You will want to spend some time planning for a northern lights vacation in Fairbanks, Alaska. Seeing the northern lights is one of the most amazing things in the world and on many people’s bucket lists.
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 northern lights vacation. It includes things like where to go, how to plan, and what to pack.
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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.
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.
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 on 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 available 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.
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 there is a viewing area only a half a mile from the house. We were thrilled, thinking that we would spend most of our time there to see the lights.
What we didn’t count on was that this location was still too close to the city and to other homes so it really 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 were unable to 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.
Plan in Advance
We did book what we most wanted to do in advance, and you really should for some activities. It gets quite busy in February and March due to the aurora-hunters visiting the area.
Things like dog sledding and visiting Running Reindeer Ranch are a must-see in my opinion. Both should be booked before you go to ensure there is space. There are many dog-sledding options, so if you don’t care where you go it may not matter as much.
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 that 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.
Pick Your Priorities
There was a surprising amount of fun wintertime activities in Fairbanks. We especially enjoyed the two that we pre-booked, Running Reindeer Ranch and Just Short of Magic dog sledding. We also really enjoyed visiting the ice sculpture competition.
Like with any trip, it’s important to pick your priorities as you simply can’t do everything this area has to offer.
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 really bad snowfall can keep you indoors for a period of time. This is both due to the challenge of getting out but also 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 anyways 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 either.
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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 especially cold 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 for wearing 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 be borrowed. 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 things like 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 I experienced in Fairbanks, Alaska. And they were having a warm spell when I went. Yikes, right??
Following, 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!
And 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.
- Arc’teryx Thorium AR Hoodie Women’s—If you’re looking for a non-down alternative, this jacket is a highly-rated winner and toasty warm.
- Icebreaker Women’s 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Scoop—Wool is a perfect choice for staying warm and comfortable, and Icebreaker is a top brand. It’s an investment that will last a long time. They also offer short-sleeved wool tees and tanks which are fantastic for layering.
- MERIWOOL Womens Base Layer 100% Merino Wool Midweight Long Sleeve Thermal Shirt—More affordable wool base layer option.
Though keeping your core warm is really important, you definitely 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 sweat pants or even jeans for another layer as well. A nice, thick pair of fleecy sweatpants is a good bet.
- Icebreaker Merino Women’s 260 Tech Merino Wool Base Layer Leggings—Another toasty favorite by Icebreaker, these are the ultimate cold-weather under layer.
- Women’s Force Midweight Tech Thermal Base Layer Pant—Moisture-wicking comfort at an affordable price.
- Women’s Modern Mountain 2.0 Snow Pant—Warm, waterproof, and insulated, these pants will cover your needs at a reasonable price.
- Columbia Women’s Arctic Trip Snow Omni Heat Waterproof Pants—Technology pant that will keep you warm and dry.
- 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 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 to warm your hands in the car as well as you may sit with the car off for periods of time. Tip: be careful how much you drink as many of the 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 for you. It has the core items you need. You can customize it for a trip like this one, adding in the items I mentioned above.
Many of the places offering activities like dog sledding do 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 Alaskan Element, you can get things like really thick gloves, boots, parkas, and ski bibs.
Seeing the northern lights is an amazing 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 really is well worth it.
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- Top 21 Things to Do in Fairbanks—The Ultimate Winter Guide
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