The Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Iceland via a Driving Trip
There’s nothing like the northern lights. When the night sky bursts into a blaze of colour, dancing across the horizon, it’s a simply magical experience. Maybe that’s why so many travellers consider seeing the aurora borealis for themselves to be an experience worth adding to their bucket lists. Many of those travellers come to Iceland to see the northern lights. But, if you’re hoping to glimpse Iceland’s northern lights during your visit, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can visit Iceland any time and see the auroras.
While Iceland, with its location inside the Northern Lights Belt, is ideally situated for aurora viewing, there are best times to see the northern lights in Iceland and the best places in Iceland to see the northern lights.
If you’re planning an aurora-hunting trip to Iceland, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you need to know about when to see the northern lights in Iceland, where to see the northern lights in Iceland and how to best go about seeing them on your own during a self-driving or road trip. In this article, we’ll answer…
- What’s the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland?
- Are the northern lights more visible under certain conditions?
- How do you read Iceland’s aurora borealis forecast?
- What’s the best car to rent in Iceland to see the aurora borealis?
- Where are the best places throughout Iceland to see the northern lights?
- What are the must-know safety rules for your Iceland self-drive aurora chasing trip?
So, without further ado…
What’s the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Iceland?
The northern lights sometimes called the aurora borealis or just aurora, are caused by solar wind disturbances high in the sky. Auroras are most likely to be spotted toward the earth’s poles, but only during certain months. If you’re coming to Iceland to see the northern lights, you’ll want to visit during Iceland’s northern lights season.
Iceland’s northern lights season runs throughout the fall to spring, late August to mid-April. Out of those months, the best times to visit for aurora borealis viewing are late September to March. If you visit Iceland during the summer months, your chances of seeing the aurora borealis are slim to non-existent, as the sun stays up in Iceland for nearly 24 hours a day during peak summer months.
If you're lucky, you may be able to see the auroras as early as late August, but still, chances are slim, and the August sky is often not dark enough to show the northern lights in their full glory.
Beyond the best times of year to see the northern lights in Iceland, there are also specific times of day best for aurora viewing in Iceland. In the winter months, Iceland can experience fewer than five hours of daylight per day. Viewing the aurora borealis is impossible during the daylight hours; you need a dark night sky to view the lights. Typically, any dark hour is suitable for aurora borealis viewing, but viewers report the most aurora borealis sightings between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Are the northern lights more visible under certain conditions?
Yes! Even if you visit the country during Iceland’s northern lights season, and even if you go searching for the aurora borealis during the best times to see the northern lights in Iceland, there are still other factors that play into your chances of spotting a truly spectacular lights display. These factors include…
- The phase of the moon
- The local weather
- Proximity to the city
- The current aurora borealis forecast
First, the moon phase will play a significant role in whether or not you can see the northern lights. Just like the sunlight will inhibit your view, so will the moonlight. If you have a combination of weak northern lights and robust and bright moonlight, the likelihood of actually viewing the lights decreases significantly.
But it's not just sunlight and moonlight that can interfere with your ability to see the aurora. Artificial light can impact visibility as well. This is why you want to stay away from artificial light when looking for the northern lights in Iceland. You’ll want to head out of your city or village. Once you've actually found your northern lights, please avoid using any artificial light, such as the lights from your car’s headlamps or light from a cell phone, so you can best enjoy the auroras in their full splendour.
Additionally, if there’s too much cloud cover, that may also prevent you from seeing Iceland’s northern lights. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that your chances of cloud cover — and the subsequent bad weather that comes with it, including snow, rain and storms — in Iceland are much more likely during Iceland’s northern lights season. Sometimes, you may be able to spot the aurora borealis even with a little cloud cover if the aurora is particularly active and bright, but there are no promises.
How do you read Iceland’s aurora borealis forecast?
One extremely handy tool to use when visiting Iceland and looking for the northern lights? Iceland’s very own aurora borealis forecast, provided by the Iceland Met Office. You can check this forecast for up-to-date predictions regarding Iceland’s northern lights, with predictions covering the current day and subsequent two days.
When you look at the forecast, you’ll notice that it uses a scale from 0 to 9 to indicate the northern lights’ activity. If the scale is set at a 0, it means that there’s essentially zero (or, at least, very little) chance of seeing the northern lights. If the scale is set at 9, you are pretty much guaranteed to see the northern lights.
Both 0 and 9 are very rare settings for this scale, so you likely won’t see either ranking. Instead, most commonly, the scale is set at 1, 2 or 3. But don’t think the smaller number means you won't have a good chance of seeing the lights! A 3 is an outstanding number, giving you a moderately good chance of seeing some action. Most aurora hunting tours in Iceland will operate when the aurora level is set to a 3. Anything higher than a 3 indicates, obviously, an even better chance of seeing the aurora borealis.
Otherwise, when reading the Iceland aurora borealis forecast, you can view the forecast by day and time, including future days and times, and see the corresponding predicted activity level. All in all, the tool is straightforward to use. In addition to showing you the aurora borealis forecast, it will also show you the sunset and sunrise times, so you know the best, darkest times for viewing. The forecast tool likewise shows you the moonrise times, so you can take moonlight into account when aurora hunting as well.
You’ll additionally see a range of colours on the forecast map, including green, light green, dark green and white. The green indicates cloud cover, and the darker the green hue, the thicker the clouds. So, when looking at the map, you’ll have a greater chance of seeing the northern lights if you go to a “white” area, as there will be little or no cloud cover in those areas. If you’re in a dark green portion of the map, you’ll be less likely to see the lights.
But, beyond all this, really, northern lights hunting in Iceland all comes down to luck. Even if all of the conditions for aurora borealis viewing are perfect, you still might not see the lights at all. Or, the conditions for aurora borealis viewing might not be that ideal, and you could get lucky and see the lights when you least expect them.
So, considering that, don’t plan on spending only one night searching for the northern lights. Set aside a few nights during your trip and keep your itinerary flexible, especially if seeing the northern lights is on your bucket list. You don’t want to let a little bit of bad luck keep you from what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
What’s the best car to rent in Iceland to see the aurora borealis?
If you plan to rent a vehicle for your trip to Iceland and plan on using that rental car to look for the northern lights, you will need 4x4 vehicle. Iceland’s rough winter weather conditions, paired with the darker, less-developed roads of rural Iceland, mean potentially hazardous situations for any 2WD vehicle.
Don’t wait to book your 4x4 vehicle for your winter Iceland trip, though. These in-demand vehicles can get booked up pretty quickly, so you’ll want to book yours as soon as possible via Lava Car Rental. We offer a full range of 4x4 vehicles, with automatic and manual transmissions, in a range of sizes to fit a range of traveller needs. Whether you want more of a luxury vehicle or something that can fit the entire family with ease, we’ll outfit you with the best, safest and most comfortable rental car for your Iceland excursion.
Where are the Best Places in Iceland to See the Northern Lights?
Based on all of the above, there are some general best places in Iceland to see the northern lights. You’ll want to go somewhere that’s…
- Away from the city or town (in other words, get out of Reykjavik!)
- Marked “white” on the aurora forecast map
- And somewhere marked as “high activity” on the aurora forecast map’s 0 to 9 rating scale
With that in consideration, there are a few top spots to go throughout Iceland if you want to see some fantastic northern lights (when the conditions are right, based on the above tips) and also some amazing natural scenery at the same time. These spots are great to visit during the daytime, but they show off just how gorgeous Iceland really is at night, with the aurora borealis above them.
On Iceland’s South Coast, Vik is a remote, small village right on the ocean, meaningless artificial illumination to block your view of the northern lights. Here, you’ll enjoy the amenities of being in a village, so you can see the lights without heading off into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
This glacier lagoon is filled with icebergs and, when you have the northern lights right above them, the entire lake lights up in a colourful, beautiful display. Located in the southeast of Iceland, the glacier lagoon is very easy to reach and a lovely spot for aurora borealis sight-seeing when the conditions are right. One other cool reason to visit? During the Iceland northern lights season, the lagoon also hosts hundreds of seals.
Kirkjufell in Snaefellsnes
Kirkjufell is a mountain on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in northern Iceland. Kirkjufell is the most-photographed mountain in all of Iceland, and for a good reason — it's gorgeous! It only gets prettier when the northern lights are behind it.
If you are travelling to the northern part of Iceland, the Myvatn area, the countryside of Akureyri, or small towns around the ring road will also be a good spot for aurora hunting.
A Few Safety Reminders for Those Chasing Iceland’s Northern Lights on Their Own
While some visitors to Iceland choose to join a northern lights tour during their stay, other savvy travellers prefer to chase Iceland’s northern lights on their own. This allows them the flexibility to chase the lights for multiple nights, if desired, and the ability to go when and where the lights will be most visible. Of course, to do this, these intrepid travellers do need a rental car to get around, which is where Lava Car Rental comes in.
Lava Rental wants every visitor searching for Iceland’s northern lights to have a safe and enjoyable time, not just our customers. If you plan on driving around the island on an aurora borealis hunt during your stay, here are a few tips to keep yourself safe.
Go slow, safe and familiar
Iceland’s more rural roadways are not lit. While this means less artificial light, which makes for better aurora borealis viewing, it also makes for potentially more dangerous driving conditions. This is especially the case during the winter season when roads can already be a little more hazardous due to snow and ice. With this in mind, take things slow to keep yourself safe and stay on familiar roadways.
We recommend our customers stay in one of the more rural areas where they plan to hunt for the northern lights. This allows them to learn the area during the day to more easily and quickly get back to their accommodations once night falls. This is especially a good idea during the winter months, as Iceland’s hazardous weather can crop up in an instant, surprising you and potentially leaving you stranded.
Check the weather and road conditions ahead of time
Additionally, make sure to use the helpful tools offered by safetravel.is, such as the service’s trip itinerary feature, which allows you to upload your itinerary online, giving rescuers a better idea of your location in the event of an emergency.
You can learn more about travelling around Iceland during the winter, with our winter Iceland driving guide.
The Northern Lights are Waiting!
If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the northern lights in person, what are you waiting for? Hunting down the aurora borealis in Iceland is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that’s within your reach. With the right preparation, research, conditions and a little luck — and the right rental car — you can see this magnificent display of nature for yourself.