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Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland

by Mandy
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The Northern Lights are on many people’s buckets lists, and Oli & I were no exception. We had always dreamt of witnessing the Lights, and the thought of seeing them dance and shimmer across the sky was nothing short of tantalising!

We’d been in Iceland 6 days, with the fickle Arctic weather ruining our chances every evening of seeing the Lights. Except for on our very last night, when the forecast showed a glimmer of hope and a patch of completely clear sky, on the other side of Iceland, a mere 4.5 hours drive away. The question we were asking ourselves was, “could we do this on our very last night? Are we kidding ourselves?” We knew it would be a long night, and we knew the chances of seeing the Lights were not guaranteed. But we knew it would be a worthwhile adventure if we did see them. So we packed up the rental car and off we went.

Northern Lights Chasing with Time Tours

Our self-drive adventure was not our first attempt at chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland. Our journey began in Reykjavik , where on our very first night, we had a Northern Lights tour booked with Time Tours. We were under no illusions that seeing the Lights was guaranteed, but our trip with Time Tours was a great introduction to chasing the Northern Lights, where we saw first hand just how elusive they could be, and the experience and know-how needed to track them down. At the very bottom of this post I have included some tips and things we learnt, should you be chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland yourself.

We were picked up from our hotel and under the guidance of Runi, our expert guide, we ventured about an hour outside Reykjavik to a secluded spot, where the sky looked clear for miles – perfect conditions we thought! In anticipation, we set up our cameras, eager to capture the magic.

We waited patiently for 30 to 45 minutes to no avail, and we set off again in search of those evasive Lights. This is where we really witnessed the art of chasing the Northern Lights. Runi left no stone unturned for us, making phone calls to friends for any reports of the Lights; checking local weather reports and aurora apps; and taking regular long exposure shots of the sky to check the direction of the clouds. He tried his absolute damndest to find them, and at around 1am, somewhere near Thingvellir National Park, we caught a glimpse of them, but somewhat cloaked in clouds – which would continue to plague us every night for the entirety of our trip.

We stayed for half an hour, but it was clear the weather was not on our side and that was as good as we were going to get. We were a mixture of buzzed and disappointed. The thrill of chasing the Northern Lights, collided with the reality of nature’s unpredictability. We had gotten so close, but were still so far.

Runi dropped us back to our hotel at 2am and we organised another trip with him free of charge. As it happens, we ended up cancelling this due to the persisting cloud cover, and we felt like our chances of witnessing the Lights were doomed.

Our Self-Drive Adventure: Chasing the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights had been playing hard to get all week, but we held onto hope and had been paying close attention to the weather forecast. It seemed as though luck was teasing us. We were in Iceland for one final night and the weather maps showed the whole island was engulfed in cloud once more, apart from a large clearing way over on the other side of the country. We pinpointed that our best viewpoint would be Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – a 4.5hour drive away! We decided it was now or never, so we hopped in our Kia rental, and off we went!

We definitely felt like the universe was trying to see off our chances of spotting the Lights. The moment we left Reykjavik we found ourselves in the heart of the worst snow storm I think I’ve ever seen. (Granted, we live along the UK’s South Coast and snow isn’t really a thing here), but the snow was falling thick and fast, covering everything in its path and making the road a challenge to navigate. Driving into the blizzard was like moving through a vortex. It was mesmerising to watch (for me as a passenger) but great deals of concentration needed from Oli, as tyre tracks were quickly disappeared in front of us and barriers & road signs were blanketed with snow.

We powered on and cleared the storm somewhere near Selfoss. By the time we drove past Vik, I knew we’d made it half way and from this point on it was like we’d been transported to a completely different era. Jagged mountains, towering volcanoes and glaciers surrounded us, painting a prehistoric landscape which felt so different to any other part of Iceland we’d seen so far.

Finally reaching Jökulsárlón, luck was on our side and we were greeted by a stunningly clear sky. We took turns napping in the car to catch up on some much-needed sleep, while the other kept watch, patiently waiting for any sign of the Lights. After some time, straining my eyes are much as I could, I felt sure I could see the faintest green arc in the sky. I fiddled with the GoPro settings to take some test shots and excitedly woke Oli up from the back of the car.

We jumped out of the car and waited with baited breath. Please don’t let that tiny tease be all we see after driving all this way. We waited for 30 minutes, determined our perseverance was going to pay off, and suddenly they appeared before us, dancing, shimmering and weaving across the sky. It was indescribable and beyond anything I had imagined.

I am no professional photographer (clearly), and this was the first time we’d needed something more substantial than a regular point-and-shoot, or our phone cameras. I appreciate a GoPro is not quite DLSR standard, but I was pretty chuffed with how the shots turned out (for a novice!). Although I can attest they really don’t do justice to what we’d actually seen with our own eyes.

We were treated to a 90 minute display, and every minute was truly epic. I am known as the crier in our relationship, but after the journey we’d taken to get there, I’m pretty sure anyone would have been overwhelmed by the show happening before us. We felt absolutely exhilarated, and tried our hardest to hold on to the Lights as the clouds rolled in. We raced to the car and headed in the direction of the Lights, chasing them down the road and further away from the direction we came in. They were absolutely mesmerising, but as quickly as they appeared, they faded away without a moments notice, and we knew our lucky sighting of the Lights was over.

Aware of the journey back home, we turned around and headed back to Reykjavik, absolutely buzzing our heads off about what had just happened. It was truly a pinch-me moment, and driving all those hours, through the storm had undeniably been worth it. We pulled over every now and then for some cat-naps to power us through the drive back, when we were interrupted by what sounded like hail, only to find it was snow thundering on the car and we were back in the heart of the snow storm. Not wanting to get stuck off-road in the middle of nowhere we hit the road once more. Thankfully we were approaching a more reasonable time of the morning and the snowploughs were out in full force clearing the road for the day ahead. We left Jökulsárlón around 1:30am and were back in our hotel for 6am. We collapsed into bed, had a 3 hour nap and were back up, packed, and checked out the hotel by 10am, still relishing the night’s excitement and not quite believing what we’d seen.

Asked if I would do the drive and the journey all over again? In a heartbeat.

Tips we’d learnt for your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights

We learnt a lot about chasing the Northern Lights and what’s involved to be within a chance of seeing them. While you are relying on nature to play ball, there are things you can do to maximise your chances of seeing this beautiful phenomenon. Here’s what we recommend:

1. Choose the right month

When booking your trip, remember you need a very dark night to see them clearly. Your best chances of seeing the Lights are between September and late-March in the Nordic area, when the nights are long and dark enough.

Please remember nature can be fickle and the Lights are no exception. To increase the probability of seeing the Lights, it’s worth booking a trip that’s at least 7 days if possible, and go hunting for them very early on during your trip, so you have time to re-attempt seeing them if needed.

2. Check the forecast

Picking the right time of year is only half the game – make sure you check the forecast before you go chasing the Northern Lights.

First up, you need a completely cloudless sky, as the Lights occur much higher in the earth’s atmosphere, so you don’t want any clouds blocking your view.

You will also want to be outside of the full moon phase – ideally as little moon light as possible, as anything too bright can minimise your visibility of the Lights.

I really recommend using the Icelandic Met Office site to check the forecast. The aurora forecast is measured on a scale of 0-9, with anything above a 3 usually worth setting out for given Iceland’s latitude. That’s not to say you can’t see anything rated 0-2, they may still be visible, but it’s more about the strength of the aurora. The Icelandic Met Office site forecasts the cloud cover and the aurora forecast, so you can plan wisely when and where you think might be your lucky spot.

3. Leave the bright lights of the city

It is possible to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, particularly if conditions are just right, but given the fickle nature of the Lights, it really is best to go on a hunt and chase them do if you want to maximise your odds of seeing them.

As mentioned already, you need a dark night sky to see the Lights, so you’ll want to be as far away as possible from city lights and any light pollution

4. Power through the night

The Lights tend to be most active between 10pm to 2am, so this is a good window to aim for if you’re planning to go out chasing them (although worth remembering nature does what it wants and the Lights will appear if and when they feel like it).

If you’re staying outside of the city, some hotels offer “wake up calls” if the Lights appear, so this is something that’s worth looking into when booking your trip.

5. Patience is a virtue

The Lights are a phenomenon, and waiting for the conditions to be right can be incredibly frustrating. Even then, when the conditions are on your side, you may have to wait hours before the Lights make an appearance. Sightings are never guaranteed, but stick with it. If you see other people out and about where you are also hunting down the Lights, speak to them to see what they know or have heard, and continue to check and track the aurora forecast to see if anything has changed. If you’re not successful on your first night, try, and try again.

6. Make plans and be prepared

Make sure you know what locations are on your hit list for spotting the Lights, and plan your route accordingly. If you’re driving it is also illegal to stop on the side of the road and can be highly dangerous at night time especially – make sure you can find a safe parking place.

You may have to wait long into the night to see the Lights. Power through and stay awake if you can, bring a thermos with a hot caffeinated drink to help you, or if you’re with someone take turns to keep watch.

Bring a spare phone charger, or a powerbank is even better. Who knows how long you may have to wait before the Lights make an appearance and you don’t want to be caught short with no battery.

Remember to bring a tripod. However you choose to capture the Lights, whether professional camera, GoPro or your phone. You will need a steady base to get good shots of the Lights, and a tripod means you can leave your camera to do its thing while you marvel at the lights.

7. Wrap up!

The opportune time to see the Lights also means it’s likely to be cold, especially the longer into the night you go. It can also be incredibly windy, especially if you’re out somewhere very remote to catch the Lights. And of course there’s the chance of rain to contend with too. So bring lots of layers to keep you snug, it’s better to be warm and take layers off if needed, than be cold and shivering.

As a minimum consider: A warm, windproof and waterproof jacket. Ideally something past hip length to keep your bum and tops of your legs warm!

Pack some thermal underlays to wear under your clothes and jeans/bottoms. There will be a lot of time just standing around, so you want to make sure you conserve that body heat.

Wear decent walking boots – these are not only better insulated against the elements, but will also give you better grip underfoot should you be off in remote parts of Iceland to see the Lights.

Lastly, winter essentials such as thermal socks, scarf, gloves and hat. I have a pair of rechargeable hand warmers which have seen me through a couple of winter trips now and I definitely recommend.

8. Head out with a tour?

The final thing to consider is before you hunt down the Lights yourself, it might be worth heading out with a tour company first. They may take you to some remote locations you may not be able to get to yourself. There may also be some expert tips and guidance you can pick up from them, which might help you with any future endeavours of seeing the Lights.

I hope you enjoyed our recount of chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland. It was an experience we’ll never forget and adventure we’ll hold on to dearly! Has this guide inspired you to go hunting for them? Or have you had any luck chasing the Lights yourself? Share your story in the comments below, we’d love to hear them! ♥

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