We hunt the Aurora Borealis for some years now and go back to northern Europe at least once a year. Once you saw it, it becomes an addiction.
Some minor general advice:
- Bring warm clothes. The aurora is unpredictable, so you better are prepared to wait for a very long time. Some of my best pictures I got when every other tourist was already back in their warm beds. Often there is a good peak at around 1am.
- In Scandinavia, best starting point is Tromsø. Infrastructure is perfect in this city and the northern part of Sweden can be reached easily from there. Just be aware that driving requires some experience with snow covered roads. Sometimes a lot of snow. And no matter how beautiful the aurora is dancing, NEVER stop your car on the road to get out and take a picture. There is a lot of heavy trucks up there and they have trouble stopping in time under those conditions. You must find a good place where you don’t get into danger, a bit away from the road.
- Best time is February/March because of the weather, earlier in winter there typically is too much humidity and rain. Depending on what you want to see you either select new moon or full moon. With new moon, the sky is much darker and you will see the lights much better. But for photography, full moon will illuminate the landscape so that you get pictures of the light including the landscape, especially if you have freshly fallen snow as well.
- Sleep is completely overrated. You go to your spot at around 9pm plus or minus some time depending on how far away the spot is and what the aurora and weather predictions will tell you. Moving from one spot to another is not really necessary, the lights will more or less look the same even from locations several kilometers apart. Typically you stay until 3am, then go back to the hotel. Sleep for some hours, then do the daily tourist routine. At around 3pm you sleep again for some time, then get up at 6pm, prepare for the night, have some food and check the forecasts.
- Did I mention warm clothes? It can get really cold, I had pretty bad frostbites including blisters all over my fingertips and frozen kneecaps. Select the best shoes you can get and make sure they are certified at least down to minus thirty. We even have battery powered heating systems, there are some good ones that are used for winter sports. Kamik boots work well and Meindl. Forget the fashionable boots that only look warm, I suspect you like your toes and want to keep them. Our record temperatures were close to minus 40, you need a proper cap, face mask, etc. Canada Goose jackets come in different levels, there are some expedition worthy ones that will keep you warm. Yes, they have coyote fur and yes, that fur makes a lot of sense because it will keep you protected from the wind. Fjallraven is the other brand I can recommend, but they are generally more heavy. Plan for several layers of clothing starting with good underwear, try to avoid cotton.
- Book everything early: flights, hotel reservations, rental car. Hunting the aurora became pretty popular over the years. Bring credit card, it is expensive, but plastic money is accepted everywhere, even for small payments.
- Do not forget food and drink for the nights. Your body will burn calories fast and without some intake, you will feel colder much faster. Best is a thermos filled with hot tea or soup.
- If the sky is predicted to be clear, forget about everything else and get going. Sometimes it might take hours of waiting, sometimes the aurora will not appear at all. That does not matter, a clear sky is a present you do not miss.
- The aurora is a fantastic sight, but most people want to take photographs as well. Forget your smartphone, only thing you will get is some blurry green. You need a mirrorless or DSLR with a wide angle lens, best is a fast one. And a good tripod. Learn to operate the camera in complete darkness. You can (and should) bring a flashlight, but usually in the good spots, there is other photographers and they will be very unhappy if you start ruining their pictures with a flashlight. It takes some practice. Camera must be set to manual focus, wide open, as much ISO as it can do without having too much noise (my D850 is good for up to ISO 2800, sometimes a bit more). Exposure time is the only thing you change, depending on how strong the lights are, typically in between 2-6 seconds. To focus on infinity, you need to find a very bright star and use live view fully zoomed in to find the focus. Because of the cold, focus will shift a bit, re-focus every hour. If it is a DSLR, set the camera to lift the mirror a second before of taking the picture to minimize vibrations. Use the timer on the camera, set to one or two seconds. If you take a picture with your hand on the button, without this delay that will introduce too much shake. Best is a remote control, especially one that works without infrared light, because then you can keep your fingers in your pockets. Once the lights appear, just fill the memory card, on a good night I do hundreds of photos. Reposition the camera every once in a while. Look out for a corona, this is a polar light directly above you pointing into your direction so that your point of view is directly into it. This is the absolute best, but sometime you only have seconds to reposition your camera, a corona can be over in less than 15 seconds. If you get a corona that lasts longer, you are lucky. If you travel in a group, yell when a corona is there, they are easy to miss (and they are not afraid of noise at all). Be extremely careful not to breathe onto the lens, the humidity will immediately freeze. If the night is dry, your camera can be ice free for many hours, but if the humidity is too high, it will get covered in ice. For today’s cameras, that should not be an issue, mine were all deeply frozen many times over already. When there is too much ice on the lens, get the lens into the rental car and put the heat on, place the lens onto the dashboard. Inside the car, the air will be very dry as well, so that is reasonably safe. Quite the opposite is true for the hotel room. NEVER open the camera bag in the hotel room. Before you drive back, take out all batteries and memory cards and leave the bag closed. The condensing humidity will result in water even within the lens, eventually ruining it. I typically even pack the camera and lenses into plastic bags, then put them into the bag. Resist all urge to get the camera out of the bag, they need to warm up slowly especially after a very cold night. Bring several spare batteries.
- When you leave the spot, use the flashlight to check whether you accidentally dropped something. Please take all garbage back as well and keep nature intact. No, cigarette ends and paper tissue do not rot anywhere near as fast as you think.
- If you do photography, do not forget to take some time enjoying the lights without operating equipment. All pictures will only be a small and insignificant reminder compared to what you might experience. They will help you remember how fantastic the sights really were, but you must make sure you look up and enjoy the view.
- There is a number of very helpful applications for smartphones, e.g. LightTrac, Sun Scout, Sky Guide, SkyView, AuroraFcst and Solar Monitor. Plus weather forecast, best one up there is yr.no
- Don’t be disappointed if you only have bad weather, that might very well happen. We made trips where we had one good night only, so you need a bit of luck.
- It is advisable to take a tour or at least ask at hotel receptions for good spots. For a very long time, the best spots were well kept secrets. So after you arrive, book a tour and check coordinates with your smartphone or other GPS equipment. The guides might not like that at all, but this is how you get some good ones if you don’t have the experience in finding some yourself. We traveled up there with our own car, sometimes driving for hundreds of kilometer in a night and a good spot is quite valuable. After such a tour, you can visit the places with the rental car, that gives you a lot of independence. Tours will not stay all night, usually once you had your first sights, the guides will tell you that the show is over and many tourists will not only believe that, but they will be happy with what they saw already. Forget that, stay and hope for an even better experience later during the night. It might be quite boring sometimes (and very cold), but all of that is forgotten when the show really starts.
- Be careful when you drive back to the hotel and don’t push the heat all way up, that will make you tired very fast. If you get sleepy, find a safe spot by the road and get some sleep before continuing to drive or at least get out of the car for some exercise that will get you awake again.
- Talk to other people you meet. There is visitors from all over the world, including some from Switzerland every once in a while. Share your experience with them and ask for good spots. Having some fun and having conversations is great, there is no need at all to keep quiet. Please do not start a fire. Although nice for you, it will definitely ruin all pictures. Be careful with alcoholic beverages, better not to drink alcohol at all during the night. It will enlarge your veins and you lose warmth much faster.
- Take weather predictions serious and keep your cellphone charged and the fuel tank of the rental full. Sometime the weather forecast will predict heavy cloud coverage. Crazy people just start driving several hundred kilometers until you reach a spot that has less cloud cover. Other people enjoy the evening and the fantastic food they have up there, eat some reindeer and lots of fish. Not cheap, but really good. If forecast predicts a storm, stay at the hotel. A winter storm is no fun and can get quite dangerous. If you are surprised by one, get back to the car and sit inside. Do not start driving back in a storm, just wait until it is over. A running engine will not consume a lot of fuel but will keep you warm, just make sure that there is sufficient oxygen in the cabin. Keep an eye on the battery, they tend to run low when the car is running, but not driving, so don’t turn on interior lights or music. Best is to start the engine only every once in a while to heat up the interior and then stop it again.
- If you see a Zebra in the rear view mirror, don’t panic!