Hunting The Northern Lights In Iceland

I had seen the Northern Lights on many documentaries on the TV, and they looked awesome. But it is so rare to see the Northern Lights, that when I was in Iceland at the end of February, I booked the Golden Circle tour and the Blue Lagoon, but didn't think much about booking a trip to see the Northern Lights.

That all changed very quickly on Saturday 28th February, which turned out to be the sunniest day in Reykjavik for many weeks...

The Northern Lights on full power near Reykjavik, Iceland - Feb 2015

It was 12:10pm when I arrived back from the Blue Lagoon, and dumped my bag in my room at Loft Hostel. I got chatting to another English guy about the Northern Lights.

"I've been here all week and tried three times to see the Northern Lights", he said. "The conditions haven't been right, but everyone is saying tonight is going to be awesome".

That got me thinking. Wherever I've travelled in the world, I've done everything possible in each location, in case I never go back to the same place. The same trail of thought had me gripped.

What if I never come back to Iceland, and never get another chance to see the Northern Lights?

The answer was simple - go and see the Northern Lights, Simon. I headed to the hostel reception to enquire about free spaces.

Reykjavik Excursions: full. Time Tours: full. Sterna: full.

Uh oh. This wasn't good news. Why was every tour full? Why today?

If like me you have no idea how the Northern Lights come about, it's worth me explaining the right conditions to see Aurora Borealis, and why everyone in Reykjavik was heading out to hunt the them.

WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, AND WHAT ARE THE BEST CONDITIONS TO SEE THEM?


The Northern Lights (or Auroras) are brightly coloured streams of light that occur when solar winds from the sun collide with the Earth's atmosphere - specifically the collision with oxygen and nitrogen atoms. The atoms become, errm, 'excited' by these collisions, and then emit light as they drop back down to their original energy level. The green light typically seen in the Northern Lights is caused by the light emitted by excited oxygen atoms.

So why was everything so booked up? Why were all the tours full? Iceland - and Reykjavik in particular - had previously received around 2 weeks of cloudy skies and snow storms, meaning it had been impossible to see the Northern Lights. The first condition is that you need clear skies.

The second condition is down the Earth's magnetic activity.

And it just so happened, that in the late evening hours of 28th February 2015, a solar wind stream slammed into the Earth's magnetic field, creating a geomagnetic storm.

ICELAND OFFROAD


I enquired to see if Icelandoffroad.is had any spare places on their tours, only to be told they were full. My last chance to see the Northern Lights rested on my going to the Grayline booking office in the centre of Reykjavik, having heard a rumour there was still a few places spare for their tour.

Then, whilst I was waiting in line, I received a call from Stefan at Iceland Offroad. "Simon, hello - good news - we have an extra driver tonight, so we now have a place for you".

And so, my Northern Lights tour of Iceland was finally booked.

LET'S GET OUT OF THE CITY AS FAST AS WE CAN!


I was picked up in a 'super jeep' (basically a truck with a big engine and massive wheels) by Bjorn, our tour guide from Iceland Offroad, and headed out to another hotel to pick up our final passenger.

"The conditions are going to be awesome tonight guys, you are pretty lucky!", said Bjorn, as he kept one eye on the road, and the other eye up to the sky, keeping an eye out for any initial signs of the Northern Lights.

His mobile rang. He spoke something is Icelandic, then rolled down his window at at set of traffic lights. "They are above us", he said. "You can just about see them. Let's get out of the city as fast as possible".

And with that, the super jeep headed East, out of the city lights.

Bjorn kept checking his smartphone, showing us readings of magnetic activity in the atmosphere. If the red line starts going bananas, you know you're in for a great Northern Lights session. Bjorn was referring to the KP-index, used to track the strength of variations in the magnetic field of the Earth.

The super jeep continued to eat up ground to the East of Reykjavik. Bjorn was becoming more excited than Helen Hunt in Twister, as the magnetic readings started fluctuating.

His energy was contagious. We drove into the icy dark night, rolling down our windows every 100m or so to try and catch a glimpse of the lights.

Then, after a 20 minute drive, the Northern Lights came into focus.

"Oh my god", said a fellow Northern Light hunter. "This is incredible! Look out to the right!"

Out to the right hand side of the super jeep, we saw our first Aurora. A green streak of light that got brighter as we drove further away from the city lights.

STOPPING BY THE LAKE


Bjorn knew a great location to get a better view of the Northern Lights, that was also perfect to capture some great pictures. Far away from the city lights, with pine trees and a lake that was iced over.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky as we pulled over, joined a couple of other super jeeps from Iceland Offroad, and jumped out.

The green lights were directly above us, dancing around the dark sky.

My travel tools of choice are an iPhone 5S and a GoPro, which were frowned upon by my fellow hunters, as to get some good shots of the lights, you need a pretty good camera. Thankfully, I stole the ones Bjorn took.

I acted as the camera guinea pig as Bjorn positioned the tripod to get the best lighting and angle for the pictures.

By this time, the lights had become really strong with three streams of green light, dancing in front of the moon, and drifting high over the icy lake and towards Reykjavik.

Even the Camera+ app on my iPhone managed to get a couple of decent shots, which shows how strong the solar winds were.

The Northern Lights - as seen with an iPhone 5S

The Northern Lights - as seen with an iPhone 5S


We stood and watched the lights for well over 2 hours. Getting different shots at various angles. Despite the freezing temperatures, this was a once in a lifetime experience.

"I've waited my entire life to see this", said another Northern Lights hunter. "This is incredible".

And that's when it hit me. Some people had waited 30 years to see Aurora Borealis. Yet here was me, undecided on whether to take a trip some 6 hours earlier.

I was incredibly lucky to see them, given I was only in Iceland for 3.5 days. So, I made the most of it, and made Bjorn take more pictures of me :)

Wrapped up warm watching the Northern Lights - Reykjavik, Iceland
Wrapped up warm watching the Northern Lights

As the Northern Lights hadn't been seen for a few weeks, many of the group wanted to stay out for longer, but for me 3.5 hours was enough. The icy conditions started to take their toll, and once the winds faded away, we headed back to Reykjavik.

A huge thank you needs to be given to Stefan and especially Bjorn at Iceland Offroad. Many tours are either made or broken by a tour guide, and Bjorn was awesome. Even though he did call me a sissy for getting back in the super jeep to warm up :)

NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS - WHO TO PICK?


Choosing a Northern Lights tour provider in Iceland isn't easy, as there are so many companies that offer tours.

Also, it's worth bearing in mind that no-one can guarantee sightings of the Northern Lights. It all depends on the conditions. I found a great site that monitors conditions for Auroras, which you can see here. if it shows a forecast of 4 or higher, get booking that tour!

I spent a good few hours looking over the leaflets in my hostel before shortlisted four. So, to give you a helping hand, here are all the tour companies in Reykjavik that offer Northern Lights tours, including costs, time outside, and type of vehicle. I hope it helps!

STERNA TRAVEL - 6,100 KR - Maximum 35 people, 3 - 5 hour tour

GRAYLINE - Northern Lights Mystery Tour - 6,400 KR - 3 - 4 hour tour
GRAYLINE - Northern Lights Deluxe Tour - 13,900 KR - 6 - 8 hour tour (includes refreshments)

REYKJAVIK EXCURSIONS - 6,400 KR - 3 hour tour - Max. 40 people

TREX.IS - Northern Lights Chase - 6,500 KR - 3 - 5 hour tour - Max. 40 people
TREX.IS - Northern Lights w/ Country Dinner - 16,000 KR - 5 - 6 hour tour - Max. 25 people

ICELAND OFFROAD - Private tour - 17,500 KR - Super Jeep - 5 - 6 hour tour. Max 8 people.

ARCTIC ADVENTURES - Northern Lights Explorer - 20,900 KR - Super Jeep - Max. 13 people.
ARCTIC ADVENTURES - Northern Lights Hunt - 35,900 KR - Super Jeep - Lava Caving Experience - Lobster Dinner - Max. 12 people.

ICELAND ROVERS - Private Tour - Super Land Rover Jeep - 33,500 KR - Lobster Dinner - 5 - 6 hour tour - Max. 8 people.

At the time of writing, 200 KR was around £10. 6,000 KR is around £30. The big jump in price between the tours is simply how private the tour is, the type of vehicle and the size of the group. Smaller tours allow you to be quicker and nimble and go places coaches can't, but at the end of the day, it comes down the budget.

If the Northern Lights are as strong as they were for me, you'll be able to see them from the middle of Reykjavik, so it doesn't matter too much who you choose.

Iceland Offroad did provide hot chocolate and a drop of alcohol though, which is a big tick in the box for me :)

WHERE TO STAY IN REYKJAVIK?

Hostel (option 1) - Loft Hostel
Hostel (option 2) - Kex Hostel
Hotel - City Center Hotel

Find the latest travel deals to Iceland with Travelzoo - click here.

2 comments:

  1. Simon, this sounds like an incredible experience! I've been wanting to see the Northern Lights for years, and it sounds like absolutely everything came together for your own sighting! Awesome photos - I think you've given me the final nudge I need to go chase the Northern Lights for myself :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kasha! It was fun...but very cold :) I would definitely recommend seeing them!

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