Let’s talk northern lights chases: what to expect, how to see them, how to prep, and more!
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Seeing the northern lights is on just about everyone’s bucket list! After years of dreaming, I finally went earlier this month and loved it! One of my biggest takeaways is that there’s so much more to seeing the northern lights than flying into a given location and sipping a glass of something as you soak it all in.
What are the Northern Lights Anyway?
I’ll leave the details of how the northern lights work for another day. Plus, your guide will explain this if you’re interested. I swear I learned more about our solar system in one hour than I have since high school!
What you need to know is that the aurora is created by particles from the sun hittingEarth’ss magnetic field. These create the amazing light shows we know as the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The same thing happens at the South Pole too, called the aurora australis.
Because the green zone (the area where we can see the particles interacting) is related to the magnetic poles of the planet, it’s only visible in limited areas. While the green zone can cover Canada, Alaska, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and Scotland, Tromso is uniquely positioned to be practically always in it. If there are lights to be seen on a given light, the Tromso region has the greatest likelihood of sightings!
How a Lights Chase Works
The best way to see the northern lights is to sign up for a northern lights chase!
While you’re sometimes lucky enough to see the aurora from a rooftop bar in Tromso, it’s not common.
The lights aren’t in the same place every night, nor are the clouds cooperating every evening, so everyone piles into vans or minibusses to hunt down the best spots across the region.
The great thing about an organized northern lights chase is that you don’t have to do any work or research! You just meet at the arranged place. The guide will have checked all the forecasts and decided where to head for the best views.
This can include driving 2-3 hours away! In Tromso, they occasionally drive into Finland if the skies are clearer.
Patience is so important on a northern lights chase. They start early, typically 5:30-6 pm, but the lights often don’t get going until at least 8. That’s so they can get in position before.
It’s normal for the drivers to pull over a few times to check the skies a few times, or to try one spot for an hour or two and then relocate. They’re coordinating with other guides to give the best view possible!
During the evening, the guides will teach you about how the aurora borealis works and usually set up a campfire for snacks, hot drinks, or a simple campfire dinner.
Small but important thing: you’re out in the middle of nowhere. There are no bathrooms after a gas station stop in the first hour! There’s nature, but it’s a bit more complicated when you’re all bundled up! Soahead on not drinking too much water before or during.
It makes for a late night: both times, we got back in the van around 12:30 am to start our drive home. So don’t make early morning plans the next day!
What to Expect
First, a bit of some expectation setting: The photos and videos you see of the northern lights are super misleading.
Even if they aren’t photoshopped, the reality is that cameras can capture the colors of the aurora so much better than our human eyes! So whatever you see in person, even a cameraphone will show it with ten times more vibrance.
And that’s okay! Guides are fantastic about helping you see what to look for when they’re weak and show you on their camera the difference. Plus, they’re professionals at finding the best possible locations for that night’s aurora!
Another difference is the movement. Many videos online are time lapses – the movement is typically slower. The more common type is called diffused lights, meaning they’re not jumping around, but spread through an area or a band across the sky. Diffused lights are often gentle, and less colorful: they present as grey or whitish to our eyes.
Dancing lights are what you’re probably picturing. They’re incredible, for sure! But usually slower in the movement than videos may imply.
Even if you don’t see much, it made for some of my favorite stargazing ever! The stars and Milky Way are crazy bright.
Keep in mind that to see the aurora on any given night, two separate weather systems need to cooperate. First, you have to have a solar storm happening: the sun particles are heading towards Earth. The stronger the particles, the brighter and more intense the northern lights.
Second, you have to have the weather cooperate! It should go without saying, but you can have tons of solar activity and on a cloudy night, the best you’ll get is to see a vaguely green sky.
None of this is to say it isn’t fun or worth the time and money! I want you to go in with clear expectations, which usually gives the best experience!
For this reason, I HIGHLY recommend booking at least two Northern Lights chases! You want to maximize your chances of seeing them.
Multiple guides told me they advise visitors to stay in Tromso for a full week to maximize chances. Booking a lights chase every other night means you’ll have the best chance of seeing something amazing, even if your trip is during a stormy season. Plus, the vast majority of companies and trip organizer groups like GetYourGuide allow for a 24-hour cancellation policy. So if you see amazing lights on the first or second chase, you can always cancel the last for a full refund.
Our visit overlapped with some bad snowstorms – the day before our arrival, planes weren’t even landing! And our first lights chase was canceled for road safety. I was so relieved that we could still do two more chases!
My Experience on Northern Lights Chases
I did two Northern Lights chases with two different companies.
On both tours, our guides worked hard to give everyone the best possible experience. They helped fine-tune camera settings for those who brought their own and loved explaining how the lights worked. They both worked hard to fill the downtime with stories and made sure every person and group got as many photos of them with the lights as possible!
The first night I went with Northern Horizon and have nothing but great things to say about them! Our guide Harry was amazing, and our driver, Carollayna, was a road boss. We found a great little spot about two hours away where we saw tons of diffused lights, including several bands across the whole sky! I also felt like Harry did an especially good job of finding the best possible sightings: it was blizzard conditions in Tromso city, and many groups went towards other islands where they had to wait for bridges to open. They then didn’t see hardly anything – again, you can’t predict this, but Harry did a fantastic job finding us a great spot on a night when most groups saw nothing!
The second night was with Amazing Arctic. This tour was a slightly bigger group and therefore slightly less expensive. On this night we switched locations a few times, but I saw this as a bonus because you had some time to warm up in the car without missing anything! Mansoor was great, full of funny stories about previous trips.
(Side note: if you’re planning to propose on one of these, guides want to know in advance! They can help if you prep them!)
And then we were lucky enough to see dancing lights in multiple colors! It was just as special as I’d hoped it would be. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. 100% worth the price tag of the trip.
A final thought: the photos from Northern Horizon are better. It’s a small thing, but photo quality matters to me.
The warmest stuff you can find, always. You can check out what I took along for clothing, outerwear, and gear here.
Layers in general – the vans get HOT! Also, it’s a small thing, but having layers that zip (vs pullover) makes it easier to vent a quickcool down without having to strip off a bunch of bulk every time. I wore my favorite winter coat and it was great (although I definitely layered their provided snowsuit on top).
Gloves with a smartphone finger setup – you’ll need to have some dexterity, otherwise you’ll be pulling them off and on all night. I went with a pair of fingerless gloves with a mitten cover and they worked wellfor me, if you’re willing to put up with the cold!
A neck warmer or balaclava will be essential. I wore one along with a wool scarf and was glad to have both!
If you want to try your hand at astrophotography:
Headlight with a red light setting – you’ll need it if you need to fiddle with camera settings, and the red light feature protects your night vision.
Tripod – some programs provided them, which is great! But not all do (they only will if they explicitly list it!), and even then you don’t want to spend a bunch of time fiddling with setup.
Tips for Booking a Northern Lights Chase
This probably goes without saying, but book your northern lights chase in advance! These fill up like crazy, especially the top-tier companies like Northern Horizon. If you’re flying from the US, book your tours as soon as your flights are finalized.
Plan your entire trip around the full moon! With the moon comes more light in the sky, meaning northern lights are much harder to see. Ideally, go during the week of the new moon**, but it’s okay as long as you give 4-5 nights of buffer around the full moon.
If you’re choosing on your own, make sure they include outerwear to borrow. Unless you’ve grown up in a place that cold, you’ll need it! Temperatures can regularly get to (or below!) 0°F/-17°C. I had great winter gear, but it still wasn’t enough for hours of standing around in the snowy dark.
Also worth looking if they offer professional photos – many offer this, and it’s so nice. Don’t forget that however amazing OR faded the aurora is, the photos will look even better! Especially if you’re not into big nice cameras, you’ll be so glad to have the photos to remember for the rest of your life. And the guide does this every night, so their shots are great.
Thinking about seeing the northern lights?? I highly recommend Tromso, Norway for a northern lights chase!
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