Northern Lights trip to Oldervik near Tromsø, Norway

Last December we went with a couple of friends to stay in a tiny log cabin on an inlet in the Arctic Circle, in Norway. We wanted to go see the Northern Lights and decided to put together our own trip, rather than pay for an expensive tour that involved staying in a city and had no guarantee of seeing the lights.

There are some things in life that are really built up and then when you see them, it’s underwhelming and a little sad. The Northern Lights were the complete opposite of that. It was mind blowing – there is nothing I’ve seen that comes close. It also defies description (or at least, my ability for description!), so we’ll just move on to the facts.

 

Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Flights

We flew with Norwegian Air from London to Oslo and then on to Tromsø. Their website is here.

I also want to give a shout out to SAS, as we love this airline. They’re real ninjas of the sky and have regular sales on. I would feel quite comfortable flying through a blizzard with an SAS pilot at the helm.

Drive back to Tromsø

Accommodation

We stayed in a little fishing village called Oldervik, about an hour outside Tromsø:

The cabin we stayed in was called Solli and cost 2700 NOK for Friday-Monday. The owners were lovely to deal with and I would very happily go back!

This is their website – Little Red House

They have another slightly larger property in Oldervik that you can view here – River House, Oldervik

They also run Polar People and can organise your trip for you – Polar People

We loved our little cottage! It was out on the edge of the village, away from the very limited light pollution that the village offered. The accommodation was quite basic, but had everything you needed. I must confess – I was a little worried that we would be cold, as the cottage doesn’t look that substantial by UK standards… However, it was magical and completely sold me on Scandinavian architecture!

View east from the cabin at dawn.

The main living room has a log burner that heats the entire place up in about ten minutes. The bedrooms were cosy and snug. When we were back from our adventures round the village, and didn’t have our noses pressed against the window, we sat around, ate and played games.

Our only word of warning is that the cabin was down a steep bank. When we were there, the bank was really icy and treacherous. I went down it on my backside a couple of times (harder to fall if you’re already down!) and getting the groceries/luggage up and down was a mission. It wouldn’t be suitable for some people as a result of that.

That said, I would very happily go back to that cabin!

These websites are good for looking for accommodation –

If money is not an issue, maybe check out this place.

Car

One of our friends had a business deal on car hire, so was able to take care of that. The roads are fine in between the towns, but to get up to the cabin we stayed in we had to drive along roads that had compacted and icy snow. Check out the roads you’ll be driving on (Google Maps is great for this) and make sure that both your car and designated driver will be able to handle them. (Our DD was a legend and did a great job.)

Road in Oldervik

Climate/day light

We visited in the first week of December. Temperature wise, it was milder than we expected – when we were there it was minus five or six, dropping to a little below minus ten. It was manageable – not the bitter, bone destroying cold of a wintery Chicago.

It got light late morning and stayed light for a few hours, before getting dark around… maybe 1400? It was not depressing or anything that weird. It was just a very long night.

It was quite breezy down by the water!

Packing

Several years ago, I invested in a floor length down coat. It looks like a duvet and attracts more insults than compliments, but holy moly it is awesome!

These are the things that were high up my packing list:

  • Down coat – perfect for standing around, staring at the sky.
  • Decent hat, gloves and scarf – try to make sure you can minimise the amount of skin that is exposed. The longer you can stay out there without freezing, the less you’ll miss! Handy if your gloves have clips or little loops, so you can fiddle around for a camera in the dark and not lose your glove.
  • Ski trousers – adds a little bit of padding and some waterproofness to any slips in the snow.
  • Decent boots for walking on icy snow – my trusty snow boots that do well in urban snow are terrible on ice. Wish I’d remembered that before we went. Invest, invest!
  • Thermal socks – cold toes = sadness.
  • Layers – the lights come and go in their intensity, so we would go outside for a little while and then go back in to defrost. Layers made this manageable.
  • Real wool – get some real wool in those layers. Much warmer than a lot of synthetic fibres.
  • Entertainment – games, books, movies, etc…
  • Torches! We had a couple of pocket LED torches that made a huge difference.

One of my absolute favourite discoveries for winter dressing is Uniqlo’s Heat Tech range. These are very thin layers that trap heat and do some voodoo… They explain it better. I have some of their leggings (that I wear instead of tights – similar thickness, a million times warmer. Amazing.) and tops. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

Camera equipment

The place we rented had a telescope (pretty cool!!) that came on a tripod. We carefully put the telescope to one side and used the tripod for the SLR camera. In all honesty, without the tripod I don’t think the photos would have been any good. In the absence of a tripod, we would normally MacGyver something, but I think that would have been pretty bad where we were… Snow + ice + cameras + props = expensive bad idea.

The lights weren’t that strong when we were there – enough to blow our minds and to show up on a longer exposure, but definitely needed a longer exposure. A tripod would be really very helpful. Check to see if the place you’re staying at has one. If not, it would most likely be worth buying a lightweight one. How much would it suck to get home and realise all your photos are blurry and terrible?

Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Groceries

Because we had the rental place and a car, we were able to do a groceries shop in Tromsø that lasted us for the weekend. Our group has a habit of buying more food than we need, but that aside it was a very expensive shop!It was £292 for a shop that would have cost about £140 in the UK.

Brace yourself for a total that will make you squint. Norway (and Sweden) are not cheap. Doing a big grocery shop that lasted the whole weekend worked out best for us though – it meant we didn’t have to venture out to find food.

Alcohol

Buy your alcohol at duty free. Or prepare to pay a LOT more for it in Norway. (But seriously, buy in advance.)

Laoming gloom.

Insurance

I am a huge believer in travel insurance. Norway is an awesome country and I’m sure their healthcare system is full of kind and efficient people. But when you add ice, snow, rocks and darkness together, travel insurance just sort of makes sense…. And beyond the health aspect of it, all the stuff you’d take with you isn’t cheap, so baggage insurance makes sense. And if you’re flying into the Arctic Circle, the weather may not be great, so make sure you’re covered for delays and cancellations. It would suck to have to pay for a car and rental place if you don’t get there on time/at all.

We use Endsleigh and have been pretty happy with them – http://www.endsleigh.co.uk/Travel/Pages/travel-insurance.aspx

Safety at night/in the gloom

This sounds a little daft, but is something B and I talked about afterwards and were glad we did. When we climbed the foot of the mountain behind the cabin (more on that below), both B and I had a torch with us. When we split up (I had to sit and wait because my boots were treachery and he went to check on our friends), we were able to check in with each other regularly using torch flashes.

There are about a million reasons why climbing that mountain and then splitting up were a bad idea. Fortunately, B team has very similar thought patterns, so we were both coming up with the same contingency plan in our head of what we would do if something bad happened on the mountain.

Because of the wind, sound didn’t carry. We couldn’t talk to each other and not everyone had a mobile. The torches were a great way to communicate over the distance.

If you are going to go out on stupid adventures, agree in advance what to do if you split up. Make sure everyone has a torch and knows how to get home. Make your contingency plan and make sure everyone knows it. It sounds daft and you may get a funny look, but it is literally a five minute conversation that could make a huge difference. Be sensible!!

Seeing the lights

Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Forecast website

Our friend discovered this website, which we checked religiously – http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe/2013/10/23

You’ll get the hang of when it’s worth rushing outside and when you can just… stay inside and keep warm. Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Layers

We got quite practiced at the layer situation. Layers are key in keeping you warm long enough to see beautiful lights.

Northern Lights, Oldervik, Tromsø, Norway

Patience

There is no guarantee you will see the lights. We didn’t see anything Friday or Saturday night and were getting a little sad, then Sunday night the sky lit up like something out of the Snowman. We also set alarms religiously the first few nights, getting up regularly to check to see if there were any lights.

Oldervik View across the sound.

Oldervik is such a beautiful place in itself, it was a great place to go for a break. If we hadn’t seen the lights, we would have been disappointed… but I think we’d probably just save up and go again.

Looking east towards Store Lenangstind.

We climbed the foot of the mountain behind the cabin. Because my boots decided that they didn’t want to grip anything, I sat and waited for the others for a while as they climbed up higher. There was a bit of a wind, so when they went beyond about 20 metres the sound of their voices didn’t carry any more. It was such a hauntingly timeless and beautiful place. Can’t properly put it into words, but I hope to remember that moment in time until I die.

The area

Phil’s fun facts about Tromsø:

  • It’s the second largest city/urban area inside the arctic Circle, and sits 350Km within the Arctic Circle
  • It is home to the world’s Northern most University (and therefore the world’s Northern most student bars!)
  • Officially, the average Dec temp is -3.3 and the average Jan temp is -5.5, with 0 and 3 hours of sunlight a month, respectively
  • Crampons are recommended for walking round town during winter
  • During WW2 it was temporarily the Capital of Norway
  • Staying there and getting around in all that snow, ice and darkness will probably be lethal for a couple of us

Fortunately, we survived.

Allied forces were quite active in the region during World War II. If you’d like to know a little more about the Arctic Convoys in Norway, please click here – http://www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/arctic-convoys/