A guide to chasing northern lights in Tromso Norway
Spending February in a cold place can only mean one thing…chasing northern lights in Tromsø, Norway (or Aurora Borealis as they’re technically called). My friend Jay from Moo.do and I decided to visit Norway in the middle of dead winter because…why not? It’s always on everybody’s list of generic dreams.
We knew a guided night tour was best to actually chase the northern lights in Troms so after a few hours of searching and sleuthing for the best possible experience, we chose Chasing Lights in Tromso.
We spent three nights watching the northern lights “dance” and here is how you can too.
What are the northern lights or Aurora Borealis?
The northern lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding.
The strength of the aurora is based on a lot of factors – especially weather and the season. You can usually only see it in winter in the north and it often starts out weak and gets stronger as the night wears on. Sometimes, it’s barely visible to the naked eye. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t shine at all. And other times, it’s dancing all around you and the experience is simply magical & breathtaking.
In the northern hemisphere, you can see the lights from many different places. Canada, Iceland, Alaska, and really anywhere in Scandinavia are good places to see the lights. I thought Canada and Alaska were not “exotic” enough for me to want to visit. Alaska in the summer is really gorgeous so I’d rather visit then. I’ve been to Iceland and if you’re chasing the northern lights, the worst place to go is on an island because if you can’t see the lights, you’ve got nowhere to go. However, with Norway, you have the option to cover more ground by going into Finland.
Tromsø is also a city with hotels, restaurants, and plenty of things to do besides just chasing the northern lights. Keep in mind, Norway uses the Norwegian krone as its currency and it’s expensive to do just about anything there.
To get to Tromsø, you generally need to fly to Oslo, the capital of Norway. We arrived at night in Oslo and spent one night at the nearby airport hotel before taking off in the morning.
Where we stayed:
Oslo: The Radisson Blu Hotel (at the airport). It was clean, simple, and bit expensive but it was easy since it was close to the airport and you can come quickly back to the airport to catch your domestic flight.
Tromsø: Clarion Hotel called The Edge
The hotel was chic & modern. The rooms are decorated in typical Scandinavian fashion. It was very comfortable and enjoyed the bar in the lobby as well as breakfast every morning. There is a large lobby with wide windows with a wine bar and cafe inside.
Chasing Lights organizes the following:
- Accommodations: You can choose between 4, 5, or 6 nights in their chosen hotels. If you go with one of their packages.
- Chasing northern lights in Tromso tours: You can pick the tour as part of your whole northern lights package or just the tour itself. I opted for the smaller tour so it’s less cattle-like and more intimate. A late night dinner is also included in the chase. I recommend eating dinner anyway because chases start around 10 pm and can last until 2-5 am!
- Extra activities such as dog sledding, exploring the fjord or snowmobiling:
*Bonus: All activities come with a driver AND a tour guide that’s also a skilled photographer. They can instruct you on your camera settings to capture the northern lights but will also be taking photos as well.
- A hotel pick-up/drop off, snowsuit with boots and a tripod (all three are needed), a warm meal and snacks/drinks along with PHOTOS of the northern lights and you.
What you need to photograph the northern lights:
To photograph the Northern Lights, you need to have some photography equipment with you.
- A camera that allows you to manually control things like shutter speed, ISO, and focus. You don’t NEED a fancy DSLR, but you will need a camera that lets you take long exposures.
- A (sturdy) tripod. When you’re taking long exposures (which is needed to capture the northern lights), you need to keep your camera absolutely still in order to get a crisp & still image. This is important when you’re taking exposures of up to 30 seconds with the night sky.
The best way to ensure clear photos is to put your camera on a tripod. I recommend the Vanguard VEO 235AP Aluminum Tripod with Pan Head which isn’t too expensive or too cheap. It’s sturdy enough to not be blown over in strong winds, yet light enough to carry in your bag or backpack. If you don’t have a tripod, Chasing Lights DOES provide tripods.
- A remote shutter release. Even pressing the shutter on your camera can produce enough shake to ruin a long exposure shot. If your camera has built-in wifi, you might also be able to control the shutter from your smartphone.
- A headlamp. Having a Headlamp with you isn’t essential, but it definitely comes in handy when you’re trying to adjust your camera, set up a tripod, or making your way in the dark. If your headlamp has a red light option (or you can simply put some red tape over it), that’s ideal, since red light does not blind you in the dark.
Travel tips & trick to chase the northern lights in Tromso:
- Dress WARM. Most of the chasing lights companies in Norway will provide a snowsuit & boots but it’s ideal to wear layers as well. I suggest warm snow pants and a quality snow jacket if you don’t want to wear their snowsuit. There were some people still freezing even with snow gear because the clothes were of lower quality. I wore thermal underwear with jeans (stupid) and a snowboarding jacket and was freezing so I ended up wearing the snowsuit the entire time.
- Boots. If you have enough money to purchase high-end boots specifically for freezing cold weather, go ahead and purchase them. But again, most of them are provided by the chasing lights companies.
- Bring hand warmers and toe warmers. Bring EXTRA as they will stop working and you need to replace them to keep your toes warm.
- Wear wool socks (maybe two pairs) and keep those toe warmers handy. Make sure you can still fit into your boots if you wear another pair.
- Eat ahead but Chasing Lights will provide a hot dinner (camp food) along with some hot chocolate and a snack or two (such as cookies).
- Nap or rest at least sometime during the day because chases start around 9-1o pm and will last at least until 2-4 am. Sometimes they will go longer if you have to go all the way to Finland to see the lights.
- If you’re not a photographer, you don’t need to bring a camera but you will be a bit bored while people are setting up cameras and taking shots. I stayed busy by trying to keep warm and looking over Jay’s shoulder while he set up shots. I occasionally bothered the other travelers and asked our guide questions about the lights and life in Norway. When the activity was strong, it was entertainment enough just to see the lights dancing.
- Watch your liquids. There are no bathrooms where we usually go to chase the northern lights in Norway. You need to be outside the city without light pollution. It’s incredibly awkward to waddle away from the group to find a dark & appropriate place to take off your one piece snowsuit to pop a squat.
- Seeing the northern lights is NOT a guarantee. It’s dependent on various factors including weather (cloud cover) and northern light activity. Sometimes it can be faint or no activity at all and some activity can be high but there is too much cloud cover. You’re working with Mother Nature here.
I’ve had many friends who tried to see the lights on various different occasions and it’s not always possible.
Photography Credit: My friend Jay from Moo.do 🙂