The Aurora Borealis. One of the most beautiful spectacles to be seen on earth. It draws many of us to the north hoping to catch a glimpse of it. For most people it seems like a dream that will never come true. But it is not that difficult to make it happen. With a bit of planning and some knowledge everybody can have at least a chance to try and see the northern lights. At the end of february I will head to Abisko in Swedish Lapland to embark on a snowshoe hiking trip to chase the Aurora!
What are the northern lights?
But before I start to get into the details I would like to explain briefly what the northern lights actually are and how they are formed.
The northern lights or the aurora borealis is formed when electrically charged particles from the sun react with the earth’s atmosphere. There is also a southern counterpart called the aurora australis and this occurs in the southern hemisphere. A similar phenomenon has also been observed on planets like Jupiter and Saturnus. So it is not something that only happens on earth.
The sun spits out electrically charged particles that race towards earth. This is called the solar wind. This wind varies in intensity and this has a direct effect on the intensity of the northern lights. Our planets magnetic field bounces off most of these particles but where it is at it’s weakest, close to the north and south pole, they can enter the atmosphere where they react with oxygen and nitrogen to create a magical light show!
This video explains it all:
The moment I arrived at the train station and felt the arctic cold in my face about a year ago I fell in love with Abisko. It had snowed heavily and nearly 1 meter of snow covered the landscape. The silence was deafening and I felt at home straight away.
Abisko is situated in northern Sweden about 250 km above the polar cirlce and is the gateway to the Abisko National Park with the famous Kungsleden Trail. It is a very small town with only 200 inhabitants and a perfect place to spot the northern lights because the nearby lake Tometrask is known to create a micro climate that reduces cloud cover. Many people come to Abisko in winter to join a dogsledding trip, go cross country skiing or spend a few days hiking in the national park and in the meantime hoping to catch the aurora.
How to get to Abisko
- Fly from Stockholm to Kiruna
SAS and Norwegian Airlines are the main airliners flying to Kiruna
From Kiruna take a train, bus or taxi to Abisko.
Bus schedule: Lanstraffiken Norrbotten You need bus 91 from Kiruna to Narvik. This leaves in front of the town hall and passes the train station as well. There is a summer and a winter time table.
Train tickets: SJ Sweden Take the train from Kiruna Station to Abisko Ostra (main village) or Abisko Turiststation.
- Night train from Stockholm to Kiruna and onwards to Abisko. This train goes all the way to Narvik in norway
Train tickets: SJ Sweden Take the train from Stockholm C to Abisko Ostra (main village) or Abisko Turiststation.
Accommodation in Kiruna and Abisko
A place to stay is expensive in north sweden. There are a few hostels around if you are looking for cheaper options.
Point North Hostel in Kiruna is my favorite place to stay because it is small and cosy and cheap. Only 25 euro per night. And the lady that runs it is lovely!
In Abisko you can stay at Abisko.net youth hostel or at the Abisko Turiststation. They both have dorm options.
My plan is to go snowshoe hiking and stay in one of the mountain huts in Abisko National Park. These huts are in the middle of nowhere but they are well equiped with full time staff and managed by the Swedish Tourist Association. The hut I will stay in is called Abiskojaure Mountain Hut and it is the first hut you reach when hiking into the park from Abisko. It is about 15 – 20 km from the start of the trail at Abisko Turiststation. When the trail is free of snow this will take you about 3 – 4 hours of hiking but in winter it can almost be 6 – 8 hours. There are trails that are maintained but when it snows heavily you will need to plow through the snow. So be prepared for a long day in the snow!
How to prepare
When heading to the arctic region in winter you can be sure it will be cold. Temperatures can drop to as low as -30° and this means you will need to be prepared! Because I will spend the night inside a hut I don’t need to worry about a tent or winter sleeping bag but there a few things to keep in mind.
They are specifically designed to make it easier to walk through deep snow or icy undergrounds. As always there are many brands on the market but I have the chance to test the Quechua Inuit 450 during this trip. For just about 70 euro I am sure they will be their money’s worth! At first glance they look strong and the interlockable hold will make it easier to climb up snowy hills. But more details about this once i tried them out.
Hiking poles will be handy for keeping yourself balanced on the snow. I will use the Quechua Grip 550 because they are designed to use in winter as well.
Ski goggles if it snows and you want to protect your face.
Sun glasses for the bright sunny days to make sure you don’t get snow blindness!
Thermos for keeping hot drinks to warm up.
Keep in mind that it will be difficult to bring water in normal bottles because it will obviously freeze. You can try to wrap it up with clothes or a towel and put in the middle of your backpack. If it is not extremely cold it will probably not freeze there. Also don’t fill it up to the top so that if it does freeze it can’t crack.
When you need to dress for cold weather you always have to work with layers.
The base layer is used for keeping you warm and to transfer sweat from your body outwards.This is mostly referred to as thermal underwear. Especially in cold conditions it is important that you don’t get wet because of sweating because it will eventually cool your body down even more.
A mid layer is used to keep you warm and can be a warm fleece or hoodie. I always bring one with a hood and a thinner one without. Just to be sure when I get cold or when I have to stand still to have some food or take a rest. You can also take a down jacket that is light and easy to cary and is a perfect isolation layer.
On top I prefer to wear a jacket that is waterproof with ventilation zippers on the sides which I can open when i get too hot. Make sure the zippers are sealed so they are completely waterproof and don’t let any water in.
A warm waterproof hiking or skiing pants with ventilation zippers and some thermal underpants.
Warm winter socks that are breathable and stretchy and sock liners to add some extra warmth. Sock liners are thin socks you wear under your normal socks. In most cases it will add 3 degrees extra warmth. I will bring 2 pair of Bridgedale Coolmax Liner Socks
Winter gloves that are waterproof and undergloves that add some extra warmth. The undergloves come in handy when you want to take your gloves off to use a camera or phone and still want to have a thin layer to protect your hands against the cold
A warm hat and a winter headband. You can switch around if you get hot or cold. A bandana comes in handy when you just want to protect your ears against the cold.
A fleece buff to protect your face or prevent cold or snow from entering in your jacket from the top
Last but not least bring some extra layers to wear in case it gets realy cold. Better be safe than sorry!
For a long day out in the cold you will need about 2500 – 3000 calories. So make sure you bring food and snacks high in carbohydrates and protein. You can buy food and snacks at the huts and the tourist station but keep in mind that it is quite expensive.
For hiking in Sweden I use Lantmäteriets Fjällkarta. They have excellent topographical maps and they are available for sale all over sweden. When you go to Abisko you can buy them at the tourist station. There are a few web shops that sell them online as well if you prefer to buy them before you go.
The map you need for Abisko National Park is Fjallkarta BD6
- Mobile Apps
For android phones there is this amazing free app called Maverick. I use it for all my outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking or trail running. It is very detailed and even has the color/mark that is used to mark the trails for all over Europe. There are also mountain biking and cycling maps and overlays. The map Hike and Bike is the one you should use.
The trick is to scroll over the area on the map you are going to explore as zoomed in as possible when you are online. This way everything gets cached and you can now have the map ready for use when you are offline.
When you use your mobile phone for navigation make sure you put it in flight mode and only use your gps signal. This saves a lot of battery usage. I used my phone for 7 days without the need to recharge and i took tons of photos and videos.
Viewranger is also a great option but with this app you can buy parts of maps starting at about 1$ per tile/area.
Your batteries will use up a lot faster in colder weather so bring some spare ones or bring a powerbank.
If you want to take photos of the aurora you will need some kind of tripod because you will work with long exposure. In one of my future blog posts I will go into night photography and explain a bit more about this.
Gorilla Pod has excellent small travel tripods for smaller camera’s and smartphones. I use the GorillaPod Hybrid for my Canon Powershot G16. This time I will also take the Vanguard VEO 265AB tripod because it is light and relatively inexpensive.
Here are a few tools you can choose to improve your chances to see the aurora:
To see the aurora you have to be persistent and willing to spend time out in the cold in the middle of the night. I have seen the aurora on every trip north. But I woke up in the middle of night because the weather forecast predicted clear skies after midnight. These tools will help the chase! Good luck!
Pretty accurate weather predictions for Sweden and Norway. Keep checking this website for updates during your trip.
This website predicts the intensity of the solar wind. The higher the KP the stronger the solar wind and the bigger the chance for bright northern lights.
- Webcams around Abisko