What no one ever tells you about the Northern Lights
Unpredictable and impossible to plan around, The Northern Lights is top of the bucket list for many, but how do we make it happen? Well, with a bit of prior planning (and a couple of things in mind), you just need to go for it. Earlier this year I embarked on the trip of a lifetime and called Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Ivalo, Finland home for three days. Although, sadly the Aurora didn’t make an appearance for us, we accepted that this was entirely out of our control and what we did experience was a magical winter wonderland.
Not sure where to begin organising your dream trip? I reached out to seasoned explorer, Ces Yee of Flight Centre for her advice and top tips when it comes to the arctic wilderness…
Fly To: Ivalo via Helsinki International Airport (just a short one and a half hour flight). The resort is a 30-minute shuttle bus away.
Flight Time: Roughly 10 hours from Hong Kong to Helsinki
The Northern Lights are unpredictable.
“The Aurora Borealis is part of nature, which means, it’s unpredictable. We can tell you about where to go or when to go, but it’s not 100% that you will spot the lights.”
“There are plenty of apps you can download to help your chances and assist with the lights movement” says Ces, “but don’t rely on these too much. I’ve seen the lights in full glory on a supposed ‘low activity’ day.” Take environmental factors into consideration, “which includes the weather and the placement of the sun.”
“If I were to be super realistic, you need to understand that chasing the lights is super hard work. You have to be able to stand the cold, sometimes, you even have to be outside for hours. And there are nights when the lights do not appear,” expresses Ces. According to The Telegraph, “the hours of darkness increase the farther north you travel, and while the aurora can be sighted at any moment, 9pm to 2am tend to be prime viewing time,” so it really is a game of chance!
Sonja Eiramo, daughter of Kakslauttanen founder, Jussi suggests that “November- December is the most popular time to Aurora hunt, but for those looking to avoid crowds, January-March is best.” The season stretches right through until May, but as the nights are longer and darker earlier on in winter, “your chances naturally increase.” Don’t feel disheartened or cheated if luck isn’t on your side however. The lights came out to play the day before (and supposedly the day after) we left Kakslauttanen, and although this was disappointing, the bright, blue night sky we did encounter made for memories that will last a lifetime.
Taking photos? They won’t show up on a camera phone!
“People assume that they can easily capture the lights using their camera phones,” says Ces, but to actually be able to photograph the lights, “I highly recommend a DSLR or any camera that is capable of long exposures.” Find an “interesting but not overpowering foreground with minimal light pollution” she suggests. You need to have “enough open space that you can get at least a great 360-degree view of the sky,” which means getting away from the city and searching for somewhere really dark! “Light pollution will decrease the intensity of the aurora you can capture on film.”
Ces’ top photography tips:
- Use your manual setting set to infinity.
- Adjust your ISO setting, ideally between 400 and 800.
- Use a wide-angle lens.
- Use a cable release.
- Use a small flashlight with green/red lights option to help you set up your camera when it’s pitch dark in the field. Do not use ridiculously bright lights.
- Fresh batteries (and spare ones). The cold will drain the batteries fast.
- A sturdy tripod will be your best friend. With long exposures, you will need to set your camera very still to avoid blurry shots.
- GoPros work as well, if you set the interval to continuous and shutter at 30-sec.
If you are lucky enough to see them, “don’t get too obsessed about taking the best shot! Watch this beautiful phenomenon with your eyes. Just be in the moment and take it all in” Ces advises. “Chasing the lights requires a lot of effort. If you’re travelling without a guide, make sure to notify your hotel to ring you up at night in case the light appears.”
If you’re planning a trip in the height of winter, you will need to prepare for sub zero temperatures. “I was woken up at 2am by the hotel” recalls Ces, “I had to quickly change for the sub zero temperature and bring all my camera gear in tow. I remember vividly just holding my tripod stunned by the beauty above me. For the longest time, I was just watching the lights dance and weave through the sky. Moments later, I found a nice spot in the field and put my camera down.” In Ivalo, the days remain dark and temperatures can reach as low as – 40 degrees celsius, but towards summer (when we were there), the sun didn’t start to set until midnight, and the ‘midnight’ or ‘eternal sun’ is in full force.
Don’t base your trip around the Aurora, go for the experience.
Again, The Telegraph has it right, obviously where you choose to go “will depend on your budget and the time available” and you do need to make a decision as to what else you want to do when “you’re not standing outside in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky with fingers crossed.”
While some locations may require a trek or an organised tour to see the lights, Kakslauttanen is located right at the edge of the wilderness, along the road to the arctic sea, which means that when the lights appear, you’re surrounded by them. Famed on Pinterest for their glass igloos, the accommodation gives you every opportunity to witness the the spectacle! We stayed in a Kelo-Glass Igloo which had all the comforts of a log cabin (roaring fire and all) with the added option of sleeping under the stars in the attached glass pod; but as the lights can only be seen at night, what do you do during the day?
Embarking on husky, reindeer and snowmobile safaris scrape but the surface of the resort’s activities! Available throughout winter, experience the arctic circle in full glory as you speed ‘down the fell into the snowy forest, enjoying some of the best scenery the region has to offer.’ Don’t take the little things for granted either, go sledding down the snowy hills and embrace being out of touch and away from an internet connection; forget updating your instagram stories, your actual stories are worth much, much more.
- Book well in advance! Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort fills up a year ahead, especially if you’re thinking of going at Christmas, you’ll have to start planning in the New Year.
- A cheaper option to the Kelo-Glass Igloos, the standard igloos have essential amenities like a toilet and a kettle, but you’ll have to brave the cold to the communal showers in the morning!
- Don’t stress too much about buying winter clothing! Most places will have the option of renting gear like snow suits, gloves and boots. At Kakslauttanen, these are included in the price of all activities and can be rented from the reception on a daily basis. During winter I’d highly recommend to dress up in layers and most importantly, invest in good thermal long underwear!
- The resort is also open during summer months. Although you won’t be able to see the lights, the experience is worth it and accommodation is cheaper. Pick berries and mushrooms, ride through fields on horseback, rent an ATV and kayak rivers. Psst… Santa lives at the resort all year round and he’s always keen to say hello.
- Pay for firewood. It may seem like a bit of a money spinner, but you’ll applaud yourself as you sip hot chocolate and warm your toes.
- Don’t spend thousands on a fancy camera if you don’t already own one, a GoPro works just as well, is compact enough to fit in the zip pocket of your snow suit, and is quick and easy to fish out if the lights do appear! I would recommend buying a ‘GorillaPod’ before you go however (even one from Temple Street will do!); I didn’t buy one and just anchored my GoPro in the snow to snap some pics and the battery froze immediately… oops.
- Buy a cheap pair of touch screen gloves to fit under your thermal ones. Under no circumstances remove your gloves to take a video as you’re zooming through a snow storm on a snowmobile. You will end up with minor frostbite.
- Worried that you might sleep through the show? Ask your resort to give you a wake up call! And if this isn’t a service they offer, set alarms at intervals on your phone – sleep disruption is a small price to pay, right?
- Give yourself time. When speaking to locals at Kakslauttanen they always advise people to book in for at least five days, even if it’s not at the same hotel. What are the chances of bad weather for a week straight, right?
- Let the lights be a bonus! Try not to be disappointed if you don’t see the them, embrace the experience and soak in every second.
When on safari with a pack of energetic huskies, bare in mind that if you fall off the sleigh, the dogs do not stop. I repeat, the dogs do not stop.
Featured image credited to Valtteri Hirvonen