‘Chasing’ the Northern Lights.

Parties and large gatherings generally confuse me. Anything that requires me to divide my attention between more than two people at the same time or where I’m required to make any kinds of small talks makes me nervous. This is why I normally retreat to the shadow of a bar the moment I get there, or speak to the same person whom I’m comfortable with for the next three hours and refuse to move my legs to speak to someone else across the room just in case I bump into a person that I have to make small talks with on the way there. It’s worked well for me so far and I think I have a mutual unspoken understanding with fellow party-goers whereby I normally ignore most people and they do me and that is the start of a beautiful friendship.

So it surprised me beyond words when, a week or so ago in the bar, people started approaching me to speak to me. I found out later that it was mainly driven by two things: my last blog post about the series of Murphy’s law happenings in December (thank you for all the messages, comments and concerns by the way. I did not expect it to cause quite a stir since I feel perfectly fine most of the time, but I am still very touched by it all); and the Northern Lights.

Until then, I thought that I was the only weirdo who wanted to see the Northern Lights so badly. I mean, someone even called me ‘crazy woman’ in my face for going even further north from Denmark to Norway during the winter when most others were travelling south in search for more warmth and the sun (I take being coined a crazy woman as a compliment by the way). But from my conversation with people and the reactions to my Northern Lights pictures, it turned out that a lot of people did want to see them, but I guess was the only weirdo who was crazy enough among my class mates to actually do it.

And since I seem to have reignited the sparks in some people to tick this off from their bucket list, I thought I would share some tips from my trip to Tromsø which I believe would be helpful in planning for Northern Lights trips (especially at the last minute).

Getting to Tromsø is not hard, considering it’s at the Arctic.
Tromsø is located in Norway (albeit a very northern part of it). This means that as long as you can get yourself to Oslo or other major cities in the Nordic countries, you will be able to find flight connections there, thanks to SAS and the more affordable Norwegian Airlines. I live in Aarhus, Denmark (a rather inaccessible city to say the least), and in order to get to Tromsø, I had to take a flight to Copenhagen, then to Oslo before finally landing at Tromsø. It was pretty straightforward, especially considering how far north Tromsø is and how Aarhus has the smallest international airport I have ever seen in my years of travelling.

Tromsø is an easy city to navigate and extremely beautiful.

Tromsø is a small city, and the airport is very accessible from the city centre. There is a direct public bus that takes you right to the city centre and to the biggest shopping mall in the city. The city centre is very easy to navigate (and this is coming from someone with a horrible sense of direction), and you can pretty much walk to all the main attractions.

Plus, the city is beautiful, both during the day (though the sun never rose during the three days we were there) and at night.

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And if you are lucky, some random Tromsø guy would approach you and teach you how to fish while you were admiring the view.

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Be prepared to spend a few nights there.
We saw the Northern Lights after our second try and people have been calling us extremely lucky. Apparently some people waited for a whole week and still did not get to see anything.

The thing about the Northern Lights is that there can be no guarantee for you to see it. We have been preached by the tour companies and the tourism websites that there are 3 necessary conditions for you to see the Northern Lights: the sky must be clear, there must not be any light pollution, and the Northern Lights itself must be active. This means that you could end up with a really cloudy day, and you could spend the whole night chasing for a clear sky and when you found an opening among the clouds, you could see all the beautiful stars twinkling at you but no Northern Lights in sight because it was not active.

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Clear sky + minimal light pollution but no Northern Lights on our first attempt. To be fair, the view was still gorgeous.

So you would have to come back the next day on a different tour and hope that all these things are aligned. I have got to be honest with you – the uncertainties can be nerve-wrecking so always be prepared for the worst!

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This was the only Northern Lights we saw on our first attempt. It lasted for about 2 minutes.

Taking the Northern Lights tour is highly recommended.
As most things I do in my life, I do it at the last minute and without much preparation.  The naive me thought that you could simply look up at the sky from the comfort of your balcony and spot the beautiful aurora borealis. It could technically happen and it did happen to us, but it is of course not the case most of the time. It was only at the airport on my way from Oslo to Tromsø that I realised most people would have to drive out of the city for about an hour (sometimes even to the Swedish or Finnish borders) to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. I then frantically searched for tour companies that would still be available. Good thing for me, there were a lot of tours available even at the last minute on the Tromsø tourism website. I would highly recommend taking the trips with them as it is a pretty far drive out and you would have to park in the middle of nowhere where all you could see was darkness and snow.

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Being able to sit by the fire while waiting for the sky to clear was pretty useful too.

Prices of the tours vary greatly – some even going as much as a few thousand NOK per person! I don’t think it is necessary to spend on the really expensive tours – the basic ones would do (below NOK 1,000) if your main aim is to see the Lights. What I found most useful from them were the transport service, the hot drink and of course it would be a bonus if they provide you with special warm clothing and the tripod as well. Photo service from the trip was not necessary for me since ours turned out pretty horrendous anyway. One important note is to remember to check out their reviews on Trip Advisor and other independent websites to verify your choice of tours.

As a point of reference, the two tours that we took were:

  1. Northern Lights Chase with Norwegian Charm by Tromsø Friluftsenter
    This was a relatively small tour of less than 20 people, and they claimed to be one of the first few in the business. We got really personalised attention from the guide Trine, and tripods and warm clothes were provided, which was a big plus. They owned a base camp somewhere where we just sat by the fire while waiting for the clouds to clear although eventually we were driving around through the islands in search of a clear sky. What was cool was that they were also in touch with other tour companies in the area where they updated each other whenever they found an opening in the sky. Although eventually the night was somewhat of a ‘failure’ in terms of chasing the lights (since it was simply not active), I would highly recommend them since they really did their best for us to see the lights. They also run a whale-watching tour, which we enjoyed very much (more about this in the next post).
  2. Northern Lights Chase by Northern Lights Tromsø
    We booked this tour since this was one of the cheapest available options at the very last minute (aka right the night before). It was a big group that could go up to 60 or something (our big tour bus was full and overbooked). They only had 2 tripods to go around and did not provide any warm clothing. But it was with them that we saw the lights. Definitely less personalised and very basic, but it did what it was supposed to do. The owner was really nice though since he offered to send us home to Hamna for free since he lived in the area. They also provided pictures for each of the tour participant, though I wouldn’t say I’m very happy with how they turned out. I would recommend them, if you are fully geared with your winter jackets and tripods. 

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Book your accommodation at the city centre.

I booked for an Airbnb accommodation at Hamna, which was far away from the city centre. My rationale was that since it was slightly further away from the city, we could probably see the Northern Lights from the flat (it was even advertised in our Airbnb listing). But this was probably not the wisest thing to do if you wanted to take the Northern Lights tour since most of them departed from one of the hotels in the city centre. And if you decided to stay in Hamna, coming back after the Northern Lights tour would be a major nightmare since the only bus connecting Hamna to the city centre would have stopped running by then (most tours finish after midnight). We had to pay an extra of NOK 100 per person after our first tour, which was a considerable amount since the tour itself was already pretty pricey.

I am in no way putting down Hamna though – it is a beautiful area and on the way to the city centre, you would pass by the best-looking bus stop in the city.

Plus, we did see the Northern Lights from the comfort of our flat in the end.

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The Lights we saw from our Airbnb flat.

And we had this view right at our doorstep.

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It is also close to the airport, which is a big plus. But if you have only a limited time in Tromsø, then I would strongly suggest to stay at the city centre.

Bring a tripod and a good camera.

A good camera (with manual settings) is absolutely essential to capture the Northern Lights. Don’t even think about capturing anything with your phone cameras – it is just not going to happen! And having a tripod would definitely be necessary since not all tours provided one for the participants. Since you would have to leave the shutter open for a few seconds to capture the lights and surroundings, your hands will not be stable enough to capture anything clearly.

Our first tour actually provided us with a tripod each since it was a small group of about 12 people, but we did not get to see much of the Northern Lights. On our second attempt, we went for a bigger tour bus, but as a result there were not enough tripods to go around since they only provided 2 for 40 people. In the end we improvised by using the rearview mirror of a car as a stabiliser and later on stacking our bags together, putting our camera on top and using the self timer for maximum stability. And it worked!

Well kind of, after some practice. 😉

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It is well worth it.

You will be cold, you will be nervous, you will be broke from the tours (we pretty much had bread and smoked salmon from the supermarket throughout our stay to save money), your fingers will hurt from snapping the pictures and you might come home empty handed. But when you do see the Lights, no words can describe how magical it feels. So I will just let the pictures do the talking. 🙂

(All of these were taken with the makeshift tripod method explained earlier).

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Hope this post has been useful. Happy ‘chasing’!

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7 thoughts on “‘Chasing’ the Northern Lights.

  1. Such great tips, Serla! Seeing the Northern Lights is also still at the very top of my list, so I found this article to be very useful – thank you! And the pictures are just lovely. Keep up the good work!

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