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Fairbanks Northern Lights—Top Tips & Clothing Recommendations

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Is seeing the northern lights on your bucket list? If so, start planning now for a Fairbanks Northern Lights trip!

Seeing the northern lights is one of the most amazing things in the world. It sure was on my bucket list. You will want to spend some time planning for a Northern Lights vacation in Fairbanks, Alaska. This isn’t a trip to pack and go!

Even though I live in the desert now and I’m not at all used to the cold northern climate anymore, it’s a trip I highly recommend. The cold couldn’t keep me away, and I wouldn’t let it deter you, either. This is definitely bucket-list-worthy.

This post will help you plan for your Fairbanks Northern Lights vacation. It includes things like where to go, how to plan, and what to pack.

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Northern Lights (aurora borealis) display near Kaamanen, Finland

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What Are the Northern Lights?

You may want to see the Northern Lights, but do you know what they are?

The Northern Lights are also called the aurora borealis. They are seen in the northern hemisphere, most commonly seen between 60° and 75° latitude. This area is sometimes known as the “Auroral Circle.”

In order to see the aurora, it must be dark enough outside to view it. Though the sun does start going down fairly early, we found it took a surprisingly long time to go down completely. The nights we were there, it started getting dusk-like around 5 p.m. But it wasn’t completely dark until around 8 p.m.

You can see the northern lights best when it is very dark outside, and there is no snowfall or inclement weather. As a result, prime months for viewing are in February and March, as well as in September.

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Photo Credit: Andrey Andreyev

Tips for Northern Lights Vacation Planning

Planning for a Northern Lights vacation is just like planning any other trip in many ways. However, since the lights are viewable at night, you need to plan for very late nights.

There are a lot of factors that influence if you will see the lights. The more that you’re out there to look for them, the more likely you are to see them.

1. Plan for Long Nights

Optimal northern lights viewing is from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. Plan to be up most of the night if you want the best shot to see them. This can be a challenge, especially for a “morning bird” like me!

Where we went wrong on our trip is that we figured that since we were up all night we’d be sleeping much of the day. Instead, we pretty much took two long naps. One in the early morning, from 3 or 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., and then in the evening for a couple of hours. So much for the room-darkening curtains!

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We had planned for and pre-booked two activities: dog sledding and visiting reindeer. We didn’t count on having so much time during the day for other activities. There is a lot to do in the area, even in the winter.

Were I to plan this trip again, I would have still only booked a couple of things in advance. However, I would have done a bit more research to get a longer list of things to do with available time.

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2. Find the Best Location

We booked an Airbnb outside of the city as we had researched that you can’t see the aurora well around the city lights (called light pollution). We also knew we wouldn’t want to drive as far late in the evening and in the early hours of the morning.

Our host shared in their description that a viewing area is only half a mile from the house. We were thrilled, thinking that we would spend most of our time there to see the lights.

We didn’t count on this location being too close to the city and other homes, so it wasn’t dark enough to see the lights well when we were there. If the lights were very strong, we might have gotten lucky. Instead, they were very faint, so we could not see them from that location.

Unfortunately, it appears the Airbnb we booked is no longer available. I recommend looking on Route 2 North of Fairbanks in the Birch Hill area. It’s 20-30 minutes from Mount Cleary and 20 minutes from the city.

Best Places to See the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, AK

The Northern Lights can be seen from anywhere in Fairbanks with the right conditions. However, the best spots are usually away from the city lights.

According to Explore Fairbanks, these are usually good spots to see them:

the Explore Fairbanks site is invaluable for offering great information about chasing the aurora. You’ll find a weather tracker and insight into getting to each of these spots.

3. Plan in Advance

We booked what we most wanted to do in advance, and you should do some activities. It gets pretty busy in February and March due to the aurora hunters visiting the area.

Things like dog sledding and visiting Running Reindeer Ranch are must-sees, in my opinion. Both should be booked before you go to ensure there is space. There are many dog-sledding options, so it may not matter as much if you don’t care where you go.

I did want to find an ethical place that treats their dogs well.

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We missed out on a couple of things, including a train ride to Denali, which we would have liked to do because they were only offered on certain days of the week. Looking back at my planning, I might have kept a better eye on availability for other things we were interested in. I have booked the two activities around those available dates.

Choose the Best Time to Go

You can see the Northern Lights at any time of year, but the Aurora Season is considered from August 21 to April 21. However, you’ll find that certain months are more likely than others due to weather conditions.

You want dark, generally clear skies to see the lights. September is a good month to visit as temperatures are a bit warmer than in the winter. However, February and March are considered the best times to go.

The best time of day to see the aurora is typically between midnight and 3 a.m. Depending on the weather conditions, you can see it as early as 90 minutes after sunset until 90 minutes before sunrise.

4. Pick Your Priorities

There were a surprising number of fun wintertime activities in Fairbanks. We especially enjoyed the two we pre-booked, Running Reindeer Ranch and Just Short of Magic dog sledding. We also really enjoyed visiting the ice sculpture competition.

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Like with any trip, it’s essential to pick your priorities as you can’t do everything this area has to offer.

5. Have a Back-Up Plan

Weather can change very quickly in Fairbanks, and it’s a good idea to be prepared for anything. We managed to hit a “warm spell.” We had a high of 25 degrees Fahrenheit on one of the days, which was unseasonably warm. Yes, 25 degrees was considered a warm spell. Crazy, right?

We lucked out, but a bad snowfall can keep you indoors for some time. This is due to the challenge of getting out and driving on the snow-filled and often icy roads.

Additionally, there may be certain areas that you may want to avoid if the weather gets bad. An example is driving up and down the windy roads of Cleary Mountain to get a sighting of the aurora.

Now, you likely won’t go in the snow anyway, as your likelihood of seeing them is slim. But, you also may not want to drive those roads when it’s slick from melting snow that freezes overnight.

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What to Pack for a Northern Lights Vacation

Packing for a Northern Lights vacation takes some thought because you need to prepare for freezing temperatures. You will need more layers than you expect! Do check weather reports, but take them with “a grain of salt.” Pack more warm clothes than you think you will need.

I planned to wear five layers on top when we went out at night to search for the aurora. This included a tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved thermal shirt, sweatshirt or sweater, and a down jacket. Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? I’ll tell you, though, I needed every single layer.

On my bottom, I planned for two layers: thermals and sweatpants or jeans. And I wore two pairs of socks with winter boots. It was not enough, and thankfully, my accommodation had some outerwear available to borrow. I made use of a pair of insulated ski pants. It made a big difference.

My Packing Recommendations for a Northern Lights Vacation

Of course, you’ll bring some of your usual stuff, including toiletries, underwear, and other typical things you’d bring on a trip. However, going to a northern place to see the aurora in the winter is a new kind of cold you may not have experienced before.

I grew up in Boston, and it gets cold, but nothing like what I experienced in Fairbanks, Alaska. And they were having a warm spell when I went. Yikes, right??

Here are my recommendations for warm clothes to pack. The products below are for women, but these brands offer products for men and children (generally) as well.


You are going to want to wear lots of layers to keep your core warm. When I went out at night to view the lights, I wore five layers on top. Yes, five!

We were in the car much of the time; however, it gets cold since you don’t want to keep it running and have any lights on. I wore a thick down jacket, a sweater or sweatshirt, a long-sleeved shirt, thermals, and a tank. Here are some product recommendations:

  • The North Face Metropolis Parka III—This water-resistant, thick, down-filled jacket provides comfort, warmth, and dryness. The longer cut helps to keep core warmth in as well on cold, dark nights.
  • MARMOT Women’s Jena Jacket—This 700-down fill jacket will keep you toasty warm without the bulk of other jackets. It’s water-resistant and tucks into a pocket for easy packing.
  • Colombia Jacket Puffer—If you’re looking for a non-down alternative, this jacket is a highly-rated winner and toasty warm.


Though keeping your core warm is really important, you need layers on your bottom half as well. At a minimum, you’ll want an underlayer and insulated snow pants.

It’s a good idea to add a pair of sweatpants or even jeans for another layer as well. A nice, thick pair of fleecy sweatpants is a good bet.

Under Layer
  • Colombia Women’s Short Boot—This is a great, reasonably-priced option by a solid brand. It may not hold up if you are outdoors for a long period of time, but it should be warm enough for most of your needs.
  • North Face Chilkat 400—This heavily insulated and waterproof boot has you covered! It has great thick tread to help you with traction on icy and snowy ground.
  • North Face Women’s Thermoball Utility Mid—A mid-range price option with warmth, a comfortable fit, and great traction.


  • Insulated or wool hat, warm gloves or mittens, and a scarf. I love my Darn Tough socks. Bring lots of them!
  • Hand warmers (you can also buy these in Fairbanks at Fred Meyer or any grocery store, though it’s a good idea to bring some just in case they are out). And foot warmers (we didn’t find these got very warm, but they help some).
  • Thermos, I love my Yeti one – It’s a great idea to bring a hot drink to help you keep warm, and it helps warm your hands in the car, as you may sit with the car off for periods of time.

Tip: be careful how much you drink, as many good viewing places do not have public bathrooms nearby!

If you’re looking for a starting point for your packing list, here’s a free option. It has the core items you need. You can customize it for a trip like this, adding the items I mentioned above.

Warm-Clothing Rentals

Many places offering activities like dog sledding offer warm clothes (sometimes at a cost, though neither of the places we went charged). Don’t have the winter wear that you need? No worries!

There are places locally where you can rent warm clothes if you don’t have them and don’t wish to purchase them. At Alaska Element, you can get thick gloves, boots, parkas, and ski bibs.

Seeing the Northern Lights is a fantastic thing to check off your bucket list, and the entire Northern Lights vacation is a fun adventure. It does take some planning for a Northern Lights adventure, but it is well worth it.

Click here to learn more about seeing the aurora in Fairbanks, and here if you want fun things to do while visiting Fairbanks.

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