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(Trying to) See the Northern Lights

by Leah Eades on December 19, 2014

When I went to Iceland a few weeks ago, I knew what I wanted to see most of all. Sure, there was Reykjavik and glaciers and geysers and Icelandic horses – but what I really wanted was to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

Spoiler alert: I wasn’t successful.

On the bright side though, I did pick up some valuable Northern Lights-chasing tips in the process. The first one being:

Lesson 1: If Nature isn’t on your side, it ain’t gonna happen

That was the problem on my trip. You can go to a place with absolutely no light pollution, at the right time of year, on a night when the aurora forecast is good, and even then something as simple as cloud cover can scupper your chances. The fact is that, even if all the forces are lining up in your favour and the chances look good, seeing the Northern Lights is never guaranteed. Accept that at the start of your trip and don’t get your hopes up too high to avoid going home disappointed.

That said, this lack of guarantee comes with a silver lining: if you sign up for a Northern Lights tour and fail to see the Northern Lights one night, then you’re allowed to go again (and again… and again… and again…) until you do! Keeping this in mind:

Lesson 2: Maximize your chances (and your budget)

Generally speaking, Northern Lights tours aren’t cheap. If you’re in the area for a week, it makes no financial sense to book onto a tour on your last night and lay all your eggs in one basket, when you could book a tour on the first night, and then try again every night thereafter until you are successful for no additional cost.

Of course, if you really want to save pennies there is always another option:

Lesson 3: You can always try going it alone

If you have access to a car, then you may wish to consider driving out into the countryside and chasing the Lights on your own. This saves you the cost of a tour, and potentially gives you the chance to see the Lights without 40 other people (and a coach) blocking your view. Just do some online research or ask the locals where the best spots are beforehand.

Me and my friend tried this on our first night, with 24 hours of car hire and the hope that we might avoid having to shell out for a tour. Which brings me to my fourth lesson:

Lesson 4: Be prepared

It’s night. You’re not far from the Arctic Circle. It goes without saying: FOR GOD’S SAKE WRAP UP WARM. If you’re heading out on a tour, consider one which dispenses hot food or drinks halfway through. It really helps.

In addition, it you’re driving off on your own, have the necessary equipment with you in case your car breaks down or you get lost. Don’t do what we did AKA listen to music with the car heater turned up high until the battery suddenly dies and you find yourself in the pitch black, unable to move, in the middle of nowhere, with the bloody window open because you were looking out of it when the car died. FYI, if this does happen, call your car rental company. If they won’t help (DAMN YOU THRIFTY CARS) then the police are surprisingly helpful. The policeman we spoke with gave us the number for a taxi driver who drove out and gave us a jumpstart – apparently, this happens more than you’d think.

So no, I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights on this trip. It was a shame, but hey, c’est la vie. Which brings me to the fifth and final lesson:

Lesson 5: Don’t sweat the small stuff

If you get to see the Northern Lights – great! What an experience! Something to tick off the bucket list. Now go off and re-read His Dark Materials with newfound insight and wisdom.

If you don’t get to see the Northern Lights though, don’t let it ruin your trip. They’re not going anywhere, and just because you haven’t seen them this time doesn’t mean you never will. Speaking personally, I was very pleased to discover that the Northern Lights tour I signed up for is valid for three whole years – meaning that I can go back to Iceland in 2017 and try my luck again at no extra cost. Well, it would be a pity to waste it… better pencil it into my diary!

Have you tried to see the Northern Lights? Did you have better luck than I did? Share your tips and experiences below.

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