The Ultimate Guide To Catching The Northern Lights In Their Bucket List Prime
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Ask anyone about their bucket list, and there's a strong 8/10 chance "see the Northern Lights" is on there, probably up in the top 5. The elusive green sky show is one of those "you'll never forget it" travelling experiences everyone wants in on, and the difficulty in getting a clear view is part of their appeal.
If you're anything like me, I just assumed the way to play things was to book in the viewable time period, go to one of the cities where you can see 'em, and roll on out within a couple of days. Turns out, it's a little more complicated than that. Here's a solid guide on getting your perfect Northern Lights experience ticked off.
KNOWN WHEN AND WHERE TO GO
You can't just plonk yourself in, say, Iceland and think that'll give you a solid chance of spotting the Northern Lights. It's definitely a timing + location thing, first up. Top spots recommended by experts and general travellers are Svalbard in Norway, Abisko in Sweden, Reykjavik in Iceland, Fairbanks in Alaska and Kakslauttanen in Finland. Northern Canada is also popular, so if you're headed to the States anyway, try the Alberta and Yukon areas.
In terms of timing, late September through to March is when you need to be planning your trip. They're visible between 6pm and 6am - although there's never a guarantee they'll put on a show.
GIVE YOURSELF A SOLID AMOUNT OF TIME THERE
Even if you go at the exact right time, to the perfect location, you have to consider the fact that there's plenty that can work against you when it comes to seeing the Northern Lights. Cloud cover, for one - if you hit up Finland and it happens to be cloudy nights for the three days you allocated to your trip? Not ideal. Give it at least a week, and just get out and enjoy the area. That way, even if you have the worst luck and miss them completely, you still had an amazing experience in a new place.
CHECK AURORA FORECASTS EACH DAY
Aurora forecasts are like weather ones, but for the Northern Lights. They'll indicate the likelihood of the lights coming out to play each night, and show you the areas that they'll probably show up. Obviously, like weather, they're not going to be 100% but they're great gauge. Alaska's one is here, and Finland's meteorological institute has their own site which gives constant updates, too.
SET YOUR ALARMS
One thing a lot of people don't realise is that the Northern Lights won't appear necessarily at dusk, and then fade out at dawn. Sometimes, they just pop up for an hour or so in the middle of the night. So your best bet, if you really wanna catch 'em, the night is clear and it's looking like a goer, is to set your alarm. Hourly. Yep, you won't get a decent snooze but you will have a solid chance of getting in on the action.
TAKE SOME QUALITY EQUIPMENT
Look, you miiiight be able to get a solid pic with your iPhone. But if you really want a breathtaking, triple-Insta-likes kind of photo of the lights then you need to invest in some more profesh stuff. Photographer Dave Morrow has some intensive tips for professional and amateur photogs on his site when it comes to catching the lights. His absolute must haves? A sturdy tripod, a camera with Manual Mode functionality, a wide angle lens and a full frame/35 mm camera.
GET AWAY FROM LIGHT POLLUTION
Anyone familiar with taking night pics knows light pollution is the bloody devil when it comes to getting clear shots of stars and cool galaxy related stuff. Same goes for the Northern Lights - you need dark skies for them to have the clarity that'll make for a solid pic. Sites like Dark Site Finder and Blue Marble Light Pollution will show you the areas in the country you're in that are most likely to have minimal light pollution. PSA though that the data is old, so don't take 'em as law.
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Image: Getty / Universal History Archive.