Can you see the northern lights in September and October? What is the quietest time of year to visit? When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights? What makes the shoulder months so special? Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights in September and October, and should I join an organised tour? What else is there to do in September and October?
These Northern Lights questions are asked a lot so we thought it’s best to put down a few hints and tips to help the shoulder month traveler figure out how best to plan their trip. These tips also apply to late March and early April.
Northern Lights hunting can be tricky to spot any time of year. But with limited night time hours and being so early in the season it can be even harder. Some dedicated Northern Lights tour companies won’t start running tours until October for this very reason. The ones that run the trips earlier will wait until late in the night before departing Reykjavik too. After all, you are unlikely to see Northern Lights until it’s completely dark. This makes planning the following day’s adventures as a traveler a little harder if you’re out until late at night searching the sky. So we’ve compiled a short list of tips to help you get the best of your trip to Iceland in the shoulder months.
Why should I visit Iceland in September or October?
Firstly, let me caveat this post by saying that there are lots of reasons to come to Iceland in September and October, other than the Northern Lights. Hiking on glaciers, sneaking behind waterfalls and watching the autumn round up of sheep are just some of the benefits.
Another great benefit to coming in September and October is that these months tend to be much quieter than the main summer months. So for anyone who has read that Iceland is suddenly overcrowded perhaps these months are for you. Hotels and other accommodation options become cheaper as they change to winter pricing and often are giving out great deals! In some cases you can spend as little as half the summer price in these shoulder months.
Further, if you are lucky, the weather can remain quite warm and pleasant in these months before the winter cold snap. It rarely drops below freezing point until November. You may encounter a little more wind and rain than July and August but then you also may encounter the Aurora Borealis at night too. Worth the extra layers in our opinion. Walking on glaciers and other outdoor adventures are less impacted by the weather, compared to winter months. We as a company actually glacier hike all year round but the hiking in September and October are particularly fantastic as the blue ice starts to emerge from the crunchy summer crust at this time of year making the pictures incredible.
Daylight hours are still long enough to be unencumbered during your daytime adventures. Even at the end of October it’s likely you will catch the perfect sunset as you leave the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon for the day rather than being engulfed in darkness.
Lastly, according to Aurora Forecast you are twice as likely to see the Northern Lights closer to the Equinox than you are to the Solstice meaning September and October are excellent months for spotting them.
So perhaps you will get lucky and see the perfect Northern Lights show while visiting. If you are unlucky with the weather or solar activity and don’t see the Northern Lights then at least you’ll still have a fantastic time at this time of year.
The best place to see the northern lights in Iceland
This answer surprisingly does change quite a lot at this time of year. Hidden Iceland guides will often state at the end of a relaxing day travelling around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula that once you have been dropped back in the city then simply walking towards the harbour or a high vantage point away from direct light is still possible to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik. This is still technically true but the time to do this is of course later at night, especially in September. Most Northern Lights companies will not pick you up until 9/9:30 at night and begin their drive out of the city. This means that by the time you get to a great viewpoint away from other travellers it could well be late into the night. This can impact your daytime plans quite a bit, especially if the following day is out in the wilderness.
We advise our guest to spend the night out of Reykjavík in locations that are away from the city lights, increasing your chances of seeing the northern lights on a clear winter, starry sky. Our overnight tours are perfect for this!
Pick the right accommodation
Location is everything when it comes to finding the northern lights. The idea that you have to travel north for the best view is a fallacy, but staying away from street lights and busy roads isn’t. Make sure when booking your hotel that you check if they have optimal viewing spots like at Lilja Guest House in the South East on a secluded farm. We often sleep here on our two day trip along the south coast.
Avoid hotels close to a mountain range. You want the entire sky to be visible to enhance your chances even more. Hotel Ranga for example is in an open field with only the stars to distract you. You can even arrange for a wake up call if the lights appear overnight. This is one of our favourite hotels to stop at when running extended private trips.
If you are keen to join on Hidden Iceland’s day trips but want to stay out of the city overnight then the small town of Hveragerði has plenty of options, and is located only 40 minutes from Reykjavík. Hotel Frost and Fire or Skyrgerðin are both comfortable places to choose for the night. We would recommend doing our popular South Coast: Fire and Ice tour first, sleep overnight in Hveragerði, then be picked up by us the following day to join the Golden Circle: Platinum Tour.
Join an organised tour that includes other activities
We are of course biased for this one as we tend to not run stand alone Northern Lights trips, unless part of a larger itinerary. But our view at Hidden Iceland is that the Northern Lights can be hit or miss. One night you will see a magical dancing curtain of green across the sky. Another night you may see a pale white streak. Another you only see clouds. This means there’s a high chance you could be left disappointed. We don’t like that.
So why not combine your northern light hunting with other activities. Our two day tour takes you to some of the most magical spots along the South coast. On Day 1 for example we stop by the Reynisfjara Black Sand beach, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach among other places before getting to a secluded country hotel.
Once at the hotel you are free to pop in and out of your room at night to check on the aurora activity. Fingers crossed you get to see something that night. But if not at least you are only a few steps away from your bed and can still get a good sleep. On day 2 we start off nice and easy with another trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon after breakfast before heading on an extended glacier hike at the newly designated UNESCO protected Vatnajökull National Park.
By the end of the 2 day trip if you didn’t get to see the northern lights then at least you still had an incredible time anyway. This trip can be selected as a private trip and combined with other day trips to extend it into 3 days or more.
Bring the right camera and understand how to use it
The ‘right’ camera actually covers quite a lot of options. On a high activity night most modern DSLR cameras should do the trick if you know how to use it. Even the correct settings on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone has the capacity to capture the green colours with the right exposure settings and a steady hand.
The harder part is capturing the image when activity is low but there is still some chance of seeing them. We often say that the northern lights is one of the few things that can actually look better in your camera than with the naked eye.
Many of our guides are experienced photographers so can play around with your camera to set it up correctly but if you want a detailed ‘how to’ then this blog post by Aurora Forecast works a treat. This website is also great for accurate short term forecasting. On these nights having a Tripod is essential as it’s likely you will need to have a very high exposure on your camera.
Either way, Iceland in these shoulder months has plenty of things to see and do. If the weather holds up you can enjoy beautiful sunsets, empty landscapes, warm temperatures, adventures across the country and of course hunting for the Northern Lights.
Hidden Iceland specialise in personalised small group trips or bespoke private tour options. Come and find the best of Iceland.
Hi, I am Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.
I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about many aspects of my adopted home, Iceland. I have been interviewed by Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects such as over tourism, climate change and sustainable tourism.