The Northern lights

The aurora borealis is the most spectacular light show on earth. If you’ve long dreamed of seeing the phenomenon for yourself, but travelling to Iceland or Norway is out of your budget, then there’s still a chance you could see them by camping out in rural Scotland. Just read on to learn how you can maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights.

Why Scotland?

When charged particles from the sun meet the atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, those atoms become agitated and release light, producing the shimmering, ethereal glow we call the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. This process happens closest to the earth’s magnetic poles, meaning that the further north you are, the more likely it is that you’ll catch a glimpse of the aurora.

Because certain areas in northern Scotland are at a similar latitude to parts of Alaska, Canada, and Sweden, there’s a strong chance of seeing what the locals call the “mirrie dancers” during spells of intense geomagnetic activity at the pole.  In addition to Scotland’s northern location, the wide, open skies in rural areas are generally free of light pollution, meaning that you’re also more likely to get a clear view of the lights when they appear. So, camping out in Scotland can give you a fair chance of seeing the aurora.

Get the time and location right

Geomagnetic activity is in constant flux, so the northern lights are difficult to predict. Sign up for alerts from Aurora Watch, which will warn you of storms that could lead to an increased chance of an auroral display occurring. While the lights are unpredictable, as a general rule, they tend to appear in northern most Scotland, so the further north you camp, the better. You can find a list of the best locations to view the aurora in this guide from VisitScotland.

The lights will be much more vivid during darker nights, and the long nights of autumn and winter mean you’ll have a longer window in which the lights could be visible. So, camping during the colder months will increase your chances of seeing the aurora.

Bear in mind that, while the winter months may offer the best conditions for aurora spotting, it can also mean bitter temperatures and difficult weather, which can make camping much more challenging. If you’d prefer a more comfortable experience, try camping during the autumn or early spring: this should provide the right balance between dark nights and cold temperatures.

Bring the right equipment for the season

With an average low temperature of just 2°C during November (Current Results), northern Scotland can get seriously chilly during the autumn months, not just in the winter, so it’s vital to bring the right gear you’ll need to stay safe and warm while you camp.

The most important item you’ll bring with you will be your tent, which will be your home away from home during your trip. A four-season tent, with a heavy-duty ground sheet, should provide the best protection from strong winds and cold temperatures. You’ll also need to pack the following wild camping essentials:

  • A high-quality mummy sleeping bag and padded ground sheet.
  • Additional blankets, to insulate yourself from the ground.
  • Ear plugs and an eye mask (those high winds can be loud!)
  • Plenty of insulative clothing.
  • High energy, calorie dense foods.
  • A first aid kit.
  • Tough, comfortable hiking boots.
  • A camera, to photograph the aurora if you’re lucky enough to see it.

It’s better to be overprepared than underprepared, especially when camping during the colder months.

Travel safely, and tow your camping gear with care

The rural wilds of Scotland provide the darkest skies and the perfect elevation to see the Northern Lights. But, if your journey will take you over some difficult terrain or rough country roads, there are a few things you should bear in mind, especially if you’re towing your camping gear up to Scotland using a box trailer. Cheryl John Baptiste, from camping trailer specialist ERDE, says: “If you’re driving in rural areas, there’s a chance you’ll have to navigate a poorly maintained road at some point.

“So, when towing a box trailer on difficult terrain, you’ll need to adapt your driving to keep everything safe and secure. Drive much slower than usual, as hitting a bump or stray bit of debris at speed could mean damaging or unhitching the trailer, which could mean losing your camping gear. If you think a route might be too steep, then get out of the car and attempt to walk it: as a rule of thumb, if you can’t tackle a hill on foot, you shouldn’t attempt to drive it, either.

“For particularly difficult conditions and muddy roads, you might want to upgrade your trailer tyres with some mudguards. And, remember, you should always have carry a spare tyre, just as you would for your car.”

Be on the lookout – but have a backup plan

During an auroral display, the northern lights will flare up and then fade again, meaning a typical display might last for only a few minutes. So, you’ll have to be on your guard throughout the night. If possible, take it in turns to watch the sky for signs of auroral activity.

Of course, if the conditions simply aren’t right, then all the planning in the world is still no guarantee that the you’ll get a glimpse of the lights, so it’s important to have a backup plan in place. Even if conditions aren’t right for the aurora, a clear night sky in rural Scotland will still provide an ideal vantage point for star-gazing. Dark Sky Scotland features some simple, easy to use star charts for every season to help you identify the different constellations.

During the day, there are still plenty of alternative things to do during a camping trip to Scotland: with hills to scale and some breath-taking routes to hike, you’re unlikely to ever to be stuck for something to do. You could even try your hand at caving, rock climbing or canoeing if you pick an area or a camp-site that’s close to these activities.

Seeing the aurora borealis is a once in a lifetime event that most people have on their bucket lists. If you choose the date and destination for your trip carefully, and bring all the necessary equipment, then with a little luck, you may even see the lights for yourself.