When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? What is the best time of night to go aurora hunting? Can you see the Northern Lights in summer in Iceland? Read ahead to learn when to make your trip to the Land of Ice and Fire for the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis.
Iceland’s Northern Lights are one of its major attractions, competing only with other epic natural marvels such as the ice caves, glaciers, and volcanoes. The chance to watch the auroras dance in a place of such incredible natural beauty inspires thousands to reach this island’s shores, cameras in hand, and bucket lists ready to be checked.
Despite this enthusiasm, the aurora borealis is fickle. Though the Northern Lights are omnipresent in Iceland’s skies, they are only visible under certain conditions, at certain times of the year, and only then with enough solar activity. Knowing when to come to Iceland to hunt for them is an essential part of ensuring that you have the best chances of a once-in-a-lifetime viewing.
You can only see the Northern Lights of Iceland in the winter months. There needs to be strong solar activity, clear skies, and as little light as possible to witness this incredible display. Considering Iceland only gets between two and four hours of daylight in midwinter, depending on the latitude, this season provides endless opportunities to hunt for one of nature’s greatest marvels.
Northern Lights tours run between September and April, and within this range, there is no particularly optimum time. In November, December, and January, the nights are the darkest, allowing you to start seeking the aurora borealis from mid-afternoon and continue until nearly noon the next day if you are so inclined.
Another advantage of coming in midwinter is that it allows you to witness this country under a blanket of snow and to make the most of Iceland’s other winter phenomena, most notably the crystal blue ice caves, which are found in few other places worldwide.
However, throughout these months, Iceland endures its worst weather; it is not unheard of for clouds to block the skies - and thus the Northern Lights - for weeks at a time. Furthermore, storms are more common in this season, occasionally leading to the cancellation of tours or the closure of main roads.
Iceland’s weather is milder in autumn and spring (if still very unpredictable), meaning less chance of cloud cover, although note that the window of opportunity for Northern Lights hunting is smaller due to the increased daylight hours.
However, many summer tours extend into these months, allowing you to do more when the auroras are not on display. The Þríhnúkagígur Inside the Volcano Tour continues until October and will enable you to descend into and explore a vast, unbelievably colorful magma chamber. Whale watching from the whale-watching capital of Europe, Húsavík, meanwhile, begins in March and lasts until November, providing you the chance to marvel over the giants of the deep.
Of course, regardless of which part of the season you arrive during, you will still be able to partake in a wealth of year-round activities throughout the days. Snorkeling, snowmobiling, and glacier hiking are all worth experiencing before setting out to explore the Northern Lights each night.
In the weeks surrounding the summer equinox at the end of June, the sun never sets in Iceland. Instead, it circles the sky, touching the southern horizon but never sinking below it. The brightness of this ‘Midnight Sun’ entirely obscures the Northern Lights. Through the end of May, the entirety of June and July, and the beginning of August, the nights are still too bright to see the auroras.
Despite this, you can still see the aurora borealis faintly during the short hours of darkness at the very beginning and end of summer. Usually, they will be seen dimly against a dusky sky, often making for a uniquely beautiful display considering how vivid the colors of Iceland’s sunsets can be.
Even so, you have much less chance of seeing the Northern Lights during these times, as they will need to be particularly intense to be visible, and there is a much smaller window of opportunity to seek them. Suppose you wish to see the aurora borealis in Iceland while still enjoying relatively mild weather and the option to partake in most summer activities. In that case, it is recommended you come in September.
You can see the Northern Lights in Iceland whenever the sky is dark. Therefore, in December, they may be visible from three in the afternoon until nine in the morning. However, due to the earth’s rotation, its atmosphere, and its magnetosphere in relation to Iceland’s position on the globe, the time when they are most likely to be seen is between 22:00 and midnight.
Thankfully, this is when most Northern Lights tours, be they by boat, super jeep, or bus, set out in hunt of them. It also means that when the tours come to their conclusion, not only can you be assured that you have searched throughout the optimal time, but you won’t be out so late that it compromises your plans the next day.
Even so, if renting a car and hunting for the lights independently, either based in Reykjavík or on a winter self-drive tour tailored to the auroras and many other winter opportunities, you can search throughout the night for the Northern Lights. Of course, the least optimal times are those around sunrise and sunset, where light pollution significantly dims them.
Note that if you are out well into the early hours hunting for the auroras, it will be noticeably colder, so dress accordingly.
Other than waiting for a clear winter’s night, there are several other measures you can take to optimize your chances of enjoying a fantastic display of the aurora borealis in Iceland.
You should note that regardless of the measures you take, witnessing this majestic show of nature always requires a certain degree of luck. Some unlucky travelers dead-set on aurora hunting may encounter cloud cover or a lack of solar activity every night of their holiday. Others, traveling for one night in August, might be blessed with a fantastic show without even looking for it.
Even so, hoping you see a Northern Lights display without laying any groundwork is probably not the wisest option when there are several easy steps you can take to increase your chances.
First and foremost, you should avoid urban areas when Northern Lights hunting since all lights have the same dimming effect on the auroras as the sun. You can do this by finding places in Reykjavík away from such light pollution, by taking a boat to Víðey Island or a bus to the Seltjarnarnes Nature Reserve. However, you are much more likely to achieve better results by booking a tour or driving yourself out into the dark surrounding landscapes.
If on a guided package or self-drive tour, your route will take you out into the reaches of Iceland’s nature, maximizing your chances every night of catching a show.
Another measure you can take is extending the length of your holiday. If traveling to Iceland for just a weekend, you only have two or three windows in which to go aurora hunting; considering the unpredictable weather and fickle nature of the aurora borealis, you are not setting yourself up for success.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, a two-week-long vacation, particularly if spent in different parts of the country, will greatly increase your chances for a lucky night of perfect conditions.
Travelers could also consider spending much or all of their holiday in North Iceland; the nights here are longer, and the sky usually less cloudy, providing increased opportunity. The north is also less busy than the Reykjavík area during this season, allowing you to avoid the crowds at the most scenic viewing spots, such as the marvelous Lake Mývatn or frozen waterfall Goðafoss.
Wise hunters of the Northern Lights will also make sure they use modern technology to their advantage. Iceland’s weather website has regularly updated pages revealing the predicted and current cloud cover around the country, allowing you to plan to reach the areas with the clearest skies. The aurora forecast measures from 0-9, with 3 and above considered promising.
Finally, it is essential to be well-prepared and patient. It will take several minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness of Iceland's nights, so stay a while at each spot even if the sky appears clear. The Northern Lights can also begin at any time, so don't rush away if they aren't immediately active.
Ensuring you have many layers of warm clothes and perhaps some hot cocoa will allow you to wait for, and marvel over, the auroras for as long as you like. When it comes to Northern Lights hunting, just a little bit of patience can lead to the most incredible rewards, which no doubt you will remember for the rest of your life.
What was your experience with the Northern Lights in Iceland? What time of year did you come, and would you recommend it? Is there anything else you want to know about when to see the Northern Lights in Iceland? Let us know all about your aurora viewing in the comments below!