We travelled 350km north of the Arctic Circle to chase the elusive northern lights in Tromso. Here’s what happened.
I pulled the duvet up over my head and huddled against the headboard.
“I don’t want to go out,” I said, the words hot and sulky beneath the cover.
Peter pulled the duvet off the bed. “Come on, we’ve got to go.”
I sighed a weary sigh and dragged myself up. It’s true: I didn’t want to go out. We were in the Arctic Circle for God’s sake! It was six in the evening and freezing outside! And dark! And freezing!
We’d been out all day and were enjoying a short but warm respite in the hotel before heading out again for the third night running. Our first two nights had been spent respectively chasing the northern lights in Tromso (to no avail) and hiking with Arctic huskies (I’m a cat person). I shouldn’t complain, but as Peter will tell you, I can’t abide the cold.
I pulled on my thermal tights, then my leggings, then my hiking trousers. Up top, I had a long-sleeved thermal vest, a long-sleeved base layer, a t-shirt, a fleece and a waterproof jacket. With all the grace and agility of the marshmallow man, I pulled on three pairs of socks and my hiking boots. Then came a buff and a scarf, a hat, earmuffs, two pairs of gloves and of course my little hotties which were about the only thing bringing me joy in that moment. With another fleece and scarf stuffed into my backpack for good measure, I was finally ready to go.
We made the short walk from our hotel to Guides Central where we were to meet Gunnar of GuideGunnar, one of the oldest and most experienced companies when it comes to chasing the northern lights in Tromso.
Warm (and therefore happy) again in GuideGunnar’s offices
Gunnar welcomed us into the office and took us through the strategy for the evening. Using a giant wall map, he explained that clouds were rolling into the area so if we got unlucky, we’d have to drive a few hundred kilometres south to a mountain range which kept the clouds at bay, hence offering a good chance to see the lights.
As a planner, I was heartened by his pragmatic approach and soon perked up.
We piled into Gunnar’s van (mercifully heated) and watched a short video explaining the phenomena of the northern lights. It’s well worth a watch as it explains in accessible terms exactly what causes the northern lights in Tromso and beyond.
I was most surprised by the fact that the northern lights are always present: 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s not inherent elusiveness but weather conditions that make it so hard to see them.
We drove on for approximately 20 minutes when, to my surprise, Gunnar said he was going to stop as he believed the lights would appear. We hopped out of the van, hopeful but wary. After six hours of chasing the lights only two nights before, I wondered if our luck could really change so fast.
Then, to my delight, we saw a striking band of light across the sky. I felt a strange mixture of emotions: awe that we were finally seeing the famed northern lights, relief that the expense paid off, but also a sense of thwarted expectation. You see, the lights were immobile and coloured a modest forest green. These were not the vivid luminous greens of time-lapse videos and professional photos. Did the cameras lie? Was reality just a bit… subtle?
Had we been tricked by Nat Geo photos? Was reality just a bit… subtle?
Once the lights faded, we returned to the van and drove on, steeling ourselves for the fact that this could be the best of it. No matter, I thought. I’ve seen the northern lights in Tromso. Life achievement unlocked.
What I didn’t know at that point was that it would get so much better. We stopped another 30 minutes on and Gunnar decided to set up camp for the evening. He built a fire, handed out warm drinks and some delicious Norwegian pastries (they had cinnamon in them – if you know what I’m talking about, please send the recipe!).
We didn’t have to wait long before the lights appeared again, drifting slowly across the sky. Gunnar allowed me and Peter to break off from the main group and head down a quiet country lane where there was no light pollution at all.
There, we paused for one of those moments that make you feel like you’ve done everything right in life.
Naturally, the mood was ruined when I realised this would be a good opportunity to go to the bathroom. Soon after, we rejoined the group to warm up around the fire.
The lights overhead flared and waned, then flared and waned. At this point, I was pretty satisfied with the experience and would have been happy to head home. As I toasted my gloves over the fire, however, I heard Gunnar’s voice slice through the darkness.
“Watch the sky! They will be filled with lights in a minute!” he shouted with preternatural clairvoyance.
As if on cue, the sky came alive with lights. A multitude of individual displays – some flaring, some flickering, others dancing and spiralling – came together in a single fantastical scene.
Ah, so this is what we’ve been waiting for.
To say that it was celestial is not quite enough. It stills your step in the snow, raises the hairs on your neck, steals the breath in your lungs and almost moves you to tears.
We watched the lights for an age I didn’t time. The display was so awe inspiring, we knew there was nothing better beyond it. Thus, when Gunnar offered to wrap up early, we all agreed and bid farewell to the lights.
I’ll likely never see the northern lights again even if I visit my wishlist destinations of Greenland and Baffin Island. But that’s okay. Once in a lifetime is lucky enough.
Northern Lights in Tromso: The Essentials
What: Chasing the northern lights in Tromso, Norway, 350km (217mi) north of the Arctic Circle.
Where: We stayed at Scandic Ishavshotel, an excellent alternative to the hulking Radisson next door. Located right on the waterfront, Ishavshotel offers panoramic views of Tromso Harbour, Tromso Bridge and the Arctic Cathedral, as well as easy access to local sights – the Polar Museum is mere minutes away.
Our room had floor to ceiling windows and came with all-important heating and carpeting, which made for a cosy refuge after a day (or night!) out in the cold.
The breakfast (included in room rate) is extraordinary. For starters, the hotel has its very own barista on hand to make you coffee. There’s a delicious array of hot dishes as well as fresh bread, cheese plates and cold cuts – but the pièce de résistance is the bowl of macarons sitting quietly in the dessert corner. Unlimited macarons! Have you ever heard such a thing? Needless to say, we highly recommend the hotel.
When: There is so much information about the best time to see the northern lights in Tromso, but much of it is conflicting. We visited in October and therefore trust Norway Lights which indicates that March, April, September and October are the best times to see the northern lights in Tromso.
It’s worth noting that when we asked Gunnar about claims that the lights are fading, he said: “As long as the sun still shines on your face, the northern lights will appear.”
How: Chasing the northern lights in Tromso isn’t cheap (around 1,250 NOK ($150) per person) but going with a guide really does give you the best chance. We highly recommend Gunnar who has not only run northern lights tours for years, but has guided cross country hikers and skiiers (including the former prime minister of New Zealand) for years before that: guide-gunnar.no, firstname.lastname@example.org, +47 93 443 443.
Gunnar’s tours include warm drinks and snacks, thermal suits, tripods and high-visibility bracelets. His van holds 14 passengers so you’ll be sharing your experience with others, but you can book a private tour if you’re prepared to pay extra.
The most important thing to remember is that seeing the northern lights in Tromso (or indeed anywhere) is highly dependent on weather. It requires patience, resilience (did I mention it’s cold?) and also acceptance of the fact that you may not see anything at all.
The best way to get to Tromso is to fly from Oslo. Book via Skyscanner for the best prices. From Tromso airport, you can catch the Flybussekspressen into town. These cost 60 NOK ($7.3) and leave from directly outside the airport. The slightly cheaper option is the ‘state bus’ (coloured white). You can buy tickets in the newsagent at Tromso airport (36 NOK or 50 NOK on board). The correct bus stop can be reached by crossing the car park underground or going around it overground. Just ask a member of airport staff if you’re unsure.