If seeing the northern lights is high up on your bucket list, Sweden is a very good place to start. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s one of the best countries on Earth for aurora spotting.
Of course, it helps that large chunks of the nation are far enough north to make light shows a regular occurrence. But there are other reasons for picking Sweden. It’s easy to reach by air, it’s safe to travel around, and it has lots of interesting sights to take in as you search for the perfect aurora.
Another thing is the weather. We can hardly claim that northern Sweden is warm but thanks to the effect of the Gulf Stream it does tend to be a little milder than lots of other places where the lights are visible (Siberia and Canada, for example).
Sweden is also cheaper to visit than some of its Nordic neighbours, which makes it possible to see the lights without spending a fortune on accommodation, food and transport – and who can argue with that?
Where to see the northern lights in Sweden
Usually, the northern lights are only visible in Sweden’s northern reaches. The closer you get to the so-called ‘auroral zone’– a band that stretches around the globe around 2000–3000km from the magnetic pole, which shifts over time – the better your chances of seeing something amazing overhead.
So where should you go? The good news is that huge tracts of northern Sweden fall within the sweet spot where the northern lights appear fairly regularly.
Exactly where you’re able to see the lights depends on a whole range of conditions, including everything from the amount of solar activity to the weather overhead. Now you’re probably hoping for place names.
Well, the big chunk of the country that stretches north from roughly Jokkmokk to the northern border with Norway is usually considered the best area of Sweden for watching the northern lights, with regular displays overhead throughout the winter.
It is possible to see the northern lights much further south than Jokkmokk, however, and during periods of particularly high solar activity, it’s not unheard of to see the aurora as far south as Stockholm and Gothenburg. These events are pretty rare, though, and planning an aurora-spotting trip to anywhere in southern Sweden is probably a bad idea.
One thing that’s always worth bearing in mind: just because you take a trip to the far north of Sweden, it doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to see the northern lights.
It’s very possible to spend a whole week in Lapland during winter and still not see anything (trust us on this one – we’ve done it). If it’s cloudy overhead, you won’t see anything, no matter how bright the lights are shining. And even if it is completely clear, there’s no guarantee that there will be any solar activity.
For those reasons, you should be wary of any tour company telling you that you will definitely see the lights, or that the place they want to send you to is better than any others.
Some places in Sweden are known for having clear skies, which always improves the likelihood of seeing something, but the Swedish weather is notoriously fickle and you should treat any claims of ‘guaranteed clear skies’ with a big old pinch of salt.
The truth is that a lot comes down to luck. But that does add an element of suspense, and there are a few things you can do to improve your chances – not least picking the right time of year to visit.
What’s the best time of year to see the northern lights?
Aurora season in the north of Sweden runs roughly from the end of September until the start of April. To put that another way: the northern lights are (theoretically at least) visible in Swedish Lapland any time of year that it gets properly dark at night.
However hard you try, there isn’t much chance of seeing the northern lights any time between May and August, when the sun barely sets at all in northern Sweden.
Even at the start and end of the summer, when the sun finally starts slinking below the horizon for a couple of hours each night, the sky will probably be too light to really identify any wisps of aurora.
Arrive in northern Sweden in the depths of winter, when the sky barely brightens at all and the sun is down around the clock, and the chances for seeing the lights are greatly improved. More darkness means more opportunities for aurora spotting.
However, you should bear in mind that if you visit northern Sweden in late December or early January, you’ll be extremely limited in terms of the other activities you can enjoy. No one wants to go hiking or dog sledding when it’s dark around the clock and cold enough to make your eyelashes turn to icicles.
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If you’re hoping to narrow it down, the absolute best time of the year for seeing the northern lights in Sweden is probably on either side of the winter. These shoulder seasons – late-September to early November, and March to April – provide a good mix of light and dark.
That means you’ll have plenty of time to try and spot the northern lights at night, but will also be able to get out and about during the day, admiring the beautiful scenery, which will almost certainly be very snowy.
Visiting at those times of year will also help you to miss the main Christmas rush, when prices for hotel rooms tend to shoot up. You’ll also miss the worst of the freezing temperatures. You can still expect the weather to be very chilly though, especially at night, so make sure you dress in layers (there’s more on that below).
When to step outside
If there’s a good amount of solar activity, it could be possible to see the northern lights as soon as it gets dark in the evening. In our experience the best displays have always occurred a little later (usually in the final hour before midnight) but your results may vary. If you don’t mind getting a very early start, or staying up all night, there’s also a chance that you could see something in the hours before dawn.
There are a couple of things you can do to avoid standing around in the snow with frozen fingers, waiting for something to happen.
The first is to find a window with a clear view of the sky, and wait for the lights to appear. This will only work in very dark, rural areas though – to see the lights at all, you need to remember that artificial light is the enemy, and that you should try to get as far away from it as you can.
The second thing you can do is to make use of one of the free online aurora alert services, which let you know when large solar storms are expected to reach Earth.
We’ve had some very good experiences with the aurora alerts from Soft Serve News – follow them on Twitter to get free general alerts about solar activity, or you can pay a few dollars to get personalized alerts. Usually there’s enough warning for you to wrap up, head outside and get to a nice dark spot before the show begins.
Even with a good alert service, you should expect to wait a while to see the lights. If you’re lucky it’ll be minutes, but it may take much, much longer for the aurora to appear.
What the northern lights look like
The types of aurora that appear in Sweden take many forms, and what you end up seeing (and hopefully photographing) will depend on a whole range of factors – from the intensity of the solar activity overhead, to the place where you happen to be.
However you look at it, a campsite on the edge of a mirror-smooth lake, hemmed in by tall mountains, is probably a much better spot than some inner-city car park.
The actual lights take many forms. The most common sort that you’ll spot is a pale green arc that appears to hang high in the air – sometimes it’s tricky to know whether it’s really visible, or if you’re just imagining it.
At the other end of the scale, you’ll see intense curtains of multi-coloured light dancing from one side of the night sky to the other, with wispy trails of green and red light spinning off towards the horizon.
Regardless of the colours you end up seeing (green is the most common, but deep reds and blues are not unheard of), nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of an intense aurora. It really is one of those moments when everything else stops being important and you just think… wow. Suddenly, all that travelling and waiting around in the cold feels worth it.
The best places to see the northern lights in Sweden
As we mentioned above, there are opportunities for spotting the aurora borealis right across northern Sweden. You definitely do not need to pay to go to a special aurora camp or a purpose-built viewing facility (though you may think it’s worth it if you want to learn more about the phenomenon). Here are some of our favourite free places for seeing the lights in Sweden.
The little outpost of Abisko is about as far north as you can get in Sweden, and in recent years it’s become a real mecca for aurora spotters. It is probably the single best place in Sweden for an aurora-focused holiday.
The tall mountains here tend to keep the clouds at bay, making clear nights and decent displays a very definite possibility. A whole industry has grown up around seeing the lights, and the largest hostel here is now firmly on the backpacker radar. It offers private rooms and is a great choice whether you’re travelling with friends or taking a family holiday.
There’s even a special Sky Station for viewing the aurora, but you may find it’s equally rewarding to head to our favourite free spot (it’ll save you cash, too).
Far enough away from the bright lights of Kiruna and with an icy river running right past it, Jukkasjärvi is a great spot for seeing the northern lights. The famous Icehotel is here, but you don’t have to be a paying guest to wander through the village itself or admire the lights dancing above the river. If you fancy going dog-sledding or snowmobiling then the tourist industry is sufficiently developed here to make it possible, but be warned: prices tend to be extremely high.
Tiny Tärendö has all the makings of a good aurora-viewing spot. It’s small, which means there isn’t much light pollution and it’s also incredibly flat, which means the skies here feel enormous. Time it just right and you’ll be able to see the lights reflecting in the Kalix River (Kalixälven), which flows right past. The cosy forest hotel here has a sauna and a hot tub, and can arrange activities in the countryside nearby.
As long as you’re prepared for the cold, nothing beats seeing the northern lights from one of Swedish Lapland’s wilderness areas. Whether you’re staying in a rustic log cabin or camping wild, this experience is hard to beat – but you will need to plan carefully and take proper precautions.
What to pack for a trip to see the northern lights
The northern lights are a natural occurrence that you should never have to pay to see (apart from the obvious cost of getting to Sweden in the first place). However, there are a few things you can buy in advance to make the experience more enjoyable. Here are some things worth taking with you from home.
Whichever type of camera you’re using, bear in mind that batteries tend to run out faster in cold weather. You may decide it’s worth buying a spare camera battery, just in case the first one loses juice as the aurora starts picking up. Remember to pack spare batteries for your head torch (see below), too – most models take regular double-A batteries like these.
A decent headlamp
Why would you need a head torch if you’re not going potholing? Well, if you’re trying hard to take nice pictures of the northern lights, the last thing you want is to be holding onto a torch. It’s a very good idea to get a headlamp with a red light (we use this one). Unlike regular white light, a soft red light will preserve your night vision and let you enjoy the lights at their best.
A solid tripod
Taking crystal-clear pictures of the northern lights requires more than a steady hand; no matter how carefully you press that shutter button, there will still be a bit of shake. The solution is to pack a good-quality tripod. You could go for an expensive option like this top-end beast but we’ve had very good results with a much cheaper Gorillapod. Remember to use the self timer when taking pics – that way there will be no movement at all.
When you’re standing still in the snow waiting for the northern lights to appear, you will lose heat quickly. You can improve your comfort levels a lot by taking time to dress properly. Start with a good thermal base layer on the top and bottom halves of your body.
This will help to wick moisture away from your skin and keep the heat in. After that, layer up with a fleece and some light trousers (just make sure they’re not cotton). Then add a snow- and wind-proof layer: the easiest option is to grab a pair of snow pants and a decent ski jacket. Finish off the look with some good gloves, some waterproof boots, and a wooly hat. Snug!