“When’s the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland?”
“When’s the best month to see Northern Lights in Iceland?”
“Can you see Northern Lights in Iceland in September?”
“Can you see Northern Lights in Iceland in April?”
“When exactly is the Northern Lights Iceland season?”
“How do I plan for a Northern Lights holiday to Iceland?”
These are all questions we’re just dying to know when planning for a Northern Lights trip to Iceland– or, well, any trip to Iceland really.
In today’s post, I’m going to be answering this million dollar question “when” and help you determine the best time for visiting Iceland. As a bonus, I’m even sharing with you Iceland’s most powerful forecast tool used to identify the best optimal time for witnessing its famous magical dance of colors. Keep on reading!
First and foremost, read up on my previous Iceland travel guide “Top 10 Useful Things to Know for Your Iceland Trip” if you haven’t already! I originally wrote this for those looking to visit in September (yes, I know it’s October now), but a lot of it applies to the other months as well. I promise it’s worth your time and the tips mentioned there will help you plan for a much smoother trip.
Alrighty then, let’s begin!
What are Northern Lights?
Before we go over when the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland is, it’s important to understand what they actually are. Now I’m no scientist and I don’t study astronomy, cosmetology, meteorology, or anything of that sort. To put it simply in plain English, Northern Lights are bright dancing lights of the aurora. This is also why they’re known as Aurora Borealis (in the north) and Aurora Australis (in the south). This phenomenon is caused when a collision occurs between electrically charged gas particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Depending on the type of gas particles that are colliding, the resulting colors may differ. Some common colors include green, pink, yellow, blue, red, and violet.
When is the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland?
In order to witness Iceland Northern Lights, you need three key ingredients: darkness + clear skies + aurora activity.
Most people recommend September to mid-April because these are the months with the darkest nights. However, you need to take into account that some of these months also have the worst weather with lots of rain and snow. The key is clear skies. Even with dark nights, if the skies are cloudy, you’re pretty much out of luck.
And of course, aurora activity… This is the most important one of them all – duh! For the complete aurora forecast, check out the Icelandic Met Office’s super duper helpful chart here.
Northern Lights Iceland Forecast Chart
Forecast chart provided by Icelandic Met Office.
At a glance, the chart may seem a little intimidating, but it’s very easy to read.
As you can see, there is a map of Iceland. On the map, there are different areas of light green versus dark. Ya no, you wanna avoid those. The green represents clouds and the white indicates clear skies. You want to be in the white areas on the map.
On the right, there is an aurora level indicator of 0 to 9. 0 is the weakest and 9 is the strongest. It rarely ever reaches 9 in Iceland, but even with a 2 or 3, you can see faint traces of Northern Lights in the sky. Below that, it also tells you when the sun sets and what hours are the darkest until sunrise. Be sure to bookmark their page so you know when the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland is.
When did we actually see Northern Lights in Iceland?
Aperture f2.8, shutter speed 6″, ISO 5000.
My family trip took place the first week of September. We didn’t get to see the lights dance until the 4th day we were there because of how rainy it was. (Iceland is notorious for rainy falls. Although honestly speaking, it was so cold, you might as well call September winter lol!)
The aurora activity was a 2 and on camera with long exposure settings, it was beautiful! Mind you this was my first Iceland Northern Lights experience hence I was just blown away. My dad, on the other hand, was not impressed at all. To the naked eye, it was extremely, extremelyyyyy faint. Like barely even there. We almost missed it too because we weren’t even sure what we saw was the actual Aurora Borealis.
Taken in the parking lot of Icelandair Hotel Vik.
In short, if you want to make sure you really catch that fantastic, mesmerizing, “too beautiful to be real” light show, I would recommend staying in Iceland for a longer period say two weeks. We were there for a week and of the 7 days (technically 6 nights), we only saw Northern Lights once. On some days, the activity level spiked to a 3/4, but it was simply way too rainy. Again, it all comes down to your luck.
Prepping for the Best Time to View Northern Lights in Iceland
In addition to letting you in on the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland, I figured I’d share some tips and tricks as well for prepping to see them.
1. Scout Your Photo Location First
For my photographer friends out there, seek out your photo location first during daytime! I can’t stress this enough. If you think you could just chase the lights and find a spot last minute, you are wrong. So wrong. Because when it’s dark at night, you bet it’s dark. Like pitch black dark. (Remember, Iceland doesn’t have that many street lights!) We were in Vík when we saw Aurora Borealis and there was a beautiful little church right behind our hotel that we didn’t even notice until the next day because of how dark it was. (There was a power outrage in the entire town that night too so that certainly didn’t help either.) Take it from someone who’s missed out on great photo opportunities, scout your location first!
When you choose your location, pick a subject you can shoot. E.g. a church. If you manage to locate a mountain and some body of water, even better! The lights will add a lot of drama – especially with the reflections and all.
Aside form that, I would recommend picking an additional 2-3 spots in case the lights don’t align with your location. Since we were in Vík, I thought the basalt stacks at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach would be perfect. Except as it turned out, the lights were in the complete opposite direction so I ended up just shooting them against some random mountains.
2. Get Your Camera Ready
If this is your first time shooting Northern Lights in Iceland, John from EXPOSED has awesome tips for ya in the video down below.
3. Stay Warm
Since you’ll be outdoors, it’s important to keep warm. Definitely stock up on some iron powder hand warmers if you can. I love mine from Japan, but you can purchase similar ones on Amazon here.
Additional Photos & Information
Here are a couple other shots from my dear blogger friends and when and where they had their Iceland Northern Lights experience.
Masha from Fingertip Travels
This was taken at the end of August in Reykjahlíð around Lake Mývatn by Masha from Fingertip Travels. Masha visited during summer and according to her experience, June and July are fairly bright due to summer/summer solstice. However, you can see Northern Lights in Iceland as early as late August as it gets dark around 10:30pm and stays so until 4:30am.
Rachel from The World in a Weekend
Rachel from The World In A Weekend took these photos back in January 2016 at Hotel Ranga.
Heather from Trimm Travels
Heather from Trimm Travels literally just came back from her trip to Iceland. This photo was taken by her near Þingvellir National Park on October 5th. Can you imagine how breathtaking this must’ve been!?
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And that about concludes it!
Remember, Northern Lights = darkness + clear skies + aurora activity.
There isn’t a solid answer for when the best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland is because luck will trump all. All three factors need to be in play and the best advice I can give is to simply wait things out. Stay for a longer period and keep your fingers crossed. September to April will definitely be your best bet though so good luck searching for your magical Iceland Northern Lights moment!
Tune in again next week for more Iceland travel guides as I share my DIY itinerary for the Golden Circle. In the meanwhile, enjoy my Iceland vlog and see you soon!