Have you crossed the northern lights off your bucket list yet? This article covers all the basics: where to go, when, how to follow forecasts, what to wear and what to pack. A bit of planning will increase your chances of seeing auroras and ensure a good time!
By booking an aurora tour, a seasoned guide will show you the best spots, give you insights about the auroras and help you with your camera settings. Many operators have special programs too. You can find tours on local travel websites.
1. Where can I see the northern lights?
Most northern lights occur in an oval-shaped band around the magnetic north pole. The geographical area where auroras are common is called the aurora zone – which covers all of Lapland.
In fact, Lapland, the northern part of Finland, is one of the best inhabited regions for aurora hunting. According to statistics by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), the probability of visible auroras is roughly 75% during dark and cloudless nights in the Kilpisjärvi region, and 40–50% in southern parts of Lapland, near the Arctic Circle.
The chances drop quite rapidly when you travel south of the Arctic Circle. For example, in Helsinki, the probability of auroras on dark and clear nights is only 5%.
2. When is the best time of the year and day for auroras?
To see the auroras from the ground you need three things: 1) auroras, 2) darkness and 3) a clear sky.
The northern lights are not visible in sunlight. From mid-April to mid-August, the nights are too bright for auroras. In late august, though, nights grow darker, and the aurora season lasts until spring.
Aurora activity peaks around the equinoxes: in September–October and in March. In Lapland, the whole winter period between equinoxes is also very active.
The probability of visible auroras is highest around midnight. Aurora hunters should stay alert at least between 21:00 and 02:00. Sometimes northern lights can appear and disappear within minutes.
3. How can I check for aurora forecasts and weather?
Short term forecasts indicate the probability of visible auroras right now. You can find the current situation in Finland from FMI space weather and Auroras now!. You can also find a simple 30-minute forecast on the global map by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are also apps like “my aurora forecast”, which will inform and notify you of the aurora situation.
Long-term aurora forecasts are fairly unreliable and should be treated as estimates. You can find a brief 3-day forecast of geomagnetic activity by NOAA.
Keep in mind that the weather can change fast and vary locally. Thick clouds will prevent you from seeing auroras. Check FMI cloud maps.
4. Where exactly to go for a night of aurora hunting?
Avoid areas with artificial lighting: cities, towns and roads with streetlights and traffic. Look for dark areas with an open view. If you are spending your holiday in a city or one of the ski resorts, you should head away from the brightly lit areas.
The best spots are usually on top of treeless fells, in marshes, or on the shores of lakes or the sea. You should at least have an open view toward north from your vantage point, because auroras usually first appear in the northern sky.
When you reach a good location, set up your camera, turn off your headlamp and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t see the stars, you will not be able to see auroras.
An ideal location is by a house, cottage or even a tent, where you can spend the night. Lapland also has many resorts providing special accommodation for aurora watching: glass igloos, cabins with glass roofs and even aurora caravans. Imagine spending the whole night in full comfort gazing at auroras!
5. How to make the most of a northern lights hunting trip?
Plan your trip so you will have fun even if the auroras don’t show up. You can try a new sport such as snowshoeing or snowmobiling, or spend a night at one of the wilderness huts or lean-tos of Lapland. A short nighttime hike across a snow-covered forest is an adventure in its own right!
It’s vital for your comfort and safety to dress properly. A thick thermal jumpsuit is fine if you are mostly staying still or riding on a snowmobile. If you are going to do some hiking, you should use layering, and add or remove insulation according to your activity levels. For example, long woolen underwear and socks, fleece or woolen mid-layer, light down jacket for extra insulation and a wind- and waterproof outer layer. Pick pants that have snow locks. Avoid cotton, which gets wet and makes you cold!
Keep your legs warm, as nothing ruins a trip like cold feet. Pay attention to your boots. Pick a pair with a higher bootleg and thick soles. Take a pair that is slightly loose and add extra woolen socks. Winter boots can be 2-3 sizes bigger than your normal shoes!
Put gloves under a set of thermal mittens, especially if you are going to operate a camera.
Pick a warm hat that protects your ears. You should also wear a balaclava, neckwarmer or a scarf to protect your neck and face from the cold.
Bring a headlamp or a flashlight for moving safely in the dark. You could also take a thermal pad – or maybe even an authentic reindeer hide – to lay or sit on. Remember to move around from time to time, too. It will get your blood flowing and keep you warm.
Take hot drinks, water and snacks along. Bring coffee, tea, hot chocolate or warm juice in a thermal flask, sandwiches, nuts and chocolate for snacks or even sausages to grill if there is a firepit nearby.
Finally: bring a friend. Like all great things in life, aurora hunting is best when shared, and a lot safer too!
6. Where to find good spots in Lapland?
There are good spots all over Lapland. Here are just a few pointers from different areas.
Lake Iso-Vietonen in Ylitornio
Lake Iso-Vietonen has a sandy beach right by the road Raanujärventie. This is a great spot for auroras if you have a car and are staying in the area between Pello, Ylitornio and Rovaniemi.
Pyhätunturi / Pyhä Ski Resort
Pyhätunturi has great features for aurora watching. Lake Pyhäjärvi has a vast open space and you can reach a good vantage point on the fell very easily from the main hotel too, or visit the Pyhä–Luosto National Park.
Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park
Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park consists of many treeless fells and also a good network of huts and firepits to enjoy. Lake Pallasjärvi has many huts on the southern shore with a view towards north.
Saariselkä has plenty of open fell areas with easy access by foot from the village. Kaunispää and Kiilopää fells have a view in every direction. You could also use Saariselkä as your base and drive north to the shores of the great Lake Inari.