Because I am so passionate about the Northern Lights, this has become a long post. I’ve added subtitles to break it up if you’d rather skip reading me waxing poetic about my dream of seeing them. I’ve included why we chose Tromsø, why I chose the tours I chose, what I thought of them and my recommendations for anyone traveling to chase the lights!
My Dream: The Aurora Borealis
Seeing the Northern Lights has been at the top of my bucket list for many years. Anyone who knows me well knows that the aurora borealis was among my big dreams and one I hoped would become a reality sooner than later.
For years, I thought I’d go see them in Iceland. Life and weddings and family visits had other destinations in mind for me, however. Andrew was never too keen on visiting Iceland to begin with, and my dream was put on hold for other, wonderful trips.
Somewhere along the line, I read that this fall was going to be the last of a series of “really good” years to view the lights. Time was running out. Luckily, I was also turning 30 this fall, so what better excuse to influence a travel destination? 😉 The time had come.
As we inched closer to my birthday, we got news of the London move. Changing our origins meant we could change our destination, and there was one I had also been dreaming of visiting: Norway. Scandinavia would be the perfect place to go lights chasing (especially and after finding out the Blue Lagoon is not a natural hot spring!).
Soon after we moved, Andrew read an article about how the people of Tromsø, Norway, the northernmost city in the world, seem to handle seasonal affective disorder much better than people in areas that don’t experience Polar Night. This article inspired some research and we learned it was an excellent spot from which to see the Northern Lights. After some more research, confirming that they have an airport and reading blog posts about successful lights chases, we had officially found our destination.
Tromsø is an island in an archipelago punctuated by fjords. Moving inland takes you toward the Finnish lapland, about two to three hours’ drive away. There are many microclimates in the area, and because of this there is a good chance that you’ll be able to find clear skies to view the lights on any given night, if you’re willing to drive to find them.
Incredibly, Andrew saw the Northern Lights on our first afternoon in Tromsø itself. They had faded by the time I rushed to meet him, but I was cautiously optimistic that this was a good sign for the night ahead…
Tromsø Northern Lights Chasing Tours
Our research told us that booking three nights in Tromsø would give us the best chance to see the Northern Lights. This gives you a few chances to catch them, as well as some time for weather conditions in the area to change. Armed with this information, we booked three nights and decided to book tours for the first two nights. We figured we could last-minute book a third tour if we didn’t catch the lights on either of the first nights.
There are many tours offered out of Tromsø, and according to one of our guides, not all of them are legit. Scary! TripAdvisor is a great resource for information about the tours.
You’ll find on TripAdvisor that many of the super top-rated tours are quite expensive, (like basically everything in Norway). Don’t let this discourage you! There are cheaper tours out there that also get great reviews.
With TripAdvisor as my guide, I settled upon a tour through Wandering Owl for our first night and one through Tromso Friluftssenter for our second night. Wandering Owl sounded like more of an adventure, citing a small van, the need for your passport to cross into Finland if necessary, and a whole meal to be served during the night. I thought this would be the perfect way to kick off our Tromsø adventure. The Tromso Friluftssenter tour sounded more relaxed and offered to stop at their basecamp which features a laavu, if we were near it during the chase. It offered something unique and seemed a little more laid back, a good contrast to our first night’s tour. Another perk was that it was much cheaper than other tours!
Our Tour Experiences
Our first night we, along with our fellow hopeful lights chasers, met our tour guide Markus at the Visit Tromsø visitor center. We bundled into the Wandering Owl van and set off for the lights. The forecast wasn’t looking great, so we’d be heading south and inland towards Finland.
From the beginning, it was clear Markus knew what he was doing. He rushed us along to our first stop, a gas station stop, knowing that many other tours were on their way to that same spot. He was right. Within five minutes there was a huge line! First lucky stop of the tour.
We pressed on. Soon lights appeared above, so he found a place to pull over. He talked us through setting up our cameras quickly (our focus wasn’t great so I apologize for the blurry pics!), then set up his own to get portraits of all of us with the lights. It seemed like he was scrambling to make sure we made the most of it if this was the only lights show we’d see…
During our first stop, the lights weren’t very bright and were covered with clouds. They faded pretty quickly, so we got back in the van. Soon after we started driving again, we spotted lights again, but this time they were brilliant. Gazing out the window, it was as if they were racing us, turning purple around the edges to keep speed. It was like seeing flames in the sky. It was unbelievable.
We pulled over again and were just amazed at the lights show. Marcos knew of a place to set up camp nearby, so after taking in the beautiful sights for a few minutes, we got back in the van to head to a more permanent location, should the show continue.
Once there, we put on our thermal suits (they are fantastic) and headed down to a beach. We were surrounded by fjords with clear skies above us. For over an hour we watched a spectacular solar storm twist, turn and dance above us in brilliant white, green and pink. It was truly incredible and something I will never forget.
After the best and brightest lights died down a bit (that is not to say we didn’t keep seeing swirls until we left!), Marcos started a fire and we all sat around to warm our cold feet and eat reindeer soup and cookies. They graciously accommodated my gluten free allergy and the delicious hot chocolate was dairy free and made with rice milk.
We sat around the fire gazing up at the lights while Marcos told us stories of his Northern Lights experiences. It was an incredible and memorable night we will never forget!
The next night’s tour was larger and we had a really nice minibus to drive around in. This night we set out to a different area of the Tromsø region, and didn’t travel as far. Our initial sighting came on quickly, but our viewing spot had a lot of light pollution. We got back into the van and eventually made our way to an incredible plauteau near the top of one of Tromsø’s neighboring islands. We had clear skies and a beautiful view of the stars and shooting stars. We set up our fire, roasted up some marshmellows and waited for the lights to appear.
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the science and mythology surrounding the Aurora. He also knew so much about the Arctic region, including many of the animals native to the area. Our bus driver and our location scout were both born and raised in the Tromsø area so it was really cool to learn more about the area from a native perspective. Moose there swim from island to island! Incredible!
Sadly our lights this night were not nearly as bright or brilliant as the night before, but we did manage to snag a few good pictures. The set up was perfect, but Mother Nature wasn’t so kind.
My Recommendations for Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromsø
Any guide will tell you that you’re not guaranteed to see the lights. That said, they do all that they can to show them to you, even if they’re underwhelming. Many of the guides have a network of other guides they can consult on places to view the lights, and some companies have scouts located all over to watch for clear skies. Your chances are good, but it all depends on Mother Nature. Three nights was the perfect amount of time to spend in Tromsø, so I would recommend considering that.
Though the tours say they could keep you out later than 2am, they do try to make it back at a reasonable hour if you’re not too far. Do not take a gamble on being out all night and not booking yourself a place to stay for that night. The bars close around 1am in Tromsø, so there is nowhere for you to go and it is COLD. This has happened on tours Marcos has led, so I guess it doesn’t sound that crazy, haha. Book a room. You will be so happy to have a warm bed to crash in once you return.
As I said before, Tromsø is prettyyyy cold in the fall and winter. Outside of Tromsø is even colder. Dress warm! Like multiple layers including a thermal layer warm. Your activities during the day will be more active than lights viewing, so you may get warm in all those layers. Get new, dry ones and add even more for nights spent lights chasing. You feel it much more standing still in the cold.
Most tour companies provide thermal suits. They are awesome and very warm. Though you may think you look silly in yours, it is a godsend – wear it. My layers held up well when combine with the suit. My otherwise super warm boots were not super warm when standing on snow and ice and cold pavement for extended periods of time, and I assume your boots are unlikely to be so warm, too. I highly recommend bringing along some foot warmers and using them if you need them. If you have a fire, you can warm your feet by there, but our lights were so dazzling the first night we didn’t light the fire for hours. I was very thankful to remember I had some leftover hand warmers in my ski jacket pocket that I could put in my boots.
Depending on when and where you first see the lights will determine when you eat. Make sure to eat something before you go and bring snacks if you’re like me and always hungry which then turns into hanger! Gotta keep the blood sugar up in the cold!
My last recommendation is to read up on how to photograph low light and long exposure situations with your camera before you go. Things will be very rushed when you first get off the bus after spotting the lights because they usually fade quickly.
If you have some idea of how to capture the Northern Lights, you’ll be able to follow the guide’s usually hurried instructions easier. The guides are all trained in taking photos of the Northern Lights and portraits in front of the Lights. Take advantage of this! They make such cool momentos. I wish we had taken more!
I hope I have inspired you to make this incredible trip! I will be posting about what to do in Tromsø next!