All About the Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights. Aurora borealis. Hálogar (Old Norse word for the lights literally meaning high flames). No matter what you call it, the amazing lights are a breathtaking phenomenon. We’ve gathered all the information you need to make the most of your Icelandic Northern Lights hunt. This is your complete guide to the Northern Lights in Iceland.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are the result of gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere colliding with electrically charged particles from the sun. Due to variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and the dark winters at the north and south poles, the lights are more visible at the poles than anywhere else in the world. Solar activity and the speed of the charged particles determines the intensity of the Northern Lights, so your Northern Lights experience relies heavily on solar activity, the weather and your location on the planet.

Why are the Northern Lights Usually Green?

While the color of the Northern Lights can vary— appearing pink, white or even purple— they are usually green. The color is determined by the kinds of particles that are colliding in the atmosphere. The typical color, pale green, is caused by low altitude oxygen molecules while nitrogen produces purple hues.

When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?

When it is dark out is the best time to see the Northern Lights. A moonless, cold, still, mid-winter night is ideal. Gray Line Iceland offers tours beginning in late August that run until mid-April. The brightest lights usually appear from November to February (due to the intense darkness) but these months are also the cloudiest with higher chances of snow and rain making Northern Lights hunting more of a challenge. But if you do take up the challenge, the reward is well worth it.

Best viewing conditions for Northern Lights 

Viewing conditions for Northern Lights depend on many factors including geography, weather and the time of day to name but a few. Northern Lights are potentially visible from every place in Iceland. Crisp cold evening with clear skies prime indicator for auroral activity. Remote locations, away from the glow of city lights give you a better view of the Northern Lights and their magic in the night sky.

The northern lights forecast from the Icelandic Meteorological Office can serve as an indicator for auroral activity and conditions for seeing the northern lights during your holiday in Iceland. Additionally, the Gray Line Iceland team announces on our Facebook page if it will be possible to see the northern lights for each night of the season. Follow us there to keep up to date.

Northern Lights spotted in the Icelandic countryside on a Gray Line Northern Lights tour

Things to Do and Bring for a Northern Lights Hunt

When you see the Northern Lights streak across the sky for the first time, you want to enjoy the moment to the fullest without worrying about being cold or getting a good photo. You want to be prepared. Here’s what you’ll need to do:

Book Your Tour Early

Before you do anything else in Iceland, book your Northern Lights tour and book it for early on in your stay. The Northern Lights and Icelandic weather are unpredictable. If you go on a tour at the beginning of your trip and the lights are a no-show, you’ll have plenty of time left to re-book the tour at no additional cost and try again.

Dress Well

Follow the usual Icelandic routine of dressing in layers plus extra warm scarves, gloves, hat, windproof pants and (during the winter) crampons that you can easily strap on to your hiking boots.

Also, make sure to wear:

  • Thermal undershirt
  • Thermal leggings/tights
  • Thick socks
  • Long-sleeved shirt 
  • Warm fleece 
  • Touch screen gloves (to access your phone’s camera) and mittens to go over them 
  • Heavy-duty waterproof parka 

Tech Gear

If you plan on photographing the Northern Lights, these five things are crucial to your success:

  • Camera (that includes your phone. See tips below)
  • Tripod, preferably a spider tripod that fits in your backpack and can handle any terrain or surface
  • Lens wipes for your camera lens
  • Northern Lights photo apps
  • Back-up batteries—nothing drains a battery like the cold

Bring a Warm Beverage

Bring along an insulated travel mug filled with your favorite hot beverage— hot chocolate, coffee or tea. You may be out in the cold for a while before the lights make an appearance, so a warm drink combined with your layers will keep you warm while you wait.

Be Patient

Don’t forget your patience. The Northern Lights do not follow a schedule, nor does the weather. Some nights the lights fill the sky with a dazzling display at the first place you stop and other times the clouds roll in and then suddenly part, just as you were giving up, revealing a showstopper of celestial delight. Be patient, and you may be rewarded with the show of a lifetime.

Beautiful northern lights shining over snowy mountains in Iceland

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

The first time you see the Northern Lights can be a magical moment, one that you just might want to capture in a photograph. Follow the tips below so you'll be ready to photograph the lights the moment they appear even if all you have on you is your phone. 

  • Know your phone - spend some quality time with your built-in camera and the adjustments you can make.
  • Bring a tripod - unless you’re a robot, you’re not going to hold your camera still enough during long exposures, and a spider tripod is small enough to pack and will attach to just about anything.
  • Find the dark - get as far away from city light as possible. Light pollution will ruin otherwise great shots of the lights.
  • Geek out with your manual settings - a little time messing with exposure and ISO can make all the difference.
  • Go ahead and edit - even a few nudges on those sliders can bring out dazzling detail hidden in your images.
  • Get apps - NightCap, Cortex Camera and Northern Lights Photo Taker App all come highly recommended. You don’t have to be a professional photographer; you just have to have the right app.

How to Track the Northern Lights

If you’re a Gray Line Iceland tour expert, you have Northern Lights spotters who let you know of Northern Lights activity in their area. There are also websites that track Northern Lights activity. Booking with Gray Line Iceland gives you access to both on-the-ground spotters and someone else to check and interpret the Northern Lights forecasts for you.

Northern Lights shining over downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. See them on a northern lights tour with Gray Line Iceland

Best Places in Iceland to See the Northern Lights

The brightness of a full moon is enough to dim the Northern Lights. The darker the sky, the greater the chances you’ll see the lights. While it’s possible to see the Northern Lights in the skies above Reykjavik, they won’t be nearly as brilliant as they appear in the countryside. Light pollution is not a friend to the Northern Lights hunter. 

If you simply can’t make it out of the city, Öskuhlið—the hill where Perlan sits—is a good place to try and spy the lights. Just outside of the city, on the edge of the light pollution zone, is the Grótta lighthouse on Seltjarnarnes peninsula. The view there is beautiful, and if you add in the Northern Lights, it becomes spectacular. But if you really want a great view, you’ve got to get far enough from the city to see the stars and not just a few. When you run out of fingers and toes to count the stars in the sky, then you’ll know you’ve gone far enough. 

Which Northern Lights Tour?

There are lots of Gray Line Iceland Northern Lights tours to choose from. No matter your tastes and preferences, there’s sure to be a tour match for you.

●    Northern Lights Deluxe Tour includes treats, blankets and hot chocolate, and is great for groups.

●    Northern Lights Mystery Tour is ideal for families.

●    Northern Lights Mystery Private Tour works well for soloists and those looking for a more individualized experience.

●    Northern Lights Cruise from Reykjavik is perfect for couples and romantics. Whether you’re honeymooning or celebrating your 20th anniversary the lights in the sky and reflecting off the water are a stunningly romantic backdrop.

●    Secret Lagoon and Northern Lights Hunt is for the spa junkie in you. Watch the Northern Lights while soaking in a geothermally heated pool.

●    Golden Circle Classic and Northern Lights Tour is great for the culture maven who wants the cultural context of the must-see sites along with their Northern Lights.

●    Hveravellir Winter Adventure or ATV and Northern Lights Tour is for the adventurer looking for a little more action in their Northern Lights excursion.