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The green lady. The aurora. The northern lights. The polar lights. Whatever you call the natural phenomena, there is no way to do it justice and explain how beautiful they are. You’ve seen the photos online, but what is it really like in person? Here’s our experience in Tromso and chasing the aurora in Norway. In the sections below, we will share all of our northern lights tips.
If we’re being honest, we really didn’t know what to expect from our Tromso northern lights tour experience. We knew we wanted to see the lights, but beyond the photos on the Internet, we didn’t know what it would entail. The reality is better than you could ever possibly imagine, but it can also be more challenging than you might think.
In the days and weeks before our trip to Norway, we were furiously consulting the aurora borealis forecast and it seemed that conditions looked favorable. Unfortunately, the Tromso weather forecast was not ideal for the entire region because clouds and snow being predicted. We were nervous whether it would be possible to see the polar lights at all.
As it turned out, our adventure was a mixed bag. On the first night, we met our driver and guide from Aurora Tour Tromso, and headed out of Tromso in an old Volkswagen bus passing Kvaløya Island and then taking the tunnel to Ringvassøya Island. There was dense cloud cover near Tromso and our guide (Karolina) felt the area out near Hansnes would be the best viewing area.
Between breaks in the clouds, we could see the aurora borealis in the background. At one point, we got a brief clearing and had 15 minutes of good visibility. It was very pretty and we were glad we went. But it didn’t wildly impress us. It gave us a night of unfavorable conditions to practice our photography skills.
The second night was a completely different experience. The guide, Geir Ytterstad of Aurora Photo Guide, met us at the main tourist information office in Tromso. We boarded his brand new mini bus, complete with leather seats. Instead of heading to the islands, we drove inland and south – following Route E8 (which is dubbed the Lapland Northern Lights Route which extends through Norway, Finland, and Sweden).
Our guide kept checking the cameras operated by the Tromso Geophysical Observatory of the University of Tromso on his smartphone. These cameras were absolutely key to identifying where there was no cloud cover and where there was auroral activity.
Along the drive, the aurora borealis emerged in vibrant colors (greens and purples) and we made an emergency stop for photos. Ultimately, we continued to side road near the Skibotn Astrophysical Observatory (about 20km from the border with Finland) which led us to a snow filled field located in a deep valley. In the darkness and deep snow, we were treated to a spectacular display of the green lady.
Experiencing the northern lights is not guaranteed. There’s a reason why all the tour companies in Tromso use adjectives like “chasing,” “safari,” and “adventure.” It is an adventure. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, the deep snow, and the cloudy conditions, our northern lights trip was one of the great experiences in our lives and is not to be missed.
Five Things We Learned from Seeing the Northern Lights in Norway
The Aurora is Unpredictable. When it comes to natural phenomena, there are no guarantees and this is also true of seeing the aurora borealis. Being able to see the northern lights is dependent on the presence of the aurora in the atmosphere (usually coinciding with a period of solar flare activity).
Beyond that, you need dark, clear nights with minimal moisture in the atmosphere and the Norway winter weather is notoriously finicky. Because the aurora is unpredictable, you should plan on chasing the northern lights in Norway at least a couple of nights in a row.
An Organized Northern Lights Tour May Be Your Best Bet. While we are big fans of independent travel, taking a tour may be to your advantage. The guides know the area, can get you there safely, and are also invaluable in teaching you how to photograph the northern lights. A really experienced guide or tour company can make all the difference.
If you decide to go it alone, you will be fine. It is absolutely possible to rent a car and do a self-drive tour. There are several rental car options at the Tromso airport, including Europcar (you may also get a better price via AutoEurope). The roads in the region are in excellent condition, are well marked, and there are lots of spots to pull over.
You Need Patience. Weather conditions in the Arctic are unpredictable. You should be prepared to spend 6+ hours out in the elements (cold, wind, snow, darkness) to catch a glimpse. You need to be patient to see them.