Trying to work out the best time of the year to see Northern Lights? In this month-by-month guide to the Aurora we share the best month to see Northern Lights and why.
We’ve all seen those wonderful photographs and movies of green lights dancing in the sky, which instantly fills us with a sense of awe that we wish to experience one day. The Aurora is a breathtaking sight to witness and one of the dreamiest things we could ever look at. Who wouldn’t love to experience that?
However, seeing the Northern Lights isn’t as simple as turning up and looking towards the sky. Lunar cycles, cloud cover, light pollution, sunlight and solar activity all play a role in when they appear to us.
In this month-by-month guide we clearly outline what the best time of the year to see northern lights is, so you can plan your vacation accordingly.
We’ll start with a quick overview of what causes the lights, so you understand how solar activity influences when northern lights appear. We’ll then go through each month, explaining how good it is for seeing northern lights, based on other environmental factors.
We’ll also tell you our recommendation for the best month to see Northern Lights and why (spoiler: there are two!).
By the end of this article, you will know exactly which month is best to book your Northern Lights trip, and be able to pick a date for your vacation with confidence.
What causes the Northern Lights?
Solar activity causes the Northern Lights
If you time your Northern Lights vacation to coincide with a period of high solar activity, you have a much greater chance of seeing the lights.
We cover this topic is much greater detail in our scientific explanation of the Aurora Borealis article, but here is a quick rundown:
The Aurora is caused by particles emitted by the sun. As they approach Earth, these solar particles are drawn into the Earth’s magnetic field, and channeled toward the planet’s north and south magnetic poles. The solar particles then collide with molecules high in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the delightful glow that we call Northern Lights. This explains why the Aurora is concentrated around the North Pole (Arctic) and the South Pole (Antarctic) only, in an area known as the auroral zone or auroral oval.
The year you travel makes a big difference
The sun’s emissions follow an 11-year solar cycle, which correlates with Northern Lights activity.
During the years of the solar cycle when solar activity is low, less solar particles are thrown at Earth, and therefore there is less auroral activity. During periods of high solar activity and geomagnetic storms, the Earth is barraged by solar particles, and the Aurora Borealis is at its brightest and most visible.
Therefore, the best time to see the Northern Lights in the solar cycle is during the years with high solar activity. This is not to say that you won’t see the lights during periods of low activity, but your chances of seeing them are lessened.
We have just entered Solar Cycle 25, and the years 2024-2026 are predicted to be peak years for seeing the Aurora. For more details, check out our Northern Lights 2020-2035 schedule to find out the best years for a vacation to see the lights.
How the best time of the year to see Northern Lights is determined (5 factors)
As many of you would know, the Northern Lights actually occur all year long. Yes, you heard that right, and we know exactly what your next question will be: Why can’t we see them all year long?
It’s because visibility of the Aurora Borealis is dependent on other environmental factors, too. Solar activity is just one part of the equation for seeing the Northern Lights. Cloud cover, sunlight hours, light pollution and moon cycles all have a large influence on aurora visibility.
Think about star gazing. The stars are always there, but the sky needs to be clear and dark to see them. The stars won’t be visible if the sun is still shining or there is cloud cover. You can’t see them near bright city lights, and you won’t see them as well during full moons. It’s the exact same for the aurora.
#1 Clear skies
To see the Aurora with your own eyes, you’ll need a clear night sky.
It is widely said that winter is the best season to see the Aurora Borealis because it is darker. True, it is darker in winter. However, what is said less often, is that in winter there is often heavy cloud cover, particularly from snow clouds.
I say this from my own personal experience, travelling to Finnish Lapland in January. The region was covered in snow cloud the whole time, and speaking with the Lappish locals they said that December-January is not a good time to see the lights because it is always cloudy. Funny how the things you read often don’t match up to local wisdom.
Some people think that the Aurora appears when the temperature drops. This is loosely true, in that colder nights tend to also be nights that you get clear skies. Or the other way around; when there are clear skies, the outside temperature drops lower because there are no clouds insulating the land from the cold. But apart from that, the temperature doesn’t actually affect the visibility of the aurora.
Of course, if the skies are clear, you’ll have a better chance of spotting them, but don’t always count on weather reports or historical weather patterns because you never know when you can get lucky. You also can’t plan a vacation around a daily weather report, unless you are lucky enough to have your own private jet to whisk you there at a moment’s notice, which is highly unlikely!
Your best bet is to spend more days in the region, to get a chance at a cloudless night, and travel on a month when cloud cover is less likely.
#2 Daylight hours
Although the Northern Lights occur for much of the year, there aren’t enough hours of darkness during the summer months to see them. As mentioned earlier, the Aurora occurs around the north pole and south pole. These are regions that also experience Midnight Sun, which means the sun does not completely set during summer or only briefly sets. In other words, it never gets really dark in Summer.
Summer = Midnight Sun = No/Little Darkness = No/Little Chance of Seeing Aurora.
Therefore, you should avoid the Summer months for your Northern Lights vacation.
The exception might be if you are more south where the midnight sun does not occur, and it is a period of high solar activity, such as in the northern US states. But the further south you travel, the less chance you have of seeing the lights since you are leaving the auroral zone. So, we wouldn’t recommend that as a good strategy for seeing the Northern Lights either. Maybe it’s ok if you already live in the region, but don’t plan an international vacation around it.
#3 Moon cycle
Like with star gazing, the cycle of the moon has a bearing on the visibility of the Northern Lights. A full moon will throw extra light into the sky, which you want to avoid if you can. For the most spectacular sight, try and plan your trip around a dark moon (new moon) when the sky is darkest.
#4 Light pollution from cities
When compared to cities, rural settings are preferable since they are less affected by light pollution. Like the moon, cities can also put quite a bit of light into the night sky, which will impact aurora visibility. Since light pollution is present all year round, the best thing you can do to avoid it is to stay in more secluded locations away from large cities.
#5 Brightness of the aurora
The brightness of the Aurora Borealis is determined by the amount of solar activity in the location, which is the rate at which solar particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. The best way to plan for this is to organize your Northern Lights vacation for a year of high solar activity and to keep an eye on aurora alerts. It is also said that the equinoxes (spring and fall/autumn) have more activity, so it is worth taking this into consideration.
What is the best month to see Northern Lights?
Best time of the year to see Northern Lights:
These months fall around the spring and autumn/fall equinoxes, have mild weather and are not plagued by snow cloud. They also have a good balance of daylight and nighttime hours. Both are equally good for seeing the aurora borealis in our opinion. Exactly which month you choose depends on what else you like to do besides seeing the lights.
March: If travelling to see Northern Lights in March, there will still be snow on the ground from Winter. This is therefore a great choice if you like snow play or snow sports.
September: If you don’t like the cold or you enjoy photography, plan your vacation for September so you can capture the gorgeous autumn colors and the aurora reflected in the unfrozen lakes.
However, March and September aren’t the only good months to see Northern Lights. They are just our ‘best’ picks. Jump down below to read more about each month.
Northern Lights Monthly Planner
Since our readers are so intrigued, we’ve prepared a monthly calendar to help you plan a trip, so you too can experience the beautiful Aurora Borealis. Keep in mind this applies to the Northern Lights Aurora Borealis only (Southern Lights Aurora Australis will be the opposite).
Northern Lights in January
January, February and March are the most popular months for Aurora hunting since they bring long, dark nights and lots of snow to play in during the day while you wait for darkness to descend. While snow is fun, remember that snow inevitably brings snow clouds, which could impede your view of the lights.
January is a month of rebirth as the sun finally rises above the horizon, yet it may also be bitterly cold. This can be good or bad depending on your outlook; we think the idea of sitting under a cold sky and looking at the Northern Lights dancing in the sky is fun. But that’s not for everyone!
Your greatest enemy in January will be cloud cover. Spend a few extra days in the region to stay and play, to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Allow 4-5 days or longer.
Northern Lights in February
In February the days are substantially longer and the weather improves slowly in February. It is a good month to chase auroras, although you will still need to keep your eye on snow clouds. The nights are still very long giving good cover of darkness to view the aurora borealis, and there is lots of snow to play in. It’s a good month to travel if you enjoy doing snow sports and snow play, as well as Northern Lights watching.
Northern Lights in March
Best time of the year to see Northern Lights
Temperatures begin to increase in March, but it can still be chilly, especially at night. The ground is covered in a deep, clean coating of snow, and because most of the winter snow has fallen, there are fewer snow clouds overhead to obscure the Northern lights in March.
It’s also suggested that the Equinoxes in the spring and autumn bring more solar activity. When you combine this with somewhat warmer temperatures and better weather (perhaps with less cloud cover), you may feel driven to go Aurora hunting in late March or early April.
The daytime hours will be extended by then, so be prepared for some later evenings. However, based on the advice of experienced aurora hunters and the balance of all the different environmental factors, we’d say that March is the best month to see Northern Lights.
Northern Lights in April
As mentioned for March, it is thought that the equinoxes bring more solar activity and more chance of seeing the Northern Lights. You should expect clearer skies now that it is well past the winter, however the days will be longer. It is a comfortable time of year to travel as the days are warmer, but you will quite likely be faced with muddy ground from the snow melt and possibly mosquitoes depending on where you are.
In early April there will still be a good number of nighttime hours, so the chances of seeing Aurora are still OK, but from this point onward the night hours will start to reduce greatly.
For example, in early April in Iceland you can expect a sunrise time of approximately 7am and sunset 8:30pm. In late April, the days are even longer. Therefore, if travelling in April, stick to the start of the month.
Northern Lights in May
In May we start to get very long days, and fewer nighttime hours. Dark skies are required to see the Northern Lights, and while the Aurora may be seen to scientific equipment from early April to late August, the sky is just too luminous for the human eye to observe the spectacle. May is not a great month to travel for Northern Lights, because there is too much sunlight.
In the Arctic regions in May, June and July, you should forget about seeing the Northern Lights because they are veiled by the Midnight Sun. It’s a beautiful time of year to travel otherwise, but not a good time to plan a Northern Lights vacation.
Northern Lights in June
June and July are the months of the Midnight Sun in Arctic regions. In these regions, don’t expect to see the Northern Lights in June, as there is too much daylight.
Northern Lights in July
As mentioned for June, this is a period of Midnight Sun. You won’t see the Northern Lights in July in Arctic regions because there is too much sunlight.
Northern Lights in August
Your greatest enemy for seeing Northern Lights in August continues to be sunlight hours. The days start to get a bit shorter from mid-August, but they are still very long. As for May, you should try and avoid this time of year for a Northern Lights vacation. If you are planning a Northern Lights vacation for August, then push it as far to the end of the month as you can.
Northern Lights in September
Best time of the year to see Northern Lights
We would recommend the September and October month to anyone who wants to avoid the bitterly cold winter. We know that not everyone loves the extreme cold weather, so this is a good alternative if you are one of those people.
September ushers in a brief autumn, but the colors are breathtaking, and best of all, you can often view two Auroras for the price of one. How so? In most years, September and October are the only months the Northern Lights are visible when the lakes and rivers are ice-free.
The beauty of this is that you can frequently see the Northern Lights overhead and reflected on open water. If you’re a photographer, you don’t want to miss it. It’s a genuinely stunning picture that only stays around until the great freeze hits, the canals freeze and regions gets blanketed in the first snowfalls of the season.
Aim for late September, as this is closer to the equinox and will bring in some longer nights.
Northern Lights in October
Like September, this is a great month to travel. Early October is still quite close to the autumn equinox which is said to be a good time for auroral activity, and the days aren’t too cold yet. There is a good number of nighttime hours, and the winter snow and cloud cover has not arrived yet.
Photographers can get a glimpse of the Northern Lights reflected on the lakes and rivers before they freeze, which is a prize photo opportunity. However, October can start to usher in rain and storms, so be cautious of this if planning your aurora vacation around this time.
Try to plan your Northern Lights trip towards the start of October, to avoid the risk of rain, storms and early snowfall.
Northern Lights in November
November is a transition month, as it brings the first significant snowfalls of the season. It’s incredible to see how quickly the landscape changes; it’s as if autumn turns into winter virtually immediately. Although the snow brings a lot of cloud cover, the shorter days also offer darker skies, which extend the amount of time the Aurora may be seen.
October and November can be stormy, especially along the coast. Having said that, November is usually still a pleasant month to experience the Aurora.
Northern Lights in December
The weather begins to dry out in December. The snow not only creates the picture-perfect white Christmas and winter wonderland, but it also allows you to combine your Aurora Borealis hunt with other exciting activities. Keep in mind that during the coldest months of the year (December to early January), you may only have a few hours of daylight, with longer dawns and dusks.
It is also a time of heavy snowfall, so your view of the Northern Lights may be obscured by snow cloud. Your greatest enemy for seeing Northern Lights in December will be cloud cover. Plan a longer stay to maximize your chances of seeing the lights, taking your time to enjoy the other festive activities that are on offer at this time of year.
How long should your Northern Lights trip be?
For the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you will want to spend as much time as you can afford in the region. Allow longer if you are travelling during periods of lower solar activity or greater chances of cloud.
- Minimum: 4 days
- Ideal: 1 week
After speaking with locals in Finnish Lapland during my own Northern Lights vacation awhile back, they said we should allow at a minimum 4 days in the region but ideally 1 week to see the Aurora.
We only spent 2 nights in Lapland to see the lights, so it’s no wonder we didn’t see them on that trip. Hopefully you don’t make the same mistake!
Final Thoughts on The Best Time of the year to See Northern Lights
For anyone who doesn’t live near the Arctic Circle, seeing the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If this is on your bucket list and you want to organize your dream trip, we hope you have found this guide helpful. Personally speaking, I wished there was a guide like this when I was planning my Northern Lights trip several years ago, but there wasn’t, which is why I have created it for you.
In the end, unfortunately there is never a guarantee that you will see the lights. Afterall, we have no control over the weather variables. But you can plan your trip around those factors that can be predicted in advance. In particular, solar activity, time of year, and of course, the right location. You can read more about the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights in this article and the best countries in this article.
The best advice we can give is to stay as long as you can afford in the Arctic region, even if this means staying in cheaper accommodation instead of the fancy domes and igloos you see. I feel it is wiser to spend your money on a longer stay, rather than spend it all on 1-2 really expensive nights with your fingers crossed. The longer you spend there, the greater chance you will have of seeing the lights. Seriously, if there is nothing else you factor into your planning, make sure you spend at least 4 days in the Arctic region… and don’t travel in Summer!
With a bit of planning and allowing for a more extended amount of time in the region, you hugely increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights for yourself.
Best Time of The Year to See Northern Lights | Article References:
- Responsible Travel https://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/northern-lights-watching/travel-guide/when-to-see-the-northern-lights
Comments. Our articles are not open to comments, however, if you have a correction, question or suggestion concerning this article, please Contact Us directly.