Of course there is some luck involved in catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but this guide will help you to make the most of your trip.
Seeing the Northern Lights dance and glow in the darkness above a snowy arctic landscape must surely be high on most people’s bucket list, and combining it with days spent on the slopes could make for a perfect winter holiday. With this in mind we’ve put together the ultimate guide to planning a getaway to see the famous spectacle.
Don’t forget to bring one of your warmest ski jackets and a pair of ski pants to defeat the cold while waiting for what will hopefully be one of the most memorable moments of your life. So where are the best places to see the Northern lights and ski?
It might surprise you to learn that North Berwick is at the same latitude as both Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska, so although you might not have considered a trip to Scotland to see the Lights, then it could be a good bet if you’re looking to stay a little closer to home. North Berwick is a pleasant seaside town on the East coast of Scotland, it’s location and low levels of light pollution at night make it an ideal place to spot what locals call the ‘Mirrie Dancers’. Scotland’s largest ski resort Glenshee is a couple of hours drive away and offers 36 runs and 40km of pistes. It has been in operation since the 1930s, when a tractor was used to pull skiers up the hill. Today it offers skiing at reasonable prices, a Cafe and equipment hire.
Famous as the home of Father Christmas, Saariselka is a friendly, uncommercialised resort in the North of Lapland. Its remote location 250km above the Arctic Circle provides an ideal spot to see the Lights and the arctic wilderness is a perfect backdrop. Herds of reindeer roam the nearby forests of snow laden pine trees in Finland’s largest National Park while in the resort you’ll find spa hotels, bars, restaurants and a small Chapel. The neighbouring ski resort is 5km away and serviced by regular buses. The 15 runs are not challenging and would best suit beginners or early intermediates. Those looking for a different challenge could try telemarking, snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing.
Levi is Finland’s largest and best known resort where you’ll find stylish surroundings and great facilities blending seamlessly with stunning alpine surroundings. The resort has hosted the first Alpine Ski World Cup Slalom race of the season every year since 2004 and offers a good range of pistes. Once there you can ski the 43 snow-sure and uncrowded slopes under floodlights during the dark winter months before getting involved in Levi’s vibrant apres scene which often features live music. It’s a busy resort with plenty of activities to enjoy and for a truly unique experience you could stay in a thermal glass igloo, giving you the chance to see the Lights in comfort.
Fairbanks is known as the sweet spot in Alaska for Northern Lights viewing. This vibrant river City embraces Native Alaskan culture and has a thriving arts community all set amongst beautiful scenery. As well as catching the Lights, activities include dog sledding across the arctic wilderness, taking a dip in Alaskan hot springs and viewing the amazing outdoor ice sculptures. Nearby Moose Mountain provides local skiing, with a good range of varied south facing slopes to suit all abilities. Skiers used to European resorts will enjoy the novel experience of getting a bus rather than a ski lift to the top of each run.
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest City, often known as the Capital of the North, it boasts impressive coastal mountain and fjord landscapes. The long nights and low levels of light pollution make this an ideal location for catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. The slopes of Hlíðarfjall are located 5km away, offering some of the best skiing in Iceland. There’s 15km of runs equipped with snow making facilities and floodlit to allow night skiing. There’s also access to a vast area of backcountry terrain and heliskiing available. If you want a break from the slopes there are plenty of museums and galleries to keep you occupied or you could even take a ‘Beer Bath’ – a local spa treatment that involves soaking in a tub of live beer yeast which is said to have beneficial properties for the body and skin.
Narvik in Norway is ideally positioned under the Auroral Oval for frequent Northern Light sightings. You also couldn’t be any closer to the slopes, as the ski resort of Narvikfjellet is within the city giving you the unique experience of urban skiing. The varied runs are serviced by a modern and efficient lift system and there’s great off-piste skiing to be had. Away from the slopes you can take an Arctic Truck tour, go dog sledding, glacier hiking on the nearby mountains or take a trip on the Ofotbanen Railway line which has a historically important past.
Narvik also has a strong connection to Sami, the indignous people of Norway whose roots originate in reindeer herding. If you get the chance, sample Bidos while in Narvik – a traditional Sami stew of reindeer meat.
As the most Northern University town in the World, Tromsø has a vibrant, cosmopolitan feel despite it’s Arctic site. The city has a great restaurant scene with plenty of freshly caught sea-food on the menu and lively nightlife – there’s more pubs per capita here than any other town in Norway. Historically it has been the starting point for many significant Arctic expeditions and today provides a great base to explore and hunt the Northern Lights from. The nearby ski area of Kroken has plenty to offer ski tourers but there are limited lifts and not much piste signage. Lift passes are sold by the hour and the lifts are open until 9pm. The slopes are usually quiet so you might find you have the mountain to yourself.
250km North of the Arctic Circle with towering mountains and magnificent scenery, Björkliden is a beautiful place to experience Swedish Lapland. There’s also the usual Arctic activities to take part in, including dog-sledding, snowshoeing and snow mobile tours. Nearby Abisko National Park offering views of mountains and frozen lakes is thought to be the best place in Sweden to see the Northern Lights.
The resort of Björkliden Fjällby has plenty to offer more experienced skiers looking for adventure, with heliskiing, ski touring, and a wide area of off-piste terrain. Due to the harsh Winter conditions here, lifts don’t open until the end of February, so this could be an ideal destination to catch the Northern Lights and do some Spring skiing.
Kiruna is Sweden’s most Northerly town and has been inhabited by native Sami people for 6,000 years. Today, you’ll find a pretty town full of traditional culture and a Church which was voted the most beautiful building in Sweden. Kiruna’s setting surrounded by ancient boreal forests, glassy lakes and lofty peaks provides a perfect backdrop to see the lights.
You could even stay in the IceHotel, in the nearby town of Jukkasjärvi. The first hotel in the world to be constructed from ice, it’s rebuilt each year by artists using blocks of ice and snow from the Torne River and provides a truly magical atmosphere and an unique, unforgettable experience. The local ski resort is small, with just three lifts but there are acres of backcountry to be explored by those with more experience.
Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, high in the Canadian Rockies offers awe inspiring views and great skiing in meters of fluffy powder. A smaller resort by Canadian standards, there’s 86 runs and a good variety of terrain available, catering to all abilities. Winter is actually Jasper’s off season so you’ll find it quieter than in Summer when tourists flock to the National Park. There are a good range of hotels and restaurants in Jasper which was originally a hub for the fur trade. The Northern Lights are visible less often here than some of the places mentioned that are further North, but on a clear, cold Winter night, you may be lucky.
Aurora Borealis (commonly known as the Northern Lights) was named by Italian astronomer Galileo in 1691. ‘Aurora’ comes from the Roman Goddess of the dawn who went from East to West each morning announcing the coming of the Sun and ‘Borealis’ from the Greek name for the North Wind. Sometimes referred to as ‘Polar Lights’ they’re natural light displays which occur in high altitude areas situated over the magnetic poles in the Northern and Southern hemisphere.
The Lights are the result of disturbances in the magnosphere caused by solar wind and the resulting collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and charged particles released from the Sun’s atmosphere.
As the temperature above the surface of the Sun is millions of degrees Celsius, this causes frequent and explosive collisions between gas molecules. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the Sun’s atmosphere by its rotation and escape through holes in the magnetic field. They are then blown towards the Earth by solar wind. These charged particles are mostly deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field, however this is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles are able to enter the atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions emit what we see as patterns of coloured light. The variations in colour are the result of different types of gas particles. Pale green and pink are the most common colours although many other shades have been reported.
The lights appear in an area which forms an irregularly shaped oval centred over each magnetic pole. Whilst the lights which can be seen in the Northern hemisphere are known as Aurora Borealis, those visible in the Southern hemisphere are called Aurora Australis. Scientists think that often the lights visible on each side of the world are mirror-like images – showing similar shapes and colours and appearing at the same time.
Unsurprisingly given how unexplainable they must have seemed, ever since Prehistoric times people have been fascinated by Aurora Borealis. Lots of myths and legends exist originating from different indigenous people situated with the Auroral Oval and further afield.
The oldest known auroral citing in literature was in 2600 B.C. China and it’s thought that early Chinese legends which feature dragons are a result of sightings of the lights. They also appear in Norse mythology where they were thought to be reflections from the shields and armor of the Valkyrie or a glowing arch which led those who had fallen in battle to their final resting place in Valhalla.
Medieval times, auroral displays in Europe were seen as harbingers of war or famine. It is said that red lights were visible in England weeks before the French Revolution and after were thought to have been a sign of the coming troubles.
The Maori of New Zealand shared a belief with many northern people of Europe and North America that the lights were reflections from torches or campfires. Another common belief among tribes from different parts of the world was that the lights were either the spirits of the animals they hunted or of their ancestors.
The best time of year to see the Lights is during the winter months when there are more hours of darkness. Although solar activity does occur during the day, it’s not visible to the naked eye, so the more dark hours the better. With in mind January to March are the most popular months to plan a trip.
There’s lots of speculation about the best time to see the lights – some say that the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes (around 20th March and 20th September) bring increased solar activity and therefore more light displays. The Sun also goes through a solar cycle lasting 11 years which sees it pass through Solar Maximum (highest solar activity) and Solar Minimum (lowest solar activity). 2020 is a Solar Minimum year, however the coming years should see solar activity increasing giving a better chance of catching a glimpse of them.
When packing for a Northern Lights holiday you obviously need to consider how low temperatures will drop. With this in mind you’ll need thermals and lots of thin layers which will trap heat better than a couple of thick ones. Thin layers are also easy to add or remove as your temperature changes. A thin pair of gloves which can be worn under outer gloves are also recommended as well as thermal socks. Finally, invest in a good quality wool beanie hat and buff or scarf to prevent heat loss from your head and neck. If you’re going on an organised Northern Lights ‘hunting’ trip then the tour organiser will often provide a snowsuit to keep you cosy on chilly nights but wearing good base layers under it will make all the difference.
Getting great photos of the Lights might require a bit more equipment than just the camera on your phone. A DSLR camera, tripod and wide angle lens will give you the best chance of capturing those famous light displays. And don’t forget a couple of spare batteries, as cold weather drains them quickly. Once in situ, use a tripod and a fast lens, set the camera to a high ISO value to ensure the shutter speed is as fast as possible and adjust the lens to infinity focus.
If you are going to use your phone’s camera, then use ‘Night Mode’ and think about investing in a phone tripod, as it’s essential that the camera doesn’t move while the shutter is open.
Locals in each destination will have their own tips based on years of living under the Northern Lights – so once you’ve arrived at your destination chat to hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and bartenders and you might find that they let you in on their favourite secret spot to catch the lights. There are also several Auroral tracking apps you can download which use factors such as solar rays, wind speed and density to help predict the probability of seeing the Lights each night.
That’s it, thats all for the moment folks, plenty to trigger that wonderlust, that desire to explore and see nature at it’s most inspiring and creative. From Northern Europe to North America, the Northern Lights are guarenteed to captivate you.
Hey Riders, note from your gal Angelica here. All information was correct at the time of writing through research and extensive knowledge and experience. However, things change during different periods in the season and some websites offer out of date information and links may change.
Maybe you have some better information to offer or any addendum or changes to make, in which case, feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can consider adding them in! Let me know. . .