Northern Lights in Iceland - Guide
Dancing across the Icelandic sky in the winter time are the northern lights, one of the biggest attractions of the season and bucket-list item for many a traveller. This natural phenomenon should be seen at least once in your lifetime, because it’s always going to be an unforgettable experience, and Iceland is one of the best places to do it.
We get many questions from travellers who wonder when the best time and place is to see the northern lights, so we’ve created this guide to give you all the useful information to give you the best chance while you’re travelling Iceland in the winter time.
When Are the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Generally, the northern lights season in Iceland runs from mid-September until mid-April. This is the best time to visit Iceland to see the northern lights. However, every year can be different than the other because activity on the sun can change; sometimes the lights can be seen as early as August and as late as May if there is enough solar activity.
Generally, there’s a chance to see the lights in the winter time between 9pm and 5am. But from my own experience, they’ll appear even earlier – I’ve seen them at 8pm, 7pm and even 6pm!
My tip: Be prepared from 6 pm to 1 am, as they can appear at any time between these hours! But most of the time I’ll see them between 9pm and 1 am.
Where is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights?
People often ask us at Go Campers if the northern lights are visible in Reykjavik. And while it’s the one location with the most light-pollution in the country, there are often times when they are completely visible dancing across the sky over Reykjavik. For this to happen, the activity on the sun needs to be very high, the solar winds extremely fast, and the sky relatively clear. If all these things align, then you can see them in the city.
But for the best experience with the northern lights, it’s always better to see them streaking across the sky over one of Iceland’s incredible landscapes – away from the city and the lights.
It’s important to remember that there’s no need to be up on a high point to improve your chances of a sighting. You should remember that in winter time, weather can be difficult and walking up the hill or hiking up mountains just for a chance to see the northern lights is too risky. You can still see them from the ground, and even from inside your cosy campervan.
My tip: Find a good spot on the map during the day and try to get there on time. Driving a camper during the night and trying to find good spot can be stressful if the lights are already out overhead – you don’t want to be in a rush! You never know when the northern lights will show up, so plan you trip earlier, go to your location, and wait. Take camping chairs, hot tea or coffee and enjoy the night sky. Other things that are important: service on your phone, good winter tires, and being aware of where you park your camper – you don’t want to get stuck in the snow (keep up to date on the road conditions at www.road.is) While you might not necessarily need a 4x4 campervan to get to most locations, we do have them in our fleet of campers if you want to feel more secure in your excursions.
How to Tell if the Northern Lights Will be Out
Check our local website: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ On the bottom of the map you have the hours of the night – move the slider from 8pm onwards, taking note of the level of the ‘Aurora forecast’ on the right hand side. The higher the number the better, but you can see the lights even from level 2. You can also view the cloud cover in more detail on this website.
If there’s a good level of activity, the next thing you need to take note of is your chosen area to view the lights. If there is green colour over that part of the country, unfortunately this means that the sky will be covered with clouds. You won’t be able to see them, so you should change your destination. If you’re changing destination at the last minute, remember to check the condition of the roads you’ll be taking: www.road.is
If you’re in the Golden Circle area, Thingvellir National Park has a live camera set up that you can check out as well: http://www.livefromiceland.is/webcams/thingvellir/. Yes! You can see the lights on the camera if they’re strong enough!
Finally, there are several Facebook groups where local Icelanders post their own northern lights alerts!
What are the Northern Lights in Iceland Like?
Don’t go in expecting enormous dancing green auroras, as they only come around every so often (if you don’t go in expecting that, you’ll never be disappointed!) A lot of the time they’ll just be bright looking clouds with a green sheen. But if there has been a solar storm and the forecast is strong, huge streaks can appear out of nowhere, shimmering across the sky in huge waves. They can even turn white, pink and sometimes even purple.
Everything depends on the solar activity and cloud cover. We can’t turn them on and off (we wish we could😊)
Universal things for everyone looking to catch the northern lights? Warm clothes, and most importantly, THERMAL LAYERS! You’ll also need good winter shoes, hand warmers, a charged phone with service and hot tea or coffee to pass the time.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland
If the lights are strong enough, you’ll be able to capture photos of them with just your smart phone (although it’s likely to just be a green blur). For more professional photos, you’ll need a tripod for long exposure shots, a good camera that has the option for adjusting the settings manually, a wide bright lens, charged battery, memory cards, and good gloves that both keep your hands warm and let you operate the camera.
To give you the absolute best chance of seeing the northern lights in Iceland on your campervan trip, I recommend a minimum of 7-10 days.
Written by Go Campers’ own Northern Lights Expert, Michalina Okreglicka