Camping beneath Polar Lights

My tent at Njunesgeahči mountain, Abisko National Park, Sweden

The title picture of this post is already amongst the most popular photos I've ever taken – or even the most popular one... but first and foremost, it shows probably the most impressive experience I've ever had – staying in a tent on a mountain in the Swedish wilderness of Abisko National Park while the sky above was filled with polar lights. Of course, this experience is not comprised just of the moment of being there, but to a large part of the whole journey of getting there.

So how did I actually get there? You may have seen that I posted some images of polar lights last year already. This was in fact my second winter tour to Abisko. The aurora borealis is a fascination and a miracle to many people, especially to many landscape photographers. I did the first tour to see and photograph this phenomenon one year earlier together with my sister. It was our first time seeing (and photographing) polar lights and it was an amazing experience, but as with anything that you do for the first time, my pictures turned out not as great as I had hoped for and the hiking experience was also not quite optimal since it was the first time that we did such a winter camping trip in general.

Abiskojaure, 2015/2016

But we were absolutely hooked! So I wanted to go again as soon as possible and improve on all those things that didn´t quite go perfectly the last time. Unfortunately, this year my sister could not join me because I was at sea during the time that she would have been free (see my last blog post). So I went alone. I cannot recommend doing tours like that alone: if I had had any accident during the trip, there would have been nobody to help me; but, on the other side, I also really like the experience of being out in nature just by myself and that's also part of what made this trip so special to me.

After visiting a friend in Lulea, I took the train to Abisko and started hiking off into the national park right away. The first day of a hiking tour is always horrible. The shoulders aren't used to the weight of the backpack anymore (and my camera equipment adds quite a bit to the already heavy winter backpack), the feet start hurting and I always begin to ask myself why I am doing such things to myself and how I could design my holidays to be so much more relaxed. And this was a particularly bad first day! It was grey and snowing all the time, and, because I was using my snow shoes in actual snow for the first time, I kept tripping and falling over... it was very frustrating. I didn't want to do the tour anymore, but I had no choice but to go on. So, after crossing the lake that, as I saw later, was not actually entirely frozen (from what I heard the first time in over 100 years), I stayed the night in the hut at the Abiskojaure lake that is kept open for quite cheap accommodation fees during winter. And that night brought me back on track immediately as soon as I stepped out of the door and saw the sky glowing green of polar lights. That view just swept away the frustration over the exhausting hike of the day: that´s what I was doing that to myself for.

The next day I hiked towards the Southeast, up the pass at Mount Giron. Along the way I saw several Ptarmigans, but always just in the moment that they flew away from me. These buggers are just camouflaged too well with their white winter plumage in the snow. That should happen throughout the trip, so I was really questioning my decision to carry the heavy telephoto lens with me if I wouldnt get to take any photos with it. But the landscape offers plenty of nice views and I enjoyed finally being able to go off-track with the snow shoes. The year before we didn't have any, so we could only walk on the tracks of snow scooters and dog sleds. I set up my tent on the pass and checked out the surroundings, where I would have the best foregrounds for pictures of polar lights at night. But that night the weather wouldn't cooperate: it became stormy and didn´t stop snowing, I couldn't even set up my stove for cooking outside of the tent, so I spent a long (but still cozy) night inside my sleeping bag.

My tent at Mount Giron P

Inside my tent - it´s small, but it fits me and my backpack well.

In the morning, I shook the snow off the tent and started to go back down. I had planned out a round trip on the map that started with going up the mountain to the West… Once I saw that mountain in real life, I thought I would not be able to do that. But I started the ascend anyways - if I couldn't do it anymore, I could always just go back down. And I was surprised by how enjoyable going up a mountain in the snow could actually be!

Panorama of an aurora arching the sky at Njunesgeahči mountain

And then that moment: crossing the tree line onto the open mountain slope with nothing to obstruct the view into the valley. It was gorgeous! A bit further up I set up my tent again and, as soon as it was dark, the magic happened. Being on that mountain all by myself with nothing but my tent, my camera, and a night sky with polar lights above a gorgeous landscape. Green swirls drifting across the sky, enormous curtains of light spanning the horizon and a full moon lighting the snow-covered landscape. The next day I had the same wonderful experience, but this time on the very top of the mountain, which allowed for seeing the valley on the other side. The way up there was challenging, there were no markings for the path, and low hanging clouds/mist limited visibility strongly for a while. But that made for another magical moment when I came out above the mist, seeing how it was slowly flowing down from the mountain to fill the valley in the evening.

Mist slowly filling the valley at sunset.

Swirling polar lights at night.

The other side of Njunesgeahči mountain

And as I descended the other side of the mountain towards the second hut in the area (steep slopes of snow do not go well with big people and heavy backpacks, by the way), carrying that telephoto lens all the way finally paid off. As I took a little break near a small group of rocks, I discovered a group of raindeers in the distance. So I got out the tele and shot away, when I suddenly discovered something much closer by: a ptarmigan was trying to hide and stealth its way away through the rocks nearby instead of flying away. I was thrilled – finally I got that photo I had wanted. I am just so fascinated by the camouflage of these birds: in winter, they are entirely white, which makes them close to invisible in the snow, while in summer their plumage turns grey/brown for an evenly good camouflage in the mountain landscape.

On the top of Njunesgeahči mountain

A herd of reindeers marching up the mountain.

Perfectly camouflaged Rock Ptarmigan.

The last hike from that hut back to the village of Abisko was – although the longest of the tour – a piece of cake. I just walked down through the valley and set up my tent in the national park close to the village for the last night. And that night turned out to have the strongest polar lights I had ever seen. The sky was entirely filled with bright green lights with red, yellow, and pink edges. These auroral displays where so strong they were too fast to properly photograph. Even at “just” 0.5s exposure (usually for this kind of images you need at least several seconds, up to half a minute), the lights got blurred by their motion. The foreground also wasn´t ideal, so that night didn´t make for the greatest pictures but certainly for another strong impression. And that was it, what a tour!

Extremely strong auroral display above the village of Abisko.

You´re probably thinking now: this guy is exaggerating, sounds like a cool experience, but it all couldn't have been that amazing, right? But yes, it was – pretty much. Undoubtedly, the tour was challenging, I was carrying a lot of equipment through the snow, it was cold, and especially in the beginning it took me some getting used to the conditions. But I was extremely lucky with the weather and the auroral activity. Except for one night, I had clear skies throughout and in every single one of those nights, I saw polar lights. Some just faint glows slowly moving across the sky, but many also very strong dancing amongst the stars – an amazing view!

A few more words, though, on the actual practicalities of winter camping. When I talk about camping in the snow at -15°C (and less in the year before), many people get all shocked and can't imagine how anybody could do something like that. For most people, camping is something to do in summer only when it's warm and easy. But sleeping in a tent in winter is really not that big of a deal and definitely not as uncomfortable as you would imagine if you are prepared properly. Of course, you can't just take your standard sleeping bag and tent and go out on a trip to the Swedish Arctic. You need a sleeping bag rated for the temperatures, a proper tent (doesn't have to be super fancy, though), snow pegs to secure the tent and good clothing (I love Merino wool for that!). For me, the biggest flaw in the equipment for my first tour were the snow shoes that I didn't have. If you have more than 20-30cm of snow, forget about going without snow shoes or skies: it's just not possible for more than a hundred meters with a big backpack. But having them now added an extra element of adventure to the tour. It's just so much fun to step across the snow, going off the track and up the mountain. In general, the cold climate is much less of an issue than you would imagine, and with a warm sleeping back it is actually quite cozy at night. The one horrible thing though are the mornings: getting out of the warmth of the sleeping back into the cold tent and putting on those entirely frozen hiking boots. However, once that's over, everything is fine again, and you are looking at the amazing landscape with a hot coffee in hand at breakfast.

So what is to take away from this?

  1. Polar lights are absolutely addictive and everybody should go and see them.
  2. Winter hiking and camping is challenging but also incredibly rewarding.
  3. Frostbites are annoying but they go away after a while.
  4. I am crazy.

So, I will definitely go up North to see and photograph the aurora borealis again. I hope you enjoy these pictures and maybe get inspired to get out yourself and also see some polar lights.