This month, we’re going to talk about a serious bucket list item—seeing the Aurora Borealis.
More commonly called the Northern Lights, seeing them is no easy feat. First, you have to head to the Arctic Circle. Then, you have to make sure you’re going to the Arctic Circle in the winter. Yep. Make sure you dress warm!
Finally, you have to hang out in the dark, in the freezing cold, outside, and hope you’re lucky enough to see them. There’s no guarantee that you’ll catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Sound intense?
Well, that’s because it is. And of course, our favorite traveling couple, Darek and Ilona, have braved the elements to experience it! They caught the Northern light show in Alaska, and survived to tell the tale (seriously, we were kind of worried about hypothermia there for a minute).
1.) What inspired you to go to Alaska?
Ilona: Wine! One night we were just chatting in our kitchen, drinking wine, and we realized we’d never seen the Northern Lights. We were both kind of surprised to learn that neither of us had seen them before—considering how much we love to travel—so we decided to go for it! We chose Alaska because it has a drier climate than most other countries in the Arctic circle (like Iceland, for example), which gives you a better chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
Darek: Plus, it’s our last frontier! It’s awesome, it’s vast, and it’s easy accessible compared to other northern territories.
2.) How cold was it?
Ilona: Crazy cold. We expected it to be really cold, so we were prepared. During the day it wasn’t so bad—just -20 degrees Fahrenheit or so—but at night the cold was really a big challenge. Especially since we wanted to spend a lot of time outside photographing the lights!
Darek: Open your freezer, stick your head inside, and breathe. Now imagine that the air is twice as cold, and it’s like that all the time. At night it was -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and with the wind chill, it was even colder.
3.) Did the locals have any interesting tips for dealing with the cold?
Ilona: Yes! We saw some really cool approaches to handling the low temperatures. The first invention we saw was just after we rented our car—we saw that the car was plugged into an electrical outlet to keep the battery from dying. They had those in the parking lots at every hotel we stayed at.
Darek: I always thought that wearing layers in the winter time was a good idea, but not in Alaska. It’s actually too cold to layer there, because you’d have to wear so many, that taking them off when you come inside would be really time-consuming! Locals generally just wear regular clothes with an extremely heavy coat.
4.) Did you see the Northern Lights?
Ilona: Yep! We were super lucky and we saw lights every night, even from the plane. It looked like somebody had painted different colors on the sky.
Darek: Yes! We saw them, and we got great photos too!
5.) How did you go about taking photos?
Ilona: I give all the kudos to Darek. He did a lot of research about how to shoot the Northern Lights, and he was usually the last one to get back to the car to warm up. Pictures were more important than warmth!
Darek: The Aurora Boarealis is so amazing that I didn’t even feel the cold around me. I was more worried about the equipment than myself. The most sensitive things in the cold are batteries. Even a fully charged battery will die quickly. Make sure you have a bunch of them and keep them tucked away in an internal pocket in your jacket. Having a tripod is a must, and having a remote control is very convenient.
Use high ISO, long exposure, and of course, open aperture. It’s nice to have some nice foreground like trees or houses. You can even play with lights for special effects.
Shoot as many pictures as your batteries will let you, check them in the morning on your laptop, learn, and shoot again the next night. If you need to go back to the car to warm up, make sure to take the battery with you—but don’t take the camera! Carrying it back and forth between the warm car and the cold air will cause the lenses to fog up, which won’t be good for your photos.
6.) Did you go hiking in Denali National Park?
Darek: Of course! Going to Alaska without hiking in Denali National Park is like going to New York City and not visiting Times Square! We couldn’t go deep into the park because of the cold—we didn’t have the right equipment to handle the low temperatures—but we did hike a loop around Horseshoe Lake. It was a great wintertime introduction to Alaska’s most visited park.
Ilona: I was very happy to do the Horseshoe trail—I’m not a big fan of sleeping outside in a tent in that kind of extreme cold!
7.) Did you meet any interesting people while you were in Alaska?
Ilona: We did! We met a guy from Qatar in Denali National Park who also didn’t want to sleep in a tent—because he thought it was unnecessary weight to carry around! He slept overnight in the park anyway, just outside in the elements. Crazy! He was training for a winter bike race.
Darek: My favorite was a park ranger we met in Denali. For a few years, she used to spend half of the year in Antarctica and the other half in Alaska. That totally makes sense, right? In the wintertime in Alaska they don’t need many employees in Denali, so she would head south to Antarctica where it was summertime and work there. Seems like a pretty cool life to me—I’m trying to figure out how I can get a job like that!
8.) What advice would you give to other travelers considering a trip to Alaska?
Ilona: Definitely go! It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer. Each season has its own magic beauty. The Northern Lights are definitely something unique that everybody should see at least once in their life. Be prepared for the super cold, but don’t let the weather scare you. With extra warm clothes, you’ll have an adventure that you’ll never forget.
Darek: Most people will go in the summer, which I totally understand. You’ll get warm weather, endless daylight, and it’s much easier to travel. But my number one piece of advice would be to go in the winter. It’s so different—the flights are cheaper, it’s less crowded, there are no mosquitoes—and of course, there are the Northern Lights. As Ilona said, wear warm clothes, but it’s totally worth it. You’ll have a front row seat to the coolest natural light show in the world.
Would you brave the Alaskan cold to see the Northern Lights? Let us know in the comments below!