There are few things more magical than hunting down the Northern Lights in Iceland… when you’re successful!
But for every great story heard from a friend who witnessed the green and pink dancing curtains 3 nights in a row, there’s the misery tale from another friend who was driven around in a big bus night after night searching out a moment of clear skies in an otherwise wet, windy and cloudy night. With nothing to show for it other than a dent in their bank balance and some numb toes.
So I’ve decided to create this month’s blog post as a kind of, ‘how to avoid disappointment’ when hunting for the Northern Lights in Iceland.
The best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland (being dark is just one factor)
The short version is, if it’s dark there’s a chance! Effectively once the midnight sun bows its head around mid August then it’s possible. I personally saw my first dancing curtain on the 30th of August with clients this year. A few years ago Reykjavik street lights were turned off because the Northern Lights were so strong… on the 16th of August. Statistically you are more likely to see the nothern lights close to the equinox than to the solstice i.e. September/October and March/April. This is the time of the year when the day and night are exactly equal. So forcing yourself to fly to Iceland at the darkest and coldest time of the year in December/ January is not strictly speaking necessary.
Spotting the Northern Lights during the Equinox months (March/April and September/October)
The irony is that despite this being the best time to see the Northern Lights they are also some of the quietest times of year to visit Iceland too. Many tourists opt for the warm summer months under the midnight sun or ice cave season in the middle of winter. Both periods have their merits. But if we’re talking about Northern Lights spotting opportunities alone then I have to side with the shoulder months. The weather tends to be nicer during these months than deep winter (don’t quote me on that though, Iceland’s weather doesn’t play by the rules). This means you’re slightly more likely to see stars in the sky and hence the Northern Lights. A side benefit is that hotel rooms are often cheaper too, especially in October and April.
Tours of the Northern Lights in the winter months in Iceland (November to March)
With all of the above aside it’s still a fairly obvious statement to suggest that with more night time hours there’s a better chance to see the Northern Lights. Although statistically you might be more likely to see them in the shoulder months, there is no chance you will see them early enough in the evening to enjoy dinner at the same time. In the darker months, from November to March you can!
On the 21st of December there’s only 4 hours of direct sunlight in Iceland. That’s a whole lot of nighttime to explore. Running daytime activities for my adventure company in these months becomes more difficult as we’re trying to squeeze in a glacier hike, sneak behind waterfalls and walk along deep gorges in a limited time frame.
This year alone I’ve had 4 nights in a row with a dancing curtain of green, pink and purple. Sadly followed by 10 days in a row of clouds, rain and wind.
But the pay off is that you might get to spend those few hours basking in an unfathomably low sun creating ‘the golden hour’ for the entire day. Then by the time you get to your hotel around 6pm you might have already stopped half a dozen times to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the night sky.
Also, many of the hotels in the more secluded areas of the country will announce the Northern Lights at dinner time. You don’t know hysteria until you hear a hotel manager announce, “ladies and gentlemen, the Northern Lights have appeared outside” just after starters are served. Seeing people knocking down chairs and forgetting their scrumptious local dinners in a mad dash to get outside into the crisp winter air is almost as memorable as the Northern Lights themselves.
The likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland (no sugar-coating)
You may read anything from; ‘every night there’s a chance’, to 1 in 3, to 1 in 10, to ‘it’s very rare’. All are arguably correct.
The reason for this disparity in estimation is two fold.
Firstly, there’s no such thing as 2 years in a row being the same. The sun goes through a 22 year cycle that affects the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights. The polarity of the sun changes every 11 years (North becomes South) which affects the chances of sunspots and coronal holes sending out an increased level of electrically charged particles to the earth.
The science of the Northern Lights is an entirely separate blog post in itself so I will stop here on that note. The short version is we are currently going through a ‘low activity’ period with the next big wave coming around 2026. I will delve deeper into this subject in another blog post.
Trust me, if you find a company claiming to be better at hunting for the Northern Lights than others, beware. We’re all searching the same night sky.
Secondly, ‘seeing the Northern Lights’ can be quite a subjective thing too. There are many clear nights when the naked eye sees close to nothing, other than stars. Whereas your camera, if set up properly, can capture a bright ribbon of green. Some will say this is a successful night. Others won’t.
Based on the times I’ve been out with customers hunting the Northern Lights I would cautiously claim 1 in 5 is a better estimate. Though I do like to look with my eyes more than through a lens.
This year alone I’ve had 4 nights in a row with a dancing curtain of green, pink and purple. Sadly followed by 10 days in a row of clouds, rain and wind. That’s not a great success rate. This is why my company refuse to run stand-alone Northern Lights tours. And trust me, if you find a company claiming to be better at hunting for the Northern Lights than others, beware. We’re all searching the same night sky. Some might drive further and some might know more, but if the sun isn’t sending us enough electrically charged particles then we are all left disappointed.
How to avoid disappointment when hunting the Northern Lights (the only real way)
You were possibly expecting an overarching answer with a 10 step, how to avoid disappointment plan. Or perhaps doing a certain dance to the gods of Aurora Borealis. I do intend to write a separate blog post next month on how to predict the Northern Lights effectively and the science behind them. But avoiding disappointment is a different thing entirely.
Today’s advice brought to you by a seasoned guide in Iceland has only two points:
1. Focus on the things you can change. Not the things you can’t. Notably, your location.
Pouring over weather reports prior to coming and solar forecasts is fun (for geeks like me) but it won’t increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights once you’ve arrived. All you can affect is your location. Plain and simple.
Instead of agonising over the weather predictions, instead spend time researching alternative accessible locations outside of Reykjavik (capital of Iceland). Too often people will email us saying they’ve already booked their accommodation for their entire trip. Then all that’s left is to join nightly excursions from the city. These nightly trips can be fruitless, expensive and tiring.
If you haven’t already decided to make Reykjavik your base then perhaps consider finding cute secluded guest houses in the middle of nowhere, out of the city. Many people opt to overnight in Hveragerdi, Husafell or Hvollsvollur. These are small towns with local amenities not too far away from Reykjavik that have plenty of open space to avoid any annoying street lights or tall buildings.
If you are stuck in Reykjavik, don’t fret too much though. Being under street lights and tall buildings is limiting for sure. But take a quick walk down to the harbour area and you have a vast area of open sky unobstructed by buildings or street lights. I’ve seen some great Northern Lights in Reykjavik. I promise.
2. Join a multi-day tour that does other things other than hunting the Northern Lights.
I’m a little biased on this one as my company refuses to run stand-alone Northern Lights trips. What I will say though is that if you book a 2, 3 or 4 day trip that has fun activities throughout the day such as discovering ice caves, walking on glaciers, dining in local restaurants, bathing in natural hot pools and strolling along black beaches littered with ice bergs then by the time you reach your hidden hotel in the middle of nowhere you will not be disappointed by the trip regardless of the solar activity.
The best part of the locations we choose is their seclusion. In these places it can be as simple as walking out your front door to an open sky with nothing but the stars to light your way. Lilja Guest House in the South East or Hotel VOS in the South of Iceland are two of my favourite places for this. Turn off your lights in your room and you can spot the Northern Lights right from your room window in warmth and comfort.
I hope this helps you with creating the perfect balance between enjoying everything Iceland has to offer and hunting for the Northern Lights. Over the Northern Lights season I will delve deeper into the science behind this natural wonder and how to dissect the forecasts.
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.