Seeing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. When Nick told me he thought we should travel to Norway in January to see them, I nearly died. I still can’t believe we went there, or that we saw what we saw. We’ve been so lucky to travel like we have since we moved overseas, but this particular trip took the cake. Thinking back to it feels like thinking back to some surreal dreamscape that couldn’t possibly have actually happened. And yet it did.
In January 2015, we spent a week in northern Norway, where we took two different excursions to view the incredible Northern Lights.
I want to share what we learned with you about chasing the Aurora in Tromso, Norway, but it would be easy to over share. We had such an incredible time and saw such awe-inspiring things that it’s hard to know what stories you’d like to read and which ones I just like to tell.
In the spirit of trying to provide useful information to other travelers, I’m going to do my best to stay focused on the two Aurora experiences we had in Tromso and what we liked about each of them. I’ll share the details here about the tour guides, their styles, and what we saw on each tour.
When to See the Aurora Borealis
The lights can be seen from just about anywhere in or just south of the Arctic Circle, but Tromso and the Svalbard Islands, both in Norway, are two of the most acclaimed locations, both for the frequency of lights and for the kinds of light shows you’ll see while you’re there. (Both are also inside the Arctic Circle.)
Since the Aurora is most easily seen in the months between the fall and spring equinoxes, you should try to see the lights in late fall or winter. We arrived in Tromso on the last day of Polar Night, on January 16th. If you aren’t familiar with Polar Night, that’s when the sun never rises over the northern part of the Earth. You might be the most familiar with Polar Night in Alaska, where it remains dark for a few months each winter.
Increasing Your Odds of Seeing the Lights
It very difficult to predict when the Northern Lights will be visible, but the blacker the sky is at night, the easier the Lights will be to see. By traveling to the Arctic Circle at a time of year when there are extended dark hours (Polar Night), you’ll increase your odds of seeing the Lights.
Likewise, traveling at a time in the moon cycle when the sky is the blackest will also increase your odds. Our arrival in Tromso was timed so that we’d be there at the tail end of Polar Night and on a new moon (when there’s no visible moon in the sky).
We knew that our trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we wanted every possible advantage on our side. Here’s a picture taken a few days into our trip, at the brightest time of day. It remained this bright for around 15-20 minutes:
Get Out of the City
You need to leave the city of Tromso to see the lights. I had hoped we’d be able to see the lights from town, but on most nights there’s still too much light pollution there to see the Aurora. Each night that we joined guided Aurora-watching trips, we piled into a van or bus and hit the road for the Northern coastline. We drove for 45 minutes or more from Tromso to our destinations each night, getting far from the city’s bright lights.
How cute is this little girl, heading out on her very first Aurora experience at just 10 months old? I think her Momma’s excitement was contagious!
How Far Outside of Tromso Should You Go?
I took my Garmin with us on one of our tours. In part, I was just curious to see (on a map) where we’d been after we got back to the hotel. I also thought it would be helpful to show you just how far outside the city the guided Northern Lights experiences might take you.
The Garmin screenshot says that I was “running” this Aurora Chase, but I definitely wasn’t. We drove from Tromso on a bus that night. This particular drive took about an hour:
Two Very Different Ways to See the Northern Lights from Tromso
There are many ways to view the Aurora. You can camp out overnight in the Great North. You can rent a camper trailer and spend the nights and mornings far from other people. You can stay in the city but rent your own vehicle to drive to the countryside. Or, like us, you can sign up for guided Aurora tours.
Each of the different Aurora Borealis tour companies has a variety of locations that they’ll take you to, depending on the conditions on that particular night. Sometimes the companies have agreements with private landowners who allow tourists to view the lights from their private property. Other times, companies take you to public use areas. Either way, the advantage to using a tour guide is that you can let them chase the lights for you while you enjoy the adventure.
We signed up for two very different Aurora trips. The first was an Aurora chase lead by Guide Gunnar. The second was an Aurora base camp experience through Tromso Safari. In the rest of this post, I’ll tell you more about each guide, what we saw, and some pros and cons of each style of trip.
Night #1: Guide Gunnar’s Aurora Chase
On a guided aurora chase, your tour guide will drive you around until you find the Aurora. In our case, Guide Gunnar was awesome. He only took a dozen or so guests on our tour (his max is 14 people). We rode in a mini-bus, and he provided cold weather gear for the tourists who didn’t bring (or own) any. He also provided a car seat for Small Shaw.
Once we were in his mini-bus, Guide Gunnar drove us north to a beautiful rocky beach. He helped everyone gear up, and he showed us the path from the roadside to the beach. He found a spot to make a campfire and was around to answer our questions and take our pictures (which were complimentary), but otherwise he left us be to enjoy the sky.
Nick and I found a big boulder near the water. We camped out on the ground beside it, leaning against the boulder and allowing it to create a sense of privacy between our family and the others on our trip. The boulder blocked some of the wind, too. All-around, we had an excellent view and the benefits of a guide/group without sacrificing our automony. Guide Gunnar gave us plenty of space, but he was always nearby if we’d needed him.
One of the coolest things about seeing the lights near water is that the lights reflect of the water’s surface, giving you twice the show. Early in the evening, we saw a few pretty green auroral arcs, but as the evening went on, the lights danced and expanded to fill more of the sky. Here are three more pictures that Guide Gunnar took for us that night:
Taking Our 10-Month Old Daughter into the Arctic Circle at Night
I want to pause for a minute to talk about taking our ten-month-old into the Arctic Circle, in January, to sit outside all night watching the sky.
You might think we’re crazy, but here was our logic. First and foremost, we always knew that her safety and well-being were our top priority. If at any point she’d gotten cold, cried, or gotten sick, we’d have gotten her inside, gotten her warm, or made sure she got well as soon as possible.
Second, people in Norway have babies, too! All over the world, babies are born and raised in climates colder than we’re used to. In Europe, there’s a very different (and much more experiential/inclusive) approach to parenting than we’re accustomed to in the U.S.
Parents don’t keep their kids indoors in the winter. Instead, they dress them appropriately and take them out and about. This experiential and inclusive approach to parenting, combined with the attitude that babies (when dressed properly) will be okay in the cold, encouraged us.
That brings me to the final point on bringing Small Shaw along on this trip: We all (Nick, me, and Small Shaw) had appropriate snow gear. We found a well-made, highly insulated baby snowsuit for her, and friends loaned us an inner lining/sleeper that had built-in mittens and footies made of a thick, fluffy fleece. Small Shaw also had two pairs of socks, a heavy pair of snow boots, a thick hat, and the insulated hood of her snowsuit.
I wore Small Shaw on my chest in an Ergo carrier up against my base own layers of clothes. I wrapped my ski coat around her and used my own jacket and fleece neck warmer to block any wind from her cheeks. On top of all of those layers, we added a thick fleece baby blanket, just for good measure.
Because the tours started so late in the evening, Small Shaw pretty much fell asleep as soon as we started driving. She woke up when we took her out of the car seat, but then quickly fell back asleep in the baby carrier. She stayed warm and cozy, and at just ten months old, she got to see the Aurora Borealis from the Arctic Circle in Norway.
You can Samll Shaw all bundled up in the picture, above, taken on the next Aurora trip, which I’m about to tell you all about.
Night #2: Tromso Safari Aurora Base Station Experience
Our second Aurora Borealis trip was what’s called a “base station experience.” We booked our trip through Tromso Safari, and we were surprised at just how different this trip was from our tour with Guide Gunnar the previous night.
Tromso Safari uses a full-sized charter bus, so its groups are much larger that Gunnar’s. The bus we took left from one of the bigger hotels in Tromso, and the tour was pretty much full. We rode for about an hour from Tromso to a piece of private property along the coast of Norway. The guide played videos on the bus that talked about the Aurora, and also spoke just a bit about what we should expect (Guide Gunnar did the same).
Arriving at the Base Station
When we arrived at our base station, we were hosted by the family who owned the land we were on. A retired fisherman, his wife, and their pre-teen daughter were generally hospitable, though not overly friendly. We had access to a multi-stall outhouse-type bathroom facility with running water and gender separation, and there was a fairly large shed-like shelter there for us to use to come in from the cold.
The fisherman’s wife provided hot soup, bread, and cold drinks for those of us who paid extra for a meal. For everyone else, there was hot chocolate and coffee. The shelter wasn’t huge, but it was fully enclosed and had electricity. Just outside were picnic tables and a few different areas where you could walk to see the lights.
The land there was icier than it was on the rocky beach we visited with Guide Gunnar. This made it a little more dangerous for me to walk on while wearing Small Shaw. The fisherman had build what appeared to be a pretty cool trail right along a rock wall and the bay, which he invited guests to explore. Because of the ice, though, we opted to stay closer to the main shelter.
The evening started out much like it had on the previous night, with just a few simple green auroral arcs in the sky. Before the night was finished, though, the lights really came alive. It was incredible to see! We experimented a little bit that night using our DSLR and a tripod to take photos of the Aurora. Here are a few of our shots:
The Biggest Difference Between Our Aurora Chase and Our Base Camp Experience
One of the biggest differences between our Guide Gunnar tour and our Tromso Safari tour was how and when each tour ended.
Guide Gunnar doesn’t have a hard stop time built into his tours. If his group wants to keep going, he’ll stay out with them well into the night. He’ll even drive them to different locations to try to see the Lights from new parts of the countryside.
Tromso Safari, on the other hand, must have had a hard stop time built into their schedule. The lights were still very active overhead, and it was still fairly early in the night. We were enjoying the display, which was our last on this trip. Somewhat abruptly, we were told it was time to board the bus and head back into the city. We were disappointed that we couldn’t stay outside longer to watch the lights, and I found myself staring through the bus windows as we drove away, hoping to keep the lights in sight for as long as I possibly could.
Different Aurora Tour Styles for Different Families
Between the Guide Gunnar Aurora Chase and the Tromso Safari Base Camp Experience, the Guide Gunnar trip was definitely our family’s favorite. I want to be clear, though, that there were pros and cons to each!
Reasons to Use Guide Gunnar:
- Lots of autonomy once you arrive at the various viewing locations
- He takes professional-quality, complimentary photos for your family
- His groups max out at 14 people
- You’re out in nature, not inside a shelter (this might be a con for some families!)
- More bang for your buck, since he keeps you outside longer than competitors
- Flexibility in locations: he can take you anywhere, not just to base camp locations
Reasons to Use Tromso Safari:
- Big tour group might give some travelers a better sense of community or security
- Shelters are provided on the base camp experience trips
- Meals can be purchased as part of the trip
- Convenience, especially if you’re staying at a hotel from which Tromso Safari books trips
Learn More about Each Guide Company
Both Guide Gunnar and Tromso Safari also offer other types of summer and wintertime excursions. If you plan to visit Tromso and take more than one trip from the city, you might be able to save money by booking multiple trips through the same tour operator. Find out more on each of these two company’s websites:
If you have questions about our trip to Tromso, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or drop me an email at MilliGFunk1 (at) Yahoo (dot) com. I’d be happy to write follow-up posts or answer your questions privately. For now, though, here’s what we experienced chasing the Aurora.
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