For travellers with a curious spirit and an adventurous heart, seeing the spectacle of the lights in the Arctic – which has achieved almost reverential status amongst travellers – is something that can’t be satisfied merely by looking at photographs and documentaries or listening to other people recounting their travel stories. This incredible natural phenomenon is at the top of countless so-called travel “bucket lists”, and for those who do put their dreams into action and make a pilgrimage to witness the event for themselves, it’s something very special, that will genuinely never be forgotten.
We’re all about making people’s adventure travel dreams come true, and we know everything there is to know about many of the world’s most exotic wild places – including the magnificent Arctic region. So if you’re considering a trip to see the lights in the Arctic for yourself, and wondering how to bring the idea to fruition, we’re the ones to help you! To whet your appetite, learning a little more about the region and what you can expect on a week-long visit or a month-long odyssey, might very well inspire you to action!
The history of the Northern Lights
We are all familiar with the term Northern lights to describe the phenomenon of lights in the Arctic, but their correct scientific name is aurora borealis – chosen by the Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer, Galileo who named them after the Roman goddess of the morning, Aurora and the Greek god of the wind, Boreas. He mistakenly believed the display came about due to sunlight reflecting from the Earth’s atmosphere.
But even though the name is attributed to Galileo, the lights in the Arctic have been around since way before his time – all the way back to pre-history. The oldest known record of them is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France, and there are many myths and legends that revolve around them, documented by everyone from the Vikings to the North American Inuits to the ancient Chinese.
It’s a pretty astounding thought to imagine that the dinosaurs who once walked the Earth looked up at the same spectacle in the skies that adventurous travellers do today – and they were probably just as awe-struck as we are!
What causes Arctic lights?
Put into simple terms: the event is what happens when electrically charged particles from space enter the earth’s atmosphere at great speed. And the most incredible thing is that it all starts on the sun…
Originating from the surface of the sun, large amounts of gas are shot out into space in what scientists call ‘Coronal Mass Ejections’. Creating what are known as solar winds, the particles travel at an incredible eight million kilometres per hour and, even though around 98% of them are deflected by our planet’s magnetic field, some of them get through and enter the Earth’s upper atmosphere. They are accelerated toward the magnetic poles – or as we call them, the North and South Poles (in the south it is called ‘aurora australis’).
When the charged particles collide with the atoms and molecules of the Earth’s atmosphere (usually at around 80-300 kilometres above the surface of the planet) they become ‘excited’ (yes, that’s the technical term!), and the collision creates the emission of the fluorescent, glowing, highly distinctive dancing show we know and love. The variation in colours is caused by the different gases, e.g: the green is oxygen, while pink, blue or purple is nitrogen. On more rare occasions, we can see a deep red, which is indicative of high altitude oxygen.
How often do the Northern Lights happen?
It’s fascinating to learn that, actually, the lights in the Arctic are happening every day of the year – 24 hours a day! But even though the process is happening constantly, of course the times when they’re visible to the human eye is a different matter altogether – and did we mention they’re unpredictable?
The lights are visible from late August to early April and while the conditions do need to be dark and free of clouds, it doesn’t actually need to be extremely cold, which is a common misconception. At some times of the year in certain places it can be almost perpetually dark, but as a guide they are most likely to appear between the hours of around 5pm to 2am. A word of warning: you should be prepared for some late nights or broken sleep if you’re keen to catch as many sightings as possible. Because of their unpredictability, the longer you can stay in the region on a tour, obviously the better chance you’ll have of seeing them. That’s why our packages are the length they are.
While the solar winds that propel the particles required to create the lights toward Earth are in constant effect, the emissions do vary in their strength in what is an approximately eleven year cycle. This means that during the peak periods of activity the aurora borealis appears at their most frequent and intense. (According to NASA, the next ‘solar maximum’ is due around 2025.) For the die-hard fans, tracking the solar cycle will keep you in-the-know as to when the very best potential sightings are predicted – although when you’re on a WILDFOOT tour your guide will stay abreast of this information so you don’t have to.
How long do the Northern Lights last?
For something so anticipated and fascinating, the actual length of time the lights in the Arctic appear on any given occasion can seem almost fleeting. But the flipside is that fortunately sometimes it can be much longer. In some cases they may appear for just a few minutes – dancing and weaving with each other for a short, tantalising time before slipping away to return the sky to blackness. A decent display would be considered to be about 15-20 minutes in duration, however, at other times it can go on for a magnificent and memorable few hours – or even longer.
During an active period the displays could occur every couple of hours, for short, sporadic periods, or longer 30-minute sessions. You can keep an eye on the forecast using an app, although, again, if you travel with one of our WILDFOOT tours or cruises, your guide will be all over the predicted schedule of sky shows.
Which month is best to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Although the lights in the Arctic are present throughout the year, there isn’t enough darkness in the summer to provide decent sightings (in fact it doesn’t ever get completely dark for long periods of the season). So we advise customers who really want to see them to travel during winter when the skies are at their darkest (sometimes for 24 hours). The winter season runs from late September to early March, with the optimal time for sightings considered to be from mid-October through March.
You may have to spend extended time standing outdoors in the cold if you want to catch (and photograph) the best sightings, but the good news is that the presence of the Gulf Stream means that Iceland is far less chilly than other places like Sweden, Finland and Norway.
Are Northern Lights tours worth it?
Naturally our answer to that question is always going to be a resounding ‘yes’. We love what we do and we want to share it with as many people as possible! We’ve been running tours and expeditions for many years now, to some of the most remote and exotic parts of the world, including trips to see the lights in the Arctic – so we know a thing or two about the best way to do it.
For many customers the opportunity to experience the light show is an integral part of their motivation to explore the Arctic regions. In our experience, any of our land-based trips to Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago should be your first choice if you are hunting the Northern Lights. This is a fantastic location for winter displays.
As with any natural phenomenon, even when we as humans think we have a handle on Mother Nature’s behaviour, the aurora borealis can be notoriously unpredictable. That’s just a fact, and many a traveller has been disappointed when they miss out on seeing them after coming all the way to Iceland, Sweden, Greenland – or wherever. But calling on our many years of experience, we know exactly how to maximise your chances to satisfy your adventurous heart’s desire.
Because we’ve been chasing the lights for so long, we know the very best places to see them – and we’ve designed our tours accordingly. When they’re at their most intense, it is possible to get wonderful sightings from the major cities like Tromsø or Reykjavik, but really, to give our clients the best possible chance we know we need to be in more out-of-the-way places in the landscape – which are free of pollution.
Our cruises and tours go to places that we’ve personally explored over our many years in the industry, that we know from experience can offer stunning opportunities to view the spectacle even in times of low-hanging cloud cover.
So, yes, we whole-heartedly believe that taking one of our fantastic cruises or land-based tours is the very best way to see the lights in the Arctic – and you can have a look at our testimonials to see that you don’t just have to take our word for it!
Other Highlights of Iceland and Greenland
While seeing the Northern Lights is one of the most common goals for most people visiting the stunning region of the Arctic Circle, one the best pieces of advice we can think of is to make sure you wholeheartedly and completely immerse yourself in the adventure and focus on everything else as well – because there is so much on offer.
Our inspirational, expert-led range of adventure tours is designed to allow you the most up-close-and-personal encounter with the landscape, wildlife, people and unique geology as is humanly possible – by land or sea!
Sights and attractions
These extraordinary destinations are brimming with things to see, do and experience – with everything from hiking and adrenaline based land activities, to slightly tamer shore excursions (but no less fulfilling) and pastimes like bird-watching.
The uniquely adapted wildlife of the region is a source of endless fascination and enjoyment, with the opportunities to encounter many species seen nowhere else on the planet. You’ll have the chance to see reindeer, Arctic foxes, a host of marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals and walruses, as well as more than 40 species of endemic and migratory birds.
If you’re looking to make your adventure holiday even more adventurous, you’ll be able to try your hand at a host of activities including scuba diving (to discover a whole new world beneath the surface of the icy seas), snowshoeing, mountain climbing, kayaking and more.
Keen photographers will find a plethora of delight in the magnificent landscape – with imposing glaciers, frozen waterfalls, inspiring fjords and remote traditional villages and people.
We’ve designed our tours to provide maximum fun and maximum adventure, and we take you to places other companies don’t go, to introduce you to the authentic heart, soul and history of this inimitable destination. Our itineraries range from 7-day life-affirming cruises along little-traversed coastlines to experience the astonishing landscape and wildlife of Disko Bay, to an epic sea voyage of 26-days to take in the magnificence and diversity of Greenland, visiting remote settlements and exploring unique geological formations.
While we’re mostly known for our fantastic cruising itineraries throughout the Arctic Circle, we also offer an extensive portfolio of itineraries that provide you with some incredible land-based adventures if that’s what you’d prefer. Activities include exciting wildlife-watching to encounter unique species, husky-sledding, camping, kayaking, self-drive itineraries and luxury hotels where you can relax and enjoy the stunning spectacle of the Northern Lights.
Your adventure, your way
Our wonderful guides have firsthand experience and knowledge of all the regions in which we travel. That’s why we’re able to offer you the unique opportunity of visiting these destinations with expert guides on a tour that has been customised to match your exact requirements. On land or by sea, self-guided or with an expert, we can create your dream holiday – and you can rest assured we know what we’re talking about because we’ve been there ourselves.
Our passion really is making your aspirations for adventure come true, so if you’re looking to tick one more thing off that travel bucket list, get in touch with one of our friendly team members so we can get started on helping you have a holiday of a lifetime!
With our extensive first-hand experience and deep local knowledge of all our destinations, we’re passionate about providing you with the opportunities to explore some of the most fascinating and unique places on Earth. We’re ready to help you plan your once-in-a-lifetime holiday to discover the magnificence of the Arctic. Here are just a few of the many thrilling and memorable tours we offer – and there are plenty more!
Guided Iceland Winter Tour
Travelling with a small group and a guide, this 8-day tour introduces you to the very best Iceland has to offer – in the most magical of ways. In a specially modified 4WD vehicle you’ll explore majestic glaciers and waterfalls, stunning beaches, national parks, hot springs and, of course, the unforgettable spectacle of the aurora borealis.
Iceland Winter – Northern Lights Self-Drive
Explore the iconic natural wonders of Iceland your way, with the freedom of this 5-day self-drive itinerary. Including 2 nights in Reykjavik and 2 nights in Hveragerdi, you’ll take to the open roads of the east and south of the country at your own pace – it’s a fantastic way for keen amateur photographers to make the most of their time and with departures timed during the winter months, you’ll increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. This self-guided experience is one of the absolute best ways to discover the sights independently.
Disko Bay Exploration
Come aboard the MS Balto, a specially designed vessel, and explore the fjords and secret anchorages of the magical Disko Bay region. On this 8-day tour you’ll see towering icebergs, imposing glaciers, unique geological formations and a stunning array of wildlife including whales, reindeer and Arctic foxes. This small group expedition introduces you to ‘micro-cruising’ to encounter remote settlements and their people and experience a magnificent landscape unlike any other on the planet.
The Great Greenland Adventure
Discover the astonishing landscape of Greenland in this epic 26-day sea voyage aboard the purpose-built MS Balto. Along with the incredible geological formations, uncharted coastlines, icebergs, glaciers, caves and fjords for which the country is famous, you’ll have the chance to encounter an abundance of wildlife, including multiple whale species, and learn about the fascinating Norse history and Inuit culture. The ultimate ocean-going expedition that will change your life!