My trip to Yellowknife was my first time in the artic and one of my main goals was to see the aurora borealis. I thought I was prepared: I packed warm clothes; I brought the proper camera gears; I booked tours ahead of time.
But I still made a few mistakes and even saw other tourists made them too. So I’m sharing them here so you can avoid making the same mistakes your first time aurora hunting.
Not Dressing For The Weather
This may seem like a given, but I still saw many tourists make this mistake. You will stand in -30C weather for a few hours so make sure to layer all parts of your body, not just your core. I saw many people only have their parka but don’t have snow pants or thick gloves.
You need to have multiple layers from head to toe in order to last in subzero temperatures for 30-45 minutes. This way, you can avoid hopping in and out of the car/bus tour to warm yourself up and won’t miss the beautiful aurora.
Think you might not have the right outerwear for this? Some companies offer equipments for rent. Here’s a good list.
Not Checking The Forecast
The aurora is not visible every winter night up north. It highly depends on the level of solar activity and the Earth’s atmosphere. I won’t go too much into the science behind the aurora but there are 2 things you need to look up the forecast for:
- Kp-index: measures the disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field. In other words, it indicates how much solar activity there is. It’s measured on a scale from 0 to 9, with a Kp-0 meaning quiet solar activity and a Kp-9 meaning intense solar storm. The higher the Kp-index, the brighter the aurora will be. The lights will also “dance” more. In Yellowknife, the northern lights are visible with a Kp-2 but might be faint. The ideal is a level 3 and above.
- Clouds: because the aurora dances above the clouds, the thicker the clouds, the less likely you can see the lights. So look up the weather forecast ahead of time. If the clouds don’t clear up by midnight, I would recommend cancelling the tour you booked so you don’t waste time and money chasing clouds in the dark.
I had looked up the Kp-index ahead of time but made the mistake of not looking up the weather so my first attempt of chasing the lights didn’t work out due to heavy overcast. I only caught a 30-second faint glimpse of the aurora out of 4 hours.
Not Having The Right Camera Gear
If you’re looking to take professional-Instagram-like photos of the aurora, you will absolutely need a tripod. Even if you’re just taking the photo on your phone in night mode, a tripod will make the photo less blurry. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend those mini plastic tripods as they don’t do well in the cold.
Not Changing Camera Settings Ahead
I had the proper gear: a DSLR camera with a wide lens and a tripod. I’m still new to photography but up to that point, I’ve done quite a bit of landscape photography in my travels. However, it was mostly during daytime. I didn’t have a lot of experience with night time photography but I knew it was going to be challenging.
My biggest mistake was that I didn’t anticipate for how quickly the aurora would disappear. I thought once the northern lights started dancing, they would last at least half an hour and that should give me enough time to start playing with the settings on my camera accordingly. Nope, the lights didn’t last long enough for me to test out different camera settings.
It wasn’t until I took a photography workshop through Sundog Adventures, a local tour company, that I finally managed to take photos of the northern lights on my camera. Not only will you learn about camera settings but also about the science of the aurora and tips and tricks from a professional photographer on how to chase the lights.
The best places to see the aurora are outside of the city, away from light pollution. Because of this, you will be completely in the dark. And then you will be scrambling to find the right buttons to change your camera settings. You will then use your phone’s flashlight function but you won’t have enough hands to both hold your phone and press buttons on your camera.
This is exactly what happened to me. So some hands-free light to help you adjust your camera, or even just to find your footing in the snow, will be extremely helpful.
No Spare Battery
For those who don’t know, your electronics will die much faster in subzero temperatures than they regularly do. Especially the devices with smaller batteries like your smart phone or your point-and-shoot camera.
Here are a few tips to prepare your electronics for your night of storm chasing:
- If you’ve invested in an extra pack of camera battery, make sure it’s fully charged and pack it in your bag.
- Pack a fully charged power bank for your smartphone.
- Fully charge your phone before storm chasing.
- If you notice your phone is dying quickly, insert it in your inner coat pocket. Keeping close to your body will somewhat keep the battery warm.
And Finally…No Patience
And last but most importantly, be patient!
You shouldn’t expect the lights to appear as soon as it gets dark. Especially now that we’re in a solar minimum, with less sunspots, less solar activities and shorter northern lights show.
The peak time to see the aurora borealis is between midnight to 1AM. If you get discouraged and go to bed before that, you might miss out on some amazing sights!
Chasing the aurora borealis is tricky. Out of 3 attempts, I would say only 1 was truly successful, where I could see the lights dance with my own eyes and not just through my camera. So be prepared, be patient, keep warm and most of all, appreciate every second of it.