Lights Over Lapland welcomes several thousand guests every year to Abisko in the belief that we can make their dreams come true to see and photograph the aurora. As international travel becomes the norm, many of our guests visit from much warmer climates than what we are used to in Western Europe. Recently on our Facebook page a visitor from a tropical location asked me how we keep ourselves and our guests warm during our adventures.
I’m going to be honest with you, even I get cold from time to time. It is part of the process of watching the aurora here in Abisko (and any other popular aurora destination). Here are the three main reasons why:
- The best places to see the aurora are within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles which are the coldest areas on our planet.
- To see the aurora, it is best to have dark skies, there are plenty in the winter but none in the summer which puts yourself in a toasty range of temperatures from around 0° (freezing) to -38°C (the coldest I have experienced on tour – this is an extreme example and rarely happens on our tours).
- Aurora photography and viewing is very stationary. It is difficult to keep your blood flowing through your extremities when not being active.
What sort of Temperatures Can I Expect?
Here in the Arctic, we consider anything above -10°C to be warm, you would typically expect this range at the beginning of the season in October and November. I have seen around -20°C during this period so there is no guarantee it will always be as warm as expected. When heading north of the Arctic Circle it’s best to be prepared!
For the rest of the season, December all the way through to the end of March, we can see temperatures regularly drop below -20°C. January and February tend to be the coldest months with sub -30°C being fairly common, sometimes for a couple of nights, sometimes for a few weeks. We are finding the climate to be less predictable these days so these are just examples from my experience after three years of guiding. On the flip-side, you get lucky and see around -5°C when it should be -20°C or colder. Fortunately, all of Lights Over Lapland’s evening tours include the use of an insulated Arctic overall. These fit on over your winter clothes and work incredibly well at adding an extra layer of warmth, but you still need to dress sensibly to fit the conditions and not solely rely on them. We also have Arctic boots available for hire. There will always be a fire, a warm drink and throughout the winter months, December-March, a shelter to escape the cold. This is a great reason why you should choose a guided aurora tour with Lights Over Lapland in Abisko rather than heading out alone!
So, for our guests from warmer locations like India, Australia the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii, Mexico, Taiwan, Brazil and any other destination that may be concerned about the temperatures here in Abisko, below are a few clothing tips on how best to keep yourself warm whilst photographing the aurora. Apply the four points to all clothing sections and you will keep toasty warm!
1. THINK NATURAL FIBERS!
The best performing items are wool and down – nature has been getting it right for millennia. Our guides swear by merino wool for their thermal layers, and down for the top outer layers. There are many brands to choose from and we are always led by the ethical source of the product and user reviews. Recommended brands for Merino are Icebreaker and IsoBaa, and for outer-wear try Fjallraven, Rab, the North Face, Mountain Equipment, Mountain Hardware& Patagonia among others.
Avoid cotton and denim, they are terrible for retaining moisture and will result in you being colder quicker than keeping you warm.
2. THINK LAYERS!
You can always remove clothing if you are too warm – a light, medium, and then heavy layer can be combined for all conditions. This applies to your head, hands and feet too!
3. THINK BLOOD-FLOW!
Thermal layers are meant to be body-fitting, do not wear too many items so it restricts blood flow, particularly on hands and feet. It is also advisable to keep your hands and feet moving if starting to get cold. Wiggling toes, walking on the spot, doing jumping jacks and high fives all help!
4. AFTER ALL THIS YOU THERE ARE A FEW MORE ITEMS TO CONSIDER.
These points will ensure that your adventure more comfortable, but it can be difficult for guests from warmer regions with normal luggage allowances to fully eliminate the cold. To help offset this issue we always provide heavy duty overalls and a fire – and ensure that we have access to a shelter during the winter months.
So, from head to toe, here’s how you should dress:
- We learn at an early age that we lose the most body heat from our head. I never go out at any time during the aurora season, day or night, without something to cover my head. I wear a merino buff (neck-tube) and a merino woollen hat, and will combine the two depending on temperatures. In the coldest part of the winter I will double up with a light merino hat and a thicker one. The other style of hat that is popular is the trapper style hat which many of the big winter clothing brands include in their range. These are great for keeping your ears warm! Our founder, Chad lives in his trapper hat for about six months of the year 🙂
- Woollen scarves are very popular, (thanks to Harry Potter), but for photography I much prefer a buff (neck-tube) as they can’t be blown around into your face or camera mid-photograph.
Jumpers (sweaters) and Coats
- Thermal layer – For temperatures down to about -10°C I wear a lightweight merino 150g long sleeve thermal layer. This will be combined with a wool jumper and or a lightweight down or polyester thermal coat. I will then add a heavier weight merino 200-250g when it drops below this and have worn up to three merino layers before. Cashmere is also a great alternative.
- Outer layer – I have a lighter-weight and heavyweight down which are worn depending on the temperatures, below -15° requires a heavier weight or lots of layers and a lighter weight down. There are also good polyester winter coats now but we advise only buying named brands where you have checked user reviews for use in cold temperatures.
Gloves & Mittens
- A merino liner glove is essential, you can find liners that are compatible with your phone which makes things easier if you want to use a touchscreen. Down to around -15°C I will wear these with a thicker glove, below -15°C I will combine them with a heavier weight liner and a heavyweight mitten. Trapped air is essential with hands and feet. A mitten allows a pocket of warm air to surround your hands, whereas gloves do not allow this. Hestra mittens seem to be the tool of choice here in Sweden for the depths of winter.
Leggings & Trousers/Pants
- Thermal layer – Again this is all about the merino and layering. Between freezing and -10°C then it’s lightweight, approx. 150g, this will be replaced with heavier 200-250g for colder than -10°C. Colder than -20°C will see me layer up both pairs.
- Outer layer – Insulated ski pants work well for most temperatures when combined with the Arctic overalls and thermal layers. Down pants would be too warm with the overalls, so aren’t really recommended.
- Medium plus thick woolen or merino socks are the best combination. Do not be tempted to wear more than this, your feet need blood flow to keep them warm. Too many layers of socks will restrict the blood which equals cold feet. A felt insole can add another layer of protection – available at the STF Abisko shop if required.
- Big winter boots may be difficult to get in advance in some warmer countries. They are also heavy and take a lot of space in your luggage. They are a large investment for something that will be seldom worn. If you do wish to invest then I would suggest looking at Sorel, North Face or Baffin. However, I would strongly recommend hiring them for the activities when required to save yourself worrying about fit and usability. We have a collection of heavy duty boots in nearly any size so don’t worry about carrying them – we’ve got you covered! I have boots that are rated to -50°C but still sometimes get cold feet. All the ratings on footwear are for doing an activity, whereas aurora watching can be inactive and static. This is where you need to march on the spot – we call it the aurora dance!
Sometimes the coldest guests are the happiest guests!
This was meant to be a short blog, but hopefully the extra information will prove useful for your visit. There is a well-equipped shop at the STF Hotel in Abisko, with a great range of gloves, liners, socks and thermal layers, but sometimes due to weather conditions stocks cannot be guaranteed so it’s best to come prepared and use this as a source to get extra warmth if requires. There are usually hand and foot warmers available here which some guests have really appreciated. Just make sure you activate them before you head out into the cold otherwise they won’t work. I have no experience of the new wearable-tech of battery heated soles and gloves so have not included them for that reason.
Remember, viewing the aurora in Abisko requires being outside. In the Arctic. In the winter. The stronger the aurora, the longer you will want to stay outside for. Enjoying the crisp, Arctic air is part of the excitement of being in the Arctic. Cold hands and feet are immediately about when there is a dancing aurora above. Sometimes the coldest guests are the happiest guests!
While proper clothing, hats, boots and gloves will keep you warm, we believe choosing the right guide is also a crucial element to comfort and safety in the Arctic. All of Lights Over Lapland’s tours are led by a team of highly trained professionals with one goal: to make sure that you enjoy the best experience possible while you are in our care. Our team has more combined experience than any other outfitter in Abisko National Park. This experience, combined with a large collection of heated shelters ensure that you will be warm, safe and comfortable during your time in the Arctic. When you book a trip with Lights Over Lapland you can take comfort in the fact that a team of passionate professionals will be watching out for your best interests, and doing everything possible to make your trip the best that it can be. Book your trip of a lifetime today!