Getting to see the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) in Finland was one of my most spectacular travel experiences. It looked as if someone had brushed glowing green paint across the sky and then set it on fire. It danced through the dark sky and in less than a minute it was gone. Seeing the northern lights takes lots of luck and a little planning – here is what you need to know about the northern lights.
The Northern Lights Can’t Be Predicted
If you book a trip to an Arctic region, you aren’t guaranteed to see the aurora. Unfortunately, there isn’t a calendar of when and where the aurora will be visible. Aurora forecasts are available 3 days in advance, but they aren’t 100% accurate and you still need to take the weather into consideration.
You Can’t See the Aurora on a Cloudy Day
You can’t the northern lights through the clouds. If it is only partly cloudy you might see them though.
A Bright Moon Isn’t a Problem
You can see the Northern Lights when the moon is full. We had just experienced a super moon when we saw the Northern Lights – so you don’t need to plan your trip around the moon cycle.
Experts say that dark clear skies and lots of stars are good signs of seeing the aurora. The aurora is visible about 200 nights a year in Lapland.
Where to See the Aurora
The further north you go the better chance you have of seeing the Northern Lights. For example, they are often visible in the Arctic Circle, but they are only visible a handful of times a year in the South of Finland. The lights can also be seen in areas including northern Sweden, northern Norway, northern Canada, and Iceland.
The lights move quickly – they might only flash for 30 seconds at a time. When saw them, first we saw a faint arch of green light in the sky. Then it got more intense and it flashed like a flame, and disappeared.
It is possible to take photos of the Northern Lights even if they aren’t visible to the naked eye. Start with a 30 second exposure and play around a little from there.
You Can’t See the Lights in the Summer
I know this seems super obvious… but so many people asked me if I saw the Northern Lights when I went to Iceland in the summer. The sun needs to set and it needs to be dark to see the Northern Lights. The regions of the world where you can view the Northern Lights don’t get dark in the summer, instead they experience near constant sunlight. If you want to see the northern lights, plan your trip between September and March.
How to Search for the Northern Lights
Look on the northern horizon line, not up above your head.
Book a Hotel Room with a Good View
The hotel rooms with big windows above the bed to view the Northern Lights are worth the money. We spent an entire night hanging out in bed, with all the lights off, playing scrabble (on our phones) and watching movies. To see the lights, you want the room as dark as possible – otherwise you might miss the lights. We turned the brightness on our phones and my laptop all the way down. I especially recommend getting a room with a nice view because it is extremely cold and you might be searching the sky for hours to see the lights. I think it is better to be warm and cozy inside.
Give Yourself a Few Days
Most websites recommend booking at 3-5 night stay in a northern region to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights. We were in Lapland for three nights. The full two nights where was complete cloud coverage, but we saw the lights on the third night.
Aurora Forecast Websites
There are a few websites like the Aurora Service that try to predict the aurora activity, but my advice is to ask the locals, and to hope for clear dark nights. The locals in Ivalo said that we had a good chance of seeing the lights on the one clear night (the last night of our trip) – and we did see them.
You Might Not See the Lights
Go into the experience looking at seeing the northern lights as being an added bonus to your trip. We absolutely loved Lapland! There was so much to do. We went snowmobiling, kick sledding, downhill sledding, dog sledding, and cross country skiing. Honestly, we had so much fun that I don’t think we would have been disappointed if we didn’t see the lights.