Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s my guide to help you plan the perfect Northern Lights trip.
Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice, for good reasons. Its coastlines are fringed with ragged fjords, its interior is speckled with lava fields and active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers. Intense, dramatic and colossal: this country is strikingly beautiful and packed with an endless list of natural attractions.
Thanks to its location close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland also happens to be one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis are visible here for over eight months a year, from early September to the end of April.
But seeing Northern Lights in Iceland isn’t as easy as many imagine, because of several factors including weather and solar activity. We spent three weeks chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, and only saw them on four separate nights. Sometimes it depends on your luck too!
Regardless, Iceland is one of my favorite travel destinations, not just for the opportunities to see the Northern Lights opportunities, but also for its ridiculously beautiful landscapes and variety of adventure activities on offer. Iceland is definitely one of the best winter destinations in Europe and highly worth a visit even if you don’t see any Northern Lights.
Northern Lights in Iceland Guide
What are the Northern Lights?
First, let me briefly explain what the Northern Lights are and why they occur. The Northern Lights, scientifically known as Aurora Borealis, are a natural light display in the Earth’s sky.
The northern lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing displays of bright, colourful dancing lights.
Due to the nature of the earth’s magnetic field, the auroras only appear at the poles, usually above the 60° latitude mark in the North, and below the 60° latitude in the South. They are known as ‘Aurora borealis’ in the North and ‘Aurora australis’ in the South.
Iceland, which sits at the latitude of approximately 64° north, is thus in an ideal location for seeing the Northern Lights.
How do Northern Lights Look Like?
It depends on the strength of the aurora, but auroras frequently appear either as a diffuse glow or as “curtains” that extend approximately in the east–west direction. Sometimes they form “quiet arcs”; other times they evolve and change constantly and these are called “active aurora”.
Auroral displays appear in many colours; pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported.
Solar activity can be unpredictable though. Even if it is a dark, clear night, there could be absolutely no chance of seeing the auroras, no matter how far north you are. It also means that on a midsummer day, the sky could be alive with Northern Lights; but you won’t be able to see because of the sun.
I was disappointed when we caught our first sight of the Northern Lights. They were faint green light in the far distance, and didn’t look anything like the rippling curtains or shooting arcs that I’d seen in photographs. But then the next night, the Northern Lights really put on a show for us and the bright green streamers were swaying and dancing in the night skies.
Legends of the Northern Lights
Aurora borealis actually means “dawn of the North”. The name came from the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora. Before science could explain what these dancing lights were, there were many legends and theories amongst different cultures.
The old Norse in Iceland theorised that they could be the shining gleam of the armour of the Valkyries, or legendary female figures who took the dead to the afterlife. In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine.
The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. Other aboriginal peoples believed that the lights were the spirits of their people.
Best Time to See Northern Lights in Iceland
In Iceland, the Northern Lights season stretches from the start of September through to the end of April. This is the best time as the sky is dark enough for the Aurora to be visible.
Although the Northern Lights actually occur all year round, the long hours of daylight and Midnight Sun period from April through August make it impossible to see the Northern Lights. The sky has to be dark enough for the Aurora to be visible.
As a naturally occurring phenomenon, the appearance of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult to predict more than two hours before it happens. So much is dependent on solar activity and, whilst experts can estimate the number of sunspots that might occur on the sun, they can’t accurately predict when they will occur nor how frequently.
Monitoring the Aurora Forecast
In general, January, February and March are the three most popular months for Aurora hunting in Iceland. There are long dark nights and plenty of snow to play in during the day to keep you entertained. But it can be very, very cold indeed, with temperatures averaging around -10°C to +5°C (14 to 41 F) in Iceland. And there are only 4-6 hours of good daylight each day!
There are also some speculation that the spring and autumn Equinoxes (around 20 March and 20 September) bring greater solar activity. Combine this with slightly warmer temperatures and improving weather (with the possibility of less cloud cover) and these periods might be good for aurora hunting. The daylight hours will be stretching out by then so you’ll have to be prepared for some late nights.
Check the Aurora forecast or download the Aurora Forecast app on your iPhone to monitor. Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch for auroral displays is local midnight (adjust for differences caused by daylight savings time).
Best Northern Lights Tours in Iceland
For higher chances of seeing the Northern Lights, I recommend booking a Northern Lights tour. After all, these tour operators have been chasing the Northern Lights for years and know the best spots for viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland.
Most tour operators combine aurora hunting with other activities and experiences like swimming in the Blue Lagoon, visits to waterfalls and geysers, and super jeep rides. Some tours also have Northern Lights experts to provide talks on the science behind the natural phenomenon.
The Aurora Zone has some great 4 and 7-day Northern Lights Iceland tours. They are the original and still the only dedicated UK Northern Lights tour operator. With over 16 years of experience in running Northern Lights tours, they are definitely the best in the industry. Check out their unique Northern Lights cruise that brings you to the remote Snaefellsnes and Westfjords.
You can also book day trips in Iceland, but they only depart from Reykjavik. So if you’re traveling all over Iceland, that might not be very convenient. Check out this 4-hour small-group Northern Lights tour that departs from Reykjavik. Alternatively, you can also book a private aurora hunt on 4WD Super Jeep.
Best Places to See Northern Lights in Iceland
If you prefer to go on an aurora hunt on your own, here are some points to keep in mind:
Besides clouds, unwanted ambient light can really affect your images. Avoid man-made light sources and highly populated areas, such as cities and towns. It is best to stay in a cottage or hotel away from the urban settlements, where you can just step out and see the Northern Lights.
In general, Northern Iceland is the best area to see the Northern Lights as it is located along the Gulf Stream. That means that the weather is more stable and predictable in the North than the South. Another good area to see Northern Lights in Iceland is the Westfjords, the least populated and also the least visited part of Iceland. High winds can delay flights for days at a time, so the best way to reach the Westfjords is with 4×4 vehicle and plenty of time allotted for travel.
Here are some of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Note that you’ll need to drive to get to these spots mentioned.
1. Öskjuhlíð, Reykjavik
This is the closest spot to down-town Reykjavik and is a great place to see the Northern Lights in the city, without going too far. The hill, with a big glass dome on top, is 200 feet (60 metres) above sea level. It’s a city landmark, covered with trees, and you definitely won’t miss it.
2. Þingvellir, Southwest Iceland
Located in the Golden Circle just 40 km from Reykjavik, this national park lies in a rift valley that marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and is where you can go snorkeling between the tectonic plates. Drive past the tourist information center for just a few km and you will find a hill where you can pull over and get a view of the entire national park.
3. Skógafoss, Southwest Iceland
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland and is my absolute favorite. Due to the amount of spray the waterfall consistently produces, it’s common to see rainbows here during the day. By night, the falls make a great object/foreground for some Northern Lights photography. You can park right next to the falls and even set up your tent right next to the picnic tables.
4. Stakkholtsgjá Canyon, Southwest Iceland
Stakkholtsgjá is a deep slot canyon with hidden waterfalls and narrow pebbled beaches. It makes for an interesting background for some Northern Lights photography. But note that you’ll need a 4×4 to get to the trailhead and there are some small rivers to be crossed.
5. Vík, Southwest Iceland
Vik is the southernmost village in Iceland, located on the main Iceland Ring Road. Its famous black sand beach is an excellent place to watch the Northern Lights. The craggy sea stacks and reflective ocean can add a cool element to your shot. You can also get cool photos using the local church in the foreground.
6. Jökulsárlón, Southeast Iceland
One of the most photogenic spots in Iceland, Jökulsárlón is a glacial lake famous for the ice bergs and bergy bits that can be found floating in it. It provides stunning views of the ice cap and glacier. Watching the Northern Lights hover over the lake is an overwhelming experience. In the winter, not too many people are there, especially at night, so you could have this wonderful area to yourself.
7. Látrabjarg, Westfjords
The westernmost point of Iceland, Látrabjarg, is a series of steep cliffs. It’s an amazing place to visit on its own, but watching the Northern Lights dance above the cliffs is something else. The Westfjords are the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland and Látrabjarg is just one of the many spots here worth checking out.
8. Kirkjufell, Snaefellsnes
This is my second favorite spot on the list. One of the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell is a spectacular place to witness the magic of the Northern Lights. Just Google some photos of this mountain and you’ll know why it’s such a popular spot.
Things to Know about Seeing the Northern Lights
The most important thing to know is that the Northern Lights are unpredictable. Even if the aurora forecast shows a high activity, it doesn’t 100% guarantee sightings of the Northern Lights.
The weather in the Arctic is as notoriously unpredictable as the Northern Lights themselves. It’s not unusual to have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow and high winds all in the same day. Even if the skies have been clear all day, it doesn’t mean you will definitely see Northern Lights that night.
The key is to pack in other activities besides Northern Lights hunting so that you’re experiencing Iceland as a destination. There is SO much to do in Iceland you’re really spoiled for choice: Drive the Iceland Ring Road, try ice climbing on a glacier, go whale watching, snorkel between tectonic plates in a glacial lake, or go whitewater rafting and even hike an active volcano… the list is endless!
Honestly, after experiencing all that Iceland has to offer, seeing the Northern Lights is just a bonus.
Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Photographing the Northern Lights is definitely not easy, if you don’t know much about photography. If you do have an SLR and want to capture the Northern Lights, I’d advise to read up about it and learn a thing or two on shutter speed before you go.
Firstly, you need a tripod and cable release to capture the Northern Lights properly. I recommend a a Canon 60D, since that’s what I’ve been using for years. I also use it along with a Sigma 10-20mm wide angle lens and that always produces awesome images.
A fixed focal length lens like a Rokinon 24mm F/1.4 Aspherical Wide Angle Lens for Canon RK24M-C will be a nice addition if you’re willing to invest in photography gear. This lens will provide you with the ability to incorporate enough of the dark sky in your image for the scale.
Set your camera on full manual mode. Then set your ISO between 800 and 3200, your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6, and shutter speed at between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Note that shutter speeds of above 15 seconds will show some star movement.
Use the Live View on your camera’s display screen to ensure you get a sharp focus. If you end up with a slightly overexposed or underexposed image, play with a combinations of these settings until you get the exposure to where you want it.
What to Pack for Your Iceland Northern Lights Trip
Besides photography gear, you’ll need to pack quite a lot of layers and warm clothing to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Like I mentioned, temperatures will average around -10°C to +10°C (14 to 50 F) in Iceland depending on which month you’re visiting. But keep in mind that you’ll probably be spending a few hours out in the cold at night hunting for the Northern Lights.
Be sure to invest in some high quality winter gear to stay warm. I recommend wearing 4-5 layers: thermals, wool bottom, fleece and a thick winter parka.
Here’s a list of my winter essentials. Read here for my full packing list for a week in Iceland, regardless of the season.
1. Long Sleeve Moisture Wicking Tees: The key to staying warm in Iceland is layering. Bring some long sleeve t-shirts that are great for hiking, that you can easily remove throughout the day and night. I brought three of them for my one-week trip.
2. Fleece-lined Long Sleeve Thermal Underwear: Pack thermals even if you’re traveling in summer. Mine turned out to be very useful and I wore it several days in a row. Temperatures can dip below zero – and they’ll be particularly useful if you’re camping.
3. Fleece Base: This is my favorite gear for cold climates. It’s thick but lightweight, and keeps me warm even in sub-zero temperatures. Plus most fleece are cheap and easy to find everywhere. I usually get one that can be zipped all the way down, so I can easily remove layers when I’m warm.
4. Soft Shell Jacket: Pack a thin waterproof, soft shell jacket regardless of the weather you’re traveling. It’s particularly useful when hiking up waterfalls (where you’ll get wet) and for the rain that’s quite common in Iceland. This also acts as an extra layer between your shirt and down jacket or parka. I used this almost everyday on my trip to Iceland.
5. Down Jacket: Lightweight and insulating, a down jacket is great as the outermost layer in summer and spring. It cuts the wind and it’s waterproof. Plus, mine packs into a small pouch and is easy to travel with.
6. Waterproof Ski Jacket: It may be heavy and a pain to travel with, but you’ll need it if you’re traveling in fall or winter. Don’t skimp on a quality coat as it’ll keep you comfortable. I brought mine but I didn’t end up wearing it at all (I did use it in Greenland) as it was quite warm. You won’t need this in summer.
7. Quick-Dry Pants: These are something I wear on almost every trip. They’re lightweight, thin, comfortable and waterproof. I can wear them in winter and summer, without feeling too warm or cold.
8. Fleece-lined Leggings: For ladies, these are brilliant to keep warm and comfortable, being looking too shabby. I usually wore them without any pants over them (as I was in Iceland during summer).
9. Beanie:You’ll definitely need something warm on the top of your head in winter.
10. Ski Gloves: Bring thick ski gloves as they’re good for snow and rain (though I didn’t need them and only used them in Greenland). I would recommend getting a pair of gloves with touchscreen pads so you don’t need to take them off to snap photos on from your smartphone.
11. Wool Socks: Invest in some high quality wool socks that can keep your feet dry and warm when hiking in the mushy tundra of Iceland.
12. Microfibre Towel: You’ll need this for thermal baths that are dotted all around Iceland (and showers if you’re camping). Buy a thin, quick-dry one that can be rolled up into a small bundle.
13. Swimsuit: Just one pair of swim wear for the geothermal pools and jacuzzis in your cottage.
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