and Australis. It provides both hourly and 3 day forecasts, and I found it to be shockingly accurate.

The Aurora Service Hourly Forecast

The Aurora Service Hourly Forecast

If I could do this trip all over again, I wouldn’t have booked a single hotel in the Arctic Circle in advance (don’t worry, there is no danger of not finding someplace to stay). Instead, I would base myself in a town like Ivalo (which is not touristy at all and a little more budget friendly), check the aurora readings daily, and then book a hotel last minute, based on the clarity of the sky.

Ideally, even though they are really expensive, I would book a glass igloo or an aurora bubble. It was -27 the night we saw the lights, and we could really only bear to be outside for 1 hour before we had to go inside. Maybe the lights got stronger that night, who knows? But we were too cold to stay out all night to check.

Alternative – Rent a Car.

4) Rent a car
You need to be mobile in order to get away from light pollution and get to where the aurora can best be seen. Most aurora tours start at 8:00PM, only last for 2 hours and cost a minimum of 99 euros per person. Statistically, the aurora is most often seen around midnight, and a car will give you the freedom to explore at will. It won’t be cheap (nothing is up there), but it’ll still be cheaper than a guided tour.

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If we’d rented a car, we’d have been able to drive further north to look for a more vivid version of the northern lights. Added bonus, you can get inside and warm up when required.

5) Bring a lot of money or something to amuse yourself
Honestly, aurora hunting is kind of boring. Most of the time you are just sitting around inside, waiting for nightfall.

There are a lot of winter activities you can participate in, like snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing or snow-showing, but all of these things require huge amounts of cash. We weren’t willing to shell out $350 to go snowmobiling for 3 hours, or $700 to hang out with reindeer herders for a few hours, so most of the time, we were just relaxing in the hotel, reading or playing backgammon. There’s A LOT of downtime.

Of course, we won’t be doing this trip again for quite some time, if ever. With the exception of our safari in the Serengeti, which included a private guide, park fees, and full board tents inside perhaps the worlds most premier nature reserve, this is THE most expensive trip we’ve ever done…only we didn’t get to see zebras and lions in the wild.

Entering Serengeti National Park

Entering Serengeti National Park

I'd take this over the green blog any day

I’d take this over the floating green blob any day

I’m pretty sure the green glowing blob wasn’t worth it.

What do you think? Would you spend thousands of dollars just for a shot at seeing the northern lights?

*This post is part of Faraway Files.

38 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve got them on my bucket list, but I am having doubts now as the cost seems high for a risk you may not see them and after all they are just a couple of lights! There is so much more in the world to see! Thanks for the great story!

    April 14, 2014
    • I think it’s worth it, if you get lucky enough to catch an epic lights show. The trick is catching one. 😉 Something that’s much easier to accomplish if money is no object, otherwise you’re relying on luck and the whims of Mother Nature.

      April 15, 2014
  2. Lori Ono #

    I would like to go cross country skiing in Lapland, seeing the aurora borealis would be icing on the cake.

    April 14, 2014
    • And that’s exactly the right attitude to have to enjoy your time in Lapland, I think. Go there for another purpose, and if you see the lights, fantastic! We went specifically for the lights, and ended up pretty disappointed after spending all that cash.

      April 15, 2014
  3. Haha I appreciate the dose of reality – I’m not surprised to hear that the Northern Lights get played up. After all, they’re a huge tourist attraction, as you have demonstrated here!

    April 15, 2014
    • A sobering and expensive reality. 🙁 If only I had a do-over… but nope, next time we have that much money, we’ll be heading straight to the Maldives. 😉

      April 15, 2014
  4. I often spend Christmas in Fairbanks, Alaska. The skies never seem to cooperate when I’m there and I have seen great Northern Lights only a couple of times. This year, on the one night they were good, it was -40 degrees. Needless to say, I didn’t go outside. 🙂 But my sister’s upstairs window didn’t make a bad viewing area.

    April 15, 2014
    • Those damn uncooperative skies! It’s really not that easy to see an epic show, is it? -40! Wow! Your sister’s warm room and window sounds like the perfect viewing area to me… 😉

      April 15, 2014
  5. Ohhh!! Wow, the Northern Lights have been on my bucket list ever since I found out about them. I always just imagined them as a spectacular display, never considered that people actually are just unlucky enough to miss the show when they’re there!!

    April 16, 2014
    • Unfortunately yes, and as we experienced, even when you do see them, they might not be all you expect them to be. 🙁

      April 16, 2014
  6. Always a traveller’s dream to catch the Northern Lights! It looks splendid in the photos. I can foresee that the boring part is just like when one goes fishing, to wait for hours doing nothing. Hehehe

    May 7, 2014
  7. It is a shame that you did not see the Northern lights as expected.
    I was in Tromso/Norway in 2013 and was able to see fantastic northern lights
    Cheers Angela

    January 11, 2015
    • Ohhhh, the photos are gorgeous. You’re so lucky that you saw the lights that way. It’s what we’d been hoping for, but alas it was just not so. 🙁

      January 12, 2015
      • Maybe you should give another try.
        Iceland is still on my bucket list 😉
        Cheers Angela

        January 13, 2015
  8. Kan #

    I’m so glad you shared this post, Shelley. It’s one of the top items on my bucket-list. Your tips are very helpful. Also good to know that it’s better to be prepared for disappointment.

    January 30, 2015
    • Luck is definitely a huge part of it, but I also think that if I’d known these things before we went, we would’ve had a much better shot. The lights were there! We were just in the wrong spot, and immobile. Hindsight really is 20/20 I suppose. I also wish we’d gone to Reykjavík or another place where there’s a lot of other stuff to do as well as looking for the lights.

      February 2, 2015
  9. I just found your blog and wanted to say thanks for sharing an honest report about the Northern Lights. 🙂
    It always looks so magical in articles and on social media (thank you Photoshop, probably) but you’ve given us an inside look at what to really expect up there!

    February 12, 2015
    • Hey! Thanks for reading! 🙂 Yes, we were definitely underwhelmed by them. I really think the odds of seeing something truly extraordinary like in the travel brochures is pretty rare. Of course, our expectations were high – once you spend all that money to get there, you really really want to see something amazing…and then it’s doubly disappointing when you don’t. 🙁 Do you plan on taking a shot at seeing them?

      February 14, 2015
      • Someday, hopefully yes – but the cost involved is scaring me off at the moment!

        February 16, 2015
        • I hear ya! It’s a super expensive undertaking for something that’s not certain. 🙁

          February 25, 2015
  10. No, We see the Northern Lights from our back window here in Cochrane, AB. They are definitely not normally as vivid as what you have shown in your pictures but vivid enough to be shortly entertained from our couch or backyard. My best northern lights experience was last new years eve. I bought the kids headlamps from the dollar store. We had a small toboggan track outside our backyard. We went night time tobogganing with the headlamps and we had about 20 minutes of pretty clear green swirling lights and then we went in for hot chocolate and a movie. One of my favourite memories with my children out here in Alberta where I curse more about the place than praise it. 🙂

    September 6, 2016
    • Hey Michelle 🙂 Oh man, you’re so lucky that you don’t have to travel anywhere to see the lights. When I lived in Calgary, I saw them very faintly, once, but that was it. That night out with your kids sounds like a grand adventure, one I’m sure they’ll remember their whole lives. Haha…I hear ya, about cursing Alberta. Do not miss living there, though I do miss the beautiful, clear skies in that part of the world.

      September 8, 2016
  11. I think your suggestion about having your own transport to go where the lights are best whatever the time of the night is excellent. Thanks for the tip! #FarawayFiles

    December 15, 2017
    • I really wish we’d sprung for a car while there… it just seemed so expensive at the time, but in hindsight would’ve made the trip so much better! Are you planning an aurora hunting trip? If so, I hope you have great luck!! 😁

      December 16, 2017
  12. This is exactly why I haven’t booked an aurora hunting trip yet. We live in Copenhagen and I’m fascinated to see the lights, but am absolutely concerned about spending so much money and missing them all together! Thanks for the honesty and great tips for those who can’t resist trying. Which will probably be me at some point to be honest! Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

    December 15, 2017
    • Heh heh I think that if I lived in Copenhagen, I’d be trying all the time, despite the costs. I can’t say I won’t try again, but I def know what I’d do differently! 😉

      December 16, 2017
  13. It’s too bad the lights weren’t what you were hoping for, but thank you for your honesty! I’m not sure I would head to a destination like this just for the lights, but it’s important to know what yo expect when you arrive. #farawayfiles

    December 17, 2017
    • I have to admit it WAS pretty depressing to have spent all that money, actually SEEN the aurora and been disappointed. 🙁 I’d say don’t go there just to see the northern lights, but choose a destination where you could see them, but where there’s tons of other stuff to do too…at least then you get a good trip out of it. 🙂

      December 17, 2017
      • Seems like sound advice!

        December 18, 2017
  14. A shame the lights weren’t what you expected. I had a marvellous experience in October. I first saw them in Iceland, and had a similar experience to what you have described – awesome to see but not as vivid as in my photos. Then I spent a week in Lapland and WOW – we had flickering, wavering lights over several nights, at times so bright they were lighting up the sky and reflecting on the lake in front of us. It was magical and at times I stepped away from the camera simply to stare up in the sky with my jaw wide open because of how bright and how fast they were moving across the sky. I guess I got lucky!

    December 17, 2017
    • Ohhhhh, I am so jealous!! You’re so lucky you saw such a magical show. I wish we’d been that lucky too…but it seemed like we were always just slightly in the wrong place at the wrong time. 🙁 If we try again, I think I’d definitely go somewhere like Iceland where there’s tons of other stuff to do too.

      December 17, 2017
  15. I get what you are saying. I used to have the northern lights on my bucket list and now I don’t. There was KP5 activity over our house a few years ago and although I live in a small town with streetlights I could see that there was a green glow. It was so exceptionally underwhelming that I didn’t even get my kids out of bed to see. Meh! #farawayfiles

    December 18, 2017
    • I actually saw a more exciting lights show in the distant sky, way down in Calgary, Alberta (where I grew up). Tons of light pollution, but still able to see something…so going all the way to Lapland, spending literally thousands of dollars, and seeing what we saw – Meh! is right. It’s such a crapshoot, seeing them…I’d say you definitely shouldn’t plan an entire vacation around trying to see them.

      December 20, 2017
  16. Clare Thomson #

    These are excellent tips and a point very well worth making. So many of us obsess about seeing these bucket list items – and the Northern Lights is on most people’s lists of things to see before they die, let’s face it – without realising that it might not be quite as marvellous as we had imagined. Really interesting and useful post. Thanks for sharing it on #FarawayFiles

    December 20, 2017
    • Thanks Clare! To be honest, I’d still love to see the magical lights show I’ve dreamt about, but the odds are very low. I’ve talked to people who actually lived in the Arctic Circle for years and only managed to see something amazing 3 or 4 times TOTAL. If there’s a next time, I’d definitely not plan an ENTIRE trip around it. Happy holidays! 🙂

      December 21, 2017

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