10 lessons we learned in 10 years chasing the Northern Lights
Where is the best place in the world to see the Northern Lights? Who can say really - 'best’ means different things to different people. But after 10 years of aurora-chasing, we're sharing what we've learned and why we settled on the Tornedalen region in the heart of Lapland.
Our journey started when our son was just a few months old. My wife got hooked on the idea of seeing the Northern Lights and we saw an advert for a great value package holiday to Iceland. We were a bit nervous about going in winter with a baby, not least about driving in extreme weather conditions, but we decided to go anyway. We learned some key lessons on that trip:
1. Relax about the driving. In the Nordic countries, they look after their roads. The hire cars usually have winter tires, heated seats, tinted glass (to protect against snow glare) and sometimes 4-wheel drive too. The road systems are simple and traffic is almost non-existent. In the midst of a snow-storm, or when conditions are really icy, it can be challenging to drive and you must go slowly and control the vehicle carefully. But most of the time it's a pleasure to drive and you get to see so much amazing scenery.
2. Iceland is not the best place to see the Northern Lights. Iceland is a beautiful, amazing, unique country, and you should make sure you pay it a visit (we've been back a couple of times and would love to go again). But it is not the best place to see the Northern Lights. Because it's that little bit further south, unless the activity is very strong the aurora can appear quite low in the sky. Also, being a small island it can be very windy with changeable weather, including cloud cover and snow. Ideally you want a nice clear, calm sky to maximise your chances. Of course, you can see some incredible Northern Lights in Iceland - I'm sure you've seen incredible photos that prove it (more on photos in a minute) - but if you only have one shot at seeing the Northern Lights banking on Iceland is a risk.
3. The Northern Lights in real life don't always look like the photos. We left Iceland disappointed thinking we had not seen any aurora. Only later did we realise that we actually had. We saw something that looked like an arc of low cloud and seemed to have a very slight glow, but - at least to our eyes - no colour, just grey. My wife thought it could be the aurora, I thought it was just cloud reflecting artificial light from the ground. I'm now sure that she was right and I was wrong! But the fact that we weren't sure at the time is testament to how unspectacular the aurora was that night. You see, the human eye can't detect colour well in low-light conditions. If we'd had a decent camera to point at that faint glow in the sky, I'm sure it would have shown up green. But we didn't, and so we didn't keep watching. Because you need a long exposure to photograph the Northern Lights, they come out brighter in pictures than what you see with your eyes. And of course everybody edits their images to make them look their best, and some people edit them rather too much and make something extreme and unrealistic. So you need to bear in mind that what you are looking for may not look like the pictures you have seen on the internet. That said, I have, many times, seen aurora so strong that what I saw with my naked eye did look like those beautiful pictures. You just have to be patient and keep looking - which brings me on to the next lesson we learned in Iceland...
4. You need a decent camera - not just to take photos but as an aurora detector. It is so easy to miss weak auroras if you don't know what you are looking for. And to increase your chances of seeing strong ones, you need to be able to spot the weak ones and watch to see if they develop. Whether you're interested in taking pictures or not (who wouldn't be?) you need a good camera that can take long-exposure photos and a tripod so that you can point it at the things in the sky you're not sure about to check whether they are weak auroras. If you see green in the picture you know it is worth keeping an eye on them and waiting to see if they develop. Sometimes the best shows are very late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and you need a reason to stay awake and keep watching otherwise you might miss them.
Next we travelled to Tromsø in Norway. Tromsø styles itself as the Northern Lights capital of Europe, and thousands of tourists flock there every year. A large industry has grown up around providing Northern Lights tours, usually by minibus. And this brings me on to the next learning point...
5. You may need to chase the Northern Lights down in a vehicle. If you staying outside of a big city, you could be lucky and see the aurora right from your hotel (some hotels market themselves on this), but in reality weather is never guaranteed. To give yourself the best chance to see the Northern Lights you need to be willing to move around - either in your hire car or by joining a tour. There's a reason that the motorized aurora tour industry exists. When conditions are ideal, they can take you to amazing places so you can see the Northern Lights with dramatic scenery. But a lot of the time they are actually chasing the gaps in the clouds. Tromsø is by the sea, so weather is changeable. When it’s cloudy, what the tour guides do (and what you can do yourself in a hire car), is check weather forecast maps for clear spots, and try to get to the right place at the right time so that you might see something. This is really fun, even if you don't manage to see them, because you've spent your night actively doing something, not just staring at the cloud outside the hotel window. And this reliance on a vehicle has an unexpected upside...
6. When your kids are really small can actually a very good time to go on a Northern Lights holiday. It may not be a universal truth, but many babies and toddlers sleep well during car journeys. Ours did (yes, we had another baby and kept on going!). So when it's bedtime you settle them into their car-seat instead of a cot. And when it's time to chase down the Northern Lights you just take them in the car with you. You need to dress them warm and it won't be perfect - waking and resettling is par for the course for a new parent - but if you’re lucky they will sleep most of the time and you will be able to just get on with aurora-spotting.
7. Go inland. When the weather around Tromsø is really bad the tour guides drive inland. The best ones will drive for hours if it means they can give you a chance of seeing what you have travelled so far to see. This is how we ended up in Kilpisjärvi, Finland. After following tour guides for several nights and seeing pretty much nothing, we went all-in on our last day and drove 160km inland to Kilpisjärvi. This tiny village is on the shore of a large lake (frozen in winter) where the borders of Norway, Finland and Sweden meet. The drive may be long, but it's incredibly beautiful, and after passing through the jagged-rock-and-fjords landscape of Norway you go up through the mountains to the true Arctic tundra of northern Finland. In Kilpisjärvi we had our first proper experience of the Northern Lights, and it was amazing. We couldn't stay long, we had to drive all the way back to the airport to get our flight early in the morning. But another great thing about the road back to Tromsø, part of the 'Northern Lights Route', is that it has loads of lay-bys where you can stop to look for the Northern Lights and take pictures. Some of them with views that would be stunning even without the aurora. So all the way back we were stopping to stare up with our mouths wide open whilst our baby son slept soundly in the car.
Kilpisjärvi made such an impression on us that we made it a part of our plans for the next few years. We'd fly to Tromsø, drive to Kilpisjärvi, stay a few nights there, then drive back and maybe spend a night or two nearer to Tromsø to try our luck there. I'd still recommend this trip to anyone who's up for the driving, because the scenery is fantastic and by spending some of your holiday so far inland you really do increase your chances of seeing something.
Then one year we tried Sweden instead. We flew to Kiruna, went to see the Ice Hotel and whist we were in Jukkasjärvi we caught an amazing show of the Northern Lights. Again, we were in the car and just parked up somewhere so we could watch and take photos. Then we travelled to Abisko, also in Sweden, which is supposed to be the most reliable place in Europe to see the Northern Lights. And that's where we learned our next lesson.
8. Sometimes luck is just not on your side - so have other plans. Abisko has a phenomenal view across a frozen lake and valley with distinctive peaks on either side. It's a photographer's dream. And as hoped, when we stayed there the skies were absolutely clear - not a cloud in sight. And the aurora activity levels looked okay. But we didn't see even a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Sometimes you just don't get lucky. There are loads of activities you can do in Abisko, including husky tours and a nearby ski resort. But we hadn't booked anything. We enjoyed our time there but it felt just a little bit of a let-down. So if you are going anywhere to see the aurora, make sure you plan some other activities too: don't put all your eggs in one basket, because nature offers no guarantees. But when you do see the Northern Lights, be careful because...
9. You can get hooked on chasing the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are different every time. You can see them in different places, you can share the experience with different people, and you can always take better photos than the ones you've already got... it gets addictive. After all, it is an incredibly stimulating experience - it can be challenging (though not always) to catch a glimpse, but when you get a really good show the emotional payoff is huge. At this point it's pretty obvious that we got hooked on them! So much so, that we started looking into buying our own place in Lapland. And that's how we found Tornedalen.
10. Tornedalen is Lapland's hidden gem. After many years of browsing, last year my wife started in earnest to really look for a place we could buy in Lapland. And this search led us to go and visit a part of Swedish Lapland that we didn't really know much about. We went there hoping it would be okay. We came home again having fallen in love with the area and put an offer on a house. Tornedalen is the area around the Torne river valley in the heart of Lapland. The Torne river is the official border between Sweden and Finland, but being frozen much of the year it unites rather than divides the two countries, and the area has its own cultural heritage distinct from being just Swedish or Finnish. It’s great for Northern Lights because it is inland (more reliable weather) and sparsely populated (dark!). You can do all the usual activities (huskies, reindeer, etc.) for much cheaper than in the big tourist cities like Rovaniemi and Tromso. And it’s a beautiful place to visit in summer too: lakes, forests and mountains as far as the eye can see and because ‘freedom to roam’ is protected in Swedish law it’s all there for you to discover. We bought our house in Svanstein, in Övertorneå, Swedish Lapland. Svanstein also happens to have an excellent ski centre, which it great because we all love skiing.
We’re so happy to have found our special place in Lapland and wanted to share the journey and the learning with you. Of course, we haven’t been everywhere, and there may be more hidden gems waiting to be discovered, and more aurora-hunting lessons to be learned. But hopefully our story will help you to discover the wonders of the Northern Lights and Lapland for yourself.