Northern Lights holiday: a caravanner’s guide
Want to see the greatest show on earth? Witnessing the northern lights should be on every caravanner's bucket list. Caravan explains all you need to know.
Words by Matty Graham
Describing what it's like to stand under a glowing sky, as the aurora dances above your head, is pretty tricky. It's an ethereal, out-of-body experience that you can only understand by experiencing it for yourself.
One thing is for sure, though, having a caravan in tow when chasing down the lights can work to your advantage with a handful of sites offering front row seats. Better still, while you're waiting for this sometimes elusive light show, you can stick the kettle on and wait patiently in the comfort of your caravan rather than shivering in the cold.
There're many myths and misinformation about the northern lights, which can lead to disappointment if the experience isn't what you thought it would be, so this feature will aim to arm you with all the information you could need to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime road trip.
What are the Northern Lights?
The northern lights are also known as the aurora borealis. The science behind the lights is pretty straightforward; the aurora occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun enter Earth's atmosphere and create the light effect we see in the sky.
Where can you see the Lights?
As their name suggests, the aurora appears at high latitudes. The best chance of seeing the lights occurs in the Arctic regions; Iceland, north Norway and Canada are places where the Northern Lights are common, but displays can be seen in Scotland and north England if you're lucky! Although rare, some aurora activity has even been recorded as far south as Lincolnshire in the East Midlands.
The Northern Lights shouldn't be confused with the Aurora Australis, which are lights that appear at southern latitudes like the southern tips of New Zealand. Wherever you are, one element is essential, low light pollution. So you're not going to see them while you're towing on the M25.
Sorry – you need to be somewhere dark!
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
Although predicting when the lights will appear isn't an exact science, there is a rough 'season' when activity is higher, and conditions are more favourable. Between September and March is the best time to plan a visit. Locations at high latitude experience up to 24 hours of daylight during the summer months, so it won't be anywhere near dark enough to see the lights.
Can they be predicted?
To an extent, yes, but many factors all have to come together. You need low light pollution, but also a spike in solar activity to push the solar winds towards the Earth's atmosphere, but this alone is not enough.
You need clear skies for a decent aurora display as any cloud cover will likely stop the fun. Many sites do offer aurora 'forecasts' (notably aurora-service.eu and aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk) plus there are also many specialised apps for your smartphone, which will allow you to check the aurora forecast when you're on location in your caravan.
How long do the lights last?
It isn't an easy question to answer as it's all dependent on the strength of the solar winds. Winds is a suitably descriptive name, as auroras tend to drift into view and then drift out like clouds on a windy day.
If solar activity is low, there may be just a small green streak in the sky; if the action is high, the northern lights can fill the sky. Displays can last from a matter of seconds to hours, depending on the elements and your luck.
Are the Northern Lights always green or do the colours change?
Although they are predominantly green, strong auroras are capable of producing purples, reds, yellows and blues.
Where can I take my caravan to see the lights?
In the UK, there are few areas of pure darkness, where light pollution is genuinely low. However, the UK does boast a select few locations given Dark Sky Park status.
These include the 75,000 hectares of land around Galloway Forest in Scotland and, less of a drive for English-based caravanners, the Northumberland Dark Sky Park, situated in Kielder Forest.
If you are more adventurous and want to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights, a trip to northern Norway is a fantastic experience. With well-maintained roads and plenty of sites to choose from, you could park up on the edge of a stunning fjord, wait until darkness falls and see the sky filled with the aurora as it reflects off the water below.
I stayed at Fjordbotn Camping in Senja, Norway, a well-established site for caravans with crystal clear waters and excellent transport links. If you don't fancy the long drive north, you can just put the car and caravan on a ferry at Oslo and let the boat take the strain all the way to Senja.
Caravans are a great partner when on a northern lights trip. At high northern latitudes when darkness falls, and skies are clear, the chances are it will be cold - and I mean sub-zero, 'can't feel your toes' cold. Having a caravan as a base to retreat to for hot drinks and warmth, or even to set up and shoot out the window from is an absolute godsend.
Is it easy to take pictures of the Northern Lights?
It's possible to take pictures of the lights, and long exposure photo using a tripod may well give a much better view of the lights than from the naked eye, mainly if the display isn't that strong.
If you have a DSLR camera, set it to the Manual exposure mode (M on the mode dial), before setting the aperture to its widest setting (f/3.5 on typical kit lenses or f/2.8 on fast prime lenses) and then selecting an ISO of between 1000 and 1600.
Select a starting shutter speed of around 10 seconds. If the lights are too dark, extend the shutter speed up to 20 seconds or increase the ISO.
Unless the display is sharp, you may struggle to get a picture with a smartphone camera. Smartphones sensors work differently when capturing video. You may well get some film of the lights above you, but don't count on it.
Three magical facts about the Northern Lights
The northern lights are visible from space and by pilots flying at high altitudes. Astronauts in the International Space Station regularly take pictures of the aurora displays, dancing below them.
Earth is not the only planet to have aurora displays. They also occur on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, such is the power from the sun to cast its particles to the other end of the Milky Way.
Different regions have their own meanings and stories for the northern lights. Some folklore states that if people saw the Aurora, it was because they had been naughty, while others believe the lights come out for those doing good.
In Finnish, the word for aurora translates to 'Fox Fires', while in Norway, one legend states the lights are reflections from armour from the Norse god Valkyrie.
Where to Stay
Prices: Couple, electric hook-up, high season, per night
Tonnesbotn, 9373, Botnhamn, Norway
T 00 47 77839310
Open January to December
Price around £15
This 35-pitch site occupies a picturesque location and is located just across the fjord from the Senja National Tourist Route. Senja is known as 'Norway in miniature' and with its expansive, wild landscape is a glorious place to tour.