Almost all our Northern Lights evening tours depart from Reykjavik
The auroras - or polar lights - are a natural phenomenon which appears in the sky in high-latitude regions near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. This odd occurrence can paint the night sky with dancing light and surreal colors.
The auroras only appear near the poles, usually above 60° latitude in the north and below 60° latitude in the south. They are rarely seen in lower latitudes but occasionally can happen when an especially strong geomagnetic storm hits the Earth’s atmosphere. This, however, only happens once a decade or even less.
Iceland, which sits between the 63° and 66° latitude north, is perfectly positioned. It offers the chance to see the Northern Lights 7 - 8 months per year.
The best inhabited places to watch the lights in North America can be found in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska. Aurora borealis can also be seen over Greenland, Iceland, the northern coasts of Norway, Finland, and northern Siberia. Southern auroras, however, are quite rarely seen as they are concentrated around uninhabited Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean.
From all of these places, Iceland is probably the most ideal travel destination for a Northern Lights tour as, of all the options, it is the least cold. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream that flows around the island, Iceland’s climate is much milder than would be expected from its location.
The temperatures in Reykjavík rarely fall below -5°C (23°F) in wintertime, unlike in north Canada, Norway, or Greenland where it can fall from -20 to -30°C (-4 to -22°F). Norway and Finland are somewhat milder, but Iceland is by far the warmest of the Northern Lights countries.
Called the Northern Lights or aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere they are referred to as the Southern Lights or aurora australis. According to scientists, northern and southern lights often occur as mirror-like phenomena. They appear in both hemispheres the same time, producing similar shapes and colors.
As for the scientific explanation, these mystical lights are actually collisions between electrically-charged particles from the Sun with the Earth’s atmosphere.
The temperature on the surface of the Sun is millions of degrees Celsius. At this heat, gas molecules are highly explosive. Free particles - electrons and protons - escape through holes in the Sun’s magnetic field and are blown towards the Earth by the solar wind. They travel through space at a high speed.
Before they can enter the Earth's atmosphere, they hit the Earth’s magnetic field which largely deflects them. Some particles, however, are still able to enter the atmosphere in the areas where the magnetic field is weaker, such as around the magnetic poles.
When these particles enter the atmosphere, they tend to collide with gas atoms. This causes them to energize and emit light. This is what we perceive as the spectacular multi-colored light showcase in the Earth's sky.
The color of the lights depends on what type of molecules are part of the reaction. Auroral displays appear in many hues, while green and pink are the most common. Strong solar storms can cause violet and white colors. Red northern lights are quite rare, but can sometimes occur at lower latitudes.
Green and red lights are caused by oxygen molecules. The green collisions occur approximately 96 km (60 miles) above the Earth’s surface, while the rarer red auroras are formed at a much higher altitude in the atmosphere, about 320 km (200 miles). It is quite difficult to perceive the red auroras with the naked eye, though. They are better seen through photographs that are taken on a long exposure time. Purple and blue auroras are caused by nitrogen molecules. They can also appear white if many of the colors mix together or are faint.
Solar activity is not regular or even predictable. Even on a pitch-black, clear night, no one can assure that you will see the Northern Lights. There are a few phone apps and websites that try to predict solar activity but their reliability is generally lower than the normal weather forecast.
The sky could be vibrant with Northern Lights, but if a thick layer of cloud covers the sky, you probably will not be able to see the show. Additionally, the aurora borealis can be fully active in a midsummer day, but the lights simply become obscured by the brightness of the sun.
Due to the unpredictable nature of the auroras, there is no specific place in Iceland that is the best for seeing the Northern Lights. Generally speaking, anywhere that is far from light pollution is good. The Northern Lights can be sometimes seen from the middle of a city, but in these cases, the same aurora would be many times stronger and more impressive if you had watched it from a darker place.
If you have a rental car and go for a self-driven aurora hunt, you might want to do a bit of research before heading out. It is true that you can see the lights from almost anywhere outside of the city, but it is important to think about where you park your car and will spend long hours waiting in the darkness.
Simply stopping at the side of the road can potentially be very dangerous. Sadly, there are many Northern Lights-related car accidents in Iceland caused by aurora watchers and distracted drivers. The best idea is to find a safe spot with a spacious parking area, far from traffic.
Generally, the most famous natural attractions are great aurora watching locations since they have large parking areas and safe paths for you to walk on if the sky is lit up.
The large parking lots at the main attractions of the Golden Circle are good, safe spots to spend some time in the darkness. These places are excellent photo locations if you have a tripod and a good camera.
There are four geothermal baths near Reykjavík from which you can potentially see the Northern Lights while relaxing in the hot water. These places are not pitch-black, however, since the pools are lit up, but the area has less light pollution than Reykjavík.
Even if you do not want to leave the city, you can still find some nice spots in town where the light pollution is lower and your chances are better.
Outside of Reykjavík:
You can check our very own page for Northern Lights Forecast for Iceland to see how the conditions are right now and for the next few days. It is based on the Icelandic Meteorological Office that also shows predictions for aurora activity three days in advance. This is done on a scale from zero to nine, where zero is the lowest and nine is the highest.
The number is usually between two and four, which is quite normal in Iceland. Zero to two counts as very low and five to nine counts as magnetic storms. These numbers can radically change throughout the day, however, and they are not very reliable. We have seen it change from nine to zero in only a half an hour and at other times have still been able to see the lights when the prediction was zero.
More importantly, this website also predicts cloud cover, something which could be very useful for finding the clear spots for your aurora hunt.
This is a free app created especially for Icelandic Northern Lights hunters. It is designed to send out alerts within a range that you set. This is a very useful tool that will alert you if somebody near you is seeing the Northern Lights.
There are loads of great phone apps that give you location-based forecasts anywhere from hourly up to three days in advance. Choosing and downloading only one is sufficient, as most of them work based on the same space weather sources.
If you take an organized Northern Lights tour, you will be in the safe hands of a local tour guide. These guides are experts, especially skilled at finding the best spots, and at making the most of the stay while you are waiting for the show.
Every tour is different. There is no fixed location. The tour operators pick the destination based on the actual cloud cover and the aurora forecast. They know all the best viewpoints, the safest parking places, have years of experience, and local wisdom.
Northern Lights tours depart almost every day from the middle of September until the middle of April. A tour can get canceled due to unfortunate weather conditions or cloud cover. They will not take you out if there is no chance to see any lights. In these cases, you will be offered a spot on the next day’s tour or get a full refund.
No one can assure that you will see the aurora. Even if the conditions seem optimal, you can go on a tour and have no luck with the lights. In this case, you will be offered a spot on the next day’s tour for free. In order to maximize your chances, book a Northern Lights tour on the day of your arrival and repeat the tour every day until you finally see the aurora.
There are plenty of amazing and adventurous ways to see the aurora which make the waiting time fun. You can take a bus tour, super jeep tour, go on a boat ride, or combine them with other activities and multi-day tours.
Enjoy the benefit of being guided by local experts. They closely monitor the forecasts and have a great amount of experience with the Icelandic road conditions and terrain. Relax and enjoy the comfort of having nothing to worry about, and no need to drive in a foreign country in a dark and snowy winter night.
Thanks to the warm ocean streams around the island, being at 65° North in Iceland is much more pleasant than other parts of the world at the same latitude. But having said that, Gulf Stream or not, we are still at 65° North, so winter is pretty cold. Be prepared for the Icelandic conditions.
Choosing the right clothing will make your waiting time much more tolerable and comfortable. Standing in the darkness, waiting for the magical auroras to show themselves requires good insulation since you will be standing around with very little activity.
Have a warmly insulated, windproof outer layer. Good, warm, sturdy, waterproof boots; warm, windproof hats and gloves; and a cozy scarf are all necessary. It is smart to have some reusable pocket warmers to use during the long waiting period.