How We Finally Found the Dazzling Northern Lights in Iceland

bands of the northern lights in Iceland stretching across the night sky

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Maybe you are wondering: is it possible to see the northern lights, aka aurora borealis, in Iceland?  I wondered the same thing, even though Iceland is technically far enough north for aurora sightings.  Especially after optimistically planning a four-day Iceland trip in 2018, only for thick cloud cover to ruin our chances of seeing any lights.

I thought for sure I would try a different country the next time I wanted to go northern lights hunting.  Perhaps Iceland was simply the wrong choice, and my chances would be better in Alaska, Norway or Finland.

Funny enough, a little over three years after our first attempt, my husband and I found ourselves booking a January trip to Iceland for another attempt at seeing the northern lights.  Once again, we gave ourselves four nights, despite the fact that this wasn’t enough time on the previous trip.  That was simply the only block of time we had available to us.

Besides the lights, we planned nothing else for this trip until our arrival in Iceland.  This is because I wanted to leave our schedule open to go northern lights hunting as many nights as needed.  Essentially, the sole focus of this trip was to find the ever elusive aurora borealis.

How We Found the Northern Lights in Iceland

Green aurora peaking out from behind clouds in Iceland
Watching the sky in hopes that this aurora comes out from behind the clouds

Why Iceland?

After our failed first attempt at seeing the northern lights, I truly thought I would pick a new destination for our second attempt.  To my surprise, three years later I found myself booking a flight and hotel to… Iceland.  Again.

Are you scratching your head?  If I had to narrow down the reasons for this choice, I guess they would be:

  • Proximity: It is easy for my husband and I to reach Iceland from the US.  We can catch a direct flight on Icelandair via Boston, which is an hour or so connecting flight for us.
  • Time of year: I thought that maybe in January we’d have a better chance of seeing the lights than in October.  With only four to five hours of daylight, more darkness meant more opportunity for any auroras to be visible.
  • Location: Iceland is far enough north that northern lights sightings are definitely possible.  The tricky part is getting a clear sky so the auroras are visible when they come out. That said, Iceland’s weather changes quickly, so clear nights can be hard to predict.
  • Iceland is awesome: My husband and I adored Iceland when we visited in October 2018.  We felt so happy and cheerful in the colorful Nordic city of Reykjavik.  We were craving an escape that would bring us some joy, and an aurora sighting would simply have been a bonus.

What is the Best Month to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?

bands of northern lights stretching across the sky in Iceland

When choosing the best month to see the northern lights in Iceland, the simplest answer is that there needs to be darkness. That rules out the summer months, when there can be up to twenty four hours of daylight! 

Therefore, the best months to catch the aurora borealis in Iceland fall between late September and early April. December and January offer the most darkness, but weather conditions can be cold, dark, and slippery. If you aren’t comfortable with winter driving, and want to explore outside Reykjavik, these months may not be ideal for you.

October and March still offer enough darkness to see the northern lights in Iceland, but with more daylight for sightseeing around the island. Even though we struck out on our October Iceland trip, this is actually the month when a lot of others have successfully seen the northern lights. We even learned on our recent trip that October 2021 had some particularly good displays.

Additionally, there is statistically more aurora activity around the spring and autumn equinoxes, which fall in March and September.  There are very sciency reasons for this that I am not qualified to explain. Just know that while these conditions may cause a particularly good show, a sighting can never be guaranteed since cloud cover could still obscure the lights.

Choosing an Iceland Northern Lights Tour

couple standing under green aurora bands
A guide will also take your photo in front of the northern lights (photo credit: Happy World Iceland)

While you could hunt for auroras on your own, an experienced guide will increase the chances of a sighting – especially for first-timers. I personally prefer doing a Super Jeep tour, because they can literally drive just about anywhere in all road conditions to find the best place to see the northern lights.

An expert guide will also know how to closely follow and interpret the aurora forecast and weather radar.  That way, they can take you to the best place to search for the lights and show you the direction in the sky to look for them. Plus, they can help you actually spot the aurora, since a faint one could look like a bright cloud to the untrained eye.

Just know that booking a tour still cannot guarantee you will see the northern lights in Iceland. The best companies do not confirm whether their tours are actually running until about 6pm the day of your booking. Icelandic weather conditions can change at the last minute, and they don’t want you wasting your time and money out in the cold when a sighting is very unlikely.

For reference, we booked this tour in 2018, and all four of our nights got cancelled and refunded. We tried again in 2021, and once again, the first night of our tour got cancelled. It wasn’t until our last night that we received our first ever email stating that our tour was ON.

When our guide picked us up in the Super Jeep in front of our cozy hotel in Reykjavik, I wasn’t even jealous that others in our small group were going out after only one failed attempt. I was simply happy to be going!

Best Time to Spot an Aurora in Iceland

Green northern lights swirling in the sky in Iceland

I felt very confident that our guide would help us find the northern lights, after learning he grew up seeing them on the regular living on his grandparents’ farm. These warm memories instilled a passion deep inside him, and caused him to associate the auroras with happiness. It was wild to know that even Icelanders love seeing the lights when they come out.

I trusted his expertise when he told us that auroras typically make their appearance between 10pm and 1am.  That’s why, even with only five total hours of daylight, our tour didn’t set out until around 9pm.  I was prepared to stare at the sky in the freezing cold for three straight hours if that’s what it took.

That’s why I was astounded when, after our guide parked in the middle of an open field around 10pm, I looked behind me out the window and my jaw dropped.

In the distance was a wispy greenish light peaking out from behind a cloud.  I’d never seen an aurora before, but I knew they often don’t appear bright to the naked eye.  I just kept staring in curiosity, hoping it was more than a cloud.

That’s when our guide opened his door and immediately began gathering his camera equipment.  A few seconds later, he was beckoning us all to leave the warmth of the Jeep to join him.  The wispy green streak I saw was in fact an aurora, and we were missing it!

After maybe a half hour of aurora gazing and taking photos under the lights, some pesky clouds came swooping in, thus ending our show. Soon, the auroras themselves went away for a bit too.  Our guide thought the clouds might clear up, and mentioned that the northern lights are typically most active around midnight.  Sadly, the forecast showed no improvement, so we called it a night around 11:30pm.

Forecasting the Northern Lights

Check this website for Iceland’s daily northern lights forecast. It will show you the predicted cloud cover, as well as the Kp index for forecasted aurora activity.

Kp index is a rating from 0-9, and many people mistakenly believe it predicts the probability that an aurora will appear. This number is actually a prediction of how strong the aurora will be. The higher the number, the stronger the aurora, which basically means it is likely to extend further overhead.

For example, an aurora sighting is possible at a level 1; it will simply appear lower on the horizon.

The night we went out, the Kp index was only projected to be a 2, but we ended up getting a better show than predicted.  The aurora came up higher from the horizon than expected, sometimes reaching more of a 3.  At one point there were actually 3 bands of light stretching across the sky, which was incredible and surreal.

Photographing the Northern Lights

Not wanting to miss a single green band of light, upon arrival I wasted no time getting out into the field. Despite not having a clue what I was doing, I tried my best to adjust my camera settings correctly.  Sadly, the guide forgot to bring the tripod I rented, and the strong winds were making a clear photo near impossible. 

The winds were also making staying warm a challenge, so I was super grateful for my well-insulated boots and down coat!

As my dad says, though: any port in a storm. I got my camera settings to be what I deemed “good enough”, and initially steadied it on my small camera bag. Then I found a taller post in the ground nearby to hold my camera on.  This allowed me to steady it even further for crisper photos.  It wasn’t perfect, but I’m very happy with what I captured.

When I wasn’t playing with my camera, me and Aaron were running over to where our guide was taking pictures. He kept rotating us all in front of the camera for photos, as the lights of the aurora were constantly growing and changing.

couple standing with arms outstretched below the northern lights in iceland
Photo credit: Happy World Iceland

Below are the camera equipment and settings I used for the above photos (except where we are pictured):

• • •

Even though I wished we could’ve seen more lights that evening, I was so grateful for what we were able to see.  Having already had one cancellation our first night, and unfavorable conditions over the next two days, I really thought we might come up empty again.  The fact that this was not the case, and that I was going home with aurora photos on my memory card was more than satisfying for me!

The ultimate guide to seeing the northern lights on your next trip to Iceland.  Here is one firsthand account of seeing the beautiful aurora borealis during January in Iceland.  Includes tips on northern lights photography, the best tours, choosing the time of year, and other things to expect.  Seeing the aurora borealis in Iceland is an incredible experience you will never forget!
The ultimate guide to seeing the northern lights on your next trip to Iceland.  Here is one firsthand account of seeing the beautiful aurora borealis during January in Iceland.  Includes tips on northern lights photography, the best tours, choosing the time of year, and other things to expect.  Seeing the aurora borealis in Iceland is an incredible experience you will never forget!
The ultimate guide to seeing the northern lights on your next trip to Iceland.  Here is one firsthand account of seeing the beautiful aurora borealis during January in Iceland.  Includes tips on northern lights photography, the best tours, choosing the time of year, and other things to expect.  Seeing the aurora borealis in Iceland is an incredible experience you will never forget!

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