In autumn, when days become shorter and the night dominates in the far north, aurora borealis begins to illuminate the sky. Watching lady aurora’s silent dance will give you goosebumps.
For our northern lights chase, we chose Tromsø in Northern Norway. These 9 tips will help you make your aurora hunting trip a success.
1. When to go
Solar activity is the same whole year long. However, the longer the nights, the higher are the chances of seeing the lights. Thus, autumn and winter (Mid-September to March) offer the best opportunities for aurora hunting.
2. How long to stay
When the weather plays along, long weekend (3-4 nights) is enough. With every extra night, you increase your chance for a clear sky.
3. Hunting the lights
Tromsø is set in the middle of the Earth’s northern lights belt. You can even spot them in the city centre. But aurora borealis is a diva. She may or may not appear.
For a perfect experience, book a tour with professional northern lights hunters, who take you to places where there is the best chance of seeing them. Sometimes, you even need to drive to Finnish inland. Our tour with a guide from Arctic Explorers Norway was excellent.
4. Check the weather
The clearer the sky, the higher the odds of seeing the lights. However, there are exceptions, and sometimes aurora may appear in the middle of a cloudy sky.
Check the weather radar on the website of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute to see the cloud movements. Another useful site is the Aurora Service. They continually update the kp index, a scale from 0 to 9, which reflects the probability of seeing the aurora in a designated region. For Tromsø, the kp index of 1 – 3 is sufficient.
5. Watching aurora borealis
Low light pollution, clear sight and patience are the keys to success. In Tromsø, the aurora appears directly above your head. Look for a white or light green stripe among the stars. Once you’ve spotted the activity, have a look through your camera. Aurora appears significantly darker and gets the green touch when captured through the lens. Wait until the stripe turns into a dancing curtain or even a corona.
The spectacle may disappear after a few seconds or may last for hours. You never know.
6. Taking a picture of the northern lights
It is possible to take a photo of aurora borealis with point-and-shoot-camera or a phone. However, for a good shot, you need a decent DSLR or mirrorless camera with a big sensor and full manual mode. Bring the widest and fastest lens you have. We used Nikon 24-70 mm f2.8. A wider lens would be even better to capture a lot of the sky with a nice landscape framing.
You will shoot long exposures, so a tripod is essential.
Photo tip: A remote can be handy, but a self-timer does the same job without extra cost.
Which settings to choose depends on your camera model. In general, use the full manual mode, where you can set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO on your own. Focus on infinity and keep it there (you might need to switch to manual focusing). Set the lens on wide open. On a full frame camera with an f2.8 lens, we got the best results with an exposure of 10 to 13 seconds and an ISO 500 to ISO 800. With an APS sensor, you’ll need higher ISO and longer exposure. Take a few shots to get the best settings.
Pro tip: Turn off the noise reduction in your camera as the algorithm often mistakes the stars for noise.
Keep the movement of the stars in mind. The exposure shouldn’t exceed 30 seconds, otherways you’ll get a slightly odd short star trail. For a long trail, you’ll need a very long exposure as the stars move slowly with approximately 15 degrees in an hour.
7. What to wear
Aurora hunting is a night activity, and polar nights are freezing with temperatures dropping to -30°C (-22°F). If you book a tour with a professional aurora hunting company, they’ll lend you the winter wear.
Bring many layers. Thermal underwear and underpants are a must! Winter cap, good gloves, warm shoes and thermal socks should also be a part of your wardrobe. Sock and hand warmers turned out to be very handy as well.
8. Day activities
Tromsø offers many winter activities. We tried out dog sledging and enjoyed it very much. It’s harder than you think. You need to constantly support your canine friends with your strength.
A tour around the island and through the fjords gives you insights into the local life and a guarantee for reindeer sighting!
From the beginning of November till mid-February orcas pass by Tromsø ’s shore, so a fjord cruise with whale watching is the top thing to do.
9. Exploring Tromsø
Tromsø is a charming arctic metropole on Tromsøya island. Be sure to visit the famous cathedral – Ishavskatedralen, an architectural masterpiece located on the mainland. Walk there using the Tromsøbrua Bridge or take a bus.
Stroll around the lovely streets of the town centre and be sure to check out the wooden church – Tromsø Domkirke.
Pass by the glass façade of Tromsø Library, which perfectly fits into the arctic landscape.
Visit one of Tromsø’s great restaurants and bars to warm up after a walk.
Be sure to get a pint of Mack’s beer from the World’s northernmost brewery or try a glass of craft beer at Skarven Kro. If you fancy fish dishes, Fiskekompaniet is the place for you. At Bardus Bistro you’ll get a delicious reindeer risotto, at Biffhuset Skarven a delicious reindeer steak. Booking a table in advance is highly recommended.
Good to know: Public bus service in Tromsø is very reliable in every weather condition. Download the Troms Mobillett app for purchasing the tickets.