Seeing the northern lights should be on everyone’s bucket list. However, doing that on a budget is a challenge. Top destinations to see the northern lights include Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. But getting to these destinations comes with a cost. While there is likely no true budget option, there are ways to lower the costs to see this amazing phenomenon.
Abisko, Sweden is a small town in Lapland, roughly 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was recently chosen by Lonely Planet as the best place in the world to view the northern lights. Known for the Abisko Aurora Sky Station, this area is incredibly dark at night and a hot zone for aurora activity.
We were traveling on a budget and thought viewing the northern lights would be too expensive for us. But we found a way to lower costs and check this off our bucket list. Read on to learn about the ways that you can too!
Content and photographs provided by Yana Kogan and Timon.
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How to See the Northern Lights in Abisko, Sweden on a Budget
Budget Accommodation in Abisko
There are only a few options for places to stay in Abisko. Most of the accommodation is expensive, but luckily for backpackers or those on a budget, there is a hostel as well as a couple of other affordable options:
Abisko Net Hostel & Huskies have dorm beds as well as private rooms. Guests love the amazing sauna and its central location. Just keep in mind that it can get a bit noisy. They have warm clothes available for rent, as well as ski equipment. Plus, you can book dog sledding tours directly through the hostel!
Abisko Guesthouse is another great option if you’re looking for inexpensive accommodation in Abisko. The kitchen is well-equipped and the staff is super friendly and helpful!
Food in Abisko
Coop is the only supermarket in Abisko. Sweden is very expensive and Abisko is very expensive even by Sweden standards. We searched for deals and stuck to eggs, beans, toasties/sandwiches, and pasta. Items, such as beer and meat, get very expensive.
Abisko National Park is 1.25 miles from Abisko town and offers great exploring by cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. As mentioned, ski and snowshoe rentals are available from Abisko Net Hostel.
Viewing the Northern Lights
Aurora Borealis, better known as the northern lights, are only active during the winter and are best seen between November and March. The northern lights are not predictable and can last for minutes or sometimes for hours. They typically are the most active between 10 pm and 3 am.
To see the northern lights, the darker the surrounding area is the better. There are two good options for viewing: a helicopter landing area near the hostel or a 20-minute walk down to the frozen lake.
The Abisko Aurora Sky Station is the best option for viewing the northern lights, but it’s pretty pricey. They have a café area where you can stay inside (to keep warm) as well as an outdoor viewing platform.
EU aurora forecast has a three-day forecast as well as a short-term one-hour forecast. Check the long-term forecast and find the time in the evening when the forecast is high. Then watch the short-term forecast for increased activity. In addition, watch the Abisko Aurora webcam which has updates every few minutes.
Forecasting is all done through an estimated KP Index rating. The KP Index is between 0 and 9, showing the strength of the geomagnetic storms, which result in seeing northern lights. The stronger the storm, the further south in latitude you are able to see the northern lights.
Websites on Aurora Forecasting
How to Get to Abisko
There are two stations, Abisko Tourist Station and Abisko East. Scandinavian Rail via:
- Kiruna – takes approximately three hours
- Stockholm – takes approximately 18 hours
- Narvik, Norway – takes approximately two hours
Buying your Train Ticket
TIP: Purchase your train ticket 90 days ahead of time. With less time, the cheaper ticket options sell out. There are regular class tickets with seats that only slightly recline and electrical outlets.
There also are sleeper trains with six beds, fully stocked with electrical outlets and a large table. We recommend that you book the top bed.
What to Bring to Abisko
Abisko is in the Arctic Circle. Be ready for cold weather during the day and extremely cold nights. The most important thing is keeping your feet, hands, and head warm. Bring thick winter boots, or rent from your hostel. Bring wool socks (two pairs even better), warm gloves, and a warm hat. Also, bring something to cover your face.
Here is a list of what we would recommend that you pack:
- Snow Boots
- Longwool socks
- Wool shirts for layering
- Hiking pants
- Down jacket or lightweight bubble jacket
- Ski pants/jacket for outer layers
- Face mask
- Gloves (best for thin gloves and a 2nd pair of thick gloves over these)
- DSLR camera
- Extra camera batteries
- Remote for camera
How to Shoot The Northern Lights
Taking pictures of the aurora takes patience. Sometimes the aurora only lasts a minute, while other nights it lasts several hours. The brighter the aurora, the easier it is to take pictures. It is critical to use a tripod because you need to shoot long exposure to capture the lights.
ISO: Keep your ISO as high as possible (i.e. 100 ISO), but depending on your camera you will have to find the right ISO setting. For example, on a lower-end or mid-range DSL, you will likely have to shoot a minimum of 1600 ISO. Any higher than 1600 ISO the picture can become grainy, so try not to go higher than this.
Shutter Speed: This completely depends on your ISO, the brightness of the aurora, and how fast/slow it is moving around (dancing as they call it). We found five seconds to be a good shutter speed, which captures the light and is not too long where the aurora just becomes a big glob of color. If it is not moving, try shooting with a longer exposure, around 10 or 15 seconds.
Trial and Error: It is tough to play around with your settings during a situation where you anxiously are trying to shoot as fast as possible in the hopes it does not go away, but this is the only way to figure it out. We had to play around with our settings a lot to try to get the right lighting and the right amount of exposure.
Seeing the Northern Lights is really special, make sure to stay up and enjoy the show!
That’s it – we hope you have a wonderful time catching the Northern Lights!
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