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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 northern lights in Norway. In the sections below, we will share all of our northern lights tips, so consider this our ultimate guide to the northern lights!
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 northern lights 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 northern lights 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 the lights were active.
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 Northern Lights are 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 lights are 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 northern lights 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 northern lights 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 of the lights. You need to be patient to see the lights.
Plan Other Activities. If the entire goal is a northern lights trip, you might be disappointed, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate. Plan other activities to occupy your time. Tromso makes a good base for northern lights vacations and you’ll find people from all of the world who have come to partake in the experience. But Tromso also has other activities to enjoy, including dog sledding, Nordic or cross-country skiing (called simply skiing here), and snowmobiling.
Your Camera Sees the Lights Better Than You Do. We’ve all seen the incredible northern lights photos. The reality is that your camera sees the aurora borealis better than you will. This is because the camera sees spectrum’s of light and energy that your naked eye can’t. The camera than “translates” that into something you can see.
If you go to Tromso (or anywhere else) expecting to see massive streaks of green in the sky, you may be disappointed. On the first night, there were times with the Northern Lights appeared as white, wispy cloudiness in the sky, yet the camera showed green swirls. This makes northern lights photography more rewarding: you participate in the process of creating the image.
Tips for Selecting Northern Lights Tours
If you decide to book a tour, here are some of the factors to keep in mind when selecting a tour company:
- Pick a tour that matches your interests. Don’t book a photography tour if you aren’t interested in photography. On our northern lights photography tour, there were several people who only had smartphones, one person had a basic point-and-shoot camera, and two people didn’t have a camera at all. They were pretty unhappy and probably wished they’d picked a better option.
- Make sure your guide and driver are experienced. Do your research. No guide can guarantee a northern lights experience, but it is helpful if they are experienced aurora chasers.
- Select a tour that only accepts less than 20 people. Big buses can’t get off the main roads and away from the highway lights. If you really want to see the lights, a northern lights shuttle bus isn’t going be satisfying. If you absolutely must take a Northern Lights coach tour, you can book them here.
- Many tour providers will have thermal outer suits for your use. However you should still dress warmly. You’ll also be more comfortable in your own clothes. See our suggested gear guide below.
- Tour providers always provide snacks – usually hot chocolate or tea and some kind of cookie or biscuit, but can also include sampling some Norwegian culinary delights like reindeer or the ubiqutous sweet, brown Norwegian cheese (gjetost). The local delights can be an acquired taste. If you have dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, etc.) you should let your provider know and also be prepared to bring your own snacks. Also, you’ll likely be chasing the green lady for between 6-8 hours, you may want food.
- Norway northern lights tours are extremely popular and book up far in advance. It is possible to get last minute or day-of tours, however you should book far in advance for the best guides and options. For day-of bookings, check with the Visit Tromso tourist information office in downtown where they have a big board showing availability for tours that day.
Frequently Asked Questions about Seeing the Northern Lights
What Are the Northern Lights?
The northern lights, known scientifically as the Arctic aurora polaris, is a natural astrophysical phenomena. The polar lights occur when super-charge particles are ejected from the sun via solar flares and propelled into the solar system. When these particles enter the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere, they align in a ring-like pattern with the magnetic fields of the polar regions (both North and South Poles). These super-charged particles emit energy that is visible to the naked eye, as well as energy in the invisible light spectrum.
Where Can You See the Northern Lights in Norway?
To see the northern lights, you need to be north—way north. Generally, this means you need to be above the Arctic Circle (66° 34′ N) into an area called the aurora belt. That’s way, way up there.
The further north you go, the better your chances of seeing them. If you’re planning a trip to Norway, that means Tromso or Alta, but certainly no further south than Bodo. That said, in periods of intense auroral activity, the lights have been seen as far south as Bergen or Oslo, but this is very rare. While we were in Norway, the lights were visible in Bergen for the two days prior to our arrival.
When is the Best Time to See Northern Lights in Norway?
The aurora borealis can be seen in Norway from late September to late March. If you’re wondering when to see the northern lights in Norway, the best times are generally November, February, and early March. December and January can be pretty cold, so early or late in the northern lights season offer good visibility and slightly warmer temperatures.
The northern lights can be visible from 6pm to 6am – any time it is dark. From our experience, there were really two waves of aurora lights. Every night there were lights from 9:00-10:00pm. There was also a second wave of lights from 11:45pm-1:00am. The best lights were always around midnight. But, since the lights are unpredictable, every night is different.
Is it Worth it to See the Aurora Borealis?
In a single word: absolutely. It was one of the most remarkable travel experiences we’ve ever had. The northern lights should be on your bucket list.
Northern Lights Photography Tips
If you’re like most travelers, you really want to take your own northern lights photos. Aurora photography isn’t incredibly complicated, but it does rely on some trial and error. Here is what we learned about how to photograph the northern lights.
Equipment and Settings
- Camera. You need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. (Note: If you are looking for a camera, please consult our camera guide). Once you have your camera, take some time learning your camera settings. The time to learn your camera is when it is warm and you have daylight, not when you are out in the dark trying to take pictures of the aurora borealis.
- Lens. In taking northern lights pictures, you want a wide-angle lens. It will allow you capture the most of the landscape and more of the sky.
- Camera Focus and Lens Zoom. How do you know how to focus your camera? The best way to do this is during the day and look for something very, very off in the distance and focus on that. However, most camera lenses has a feature for this. On the side of your lens, look for the infinity symbol (∞) and set your lens to that. Then adjust your focus off of that. From our experience, we would set to infinity and then back off of it just a little bit. Pro-tip: If you tape the lens into place during the day, you won’t have to try to focus during the night.
- Go Manual. Automatic photos are fine during the day or inside, but at night, you need to be able to completely control the camera. Set your camera to manual (usually found on the front of the camera). Next, set your lens to manual (usually on the left side of the lens). If your lens has some kind of image stabilization function, turn it off (if you have this, it is usually next to the “manual” function on the lens).
- Flash. If you’re trying to capture images in the night sky, you don’t want to use your flash. Ensure your flash is turned off.
- Light Sensitivity. Adjust your light sensitivity function on your camera. This is called the ISO setting (back in the day of 35mm film, ISO was the film speed). The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light (and the less light you need to take the picture). Start by setting your ISO to 1600.
- Aperture. The aperture is the size of the opening of the camera, which controls how much light gets in. In northern lights photography, you want the absolute biggest opening possible (which means the lower f-number or f-stop number). The bigger the opening, the faster the image can be taken, the crisper the image, and the more detail that can be captured. Start at the absolute lowest f-stop number you possibly can, which is probably around f-2.8 (although you can also get good pictures at f-4 if the lights are bright).
- Shutter Speed. You want this to be as fast as possible while still absorbing the most amount of light. Since the lights are moving in the sky, the more time, the blur you’ll capture. From our experience, it’s best to start with a shorter shutter speed and then work up to where the images look the best. We started between 5-10 seconds and moved up to around 20 seconds for some shots.
- Tripod. Having a tripod is absolutely required. You cannot take pictures of the polar lights by hand. Any amount of camera movement will cause blurriness in the image, so you need to keep the camera absolutely motionless. (We use a MeFoto tripod.)
- Remote release. You’ll need a way to take the picture where you don’t touch the camera (touching the camera will introduce movement and make the images blurry). We know this sounds unnecessary, but it really is critical. We have a battery-operated remote, which has never really worked properly on our camera. We have a remote with a cord, but the battery drains quickly. So, what we found works the best was using the built-in timer on a 2-second delay. That worked great!
How to Take a Northern Lights Selfie
Want a selfie with the northern lights? Want to show your friends a cool picture of you under the aurora borealis? If so, you should follow all of the photography steps above. When you are ready to take your picture, stand with yourself in the foreground and the northern lights in the background. Have a friend hit the shutter on your camera (assuming you are using the built-in delay function). You need to stand absolutely motionless during the entire exposure time! Once the camera begins the exposure, your friend or needs to flash you very quickly with a flashlight or the flashlight feature on your smartphone. You should only be illuminated for just a second of the overall exposure time. Your image should turn out looking something like this:
How to Take Pictures of Northern Lights with iPhone
It is absolutely possible to take decent smartphone northern lights photos. The basics are the same. You need to use a tripod (such as the KobraTech Smartphone Tripod). You should use your smartphone’s manual settings. Considering using photography apps (such as NorthernLights app or LongExpo Pro) which allow you more control over the camera. Many of these apps allow you to adjust the functions and implement the settings we provide above.
Winter Packing List for Norway and the Northern Lights
The weather can be very unpredictable in the Arctic or Lapland. The closer you are to the coast, the more moderate the temperatures because the jet stream keeps the Norwegian coast rather moderate. However, inland, it can get cold. And at night, it be very cold. On our two nights, both nights were in the 0-15° F (-17 to -9° C). And you’re out in the cold for 6+ hours. You need to dress warm.
When thinking about what to wear in Norway, rather than just a big winter jacket, you should strongly consider dressing in layers. This means (at a minimum) a thermal base layer, a wool middle layer, and a wind-proof outer layer. Most northern lights tour companies provide a heavy, windproof , arctic winter gear outer layer. These will work, but you’ll probably be happier if you have your own clothes, which will fit better.
Here are our recommendations on what to pack for Norway in winter while seeing the northern lights:
- Thermal base layer. We both used a thermal base layer from 32 Degrees Heat (her base layer and his base layer). These kept us warm, despite the frigid temperatures.
- Wool middle layer. Over the thermals, we both wore a lightweight merino wool sweaters. If you’re wondering what to wear in Norway, a wool sweater is practically required.
- Outer layer. On the bottoms, we both wore snow pants (Laura’s snow pants and Lance’s snow pants). On top, Laura wore her Land’s End Squall jacket and Lance wore his ever-present North Face Summit Series L5 men’s jacket. We wanted our own clothes, rather than rely on the arctic winter gear outfits provided by some of the tour companies.
- Socks. A really good pair of socks is absolutely critical. You will be out in the cold for over 6 hours and likely standing in snow much of that time. We can’t stress enough the importance of good socks! We each wore heavy ski socks (her ski socks and his ski socks), which have served us well in previous expeditions.
- Boots. Lance took his Keen Targhee II hiking boots, which worked well. Laura’s boot situation was a disaster. Her feet ended up getting cold and wet. In retrospect, she should have gotten something like the Merrell Polarand 8 boot. Remember, you’ll be outside in the snow for about 6 hours. You want a good waterproof boot!
- Hats. You lose most of your body heat out of your head. So, we took no precautions. We each wore a balaclava, with a wool hat over the top, doubling up. It may seem redundant, but we were thankful we did.
- Gloves. Your fingers will get cold. There’s no way around that. Since we would both be taking pictures, we wanted cut-finger gloves (you can bring out your fingers, essentially making them fingerless…or leave your fingers inside). We found these great gloves. They worked exceptionally well for photography, although the insulation is a little thin and our hands did get cold. We don’t know if there is a better solution, but this did work.
- Headlamp. Technically not a piece of clothing, however, we found a small headlamp to be absolutely invaluable. When photographing the northern lights, you need to be able to see the settings on your camera. Holding a flashlight while juggling the camera gets to be a bit much. A headlamp is the solution! Be sure to get one that has a red light option, which will allow your eyes to adjust much more quickly.
- Yaktrax: Much of the area you are visiting is covered in snow and a fair amount of ice. Even the main street in Tromso is an ice-covered lane much of the year. Consider a pair of Yaktrax or similar such traction devices. We thought it was an unusual recommendation when we heard about it, but we were thankful we had them!
Where to Stay in Tromso
Comfort Hotel Xpress Tromso. The Comfort Hotel Xpress is the budget hotel in the Clarion group. The rooms were warm, clean and comfortable but without frills or amenities. The room was also extremely small. However, for a rather last-minute trip, it fit the bill for us and offered good value for the money. As a bonus, the location was very central (halfway between the TI and Mack’s Brewery). (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here)
Scandic Grand Tromso. The Scandic Grand is another top choice. It is located be very close to the TI and in close proximity to a number of great local restaurants. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here)
Apartment rentals. There are a bunch of apartments and vacation homes for rent in Tromso. Many of them include lots of excellent perks like a rental car, heavy thermal suits, winter boots, etc. If you are looking for more room or something a bit more independent, check out vacation rentals in Tromso. (Check current prices here.)
Where to Eat in Tromso
In addition to being an outdoor paradise, Tromso is a college town. That means there are lots of reasonable, cheap eats to be had throughout the town. Here are a few of our favorites.
Mack’s Beer Hall. This is the tasting room at the world’s northern most brewery: Mack’s Brewery. Mack’s features a broad selection of their own craft beers. It closes early, so makes a good happy hour option. Food options are (sadly) lacking.
Suvi. One thing you’ll learn in Norway is that they love flavorful and spicy food. In Tromso, that means a visit to Suvi (which is diagonally across the street from the Comfort Xpress hotel). Suvi serves amazing pan-Asian cuisine featuring heavily on Vietnamese dishes, but also sushi and Thai-inspired dishes.
Kaia Bar & Restaurant. Located right on the water at Tromso’s marina (and featuring views of the bridge and the cathedral), Kaia is the place for a heavy meal to fuel up before going out northern lights hunting. We ducked in here for burgers and fish and chips before our first night out with the lights.
Northern Lights Kebab. This food cart is open late (like 4:00am late on the weekends), which makes it the perfect spot for a post-northern lights trip refueling (or after a night of hard drinking). Standard kebab fare with friendly employees.
Raketten. The Scandinavians love their hotdogs. And Raketten kiosk is the place in Tromso. Standard dogs plus exotic fare like Reindeer are available. They aren’t open very late so it makes a good lunch spot.
Have you been to Tromso, Norway to see the northern lights? What did you think? Share your experiences in the comments below.