We typically end our trips with a blog post. This trip was in Dec 2018 and we didn’t want it to ‘end’. But alas, all good things do. So here it is, sharing our experience how we caught the Aurora Borealis with the kids who were then 10 and 4 years old respectively.
*Lapland is Finland’s northernmost region, a sparsely populated area bordering Sweden, Norway, Russia and the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its vast subarctic wilderness, ski resorts and natural phenomena including the midnight sun and the Northern Lights. Capital Rovaniemi is the gateway to the Lapland region.
Aurora Borealis with Kids?
Yes it’s possible! We did it Free and Easy with both kids, in -29C, basking under the glorious Aurora Borealis…with Santa Claus thrown in! Here’s how we did it back in December 2018.
Catching the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) is perhaps one of the most unforgettable experiences one can ever experience on their travels. No wonder it is on most travellers’ ‘bucket list’.
Before we go any further, it is important to understand that the Aurora Borealis is a phenomenon that happens virtually every night over the wintry skies of countries in the Northern hemisphere during the Winter season. It is just a matter of which part of the night it happens, at which part of the sky and is your view covered by clouds when it happens.
We often hear of travellers who have joined packaged tours but miss out on seeing the Northern Lights. We chose to do it DIY so that we can stay 4 nights in Finnish Lapland to hedge our chances to witness the Northern Lights.
Getting a Local Guide:
Getting an experienced local guide who helps you to plan is key. An experienced guide will have the skill and intuition to predict when the Northern Lights will take place and also plan appropriate activities for the family.
We engaged Gareth, a very experienced and friendly local guide in Finland to plan our DIY trip, down to the last detail of where to stay, what to buy and how to keep the kids warm and happy in the extreme weather.
Gareth and his lovely wife Elina are currently taking a hiatus from tour-leading for family reasons. We hope the insights and tips we share here will help you to plan your family’s DIY tour to chase the Northern Lights. Here are what other travellers have said about Gareth’s tours on Trip Advisor.
It is important to remember is that this is done during a very chillingly cold winter, out in the Finnish Lapland where the highest temperature is only 1C while the nights drop to as low as around -29C. Yes, It is very COLD. The days are short too, with the evening twilight occurring around 4pm. By 5pm, it would be very dark.
How you suit up is will therefore make or break the trip. Virtually, every activity will be done out in the wintry Finnish weather. Even for a family like ours who have been to Hokkaido many times for skiing, nothing quite beat a Finnish winter!
As such, it is important to dress suitably from top to bottom. Merely piling on the layers may not be the right strategy but rather, getting the right materials to wear would be ideal. This includes socks, gloves and shoes. We were very fortunate that our guide Gareth had extra winter overalls stocked up for us. In fact, he asked us for size and prepped these for us ahead of our trip!
How to Dress Kids for Winter:
Bearing in mind most of the activities are outdoors where the average temperature can be about -10C or -12C. On the night where we caught the Northern Lights, it was about -29C and we were camping out on a frozen lake, in the Lapland. Prepare your winter clothing seriously. For tips on dressing your kids (and yourself) for winter, read our post here.
Getting there – The Santa Claus Express Train:
We took the Santa Claus Express from Helsinki. It’s a novelty to be able to hop on the Santa Claus Express Train to see Santa himself. But do note that the novelty stops at pretty much at the big sign on the train. Nothing else inside really leverages on the Santa experience. In fact, be prepared for the standard cabin to be tiny room with a common shared toilet at the end of the rail carriage. This night train too also doesn’t allow us to see any of the stunning mountainside scenery that Finland is known for. But it’s a novel experience for the kids to experience an overnight train ride.
Nonetheless, it was memorable for the kids to be huddled up with Mommy and Daddy in a rail cabin on our first overnight train together chugging to see Santa.
- Pack a small cabin bag with the essentials so that you don’t need to rummage through the large luggage whilst on the train. There is not enough space to open up all the luggage.
- We stayed at the Holiday Inn Helsinki City Center whilst in Helsinki. It is right next to the train station and so conveniently located to virtually everywhere in the city. We could walk to see the Christmas lights and the Christmas market. Perfect!
First ‘Port of Call’ – Rovaniemi:
Rovaniemi, is the Capital of Lapland. The gateway to the northernmost part of Finland. The small but busy town is a good introduction to the Arctic Circle and offers good local hotels and grocery stores to stock up for home-cooked meals if you’re staying in one of the many comfy and clean Scandinavian AirBnbs. It is also the ‘gateway’ to the Lapland, the ‘hunting ground’ for the Northern Lights.
- The McDonald’s at Rovaniemi is purportedly the ‘most northern’ McDonald’s in the world. Alas, we were too hungry to take a shot there!
- We stayed at the Arctic Light Hotel, a chic boutique hotel in Rovaniemi with conveniences nearby.
Activities in Lapland:
Aside from hunting for the Northern Lights, here are the other family-friendly activities we did. Note that most of these activities are done in the morning, right after breakfast and will stretch into afternoon. We maximized the day light as the sky will be totally dark by 4:30pm during winter.
1. Santa Claus Village:
There is only one official Santa Claus Village and one official Santa Claus in the world, apparently, and here is where you find him!
Santa Claus Village is a short drive from Rovaniemi. Step into the Santa Claus Village and you will be officially inside the Arctic Circle. Here are some activities to do in the Village:
- Visit Santa in Santa’s Workshop : Yes the only official Santa in the world. Inside you can take a photo with Santa and buy the photo for a fee.
- Take a Reindeer Ride: Cuddle up with the kids in Santa’s sleigh for a 1km ride around the forest of Santa’s village drawn by Santa’s reindeer. Very enjoyable, definitely not to be missed!
- Send a Postcard: Go to Santa’s Post Office and send a postcard back to yourselves and to your loved ones complete with the stamp from the Arctic Circle! Lovely memento and keepsake.
- Play with Snow: There’s a free playground with tons of snow. Grab a sledge and join in. Kids will love this.
- Take tons of Photos. This goes without saying! Have your spare battery-packs ready.
- Ask your guide to pre-book or purchase the tickets before hand where possible to save time.
- Be prepared to queue in peak season, especially during lunch hour.
- Refrain from taking screen-shots of your family photos with Santa from the shop’s monitor screen. The staff will not be pleased.
2. Snowmobiling through the Lapland:
This is an amazing experience. 20km to and fro in the Lapland with the snowmobile guide leading the way. You don’t need a license as long as you are comfortable in operating a snowmobile. Kids get to sit safely and comfortably with the guide.
The terrain is relatively flat but it is still outdoors so do expect some bumps and slopes. Midway, we stopped for a cup of home-brewed Finnish tea prepared over a warm crackling fire. Surreal!
- Be suitably prepared. The tour company will loan you the winter overalls with thick boots. Go for it! It is necessary!
- If you are uncomfortable operating the snowmobile, let the guide know and make the necessary arrangements to ride in tandem with another experienced rider.
- It’s safe for young kids to come along but it’s very cold. Wear a balaclava to protect their noses and ears.
3. Stay in a Glass Igloo Hotel:
It’s not everyday that one gets to spend a night in the Finnish Lapland with the night sky (and perhaps even the Northern Lights) overhead. So if you are able to, book a night at a glass igloo and it can become one of the highlights of your trip.
We saved up to spend a night at a Levin Iglut Hotel (https://leviniglut.net/). The hotel has a cluster of glass igloos that are detached from the hotel’s main reception lobby. Our igloo has the usual trappings of a luxury hotel as far as furnishings are concerned but the view – being able to sleep under the snow covered trees of the Lapland, was exceptional.
Privacy is maintained through a half-height curtain that once drawn will reveal only the top part of the glass igloo. The glass igloo came with a tiny kitchenette for preparing simple meals and drinks.
- The igloo is detached from the main hotel building, going to the hotel lobby would require donning many layers of winter clothing and putting on your snow boots. It can be cumbersome so best to consolidate all your needful requests instead of making multiple trips to the lobby.
- The hotel bathroom and toilets are quite tiny. The water tank and pump to the bathroom are decentralized so the usage of hot water is rationed (I.e. every guest is encouraged to limit hot shower sessions to 20 minutes). Exceed that and the next person will have lesser time for a hot shower. Not fun in wintry Finland.
4. Husky sleigh ride through the Lapland:
Imagine 9 strong Alaskan huskies pulling your sleigh with Daddy driving it and Mommy plus kids all huddled into the sleigh. While this experience sounds novel and exciting (it was!), you need to be mentally prepared this is not your usual merry-go-round ride. This 10 km husky sleigh ride through the Lapland can be quite ‘punishing’ on driver’s hands and feet. The kids may also be startled by the constant yapping of the excitable husky dogs (that’s how they communicate). But all being said, it is safe and an experience of a lifetime. There are guides around should you be stranded but it does need someone who is fit and with steady and strong limbs to drive the sleigh with the whole family plus 9 yapping and strong husky dogs dashing through the snow.
The ride culminated in a visit to the husky dogs’ homes and you get to ‘warm up’ over, yes, home brewed Finnish coffee sitting in a tent warmed by crackling fire.
- Suit up suitably. Wear the overalls and boots offered or rent them. This includes the extra gloves. This is THE MOST freezing activity we experienced during this trip.
- The driver of the sleigh needs to be fit and strong.
- Be prepared to commandeer 9 extremely strong and excitable husky dogs through the wilderness, for 10km! You need to be comfy with dogs.
- Children need to be comfortable around constant barking, yapping dogs.
- These Huskies are Alaskan Huskies that are trained to pull sleigh in the Lapland. They are different from the friendly Arctic Huskies we are accustomed to seeing here in Singapore.
5. Trekking through the Lapland:
One of the unique experiences Gareth arranged for us was to trek through part of the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park along with his dogs. We trekked from late morning and stopped at a shed for an authentic Finnish campfire BBQ, hot brewed coffee and tea and some delectable smores – melted marshmellow sandwiched between two wafers biscuits!
The experience was truly exceptional. Not only did we get to slow down and enjoy the great (white) Finnish Lapland in its glory, the kids got to play in all-white scenery like something out from Narnia!
Our camp-fire lunch which Gareth prepared was perhaps one of the most yummy meals we had. We had hot BBQ sausages, smores, wood-brewed coffee and tea from the Finnish ‘Kuksa’. Simply exquisite. Simply unforgettable.
6. Traditional Ice-fishing on a Frozen Lake:
This was tiring but another unique experience you don’t get anywhere else. Not just because of the traditional method of using an auger (giant handheld cockscrews) in almost complete darkness, neither is it because we were on a huge frozen lake and certainly not because we didn’t catch anything after about 2 hours(!!). It was mainly because we discovered that the thickness of the ice is about the entire length of David’s arm from finger to shoulder!
After almost an hour of drilling using the auger, we have not even drilled through the thick ice. In order to find out if we have reached the water to start the fishing, we had to put our hand down into the hole we drilled. So imagine our surprise when we discovered how thick the ice on the lake was!
Our guide, Gareth love ice-fishing and was tempting us to sit there through the night to try our luck. There were lots of drilling, laughing in virtually complete darkness. Recommended if you really have some time to drill, I mean kill.
7. Ski and Snowboarding at Levi:
Levi is a ski town near Rovaniemi. The ski slope (https://levi.fi/en/ski) is Lapland’s most popular ski slope. The kids had a short lesson in skiing (Buddy) and snowboarding (Dana) towards the end of the day.
We felt that the ice condition there is not as pristine as the Hokkaido’s famous ‘powder’ snow and can be quite hard. It may be better for more experienced skiiers.
Other than that, it has the services and amenities of a big ski slope. Try it if you have some time to spare and is an experienced skier hoping to put another ski slope in your cap.
8. Finally! Catching the Northern Lights:
“Tonight is the night. I’ll pick you guys at 8pm.”
Gareth muttered these words as he saw the temperature plummet from -12C to -19C after consulting his apps. You see, the clouds have parted, releasing the heat from the ground and sending the chill in. With a cloudless sky, catching the Aurora Borealis becomes a possible reality!
Gareth arrived at 8 pm punctually and we were very hopeful. After about a 20 minute drive in pitch darkness, we stopped beside a frozen lake and positioned ourselves ON the frozen lake.
Gareth laid many thick layers of bear-skin rug for the kids to get warm and comfy along with thermos of hot chocolate while David started to set up his tripod. Once ready, it didn’t take too long. In fact, we didn’t even know we were looking at the Northern Lights until David asked if those were clouds moving?
Gareth confirmed that those vertical moving clouds are indeed the Northern Lights forming. Moving in an ethereal manner, we saw the Northern light’s intensity rise from faint blue to green. The sensitivity of David’s DSLR sensor could capture the luminosity of the Northern Lights better.
As its intensity grew, we saw the lights dancing very slowly around the sky surrounded by a sea of brilliant stars. There was no sound except for our bated breaths plus our DSLRs clicking away.
Needless to say, it was an awe inspiring sight to be able to see nature’s rare wonders right before our eyes. Better still, sharing this moment with our kids. After about 1.5 hours, the intensity dipped, we packed up and left (the hot chocolate was finished too!). This was on our 3rd night in Lapland. We tried to catch the lights again on the 4th night but we didn’t get to the spot in time before the lights left for Norway. In any case, we were very satisfied we were able to witness the Aurora Borealis at least once.
‘Kiitos’ (Thank you):
Our DIY trip to Finland to catch the Northern Lights has achieved our aim of experiencing Finnish Lapland. We are extremely thankful, that with a well-experienced guide and early planning, we were able to collect these supremely memories safely and happily as a family.
Finland is so unique. With its great outdoors, natural wonders and wonderful people, we still feel that there’s so much yet to be done. We hope to return. ‘Kiitos’ (Thank you) to Gareth and Elena for the wonderful experience that was just beyond words. We hope our paths will cross again to experience yet another adventure by design.
“Happiness is the place between too much and too little.”
DIY Finland with kids – Helsinki and Tallinn (Estonia)
Stay tuned for our next blog post on our DIY Itinerary to Helsinki, Finland and Tallinn, Estonia!