The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are one of the most incredibly beautiful, natural spectacles that anyone can experience. I can only describe this display of dancing lights in the night sky as unearthly, and surreal.
Incredibly enough, Lapland sees the Northern Lights 200 out of 300 nights in a year. Those are amazing odds! Sure, those odds are skewed more towards the winter months, and depend on a few additional factors (see below). But there is no denying that Lapland is one of the best places on Earth to witness the Aurora Borealis.
Our Experience Chasing The Lights
We spent over a week in Lapland during end December, and early January, and were among the extremely fortunate. The Northern Lights danced for us three nights in a row! Had it not been for bad weather, we would have seen the lights on the other nights too.
The first time I saw the Northern Lights, I thought it was smoke billowing from the woods. But then I quickly noticed how the “smoke” was like a band across the sky, hardly moving. Within the next hour, the dull smoke-cloud became brighter, and that’s when it become clear to me. This wasn’t any cloud, this was the Aurora Borealis!
Once they’ve become more evident, the Northern Lights are in constant motion. They go from dull, to bright, to super bright; changing shapes and flowing. Sometimes it looks like a train in the sky, and sometimes it looks like keys on a piano. But at all times, it looks surreal!
What Causes The Northern Lights?
When charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release light. This process creates the beautiful aurora, or Northern Lights.
The lights of the Aurora generally extend from 80 kilometres (50 miles) to as high as 640 kilometres (400 miles) above the Earth’s surface.
Prime Factors For Northern Lights
Your chances of sighting the Northern Lights primarily depend on these major factors:
1. Solar winds
Thanks to research conducted since the 1950’s, we know that electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on the ‘solar wind’. These charged particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gas particles to emit light. Each reacting gas emits a different coloured light. Atomic oxygen is responsible for the two main colors of green and red. Nitrogen causes blue and deep red hues.
High solar activity (or a solar storm) means higher chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
2. Clear night (with or without the moon)
A cloudless, starry night is a prerequisite to the Northern Lights.
If it wouldn’t have been for the clouds, we would have seen the Northern Lights even at Saariselka. And that would have made it four nights in a row for us.
Of course a clear night with a full moon isn’t ideal. If the Northern Lights aren’t bright enough, the moonlight can wash away some of the colours. Fortunately for us, on the 3 nights we saw the Northern Lights, their intensity was hardly affected by a full moon. Also, one of our guides made a great point – the moonlight exposes the snow covered landscape, making for some exceptionally beautiful pictures.
3. No light pollution
To get the best viewing of the Northern Lights, stay as far away from cities and towns. City lights can ruin your Aurora experience. Cities such as Rovaniemi have a lot of the light pollution. The only way to see the Northern Lights is to get away from the city.
What is the KP Index?
While checking the forecast for the Northern Lights, you’ll often see the term KP Index. In short, the KP Index is a scale (imagine horizontal lines across the Earth) from 0 to 9. 0 being closer to the north pole, and 9 being closer to France. The scale determines where you need to be located to see the Northern Lights.
To put it in another way, the KP Index is a scale of geomagnetic activity – the higher the geomagnetic activity, the higher the KP Index. KP0 means very weak or none existent Aurora Borealis. And KP9 means a major geomagnetic storm with the Aurora likely to be seen in France and northern Spain.
Lapland falls between KP1 and KP3, which means that there is always a high probability of seeing the Northern Lights.
In our experience, the KP Index wasn’t always reliable. An easier way to keep track of the Aurora forecast is to download an app for your smartphone.
Northern Lights Forecast Apps
I used an app called My Aurora Forecast for my Android (there is also an iOS version) to check the visibility of the Northern Lights. The app didn’t always alert us when the Aurora became visible. But here is what I relied on, and it worked. The app shows a map with your location, and the position and movement of the Northern Lights. The moment I saw the lights move close to our position on the map, we stepped out.
Luckily, the app always alerted us just before the lights reached their brightest.
So, speaking of smartphones.
Can you shoot the Northern Lights with your smartphone?
Technically yes, but don’t expect DSLR like photo-quality. Also, your native camera app may not be able to capture the Northern Lights at all.
For iPhones, download an app called NightCap. For Android, it’s probably easier to switch to manual settings on your camera app, or download any camera app that allows for manual settings.
Best Time To See Northern Lights
The Northern Lights are visible between the months of September to March in Lapland. In northern Lapland, chance of seeing the lights are about every other clear night. In southern Finland they are visible on about 10-20 nights a year. The lights would usually make their appearance around 8 PM and stay still 3 AM.
But also keep in mind, September to March is peak tourist season. Accommodation runs out quick, and prices are high. So book well in advance.
Best Place In Finland To See Northern Lights
Northern Lapland is the best place in Finland to see the Northern Lights. Most tourists will make their way up to Rovaniemi, or Kakslauttanen at most. Personally, I found Rovaniemi has way too much light pollution to see the Northern Lights. If you happen to be in Rovaniemi, definitely book a Northern Lights tour and head out into the wilderness.
Unlike Rovaniemi, Kakslauttanen, Saariselka (a 2 hour drive north) has little to no light pollution. So, you probably don’t have to go too far to find a secluded spot to catch the lights. Unfortunately for us, it snowed heavily throughout our stay in the Kilopaa Fell Centre in Saariselka.
But I would highly advise those of you who really want to see the Northern Lights to go further north! However, there is a reason why many tourists don’t venture beyond Saariselka. And that is because of the freezing temperatures. While we were in Rovaniemi, the temperature never dipped below -4°C (25°F). Which was very tolerable. However, it was -30°C (-22°F) our first night chasing the lights in Ivalo. It was brutal, but it was totally worth it!
Ivalo is accessible by road and air. This small town serves tourists who fly in from Helsinki to go to Kakslauttanen. However, I would highly advise you to save your money, and stay in Ivalo. At 68.66° N, Ivalo is 2° north of Rovaniemi. The odds of seeing the Northern Lights are really good in Ivalo.
It was here that we saw the Northern Lights right outside our accommodation – Guesthouse Husky! It was absolutely spectacular. We didn’t need to go into the wilderness, or book a tour. We just stepped out after dinner, and were left speechless.
Inari is the northern most point we visited while in Lapland. It’s a 45 minute drive north from Ivalo. We stayed at the Wilderness Hotel Inari, which quite literally is in the middle of nowhere. With no light pollution in sight, we ventured out onto a frozen Lake Inari to witness the dazzling spectacle of the Northern Lights.
We set out in a group on snowmobiles, and made our way to a spot with a couple of cottages. While we stood on a frozen lake in -20°C (-4°F), we were served hot beverages which made our night truly
So if you ask me – what’s the best place in Finland to see the Northern Lights? I would say anywhere north of Saariselka. The further north you go into Lapland, the better your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. But keep in mind the temperature also drops drastically. Also, go into the wilderness – there’s plenty of that in Lapland. Stay away from artificial lights.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Helsinki?
Sadly, no. Helsinki is too far south, and has a lot of light pollution. However, if there is a period of intense solar activity, the Northern Lights can become visible as far as Helsinki.
Should You Book A Guided Tour?
Guided tours to see the Northern Lights are necessary if you’re in Rovaniemi. Your tour group will take you to a secluded spot to catch the lights. We noticed that all hotels in Lapland that offer Northern Light excursions. If you’re accommodation is in the middle of a city/town, I would highly advise signing up for a guided tour.
But it’s also a good idea to book a guide even if you’re not in a big city. We booked ourselves on a Northern Lights tour in Inari, and Ivalo. And honestly, we’re glad we did. The tours took us to secluded spots from where we would truly appreciate the lights.
If you’re staying in Ivalo, I would highly recommend getting in touch with Jouni Männistö. He was our guide on our first night, and really went out of his way to get us the best views of the Northern Lights. Look at the shots I got.
Should You Book Glass Igloos?
There’s no denying that spending a night in a glass igloo is a beautiful experience. For many, it’s a bucket list item. There’s a romantic essence associated with gazing at the stars, and the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed. Because, let’s face it, standing in -25°C for a long time is pure torture!
Most hotels in Lapland offer glass igloo accommodation in addition to traditional rooms. Of course, the most publicised and sort after glass igloos are the ones at Kakslauttanen. However, we also saw glass igloo rooms at the Wilderness Hotel in Inari, and the Arctic SnowHotel in Rovaniemi.
To stay in a glass igloo is a personal choice. If you ask me, I loved chasing the light with nothing between me and the sky. But that may not be the case for you. Also, there is a possibility that the Northern Lights don’t occur directly above your glass igloo. In which case, you will be forced to step out.
Prices vary according to the season, and location. You can check the pricing by clicking on the links below:
- Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort – Igloos and Chalets
- Wilderness Hotel Inari
- Artic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos, Rovaniemi
How To Dress For The Northern Lights
Keep in mind that you’ll be standing in sub-zero temperatures for a really long time. Sooner or later, that cold is going to reach your skin. Layer up! Ask your hotel, or tour guide to provide you with overalls, and snow boots. Get a few hand, toe, and body warmers and strap them onto yourself. Wear mittens, not gloves. Mittens are designed to keep your hands warmer. Don’t stand still for too long. Walk around to keep the circulation flowing.
I hope this guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Lapland proved helpful. Please feel free to share it on the social media network of your choice. And don’t forget to check out my Northern Light photos.