Many times during my travels, I have reached a remote place such as an isolated mountain village or an obscure tropical island and found myself thinking “Wow. This is where the world ends!”. However, I never found this sentiment to be quite more true than when Backpacking Svalbard last winter.
For those of you who have never heard of it, Svalbard is a Norwegian territory situated some 1000 miles North of even the Northernmost tip of the mainland deep inside the arctic circle; geographically, it is closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo and in many ways, is culturally more akin to an arctic dessert than it is to Europe. The archipelago of Svalbard is a final frontier of humanity, it is the northernmost civilisation centre on earth where there are more polar bears than people. It is a brooding, melancholic landscape of extremities where winter never quite leaves. It is permanently dark during the winter & eternally light during the summer. It is home to an international cast of some 2,000 transient residents made up of scientists, adventurers & bold prospectors and it welcomes a few thousand curious travellers each year.
So why not let it welcome you?!
Svalbard is the Northernmost inhabited point on earth and the novelty of that fact alone will tempt out some of you. Aside from this though, the landscape is an utterly stunning ensemble of snowy mountains, icy glaciers and white plains which can be explored via a whole raft of activities including hiking, dog sledding or snow mobiling. There is whale watching and Fjord cruises, a visit to the last bastion of the USSR and Svalbard is also one of the best places on earth to see the Northern lights. In case that’s not enough reasons, the fascinating locals are incredibly friendly and will gladly help you make merry over a few glasses of the locally brewed beer.
Despite its remote location and end of the earth landscape, Svalbard is actually quite developed and very efficiently managed in terms of connections & services. There is great Wi-Fi, transport and all amenities can be found. Provided you have the money, you will want for nothing up here (except maybe daylight to darkness depending on which time of year you go) making it a very accessible arctic experience.
The archipelago is made up of 3 islands, Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. Spitsbergen is the largest and is where the town of Longyearbyen is situated. There is a second town called Barentsburg which was built as a Soviet mining colony but after many years of decline is now a derelict ghost town operating only as an open museum for high season tourists. Barentsburg can only be reached by Snowmobile or Dog sled and is inaccessible during the darkest part of winter. You will know when you have reached Barentsburg as there is a statue of Lenin at the front of town.
Getting There & Transport
Svalbard is an island archipelago so there are no land connections. Flights to the Longyearbyen airport depart 5 days per week from Tromso (around 2 hours) and can be bought for as little as €50. Tromso itself is a beautiful, quintessentially Norwegian town and well worth spending a day or two in if you want to break the journey up. During the high season there are also some flights from Helsinki. A number of Fjord cruises also dock here (perfect for that Svalbard Cruise!) during high season but I am unaware of any formal, commercial ferry service.
EU Passport and Schengen VISA holders can enter Norway and therefore Svalbard freely. Passport control is done in Tromso and even EU & Norwegian citizens will have to produce their documents before boarding the flight.
Once you reach Lonyearbyen, getting around the civilisation centre is very easy. The airport is served by a bus which runs in accordance with flight schedules (even in the middle of the night) and stops at a number of hotels within the town. The town centre itself is very small and can easily be walked around. There is a taxi service on the island and Snowmobiles can also be hired (they are very easy to operate but you may still need to produce a drivers licence) if you fancy a bit of fun!
Svalbard is a Norwegian territory and as such uses the Krone (up to date rates can be checked via a (number of apps) Being Norwegian territory, it is also amongst the most expensive places I have ever visited so backpacking Svalbard does not come cheap. That said, the high Norwegian costs are offset a bit by a complete, Svalbard-only, tax break so many goods and services are up to 20% cheaper than back on the mainland.
Beer in bar – 50kr
Meal in restaurant- 150kr
Room in 3* hotel – 900kr
Northern Lights Tour – 1000kr
Card payments are actually the preferred payment method across Norway (even in taxi’s) but for those who like to feel money in their hand, the island does have an ATM (the Northernmost in the world) and most hotels will change travellers cheques or give you a cash advance on your card. It is still probably worth stocking up on a thousand or so Krone before you leave the mainland though in case of emergencies.
The official language of Norway is Norwegian. English and German speakers should find it a relatively easy language to learn and I always recommend learning a few key phrases purely to show willing. There are some great apps that will help you do this.
However, English is very widely spoken (brilliantly well) throughout Norway and because of its international population, is almost an official language up on Svalbard making backpacking Svalbard very easy.
There are a number of hotels on Svalbard ranging from 3* to 5*. There are also self-catering pension houses with shared kitchen and bathroom services which offer the best value. All accommodation options are of a very high standard and this is reflected in the prices. Couch surfing can be a bit of a non-starter because of the limited population size although some Air B n B listings are available. If you sign up for Air B n B through this link right here you also get $35 of your first booking!
I self catered at Haugen Pensjonhaus which is clean, warm and very homely.
Eating & Drinking
Longyearbyen actually has quite a range of restaurants, cafe’s and bars and if you had the budget, you probably could eat in a different place every day during you stay. All of the hotels have restaurants in them, homely Kroa mixes Norwegian faire with world food and Svalbard does great bar snacks (and plays the best tunes). The town cinema is actually a good place to get a lunchtime bite because of its extensive cafeteria. Svalbardians are very fond of a drink and all of the restaurants open late and double up as bars where you can enjoy a tax free pint of Spitsbergen pale ale. Incidentally Karlsbar, situated inside the shopping centre, has one of the largest Whisky collections in the world; ask the bar tender for recommendations and don’t you dare order a Jack Daniels.
There is also a nightclub which opens Fridays and Saturdays. Be warned though, it is essentially the worlds Northernmost meat market.
Self caterers should head to the town supermarket which has more or less everything you could want. You can buy alcohol here but will need your flight ticket to do so owing to an archaic law which limits the sale of alcohol to locals. If you are self catering then my top cash saving tip is to bring as much dried & tinned food from home as you can along with a spice mix and a bottle of rum.
Svalbard is an outdoorsy kind of place and visitors primarily come here to experience nature at its stark but beautiful best. Activities on the island include hiking and camping and Northern Lights tours (by Dog Sled, Snowmobiling, Foot or Snow Cat). There are longer excursions to Barentsburg, a former arctic Radio station (which resembles the rebel base in The Empire Strikes Back) and a cool ice cave.
Most of the tours are run by a small number of companies (who also own many of the bars and hotels) though there are some independent operators available.
If you don’t want to join a tour, then options for independent travellers are widely limited to hiking and trekking. Please note that this is completely inadvisable to novice campers as conditions on Svalbard are harsh and there is also a polar bear threat. Please begin by seeing my “Dangers” section and then be sure to take further, expert advice once you arrive in Longyearbyen.
The Svalbard museum is also very interesting although it will take you no more than an hour wander around it. The entrance fee is Kr and this includes tea and biscuits.
Spitsbergen Island is also the site of the Doomsday Seed vault which houses the genomes for every plant and vegetation species on earth. The location was chosen because even in the event of a full power failure (which is kind of inevitable on Doomsday) the temperature will be cool enough all year around to preserve the seeds.
I don’t know if you can really consider getting drunk an activity but doing so is a great way to get to know the locals and learn more about Svalbard. There are also a number of music festivals held during the summer months.
Because of its Northernmost location as well as limited light pollution, Svalbard is a fantastic place for seeing the Northern Lights. There are a number of tours available where experienced operators will take you to tried and tested viewing points. However it is important to note that the lights are a naturally occurring phenomena and cannot be guaranteed for any price. It can be pretty galling to hand over £100 and not see them so my advice is to combine the tour with Snowmobiling or Dog Sledding so that way at least you get something from the trip.
There are now several smart phone apps predicting the lights and a number of locations in town broadcast the lights forecast. If you note that the forecast is good and the that the sky is clear, then simply call a Maxi Cab, ask for Mine 7 and wait. It may be worth asking the driver to stay with you as waiting outside for the lights can get cold and Mine 7 is also well outside of the Polar Bear safe zone.
Polar Night & Midnight Sun
Because of its Northerly location, Svalbard is affected by the polar night and the midnight sun. During December, the region remains dark 24 hours a day and during summer the sun never sets or even budges an inch across the horizon. This can be disorientating, can take a few days to get used to but is something you just have to experience in your lifetime! During the spring and autumn, the region is famed for the eerie arctic blue light. To get the complete Svalbard experience, you really need to visit at least 3 times to experience the full roulette of the seasons!
Weather & Clothing
Even in summer Svalbard is cold and can sometimes get dangerously so. Whilst indoor spaces are brilliantly heated, you are going to spend a lot of your time backpacking Svalbard outdoors so you need to ensure that you pack and dress accordingly. Be sure to bring a thermal base layer (which you may or may not need) & wool socks. You should then dress normally in whatever you choose (though I suggest jeans and a jumper) and then cover up in some kind of snow gear (ski pants and a ski jacket will do) or a proper goose-down jacket if you can afford one. A warm, water proof hat (I suggest a Cossack hat with wool ear warmers) and thermal gloves are essential. You may not need all of this stuff for short walks around the town but will be glad you packed it once you get out into the exposed wastelands. The crucial thing is to keep your extremities warm (hands, feet and head) so good, warm, waterproof, boots are also advisable.
Most bars and restaurants have spacious cloak rooms where you can desposit you chunky snow gear the minute you walk in the door. It is safe because there is no crime up on Svalbard.
The primary danger is the cold but provided you wrap up and don’t’ wander off alone, this really should not be a problem. Heading out into the wilderness alone is not recommended without a compass and some orienteering skills as getting lost would be all too easy. During the dark months it could also be possible to fall down a ravine or venture onto a frozen river or lake without realising.
Svalbard is a small & familiar community and crime is almost unheard of. That said, please take the usual precautions regarding your valuables.
Norway is an expensive country and if you do lose anything or get sick, then it could prove costly. Therefore you need to ensure you get good travel insurance before your trip.
The Polar Bear threat on Svalbard is very real and caution needs to be heeded. Longyearbyen town is within the safe zone, the area is patrolled and the bears know better than to stray within its boundaries. There are signs clearly marking the safe zone boundaries and the only time you will need to leave the safe zone is when on some kind of hike or excursion. If you are going through a tour company then they will take adequate polar bear precautions. If you fancy going hiking or camping alone, rifles can be hired from 78 Degrees but as I said before, take advice and think hard before doing this.
Many residents have lived on Svalbard for years and never even seen a bear so whilst you should be vigilant, please don’t be paranoid.
Following the closure of much of the regions mining industry, the Norwegian Government are now working hard to exploit Svalbard’s potential for tourism. It is impossible to predict what effect this may have on the area’s character and fragile eco system but some kind of change seems inevitable. My advice is therefore to simply to get yourself up ASAP for a slice of real arctic adventure! Svalbard will stay with you long after the you’ve gotten yourself home and back to the warmth of your home country.
Backpacking Svalbard is guaranteed to be an experience you will never forget.