Chasing the Northern Lights: Tips and Insights from a Pro

Northern Lights Village Saariselkä (Photo by Markku Inkila)
Northern Lights Village Saariselkä (Photo by Markku Inkila)

Amy Hope Shares Insights in the Spectacle of the Northern Lights

By Chin Leh-Liang
Senior Writer

Thanks to a recent solar storm, the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Light, has become more widespread and visible in many locations, some even beyond the auroral zone. This spectacular phenomenon has led to a surge in Aurora hunting.

Amy Hope, the Managing Director of The Aurora Zone, shares her Aurora hunting experiences and the mysteries of the Northern Lights in our recent conversation.

Amy Hope, the Managing Director of The Aurora Zone,
Amy Hope, the Managing Director of The Aurora Zone

Q.  Tell us about yourself and what sparked your interest with Aurora Borealis?

Growing up, downhill skiing with my family was all I knew about winter activity. But since I started working at The Aurora Zone, Lapland, a truly one-of-a-kind destination,  has opened my eyes to a magical world of the Northern Lights.

Over the last 15 years, I have been fortunate enough to see several amazing Northern Lights in Lapland, and I have tried almost every winter activity imaginable.

One incredible Northern Lights I will never forget was during the Wilderness Hotel Muotka Northern Lights Adventure trip. While dining with travel professionals, the hotel owner, Jouko, suddenly rushed back in, announcing a faint Aurora he had spotted in the sky.

We all shot up out of our seats, grabbing coats and pulling on winter boots to rush outside. We bolted past the chef, who was just about to serve dessert. However, the table was already empty – the Aurora waits for no one! The Aurora’s intensity continued to grow, and eventually, they brought dessert out to us in the hotel yard as we watched the Aurora light up the entire sky. The best Crème Brûlée I ever had to this day!

Another unforgettable moment came on our Spitsbergen trip. We were leaving Camp Barentz after a fun evening, a little disappointed about missing the lights. But guess what? As we were about to leave, our driver spotted them! We hopped out of the minibus. Within 30 seconds, the entire sky erupted in a dazzling display of colors– not only green, but also red, and even pink.

But the temperature plummeted to a brutal -37°C! Having come from a cozy wilderness camp with a roaring fire, the sudden drop was a jolt to the system. Thankfully, the incredible light only lasted about 10 minutes. By then, the night was silent again, with only the stars twinkling overhead. A short but undeniably sweet encounter with the Aurora!

The water magnifies the effect of the lights
The water magnifies the effect of the lights (Photo by Markku Inkila)

Q. What are some common misconceptions people usually have about the Northern Lights?

Many people think you can’t see the Northern Lights with a full moon. It is true the moon makes the sky brighter, so the lights might not be as strong. But for us, a full moon is not a big deal.

If the lights are too faint, they probably won’t be visible to the naked eye. Some of our photographers prefer going out with a fuller moon because it enhances the depth of their photos and helps capture the surrounding scenery.

The Aurora is caused by solar activity, sending charged particles to Earth’s magnetic poles, where they interact with the atmosphere, creating the phenomenon.

Q. What are the best locations and times of year to catch the Northern Lights?

There is no single best time or place to see the Northern Lights. It all depends on solar activity. For us, clear skies and minimal light pollution are key. That is why our tours take people away from city lights, like Tromsø or Reykjavik, where darkness reigns and the northern lights shine brightest.

It’s just as impossible as predicting a cloud cover a few hours ahead. However, some of the most amazing lights I have seen appeared during breaks in an otherwise cloudy night. So, even if the prospect is bleak, my advice is always to bundle up and head out. You never know what you might see!

Staying at a cabin is a great way to catch the lights
Staying at a cabin is a great way to catch the lights (Photo by Markku Inkila)

Q. What are the key factors for Northern Lights viewing?

Popular destinations like Tromsø, Reykjavik, and Rovaniemi offer amazing attractions, but to see the Northern Lights, you will need to get away from the city lights. buildings, streetlights, and car headlights that contribute to light pollution.

While you might catch a glimpse of Aurora from a city, it pales in comparison to seeing it in the wilderness. Just imagine the breathtaking spectacle with minimal to zero light pollution.

Aurora Borealis are active year-round, its visibility depends on where you are and how dark it is. Within the Aurora zone, destinations with long winter nights are ideal for viewing. Places like Spitsbergen, with long winter nights, offer opportunities to see the Aurora anytime.

Though the Aurora is always present, dark skies are necessary to see it. Generally, prime Aurora season lasts from late August to early April. However, at the beginning and end, you might need to stay up a bit later to catch them.

Q. What changes do you hope dark sky preservation will bring?

Living in the Northeast of England, we are lucky to have some dark sky areas. This means starry nights and even glimpses of the Aurora on strong solar activity days. Gazing at the stars, appreciating the vast universe, is magical and humbling. It’s something I truly missed in city life. Preserving dark skies can bring this wonder to everyone, allowing them to experience the magic of space.

The mesmerizing Aurora presents a great photo opportunity (Photo by Antti Pietikainen)
The mesmerizing Aurora presents a great photo opportunity (Photo by Antti Pietikainen)

Q. How do you predict when and where the Aurora Borealis will be visible before a tour?

That is the beauty of it. Sometimes the conditions are perfect – strong solar activity, cloud-free skies – and it just doesn’t happen. Other nights you can be snowmobiling in the thickest snow blizzard across a frozen lake, stop for a hot drink and warm up round the fire … and, boom, there is a break in the cloud! The whole sky lights up within 5 minutes. You just never know, but that is what makes it all so exciting!

Q. How is an Aurora tour typically conducted?

There are many ways for Aurora hunting. If you are on an activity-based tour like snowmobiling, dog sledding, or reindeer rides, the guide will give you a safety briefing before starting.

You will keep an eye out for the Northern Lights during the activity. If they appear, stop to enjoy the phenomenon and take photos. Later, you will head to an Aurora Camp, usually a teepee, where the guide will light a fire and serve drinks and snacks.

The guide will chat with the group, answer questions, and educate participants about the science of the Northern Lights while keeping an eye on the sky. After a break, you’ll continue the activity and return to the hotel.

Q. What gear and preparation should one have for the tour?

Having the right clothing for tours is important because improper attire can lead to discomfort or even increase the risk of hypothermia. Most of our trips include appropriate cold weather gear, and our local teams prioritize comfort with quality equipment to keep everyone comfortable. Things like hand and foot warmers can make a huge difference to your comfort and we include these on our suggested packing lists too.

Photographers capturing the full brilliance of the lights (Photo by Antti Pietikainen)
Photographers capturing the full brilliance of the lights (Photo by Antti Pietikainen)

Q. For photographers with top gear on an aurora tour, how can they capture the stunning celestial phenomenon?

It is crucial to set the manual settings of a DSLR camera correctly and use a tripod for better photo quality, even a small one is helpful. Mobile phones have come a long way in camera technology. You can easily capture the Aurora with them (I have done it as a novice!). Patience is key, and accessories like hand warmers and thin gloves for adjusting settings add to comfort.

Q. What are your tips for readers enjoy the winter Aurora Borealis adventure?

If you have flexibility with your travel dates, I recommend avoiding December. Consider traveling earlier in the season, during the autumn when the leaves change and before the snow arrives, or in March when the daylight hours are longer, and temperatures tend to be warmer. Your daytime fun will be better, and you won’t miss out on seeing the Northern Lights at night.

Q. What makes a good Aurora guide?

Seeing a dazzling Northern Lights for the first time is incredible but sharing that experience with someone special makes it truly unforgettable.

Here at the office, we have a funny saying: The best guides can turn nights without Aurora into a wonderful experience. Imagine paying for a tour, filled with excitement and anticipation, only to find the Northern Lights not going to appear. A great guide can still make it a fantastic evening, keeping everyone positive and hopeful for a spectacular show the next night.

Visitors stop to admire the sudden appearance of the lights (Photo by Markku Inkila )
Visitors stop to admire the sudden appearance of the lights (Photo by Markku Inkila )

Q. What are your suggestions to maximize the overall Aurora experience?

My advice would be to go out on the tour or stand outside and look. Even in the thickest snowstorm or the cloudiest night, it’s always worth getting outside and really maximizing your chances. This is especially true if you are staying in a more built-up location like Tromsø or Reykjavik – you need to come home feeling like you really gave it your best chance!

Don’t assume you will be told if the Northern Lights are out; technology, such as Aurora apps, can fail, and people can get caught in the moment and forget to tell others. So, you need to take responsibility for doing your very best to see the Aurora.

Equally, don’t underestimate some of the daytime activities which people often overlook for the more exciting snowmobile and husky safaris – things like cross-country skiing and ice fishing tend to help you really appreciate the peace and tranquility that Lapland has to offer.

Q. Your message to our readers?

Seize the chance! Look for the lights – make the most of every moment (You can sleep to your satisfaction when you get home!). Don’t give up hope – all it takes is a single break in the clouds that reveals a dazzling display you’ll never forget!

Aurora often makes a surprise appearance (Photo by Markku Inkila)
Aurora often makes a surprise appearance (Photo by Markku Inkila)
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