Hunting the Northern Lights in Iceland: for Self Drivers
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
The Northern Lights figure on many a bucket list. More correctly known as the Aurora Borealis, they are a natural light display caused by disturbances in the earth’s atmosphere created by solar winds. A magnetic field protects our planet. Electrically charged particles called electrons collide with air particles. This causes the air to light up temporarily. We see the result as dancing curtains of green and purple light which are as fickle as they are breathtaking. The good news is that, though there are plenty of Northern Lights tours to choose from, you don’t need to book an expensive tour to see them. If you’re driving through Iceland in your rental car, to increase your chance of a sighting, the most important consideration is preparation. Here’s what you need to know.
Northern lights hunting in iceland preparation begins at home
If you’re keen to see the Northern Lights, then you should be thinking about the seasons before travelling to Iceland. Because of the requirement to have a dark sky, the Northern Lights season runs from late August to April. In the Land of the Midnight Sun, the night sky never really materialises in midsummer. The best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is when they hit their peak activity around the time of the March and September equinoxes. As winter takes hold and the nights draw in, you might think that increases your chances to see the Northern Lights earlier in the evening, but they still tend to be most commonly spotted between 9.30pm and 1am.
Iceland weather for northern lights plays a big part
Unfortunately, seeing the Northern Lights isn’t as simple as making sure you’re in Iceland between September and March. The next major consideration is the weather. To see the Northern Lights you’ll need clear skies, and Iceland’s mid-Atlantic location makes this a bit of a lottery. Storms and thick clouds will decimate your chances, so booking a longer trip is going to help. As you’re likely to have booked your flights far ahead of your date of travel, what this means in reality is checking the weather forecast religiously during your trip – and keeping your fingers crossed! If you can, try to keep your schedule flexible. If you have an evening with a break in the clouds, the last thing you want to find is that you have a reservation for something else.
Aurora activity is unpredictable
Another crucial factor for those planning rent a car to hunt for the Northern Lights is the activity of the aurora itself. This varies considerably. The Icelandic Met Office has a clear map on their website. It’s easy to interpret this aurora forecast and it will help you identify whether solar activity is going to be high during your visit. You can find a Northern Lights forecast for Iceland here. You’ll notice the aurora forecast has a ranking from 0 to 9. In reality, if a 4 or 5 is on the aurora prediction and other conditions are right, you’re in with a decent chance of spotting the Northern Lights.
Prepare a self-drive for the northern lights Iceland
Before setting out on an expedition to try to see the Northern Lights, you need to be prepared. Make sure you have a full tank of petrol. It’s also worth popping a couple of blankets on the back seat and making up a flask of hot coffee. Make sure you are confident when it comes to driving on icy roads in the dark and never put your personal safety at risk by speeding to reach your destination. The Northern Lights are spectacular but they’re not worth risking your life for.
The right clothing is crucial
Catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights can involve a long wait in the cold, so you’ll need to keep awake and stay warm. It’s not enough simply to put on a big coat: you’ll be standing for extended periods on the cold ground. The Northern Lights can make a fleeting appearance – sometimes, by the time you’ve got out of the car the show’s already over. Don thermal base layers, several thin fleeces, thick trousers and a second pair of socks. Boots with a thick sole will also help guard against the cold.
Top off your ensemble with a decent hat, insulated gloves and something to cover your face like a snug scarf or snood. While the sky is colourful, you won’t notice a thing, but once the sky goes dark again, you’ll be very aware of your surroundings. Make sure you have a torch. You can use the flashlight option on your mobile phone but remember that cold temperatures drain a battery fast. A head torch can be invaluable as it allows you to keep your hands free.
Mitigate against light pollution
Though you may have seen photographs of the Northern Lights with a townscape in the foreground or background, in reality, most showings of the aurora won’t be strong enough to be seen over the lights of a town or city. Light pollution is the Northern Lights hunter’s biggest enemy. They wash out the sky and any faint colour will be bleached by the distant glow of streetlights. An important thing to remember is that the colour you see in photographs is the result of a long exposure: to the naked eye, the greens and purples can be a lot fainter in real life. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Close to Reykjavik, a good choice is Grótta lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes. The Reykjanes peninsula might also be a good bet though strong winds can be a problem. Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, on the Snæfellsnes peninsula makes an awesome backdrop, but note that anywhere even remotely Insta-worthy is going to be busy on a night with a good forecast.
There are plenty of Northern Lights tours, of course, but this is where having your own rental car is a boon. Getting out of town to find yourself a remote spot all to yourself is a piece of cake. If you can’t see streetlights, then you’ll improve your chances of seeing the Northern Lights no end. Also, you’ll need to face north – so make sure there’s not a mountain blocking the show. If you’re serious about hunting for the Northern Lights, then scout for a suitable location while it’s still daylight. Think about where you’ll be able to park so that you’re safely out of the way of any passing traffic.
Capture the ultimate Northern Lights photo to hang on your wall
If you’re packing a camera, take a few test pictures to see what the landscape beneath the sky will look like. You’ll need to be able to avoid camera shake, so a sturdy tripod and shutter release are a must. At least you’ll be able to store them in the rental car and won’t have to carry the equipment very far. Practice manual focusing and experiment with long exposures until you get it right. It’s useful to have a feature in the foreground, such as a tree or large rock, as that will help get the picture crisp and sharp.
Good luck hunting the aurora borealis in Iceland!
Now all that remains is for us to wish you luck! If you do manage to spot the Northern Lights during your Iceland holiday, it will be a memory that will last a lifetime.