I still remember my first sighting of the northern lights vividly. Staring for almost two hours and ignoring the freezing temperatures and howling wind, I stood spellbound as curtains of first red, then green and later purple light danced from the horizon upwards, until they formed a perfect circle right above us, rays shooting down in all directions. That was 14 years ago and while I’ve seen the northern lights (or aurora borealis) several times since that first experience will always be one of the highlights of my travels.
So how can we give ourselves the best chance of seeing the northern lights?
Catch the peak of the solar cycle
For a start, certain years are better than others. Solar activity has peaks and troughs throughout a recurring 11-year cycle. We are currently in a peak period of activity, so last winter (2012-13) and this coming winter (2013-14) are good times to look for the northern lights. Solar activity doesn’t stop altogether outside of these dates, but your chances will certainly be higher this winter than in 5 years time.
Go in season
Winter is better than summer, purely for the fact that the nights are longer and darker. In the polar regions, where the aurora is usually seen, summer nights are too bright to get a sighting. In northern Norway for example, the best time to see the northern lights is between September and March.
You need to travel north to see the aurora, although curiously if you go to far north your chances actually diminish. The area around Tromso in Northern Norway is considered one of the best places in the world to view the lights, and if you are blessed with clear skies during your visit, your chances of a sighting are very good.
Stay up late
You’ll be extremely fortunate to get a sighting as soon as it gets dark. The most likely time for the aurora to appear is within a couple of hours of the darkest part of the night – usually from 10pm onwards. You may have to be patient – I’ve waited until 12.30 before seeing the first glimmer of green light in the northern sky.
Get in the dark
Unless it’s a particularly strong aurora, you’ll need to make sure you don’t have interference from street lights or other sources of light pollution. A remote hot tub is the ideal place from which to wait for the northern lights to appear, but failing that just step a few metres from your accommodation, keep a torch to hand just in case, and settle down for an evening of staring at the night sky.
Finally, you need a bit of luck – I saw my most spectacular sighting in northern Scotland, but know that this was an exception and that I was extremely fortunate to find myself in a remote northern part of the UK on the night of the strongest aurora for a decade. Go to northern Norway for the best chances – the best thing is, even if you don’t see the northern lights, you’ll experience one of the most beautiful parts of Europe.