What to do in Abisko, Sweden When You Don’t See the Northern Lights
Let's talk about the Northern Lights: probably one of the top bucket list items of any adventurer. People travel long distances to catch a glimpse of these notorious green lights and I was definitely one of them. My friends and I meticulously planned our vacay for one of the highest-rated Northern Lights destinations: Abisko, Sweden, located in the far north end of Sweden near the Arctic Circle, in an area known as Swedish Lapland. Everything I read said that if you spend at least three nights in Abisko, you have an 88% chance of spotting the lights. The town lies in a valley surrounded by mountains which often block the cloud cover, giving it the benefit of clear skies for the majority of the year. 88%? I liked those odds, especially when other common travel destinations for the Aurora Borealis include islands like Iceland or peninsulas like Tromso, Norway, where the proximity to the ocean could dramatically affect the weather.
But what do you do if you travel halfway across the world, cross into the Arctic Circle and the weather doesn’t cooperate? Welcome to my life. Much like the trip my friends and I took to the Cayman Islands during a tropical storm, our trip to Abisko occurred at the same time as an arctic storm. With 70 mph wind gusts and heavy sleet, all that planning and traveling left us stuck with cloud cover the ENTIRE time.
Thankfully, even if you end up in Abisko and don't see the Northern Lights, there are still PLENTY of activities to make your trip worthwhile. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog-sledding are common excursions. You can also take a day trip to Narvik, Norway, a fjord town a few hours away (book with any of the popular tour operators in Abisko). We had this tour reserved but it was cancelled due to possible avalanches obstructing the highways from the rough weather: #LaplandLife. Obviously things didn’t go exactly as as we had planned or hoped on this vacation. However, cancelled tours and extreme storms were only the beginning of our crazy trip to Abisko.
What I Learned About Traveling to Abisko, Sweden
Our trip to Abisko was nothing short of an adventure, including the time we spent getting there. There are two ways to travel to the Northern town from the capital city of Stockholm: either an 18 hour train (definitely more affordable and budget-friendly) which will drop you off directly in either the town of Abikso or in front of the Abisko Turiststation (our lodging for our stay), or you can fly from Stockholm to the nearby town of Kiruna, then pay for a bus transfer from Kiruna to Abisko. We took both ways of transportation on our trip and I cannot stress enough: pick the flight option no matter what.
We decided to save money by taking the overnight train from Stockholm to Abisko. Leaving Stockholm at 6pm, the train was set to arrive at the Abisko Turiststation at around 11am. Perfect! We had an ice climbing lesson booked at 1:30pm, giving us plenty of leeway for a late train or to allow ourselves to leisurely check into our hostel. We encountered quite a few delays on the train and ended up sitting at a few of the stops, sometimes for up to 30 minutes. We weren’t too concerned though, we were on vacay and being stuck on a train was better than worrying about the normal day-to-day stress of our lives.
At around 9am the conductor announced they’d be taking the dining car off the train since we were nearing our destination. Then about half an hour later, the train stopped…in the middle of nowhere. The electricity had gone off on the tracks, and we were stuck waiting for it to be fixed. We sat there for hours, everyone anxiously wanting to get moving again, staring out the window at the barren arctic tundra. When we finally felt the train lurch forward, we were so relieved, but a few minutes later the train stopped again for the exact same electricity issue. After all these delays, our 18 hour train ride turned into a 24 hour train ride, without food or water available to purchase for eight of those hours. We started conversing with others stuck on the train, sharing food and stories. Others kept themselves occupied by blasting music and having a dance party.. However, I can definitely say that everyone just wanted to be off that damn train. As we FINALLY made it to nearby Kiruna at 5pm we were forced to deboard and wait 30 minutes for another train to take us to our final destination. As we finally arrived to check in at the Turiststation, we came to learn that these train problems were not at all uncommon. We were forced to cancel our ice climbing plans for that afternoon (without any sort of refund) and at that point were so exhausted we just wanted to eat dinner and go to sleep.
HOWEVER, we thankfully chose the flight option to get back to Stockholm. Our bus transfer was direct to the Kiruna airport, the flight was quick and smooth and everything about it was wonderfully simple and ON TIME. There was not a single issue with this part of our trip, thank God! So the moral of the story: splurge the money for airfare if you plan to visit Abisko.
What I Learned About Searching for the Northern Lights
Not only did I learn that there are no guarantees when searching for the lights, I also received a crash course in weather patterns and forecasts for when you're trying the get the best experience possible.
First and foremost is the KP Index. This is the official "Northern Lights forecast" which ranges from 0-9. A lot of people take this forecast VERY SERIOUSLY. At night in Abisko, you’ll probably notice people checking their phones and quickly running outside at a moments notice. With all the apps available, it’s easy to keep a constant eye on the KP Index. Some apps will even alert you with an alarm to go check the skies. The higher numbers of the KP Index don’t actually mean that an aura display will be stronger…it more closely relates to the latitude of the Earth. KP 2 or 3 means that if you’re near the Arctic Circle, the lights will likely be present. As the numbers get higher, that means you have the opportunity to see the lights further and further south. Many of the gorgeous photos taken in Abisko occur when the forecast in 2, so don’t be stressed if you see there’s a low index number for the duration of your trip.
Another important weather forecast to keep watch on is the cloud cover. In the sky are high clouds, mid clouds and low clouds and you can find weather apps that track the hourly cloud cover at each of these levels. Clouds in the Arctic can dissipate and reappear at a moment’s notice. There may be patches of clear sky for only a couple minutes even if the low cloud cover is at 100%. Keep watch on the mid and high cloud cover, especially if the forecast is for 40% or less. At those points, there’s a better chance the clouds may sporadically part, giving you a great peek at the lights, if only for a short time.
Stay at the Abisko Turiststation
My friends and I could not have been happier with our decision to spend our vacation at the Abisko Turiststation. This hotel and hostel is its own little community with a general store, gear rentals (snowshoes, cold-weather clothes, etc) and multiple saunas for guests to warm up from the arctic conditions outside. The decor is the epitome of hygge: the Swedish philosophy of interior decorating with the goal of comfort and warmth. There are cute little alcoves throughout the main building to cuddle up with a good book from the library, play chess in the evening with a friend or just sit and relax. The restaurant is one of the best in the area, serving up amazing breakfast and lunch buffets and three course dinners daily. The dinner, though pricy, felt like we were being treated to a high-end restaurant meal every night as we tried reindeer, wild boar, and all types of local fish.
Hike Abisko National Park
Abisko is home to the northern-most national park in Sweden, which sits on Lake Tornestrask and is home to the gorgeous Abisko Canyon. This park is the perfect FREE way to spend your day before heading out to hunt for the Northern lights at night. With multiple hiking trails, two of the more scenic ones can be completed in an afternoon.
Test Your Strength While Ice Climbing
Over the years, ice climbing has become one of my favorite outdoor activities, especially as a way to escape the boredom of long Chicago winters. I have ice climbed in the past in Wisconsin and couldn’t wait to attempt it in a foreign country. Ice climbing is not only a test of your physical strength, but it’s also a bit of a mental challenge. If you’ve ever been rock climbing, you understand the brainpower it takes to think ahead to your next foot placement in order to make sure that you keep moving onward and upward. Both ice climbing and rock climbing are great workouts without realizing that you’re really exercising. That’s my kind of workout! The difference with ice climbing is that you’re using pickaxes and crampons (spikes) on your boots to help make your way up what is usually a frozen waterfall. You’ll definitely feel pretty BADASS as you make your way up and it’s an awesome activity that anyone can try without any prior experience. Our ice climbing trip took us into the Abisko Canyon in Abisko National Park, as we hiked up a large waterfall over a rushing patch of water from the frozen river below.
Take a Day Trip to the Ice Hotel
If you’re looking for a day trip while traveling in Abisko, THIS IS THE PLACE TO BE. The Sweden Ice Hotel has been on my radar (and my bucket list) for years and I finally had the chance to see it in all its glory. Quite a few Ice Hotels have popped up throughout the Northern Hemisphere but this one is the original and arguably the most impressive. Rebuilt from scratch every winter with snow and ice from the nearby Torne River, a tour through the artist-created bedrooms and the Ice Church is truly an other-worldly experience. I can promise that your jaw is going to be on the floor most of the time. Plus you can finish the day with a drink in an ice glass at the famous Ice Bar!
Learn About Native Sami Life
Just a fifteen minute walk down the street from the Ice Hotel is the Sami Village. Here you can learn the traditional lifestyle of the Sami people living in the Northern part of Sweden, as well as in Northern Finland, Norway and Russia. Often fur-trappers or fisherman, this village helps you to understand their day to day life and taste their traditional food for lunch. The best part about this experience? The reindeer! The majority of Sami people make their living in reindeer herding, and in many Nordic countries the practice is only legally reserved for them. Visiting the village allows you to get up close and personal with these animals. You can even ride in a traditional reindeer-led sleigh! I spent my time at the village hanging out in the reindeer pasture. While each had completely personalities, one in particular was super sweet and was great seriously the perfect model for the camera!
Practice Your Night Photography Skills
Even if you don’t see the Northern Lights, you can still get some really cool nighttime shots in Abisko. The best part about being in an area with such a small population is the lack of light pollution, especially if you’re staying at the Abisko Turiststation. Since it’s located in a National Park, you only have to go a couple hundred feet away from the hostel to be able to shoot in almost complete darkness.. I personally shoot on an Olympus OMD-EM5 Mark II with the 12-40mm PRO lens which goes down to a 2.8 f-Stop. Ideally for the best shots you’ll want a camera lens a that goes down to around 2.8. I then set my ISO to 1600 and from there play around with the shutter speed to find the best balance for my photos. Whether it’s 15 seconds or 30 seconds, you’ll be allowing varying amount of light onto the lens to give you dramatically different looks. Plus who knows! Maybe while you’re practicing at night the Northern Lights will appear and you’ll be fully prepared to capture the perfect image :)
Despite all the bad luck, unexpected obstacles and cancellations we had throughout our trip, Abisko was still such a cool town to check out. There are countless activities to keep you busy, even if Mother Nature decides to throw a fast one on you. Plus, I can now say I’ve been to the Arctic Circle which I think is pretty darn cool.