Sunday, January 5, 2014
How to see the aurora / northern lights
If you don't live in an area that experiences northern lights, the thought of taking your precious vacation time to see them can be daunting. There are no guarantees about anything related to aurora travel. The travel conditions, the weather, the food, and the aurora themselves present unique challenges. You might not see anything. We met quite a few people who failed. One thing is for sure, you will have an adventure.
Find the right location
There are lots of places in the world that feature aurora travel. They all have pretty good odds of seeing the aurora. We chose to visit Fairbanks, Alaska because we only had a short vacation and didn't want to spend large amounts of time traveling. Fairbanks offers an international airport and relatively cheap and easy flight schedules from Florida. The other leading option for us was Iceland. Both Alaska and Iceland were on our travel wish list. The deciding factor was cost. Flights to Iceland for the days we wanted to travel were twice as expensive than Alaska, despite being much closer. Many other locations in Canada and Scandinavia were in remote locations that would require regional air travel, thus increasing the travel time dramatically. Another thing to consider is whether your location offers other activities to do while you aren't aurora watching.
Pick the right dates
Do a bit of research of the months of the year that increase your odds of seeing aurora in the location that you selected. Fairbanks offers good viewing from September through March. But the best time to go is reportedly March. We wanted to travel during the holidays. Pick dates during the new moon. Full moon can be very bright in the north where the snow reflects all of the light. The darker the skies are, the better. We chose a three night trip during the new moon at New Year's Eve.
Ignore the predictions
There are prediction websites out there. Obviously, you can watch the weather. Clouds are bad. Blizzards are worse. You want cold, clear nights. There are also aurora prediction sites. If you are not in the kind of situation where you can just pick up and go at any given moment, these predictions will do nothing for you but cause stress. If you aren't going to adjust your plans based on these predictions, don't worry about them.
For us, the day before we left, the weather sites told us it was going to be 100% cloudy every day we were traveling and the aurora prediction looked bleak. Our actual weather was 100% clear skies and we saw beautiful auroras every night.
In addition, conditions in Fairbanks can vary tremendously from the city to rural, from valleys to mountaintops. To view aurora, you are going to leave town to get away from the lights.
Prepare for the conditions
The weather is going to be cold. Maybe dangerously so. I grew up in the north, but I've lived in Florida for so long that I didn't have any of my gear. Do not skimp on your clothing. When you are standing in the middle of the Alaskan woods at 1:00 am, knee-deep in snow and it's 25 degrees below zero, you don't want to cut your aurora viewing short. Most tour options have a lodge or cabin that you can retreat to when you are cold. But you can't see auroras when you are hugging the wood stove inside the cabin.
Pick a tour
For your first time, please go on a tour. Tour groups are usually small and they will take you to safe, likely locations. It is certainly possible to drive a rental car to a location where you can watch the auroras for free, but you really are on your own. You won't be able to tweet your way out of an icy ditch on the side of a remote Alaskan road. Once you are there and have a bit of experience under your belt, you will feel more equipped to explore on your own. There are also plenty of lodges that specialize in aurora viewing. These are great all-in-one experiences.
Finally, after all of this fretting, enjoy yourself. Traveling to the north during winter is amazing. You will be fine. Hopefully, you will see one of the world's greatest wonders! If you read this and decide to go, let me know your experience!