Northern Lights: a how-to guide

There are few phenomena that capture the imagination like the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights appear only at high latitudes on dark nights from September to March, and lucky star-gazers can witness anything from an ethereal green glow on the horizon to pulsating scarlet streaks across the sky. Countries across Scandinavia, as well as Canada, Alaska, Russia and even Scotland, are home to this seasonal spectacle and travellers cross the globe in the hope of glimpsing it.

The liveliest phase of the 11-year solar cycle is now, so it's little wonder that so many travellers are poised to search out the gleaming horizons of the north. But the Northern Lights are as fickle as they are inspiring, so aurora-hunters need a hefty dose of luck along with good planning. Weather, timing and light pollution can spell the difference between celestial wonder and a freezing night spent looking at your watch.

So how do you maximise your chances of seeing this heavenly light display, and can do you it on a shoestring? We’ve sifted through heaps of Northern Lights wisdom from our experts and online community to bring you top tips for seeing the Northern Lights.

The basics

What are the Northern Lights? Lonely Planet gives you the science behind the spectacle, along with two other phenomena you can witness in the chilly Arctic skies.

Where can I find them? Our Thorn Tree community tells you where to head north, with some helpful tools to plan your journey.

How long do they last and how easy are they to photograph? Our online community explains the aurora’s fleeting mystery and gives helpful photography tips on capturing its full glory.

Planning your trip

How do I decide where to go? There's a lot of Arctic circle to choose from, but help is at hand: some locations have an excellent reputation for frequent sightings, allowing you to hedge your bets on blazing skies. Thorn Tree’s travel brains have lined up the top aurora spots worldwide, helping you to find out more about the best Northern Lights destinations in Scandinavia, North America and Canada.

How do I jazz up my dream trip? After touching down in one of these frosty locations, there'll be no shortage of tours by bus and car to take you to key viewing points - more personal guided treks can be found too. Some tours will even offer you a second chance to see the lights for free, if they don't glimmer on your first tour. And there are plenty of ways to do the trip in style, from Norway's Hurtigruten ferry to gazing out from one of Scandinavia's Ice Hotels.

And how do I see the lights without joining a tour? Shoestring sky-gazers rejoice, you can see this spectacle on a budget. Lonely Planet’s online community has been musing on the best regions in Iceland to catch the celestial show (weather-watchers can pinpoint the best spots here: en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora). Our nomadic Aurora-spotters also have tips on top picks around Norway’s Tromso, Reykjavik in Iceland, Fairbanks, Alaska and Yellowknife, Canada to maximise your chances.

You can  take your chances with a self-drive tour; check out these tips for Iceland, Norway or Canada. But make sure you're confident about driving in snowy conditions if you're planning to DIY.

So just how cold is it going to be? Thermals are essential, forward-plan your footwear and depending on how remote you're going, you might need to hire or buy winter sports-style clothing - learn more.

Winter magic: more travel inspiration for the chilly months

With Russian ice sculptures, migrations of reindeer and the appearance of London’s playful side, there’s plenty of other magic in the winter months. Discover Lonely Planet’s seven wonders of winter or browse these 7 great reasons to visit Europe in the cold season.

If all this talk of frozen horizons and thermal undies is making you chilly, remember that one of the best things about Scandinavian winter is saunas.

And Aurora Borealis isn’t the only dazzling display you could meet on your travels. Believe your eyes with Lonely Planet’s shortlist of the world’s strangest optical illusions and mirages.

This article was first published in November 2011 and was refreshed in October 2012.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.