Let’s go through the preparation from planning a trip right until the search for auroras. If you book a guided tour or all-inclusive package you may ignore most of this part. In case you do an individual trip you may want to read all of it.
Best time to travel
For Northern Europe any time from September through March is good. For North America I think it would be even August through April. Besides activity from the sun, two factors will maximize your chances to see auroras: clear skies and darkness. Between November and January is the darkest time, offering very long nights. Around September/October and February/March the nights are not as long but it is said around both equinoxes the chances for clear skies are best.
Different Moon phases will affect your aurora experience. A Full Moon is usually very bright and overpowers some details and colors in the auroras, but it lightens up the landscape around you which is also very special. With half the Moon visible (First or Last Quarter) or less you get the most out of auroras. The New Moon reveals most details of auroras and you can also see the Milky Way much clearer.
What are the best areas to travel to for auroras?
In Northern Europe there are many places where it’s possible to see auroras. Northern Finland, all of Iceland, Northern Norway and Northern Sweden are all good places within or at the edge of the aurora oval. Choosing between these is a matter of preference, I’ll leave that to you. I have no experience with with North America, but the following thoughts may help your choice.
A good decision maker for a travel destination are the Kp-lines of the Kp-index maps from NOAA (Eurasia and North America). Being somewhere near the Kp=3 line will give you a good chance to see auroras near the horizon towards NorthWest and a fair chance to see them dancing above you. If you go a few hundred kilometers North your chances drastically increase to see auroras dancing all around you, because you are entering the Kp=2 and 1 zone. Remember, strong geomagnetic activity (high Kp-value) occurs less frequent than weaker activity.
What should I pack
Make sure you have the right clothing for the season. Check out the weather forecast. Nothing is worse than seeing great auroras and having to leave because it is getting too cold.
Good, warm clothing is very important. Make sure you protect your head, ears and hands against the cold. Also winter wear for your body and feet is essential. Your toes may start to freeze and you won’t notice it all that much. Once in a warm place, life goes back into those toes. Although that may sound positive, it’s not a nice experience.
If you don’t have special winter wear, you may be able to borrow some from a local tour company for a small fee. Search online and contact them for shoes and/or a warm overall.
Besides the basic things, you may want to pack following items:
– thermos filled with hot juice, tea or coffee
– a warm ski mask to protect your face
– re-usable hand warmers and/or toe warmers
– a flashlight or head lamp
I arrived, what now?
Your goal number one will be to find a good viewing spot with two main goals: a wide view and little to no light pollution. If you are in a cabin far away from any villages you have no light pollution problems. Go find an elevated spot or an opening like a field or lake. If however you are in a village I’d suggest you check out your surroundings and search for good spots during day time either by walking, skiing or driving. Artificial light sources as street lamps, car lights or skiing track lights can create problems. If they are in the same direction as auroras, your eyes will not see the auroras as bright. Also your photos will not look as good. If there are some clouds, these light sources will be reflected and your photos will most likely have orange clouds.
When auroras suddenly appear you’ll want to be ready and know where to go. Locals may have good tips for you, so ask them unless you enjoy the search for good spots. Of course you can use an online map service already before you leave or at your accommodation. For me personally exploring the area and finding great spots is half of the fun.
Outside are auroras, what was it I should not forget?
Make sure that the batteries of your phone, GPS, camera etc are fully loaded before you head out for the night. In cold temperatures batteries will discharge much faster.
Do not forget your gloves
Do not forget your beanie or skiing mask
Seriously, make sure you protect your head, ears and hands