Northern Lights Photography Tours FAQs and Alaska Aurora Visitor Information
Aurora Information and Frequently Asked Questions to help you plan your Northern Lights Photography Tours in Fairbanks, Alaska
Tour Cancellation Policy
Due to the natural elements involved and the small personal nature of our company, we have a no cancellation policy except in the case of extremely severe weather which prohibits safe travel. If such an event occurs and we are not able to take you on your tour, you will get a full refund or the choice of another tour if available. We do not cancel for cloudy skies or lack of Aurora. Both of these conditions may change and we’ve found it far easier to deliver an informative and educational experience which will prepare you for future aurora photography, on a cloudy night than to explain to you that you missed your once in a lifetime opportunity to see Aurora when the clouds cleared at 1am because we canceled at 9pm. Furthermore, while solid overcast does inhibit the ability to see the Northern Lights, anything less than solid clouds still allows the Aurora to be viewed. Therefore to give you the best opportunity possible we still go out and have a good time and do our best to find clear skies. There are no refunds or exchanges for lack of Aurora sightings as this is nature and beyond our control. We suggest traveler’s insurance for any other issues that may arise such as illness and other circumstances that prohibit travel on your part.
Northern Lights Visitor Information and Photography Tours FAQs
How do I book a tour with you?
To make things easier for our clients, we've recently added an online booking system. Simply click the "Book Online" button above to see availability and book your tours. You can find all the tour info here.
What sets The Aurora Chasers apart from other tours?
Since we began this adventure of sharing Alaska's magical Northern Lights with folks from all over the world, many others have tried to duplicate our offerings and create a generic version of our Aurora Chasers™ and other photography workshop tours. Don't be misled by imitations. Be sure you're getting the authentic Aurora Chasers experience and book with the actual Aurora Chasers, Ronn & Marketa Murray.
You'll find many key differences between us and the competition. The first and most important is the level of experience and professionalism you'll find with us. We have literally thousands of hours out in the field capturing photos, time-lapse and video of the Northern Lights. We've been on these roads and out in this environment at its worst and have gained the experience to get you out there and have a great experience and back home safely. We have served well over 1,500 guests over the years with a variety of camera equipment and helped them to capture amazing images with their own gear. We use multiple systems ourselves and have real world experience with most camera systems. We have studied the science and have a thorough understanding of what creates that magic in the sky and how to explain it in terms that are easy to understand. While nature can and will surprise even the most experienced, we know when and where to be to ensure you have the best chances of seeing that magical light show in the sky if there is any chance at all on those challenging nights.
We also take painstaking efforts to do things right. From having proper business licenses, insurance and permitting, to keeping the best tires, safety equipment and satellite phones equipped. You'll also find the comfort of our large Mercedes High roof van with LED display for presentations quite pleasant and comfortable. Not only is it roomy, but also very fuel efficient which is important in a place so cold you can't turn the vehicle off in the dead of winter.
We understand that there are many options to choose from and we thank you for choosing us. You deserve the best and we intend to deliver just that! But don't take our word for it. Browse our work for yourself and see what our previous guests have had to say on TripAdvisor. We made the decision long ago that we'd rather deliver a quality, personal experience than compete on price and volume.
Are there any guarantees that I will see Northern Lights/Aurora while on your tours?
Unfortunately, the honest answer is no. While we will do everything reasonably in our power to help you catch a view and make photos of the amazing Northern Lights while you are out with us, we are very much at the mercy of nature not only here on Earth, but also in space. The conditions that cause Northern lights are an amazing natural phenomenon that results as an exciting interaction of our star, The Sun and our planet and take place in space. So conditions have to align perfectly to make this spectacular event occur. Aside from Space Weather, our weather here on Earth has to play nice as well. Fortunately those things line up quite frequently in Fairbanks, Alaska which is what makes it one of the best places on the planet to view Northern Lights. In fact, statistics suggest that spending 3 consecutive winter nights in Fairbanks gives you an 80% chance of witnessing the magic come together. However, to really give yourself the best chance to see Northern Lights, we suggest spending 5-7 nights in Fairbanks and going out each night from 10pm-2am (or 11pm-3am during Daylight Savings Time as the Aurora doesn't care about such things as arbitrary time changes) whether with us, another tour company or independently.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
It is possible to see the Aurora Borealis anytime that we have darkness in Fairbanks, Alaska. We are however living in the land of the Midnight Sun and thus during our long warm summers with 24 hours of daylight, Northern Light viewing is impossible. Around Mid-August we start to see subtle changes in the night sky and by late August we are able to see nice displays of Aurora dancing overhead. This will last until Mid-April when the Sun takes back over the night sky. During Lady Aurora's time to shine, the best Aurora activity statistically happens during the 8 weeks around the Fall and Spring Equinox. As such, we schedule our season around the Fall and Spring equinox for the peak month of September, October, February and March. But a good display can happen any time that we have darkness. Fall is one of our favorite times to "chase the lights" because it is warmer, we can sometimes photograph Aurora with fall colors and we have open water which offers nice mirrored reflections of Aurora. Fall also offers the best views of Milky Way Alaska gets over the year but if Milky Way is your objective you should consider our Hawaii Photo Tours. However, if choosing to visit in the Fall half of the season (Mid-August to December), it is advisable to spend at least 5-7 nights as the weather is sometimes more cloudy. March is statistically the month with the most clear skies (followed closely by February) and as there are many other winter activities and events in Fairbanks around that time, the biggest majority of Aurora hopefuls come then. It is also the month of the Spring Equinox and thus the Aurora activity is often quite good around that time. It's a good time to come but often very busy so if you're planning on March, book early! If you prefer the less crowded times, October and February are also great months to visit for Northern Lights but come prepared (See what to wear below) for some brutal cold. 40º below zero is a common temperature in February and late October can get well below zero as well. The rewards can be worth the troubles however as the long dark nights and less crowded viewing areas offer a wonderful opportunity to have a unique experience not witnessed by the masses. We no longer offer tours November-January as the more frequent cloudy skies, extreme cold temp and lower Aurora activity makes these months a lot more challenging. That doesn't mean you won't see a good display in these months. But it is more difficult and we don't see enough visitors during these months to operate tours.
In regards to the specific times, The Northern Lights can be visible at any time the stars are visible. This means you can see them anytime it's dark. However, due to the physics involved with our magnetic field, the best time is typically between 10pm and 2am AKST. Keep in mind that the Aurora doesn't recognize Daylight Savings Time so you'll need to shift an hour later during that time as we do with our tours.
I'm looking at the long term forecast and see that xx/xx/xxxx looks like the best date. Is that when I should plan to visit?
Just like weather forecasts, long-term Aurora Forecasts are an educated guess at best. They are often updated and modified as we get closer to the actual date when new information is available and therefore aren't as reliable as we'd like them to be. It is impossible to give a forecast beyond 3 days with any honest sense of accuracy. This is because the conditions that cause the Aurora take about 2-3 days to arrive after a solar event has occurred on the surface of the Sun. You can always see the 3-day forecast on our webcam page during the season. To learn more about how the Aurora occurs, how we forecast it and why we can't predict accurately beyond 3 days please visit our videos on the topic here and our guide to understanding the data here.
Will I see with my naked eye, what I see in photos?
The answer to this is a bit complex. The camera certainly enhances color and intensity of an average Aurora display because it is accumulating that light over a longer duration of time. So while our eyes generally have about 1/10th of a second "shutter speed" if you will. We are leaving the camera shutter open for multiple seconds and collecting more of the light and color. Think of it like this, If you have very opaque water colors but you paint them on in layers, the more layers you put on, the more vibrant and intense the colors get. Leaving the camera's shutter open for a long duration allows many layers to be painted onto the final canvas. The camera is also far more sensitive to the red spectrum than our eyes and thus sees reds we won't see with the naked eye. The physics of our eyes also play a huge role. In good light such as daylight, our eyes primarily use the cones which capture vivid color information but aren't very useful for low-light situations. At night, our eyes "switch" to the rods which are excellent at gathering light in the dark but don't perceive color very well, making night time seem almost black & white. That being said, on a good night, the camera and a still image simply cannot do justice the the amazing show we see with our own eyes. It is simply too intense and to bright to capture well with a camera. If you'd like to see real-time movement of a good night have a look at some of the videos on our site linked in the left sidebar under Aurora Videos. For more details on this check out this awesome video on the topic.
Will the Full Moon inhibit my ability to see and photograph the Northern Lights?
While the full moon does make seeing the Aurora a bit more challenging on a dull night, it actually enhances the photos on a good night as the moonlight helps to really light the landscape below the Aurora. We actually prefer a good bit of moonlight. The full moon is no match for a good Aurora display and the Aurora does tend to be a bit stronger near the full moon because of the gravitational effect of the moon. The easy answer is that we honestly prefer 1/4 to 3/4 moon phase for our Aurora Photography.
How do I get to Fairbanks?
Fairbanks International Airport is a normal and fully functional airport with several major carriers flying in and out daily. You can fly to Fairbanks just as you would anywhere else with relative ease.
Will you pick us up?
Yes! Provided your accommodations are within the city limits we are happy to pick you up and return you to your accommodations. If you are staying at one of the more remote locations, you'll need to arrange transportation to meet us in town at one of our other pickup locations that night. We are NOT able to pick up at Chena Hot Springs as it is 56 miles outside of Fairbanks. We are also not able to pickup at locations outside of the city limits but are happy to meet you in town.
Where should I stay?
There are many great places to stay in Fairbanks. Many major hotel chains have accommodations here and we can pick you up from anywhere within city limits for your tours with us. When staying in town, the Hampton Inn and Candlewood Suites are your best choices if Northern Lights are your primary objective. They both offer the only real unobstructed view of the northern night sky, so if you'd like to see the Northern Lights close to your hotel, this is the place to stay. If staying at the Candlewood, request a north facing bedroom suite if possible.
Can I safely drive on Fairbanks roads?
The answer to this question is highly dependent on your abilities to drive on slick winter roads. The roads are often icy over the Aurora Season in Fairbanks and as such you should only drive if you have experience with such conditions. If you do plan to rent a vehicle, we recommend an all-wheel or 4-wheel drive. We also suggest renting from Alaska Auto Rental as they are the only company to our knowledge that outfits their vehicles with proper winter tires. As such, they are who we go to when we need a rental. Most other companies simply equip vehicles with all-season tires which are definitely not up to the task of handling Alaska's winter roads. As a result, we see inexperienced drivers off the road in rentals quite frequently.
What Camera and lenses do you suggest?
Camera/lens combinations are much trickier than they were even a few years ago. Just 2 years ago, we used to say you needed a DSLR with only a few exceptions. However, the advances in technology have brought about several mirrorless systems and Micro 4/3rds systems very capable of making great images of the Aurora. Most cameras released in the last two years with interchangeable lenses, manual settings and acceptable ISO ranges of 1600 or higher will do great combined with a good solid tripod and a wide, fast lens for Aurora photography. If you have specific questions about your particular camera being suitable for our workshop, please email us via the contact link in the left sidebar. For lenses, you'll want a wide angle lens with a large maximum aperture. We recommend something in the 8-24mm focal length range (35mm equivalent) and at least f/4 (preferably f/2.8) or larger maximum aperture. Don't forget a good solid tripod as it's a must! You'll also find a ballhead is MUCH more useful for Aurora shooting than a pan/tilt head. Save yourself the frustration and either bring or rent a good tripod and ballhead. While some point-and-shoot cameras are capable of making decent Aurora images, as a general rule, they still won't do the job and we strongly advise against them for Aurora photography for many reasons.
We have a limited selection of rental equipment available for our guests if you'd like to rent the proper gear for Aurora photography.
Filming Aurora is currently a complex and niche subject. If you'd like to film the Aurora in video, you'll need a very specific camera. Here's a list of cameras we know of capable of shooting quality video of the Northern Lights. Sony a7S, Sony a7S Mk II, Canon ME20F-SH, or a Post 2015 RED camera and a very fast lens. Standard DSLRs and cell phones just aren't going to do the job. If you'd like to film the Aurora and attend our workshops, we'll be happy to assist you with settings but ask that you do your homework and have all the proper gear prior to joining the tour as this is not our primary focus.
Do I have to be a photographer to join the tours?
You do not need to be a photographer to enjoy our tours. Whether you're a 30 year veteran photographer or a complete novice renting a camera system and taking photos for the first time, we'll help you set up the camera and make great aurora images. You can also join without photography equipment and still have a great experience. Regardless of your situation, we'll make some nice "Aurora Portraits" of you in front of the Northern Lights provided the Aurora cooperates. We do ask that if you join this tour as a non-photographer you keep in mind that the experience is photography oriented and as such, we will be spending time to make great photos and photographers don't like to be rushed. Please also be considerate that using a light of any kind will ruin photos for those with cameras. But we'll talk about that in more detail on the tours.
Is there a different price for non-photographers?
As we designed our tours to be small and personal, ensuring that we're able to deliver a personal experience to each of our guests, we have a very limited availability. Therefore someone joining the tour as a non-photographer will be taking the seat of a photographer that would otherwise be going and as such we are not able to give a discount for non-photographers.
Are your tours family friendly and do you have a special rate for children?
We are a family friendly tour and do indeed allow and enjoy having families with children join us. Do keep in mind that the tours are late nights and some kiddos will enjoy that while others may not. The Musher's Cabin is a good option for families with children as the kiddos can hang out with the dogs and if they get tired, they can rest in the cabin. We do have to charge full rates as once again, we have very limited availability and a child will be taking the seat of an otherwise adult photographer. You may not have your children sit on your lap to save a seat as Alaska state law and our insurance company requires all passengers to be buckled up and in a proper child seat for those under 5. Please don't ask us to break the law. We will not accommodate this request. We do have one child seat available for little ones 2-5 years old. If this will be needed, please let us know if the comments when booking your tour.
What should I wear for Aurora Tours in Fairbanks?
Fairbanks is unlike any climate you've likely experienced before. We can get as hot as the upper 90'sF in the summer, and as cold as -65ºF in the dead of winter. If you are coming in the Fall months, August through September, temps are usually mild in early fall but can get down into single digits. By Mid-October we are starting to hit freezing temps regularly and it is not uncommon to see temps in the sub-zero range. Beyond that prepare for at least -40ºF which is common in the winter and generally occurs Mid-November until Mid-March. To put it into perspective, this is about 40ºF colder than the inside of your household freezer. But dress in layers as it can be well into the 30's on occasion even in January.
If you'd like a good idea of average highs and lows when you plan to visit, you'll find a great climate summary here.
The one place we are aware of that rents winter clothing in Alaska is in Anchorage and is 6th Avenue Outfitters. They will send clothing up to your hotel and have you send it back so you can rent from them even if your trip is in Fairbanks only. They have been great to our clients and many have used them with success. Unfortunately, we don't have a rental location in Fairbanks. The Musher's Cabin is stocked with "Top Layer" items like parkas and snowpants and those items are available for use to guests on the Musher's Cabin tour.
DO NOT WEAR COTTON
Clothing tips are based on the extreme part of the season and not all of this applies to the fall portion of the season in which temperatures and climate are much milder than during the later part of the season.
• Base Layer: A good Base layer (thermal underwear) is the first insulator from the cold and the most important. We suggest a good SmartWool or FirstLite Merino Wool base layer system which unlike the synthetic, will stay warm even if your perspiration makes it wet. Most of our musher friends swear by Merino Wool.
• Mid Layer: On top of the base layer you'll want a good mid layer. Some good cold weather pants and a good wool sweater are a great idea here.
• Next you'll want a good Merino Wool Jacket
• Top Layer: On the top you'll want a good pair of snow pants (we recommend something down filled) and a good down filled Parka. Big Ray's here makes a great brand of both at a much better price point than the bigger brands but if you want the very best, Canada Goose is the way to go. Their clothing is made for the researchers in the Antarctic and even at 40 below, we stay plenty warm in it. However if purchasing Canada Goose, beware! There are many counterfeiters out there and the product doesn't even come close. To be sure, purchase from an authorized retailer and check out Canada Goose's guide to authenticity here.
• Foot Wear: Good SmartWool Mountaineering socks are extremely important. We don't recommend doubling up socks as making the space in your boots too tight actually diminishes the insulating value. Remember the feet are the body's thermostat and if they get cold, you get cold. You can also use chemical hand warmers to keep your feet a bit more warm in the cold. They do make foot warmers but the foot warmers don't last as long and so we prefer hand warmers. You'll want to place these on the tops of your feet where the blood vessels are as this is the best spot for keeping your entire foot warm.
• A good pair of winter moon boot is a must! We suggest either Baffin boots (what we wear) or Sorrel boots. There are also the military style bunny boots which many folks swear by but we find these to be too heavy for hiking with camera gear and much prefer the lightweight and incredibly warm Baffins.
• Hand Wear: Don't forget your hands! A good pair of Merino Wool liners combined with a good pair of down mittens is a great combo for cold weather photography. The mittens allow you to remove your hands for quick camera adjustments while the liners keep your fingers and hands protected for a short duration from frostbite. There are a few brands that have zipper pouches in the top for hand warmers and we love these! It's also a wise idea to pick up some chemical or rechargeable hand warmers. We suggest placing these on top of your hands and feet where the blood vessels are as this is the best way to warm your entire hand. Using a wireless radio shutter release also helps as you can keep your hands in your pockets to stay warm even while making photos.
• Head Gear: Head wear is also important. We suggest some style of Balaklava to keep your head and face protected as well as a good wool hat. Again we suggest the SmartWool/Merino Wool. Also, when shopping for a Parka, make sure it has a good hood preferably with a good fur lined ruff. An optional headlamp with a red LED light is also advisable head gear.
I'm booked with you for only part of my trip, do you have suggestions for places I can go on my own?
As mentioned above, some folks prefer to leave the winter roads to us and like having the comfort of experienced professionals to guide them each night of their trip, others prefer to get the knowledge needed to tackle the Aurora Photography on their own and come with us their first night before taking on the Northern Lights independently. If you fit into the latter category, there a a few places you may enjoy visiting while here for Northern Lights outings. We don't recommend traveling outside of cell range and therefore all locations we suggest will be in AT&T Cell coverage areas. Also, be sure to check with your vehicle rental company about their policies regarding where you can and cannot drive your rental as many prohibit travel on gravel roads which include Murphy and Ester Dome roads.
Cleary Summit, located about 40 minutes out of Fairbanks, is well known for its great Aurora viewing opportunities and is safe, easily accessible and within cell range.
The Pipeline Viewpoint is also a well known hotspot close to town but far enough out to offer good views of the Northern Lights.
Nordale Road Turnout is a great, close and easily accessible location for good viewing opportunities.
Murphy Dome is also a good location for viewing but isn't the best place for photographers as the light on the radar tower and cell towers interfere with making photos.
Ester Dome is another good location but can tend to get crowded. If there is any cloud cover at all skip this location as it's fairly close to the city of Fairbanks and as such catches a lot of light pollution unless the skies are clear.
Chena Lakes in North Pole is also a very popular Aurora viewing location but faces the same issues with light pollution as Ester Dome.
What other activities can I do while in Fairbanks?
The options vary depending on which season you are visiting. For example, you can take a dinner cruise on the Sternwheeler Tanana Chief in the fall but not the winter or spring. You can also enjoy a nice dog sled ride with Sirius Sled Dogs in the winter but are limited to a cart ride in the fall (still a ton of fun). You'll want to check up on each of the following activities for specific information and seasons.
Hang out with Reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch
Learn about Alaskan history, technology and culture at the amazing Museum of the North
See amazing vintage Autos and Clothing at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
Visit Santa and Crew in North Pole Alaska at the famous Santa Claus House
Take a trip to the Pipeline Viewing Areato touch the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
If here in Late Feb- March don't miss the World Ice Art Championships
I'm traveling through Anchorage, can you recommend things to do there?
If you are venturing through Anchorage either before or after your trip we suggest starting your journey with Planet Earth Adventures as they offer guided tours for most of the things we like to do while down in that part of the state. We also work with Salmon Berry Tours and love what they offer.
Aside from the tours we really like to spend time at the Alaska Zoo, Earthquake Park cycling or skiing the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Most of all, come with a sense of adventure, some patience and an eagerness to witness the magic of Alaska and you won't go wrong.
We hope to meet you out on one of our trips.
Cheers from The Aurora Chasers,
Ronn & Marketa