Where are the northern lights? That’s the question. The answer, of course, is up north and in the sky. Pretty simple, really. But we’re guessing you want a few more details than that? Fine. You’ve twisted our arm. Let’s get into the specifics. Here’s a guide to where you can see the northern lights around the world, why these spots are so vibrant with the lights and when the best time is to go out stargazing.
Where are the Northern Lights?
The northern lights can be seen in the skies above northern Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, northern Canada, Alaska and the western-north of Russia. So it’s safe to say northern lights holidays can take you all over. When the geomagnetic activity is particularly high (more on what that actually means in the next section), you can also sometimes see the northern lights further south, in areas from central and southern Scandinavia, to Scotland and northern USA.
Why are the Northern Lights Only Visible in Certain Locations?
The northern lights circle the world in what is known as the “aurora oval” – an oval centred on the North Magnetic Pole of the Earth (which is different to the North Geographical Pole btw). The northern lights are normally strongest directly under the aurora oval. The places previously listed – Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, northern Canada, Alaska and the western-north of Russia – all sit under the aurora oval, and so that’s why you have the best chance of spotting the northern lights in those particular locations.
Solar wind, which affects the temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere (magnetic fields), can cause a geomagnetic or solar storm and change the location of the aurora oval and so alter exactly where you can see the lights. This is what we meant when we referred to “geomagnetic activity” in the previous section. When this activity is particularly high, the aurora oval can extend further south, to those other countries, like the USA and Scotland.
There are numerous websites which track the movement of the northern lights/aurora borealis (lights in the northern hemisphere) and southern lights/aurora australis (lights in the southern hemisphere). Have a look at Aurora-Servie.eu for a good example of a tracking website for the northern lights which shows the full aurora oval.
When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
As with any natural phenomenon, it’s important to know that even if you go to the right country, there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to see the northern lights. There is no one spot where the northern lights are constant – which when you think of it, is probably a good thing. The spot would be like Disneyland. But you can certainly maximise your chances with a bit of research.
Visiting a spot within the aurora oval between the equinoxes of September and March will give you the best possible chance of seeing the northern lights. The winter months are better than the summer months because to see the lights, you need dark skies. So from April until the end of August, your chances of seeing the northern lights are significantly lower. That said, the lights tend to be at their peak on the equinoxes themselves – meaning the best chances of a sighting are actually in September and March.
Timewise, once it’s dark, you’ve got a chance of a seeing the lights. The best time slot is typically 10-11pm. Although, during the polar night in arctic regions, when the sun doesn’t rise for up to three months, it’s possible to see aurora borealis at any point during the day. Remember though, if it’s a cloudy night you won’t be able to see the northern lights in the sky – and the less light pollution up in the air the better too. Equally, a full moon will make the sky lighter, but usually not enough to make a significant different.
5 Stunning Spots to See the Northern Lights
If you are going to hunt down the northern lights, then why not make a proper adventure out of it? Here are some of the most beautiful spots in the world to watch the aurora borealis…
1. From a boat in the middle of a Norwegian Fjord
If you’ve got a bucket list, then the chances are that the aurora borealis are on that bucket list. There’s a good chance they’re snuggling up to the fjords of Norway at the top of that list, too. For good reason. Both are remarkable wonders of nature quite unlike any other in the world. Now, if you look at a fjords map, you’ll see most fjords are on the west coast of Norway, but there are also some in the arctic north. So why not try and combine both the northern lights and the Norwegian fjords in one adventure?
We’ve got a whole article on spotting the northern lights at the Norwegian fjords, but here’s the long and short of it. Tromsø is known as the “capital of the Arctic”, with easy access to some of the most spectacular fjords in the world, and from September to March, our sail, hike and lights trip has an 88% success rate of spotting the northern lights in the skies of northern Norway.
2. Spot the Northern Lights in the Shetland Winter
Shetland is the furthest north of any location in Scotland. That makes it closer to the north pole than any other place in the UK, which means it’s the best place in Britain for aurora viewing. Of course, the chances of a northern lights spotting here aren’t quite what they are in northern Scandinavia. But, we thought we’d highlight it since it’s such a different environment (in terms of both scenery and culture) to most places you can see the northern lights. And if you keep an eye on forecasting apps and get lucky with clouds, you could expect to see the lights a few times during the winter period.
Either way, there are worse places to visit. Shetland is famed for singing seals, an UNESCO Global Geopark and beaches as beautiful and remote as you’ll find in the UK. Wild camping laws in Scotland mean you could pitch a tent on one of those beaches and plant yourself in the wilderness, while you get in the aurora zone and wait for the aurora borealis. Or go for a dram or two at a local pub, have a haggis dinner, then head for a midnight hike under the dark skies.
3. Go Hut to Hut on Nordic Skis through Arctic Finland
If it’s remote that you’re looking for, then this is about as remote as you can get. Clip into a pair of Nordic skis and prepare for six days of ski travel off the beaten track, skiing through the Käsivarsi wilderness. 2250 square kilometres with no inhabitants. Just you. Your skis. Your mates. The mountain hut. A whole lot of scenery – from frozen waterfalls to untouched powder and icy, wind-bent trees… And with any luck, you'll be viewing the northern lights up above.
4. Watch the lights in stunning Alaska
If you’re looking for a far flung adventure, then head to Denali National Park – home to the world famous Denali, the highest mountain in North America at 6190m. There’s no light pollution here. There are a whole lot of incredibly high mountains. And it’s only a three hour drive from Fairbanks, a city in Alaska where you can base yourself from. The aurora are as vivid and regular as anywhere on Earth. Just make sure a moose doesn’t steal your camera while you’re stargazing.
5. Combine Dog Sledding and Aurora Camping
If you’re an animal lover, then another Tromsø-based adventure that might be more up your alleyway is a dog sledding expedition with wild camping under the northern lights at night.
You’ll get to play with over 300 huskies. Yes. Over 300. Including puppies. And you’ll probably meet some reindeer too. Then it’s off to camp in a warm Sami tent, a sort of large teepee type structure. With any luck, you’ll get to see the northern lights dance around the night sky before bedtime.
Where are the northern lights: Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, northern Canada, Alaska, the western north of Russia, and sometimes Scotland and the USA.
When is the best time to see the northern lights? September-March.
Inspired to see the northern lights? Explore our full range of adventure holidays in Norway here.