This Christmas I fulfilled a bucket-list item of witnessing the northern lights (from the ground). I’d seen the northern lights from a plane before, but that experience could not hold a candle to the encounter I had in Norway of witnessing this amazing light show. We decided to join a tour with Chasing Lights out of Tromsø, Norway, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made. Here’s a review of my experience with Chasing Lights and some photographs from our experience.
Different tour packages
Chasing Lights offers an array of different tour packages. Some of these packages (which can cover as many as four days) offer lodging and northern light chases along with other activities like dog sledding. However, if you’re just looking to book tours for individual nights, you might consider the following packages:
- Aurora Safari Bus Tours: 950 NOK
- Signature Northern Lights Chase: 1,800 NOK for the first night (roughly $200 USD)
We decided to go with the Signature Northern Lights Chase since it seemed to offer us a few things we really wanted.
For one, we liked the idea of having a maximum amount of guests capped at 13. This made it a much more personal experience and also made it easier to have questions answered and get photos taken. On the Signature Tour, Chasing Lights also provides you with thermal suits, a tripod, a campfire experience, and homemade (and delicious) soup and hot chocolate and cookies. (These things are all included in the cost.)
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The tour begins with getting picked up from your hotel around 6 pm. You’re greeted by name by a cheerful guide and brought into the mini-bus/van. Inside the van, it’s a bit of a tight fit if it’s full of 13 guests. You’ll still be able to get comfortable but you’ll likely have to keep your bag on your lap or if it’s a smaller bag maybe under your seat.
If you don’t want to keep your baggage on you, then there should be room in the back of the van or up front so you can free up some space on your seat. Also, as you enter the van, you probably want to take off your thick coats and outerwear because they’ll keep you nice and warm inside the van. If at any time you’re hot or cold, just let them know and they’ll just the temperature to help you get comfortable.
After riding around and scooping up all of the passengers, we buckled up our seat belts and then were ready to take off on our tour right at 6 pm. The guides begin by explaining the basics of a northern lights chase. Things like what you should expect, what they’re looking for, and how long the chase might last, are all covered in detail.
The Chasing Lights guides are extremely enthusiastic, passionate, and also very personable, so all around it’s a great vibe in the van. They keep you informed on everything that’s going on around you and are great about including everyone. For example, at one point a couple of guests left the group to warm up in the van and our guide, Meda, dropped everything she was doing to get their attention because she saw that a brilliant light display was coming (and she was right).
The route on the chase
You never know what route the tour might end up taking. Sometimes you’ll head west toward the coast and other times you might head inland, sometimes even going as far as Finland or maybe even Sweden. You can see maps of the two vastly different routes we took on our two tours below:
The guides make clear that you’re not actually “chasing” the northern lights themselves since they will appear regardless of where you are in the region.
Instead, you’re chasing two things.
The first thing is you’re trying to get away from the light pollution that can interfere with your ability to see the lights. While you can see the northern lights from Tromsø on a clear night, there’s still a fair amount of light pollution that will hinder your ability to see them and will make it difficult to photograph them.
The second thing you are chasing is a clear sky. You don’t actually need a 100% clear sky to see the lights. For one, you can often see the lights through clouds that are very high in the sky. And second, the clouds move so often and so quickly that all you need is for them to open up for a while to see and capture the lights. So don’t fret if the forecast is showing cloudy skies in the area because you never know when the sky might open up.
Once you’re in an area where you can see the night sky, then it’s just up to the northern lights to show up.
Because you’re dealing with nature, it’s possible that your tour could last all they way into the the early morning… I’m talking 4 to 5am! Our tours only lasted until about 1 to 2am, but just be prepared for a potentially long night. The good news is that the vans come equipped with wifi and it actually works pretty well! Still, you might want to bring some snacks and maybe even a small pillow to keep you comfortable in the event that you’re out on the road for a while and you get tired or hungry.
The areas surrounding Tromsø are made up of many different “micro-climates” due to the topography created by the mountains, fjords, and islands. If you’re not familiar, micro-climates are geographical pockets where vastly different weather conditions can exist right next to each other. For example, it might be completely cloudy and snowing in Tromsø but completely clear in another region only about 30 minutes to an hour away. (This is why you shouldn’t obsess over the weather forecast for Tromsø.)
The varying weather conditions are one reason why it’s a great decision to go with a tour company like Chasing Lights. The guides are familiar with the areas that are drier and that can be clearer, so they know where to search for clear skies Also, they often have multiple vehicles out all surveying different routes to scout out the clear skies. They communicate with each other in real-time, so it’s a lot easier to find open skies than if you were just searching for them by yourself with no knowledge of the local climate and weather patterns.
Another reason to go with a tour is that you may not be comfortable driving through the Arctic in the dark when roads can be covered in ice and visibility can be limited due to heavy snow and sleet. By going on a tour with Chasing Lights, you effectively have a team of locals working on your behalf to help you find clear skies, all while making sure you’re safe. To me, that makes the price tag worth it for many.
The “chasing” routes
So your tour route will definitely depend on the weather conditions. On our first tour we drove out until we got past the snow and sleet coming down and arrived at an area where there were some breaks in the clouds. And that’s when we caught our first official glimpse of the northern lights!
It was just a single, faint green streak, but we stopped for some photos just in case the sky didn’t open up more and that was going to be as good as it would get — thankfully, it got much better than that!
The guides really do a great job of stopping the van (in a safe and viewable spot) as soon as possible when the lights are spotted. And you can help them out with spotting the lights by peeking through the windows. You’ll probably only be able to see a faint whitish-grey streak through the dark tinted windows, but when the lights strong you’ll be able to see them clearly with the naked eye.
After a few minutes, we ventured to another area where the clouds seemed to be breaking. Once there, we caught a better view of the lights but the clouds were still somewhat heavy.
This is when it really pays to be patient. There are plenty of times when the cloud coverage can change dramatically in a matter of minutes. At one point, we had about 95% cloud coverage and within 10 minutes the sky opened up big time, with thousands of stars coming into view with the northern lights following. It took a few minutes of waiting, but we soon caught these amazing displays of the lights.
Although clear skies are ideal, having clouds in your photos adds drama to the composition.
Once we got a sense of the cloud patterns and saw that openings were becoming more common, our guide decided to set up our little camp right there. The guide and driver put together a small fire and spread out reindeer fur hides for us to sit or rest on while warming up right next to the fire. They also came around with some hot chocolate and cookies to hold us over until dinner. And after dinner, we got to roast some marshmallows.
One great thing about this area is that you’re allowed to set up fires on the side of the road pretty much anywhere. Also, there are tons of areas with spectacular views looking out to a fjord with snow-capped mountains, meaning that your chances are very high of having stunning compositions to work with when shooting your photos.
After camp was set up and we admired the ever-changing light show, we were served our soup, which was a meaty soup similar to a beef stew. It was delicious and hit the spot. If you have special dietary needs, just let them know and they should be able to accommodate you.
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Just after dinner, the northern lights started to intensify. The green became brighter and the long stretches of lights filled up more of the sky. And then, the dancing started. The lights started moving fast with bright flashes of white and even pink and purple. It was the most stunning natural display of anything I’ve ever witnessed and it was happening right above our heads.
Luckily, our guide, Noora, was able to catch the action on the video below.
On our second tour the next night, we saw a similar display of brilliance but with even more pink glowing in the clouds.
Intense green bands also lit up the night sky. Even with the clouds moving in and out the second night, it was a spectacular display.
Photos and video
I’ll write more tips later on photographing the northern lights but one great thing about this tour is that the guides are experts at photographing the northern lights so even if you don’t have the best camera for photographing the lights, you can rest assured that memories will be captured by your tour guide (and sent to you the next day).
And if you do have a good camera, the guides know the best settings for capturing the lights so they can provide you with some solid advice. And finally, they are great at taking snapshots of you under the northern lights so you can go home with plenty photos of yourself with the northern lights shining behind you.
What to wear on a northern lights tour?
Tromsø and the surrounding area doesn’t seem to get as cold as some other true Arctic locations, so that’s another reason I recommend for people to venture to Norway to see the northern lights — it likely won’t be as cold as places like Alaska!
With that said, when the wind picks up and it’s in the 20s (Fº), the wind chill can bring down the temperature significantly. And when you’re outside for hours at a time, it can be difficult to stay warm.
So what do I recommend?
I recommend wearing a good pair of wool socks along with a layer of thermals under your clothes and then layer a couple of items of clothing under your coat. Gloves and a beanie are obviously an essential as well. One thing that we really benefited from were these thin ski-masks we bought off Amazon. They’re very thin but did a great job of keeping our face and neck warm without the hassle of dealing with a scarf. Also, bring along “hot hands” to insert into your pockets and possibly even your shoes since it’s common for your toes to get really cold.
The good thing is that if you go with the Signature Tour, you’ll have the thermal suits and boots to help protect you from the elements (along with heat packs). I actually never changed into one of those thermal suits but we had several people on our tour who did use them and they remarked that the suits worked wonders to keep them warm. If the wind proves to be even a little bit strong, I suggest you opt for the thermal suits to keep yourself warm.
My two northern lights tours with Chasing Lights were two of the most amazing and inspiring tours I’ve ever signed up for when traveling. Having a whole team working together to find the best places to watch for the northern lights helps your odds immensely when chasing the northern lights, especially when the weather is showing unclear skies (which is most of the time near Tromsø). Also, not having to deal with driving through the elements yourself and having access to thermal gear, warm meals and drinks, and a nice little fire makes the entire experience for more enjoyable. Chasing Lights is definitely worth the expense if you’re looking for a northern lights tour company in Norway!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.