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December 26, 2019
Image: Northern Lights dance over the mountains of Kvaløya Fjord, Norway. Photo: Sherif Korayem
Like nature's own acid trip, the northern lights are a spectacular display of the cosmos dancing an enchanting little number, high above the Arctic Circle. Yes, it's a bucket list trip for many people, and this natural phenomenon attracts hundreds of thousands of travelers every year to small, remote towns that have now come to thrive under this recent obsession with experiential tourism.
Identifying them might be easy, but explaining them is a little more complicated. At its essence, the northern lights – scientifically named aurora borealis - are a collision of gases between the sun and the earth's atmosphere. Solar flares that occur regularly on the sun cause charged particles to fly through space on a solar wind. The earth's magnetic atmosphere deflects most of this wind that would otherwise cause human extinction, but the northern and southern poles are like two weak spots in the barrier. Small amounts of those charged particles make their way through the magnetic field, reacting and exciting atoms within common atmospheric gases like oxygen and nitrogen, ultimately releasing photons or little bursts of light. The most common lights are green, which is a reaction with oxygen, while nitrogen reactions cause blue and red lights.
Image: Green and purple northern lights indicate atmospheric reactions with the sun's solar wind. Photo: Sherif Korayem.
The lights are sometimes seen much further south, but your chances of experiencing the aurora are best in places closer to the poles, like northern Norway, Canada, Iceland, Finland, and Russia. Forget about beaches and piña coladas; this winter trip is for those who don't mind hours and hours of travel with a mild chance of hypothermia. That's not meant to be discouraging, though. The reward is truly a once in a lifetime experience, and if you're even slightly inclined to go, you will not regret it. What you might regret, however, is taking on this elusive travel fantasy without the right precautions. So instead of giving you yet another list of the top 5 reasons why you should go, we're giving you…
Image: Northern Lights peeking behind the mountains at Camp North on the Kvaløya Fjord, Norway. Photo: Sherif Korayem.
This is probably the first and most important thing to understand: there is a chance you won't even see the lights. Many environmental factors play into a successful northern lights sighting, none of which you can control 100%. Even if you've researched what you believe to be the best location and stood outside for hours freezing your buns off, light activity that night could be low, cloudy weather might obscure the sky, or it could be sheer bad luck. Bottom line: the lights are not visible to us lowly humans every night, even in the most popular northern lights destinations. This might be a hard pill to swallow, but nature does not care that you bought a fancy camera, booked an expensive night in a glass igloo, or can't feel the tip of your nose anymore.
The best chance of seeing the lights is within the arctic circle. In the dead of winter. Around midnight. Packing your warmest layers and wearing three pairs of socks is a good start, but many tour operators offer additional insulated snowsuits and boots to wear over your clothes to ensure you are as snug as possible while you stand outside for hours (yes, hours) waiting for the lights to descend across the sky. Choosing your destination to see the show can help, though, as climates vary from country to country. Tromsø, Norway enjoys a milder winter due to the Gulf Stream, where temperatures hover around 20°F in the colder months, while Abisko, Sweden, might be as frigid as 6°F.
Image: Northern lights above the tents at Camp North Tour in Kvaløya outside Tromsø. Photo: Sherif Korayem
Who wants to stay in a hotel room when you can opt for luxury glamping or glass huts, surrounded by trees with blue and green lights suspended in the air while you sit inside, warm and cozy with a mug of cocoa, dressed in casual winter fashion, smiling serenely into space. In truth, that idealized scenario is not something to set your heart on. For one, the aurora might not be visible from your exact location on the nights that you book. Most often, tour guides recommend small minivan tours where they drive you around, literally chasing the lights for hours, calling each other to a confirmed sighting location. Second, glass huts and tents are not immune to winter precipitation, so the likelihood that your ceiling or windows are free and clear of snow and frost is also low. If the aurora graces your little camp with its presence, you're still going to be standing outside to get a proper view. Lastly, because sightings are not a nightly guarantee, your best chance to see the lights is to hang around for 2-3 days, meaning your accommodation splurge has now run you well into the thousands.
Speaking of $600 tents... For most types of trips, it's easy to adjust your budget based on the location, type of accommodation, and time of year. A luxury 5-star beach vacation in the Thai islands is a fraction of the cost of a trip to Turks and Caicos, and skiing the slopes of Georgia doesn't even compare to France's posh resorts. For a vast majority of northern lights trips, you will likely travel to some of Europe's most expensive destinations, like Norway, Iceland, or Sweden. Accommodations, food, and alcohol are pricier in general and tend to get even more costly for touristy locations. Even if you forgo the fancy igloo room, you'll still pay above-average rates from regular European cities. The right gear is also expensive, so if you don't already own warm winter clothes, you might shell out hundreds before boarding the plane. And speaking of travel, the best locations are well outside major hub cities, so you'll need to plan for the extra expense of traveling further domestically.
Image: No, your smartphone isn't sufficient for good northern lights photography. Left: image taken by iPhone, right: image taken by Sherif Korayem on Canon DSLR Mark II
Ever take a picture of the moon or fireworks thinking this time, it will look amazing, only to delete said photos when you half-heartedly flip through them later? Try taking a picture of the aurora with your phone, and you can multiply that feeling by a thousand. The best chance at getting those stunning, light-filled images is to have a decent digital camera and a sturdy tripod. There are tons of YouTube tutorials on photographing the lights, but the basics you need to understand are shooting at night in manual, raw, with a large f-stop, a long shutter speed, and playing with the ISO. It's quite a bit of trial and error but absolutely worth learning to capture those images that you will cherish forever. Some tour guides offer photography as part of the package, but if there are other people in your group waiting to get their picture too, you might miss that one prime moment or only get one or two shots total.
So your patience has finally paid off: you've found yourself in the perfect place, with clear weather, bundled up in your warmest clothes and suddenly the lights start to appear overhead. Whether you're just there to live the experience or scrambling to get that ideal photograph, be sure to stop and enjoy the moment. The lights technically occur for hours every night, but their visibility at any one location is short-lived and unpredictable. While it's doubtful that you'll meet anyone who says it wasn't worth it, you should understand that the so-called success of this whole trip is usually enjoyed for less than an hour every night.
Planning your northern lights trip is easier once you know what your money can buy. Mix and match the most important things to you and book 2-3 months in advance for the best rates.
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