This past February my girlfriend Sophie and I took an amazing trip to Tromsø and the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Sophie has been obsessed with aurora borealis her whole life, and I was especially excited about northern lights photography.
We packed really carefully based on reading other online packing lists, but we definitely feel like we learned a few things. In this article I’ll share some specific packing suggestions based on our experiences.
Our recommendations should apply to visiting any region experiencing similar temperature ranges (15F-35F). If you’re going somewhere much colder than that, I’d definitely look for an article tailored to more extreme conditions.
Clothes – Layers and NO COTTON
If you’re not used to cold weather and you’re making your first arctic journey, it’s tempting to get the biggest, baddest heaviest clothes you can find. But, that would be a mistake.
In general, you’ll want to have layers so you can get warm enough for long nights under the stars, but also cool enough so you don’t overheat while hiking during the day.
You’ll want to bring as much wool and high-tech “wicking” polyester as you can, and do your best not to bring any cotton. Cotton holds moisture which is bad in freezing weather. Norwegians in particular are obsessed with wearing wool layers, and they know a little something about the cold.
Jacket and Tops
Overall, we recommend:
- 1x Waterproof jacket shell with little or no insulation (ideally gore-tex)
- 2x Mid-to-heavyweight fleece or wool mid-layers (choose different types so you have a little more flexibility)
- 4x Long-sleeved thermal base-layers (or 1x with 4x short-sleeved wicking base-layers)
As you can see in the pictures, I had this giant green Marmot parka I was borrowing from my dad. I thought to myself, “If ever there’s a time to use a parka, it’s in the arctic right???” Thing is, it’s really not that cold on the Norwegian coast in late February. I was usually too hot while walking around during the day, and I would have to take the jacket off in a panic when I got inside because it was so crazy hot.
The jacket was so big it felt like a person, so we named it “Jonah” after the clumsy character from HBO’s VEEP. The parka was so bulky to deal with I’d sometimes rough it outside for a while with just a hoodie and a thin down vest.
If I had it to do over again, I’d splurge for the Arc’teryx Men’s Theta AR Jacket or a similar nice gore tex shell. Gore tex shells can get expensive, but a high quality outer layer like that can be used in all seasons for rain protection. To save a little, anything waterproof, probably in the $100-200 range will do.
Meanwhile, Sophie had a lightweight shell with a fleece mid-layer and thermal base-layer (#doingitright). With all her layers, she was plenty warm during long nights outside watching aurora. Yet the jacket was nimble and cool enough she could keep it on when we were inside at places like the Aquarium (see pic).
For mid-layers, what you’re looking for is something in a mid-weight or heavyweight fleece, wool or down. We’d recommend a full-zip so you can vent quickly, with some height going up the neck (or a hood) to keep you extra warm when you need it.
For base-layers, the ideal thing to wear would be long-sleeved thermals. If you think you’ll use them back home, buy enough long-sleeved thermals so you can wear a clean one everyday. “Thermal” base-layers keep you extra warm, and the full-length keeps your forearms cozy on long nights under the aurora. The Patagonia Capilene line is a great (but expensive) option. To save a little, Sophie and I both had great luck with the Uniqlo Heattech collection (they also have an “extra warm” option which would be a good idea for the Arctic).
To economize, you’ll be fine skimping on the “thermal” part and just get any quality long-sleeved base-layer. Still, make sure you get a proper wool or synthetic (polyester) base-layer that reliably keeps you dry (no cotton!). To economize further, you can get just one long-sleeved base-layer and then wear short-sleeved base-layers underneath. This is a particularly good idea if you think you’ll only use the short-sleeved ones when you get back home.
Pants and Bottom Layers
Our recommendation for bottoms is very similar:
- Option 1: 1x Waterproof pants shell with no insulation AND 2x Mid-to-heavyweight fleece or wool mid-layers
- Option 2: 1x Snow pants
- 4x Full-length thermal base-layers (or 1x with plenty of wicking underwear)
We both nailed it when it came to pants and bottom layers, but we took different approaches. I brought a simple black waterproof shell with no insulation (these from REI), with two different types of mid-layers, a couple thermal base-layers from the Uniqlo Heattech line, and bunches of wicking underwear. I was very comfortable, and my favorite setup was to wear the wicking underwear -> thermal long underwear -> fleece mid-layer -> waterproof shell. In general, I’ve noticed my legs tend to get cold, so I was glad to have the full complement of layers.
Sophie on the other hand went with just some inexpensive snow pants (these, which she loved and I can’t believe the price) and a thermal Uniqlo base-layer and that worked great for her.
At first I resisted the idea of getting snow pants, but when you consider how expensive the mid-layers can be, it’s not such a bad option.
I also brought a pair of big orange gore-tex ski pants with bib (see pic above). These worked fine, but I felt dorky walking around town with them. The only day I wore them was the day we did cross-country skiing, and they didn’t really perform any better than the simple black shell. In general, unless you’re planning to do a lot of skiing, you can probably skip the ski pants. You’ll be happier with some nice low-profile waterproof snow pants or a shell and some gators (more about gators later).
- Waterproof insulated gloves with fingers (for camera operation)
- Waterproof insulated mittens (no fingers) (if not operating camera)
Gloves are difficult and neither of us were happy with what we brought. I brought some burly gore-tex mittens (something like these), which were plenty warm, but they made operating the camera impossible. I anticipated this and also brought some thin wool gloves (these from Smartwool, which are great in dry weather), but these would get wet eventually and my hands would freeze operating the camera. If I had it to do over again, I’d splurge for some waterproof gloves with fingers and make sure I could operate the camera with them on.
Sophie brought some thin water-resistant mittens (these), but they were really not enough. She’d get something warmer and more fully waterproof next time, but because she wasn’t operating the camera most of the time, mittens might work for her.
Many folks will advise you to bring mittens because they are warmer. Indeed, they are warmer… but keep in mind you will need to operate the camera and you most likely won’t be able to do that with your mittens on.
- Thick warm cap (wool or fleece)
- Scarf (wool or fleece) and/or balaclava
We both were happy with our headwear. I brought a thick fleece cap and a handmade wool-knit cap and Sophie brought just a handmade wool-knit cap. We both also brought scarves (Sophie got this cute “infinity scarf“) and I had a fleece scarf and I also brought a Smartwool balaclava.
In general, the headwear can make the biggest difference in how warm you feel and it’s pretty small to pack, so we recommend splurging for good headwear that covers your head and face.
- Option 1: Proper snow boots with mid-weight wool socks
- Option 2: Waterproof hiking boots with heavy-weight wool socks
- Traction cleats
- Calf-height rain gaiters (optional)
We both did pretty well with footwear. Sophie splurged for proper snow boots that ended up working fantastic for her (these). She was able to wear simple, relatively inexpensive wool socks and her feet never really got cold — she also liked these thermal socks.
I, on the other hand, resisted buying snow boots. I needed some waterproof hiking boots for use around California anyway, so I bought some nice new ones (these). Then I started worrying about my feet getting cold so I splurged for a few pairs of super thick “Mountaineering” socks by Smartwool. My feet seemed to get a little cold after a long night out in the snow, but I managed. In hindsight, it might have been better to just get snow-boots and cheaper mid-weight wool socks, but I didn’t really have time to find a good pair that would fit me (they had very limited options at REI near me and I didn’t think to order them until too late).
Both of us fell within moments when we tried to walk around without them, so we definitely consider these a “must-buy.” No faster way to ruin a vacation (or even a few months) than by falling hard on some ice.
This isn’t just for hiking in remote locations — most of the sidewalks in downtown Tromsø were covered with ice… so just walking to the store can be treacherous.
Finally, if you don’t get snow boots, also consider bringing some calf-height waterproof rain gaiters. Snow boots generally fit higher up the calf and do a decent job keeping snow out, but if you’re wearing regular hiking boots snow will definitely get in if you’re not careful. You’ll have opportunities to go trudging through deeper snow to get to more interesting and remote locations, and you won’t want to worry about getting literal cold feet. Rain gaiters are a great way to keep the snow out. I brought these from REI, but these look like a really great alternative for much less money.
There are plenty of great camera bodies to choose from, but consider the following criteria:
- Moisture resistance: Arctic photography will put your gear to the test, and if you want it to survive, look for a camera with proven moisture resistance or weather sealing. Here’s a great list. The kind of weather sealing is the Canon 1D series, but that is some very expensive and heavy kit.
- Low-light performance: You will be shooting your most interesting shots at night, and you want the biggest sensor possible with the best low-light performance. That will probably be a full-frame sensor (best) or an ASP-C sensor (second best)
- Articulating screen: While not essential, you will probably be happier if you get a screen that can wiggle out. This will make it easier to frame shots when the camera is pointed straight up at the sky (otherwise, you’ll need to crane your neck to peer into the viewfinder.
Personally, I brought a Sony A7ii camera body, which is right at the sweet spot of its depreciation curve. The A7ii doesn’t advertise weather sealing, but it does feature resistance to dust and moisture conditions. I myself have had no issues with water damage or similar. For a relative low price, you get a full-frame sensor which is great for low light performance, and you get the fully articulating screen.
I was very happy with the A7ii, but if you have a little more to spend, I’d highly recommend the A7R ii instead. The A7R ii gives you more megapixels, which means you can crop your images later and keep nice resolution, better low light performance, and amazing autofocus performance. Another great option is the RX1R ii, which would give you the maximum portability and quality with a fixed lens.
Regardless of your camera body, you’re going to want an amazing wide-angle lens to get the most out of your northern lights photography. Look for:
- Widest possible aperture. F2.8 would be about the slowest lens I’d consider. Better if you can splurge for a faster lens in the 1.4, 1.8 range.
- Top ratings for clarity, no issues with coma or “chromatic aberration.” Chromatic aberration is a kind of distortion you get with astrophotography in particular — it can cause color fringes on your stars. This article has some good background.
- At least one good autofocus lens for casual travel portraits. All aurora shooting will be done in manual mode.
A good autofocus 35mm is an awesome all-around choice for travel and landscape photography, and it also works for aurora. I shot 99% of my trip with the Sony 35mm F2.8 Sonnar lens. While it isn’t the fastest lens, nor the absolute sharpest, I was happy with the results. This lens is quite tiny and portable and made it easier to carry my gear. At the 35mm focal length, you can frame your subjects and get portraits with plenty of context. 35mm is about as long as you’d want to go for northern lights and astrophotography, but you can do a ton with it.
I love my 35mm F2.8, but there are a number of alternatives available for the FE system, each with different tradeoffs. If you want to rely on just one lens for your trip but you want better quality, I’d consider the FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM Lens. This lens would be an absolute beast for northern lights photography, giving you the ability to easily frame shots with the zoom, while preserving the legendary clarity of the master series. Another good alternative would be the Sony FE 35 F1.4 ZA Lens, giving you the incredible clarity and speed than the GM lens, but without the zoom options. On the other hand, if you want to save a little, you could consider substituting the 35mm 2.8 for the Sony FE 28 F2.0 lens.
Outside the Sony FE system, you’ll want to look for another article breaking down the best lenses for aurora and astrophotography. This looks like a good primer.
Waterproof Tripod with Spikes
You’re going to want a durable and lightweight tripod. I was really happy with my SIRUI W-1204, which is very inexpensive for the quality. The W-1204 is waterproof and made of carbon fiber, making it nice and light while you’re hiking around looking for a place to set up your shoot. It also comes with a nice carrying case and interchangeable spikes so you can easily stab through soft snow and find something more solid to bite into. I also really appreciate how small it folds up because of the way the legs completely reverse… The tripod fits easily into my backpack.
While I own and love both these mini tripods, I think overall they wouldn’t cut it for arctic photography.
There were simply too many times when I wanted to hike out on a deep snowdrift and set up for my shot — and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable putting my camera rig on a tiny tripod balanced on top of the deep snow. As it was, I was very happy to have a waterproof tripod I could confidently stab through the snowdrift.
Panorama Head + L-bracket
I paired the SIRUI with a ARCA SWISS Monoball with Panning System, Really Right Stuff B2-40-LR-M6 lever-release clamp and an inexpensive L-plate for my camera body.
I shot a ton of panoramas, and I was happy I had a ballhead with a dedicated panning feature. A panning feature will allow you to precisely rotate the camera in a lateral direction without losing the precise angle of the shot. This makes it really easy for you to stitch your photos together into a beautiful panorama when you get home. In addition, I really like how the Monoball fits snugly between the tripod legs when it’s all folded away.
If you combine the ballhead with a clamp and plate, this makes it really easy to pop the camera in and out of the tripod. The lever-release design of the RRS clamp is great for locking even with thick gloves. I’d recommend getting an L-plate to go with it so you can mount your camera in the portrait position for extra tall stitched panoramas. Be sure your plate has a space to allow you to change batteries.
Lots of Batteries
Cold weather kills batteries. We were shocked at how quickly our cell phones would run out of juice. You’ll want to have plenty of charged batteries every night you go out shooting. I myself brought four batteries and that was plenty. Be sure to turn the camera and/or screen off to conserve juice while shooting.
Other Stuff to Bring
In additional to thoughtful clothing and photography gear, there are a number of other things you’ll want to bring for a successful northern lights trip:
- Power Adapter(s) – This is what you need for most of Europe (including Norway). Highly recommend ordering on Amazon rather than paying much more at the airport.
- Carabiner(s) – We brought a couple of “S-biners” which were really handy for clipping our cleats to our bags / jackets when we went inside and didn’t need to wear them anymore.
- Insulated Water Bottle – It’s absolutely essential to have fluids with you when you’re out at night for a shoot, and you’ll want to have an insulated flask to keep your water from freezing (or better yet, to keep your coffee/tea/hot chocolate warm!). Sophie picked up a nice HydroFlask insulated bottle and I brought a Camelbak.
- Headlamp & extra batteries – You’ll be in pitch black areas (ideally) and you’ll need a flashlight or headlamp to get around. We both had good experiences with Black Diamond headlamps which seem to be winning in the category. Amazingly, we didn’t have problems with the batteries, but bring plenty of extras anyway.
- Sunglasses – It’s cold, but it’s still bright.
- Hand and toe warmers – Bring plenty of gear to keep your hands and feet warm, but also bring hand and toe warmers. Even if you don’t “need” them they are a nice treat and gave us some piece of mind. Sophie ended up really wanting the hand warmers a couple nights because her mittens really weren’t warm enough, and I wanted the toe warmers since I didn’t have snow boots.
- Reflective patches, stickers, or vest – When you’re walking around at night in remote areas, there’s a real danger of getting hit by a car. That’s why even the locals we met in the arctic wear reflectors while out at night. Sophie got these reflectors and stuck them on a bunch of stuff. You could also go for a full reflective vest.
- Some basic emergency supplies – Depending where you’re going, you may find yourself in a remote, freezing, desolate wilderness. Do not underestimate the potential danger. Be careful, and also bring supplies just in case there’s an emergency. I’d recommend an emergency whistle, signal mirror, compass, emergency blanket, first aid kit, knife and fire-starter. Keep these items in your bag whenever you leave your car, and make sure you know how and why you’d potentially want to use them.
There’s no one right way to pack for an arctic photography adventure, but it pays off to plan ahead and pick a strategy. In general, Sophie opted for more dedicated snow gear including snow boots and snow pants, and because she got great deals it ended up being comfortable and affordable. I, on the other hand, tried to avoid dedicated snow gear instead adapting three-season gear: regular hiking boots + rain gaiters + mountaineering socks instead of snow boots; regular rain pants + insulating midlayers + thermal baselayers instead of snow pants. In the end, either approach can make sense depending on how often you plan to go to the snow.
We had an awesome time and hopefully some of our gear recommendations come in handy. Let me know if this was of any use to you and feel free to share any follow up questions or thoughts you may have!
Note: If you did find this useful, please follow my links to Amazon to make a purchase where possible. I get tiny commission on sales through the Amazon Affiliate Program. Amazon is a great place in particular to buy the traction cleats, HydroFlask, S-biners, Black Diamond headlamps, reflective vest, the SIRUI W-1204 tripod, all camera gear, and Sophie’s recommended snow pants and snow boots. For other items where it makes more sense, we’re recommending items from REI and Uniqlo (especially the Heattech baselayer).