Northern Lights Clothing Guide: What to Wear for Aurora Hunting
Having written a book on the subject, Dr Melanie Windridge knows a fair bit about the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Read on for her top tips on what you should wear to see one of the most incredible natural phenomena in the world in comfort.
Clothing Tips from an Aurora Hunter: Dr Melanie Windridge
Between February 2013 and March 2015 I made several trips to the Arctic, both in summer and winter, in towns and the wilderness. I spent 5 weeks in Longyearben, Svalbard, the most Northerly permanent settlement in the world. I skied out towards the East Coast for a week, camping out in temperatures approaching -40°, and I lived in town for a month doing ordinary, everyday Svalbard things like going to the University, skiing and taking snowmobile rides.
I learnt a lot about Arctic conditions along the way, so for those of you who aspire to see the most spectacular natural event on the planet, here’s what you need to get kitted out:
- Waterproof softshell trousers with thermal leggings – more windproof than jeans.
- Merino wool base layers – merino keeps you warm, feels good next to the skin and doesn’t smell (essential if you’re exercising). Sometimes I wear three.
- A good insulated jacket – if you’re exercising you’ll need this the minute you stop. If you’re not exercising you’ll need it all the time! Look for big and warm with a hood and pockets.
- Mitts – mitts keep your hands warmer than gloves. You’ll need good mitts if you’re skiing or simply standing around at night looking for aurora. It’s good if they are big enough to fit over other gloves. I have a pair of down mitts, some traditional wool mitts and a pair of Norwegian skiing mitts (knitted wool inner with waterproof outer).
- Liner/ thin gloves – for wearing under mitts.
- Warm, windproof hat.
- Arctic boots and woolly socks – I wear my big, thick-soled and lined Sorel boots with a couple of pairs of socks. They are much bigger than my ski-resort snow boots because I need much more insulation if I’m standing around in the snow for hours.
For standing around watching aurora displays (which hopefully you will be) you’ll need to layer up. Some lodges provide special all-in-one oversuits to wear. If not, or if you’re going it alone, you’ll need base layers, a good mid-layer fleece, and a down jacket. My biggest treat, if you’re not given an oversuit, is down trousers (synthetic insulated trousers also work). I love them. In combination with a down jacket it’s like walking around in your sleeping bag. Perfect!
You may also want to consider bringing a balaclava or facemask if you’ll be standing around aurora watching or photographing for a long time, or skiing in low temperatures. For skiing, you’ll also need good windproofs.
The Arctic is an incredibly beautiful place and I urge you to see it for yourself. Skiing out in the open wilderness of Svalbard, before the sun was fully up in the Arctic winter, was more intense, more brutal than I could have imagined. I realised then that out there everything becomes about survival and nothing else matters.
If you feel the cold (like me), wear thin liner gloves under a pair of knitted fingerless gloves. The thin liner gloves give the dexterity you need to operate camera equipment, undo zips and open thermos flasks, so you never need to take off your gloves in the cold. The fingerless gloves provide extra warmth over the hand, plus both will fit under your big mitts when you don’t need the dexterity.
Read an extract from Melanie’s book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights below:
“That early trip to Kiruna was also to be my first experience of the Arctic. I was excited, of course, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I was not going out into the wilderness, so it would be a gentle introduction, though our course leaders warned us that temperatures could drop to -25°C and that we should dress appropriately. I didn’t know exactly what they meant by that, never having had to dress ‘appropriately’ for such temperatures before. I had packed mostly ski wear and extra jacket layers, and I was intrigued to know what the Scandinavians wear indoors, when they take off all these layers of outerwear. Did they all walk around in their thermals?”
Dr Melanie Windridge
Dr Melanie Windridge is a plasma physicist, speaker and writer with a taste for adventure. Her book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights was released in February 2016. Melanie has a PhD in fusion energy and is Business Development Manager for fusion start-up Tokamak Energy, as well as working in education with the Ogden Trust, Anturus and Your Life. Melanie loves the mountains and believes science and exploration go hand in hand.