I believe I may have found one of the cheapest place in the world for me to witness a once in a life time phenomenal, the Northern Light (Aurora Borealis). People always mentioned places like Canada, Iceland, or Finland but those places are expensive to travel to and so I decided to write this article to suggest a country, often overlooked, for you to see the northern light on a budget, Murmansk, Russia.
When To Go
In order to see the northern light, there are two prerequisites that need to be met. First, you have to be there in winter and secondly, you will need a clear dark. Winter in Russia is from November to February.
If you choose to go in November, the weather can be quite unpredictable but the weather is still above 0°C. If you choose to go in February, the weather can be freezing cold, but it is a little bit drier and less clouds.
Personally, I went during November and even though it rained on my in other parts of Russia, when I was in Murmansk, the rain stopped and there was a break in the clouds late at night so I was able to see the northern light on my first day hunting it. It is actually more common than most people make it to be in the Arctic Circle.
Russian Visa policy varied country to country so this trip might be more expensive to some. For the citizens of countries listed here: Visa Policy in Russia, we are good to go. If your country is not listed, you will have to pay around 100 USD - 200 USD for the application fees.
For the citizens of western countries who hold privileged passports, this may seems like a hassle but it is not too bad. You just have to plan ahead of time and prepare the correct documentation for the embassy and apply before you depart. Consider the amount you save for going to Russia instead of Finland or Iceland.
Murmansk - Economy Hotel Vector - 14 USD/Night
This will varied from person to person because of the strict visa policy by Russia but for citizens from some Asian countries or citizens from South America, we don't need to visa for Russia (Hurray for once!). Here's a breakdown of my budget:
- Domestic Flight: Moscow - Murmansk (1 hour): 35 USD
- Accommodation: Economy Hotel Vector: 14 USD / Night / Dorm Bed
- Northern Light Hunting Tour | Facebook: 45 USD / 3 - 4 hours trip
Total I spent: 108 USD (2 nights)
Things To Prepare
- Camera gears: You will need a tripod and a camera that has manual mode capabilities. You also need to learn a little bit about ISO and shutter speed before you go.
- Tours: You will need to book a Northern light tour to transport you into the wilderness away from city lights. I went with Visit Murmansk Tour Agency (Facebook). You can just go to their offices in Murmansk and book the tour there the day before. It's probably cheaper than booking before you arrive.
- Warm Clothes: Winter Russia is not joke especially in the Arctic Circles so prepare layers. While northern light hunting, you will be out in the cold for hours taking photos so prepare accordingly. Anything wool (socks, gloves, scarf etc.) are good for the cold.
Camera Settings Tutorial
I can write an entire blog post about this but for now, I will give you the settings that worked for me when I was in Murmansk. What you need are a tripod and a camera with manual mode with a lens capable of an aperture f4 or less.
Set to manual mode and set up your camera on a tripod. Set your focus to manual and focus to infinity. Set your aperture (the f value) to the lowest your camera can do. Set your shutter speed to 6 - 13 seconds. Set your ISO between 1600 - 3200. Voila! Try and experiment with these values to see which one fits your environment most.
Shoot timelapse (series of photos) for this and convert to a video in post processing. You can use similar settings as above or try something with less ISO (less noise) and higher shutter speed (to compensate for the lowered ISO) and then shoot the timelapse in an interval of a second more than the shutter speed. For example. if your shutter speed is 8 seconds, try the shooting interval of 9 seconds.
The Northern Light Hunting Tour
I know what you are thinking, but this is not exactly like a regular tour. It's more of a transportation with the guide watching out for signs of the northern light than explaining history and telling stories. Once you find the northern light, you have the freedom to do whatever you want with the northern lights at your own leisure. We were out there for 4 hours and I was able to capture many photos and a timelapse so I am quite happy with the tour.
Other Things to Do in Murmansk
Visit the first ever atomic powered ice breaker at the port of Murmansk. It was decommissioned and turned into a museum for tourists to visit.
Walk up the Alyosha Monument to get a nice sunset view of the city. Be careful, as the most of the path can be covered with wet snows and if you don't want to show your unintentional break dance move, then please walk carefully.
You can also do the northern light tour I recommended for every nights you are in Murmansk to maximize your chance. Even if you saw it already the first time, you might be able to see it with a better sky and scenery the next time.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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