Viewing the northern lights in Iceland isn’t as easy as the internet makes you believe. My initial thoughts were 1. I am going to be in Iceland during prime viewing – February, so I am bound to see them 2. According to the weather forecasts shows clear skies every night 3. They are going to be visible everywhere and look like a photo straight off of Instagram.
What could go wrong?
I went to Iceland for a long weekend in February with three of my girlfriends (Erin, Carly, and Meg), we did a mini road trip hitting the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the west, headed north to Akureyri, and then back down to Reykjavik. Our first night we stayed in a quaint cabin next to the most photographed mountain in the country, Kirkjufell.
And this is where the hunt for the northern lights begins…
Before arriving in Iceland the team did some research on how to view the aurora, we downloaded apps, saved websites, and asked those who have previously seen them. We became amateur meteorologists overnight.
I order to have the best chance of viewing the lights we came up with a Lookout Plan. Erin, Carly, and Meg would rotate waking up at odd hours throughout the night and glance out the windows. If the lights were there, they’d holler for the rest of us to wake up.
As you see, I didn’t play a role in this nonsense. I shared a bed with Carly and strategically chose the spot next to the wall. I’d have to climb over Carly in order to see the window, waking up Carly in the process. Not fun to Carly or me so I got a “bye” from lookout duty. You could say I’m sneaky or smart.
Throughout the night I heard various alarms going off, the girls would scramble to look out the window for a minute then drowsily make their way back to bed. To no avail the ladies didn’t spot the northern lights.
New location, maybe better luck?
The next evening we stayed in a cabin a few miles north of Akureyri in the northern part of Iceland, also one of the best places to view the lights.
Our first night in the cabin was a dud, cloud coverage all through the evening. A part of me was relieved, I got my own bed at this place so if we stuck to the “lookout plan” from the night before I was bound to have to set my alarm and get up in the middle of the night.
Do you see what I see
Our second night in the cabin looked promising. According to our apps/websites there was going to be clear skies from 9PM-12AM and a moderate to high chance of aurora activity. We decided to nix the lookout plan and stay up until the clouds rolled in.
I had the fabulous idea to turn the lights out to better see outside. A little creepy? That was my point. To pass the time we cracked open some beer and spied on the neighbors. The cabin across from us looked like a bachelor party or a dwelling for illegal activity. They had the window blinds open, music blaring, and booze galore. I can’t tell you how many cars pulled up and dropped people off at this house, at least eight. Did I mention these cabins weren’t necessarily large? We definitely needed to see what was happening at this cabin.
To best find the lights we each had a role:
Erin – The Spotter
She was constantly going from window to window gazing up at the dark skies. Erin was also the most positive about seeing the lights, she was sure we were going to see them that night.
Meg – The One With the Internet
Our internet was spotty to non-existent in the cabin, only one person could be browsing at a time. Meg was our aurora gal, she had her app up and would shout out excitedly “we have a 17% chance of seeing them right now” then a few minutes later “Guys! We are at 19!”
Carly – The Voyeur
I am not too sure what Carly’s role was in seeing the northern lights, and that was at no fault to her. There were too many “cooks in the the kitchen” and not enough internet juice to go around. I also think she enjoyed watching the scene unfold.
Me – The Storyteller
I love to scare people, their reactions make me giggle. As a kid, I’d jump out in front of my brother all of the time. He’d scream and then go whine to our parents. In college, I played several pranks on my sorority sisters; from putting a screaming Halloween mat under my roommate’s pillow to hiding behind doors and making spooky sounds. Naturally, with all of us sitting in a dark cabin in the middle of nowhere I felt like it was the opportune time to tell a little Icelandic ghost story.
Earlier in our trip we learned about Axlar Björn, Iceland’s first serial killer. He lived in the 16th century and prayed on unsuspecting travelers. If you’d like to know more about this creep click here. I figured I’d tell my own tale of Axlar to the girls, I asked them in my most spooky voice “do you want to hear a story?” In unison the girls answered “No!”, but in my fashion I continued with my tale. The story was neither scary nor appropriate for me to share with you.
While I was going on and on about Axlar, Meg would occasionally shout out the probability we had for seeing the lights, Carly might have been sleeping with her eyes open, and Erin was glued to the sky.
The chaos ensues
It was a shit show, at one point Meg peered out the kitchen window and said energetically that she saw dark swirls in the sky. My response “those aren’t the northern lights but are dementors”. Regrettably, Erin and Meg are not Harry Potter fans, thus not getting my attempt at a joke. However, this is when I realized Carly was awake because she gave a little chuckle.
“We are at 24%!” screamed Meg. This percentage meant nothing to me, I needed a solid 65% before I left my position on the couch. Erin shouted, “Guys! Guys! I think I see them! Look over there, that white stuff“. Now, I know what you are thinking, isn’t the aurora supposed to be green? The aurora can range from white to any shade in the rainbow, green being the most common you see in pictures and red and purple being very rare. I looked out the window and saw the white thing she was talking about. I shrugged it off as being a wispy cloud.
Moments later Erin yells, “No, I really think that’s them!”. We all hustle to the window and peer out into the night sky. This time the white wisps were a completely different shape. Trying to get outside as quick as we could we hustle about the cabin like little elves trying to grab our winter wear and cameras.
We were definitely looking at the northern lights, but…
It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I imagined green swirls dancing across the sky. The lights we saw were white and could easily be mistaken for clouds. However when viewed on our DSLR cameras the color looked green, don’t ask me why I am a complete amateur when it comes to using my fancy pants camera.
*After some research, the human eye can’t process the colors and cameras pick them up much better.
My thoughts on chasing the northern lights in Iceland
It is a crap shoot. Let’s go back to my initial thoughts:
- February is prime viewing time – that is true but don’t be fooled into thinking you are going to see beautiful greens in the sky. You are most likely going to see white lights.
- Iceland’s weather forecast shows clear skies – the weather changes in an instant, it could be snowing one moment and clear the next.
- They are going to be visible everywhere and look just as beautiful as the pictures I’ve seen on Instagram – well we know that is just a down right lie.
I had given up all hope of spotting them and then out of nowhere they were in our front yard. We used this northern lights forecasting site and well as an app called Aurora. I am glad that I saw them and I can share with you that I wouldn’t waste money going on a tour to view the northern lights. To me they weren’t that impressive from the naked eye. Maybe if I knew a little more about my camera then I would be more amazed but who wants to be staring at their camera all night to get the best shot?
Check out Meg’s take on our adventure hunting the northern lights.
Have you seen the northern lights? What are your thoughts?