The Northern Lights in Iceland: A Guide
Iceland is a wonderful place to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).
From green to yellow to blue to pink to red to purple, it can be difficult to believe that these beautiful dancing lights are completely natural. They have been captivating people for thousands of years who believed they were anything from the shining armor of the gods, to the happy spirits of the dead.
It’s not hard to see why they inspired these magical stories!
People are drawn to the Northern Lights in Iceland from all over the world. A combination of being situated on the edge of the Arctic Circle and low light pollution creates some of the vital conditions needed to see this extraordinary natural phenomenon.
However, a visit to Iceland does not guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, it is only possible to see the Northern Lights at certain times of the year, in certain conditions.
The longer your trip, the better chance that you have to see them. We recommend a self-drive tour that lasts at least a week to have the best chance of a sighting. And, of course, you won’t be able to see them in the summertime.
The good news is that you don’t need to book onto a guided tour to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Although the guided tours may take you to more isolated corners to enjoy them from, you can see them just as easily by renting a car and driving into the countryside.
It is also possible to see them at certain places in Reykjavik city!
No matter how much you want to see the Aurora Borealis, nothing can guarantee you will get your wish. But thankfully there is a lot that you can do to improve your chances!
If you want to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to optimize your chances for a sighting.
The Best Time To See The Northern Lights In Iceland
The chemical process that we so fondly call the Northern Lights is taking place all year round. However, you can only see the dancing lights between September and April, when the sun has set.
This is because the sky must be dark enough to notice them, and they are completely drowned out by sunlight or too much light pollution in the city.
The reason that you can’t see the Northern Lights in the summertime, is because the sun never really sets. Due to the position near the Arctic Circle, Iceland experiences extremely long hours of light in the summer and equally long hours of darkness in the winter.
In the summertime, this is known as the Midnight Sun, when the light of day only slightly fades into bright dawn for a couple of hours before returning to full splendor. In winter, the tables are turned.
In the North of Iceland, at the height of winter, the country is in total darkness for 22 hours a day. For 2 hours, the sun makes a valiant attempt to break over the horizon, but the faint light cast over the sky could not be described as daylight.
As much as the long hours of darkness can be hard to get used to, it also gives you the chance to admire the breathtaking Northern Lights for a good 6 months of the year.
There is a small chance that you could see the Northern Lights on either side of September and April, but they would not be as intense because the sunlight makes them harder to see.
What Conditions Do You Need To See The Northern Lights
Unfortunately, visiting Iceland between September and April can not guarantee that you will see the Northern Lights.
You will also need the night to be clear, without too many clouds. The Aurora Borealis takes place above the cloud line, so they might be giving the most extraordinary light show, but you just will not see it if the sky is obscured!
It is possible to see the Northern Lights in the larger settlements, including the capital city of Reykjavik. However, light pollution will make it more difficult to see them, and they will always be much more bright and intense out in the countryside.
It’s not just the light pollution of towns that can prevent you from seeing the Aurora. A bright full moon or even a very starry sky can create too much light to see the Northern Lights clearly.
It just depends on how intense the Aurora is, and how bright the sky is!
The night sky is still gorgeous the stars are bright, but it’s not as special as seeing the Aurora of course.
If you are in Iceland at the right time of year, with a clear sky and without any other light to dilute the Aurora, there is still no guarantee that you will see them!
Although these conditions mean that the Aurora would be visible, the Northern Lights aren’t always in the sky to see. The Northern Lights are caused by solar activity. If there is not enough solar activity, then there will be no Aurora!
To understand this a little better, here is some information about what is going on high in the earth’s atmosphere to cause the Northern Lights to manifest.
What Are The Northern Lights?
To put it briefly, The Northern Lights are caused by a solar wind entering the earth’s magnetic field.
As the ionized solar particles enter the magnetic field, electrons are launched into the earth’s atmosphere. These electrons collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen, causing an awful lot of excitement!
The excited gases are full of energy, and as they release this energy back into the high atmosphere, it is visible in the bright colors that we see in the sky. So, we can only see the Northern Lights when there is solar activity going on!
The intensity of solar activity is measured using the planetary KP index (or Aurora Forecast).
This scale goes up to the strongest number of 9. Between KP 1 and 3, the lights will be faint and mostly green. Between 7 and 9, you can expect an enormous solar storm that will light up the entire sky with incredible intensity.
The most common colors you will see are green and yellow, which is caused by electrons colliding with oxygen. The rarer reds, pinks, and blues are released by nitrogen.
Some years are better for seeing the Aurora than other years, it just depends on the solar activity.
So, why can’t we see the Northern Lights everywhere in the world?
You can see the Aurora most strongly at the North or the South Pole.
The reason they are visible here, is because the earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles. In other places, the magnetic field prevents the electrons from entering the atmosphere.
With a bit of force, the solar wind can force its way through the earth’s magnetic field at its weaker points.
But, you can actually see the Aurora in far more countries than you might suspect. As the solar activity gets more intense, you can see the lights from further away, including in the UK and the US. In the rare instance that solar activity reaches a KP index of 7-9, it is possible to see the Aurora in places as far south as California, France, and Northern Spain.
You have a much better chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Scandinavian countries like Iceland because the proximity to the Arctic Circle means that the lights are visible when the KP index is as low as 1-3.
Hearing that a solar wind can force its way through the earth’s protective field can sound a little scary.
You would not want to be caught in a solar storm if you were an astronaut, and an enormous solar flare could potentially destroy very important satellites and technologies which are important for our society to function.
But don’t worry, the Northern Lights don’t pose any health risks!
Are The Northern Lights Dangerous?
The Northern Lights themselves do not pose any risk to human life.
Luckily for us, the earth’s magnetic atmosphere protects us from any harmful effects. It’s a bit like being sheltered by an enormous superhero force field, which prevents both solar flares and wandering comets from doing us any harm.
Very strong solar storms do pose a risk to technology, which could in turn be a danger to people.
Occasionally, our cities experience blackouts due to solar activities. When hospitals are affected by this, it can be concerning.
Power is also essential for communications, processing food and cleaning drinking water. Luckily, we have lots of back up generators to keep life support systems running safely, but a blackout that lasted long enough would be a risk to human life.
Thanks to advanced prediction systems, it is unlikely that a solar storm would sneak up on us without prior warning.
Keeping safe when hunting the Northern Lights
Although the Northern Lights themselves are not dangerous, it’s still important to keep safe if you want to go and find them.
Here are some tips for keeping safe whilst hunting for the Northern Lights:
As exciting as it might be to finally see the Northern Lights, make sure you keep your eyes safely on the road!
When you find a safe and suitable place to pull over, come to a complete stop before you start admiring, or taking photos of the Aurora! This may seem obvious, but people die every year when driving to search for the Northern Lights.
In their excitement, people stop thinking about driving and often end up in the middle of the 2 way Ring Road. With many sharp turns in the road, this can lead to a head-on collision.
Even if you are concentrating on the road ahead, driving in the Icelandic Winter can pose a real challenge if you are not used to the conditions. You need to take it slowly, aware that snow and ice is frequently on the road.
Don’t head out if the driving conditions are unsafe. You can double-check live conditions online.
You should also bring lots of warm layers, blankets, lights, and food supplies in the back of your car in case of a breakdown. On top of this, a shovel to help dig you out of any snow and a high visibility jacket to make you more visible to other cars is essential.
It’s particularly challenging to drive in Iceland between November and March, so you should definitely book a 4 wheel drive at this time.If you don’t feel confident driving in the Icelandic winter, then you could look into joining a guided tour instead.
For more information about keeping safe on the road, you can check out our article about traveling safely in Iceland.
The Icelandic winters are probably going to be much colder and more intense than you are used to back home.
If you do head out to find the Northern Lights, make sure you wear lots of warm layers and cozy waterproof boots with a good grip. You should also bring a flask of hot drink if possible, and don’t stay outside for too long if you are getting cold.
Not only will this make the experience much more comfortable so you can actually enjoy yourself when the Aurora appears, but it will also help protect you from the threat of hypothermia.
Keep Your Phone Well Charged
You may not be aware that mobile telephones run out of battery much more quickly in cold conditions.
Make sure you keep it well charged up in case you do need to call for help.
If you get into trouble you can call the European Emergency Number at 112, who will be able to speak English. For even more safety tips about visiting Iceland, Safe Travel is a very helpful resource.
The Best Places To See The Northern Lights In Iceland
The southeast of Iceland is the most popular place to visit for tourists in Iceland. Although there are many wonderful places to explore in this region, it is not necessarily the best place to find the Northern Lights.
In the Westfjords and the North of Iceland, you will find less light pollution due to the sparse population. The skies are also clearer here than in the South, with less cloud cover and longer hours of darkness.
An exception to this is Akureyri, the capital of the North. The light pollution will interfere with the Northern Lights here, so it’s a good idea to drive a little way out of the city.
In the depths of winter, the North of Iceland can experience a night that lasts for 22 hours! As depressing as this might feel, it also means your chances are much higher to see the lights.
However, it is also possible to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik, you just need to know where to go!
The Best Place to See The Northern Lights in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is definitely not the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. However, if you are lucky, you will be able to catch a glimpse of the Aurora from the capital.
There are a few places in the city where you will be able to see the Northern Lights more clearly, such as Grotta Lighthouse, Laugardalur, or Oskjuhlid Forest.
Grotta Lighthouse is a very pretty, white lighthouse at the edge of Reykjavik.
It is built on a peninsula at the most North-Western point of the capital city, and offers lovely views of the ocean.
The lighthouse is about a 10-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik, or about an hour’s walk. The walk along the coast is very pleasant, and you will see lots of different sea birds along the way.
You could also take a taxi or a bus to get there (you’ll want the number 11 bus!) Buses in Iceland are cheap, at about $3.50 for a single journey, whilst taxis are quite expensive.
Unfortunately, you can’t normally go inside the lighthouse on arrival, but it’s still a lovely place to visit, and the conditions are better here for seeing the Aurora than in the city center.
Insider Tip: In June, the area is closed off to protect the nesting birds – but this won’t be a problem for people hunting for the Northern Lights!
Laugardalur City Park
Laugardalur City Park is a large park in the middle of Reykjavik.
It has a geothermal swimming pool, botanical garden, sports center and petting zoo. Up until the 1930s, the women of Reykjavik came to the hot spring here to wash their clothes, but it’s very unlikely you will see anyone doing their laundry in the swimming pool now!
Because the park is so big, the light pollution is a little fainter here, and the Northern Lights will appear more brightly in the sky.
Oskjuhlid is a young forest, planted in the 1950s as a recreational space for the local residents. There are lots of footpaths for you to enjoy walking or running through the 200,000 trees.
The forest sits between the famous Perlan building and the thermal beach, so there’s plenty to do whilst you are there.
What’s more, it is a lovely place to enjoy the Northern Lights!
Taking A Guided Tour to See the Northern Lights
It is not necessary to book a guided tour to see the Northern Lights.
For more independence during your stay, you can easily see the aurora on a self-drive tour. For the best chance to get a glimpse of the Aurora, it’s a good idea to book a minimum self-drive tour length of 7-days.
However, driving in Iceland can be challenging if you’re not used to it, especially in the wintertime. If you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself, but would like to get out of the city to find the Aurora, a guided tour can be a great solution.
Your guides will be very experienced at driving on the local roads, and will be able to take you to some particularly lovely spots to enjoy the Northern Lights.
Insider Tip: We recommend that you book any guided tours at the beginning of your trip. If you don’t see the Aurora, most tour companies will be happy to let you try a second tour for free.
Taking a Boat Tour to See the Northern Lights
Another option is to take a boat tour to see the Aurora.
In the summer, the boat tour companies are busy taking tourists to see the local whales and dolphins. In winter, the whales head south to enjoy the warmer waters with their new babies, so you won’t be able to see them.
However, the enterprising sailors thought of a wonderful way to extend their business into the winter months. They take visitors out to view the Northern lights from the ocean.
Just like with the tours on land, most companies will offer you a second chance to see the lights for free if you don’t find any on the first go.
Even if you don’t see the lights, you can still enjoy the peaceful sound of gently lapping water beneath the stars.
Best Accommodation To See The Northern Lights
It is possible to see the Northern Lights from pretty much any accommodation in Iceland, even in the capital city if the KP index is high enough.
However, the further you are from the larger settlements, the better your chances are going to be, because you won’t have light pollution interfering with the experience.
Camping is a great way to see the Northern Lights, because you automatically spend a lot more time outdoors at the campsite, so you won’t accidentally miss the lights whilst you’re snuggled up on the sofa. However, Icelandic winters are very cold, so camping may not interest you at this time!
Some of the campsites are closed in the coldest winter months, but Skafatfell campground does stay open all year.
If you’re looking for more comfort than a roll mat, you can see the Northern Lights from luxurious hotels as well! Many hotels in Iceland have special terraces built on the roof especially so you can enjoy the Aurora.
Some of these viewing decks even have hot tubs, so you can relax in the hot water whilst enjoying the show!
At the bigger hotels, you can also expect special services to help you to catch the Aurora during your stay. For example, some accommodations will offer a wake-up service if the Northern Lights come out, or they can let you know whilst you are eating your dinner and keep your meal hot for you whilst you dash outside!
You shouldn’t expect a wake-up call in a small family guest house where your hosts need to sleep, but large hotels with a night steward are usually more than happy to call up to your room to tell you when to head outside.
It doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you are out of the major cities, it will be easy to see the Northern Lights from your accommodation when the conditions are right.
How to take the best photos of the Northern Lights
In the 21st century, it seems like taking a good photo is more important than the experience!
We encourage you to take some time to really enjoy and admire the aurora before you start watching them through your camera screen!
After taking a moment to pause and be present, it’s time to get out your camera and snap some shots of the dancing light display. A tripod is extremely helpful when taking photos of the Northern Lights to ensure a clear image. It’s also a good idea to delay the shutter for a few seconds after you hit the shutter button.
Learn More About the Aurora Borealis
If you would live to learn more about the Aurora Borealis, you can head to the Northern Lights Center, also known as Aurora Reykjavik.
This interactive museum is located in the capital city, and has lots of interesting exhibits to give you more information about the Northern Lights.
Some of the best sightings captured on camera are displayed inside their theatre, and you will also get a glimpse into some of the fascinating folklore about the Aurora.
See You Soon!
We hope you enjoyed this article about the Northern Lights!
For more helpful information about traveling in Iceland, don’t hesitate to check out our other articles and videos.
You can also book a self-drive tour through our website, to get you on the road and hunting for the Northern Lights as soon as possible!