Spitsbergen - different ways to travel
Here, you will find some hints and ideas regarding what you can do in Spitsbergen. Finally, it depends on your taste (and bank account…). You will also find links to tour operators in my link collection.
Tours to most parts of the Svalbard archipelago need to be registered at the Sysselmannen (gouvernor of Svalbard). If you book a tour, then the tour operator will take care of this. Click here for further information regarding rules & regulations, safety in the field etc.
- Expedition style cruises will be an ideal way to travel for many. If you want to experience as much as possible of Arctic (or Antarctic) nature, bring some adventure spirit and want to share your polar enthusiasm with like-minded fellow travellers, then you will probably enjoy this way of getting around:
- Relatively small groups (depending on which ship you use, often around 50 passengers) on vessels, which are ‘swimming youth hostels’ if you compare them to ‘real cruise ships’. In other words: if high cabin standard with golden toilet seats, seven-course-meals etc are important to you (more important than the nature experience), then you should rather book a voyage on a larger cruise ship. On an expedition ship, everything is rather functional than luxurious, but nevertheless – starvation is unlikely to be a problem on board… and it is definitely much more comfortable than camping!
Expedition ship M/V Professor Multanovskiy (which used to be my second home in the Arctic).
- Don’t expect to have a lot of time to relax during the voyage. Two Zodiac excursions per day are normal (duration mostly close to three hours), and in the meantime you can see something from the ship. You have to be able to walk for a couple of hours over wayless terrain, this requires some physical fitness. If you like an occasional walk of more than five kilometres along the beach or through the forest at home, then you will enjoy the excursions. If you rather take a car than walk to the baker’s around the corner, then an expedition cruise is not for you. Please consider that the medical facilities on board are rather basic and the next hospital may be far away (in some areas out of helicopter range), you have to be in good medical condition.
- The atmosphere on board is casual – no dressing-up for dinner, but rubber-boots and binoculars are required. The bridge is usually open for passengers.
- Expedition cruises are no photo safaris for certain wildlife species (‘polar bear safari’), but usually want to deliver a large variety of polar impressions and experiences. If you do not want to see anything but polar bears, then you could consider Churchill in Canada (original quote of a traveller: ‘polar bear and walrus – I don’t care about the rest’). We get to see the ‘big guys’ (polar bears, walrus) on almost every trip, but there is no guarantee.
- During excursions, we will usually split up into several groups to accommodate different interests and walking abilities. In Spitsbergen and East Greenland, there will be a guide with a rifle with every group. Individual excursions without a group are not possible because of the polar bear danger. If you can’t live with that, then you should not book an expedition cruise in Spitsbergen or East Greenland.
Polar bear guard
- Board language is mostly English, but check with your travel agency if several languages are spoken during briefings, lectures etc.
- Important information regarding the itinerary which you will probably receive from your booking agent. These usually read like ‘On day one, we are here in the morning and do this, and in the afternoon we are there and can see that…’. Forget about these day-by-day-itineraries, they are only there to give you an idea about what could happen before the voyage. You can assume that during the voyage an experienced expedition leader will design an individual itinerary to make sure you get as much polar experience out of the time on board that you have got. This will be very flexible, depending on ice conditions, weather, wildlife and other factors (including presence of other ships, which we try to avoid in the field). As expedition leader, I do hardly every read the day-by-day-itineraries issued by various booking agents (in Spitsbergen and East Greenland). Usually, your expedition leader will know the area better than the guy who wrote the original itinerary.
- Staying in Longyearbyen. It is easy to stay for a couple of days in Longyearbyen in one of the hotels or on the camping site, and you may be surprised regarding the variety of things you can do and see – polar bears and walrus are very unlikely, but other than that, almost everything is possible. If you stay for some days and keep your eyes open, you are likely to see reindeer, fox and a number of different bird species (possibly including ivory gull, little auk, ptarmigan etc.). There is a huge variety of day trips you can book in your hotel, the tourist information or with the local tour operator (see links). If you are interested in birdwatching, then you can easily spend two rewarding days in and around Longyearbyen in the early summer – hire a guide with relevant local knowledge and a rifle!
- Individual hiking and trekking tours. There is an endless number of options, from daytrips around Longyearbyen to several-week long trekking tours which have expedition character. Careful preparation and physical fitness and some experience with hiking in northern terrain without any tracks are obvious stipulations. On several-day long tours, you will most likely have more than 20 kg in your rucksack (tent, stove, food supplies, sleeping back, rifle with ammunition, polar bear alarm fence which you need to put up around your tent during the night etc., for further information on regulations and safety in the field, see here). Hiking and trekking tours enable you to get an intense experience of Arctic nature and landscape and the exciting feeling to be exposed to the elements, to live in the nature. And there are few nicer things in life than the first pizza after a long tour …
The pleasures of living in a tent.
- Organised Trekking: Similarly as invididual trekking, you will be able to experience Arctic nature and silence with plenty of time when you participate in an organised trekking tour. You will make experiences, which some people will love, other ones may hate (sleeping in tents without the opportunity to take a shower etc). You will have to accept pace and rhythm of the group and you are unlikely to be able to influence the itinerary. But there is definitely a number of advantages: often less luggage to carry because there are usually depots in the field, much less organisation and preparation, solid planning, the group experience (which is mostly nice). Make sure you know what kind of trip you are booking and that you are physically ready for it, be realistic when it comes to your hiking abilities, otherwise your participation may become a strain for you and a problem for the group.
- Canoe/Kayak. The open canoe (‘Canadian’ canoe) is not an option in Spitsbergen due to the lack of calm waters (the few large rivers have plenty of shallows). Quite a lot can be done with robust expedition kayaks, from day trips to long tours with expedition character. Organisation is quite extensive, starting with transportation for all your gear. There are specialised tour operators in Spitsbergen. This way of traveling is attractive and can offer different perspectives and experiences than land-based traveling, but is also strenuous and has its specific risks. These include the unpredictable weather and long stretches of coastline, where it is impossible to land (steep cliffs, glacier fronts etc.).
- Cruise ships. If you are content with a few landscape impressions from the panorama lounge and a visit to Longyearbyen or Ny Ålesund and you appreciate good food and comfort, then a trip on one of the larger cruise vessels will be a good choice for you.
- Dog sledding. Traditional Arctic traveling, as it cannot get any nicer. There is hardly anything better than a several day dog-sledging tour from cabin to cabin or using a tent. in Spitsbergen, snowscooter traffic is still a pain, despite being more and more regulated, but there are areas where snowscooters are not allowed. Daytrips or half-day trips are popular and free of any risk in case you are worried about cold and discomfort, after a few hours you are back in town. The season is mainly March to early May. Specialised operators will also arrange longer trips if you are our for some adventure. You will hardly get a more intense, more intimate experience of the Arctic than during a several-day dog-sledging trip! Of course, you will have to live with a certain lack of comfort (camping in temperatures which may be well below zero), but if you are willing and able to accept that (it is actually great fun for the little adventurers amongst us), then you will be richly rewarded. Your tour operator will assist you with information and equipment. Another factor is that dog sledging is an environmentally friendly way of getting around (no CO2-emissions, no noise) and creates jobs in remote communities of a sort which enables local people to keep their pride and some of their traditional techniques alive. Enjoy!
Dog sledge in East Greenland
- Cross-country skiing. In a way, this provides a similar experience as dogsledging, as far as nature and scenery are concerned, although the dogs are missing. Skiing trips are much easier to organise individually, as dogsledging requires relevant experience and, of course, dogs and sledge. On the other hand, skiing with a lot of luggage is very strenuous. The whole range of cross-country skiing, from easy day-trips to demanding, week-long trips with expedition character, will provide sportive, adventurous people with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Cross-country skiing in the Arctic: great pleasure for sportive people.
- Snowmobile. If you want to race through the Arctic, then snowmobiles can provide you with this experience. The nature experience will be rather limited because of speed and noise. This is not exactly an environmentally friendly way of traveling, as fuel consumption is high and the noise disturbs wildlife (reindeer during the difficult spring season, when food is scarce) and people. If you want to experience the Arctic in the winter, why not consider dogsledging?
Can be motor ‘sport’ than nature experience, depending on how it is done: snowmobile trips.
- Helicopter: The use of helicopters for touristic purposes is not permitted anymore in Spitsbergen, neither ‘flightseeing’ nor landings in the field. The Sysselmannen (gouvernor) may grant permission for helicopter use for scientific or journalistic purposes. Because of the high fuel consumption, helicopters are more or less the least environmentally friendly way of getting around (even worse is only the use of nuclear-powered icebreakers for touristic purposes – any suggestions regarding safe disposal of nuclear waste?).
The following is nonsense:
- Bicycle. Mostly nonsense, as there are no roads or tracks outside the settlements, and offroad bicycling is not an option, as erosion and damage to the vegetation cover would be tremendous. But so-called fatbikes with very thick wheels can be a nice way to get out either on vegetation-free ground such as river beds or when the tundra is frozen solid.
- Camper. Firstly, you won’t get it up to Spitsbergen, secondly you can’t do anything with it up there due to the lack of roads outside the settlements.
- Bus tours. Difficult as there are no roads… sightseeing by bus withing Longyearbyen (and, to some degree, Barentsburg) is possible, for example for cruise ship passengers.
I have compiled all information published on my websites according to my best knowledge, based on 10 years of experience in the Arctic. This compilation is not at all comprehensive, it cannot always be complete and up-to-date, and there may be mistakes. I do not accept any liability for injury or damage which may arise as a result of improper use of the information I provide on my websites. I emphasize that all travels to polar areas require thorough preparation and proper equipment. Please make sure you are aware of all relevant information and that both you and your equipment meet the standards which are required for your intended activities. Please remember that you have to notify the Sysselmannen (gouvernor of Svalbard) in advance about trips to most parts of the archipelago.
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