Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland Our Experience JetSetting Fools

Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland: Our experience

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It was our 4th and final day in Reykjavik, Iceland and we hadn’t seen the Northern Lights. On our first three nights, the excursions in search of the green glow in the sky had been cancelled due to cloud cover. The notifications via text arrived each day by mid-afternoon. Getting a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis was at the top of our list when we planned our trip. But, on our last day, we were coming to terms with the fact that we might miss seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Luxe-Adventure-Traveler-Iceland-Westfjords-Northern-Lights Jennifer Dombrowski luxeadventuretraveler.com Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Jennifer DombrowskiLuxe Adventure Traveler

In the late afternoon we began making alternate plans for our last night in town. The day had been mostly cloudy and the fierce winds were brutally cold. My optimistic outlook and high hopes that skies would clear were waning. However, as the hours passed and darkness came, we had yet to receive a cancellation notice. Still doubtful, it wasn’t until an hour before the 9:00pm departure that we finally realized the chase for the lights was on.

And, that is exactly how we felt. We were on a chase.

In preparation for the evening outing, I donned about every layer of clothing I had from my backpack. While most people traveling to Iceland in the winter invest in appropriate clothing, the only thing I managed to squeeze into my pack was an extra pair of thin, wool gloves I picked up in Nijmegen, Netherlands. As long-term travelers carrying everything we own, it’s difficult to pack for every kind of climate – and we were obviously unprepared for Iceland in the winter. I pulled on double layers of socks, pants, coats, scarves, gloves and hats. I double-downed my double layers with a total of four shirts. When it was time to go, I slipped on my Skechers – the only shoes I brought with me –  which were still slightly wet from our walking tour of Reykjavik early in the day.

I wasn’t fooled – I knew I would be cold. However, my excitement of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland was trumping my worries. The photos we had seen of the Aurora Borealis revealed pure magic – and I couldn’t believe that I was going to witness it with my own eyes.

Kristin Addis www.bemytravelmuse.comiceland-photography Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Kristin AddisBe My Travel Muse

In addition to the thermos of piping hot tea (thanks to our Airbnb host who let us borrow one!), I brought two cameras ready to capture the action in the night sky. Before arriving in Iceland, I had spent time reviewing the manual settings necessary to photograph the Northern Lights. Both of my Canon cameras were properly set and I had extra batteries in tow.

We joined the masses at the BSI Terminal. For anyone making the tour with Reykjavik Excursions, this was the departure point. This was our third tour with Reykjavik Excursions – and all three had departed in the dark. So it goes when visiting Iceland in the winter. As we headed out on the road, we could see whipping snow in the headlight beams.

We were notified that we were heading an hour away to Thingvellir National Park, which we had visited on the Golden Circle Tour (in the daylight!). The location of the Northern Lights Tour varies with the weather. The sky was forecasted to be clear at the park and we would be far enough away from any city lights. Unlike the tour guides on the Golden Circle and South Coast Tours who talked about the history of Iceland and its people, our guide for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland provided a short science lesson on the Aurora Borealis and why the sky glows green.

Kristin Repsher www.bootsandabackpack.com Seeing The Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Kristin RepsherBoots and a Backpack

On the sun, a mere 93 million miles from earth, there are explosions called sun storms. The particles released move at a rate of 245 miles per second, escaping the suns gravity. When these particles stream in the direction of Earth, they can get pulled into the atmosphere by Earth’s magnetic field. When the particles collide with atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, ionization occurs and creates light. The particles form in a belt around the North Pole and usually move from west to east. The lights can last just a few minutes to several hours.

Learning the scientific aspect of the lights demystified the Aurora Borealis. Rather than the lights just mysteriously appearing, some truly technical factors had to align: A sun storm had to occur 2-3 days beforehand, the viewing area has to be void of distracting lights and the sky has to be clear. To be honest, we hadn’t seen a whole lot of clear sky since we arrived in Iceland and, with the blowing snow, we were a bit skeptical that it would be clear by the time we arrived at the park.

As our guide was talking about historic sightings of the Aurora Borealis, the two-way radio crackled to life. We could hear a muffled voice but the words were in Icelandic. Our guide stopped mid-sentence and grabbed the radio, speaking into it in a language we didn’t understand.

When he finished the conversation, he addressed the bus, “It’s just been confirmed {dramatic pause} Northern Lights have been spotted.” A ripple of excitement rushed through the bus. He continued, “And, if you are seated on the left side of the bus {we were!}, I believe those are the Northern Lights glowing in the distance.” Out the window, we could see a soft glow in the sky. It was reminiscent of seeing city lights from afar in the fog, but with just a tinge of jade. I was as ecstatic as a little girl who just got a pony for her birthday.

Jacqueline Kehoe www.thestrangeandnew.com Seeing The Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Jacqueline KehoeThe Strange and New

Shortly after the announcement, we turned into the park and our bus, along with several others, filed into a parking lot. I secured my layers, got my cameras ready and we dashed off the bus. When we stepped into the open field, we were blasted with a wind as cold as ice. It slapped my cheeks and instantly froze the hairs inside my nose. With our eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness, we waded into snow that was 4-5 inches deep.

Beyond the road we arrived on, toward a mountain, we could see two distinct streams of lime green light in the sky. This was it. This is what we were waiting for. This is what we were chasing. We were seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland with our very own eyes.

We scrambled to find a place to set up our cameras, as we needed complete stillness if we were to have any chance of getting a clear photo. Without a tripod, we would have to improvise. The ground, covered in snow, certainly wasn’t an option. We spotted a picnic table, cleared off the snow, set down a plastic tarp and angled the cameras toward the Aurora Borealis. The wind was so fierce, however, that as soon as we would let go of the cameras, the wind would rattle them.

Leaving the cameras on the table was not an option, but I was shivering so hard that I was shaking the table when I tried to steady it. Fairly counterproductive. We got off three shots. One look at the preview screen showed we got zero results.

I soon realized I was spending more time looking at the camera than I was looking at the sky. Even though my eyes had adapted to the darkness, I couldn’t clearly see my camera settings. My scarf was blowing in my face and I had to remove my mittens several times in an attempt to reset my camera. I was floundering and frozen. This was not how I envisioned experiencing the Northern Lights.

My Never-Give-Up personality was rearing its ugly head, but a fresh, stiff, blast of cold air knocked it right on its ass. Defeated, I shoved both cameras back into my bag. I turned my focus from photographing the sky to actually watching the sky.

The ribbons of green expanded and brightened then dulled and brightened again. The light danced across the sky, silhouetting the mountain. It was like watching a stream of fairy dust. A million stars twinkled above us. Constellations were so intense that it was almost impossible to believe they were real.

Juliana Dever CleverDeverWherever.com Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Photo courtesy of Juliana DeverClever Dever Wherever

We watched until our toes were frozen solid and we could no longer feel our faces…which was about a total of six minutes. When we retreated to the warmth of the bus, we learned we weren’t the first to bail; the bus was nearly full. Sipping our tea helped thaw us out and we patiently waited for those who were smart enough to dress appropriately and travel with tripods.

Want my advice for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland? If you haven’t practiced your night photography and/or are averse to or unprepared for frigidly cold weather, forget the camera and simply enjoy the glow in the sky. If you want the memory in a photograph, buy a print!

How not to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland JetSetting Fools

Could there be a worse photo of the Northern Lights?! It resembles nothing near what we were actually witnessing!

A special thanks to the fellow bloggers that shared their photos for this post. You can check out more of their amazing photography and stories on their personal websites as noted in each caption!

Want to read more about our tours in Iceland? Click here for the Golden Circle Tour and click here for Iceland’s South Coast Tour.

Want a look through our lens? Click here for Iceland in Wintertime: a photo essay. 

Top Tips for your Trip to Iceland

Where To Stay

During our visit to Reykjavik, we stayed in this awesome Airbnb Apartment. ( Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) We have found that staying in apartments is often less expensive than hotel rooms – with the added benefit of a kitchen and, usually, more space. Reykjavik holiday apartments can also be searched on FlipKey (which is part of TripAdvisor) or on VRBO – Vacation Rentals By Owner

However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many Reykjavik hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) for your upcoming trip: Kvosin Downtown Hotel, Canopy by Hilton and Hotel Lotus Reykjavik.  Or, find a deal on a hotel room by bidding on Priceline

Budget travelers may want to look at these Reykjavik hostels: Reykjavik Downtown Hostel, Loft Hostel and Falkinn Guesthouse. Travelers can also stay with locals for free with Couchsurfing. 

 

Flights to Iceland

Our preferred method of getting anywhere is by flying (we are JetSetting Fools, after all!). However, due to our unique circumstances (flight benefits earned from years of service with a major airline), we rarely buy airline tickets. That being said, when we do need to purchase plane tickets, we start our search for the best deals on airline tickets on Skyscanner or Flight Hub.

 

Before You Go

  • Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for the city. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia and Skechers. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
  • We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos photos (that can later be beautifully compiled into a travel photo book). We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
  • It’s easy to get turned around or lost in any new city! Be sure to have a good map and/or guidebook prior to arriving.  
  • We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.

Want more travel planning tips? Head over to our Travel Planning page for our complete packing list and other travel resources!
 

 

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We want to know: Have you seen the Northern Lights in Iceland? What was your experience like? Did you try to photograph it? How did you pictures turn out?  Tell us in the comments!

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Our Experience seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland JetSetting Fools Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland JetSetting Fools

Click here to book this Reykjavik Excursions Bus Tour

Thank you to Reykjavik Excursions for organizing our Northern Lights tour.

6 thoughts on “Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland: Our experience

  1. Anonymous

    Sorry your photos did not turn out, but enjoying this phenomenon first hand was the thing to do! The science is as exciting as the electromagnetic waves created!

  2. I love photography and I know how important it is to have the right equipment with you. I agree with you: if you don’t have the right camera with the right lense (anda tripod) then better just enjoy the moment. Don’t waste time and energy on the pics. Just be in the moment… 100%. You will buid better memories.

    • This is so true! In a world where everyone now carries a camera with them, I think moments get lost in the rush to attempt to capture them. Instead of enjoying it, the moment turns into documenting it.

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