Witnessing the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, is a bucket list experience that many people wait a lifetime to see. The colourful, dancing lights are created by geomagnetic energy, and it’s a truly magical experience to watch the rainbow of lights swirling across the sky. The Aurora Borealis is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and it’s an elusive phenomenon which can only be seen in a few places on earth – and only with perfect conditions.
Luckily, Iceland is one of those few places where you can catch this stunning show, and we’ve put together everything you need to know about how to stay warm and what to pack for your tour to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
There’s actually auroral activity all year round, but since there’s almost 24 hours of daylight in summer, you can’t see the Iceland aurora borealis for part of the year. The best time to see the lights is between October and March when you get more dark nights and clear skies that lure the dazzling lights into view.
You need total darkness to get a good view of this stunning phenomenon. And be prepared for some long nights of stargazing, as the lights are best seen between 9pm and 2am. You’ll also need to be prepared for the cold, as the Northern Lights are best seen in Iceland during their winter months. So what should you pack to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
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What to know before going on an Iceland Northern Lights tour
First things first – it’s going to be cold out there. Really cold. An Iceland Northern Lights tour means having to pack some serious winter gear and for all weather including harsh wind, rain and snow. Expect temperatures to be around 2°C during the day and drop to around -2°C at night.
Before we dive into your packing list for Iceland, we need to talk about layers. The best way to stay warm and dry in Iceland is to use the three-layer clothing principle.
1. An inner layer – This is your thermal base layer and you’ll be glad you wore it. Thermals keep you warm even when you sweat, and you should wear long thermals made from merino wool or synthetics. Avoid pure cotton as cotton clothing cools down when it gets wet.
2. A middle layer – This layer strengthens your heat insulation and holds humidity from the body. A good middle layer will make a world of difference. Think fleece sweaters or hoodies or a quality woollen sweater.
3. An outer layer – This is your final layer of protection against the Icelandic winter weather. Go for a waterproof winter coat to keep you toasty and allow an even distribution of body heat.
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What to pack and wear on a tour to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
So now you know how to strategically dress for the cold in Iceland on your Northern Lights adventure. Now let’s dive into all the essentials you’ll need to pack for your trip.
A quality winter coat will be vital to staying warm and dry when in Iceland. When choosing a winter coat, try to get one with a wind and waterproof outer layer, thick insulation and a hood. When choosing a material, try to avoid down jackets as while these are great for retaining heat, they lose insulating abilities when wet and can be bulkier.
Consider synthetic insulating materials – the Scandinavians have invented exactly the sort you’ll need. You’ll find plenty of great Scandi brands selling winter coats with breathable and insulated synthetic materials. The PrimaLoft microfiber thermal insulation material was even originally developed for the US Army.
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Thermals, or long johns, may not be the most attractive pieces of clothing out there – but they will be crucial for keeping you warm on your trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. You can get them in all kinds of styles, materials and fits, but we recommend bringing at least a few pairs of long thermals in pure merino wool.
You’ll need a few good sweaters for everyday wear in Iceland. If you’re looking to buy local, be sure to check out the lopapeysas, the traditional Icelandic woollen sweater. It makes for a beautiful souvenir – plus it’ll keep you toasty! You’ll find all kinds of stores and boutiques in Reykjavik if you’d like to do some shopping before heading out to chase the Northern Lights.
While jeans may be okay for wandering around the city, they’re not so great if you’re heading out into the snow. If your jeans get wet they’ll stay wet and make you extra cold. The same goes for a cotton layer. So what do you wear to keep your legs warm out in the Icelandic wilderness? Go for a pair of waterproof, insulated pants that can be tucked into your boots to prevent the elements from getting in.
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Your regular runners or winter boots may be okay in Reykjavik when the footpaths are clear. But Icelandic weather is unpredictable and often changing, and those footpaths can quickly become covered in slippery snow or rain. To get around this, you’ll need to bring some waterproof shoes with good grip and ankle support.
If you’re planning on heading out to rougher terrain, you’ll need a good pair of waterproof hiking boots, preferably lined with thermal material. You might consider also hiring some ice cleats or ice grips when you arrive in Iceland to give you better traction. Just remember to take off the cleats before entering shops and restaurants.
Don’t forget about your hands and head! Your winter accessories are just as important as your thermals and winter coat. You’ll need to bring warm gloves, scarves, socks and hats for your trip to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. For gloves, go for ones that have conductive touch-pads so you can easily use your smartphone or camera while keeping your fingers warm. You could also bring along some hand and toe warmers.
Scarves are essential for keeping your neck and face warm, while thick socks (merino wool is always a good choice) will keep your toes toasty. As for your winter hat, don’t just go for any old beanie. Avoid acrylic materials and go for one with a fleece lining and ear flaps – you’ll appreciate it when you’re standing in that chilly winter air admiring the dancing Northern Lights. If you’re really serious about staying warm, you could even bring along a balaclava for ultimate protection against the elements.
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After talking about all this winter gear, it may seem a little odd to be packing swimwear. But you’ll be glad you brought your swimsuit – Iceland is home to some of the most incredible hot spring baths and geothermal pools in the world. The Blue Lagoon is the most famous, but you’ll find thermal pools and baths all over the country and they’re perfect for enjoying a relaxing soak after a big day of adventure.
Sunglasses and sunscreen
Sun protection might also not be high on your list for a winter trip to Iceland, but it’s also essential. While there is less sunlight in winter, the sun rays are lower to earth and very strong. They also reflect off the white snow which can really harm your eyes and skin. Protect yourself with polarised sunglasses and SPF 50 sunscreen.
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Reusable water bottle
Iceland is famed for being one of the greenest countries in the world. Besides being almost completely powered by renewable energy, Iceland is known for its pure tap water that is untainted with chemicals. It’s fresh, delicious and best of all, free! So bring your reusable water bottle and avoid buying any unnecessary plastic bottled water here.
If you’re heading off to see one of the most incredible natural wonders of the world, you can’t forget your camera. While a smartphone is great for capturing the stunning Icelandic countryside, you’ll need something more serious like an SLR camera and a tripod to capture the beauty of the Northern Lights. Remember to also bring waterproof cases to protect your gear, and extra memory cards and charging cords so you’re never caught out.
Iceland travel adaptor
You’ll also need an adaptor in Iceland, so you can charge all your devices. Iceland uses a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz, and there are two plug types, C and F. Plug type C has two round pins and plug type F has two round pins with two earth clips on the side.
Are you dreaming of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland? Let us know in the comments below!