Learn everything you need to know about seeing the northern lights in Iceland with a rental car in this complete guide. What car should you rent for the aurora self-drive trip? When is Iceland’s northern lights season? How to be safe on the Icelandic winter road? Also, discover the best places to see the aurora borealis and learn about when you can see them during the year.
Everything you need to know about how to see the Aurora: where to start
Imagine the entire sky lighting up in a massive dance, bursting out in a green flame above you, swirling around your head, and waving in colour. You don’t know where to look. It is everywhere. And the night is bright. Even if just for a moment.
Many come to Iceland to experience the great natural phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis, also called the northern lights. Still, even though it can fill the whole sky, it’s easily missed. Finding the northern lights isn’t hard if they are out, but you have to have luck, patience, dedication, warm clothing, and more luck. The greatest way to increase this chance of catching the dancing lights in the sky is by knowing how and when to look for them. So here is everything you need to know about the northern lights.
- Related links: best cars for a northern light self-drive trip in winter Iceland
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
In short, the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland is between September and April, when Iceland have dark nights. To answer this question in detail, we can break it down into two forms: the best time of year to see the northern light in Iceland and the best time of day to see the aurora in Iceland.
Northern lights, just like stars, can only be seen when it’s dark outside. And it doesn’t always get dark in Iceland. This is why you can only see the northern lights in the winter months between September and April. During this time, there is no better month than the other. November, December, and January are the darkest months; it is more likely to see the aurora during these months, but they also tend to be more cloudy.
Regarding the time of day, you can see the northern lights whenever it’s dark, and there is no specific time better than the other. Northern lights can even be dancing during the day, but it’s just too bright to see them. To maximize your chances tho, check when the area you are in has clear skies and walk outside to have a look frequently.
How does it feel when the aurora is above you?
What is the best car to rent for a northern light self-drive trip in Iceland?
Before recommending the rental vehicles, there are a few things about the Icelandic winter road conditions, the weather and driving conditions you need to know:
- There are NO street lights when you are out of the urban areas, which means you can expect to be driving in COMPLETELY darkness if you are hunting the northern lights in Iceland.
- The Icelandic weather changes rapidly, especially in the winter months. Storms, heavy snow, and low visibility can be expected anytime to happen in any part of Iceland during the winter.
- The roads, including the main roads like Route 1 Ring Road or those inside the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, will be icy, slippery and snowy, sometimes DIFFICULTY to drive.
- A temporary road closure is very common when lousy weather hits Iceland.
That said, a bigger, powerful and safer vehicle would be an ideal rental car for the winter roads in Iceland. We recommend you take a more robust and more extensive 4WD vehicle for your winter road trip.
Reading the northern light forecast
The sky can be dark one minute and dancing in green the next. There are good weather forecasts like vedur.is, and aurora apps like “Hello Aurora” to help you, but if you are unsure how to read it, there are plenty of tours with knowledgeable guides heading out every evening when there is a chance of seeing auroras.
Take vedur.is aurora forecast web page as an example:
You can find all the info you need on this page to choose the best place and time to wait for the northern light during your stay in Iceland.
On the right-hand side of this map, you can see:
- the chances that you can see the northern light on the day and time you choose: the higher the number on the scale, the higher the chance you can see the northern light
- the time of sunrise, sunset, dark and moonrise in Iceland on the day and time you choose: during the ‘dark’ period, the chances are higher
On the Iceland map, you can see the green and white parts. They represent the cloud movement and clourd coverage of Iceland:
- The GREEN represent the area COVERED by heavy clouds, the cloud covers, which means those green areas will have a lower possibility of seeing the aurora
- The WHITE, on the other hand, represent the area with a CLEAR SKY, which means you will have a better chance of seeing the aurora in those ‘white’ locations.
A little extra tip for you: you shouldn’t plan a trip to Iceland with the sole purpose of seeing the northern lights since this country has so much other beauty to offer. See it as a bonus that could show up if you come during the dark months.
Can you see the northern lights during the summer?
Just like stars, northern lights could be there during the day, but can’t overpower the brightness of our sun. No matter how spectacular they might be, you can’t see northern lights when it’s bright outside, and in summer, Iceland doesn’t get dark. Between May and August, the sun does set but it never fully gets dark, meaning that neither stars nor northern lights can be seen during these months.
Where is the best place to see the northern lights?
Northern lights can show up as a line across the sky, often to the north of where you are standing, or rarely, as an entire sky lit on fire above you. The problem is often that Icelandic weather can be very unreliable, and parts of the country could be covered in clouds for weeks without any break. So you have to go where you can see the sky. This can be as simple as walking out from your hotel or Airbnb or requiring a drive to where the nearest window in the clouds can be found. The easiest way to do this is to rent a car and look for a less cloudy area, or to have a guide who can precisely follow the weather forecast and determine where to go.
Can you see the northern lights from Reykjavik?
In short, yes! Northern lights are perceived weaker when there is a lot of light pollution around, meaning the light that is emitted from a source like a larger city, that fills the sky with a glowing yellow and blocks out the stars and auroras. Still, if the northern lights are strong, you can easily see them from the capital. The main issue is that there are buildings everywhere, and if the northern lights are not right above you, they are hidden by these tall structures. The best thing to do if you are in the city and the forecast is good is to go down to the northern shore of the city, where you have a clear view of the northern sky. Still, for the full experience, it’s a good idea to take a drive out to an open area in nature, which can be reached in as little as 20 minutes from downtown.
How to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights
Knowing where to go and how to read the weather forecast helps a lot, but there are a few other useful tips on how to best see the northern lights. These can determine the difference between seeing them when they are out or hearing about it the day after.
1. Wear warm clothing is a MUST
And we mean really warm. Nights with clear skies can get really cold, and the warmer you are, the longer you can stay out waiting for the sky to light up. To keep yourself warm, wearing layers is essential. Here is the recommended basic clothing list. Don’t forget to add more layers to the suggestions according to your needs:
- Windproof and waterproof outer shell/Jacket
- thermal top and pants
- fleece pullover and fleece lined legging for layering
- wool sweater
- waterproof outer pants
- waterproof hiking boots
- crampons (if needed)
2. Drive away from artificial lights if possible
People often recommend driving out of Reykjavík because it keeps you outdoors without getting bored. Walking out of your home and looking at an empty sky for 20 minutes gets tiring pretty fast, but driving somewhere for an hour or two gives a longer time span for the northern lights to show up.
3. Stay longer if the weather allows
There is no recommended timeframe for catching a glimpse of the northern lights, but the more time you have in Iceland, the higher the chance of seeing them.
4. A ‘buddy system’ might help
The more eyes are on the sky, the higher the chance is that someone is going to catch the lights when they are out. Countryside hotels often have a call service, where the reception will call your room phone if the northern lights show up during the night. If this is not offered, you can team up with other hotel guests or friends to take turns going outside and frequently check if there is any activity. The longer someone stays up looking through the night, the better.
5. Going further north if you are very snow-experienced driver
This is not only because it’s dark a little longer in the north of Iceland during the winter months but also because the north generally has better weather, meaning fewer clouds. And also has some other amazing sights apart from auroras.
Safety driving and travel tips when visiting Iceland for a self-drive winter northern light tour
After all the tips on having a better chance of seeing the aurora in Iceland, the most important thing left to discuss on top of everything else is how to see the northern lights safely:
- Check the daily weather forecast on vedur.is to make sure there is no warning of a storm or bad weather before hitting the roads
- Check the daily road conditions on road.is to make sure the roads are open and safe to drive
- Don’t underestimate the variability of road conditions in Iceland. If you’re not a super confident driver, then you may want to consider joining a local tour to see the northern lights and using your rental car for the other days of your trip
- Jot down Iceland’s emergency number – 112
- Never drive if you feel tired
- Don’t plan to drive too long during day time. Keep the itinerary relaxed with buffer time
Remember, your safety should always be the first priority, not seeing the aurora. Keep reminding yourself and reviewing the situation time by time, and decisively change or abandon the itinerary if needed. You will always have another chance to view the nothing light in the future, if not this time.
Bring all the luck you can to see the northern light in Iceland
Still, with all this knowledge, there might be days when the sky is clear but the lights just never come and there could be others when the sky is lit but it’s all covered in clouds. And then there are occasions when you walk out of a restaurant in downtown Reykjavík and they are right above you. Visitors can spend three days in Iceland and see the auroras every night, or chase them for a month to only find clouds and stars. You still need luck, and only Thor and Odin can help with that.
A bit of luck and patience can lead to the most amazing rewards. If you get a glimpse of the northern lights or even a full-on show all across the sky, it will definitely be a night you will never forget.