We spent a week in Iceland in the beginning of March. We had many hopes for this trip. We wanted to see Ice Caves, swim between 2 continents, swim in the Blue Lagoon, pet Icelandic horses, explore Reykjavík and see some stellar waterfalls and geysers. The thing we desired most though, was to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
We had a few mishaps on the trip. I had a terrible cold the entire time we were in Iceland, which prevented us from doing some activities. Then Jake slipped on ice at Gulfoss waterfall and spent hours in the Emergency Room for a hurt foot. Despite our mishaps, we had one of the best weeks of our lives.
By our final night we had accepted we probably weren’t going to see the Northern Lights as we had hoped, despite going out and looking for them every clear night that week. However, the weather suddenly changed our final night and we finally experienced a once in a lifetime moment. We saw the Northern Lights!
The pictures I captured unfortunately aren’t the best. It’s not about taking awesome pictures (although I will share a few tips on how to), experiencing it for yourself is what it’s all about. I will share some tips on how you can do that!
To view the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Iceland you need 3 things; dark skies, high KP index and good weather.
We visited around the time of the New Moon, which means the moon was just a sliver in the sky, or no moon at all. This is the optimal time to see the Northern Lights since a Full Moon could light up the sky too much. You will want to get away from all artificial light as well, which means getting out of the city. Car lights, street lamps and city smog will really reduce your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
I purchased Dark Sky Finder for $2.99 from the Apple app store. The app is actually really cool and will show you areas of where pollution is greatest, so you can avoid it. It will also also pinpoint specific locations that are known to be dark areas, if you are just looking to photograph the night sky. You can get directions to it, as well as see the forecast for that area, if there are any fees, bathrooms or what the parking situation is.
It is a fantastic app for anyone interested in night photography. With all that said, the pinpoint locations do not work in Iceland. You can get a general idea of areas of high pollution, but my favorite feature is not available there.
High KP Index
The KP Index is a scale between 0-9 that measures how great the Aurora activity is. The further north you are, the lower KP index you need to see the Northern Lights. For example, in Iceland based on the latitude, you need a KP of at least 3 to have a shot at seeing them. When we were in Iceland the KP index was 5 or 6, which means that further south in Scotland they were able to see the Northern Lights (meanwhile the rain prevented us in Iceland from seeing it).
Frankly, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around earth sciences, so this site can explain what KP is a lot better than I possible could. Just know, if you are in Iceland and wanting to see the Northern Lights don’t bother going out unless it is at least a KP index of 3.
You could try and plan your trip around the moon cycle and when the KP index is usually highest, but you could spend a week in Iceland and still not see the Northern Lights because the weather is so fickle. We experienced snow, rain, sunshine and strong Arctic winds all in days drive. The weather changes so rapidly. There were days where we checked the weather forecast and it called for rains and a few hours later it was calling for clear skies. Don’t give up hope if the weather isn’t cooperating with you and keep yourself up to date.
You won’t care that you finally saw the Northern Lights if you are freezing. Even if you have been in cold weather, you don’t understand how cold it can feel when that Arctic wind starts blowing. Your bones feel cold.
We wore no less than 3 layers whenever we went out at night. You will need a good merino wool base layer for your lower extremities. I got this one and Jake got this one. I then wore a pair of yoga pants over my base layer, sweatpants then these snow pants. I also got this merino blend long sleeve base and it was really warming, but super light. Over your base layers you will want to wear another long sleeve shirt and a coat, at a minimum. I often wore a sweatshirt as well. A windbreaker was especially helpful, even when it wasn’t actively snowing or raining when it would start getting windy it would blow the snow on the ground around.
If you want to capture this once in a lifetime moment on film you will definitely need the right photography equipment.
You will need (at a minimum) a camera that can shoot long exposure, a tripod and a remote shutter release control (linked to products that I use and love). I also found my wide angle lens to be the best lens option, as you can capture a lot more of the aurora activity on film and get in more of the landscape.
When I was preparing for the trip to Iceland I found this article helpful which gives a lot of great tips on how to photograph the Northern Lights.
Seeing the Northern Lights
We had made 2 attempts to see the Northern Lights when we were in Reykjavík.
Our first night in Iceland we drove about an hour north. The skies were mostly clear and the KP index was a 3. We found a nice quiet area in the country near a bunch of sheep farms. We probably didn’t wait long enough, as we got impatient and ended up moving to Þingvellir National Park. We didn’t realize that’s where we were since it was so dark, it only looked familiar to us a few days later when we returned. If you book a Northern Lights tour from Reykjavík there’s a good chance you will end up around this area. We passed at least 6 big tour buses. Eventually It became too foggy so we ended up turning in for the night around 11 PM.
Our second attempt took us about an hour south, over a snowy pass. After getting over the pass the weather cleared. However, after an hour the clouds slowly rolled back in. Another bust.
We felt like our greatest chance of seeing the Northern Lights was when we stayed at a rural guesthouse in southeast Iceland. The receptionist at the guesthouse told us she had never seen such bright Northern Lights as the night before we arrived. The KP index was quite high while we were there, unfortunately it rained both nights.
Finally, our last night in Iceland we found ourselves on the outskirts of Thingvellir National Park, staying at Ljósafossskóli Hostel. The hostel is a converted primary school, which gives it a really fun vibe. There was only 1 other guest staying there when we were, and we never crossed paths. If you are looking for somewhere rural to stay, but still close to Reykjavík I couldn’t recommend this place more highly! The owner was so sweet and helpful. The wifi and breakfast were both good and the location was fantastic.
The weather forecast was calling for a cloudy night, and indeed we saw clouds in the sky the entire drive from eastern Iceland back to Thingvellir.
And then something amazing happened.
The KP index was high…and the weather started to clear. On top of that, we were in a dark area with few houses and 20 minutes from the nearest town.
We had waited 7 days for everything to line up!
We spent the afternoon driving around the Golden Circle again and actually visited the geysers for the first time, since Jake’s foot injury days earlier had prevented it. We anxiously watched the sunset and scouted some more for places to pull off to look for the Northern Lights later than night.
Finally, before we knew it, the stars were coming out. We bundled up in 3 layers of clothes, grabbed our thick snow gloves, hat and camera gear and headed out. Unfortunately, we realized as we were walking out the door that my camera tripod had broken during all the commotion when Jake got hurt at Gulfoss Waterfall. If you don’t know, it’s damn near impossible to take long exposure photos at night without a tripod. Just the smallest movement and your pictures will turn into a blurry mess.
We drove around, looking north into the sky.
“Is that it?”
“No, that can’t be it. It doesn’t look like that in pictures.”
“Oh wow, babe. I think that’s it!”
“No, I think you’re pointing to a cloud.”
This went on for a good 30 minutes. And then we saw it. It wasn’t as vibrant or green as you see in pictures. It was more white and hazy, slowly dancing in the sky. The stars were bright and when you closed your eyes if felt like you were underwater because it was absolutely silent. We didn’t see another car pass us. In 2 hours we happened upon 2 other photographers pulled off the road.
I struggle with my broken, 2 legged tripod. I tried to make a 3rd leg with packed snow, but since it was dark and my hands frozen this proved difficult.
The final straw was when my camera battery died. We decided to turn in after that. I was excited to have seen the Northern Lights finally, but bummed to leave when I was not satisfied with the blurry photos I had taken.
We returned to our hostel, a little after 11PM and settled into go so sleep. I turned off the light and climbed up to my top bunk. I turned onto my side and looked out the window. Green streaks were dancing in the night sky. It was everything I had dreamt of! I started yelling at Jake to look outside and we both dressed as quickly as we could and headed out.
I had a slightly charged battery and a 2 legged tripod. Still not the greatest pictures, but the Northern Lights were much stronger than earlier in the night. We stayed outside as long as we could bare until we were freezing and finally headed back in, absolutely content.
We had gone to Iceland in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. We spent multiple hours on 3 separate nights out searching for them. And then, finally, they found us.
Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights
- Choose a guesthouse or hostel that is in a dark and secluded location. We would recommend Guesthouse Nypugardar (€73/night) near Höfn and Ljósafossskóli Hostel (€72/night) near Selfoss.
- Check out the moon Phase –> 2016 Moon Phases Calender
- Dark Sky Finder App–> Apple, no available on Android
- Keep up to date on the Aurora Forecast in Iceland –> Icelandic Met Office
- September to mid-April is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, because it doesn’t get dark enough during the long summer days
- Look North. Duh. You’re not going to waste a lot of time looking around, but it didn’t occur to us that the Northern Lights would be visible North of where we were, so we spent time admiring some smog to the south of us!
**Note: there are affiliative links in this post. Which means if you book an accommodation or make a purchase using these links we will receive a small commission, while you pay the same price you would have elsewhere. We don’t recommend things we have experienced or liked ourselves!***