Considerations When Chasing The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
Chasing the Northern Lights can be the most exhilarating event you will witness in nature.
It’s downright cool.
So when you plan your trip to go see them, you’ll want to make the best out of it. If you are going to travel thousands of miles to see them, you better get to see them, right?!
What Are The Northern Lights?
It all starts with charged particles from the sun sent towards Earth. Due to Earth’s magnetic field, these particles are directed towards the north and south poles. When these particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they collide with gases and then light is visible.
These collisions happen anywhere from 55 to 90 Miles above the Earth’s surface. They can occur at lower and even higher distances as well, but not as common. Since the solar winds never stop, the Northern Lights are always present, but only seen during darkness with the naked eye.This phenomenon occurs at both poles, but is more commonly seen in the Northern Hemisphere.
Now we have a little background information, we can get into the variables to help you best plan your trip.
There are four main considerations you will have when chasing the Aurora Borealis.
1. Where you’re going
2. When to go
3. How long you will be there
4. How you want to capture the memory
Depending on your personal situation, this will determine the best way to see the Northern Lights.
Let’s discuss each consideration in detail so it will help you determine your best course of action.
1. Where You Are Going
There is a ring around the North Pole, called the Auroral Zone. In this zone is where the northern lights can be seen best. It is roughly between 10° to 20° from the North Pole.
There are only a few countries where you can reliably see the northern lights. Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, USA (Alaska), and Russia. Scotland, Denmark, and other areas are also known to see the Northern Lights when conditions are right.
Once you get to one of these places, you’ll have to consider where best to see them. Getting away from the city is a must. If you are in a place with a lot of lights, those lights will fade out the Aurora’s light. The darker the place you can get, the better.
You’ll have a few options of getting out of the city: By car or by tour. If you go by car, you must rent one or know someone in the area that you can ride with or borrow. If you are going to a city or place that is known for seeing the Northern Lights, there is likely a tour that can take you.
Going by rental car can give you freedom to go where you want to and when you want. You are in control of your timeline. You’ll be in a foreign country so you will need navigation. You can get it through the rental car agency or purchase a Pre-Paid Sim card for your phone or tablet.
Purchasing a Pre-Paid Sim card might be better, in case you need to make a phone call in an emergency. Just use Google Maps (or equivalent) app on your phone to take you where you need to go.
The downside of renting a car is that you don’t know where the “hot-spots” are for seeing the lights. You can do research and check Northern Lights websites, but even then, you may not have any luck.
Going with the tour option can be advantageous for you. They know the “hot-spots” to go to. They usually have a well-connected network of “eyes and ears” of the good spots of the night. They make calls and analyze the solar activity for the night. Some of these tours have been doing this for decades.
Not all tours are created equal. Some tours offer different benefits. Some may drive out farther or stay out longer than some tours. Some also offer other benefits as well. So, when considering the tours, be sure to research many.
2. When To Go
To see the Northern Lights, it needs to be dark outside. Due to the rotation of the earth, the arctic regions receive little daylight during the winter months. September to March are the best months.
Generally speaking, the best time in the evening to see the lights are from 6PM-3AM of a given night. To be clear, the Northern Lights can be seen pretty much any time it is dark outside.
Because the Northern Lights are cause from solar wind, you can look up the solar forecast to see when there are heavy solar flares predicted to be in that area.
Another consideration for that particular night you are chasing the Aurora is the normal weather activity. It is best when there are clear skies.
There are Aurora forecast websites that advise chasers to go or not to go out based on weather, solar, and other activity for any given night. These can be useful but not 100% when you want to go out on your own.
To be sure, when you go out chasing the Northern Lights, you will need a good deal of patience.
3. How Long You Will Be There
This can be a critical piece you need to know. Depending on how long you will be in the area, can dictate your plan on seeing the lights. Since the Aurora is unpredictable, you may not see them the first time you go out. You may need to venture out a couple of times to see them.
If you are on a tight schedule on your travels, you may want to book a tour that will take you out. Since they have the experience, they can usually get to the spots you need to go to see them.
If you have nothing but time, then you can be adventurous and go out on your own. Weather will often be the biggest hindrance. And since the Aurora is basically like weather, there is no Aurora the same as the last. Every sighting is unique. That is what makes it so special.
You may want to go out many times to see the Aurora for many different places. You can go to places with water so you can see them with the reflection of the water.
4. How You Want To Capture The Memory
When you see such a beautiful sight as the Northern Lights, you may want some way to remember it. This can be through pictures and videos.
Cellphone cameras and point and shoot cameras will not take very good pictures. The lights are not bright enough for a good exposure and the pitch-black background doesn’t help with automatic cameras.
If you go on a Northern Light tour, they may take pictures for you. Or if you want to take some yourself, you can use these handy tips to get the best pictures.
You will likely need a dSLR or other camera that can set the exposure setting on manual. Depending on the settings, you will need anywhere from 3-30 seconds of exposure.
You will also need to mount your camera on a tripod. This allows the camera to be steady and to make sure the picture turns out clear and crisp.
Using a remote to control the shutter is very useful. You can also use the timer function on certain cameras and this will work as well.
For long-term exposure pictures, any movement on the camera, even to push a button or two will influence the final picture. Using a remote reduces the risk of a fuzzy or unclear picture.
Ensure when you go out for the night that your cameras are fully charged. The cold has an effect on the batteries and can reduce the length of charge dramatically. Bring extras if you can and ensure they are fully charged as well.
Keep the ISO setting as low as you can. Usually 200-400. Keeping this setting lower will help keep the picture clear. The higher the ISO setting, the grainer the picture turns out. The higher quality of camera will allow you to have a higher ISO setting without taking away from the quality.
If possible, use a wide-angle lens for your pictures. This will allow you to see more of the sky in a single picture. This is important especially for when the sky right above you is lit up.
The aperture should be open to its largest setting. This allows the most light inside the camera.
Try to have something in the forefront of the picture. Something like trees, a lake, or a cabin can really add value to the picture and make it pop.
Light-scribing and light-painting can be fun to experiment during the times the Northern Lights aren’t out. Do a google search or YouTube video of how to do those types of pictures. They’re fun!
To get a good picture of you and a friend/significant other; here is how you do it:
1. Mount the camera on the tripod and point so the Northern Lights are in the background of the picture
2. Take a few test shots to make sure the exposure is right
3. Have someone operate the camera according to the settings you setup
4. They open the shutter and begin to take the picture
5. About ½ second into the picture (remember the exposure will likely be a few seconds) take an alternate source of light and expose that light onto the person for a split second
6. The camera operator finishes the exposure according to the settings you prescribed
7. Check the picture once the camera finishes processing it
8. Retake the picture and adjust the settings, if necessary
For these settings to be right, you need to experiment and practice. If you don’t know anything about manual mode of dSLR cameras, I recommend buying a coffee for a photographic savy friend and picking his or her brain for a little while.
In the moment when you are enjoying the lights, if you don’t know how to work the camera well, it may take away from the experience. That’s the last thing you want to do.
For video, you’ll likely need to have a professional camera in order for you to get a good video. Video settings are beyond the scope of this article. If you go on a tour, they may have equipment for video. They may take videos and provide you a copy afterward for a price.
There are a few ways to get a memory of the Northern Lights, just make sure you have a plan.
What You Need To Bring
In order for you to have the best time chasing the Northern Lights, here are some things to consider bringing:
- dSLR Camera (with tripod and remote)
- Headlamp (for adjusting settings and other misc. things)
- Warm drinks (you will be out there for a while, warm drinks will be nice)
- Snacks (enough for 6-8 hours of chasing)
- Layers of warm clothes (hat, scarf, and gloves; it will be cold out there)
- Warm, dry boots (you’ll be in snow for hours so you’ll want good boots)
- Wood for fire (not a must, but a fire always adds to anything outdoors and cold)
- Patience and good attitude!
You can survive without these and be just fine. Some of these might be the difference between an alright experience and one of the coolest experiences of your life. Remember you’ll be out there for a while and it will be cold. Be sure to plan for the best case as well as the worst-case scenario.
Courses Of Action
#1 – If you have plenty of time and not a lot of money, you might want to rent a car and go out chasing on your own. Of course, do your research, look at websites, and talk with locals to help yourself with the best possible chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
#2 – If you are short on time and have the cash, book a small tour with a local guide. They will provide you transportation and usually warm clothes, warm drink and some pictures (sometimes more inclusions).
#3 – If you have plenty of time and have the cash, book a small tour and a local guide. While on your tour, pick the guides brain on everything he or she knows. Then on a following day, rent a car and go chasing on your own.
Of course, these courses of actions are only suggestions. You can take these ideas and make your trip your own unique experience.
This knowledge should allow you to plan your trip to see the Northern Lights. Many factors will make your trip a one-of-a-kind. You should use these principles and use your creativity to make the most of your trip.
The Northern Lights are incredible. Make sure when you travel to see them, you will be able to see some other cool sights or take part in cool activities. The Northern Lights are unpredictable. You may chase them a few nights and never fully see them due to weather. Have a backup plan and other activities to make sure the trip is worthwhile.
Any questions, please contact us and we can clarify anything or give you ideas to help you plan your trip.
If you have already seen the Northern Lights, what was the best tip you had when you saw them?