Aurora Hunting Above The Arctic Circle

Счастливого Рождество

Having lived as an expat for over a decade now, I’ve found the experience to be both rewarding and frustrating at times. While I’m generally not the type to suffer from homesickness, there is one time of the year when I do miss being back in Canada and that’s Christmas.

Most of my time has been spent between Thailand and Japan and while both countries do make an attempt at creating some type of Christmas cheer, it’s just not the same as back home. When it’s 36 degrees in mid-December, Bangkok doesn’t feel very Christmasy and in Japan Christmas usually consists of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner after you’ve put in a full day at the office.

I wasn’t planning on traveling again this year as I had already done a big trip to Africa to go on a safari tour in Tanzania, but browsing Expedia can be dangerous and when I saw a cheap flight to Stockholm with a stopover in Moscow, I knew I had to go.

On my first visit to Moscow the previous summer, I was completely amazed by how different the city was than what I had expected. Since I had enjoyed my time so much before I couldn’t wait to see what the city would look like all lit up for Christmas, and needless to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Abisko, Sweden

Wednesday 15°CThursday 12°CFriday 9°C

“As the sky dims over the Swedish lapland, the Aurora Borealis comes to life. Over the distant mountains, it dips effortlessly in and out of the horizon. It hangs overhead, weaving like a giant curtain as bright hues of neon green light the plains below.”

A Day in Stockholm

My travel plans to Sweden may have been a little impulsive, but I was excited to see the winter wonderland after all this was the land of reindeer and Santa Clause right?

Stockholm is a stylish city surrounded by water and was in the past referred to as ‘the city between bridges’. I only had a limited time to explore the city so the first thing I did was visit the public library.

The Stockholm Public Library is a circular building designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund. The library holds more than 2 million volumes and was Sweden’s first public library to apply the principle of open shelves where visitors could access books without the need to ask library staff for assistance.

Voted as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, the Stadsbibliotek is definitely an Instagram worthy stop.

Stockholms Stadsbibliotek
designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund

I’ve always felt that you can tell a lot about the culture of a city by visiting its public transit systems. For example, the subway stations in Moscow are very grand and symbolic of Russian pride, in Japan, they are efficient and clean but lack character. What would the land of IKEA have in store for me?

I decided to head underground where I discovered what has been called the world’s biggest art display. The Stockholm subway system has 100 stations and 90 of them are decorated with art. By art, I don’t mean a single painting or sculpture, nope, here deep underground the usually conservative Swedes went wild decorating their subway stations. One station looks like an archaeological excavation, another highlights woman’s rights, while another looks like your descending into hell.

The sheer creativity, complexity, and ingenuity of the stations is amazing to see and makes for fantastic photography. The Stockholm subway only has 3 lines so it’s easy to see all the stations in one day. My favorite was the blood red walls of the Solna Centrum Station.

Solna Centrum Station
Descent into hell at Solna Centrum Station

For an excellent and extensive guide to visiting the Stockholm subway stations I recommend checking out THE ULTIMATE SELF-GUIDED TOUR OF STOCKHOLM SUBWAY ART by Taryn Eyton.

Why Abisko?

After an enjoyable day exploring Stockholm I set off to Abisko, to finally get to see nature’s own firework display – The Aurora Borealis.

The Aurora Borealis or northern lights is a beautiful natural phenomenon that happens when charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s magnetic shield during a solar flare. These particles collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere and that’s how we get these stunning light displays.

Of course, hundreds of years ago people didn’t know this and came up with their own fascinating explanations. At the time Finland actually belonged to Sweden, and the two countries share a lot of history and culture. In Finland, the name for the Aurora is ‘revontulet’, which means firefoxes. According to that legend, firefoxes used to roam in northern Sweden and it is sparks from their coats that caused the northern lights.

Abisko National Park is said to be the world’s best place to experience the aurora. This small village 250 kilometers north of the Arctic circle is in the center of a climatic ‘blue hole’, which is said to be the perfect place to experience the aurora due to the clean, unpolluted air, the ideal climate conditions and clear winter skies.

It must be true what they say because during my stay in Abisko, I had three crystal clear nights. But the weather can be unpredictable, and other travelers I spoke to had not been so lucky. There are no guarantees of course, but if you want to increase your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis, the longer you stay in Abisko the better your chances are.

The aurora can mainly be seen around the polar regions, which is around the Arctic and Antarctica, and while many people believe that the northern lights only take place during the winter, that’s not actually true.

The northern lights happen during the summer season too, however in the Arctic Circle regions such as Lapland you have another interesting natural phenomenon that takes place during the summer, that is the midnight sun, which happens when the sun never sets.

It’s quite an incredible experience in itself, to experience 24-hour daylight but since you need complete darkness to see the aurora, they are best experienced during the cold and eternally dark Swedish winters.

In fact, during the winter they have the opposite of the midnight sun in that the sun rises. For a few hours each day, the sun comes close to the horizon but never actually rising above it.

Living like a vampire during polar nights in Abisko cannot be an easy task, but it does provide the ideal time to see the Aurora Borealis.

Hiring a Guide

If the aurora is a natural light display in the sky, why would I need to hire a guide to see them? Couldn’t I just walk straight out of the hotel room, look up and there it is? This is the question I had while researching my trip and it turns out the answer is a little complicated, as there are quite a few factors to take into consideration for the best viewing opportunity.

The first of them is that the best way to see the aurora is when the sky is pitch black. This means that you’ll need to get as far away from any and all artificial light as possible, such as the light from the hotel, street lights and even the light from your smartphone screen can make it harder for you to see the aurora.

Finding a dark place in a nature haven such as Abisko is not a difficult task in itself. However, wandering off into the wilderness by yourself, in the middle of the night, when temperatures are hovering around -30 is not the best idea. You run the risk of getting lost or worse having an unexpected encounter with the local wildlife.

There are a lot of advantages in going with a guide but if you really don’t want to hire a guide or join a group tour, there is still one place where you can venture out on your own.

That is the Aurora Sky Station, or also known as STF Aurora Sky station on top of Mount Nuolja which is approximately 900 meters above sea level. 

You can book a transfer from your accommodation all the way to the cable car. This costs anywhere from 19-35 USD, depending on how far away from the Sky station your hotel is located.

Also, don’t mix up the Aurora Sky Station with the Abisko Tourist Station, which sounds like a tourist information place is but is actually an accommodation choice that offers hotel, hostel, or cabins.

Private guide or group tour?

Whenever I travel, I usually try to avoid the common tourist attractions and instead I will try to focus on creating an experience unique to that country. In Germany I drove a race car on the Nürburgring, in France I took a photography tour of Paris, in Italy I rented a classic sports car and drove through the mountains above Lake Garda.

I always try to make the most of the limited time I have, and for that reason, I tend to book private tours. It gives me more freedom and control over deciding what location to go to and what to do. It just gives me a feeling of a tailored experience.

When it came time to book my aurora tour I also looked at both the group and private tour options and although I usually tend to favor private tours, for this trip I decided to book a group tour through a company called Lights Over Lapland.

One of the reasons why I booked with Lights Over Lapland is that they offered a clothing rental service. I have already packed a full ski suit with me but given that the night temperatures could dip as low as -30 I was happy to be able to rent their arctic coveralls and winter boots.

I can’t stress enough how glad I was that I rented the extra clothing from Lights Over Lapland, especially the winter boots. I noticed that many of the others in the group had chosen not to rent boots and ended up complaining of cold feet a lot of the time. Meanwhile, I was nice and toasty in my rental boots!

The guides from Lights Over Lapland are also fully trained photographers and if you are a beginner photographer the guides can help you get that Instagram worthy photo while making sure that you stay warm with their delicious warm Lingonberry juice.

If you’re an experienced landscape or astrophotographer, the private tour may be a better option for you. The private guides I contacted did not provide any clothing rental or photography instruction but they are experts are getting you deep into the Abisko National Forest for that National Geographic worthy photo.

Finding Accommodation

Even though Abisko is a very small village above the polar circle in Sweden, it’s still quite easy and straightforward to get there. You can fly to Kiruna from any of the larger cities such as Stockholm or Gothenburg. It takes approximately 1.5 hours, and from there you can then either drive to Abisko or take the train to Abisko Tourist Station which adds about another hour’s worth of travel.

If you’re interested in a slower mode of travel. You can take the night train direct to Abisko. Keep in mind that this is a very very long train ride, averaging about 20 hours from Stockholm. Though the scenery may be fascinating at the beginning of the train ride, it is still a long train ride, and a big portion of the time, it will be dark outside.

If you fly into Kiruna you’ll have the option of booking a night at the famous Ice hotel just outside of the city. This is a few kilometers from Abisko, and most travel companies can help you arrange transportation there.

As I mentioned earlier I booked this trip over the Christmas holidays and this is something I do not recommend at all. Sweden is already an expensive country to visit and I noticed that the prices of hotels and transportation all jumped up by about threefold when compared to the prices in the offseason.

Also since the entire population of Abisko is only 85 people, the village is not exactly overflowing with accommodation options. By the time I got around to booking my accommodation, all the hotels in the village were booked and the only options that were left were 6 person dorm rooms.

I consider myself well past the age of staying in dormitories so I decided to book a cabin at a small ski resort called Björkliden, approximately 10 km from Abisko. The cabin was quaint and clean-ish but I was surprised to find out that there were extra fees for bedding and towels.

Kåppas Cabin Village in Björkliden

According to the hotel, it is common for Swedish people to load up their Volvos with their own bedding and towels when they travel. However if you’re an international tourist like me who doesn’t make it a habit of traveling with my own bedding, you’re the only choice is to pay the rather large bedding rental fees to enjoy a good nights sleep. Apparently, it’s also common for Swedes to travel with their own soap too because the cabin was also lacking in any basic shower necessities.

I was also informed that I had to pay a mandatory $125USD cleaning fee. You can either pay it in advance, or upon check out, but pay it you must. The cabin itself wasn’t extraordinary in any way and I feel like it could’ve been a little more ‘all inclusive’ for the money I paid.

Once you’ve checked into your cabin your food options are either the hotel bar or the hotel restaurant. Both of which are insanely overpriced but with very limited options in the area you don’t have much choice. I suggest taking full advantage of the free breakfast buffet in the morning to last you through the day.

Some other accommodation options

Abisko Guesthouse is a two-star hotel where the cheapest option is to book the economy room which is a small room for two with a bunk bed. They also do double and triple beds. Prices start from around $70 per night.

Abisko Mountain Lodge is a three-star hotel where you can book a small cabin for up to four people. Prices start around $230 per night.

You can also stay at the STF Abisko Tourist Station, where you can rent a double room from $195 per night. STF stands for the Swedish Tourist Association. 

Don’t mix it up with Aurora Sky Station, which is a tower for viewing the northern lights. However, if you do decide to stay at Abisko Tourist Station, you’re only a 10 minute walk from the Aurora Sky Station.

Eating like a viking, or not

When it comes to staying fed, unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of options in Abisko. You’re even more limited if you don’t have access to a car. All the hotels have small restaurants and offer food; however, they are very overpriced.

Perhaps the best reviews go to Abisko Tourist Station STF that serve eco-friendly food. But be ready to fork out between $22-30 for a main dish.

To save money, you could stock up on some noodles, canned food, bread or freeze-dried food and just use the kettle in the hotel.

I did, however, get a chance to drink the delicious Swedish lingonberry juice made from berries that are locally grown. It’s a very rich and healthy drink, and I do recommend that you try it.

Staying Warm

When you’re going to travel to the Arctic Circle, we can just go ahead and assume that it’s going to be very cold. I’m from Canada, so I’m used to some cold weather but, in Lapland, the temperature can sink as low as -30 degrees Celsius and this is a level of cold I had never experienced before.

Thankfully, Lights Over Lapland were very helpful in giving me pointers to stay warm. The staff told me to be ready for a wide range of weather conditions, everything from mild sunny days with zero degrees to lows around minus thirty. They also suggested that I bring a snow jacket and pants to wear under their arctic overalls.

Layers, Layers and more Layers.

As I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Arctic cold, but it turns out that it’s not as cold as I thought it would be. The Swedish cold is a kind of dry cold, which feels a lot more bearable than for example the British humid cold that creeps into your bones and makes you absolutely miserable.

I did notice that a lot of other tourists in the area were complaining about cold feet and toes, whereas mine was nice and toasty in my rented arctic boots. I can’t emphasize enough how much I recommend wearing enough clothing. You haven’t come all the way to the Article Circle to spend the time suffering from numb feet while you should be focusing your attention on the surreal Aurora Borealis.

The trick to staying warm is layers, layers, layers. Start off with a base layer of wool or some other kind of thermal wear, this should be close to your skin to absorb any sweat and keep you warm and dry. Avoid cotton as once it gets wet it can freeze to your skin! Merino wool is the best. On top of your base layer, you can start adding the sweaters, snow jacket and pants, and lastly your arctic overalls.

For your hands, gloves that can handle the cold is vital, and if you’re especially prone to cold hands a pair of mittens over your gloves is recommended. And lastly, don’t forget about the windchill! This was the only time I felt cold as we zoomed across the frozen tundra on the dogsled. Bring something that will protect your face and neck such as a scarf, ski mask or balaclava.

This sounds like a lot of clothing and you’ll probably get hot when putting it all on in your hotel room but you’ll be grateful once you go outside. I was very comfortable during my time outside and the cold weather never negatively affected my trip.

Photography Tips

It wasn’t only me that needed to stay warm either. I had to think about my photography equipment too because batteries tend to die very quickly in the cold. If you’re shooting stills then having one or two extra batteries should be enough but if you’re shooting a time-lapse or video bring as many batteries as you can carry.

Also when shooting out in the field keep the batteries as close to your body as you can. Even if they are not being used in the camera the cold can drain them and by keeping them warm next to your body will help prevent this.

There are tons of articles online that explain in great detail how to shoot the Aurora, so I won’t go into too much here but one article I highly recommend you read about this article about the 500 rule.

One thing that I really struggled with was getting sharp focus in my photos. Since you’re shooting into the night sky you might not be able to see anything on your viewfinder until after you’ve taken the photo. This means taking the shot first and then adjusting your camera settings after.

Since the aurora actually moves, though it may be hard to notice, a too long exposure time will give you a blurry image, but a too short exposure time will give you a black sky. I found it tricky to get the right exposure time to get photos that were in focus.

One thing that I did notice that helped was turning off image stabilization. Since your camera is on a tripod anyway you don’t need it and I found that the cold was affecting the stabilization resulting in blurry images. Once I turned it off things started to look a lot better!

So basically, practice and be ready. You don’t want to be standing in the freezing cold pointing your lens to the skies and figuring it out then and there. The batteries don’t last long, and neither will your cold fingers so you don’t have a lot of chances to get it right.

One last but very important tip is to make sure you protect your camera when you enter the warm hotel after having been out in the cold. The temperature change could cause condensation to form inside your camera, which can damage the electronics. You can avoid this by putting your camera in a zip-lock bag when going inside and this way, both you, your camera and your images will make it back home safely.

A night out with the aurora

Seeing the majesty of the Aurora Borealis surrounded by the silent arctic night is really a surreal thing to experience.

It’s easy to understand why the native people had these amazing stories of the origin of the aurora in the past. The beautiful hues of pink, blue, yellow, violet and greens look like a soft, slow wave moving through the night sky.

But to be honest the aurora can look a little underwhelming at times. Our first night out the aurora was nothing but a faint green mist in the sky and I started to question my sanity for spending so much money to come see this green fog.

The aurora is a natural occurrence, and how it’s going to portray itself is anyone’s guess. Many factors play a part in this, and all you can do is be ready for when it does make an appearance because when the aurora is at its strongest, it’s really an amazing sight to behold! Even though the lights are formed somewhere high in the atmosphere, it literally looks like it’s just above you, slightly out of reach as it dances across the night sky.

If you are really serious about getting a high-quality, super sharp photo, then I would suggest that you give yourself a minimum of five days of shooting, as well as hiring a private guide that can take you to the locations where you’re most likely to get the best view.

I wish I’d been more prepared for this from a photographer’s viewpoint, but I’ve learned a lot and next time I get an opportunity to shoot the Aurora, I’ll know what to expect.

Daytime Activities

While there isn’t a whole lot to do in Abisko from an eating- or sightseeing point of view. There’s still a lot you can do to spend your time on during the day.

As I already mentioned, one of the reasons I decided to go with Lights Over Lapland was because they offered several activities that I was interested in. Before you book up too many activities at once, remember that you only have about 4 hours of daylight hours during the winter in Abisko.

I decided to join the snowmobile tour, which is a fun and adventurous way to zoom through the winter landscape. If you’re a beginner or if it’s your first time on a snowmobile, then this is a good tour for you since the guide will make sure that everyone is safe and that you go at a slow pace with regular stops.

I found the pace of the ride to be a little slow as I did have some previous experience with snowmobiling and would have liked a more advanced option with a little more speed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t available, but next time, I’ll check if it’s possible to book a private tour.

Walking Tours

My favorite tour during my stay in Abisko was the landscape photography tour with nature photographer Chris Hodgson. I’ve been living in Tokyo, which is a crowded and noisy big city, and it’s hard to get away from the bustling city life. So, I really enjoyed this time, experiencing the eerie still snow-covered landscape and taking in the vast openness around me.

If you’re not into photography there is also a cultural walking tour. The guide will take you to a Dárfegoahti, a traditional tent used by the Samí people. There, you’ll learn about the lifestyle they’ve been living for thousands of years while sipping hot coffee and snacking on dried reindeer meat.

The Ethics of Dog Sled Tours

There are also a lot of other activities such as skiing, ice climbing or snowshoe hiking for those of you who like adventures. For myself, I decided to try out the dog sled tour.

I’m an animal lover, and I hate to see any forms of animal tourism where the animals aren’t being treated right. Having lived in Thailand, I’ve seen what the elephants have to go through during their ‘training’. So, naturally, I had some mixed feelings about joining this tour.

There will, of course, be different opinions on whether these dog sled tours are ethical or not. But ultimately, I decided that I was okay with it knowing that these are domesticated dogs that have been used in this environment for many years. They have become a part of the families and livelihoods of the Samí people and unlike the elephants and tigers in Thailand, these dogs are not wild animals taken from their natural home and forced to perform for tourists.

I also learned that there are strict laws in place and that animal welfare is taken very seriously in Sweden. It’s not legal to keep a dog in a cage at home, and the smallest outdoor enclosure you can keep one big dog in has to measure at least 20 square meters, which is almost as large at my apartment in Tokyo!

I also did see that the dogs seemed genuinely excited and ready to head out for a run. Their excitement was the main reason why I decided to join the tour.

I was quite surprised at the small size of these dogs, they weren’t the large and furry huskies I had imagined. They were actually short-haired and each one of the dogs had their own personality. Some of them were shy or reserved, while others were friendlier and more social.

As any parents know getting your kids ready for school is a challenging ordeal and trying to hook up a team of eight very excited dogs is no exception. However, once the musher yelled out the command to run the dogs went silent and took off like a rocket.

I was actually very surprised at how fast the sled would go with a team of 8 dogs pulling 4 tourists and the driver. In fact, I think we were quicker on the dog sled tour than on the snowmobile tour.

Final Thoughts

This year I’ve traveled from the very driest, plains of Tanzania to the very coldest snow-covered landscapes in Sweden. Seeing the Aurora on video doesn’t compare to how amazing it looks in person. Words can’t describe how spectacular it looks and I encourage everyone to go see the aurora at least once in their lifetime.

I don’t think this will be my last time to see the Aurora Borealis. I’ve relocated back to Canada and the best viewing areas are just a short flight away. I’ll miss the lingonberry juice but I’m pretty sure that all Canadian hotels come with nice comfortable bedding.