Iceland Tours to See the Northern Lights – What You Need to Know

December 12, 2017
iceland tours

There are more than a few Iceland tours that take you to see the Aurora Borealis. Not much surprise here. The Aurora Borealis is one of the main things that draw people to Iceland. Sadly, they are also the most elusive of tourist attractions. Iceland is a famous stopover destination with people choosing to spend as little as a single night here. Whether they see the Northern Lights or not is entirely up to chance.

If you take a longer trip and plan accordingly, the likelihood of witnessing this natural miracle increases exponentially.

Still, think of the Northern Lights as one of many cool things that you get to do during your trip to Iceland. That way even if you don’t get to knock them off your bucket list you are still happy (and left with some fantastic memories and pictures).

What Are The Northern Lights?

You would be surprised at how many tourists come to Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis… without even knowing what it is. I mean, sure, we have all seen the impressive photos but why do the Northern Lights happen?

It is actually the solar winds. They are released into the atmosphere of the Sun and they are made of plasma. That plasma consists of protons, electrons, and alpha particles. Even if you are not very familiar with chemistry and physics you probably know that these are all charged particles.

There is also the Earth’s magnetosphere. It comes from the solar wind, a.k.a. it contains more or less the same particles but it is held by the magnetic field of the Earth.

When the solar wind ‘blows’ hard enough on the magnetosphere the particles come down into the upper atmosphere. The high-energy charged particles lose some energy. But energy is never really lost. In this case, it transfers to the particles in the atmosphere. They become ionised and emit light of different colours.

This happens more often than we see it. And we only see it within what is known as the auroral oval. Sometimes a geomagnetic storm makes that oval larger and we can see the Aurora Borealis on much lower latitudes than usual. They have been seen in the U.S.—although quite rarely.

Your best bet is still one of those Iceland tours.

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When Can You See The Northern Lights?

Iceland tours to view the Aurora Borealis use the Aurora forecast to plan their trips. Yes, it is an actual thing that the Icelandic Meteorological Office does—you can see what they have to say online. But before we jump into that, what is the best time of the year to go hunting for the Northern Lights?

Conventional wisdom says November to February.

That is when the nights are darkest and coldest. The latter is important because on warmer (well, relatively warmer) nights you don’t get a clear sky. Iceland is but a Northern island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The weather is far from kind.

If the November to February range seems a little too restricting, you can make it September to mid-April. Granted, some of those will be shorter, ‘lighter’ nights but it also might not rain. It’s a matter of luck, at the end of the day. You need a clear sky, no precipitations AND the Aurora Borealis happening at the same time.

That is why I encourage first-time visitors to book one of the established Iceland tours for their first time. The guides know what they are doing—at in a worst case scenario at least you can go star gazing as a consolation prize.

Reykjavik

Why Reykjavik Is Not The Place To See The Aurora Borealis

The capital of Iceland might have appeal in other areas—such as partying.

When it comes to viewing the Northern Lights, though, you are much better off heading over to the countryside. If you plan on going by yourself, make sure you double check the route you picked with the hotel staff or your Airbnb host (or the friendly Icelandic girl you met last night).

Every once in a while you might see the Northern lights over the city. Locals have various different urban legends and superstitions relating to that. For the most part, though, the light pollution is way too strong for you to see anything clearly. Consider yourself lucky if you catch a glimpse.

For serious Aurora Borealis hunters, the countryside is where you should look.

Iceland Tours Or A Self-Guided Viewing

Many visitors have that question.

Is a tour really worth the money?

To me, it absolutely is. It is so much more convenient and stress-free, not to mention it comes to a much higher probability of success. That being said, let’s look at the perks and the downsides of Northern lights Iceland tours.

Why You Should Not Go On Aurora Borealis Tours

If you are on a very tight budget, Iceland is not a friendly place to begin with.

Splurging on a tour might give you some peace of mind but ultimately you don’t need to go broke over a trip. Renting a car and researching good night lights viewing spots is a good money-saving option. Another would be to find a buddy, preferably a local buddy. There are tons of ways to meet them these days. Try MeetUp or go couch surfing and ask your host, or maybe even do it as a Tinder date.

There is also the timing. Organized tours don’t always fit your schedule. If you are tight on time a self-driving tour can be slotted into even the busiest trip.

Finally, if you are relocating to Iceland (and if you are, you should check out our expat guide), don’t rush the guided tour. Chances are one of your new Icelandic acquaintances will offer to take you. Or maybe you will see a cool event that relates to the Northern Lights.

Or your company will do the annual team building as a star/Aurora gazing session. Either way, don’t rush it. You are living in Iceland now, you have all the time in the world.

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Major Pros Of Northern Lights Iceland Tours

I am a firm believer that you can’t be an expert in everything. People who run the Aurora Borealis tours are experts in their thing. They know where to take you, when to take you, and how to give you the best experience possible. Often there is an astronomer or an astrophysicist to tell you more about the Northern Lights. They also bring telescopes so in the worst case scenario you still get to stargaze.

There is also the thing with the roads. Icelandic roads are all nice and new but it is still an island in the middle of the Atlantic (just like it was a couple of paragraphs ago). The road gets slippery with ice as temperatures drop below zero. If you are going to be driving yourself, make sure you are comfortable with these conditions.

Driving in a foreign country, on a road you don’t know, at night, over ice is pretty much the most dangerous combination out there. Besides, most rental cars are not automatic so if you are not used to that…it will not be fun.

The Boat Tour Option

You know what else is cool around Iceland? Whale watching.

And now you can do both the Aurora Borealis gazing and the whale watching at the same time. You are sailed away from the city lights of the island into the ocean. It is fun and convenient because you don’t have to drive away from the capital. You just head over to the harbour and into the boat.

And you get to knock two items off your bucket list on the same night.

Sleeping In An Aurora Borealis Bubble

Here is another alternative to the tours. Now you can rent a small, warm, see-through bubble and spend the night gazing at the Aurora Borealis. It is an extraordinary accommodation option (and one that you probably will not be able to afford for your entire stay).

Seeing how thin the wall is, you almost feel scared to jump into your PJ’s. Trust me, you will not freeze over. The technology behind the bubble is pretty smart. There is a thermostat so you can adjust to your preferred temperature. It is warm and dreamy!

Final Friendly Tip About The Northern Lights

It will be winter, please dress appropriately. Your favourite leather jacket is not warm enough. Bring a ski jacket and a scarf, and a hat, and gloves.

Weirdly enough, the gloves are what people forget most often. And right here another perk of organized Iceland tours. They always have a spare few to lend you.

Whichever option you choose, I hope you have an awesome time in Iceland. Happy travels!

PS: You’ll probably need to use Reykjavik as your “base” to fly in and out of. Browse hotels in the city here.