Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the incredible Northern Lights. But when is the best time to view the Aurora Borealis in Iceland? And how do you actually see the Northern Lights?
Picking the right time of year for aurora season and knowing a few simple tips will greatly improve your chances of viewing this amazing phenomenon during your Icelandic vacation.
Not many experiences compare to watching the northern lights as they dance and weave in the night sky right above you. It’s an awe-inspiring spectacle that you’ll never forget, and for many, it’s a once in a lifetime event.
The chance to see the aurora is one of the top reasons tourists visit Iceland during the winter months. However, as a natural phenomenon, the aurora is famously elusive and unpredictable and there are a lot of common misconceptions surrounding them.
What are the Northern Lights?
The bright dancing lights of an aurora are the visual result of charged particles from the Sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere and colliding with various gases, which releases energy in the form of light. Appearing near the Earth’s magnetic poles, they are called Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) in the southern hemisphere.
The variation in colour of the aurora is caused by the type of gas, the altitude and energy released by the collision as they enter the atmosphere resulting in vivid white, green, yellow, red, pink and purple lights.
The solar activity that causes these charged particles to hit our atmosphere can take anywhere from minutes to several days to reach us. That’s why it is incredibly hard to forecast aurora activity with any long-term accuracy.
When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is anytime between September to April.
You can increase your opportunities of seeing the aurora by visiting deep into winter giving you more hours of total darkness. The tradeoff is that during the day you have worse weather and less time to see the sights.
The solar activity that causes the aurora can happen at any time of the day, all year round. Of course for humans to be able to see them we need clear, dark skies. This rules out the summer months as the longer days mean that the night sky never gets dark enough to see them.
If you want to see Iceland in full snow, covered in ice and with as much darkness as possible – go deep into the winter months of November, December, January and February.
If you prefer slightly nicer weather, and longer days to explore the country while still having the opportunity to see the Northern Lights, then consider the shoulder seasons of September, October, March and April.
We visited in early September at the very start of aurora season and were lucky enough to see them on three nights out of eleven. Our advice is to consider what else you want to do in Iceland and plan your trip accordingly. Our map full of pinned ‘must-sees’ meant that shoulder season was the perfect time to visit Iceland. With so much to see during the day, we were able to cover lots of ground and have a cheeky afternoon nap before heading out at night for some aurora hunting.
Always remember that the weather in Iceland can change very quickly. Just because it was a cloudy day, doesn’t mean the skies won’t rapidly clear that night and vice versa. You need to stay vigilant and keep your eye on the forecast and skies to give yourself the best chance of seeing an aurora.
How do you see the Northern Lights?
There are only 3 things you need to have the best shot of seeing the Northern Lights: darkness, clear skies and solar activity.
We already know that the winter months are the best time of year to see the Northern Lights due to long hours of total darkness. But what about other sources of light?
Avoid the full moon
The main mistake we hear about is aurora hunting during a full moon. While you might still see a strong aurora during a full moon cycle, it will be a lot harder to see clearly and will make photographing it almost impossible. So take note of the moon phase in Iceland when booking your trip.
Get away from light pollution
Luckily, Iceland doesn’t suffer much from light pollution due to its comparatively small cities. In fact, the city of Reykjavik has been known to collectively switch off their lights if there is a particularly strong aurora forecast.
For the brightest and clearest Northern Lights though it is a good idea to get as far away from the main cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri as you can, and even out of any smaller towns you may be in. A simple way to do this is to put a mountain between you and the city – an easy thing to do in Iceland.
Use this amazing dark sky map to find the best location near you to view the Northern Lights.
2. Clear Skies
All the location planning in the world won’t help you see the aurora if the skies are cloudy. This is probably the most frustrating aspect of aurora hunting and the reason why we say don’t plan your entire trip around the aurora itself.
At the end of the day, like most adventures, you are at the mercy of the weather. Fear not though, as the weather in Iceland can change fast and thick cloud cover can be blown away in a matter of hours.
The Icelandic Met Office has a fantastic website with live and predicted cloud cover for Iceland that we used religiously to plan our escape from the clouds. Be sure to keep this one bookmarked.
3. Solar Activity Strength – Aurora Forecast (KP Index)
Assuming you have clear and dark skies, the last thing you need to take note of during your trip to Iceland is the aurora forecast or KP index. This is a simple number from 0 to 9 that indicates the strength of global geomagnetic activity and therefore the likelihood of seeing a strong, bright aurora.
The global KP index has a long-term “forecast” of up to 28 days and a much more accurate 1-hour forecast. Our understanding is that the 28 days forecast is more of an educated guess based on analysing solar activity patterns and attributing higher activity to certain days or periods – so don’t put too much stock in this.
In reality, the KP index is only really accurate within a 1-hour window, as this forecast is based off actual readings from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite.
So the best thing to do is download an Aurora forecast app for your phone and set up alerts for when the KP index is spiking. We had it set up to alert us for anything above a 3 while we were there. Just remember though the Northern Lights are unpredictable and a high or low KP index is not a guarantee of anything happening in your local area.
The first time we saw the aurora was a KP 2, and it was one of the strongest showings we saw. On a couple of other nights with a forecast of 5 or 6, we saw nothing. So if it’s dark and clear, keep your eyes on the skies and take the KP with a grain of salt.
Download the My Aurora Forecast Alert app.
Where is the best place in Iceland to see the Northern Lights?
You can see the Northern Lights from almost anywhere in Iceland. Assuming you have a clear night all you really need to do is get yourself outside and away from any large towns.
We preferred to get as remote as possible so we were truly alone as we watched the aurora’s awesome display dance across the night sky. It somehow felt more magical with not another soul around. Just you and the epic Iceland landscape being lit up with a vivid green and pink light.
If you have a Northern Lights tour booked then you don’t need to worry as your local guide will take care of everything. Some companies even take you out again for free if you don’t see them.
It is always worth doing some location scouting during the day so you have a couple of spots nearby you can get to quickly in case the KP index spikes.
Here are a couple of tips for finding the best locations in Iceland to see the aurora from.
If possible give yourself as many viewing angles of the sky as possible somewhere in the middle of a valley or flatland. You don’t need to be facing north to see them in Iceland and they can come from any direction, so don’t back yourself into a wall – or a mountain!
Get high up
Look for any mountain or hillsides in your area that has viewing points or car pullouts. Getting high up can allow you to see a lot further away and makes for an epic scene if they do appear – great for photos.
View across water
Find your nearest body of water on a map and scope it out for parking spots. There may be nothing more spectacular in our opinion than watching the Northern Lights over a body of water. It is essentially 2-for-the-price-of-1 as you see them dance overhead and in the reflection of the water.
Remember that it gets super cold at night and you’ll be standing outside, so kit up with ALL the layers. One night we ventured out wearing 3 pairs of pants, 2 jumpers, beanie, gloves, scarf, thermals, 2 pairs of socks and any other warm layer we could find. Gloves are key, especially if you’re going to photograph the aurora.
Patience and flexibility
Sometimes, even with the app alert, the aurora just doesn’t appear, so be patient and prepared to wait or drive around to another location to try your luck. Having a good stash of snacks, water and chocolate in the car will keep you happy for your midnight aurora hunting adventures!
Northern Lights Tours
We opted not to take a tour as we had our own car for 11 nights and were confident in our aurora hunting abilities. But if you are short on time, won’t have a vehicle or are based in Reykjavik then a Northern Lights tour is a great option. There are a bunch of companies, just keep an eye on the T&C’s regarding refunds, cancellations and options to do another night if you don’t see the aurora. We’ve heard the boat and 4×4 Jeep options are particularly awesome.
The best locations near Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights.
Hvalfjörður – Fjord and Mountains
Just 30 minutes drive north of the capital, the area around this fjord is open and stunning. With views in all directions, ridge lines in the distance and plenty of water you can pull over anywhere safe and have a great vantage point for the aurora. Google Maps link
Kleifarvatn – Lake and Volcanic landscape
Also 30 minutes out of Reykjavik, only south this time, Kleifarvatn lake offers a stunning and serene setting for aurora watching. Surrounded by volcanic landforms this glassy still lake makes for beautiful reflection shots of the Northern Lights. Google Maps link
Þórufoss (Thorufoss) – Waterfall
North East of Reykjavik this time, again only a short 30 minutes drive, this picturesque little waterfall was used as a filming location in Game of Thrones. There is also the nearby Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn) lake offering sweeping 360-degree views. Google Maps Link
Northern Lights quick guide
Visit Iceland between September – April, avoiding a full moon.
Wait for total darkness to fall with clear skies.
Location scout for nearby viewing places away from light pollution.
Set up aurora strength KP index alerts.
Be ready to aurora hunt at a moments notice!
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