winter in fairbanks is perfect for the aurora

What it’s like to watch the Northern Lights at -27F in Alaska

A couple of weeks ago, I headed up to Fairbanks, Alaska, and even trekked further north into the small town of Wiseman inside the Arctic Circle to witness the northern lights. For the entire trip, the highs never passed zero, and the lows were -25F or worse.

Wiseman, 63 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is nearly entirely off the grid and has a year-round population of nine. Yes, you read that correctly. Nine whole people live there year-round. (They’re easily outnumbered by sled dogs.)

Here, I stayed at the ​Arctic Hive​, a Yoga, Hiking, and Aurora Hunting gem that borders the Gates of the Arctic National Park. It’s run by Mollie and Sean, who built their seven-building retreat by hand and have offered a way to connect intimately with nature. Yes, they even carried the supplies on their backs and built their retreat on their own.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Why Fairbanks and Wiseman?

Both Fairbanks and Wiseman offer some of the best chances to see the northern lights in the world as they are under the aurora oval. This means that even with a low-level storm (or no storm at all), you still have a great chance to see the northern lights.

They say that if you visit Fairbanks for three nights and chase the lights, you have a 90% chance of seeing them! I chased them four nights and saw them three times. (The other night was cloudy.)

So what is it like to see the northern lights in negative temps?

Very amazing and very frigid. My toes were almost always cold, and my fingers burned within 20 seconds of being out of my gloves.

Now, some of that was a personal error. I did a less-than-ideal job preparing as I brought my waterproof hiking boots, but I quickly learned that those were not insulated, and my toes got cold fast. By my third night chasing the aurora, I had double socks and foot warmers on both the top and bottom. This change made life so much more bearable.

If you plan to really be out there for long stretches, you need ​insulated winter boots​. As for my hands, they did an okay job. It is hard when you need to be able to control your camera, as you’re either taking it out of the glove or needing a globe that is more flexible and less warm.

I honestly don’t think there’s a good way to do photography in negative anything and be “warm.”

Otherwise, my body itself was great. Depending on the night, I had three, four, or five layers, along with a beanie and facemask. If only I had better boots, I would have been content!

Screengrab of a video of me. I wore a shirt around my face because my face mask was wet.

Gear I recommend

What Did it feel like to see a Corona?

A corona is when the northern lights explode directly above you. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, but I did not do an excellent job capturing it because it was everywhere, and I couldn’t decide what to do. Furthermore, any photographer knows that shooting directly above with a tripod is not easy or natural.

Planning a trip to Alaska? Check out all of my articles.

But from a non-photo mindset, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. The entire sky was illuminated with dancing lights, and I was in utter shock.

I think I yelled, “Oh my God, oh my God,” for five straight minutes.

After seeing it, I honestly believe everyone should book a trip to see the Northern Lights. It’s so freaking cool!

a corona in the night sky watching the aurora in fairbanks
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Your Camera Should Be Fine

If you’re wondering how a camera will handle being in such a cold area, it worked fine! However, and this is key, you cannot bring your camera inside after being out in the cold for a while. It’ll fog up and become inoperable until it warms up.

So, if you’re taking a break to get warm, leave your camera outside.

But when you are done, put it in a gallon-sized ziploc back and bring some ​moisture absorption packets​.

the northern lights in the alaska sky
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Alaska 2024

Photo Tips for the Northern Lights

Camera Settings

If the lights are dancing, you want to do shorter exposures in case you want to use them in a timelapse later. This means aiming for 2-4 second long exposures with a f/stop of 2.8 or lower. As for ISO, aim for 1600-2000.

When the lights start going crazy, you can drop your ISO as the light will be brighter, and you can dim your artificial light.

You’ll also want to be in manual focus unless the lights are extremely bright – in that case, you should be able to lock onto a subject.

Also, for those without a camera, you can still photograph the northern lights on your phone if it’s bright enough. Make sure to hold steady as it’ll need to do a long exposure, or prop it up onto something and take it that way.

Tripod Issues

In this level of cold, I couldn’t get the ball head of my tripod to stay still, and it kept moving slightly. Then, the tripod was also moving in the deep snow.

These small movements caused some images to blur, which is frustrating! (I asked some locals, and they said the cold tripod head issue happens, and you can’t really avoid it!)

If I lived in Fairbanks, I would figure out the best tripods. But alas, -20F isn’t a common thing in my life.

What I shot with

More photos of the Northern Lights from Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside