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If you’re hoping to see the northern lights, you might want to add Canada to the top of your travel list. As one of the northernmost countries in the world, Canada is home to regions that see the northern lights an average of 240 times a year.
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are an atmospheric phenomenon in which energized particles emitted by the sun strike the Earth's magnetic field and light up. As their name implies, the northern lights occur in the Northern Hemisphere, while the southern lights (the aurora australis) occur in the Southern Hemisphere.
For some of the best chances to see the northern lights, head to the Great White North. Here are all the tips you need to see the northern lights in Canada.
Related: 13 Hotels To See the Northern Lights
Technically, the northern lights are active all year round, but you might not always be able to see them. The best time to see the northern lights in Canada is from September to March when there's enough darkness at night to view them. In the summer, some of Canada's northernmost regions get 24 hours of daylight, and the sunlight drowns out the northern lights. Solar activity is usually at its highest around the fall equinox in September and the spring equinox in March, but there's more daylight during those months than in the middle of winter, reducing your chance of seeing the northern lights. As for the specific time of day, auroral activity typically peaks between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., though you can certainly see the northern lights outside of these hours, so long as it's dark out.
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Generally speaking, the best place to see the northern lights is in a region called the auroral zone. That's pretty much any place from the Arctic Circle (at 66°33′ north) to the North Pole. The circle cuts through the northernmost reaches of Canada, but it's not that easy to visit this area as settlements are sparse and very difficult to reach. So most northern lights tourism in Canada takes place a little farther south, in places like Yellowknife, Northwest Territories; Whitehorse, Yukon; and Churchill, Manitoba, a popular place for polar bear and beluga whale tourism. The most important thing is to get to a destination that's as far north as possible (and as far from city lights as possible), with clear skies.
Outside of picking the right time of year and heading to the right destination, there are a few tips to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to give yourself as many days in Canada as possible. Because the weather might not cooperate for a few days, the more time you spend in Canada, the better your odds of clear skies. You’ll also want to take a look at the moon calendar. The light from a full moon can diminish the view of the northern lights, so you’re best off viewing the northern lights during a new moon or in the crescent phases. Finally, you should take a look at the aurora forecasts from the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which can give northern lights predictions from a few hours to a few days in advance based on solar activity.
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You don’t need to book a formal tour to see the northern lights — you can just head anywhere north and look up at night. But tours do ease the logistics of a trip to Canada, as details like transportation and accommodation may be covered by the tour operator. Tours range from multiple days to just a few hours, so it’s easy to find one that accommodates your needs. Some of our recommendations include Nat Hab’s Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration, a seven-night trip to Churchill that includes a stay in the company’s proprietary Aurora Pods with 360-degree views of the sky; Adventures.com’s Northern Lights Hunting in Yellowknife tour, which lasts just four hours; and Northern Tales’ Basic Aurora Borealis Package, which offers two- to four-night trips to the wilderness outside Whitehorse.
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