The Northern Lights are accessible to all. So it's easy to get to the right place, crawl out of your hotel with cocktail in hand and watch the show right? Wrong. To improve your chances read my guide
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), unlike the Southern Lights that are the sole preserve of Emperor penguins and the latest teenager trying to be youngest to reach the South pole are accessible to all.
Any country within touching distance of the Arctic Circle will have ample web space dedicated to attracting you to see this majestic spectacle and there are few people unaware of its attractions.
Millions of Britons saw Joanna Lumley yomping across the back of beyond, millions possibly have a poster of the lights at their picturesque best in their living room/bedroom/toilet and all would have heard something from a friend/neighbour/colleague/household pet about how they were lucky to see them while eating pizza in Reykjavik, visiting friends in Shetland isles or skiing in Norway.
Well its easy to get to these places, they appear to be permanently switched on like God's under car lighting and all there is to do is exit your hotel with cocktail in hand and watch the show anytime of year right?
If the Northern Lights represent any significant part of your holiday plans, why wouldn't they, you really do have to do some homework to increase your percentage chance of spotting them.
The number one question would be which country.
Any country within touching distance of the Arctic Circle has a shout, but the only serious contenders are Canada, Greenland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Canada, Greenland, Russia, Alaska, Finland being either too far (from Britain) and/or being too remote, leaves Sweden, Norway and Iceland. All three have a well-deserved reputation for being far too high up the "big mac economic index" http://www.economist.com/markets/bigmac/ for me. However, with Icelands much trumpeted economic woes I chose Iceland. It's the closest, cheap to get to and has reasonably priced trips. Joanna Lumley, with the BBC's bottomless pockets, chose Norway.
http://www.icelandair.co.uk/ to take us as the cheapest carrier.
The next question is when to book for.
September to April are the months with the least light and, therefore, December and January are the best months to have the darkest and longest nights as a background to the Lights. You must also pay heed to the lunar phases. A full moon to your Lights viewing is like trying to watch the TV in your garden on a bright sunny day. Therefore check out a lunar calendar such as:
Any day that has a new moon or only 25 per cent of the moon or less showing is ideal, however you will note that a new moon will only arise once a month.
The above are variables that can be picked out well in advance, but the local weather is a different matter. The MET office have proved that long-range forecasting is anything but reliable and its unlikely that you will delay booking your holiday to within a week of departure so you can check the forecast.
Therefore as an overcast night will probably ensure that any trip will be cancelled due to little chance of any sighting, I strongly suggest going for more than one day. Often trips that don't make a sighting are re-run free of further cost until you do make one.
Our first trip was the first to run for a month due to poor weather conditions.
Any trip you take be it via an tour operator or via your own hire car will take you away from the light pollution of the cities. So we sat in hotel we discussed the various excursion options.
The major player in Reykjavik is Reykjavik Excursions (http://www.re.is/DayTours/NatureHistory/Details/Northern-Lights-Tour/) and they dominate the main bus station but for the Northern Lights tour they were surprisingly not the cheapest and we chose Go Travel Iceland. An independent tour operator that organise well-run trips (http://www.gotraveliceland.com/).
All tour operators pick you up either outside your hotel or on the nearest street but I was glad that our hotel (Hotel Reykjavik) was one of the ones that did pick up from outside the hotel for all trips as that allowed some time in the warmth of reception. The larger buses have difficulty in parking directly outside some hotels.
We were taken on the tour by an old American hand, who previously took Amercian soldiers from the now defunct US military base. On a large bus, we were taken out at 9pm to the closest remote area that turned out to be the car park at Kerio explosion crater and an area that anyone with a hire car might want to consider.
This however sparked a moment of fear in me as earlier in the day we did the Golden Circle tour that took in the Kerio site and we spent 10 minutes acting like a ground-based kite in high winds next to the steep sided crater so doing this in the pitch black night was not enticing me to roam to far away from the bus. As predicted we were again buffeted by strong cold winds which brings me to my equation:
Winter + nightime + arctic circle + remote area + 2-3 hours of standing around = COLD
You must have gloves, thermals/several layers including a windproof jacket and a hat. Its surprising that of 57 people who have paid good money for a trip out, how 47 of them retreat to the relative warmth of the bus after only 10 minutes. Dress up well to make this a pleasant experience.
Another tip is not to expect anything astonishing. These lights are not always on, can be of varying and unpredictable strengths and all the pictures and programmes you have seen are of the very best examples of this phenomenon.
We were told to look for a white cloud like bar in the sky for a good indication it would occur and the sky duly obliged despite some ominous clouds on the horizon. Every so often our excitable guide would declare some obscure American university measured it increasing on a scale i have since been unable to uncover on the internet.
I took no prior training on how to take photos and ended up with nothing but black. In order for your photos to come out a little better check out: http://goscandinavia.about.com/od/knowledgesafety/ht/photographnorth.htm/
We didn't have an all-singing display, but did have a faint sighting of the Northern lights that got slightly stronger after the Icelandic Excursions buses had gone. There was never any pressure of time on our trip and it was good being out in such a remote location but the experience was not up to the poster on my toilet wall.....