How to Safely View the Northern Lights

How to Safely View the Northern Lights

03.10.2022 | Kaelene Spence

Fall has officially arrived in Iceland which means one very important thing…

The Northern Lights season has officially begun! 

Northern Lights over Mountain
Northern Lights dancing over a mountain

There is nothing more magical than being bundled up watching the mystical streaks of color dance their way across the dark winter sky. When you catch your first glimpse of the Northern Lights be ready for a new level of excitement. And while we fully support giddy jumping up with joy from seeing the Northern Lights we also want to be sure everyone has a safe time doing so. This is why this post is going to be all about how to safely enjoy the Northern Lights and not freeze, get lost, or put yourself in other dangerous situations during this unforgettable experience. 

Basically, another title for the post could be something like: How to see the dazzling Northern Lights and not freeze, get lost, or injured along the way. 

Since you are reading this post you are already one step on your way to having the safe and magical Northern Lights experience you have been dreaming of. So take notes, and start planning the place in Iceland you want to stay to take in the Northern Lights. 

Auroras dancing over Reykjavík 
The Lights can also be seen from the city sometimes

Northern Lights 101

Chances are you are already well aware of the Northern Lights, and they may even be the reason you are planning a trip to Iceland. But before we get into some safety talk let's have a quick rundown of the Northern Lights.

First off, what causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. These particles are blown towards the earth by solar wind, however most of these charged particles will be deflected by the earth’s magnetic field. But, lucky for us, the magnetic field at the north and south poles are much weaker making it possible for the charged particles to enter earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles to create the dancing colors of the Northern Lights.

When visible the most common color of the Northern Lights you see with the naked eye is a yellowish green, however, they can sometimes be seen in blue or purplish color. In rare cases, the Northern Lights are all red. In Iceland the most common color you see is yellowish green, but keep a look out for those extra colors dancing around up there, you may not see them when looking up but your camera may be able to capture them for you. 

A lighthouse under Auroras in the sky
A lighthouse under the Northern Lights

One of the most common questions about the Northern Lights we hear is, “when is the best time to come to Iceland to view them?” 

The first point to keep in mind is that you need a dark sky for the Northern LIghts to be visible, which essentially rules out the months of the year when the Midnight Sun takes over the night skies of Iceland. Anytime outside of that period is fair game for a chance to see the Northern Lights with the official season starting at the end of August and going through mid-April. 

We are going to add a small caveat to this information, just an insider tip to keep in mind. Knowing that you need the dark night skies to see the Northern Lights you may assume that coming to Iceland during the darkest months of the year will give you the best chance to see the Northern Lights. Here is when the caveat comes in, the darkest months in Iceland, November - February, they also tend to be the stormiest, which means lots of cloudy night skies. And cloudy skies mean the Northern Lights aren’t visible. Just something to keep in mind so you know that the deep winter is not necessarily the best time to come to Iceland if seeing the Northern Lights is your top priority. 

If it sounds like a puzzle to figure out the best time to see the Northern Lights be sure to read this post for more helpful information. 

Northern Lights in the sky
Northern Lights in the sky

What to Wear on a Northern Lights trip

One of the most important steps to take when getting ready for your Northern Lights adventure is dressing in the proper clothing. Nothing will ruin the fun more than frozen fingers and toes, trust us. Hopefully, you will have come to Iceland well prepared for any type of winter weather the country may throw your way so you already have some idea of what to wear for an evening outside. When you are getting ready for your Northern Lights adventure keep in mind two things when choosing your outfit, comfort and warmth, you never know how long it will take for the lights to make their appearance, and once they do you will want to stay outside enjoying the show for as long as possible. 

To help keep you warm and comfortable here are some tips we have on what to wear for your Northern Lights adventure: 

  • Put on a base layer: a step you probably aren’t taking for most of your time in Iceland (unless it is one of those north wind chilly days) is adding a pair of thermal or wool underwear. But for this adventure, it is a good idea to have a base layer as you may be standing around waiting thus not keeping as warm as when you are on the move. We suggest a layer that isn’t too thick to make sure you stay comfortable, nothing will ruin a Northern Light experience like feeling restricted by too many layers.

  • Add wool: we may be biased, but in Iceland, we think wool is the superior material choice when it comes to keeping the Icelandic chill-out. Add in the fact that it packs a lot of warmth into a not-so-thick layer it makes sense why Icelanders tend to reach for their wool items first. Tossing on a wool sweater, mittens, hat or even scarf to keep the Icelandic wind out will be both a fashionable and practical choice. 

Warm mittens
Warm mittens are crucial on a Northern Lights excursion

  • Bring a waterproof outer layer: you may think with your wool underwear, sweater, and winter jacket you have enough layers going on, but we are going to recommend you bring one more layer just in case. Having a waterproof jacket and pants to put on if the weather takes a quick turn (which is a not-so-uncommon occurrence in Iceland) will be a layer you will be very thankful you added if it ends up being needed. The best part about this layer is it is lightweight so you can toss it into your bag without adding extra bulk to your ensemble. 

  • Pack fingerless gloves - hands are an important part of the body to keep warm, but a new challenge can come in with this one if you are planning on taking pictures of the Northern Lights (which you should and we have a post all about how to nail the perfect shot). If you are planning on pulling out your camera you are not going to want bulky gloves on making your hands useless. It is a good idea to wear a pair of thin microfiber gloves under your thicker ones so you can take off the thick ones when wanting to take pictures, and still feel your fingers in the cold, a win-win situation. 

  • Don’t forget the accessories: the accessories are extra important when it comes to your Northern Lights adventure. Everything from wool socks, scarf, a hat or ear muffs, sturdy shoes, and thick winter gloves will be a game changer in keeping you nice and comfortable while out on the chilly Icelandic night. 

Keep these above tips in mind as you bundle up to head out for an unforgettable night and you will be toasty warm and comfortable all night long. Packing for Iceland is all about the layers, and those layers are really going to come in handy for your Northern Lights adventure!

Magical display of the Lights in Iceland
Witnessing the Northern Lights is a wonderful experience

Safety Tips

What to wear for the Icelandic winter nights is information you likely knew you would need to pay attention to. But this is just the start of keeping yourself safe while viewing the Northern Lights. The following tips are equally important to keep in mind as you head off on your aurora borealis adventure.

Bring a flashlight - first off, it is going to be dark, like really dark if you are doing this mission correctly. So if you are heading off on your own to see the Northern Lights you will need to be prepared with some form of lighting to keep yourself safe as you make your way to whatever spot you're planning on cosying up at for the show. This can be a flashlight or headlamp, but if this item doesn’t make it into your bags your phone can double as a flashlight to help lead the way. 

Be aware of location - one of the keys to a successful sighting of the Northern Light is getting away from any light pollution, which means you are likely going to need to drive out of the city to find somewhere dark. When heading away from the city lights though be sure to pay attention to where you are going. Sometimes you can get lost in the adventure and before you know it you are an hour away from the city in the middle of no-where. This also goes for once you get outside, be aware of the path you are taking so you can easily get back to your vehicle. And just as an added reminder, please be respectful to individual homes out in the countryside. Their backyard is not an open viewing ground so be respectful and stay off private property. 

Standing under the Auroras
Standing under the Aurora Borealis

Submit a travel plan - did you know you can submit travel plans while in Iceland? And by travel plans we mean you can share with either your hotel or through the travel plans you have that way in case something happens someone will know where you are at and if you did not make it back as expected you may be in need of assistance. An extra step to take to ensure safety is never a bad idea. 

Have a charged phone - make sure to check your phone's battery level before heading out, you never know when you will need your phone in case of an emergency or to use the GPS for directions. If possible it is a good idea to bring a power bank with you, the cold weather in Iceland doesn’t just nip at your nose, it can also drain your cell phone battery at a very fast pace. 

Pack reflectors - we already have gone over a long list of clothing items to pack, but if you are wanting to go an extra step having some reflectors for clothing is a great idea. As it will be very dark when you are viewing the Northern Lights, having reflectors on can make it easier for your group to spot you, or if you end up catching the dancing lights off the side of the road you will be nice and visible to oncoming traffic. 

Be a responsible driver - when you catch that first glimpse of the dancing green lights above you we completely understand excitement will take over. But if you are the one driving don’t let it make you forget yourself, you are still responsible for the safety of those in your car and on the road. Before trying to stick your head out the window to get a better view find a safe place to pull off the road and park your car. And please don’t just stop in the middle of the road or just off to the side. Wait until you can find a well-marked pull-off location to ensure safety for all. 

Bright lights on blue sky
Bright lights on a blue sky

Additional Tips for the Northern Lights in Iceland

Now that you have all the tips to keep yourself safe, let's add a few more into the mix to help increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. 

  • Before you head outside, check the Aurora forecast online here to see which area will have the best chance of spotting the Northern Lights - pay attention to the cloud cover! 
  • Request a wake-up call at your accommodation. Many accommodations offer a Northern Lights wake-up call so be sure to request one before you go to sleep so you won’t have to worry about missing the show. 
  • Join this Facebook group where locals post when the Northern Lights are active in their area. It is a great way to get a heads up by the locals who are always on the watch for them. 
  • Download the Hello Aurora app and be able to check the forecast wherever you are.
  • Northern lights almost always start from the north direction, so when keeping a lookout for them to appear look north! 

An explosion of Northern Lights
An explosion of Northern Lights

Save this post for your trip and read our other Northern Lights post here and you are going to be all set for one magical experience. And don’t forget, there are many Northern Light tours and activities you can join while in Iceland if you prefer to have a professional tour guide help lead the way. Check out some of the tours and activities you can join here. Happy Northern Lights hunting!

Book your Northern Lights experience in Iceland now!

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