4 lessons learned from searching for the northern lights above the Arctic Circle
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We recently wrapped up a trip to northern Finland, well above the Arctic Circle. While the primary purpose of the trip was not to chase the northern lights, seeing them for the first time was still high on our wish list. We were going to be in a prime spot to see them, and, according to Visit Lapland, the northern lights are visible about 200 nights per year at that location.
Unfortunately for us, we struck out, largely because of snow and cloud cover most of the nights of our stay. But while we didn’t get to catch the northern lights this time around, we learned a lot about what to do — and not do — when trying to see one of nature’s most spectacular displays.
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Maybe don’t plan a trip around seeing the northern lights
Our first accidental lesson was that it was a very good thing that the trip wasn’t planned primarily around seeing the northern lights, as that would have been a total bust. Whether you head to Alaska, Norway, Canada, Iceland, Sweden or Finland in search of the aurora borealis, there’s plenty to do in all of those spots that has nothing to do with colors that do — or do not —appear in the sky.
So, by all means, stake out a destination and time of year that gives you a good shot at seeing the northern lights, but don’t let the success or failure of the trip hinge on something well beyond your control.
Go skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, hiking or exploring and then consider the northern lights hunting portion of the experience just one of many activities. That will help to reduce the disappointment if they don’t appear.
And for the record, while you can see the lights outside these months, the best viewing odds are usually from October to March, with the clearest views generally coming around midnight. That said, you can theoretically see them anytime it’s dark outside and you are far enough north.
Stay somewhere with a room built for viewing the northern lights
I’ve always been intrigued by stories about the various forms of glass cabins and igloos designed for viewing the northern lights, but now I understand the hype. They aren’t just cute and Instagrammable — they are extremely functional in your quest for spotting activity in the sky.
I’d go so far as to say if you have the option to stay in a glass igloo, cabin or other room designed for optional viewing, take it — even if it costs a little bit more.
In my case, we stayed at the Star Arctic Hotel in Saariselkä, Finland. The glass cabin, which was only available one night of our stay, was about €100 more than the base-level suite, but it was absolutely worth it. I was legitimately sad when our time in that cabin was up.
While we didn’t see the northern lights, being able to just open our eyes and look up while cozy in bed was so much easier than what we had to do on the subsequent evenings, which was bundle up and head outside in the legitimately freezing night for a view of the northern sky.
Have the right apps
Unless you plan to stay up through the night and stare north the whole time that it’s dark, you’re going to want some clues as to when you have a better shot seeing the lights than others.
While there are different sites and apps out there to pick from, we used the Aurora app that displays where in the world has the best chance of seeing the lights at that moment, as well as a forecast of your chances to see them in the coming hours and days
Go on a tour or hire someone to look for you
Much like you see more stars when you get out of the big cities, the same is true with the northern lights.
Whether you stay in a more remote spot with better viewing, go on a nighttime tour to a historically better viewing spot with a guide or stay somewhere with staff who will wake you up if the northern lights are visible that night, having some professional spotting help will increase your odds of success.
TPG’s Brian Kelly was on a tour searching for the northern lights when he had success spotting them in Norway.
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And TPG’s former editor-at-large, Zach Honig, also had northern lights spotting success while with a guide above the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
Obviously, you don’t need to hire someone to alert you to the presence of northern lights in order to see them. But if you have the budget, it isn’t a bad idea if you want to do everything in your power to tip the odds in your favor.
I still really want to see the northern lights, so I’ll continue to visit some of these far-north spots for some old-fashioned adventuring. But even though we came up short on this journey, we learned some good strategies to put to use in the future.
Featured image by Ken Phung/Shutterstock.
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