Travel Update


Snowshoeing in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

How to Visit Svalbard: Layers, Layers, Layers!

By: Catharine
Last Updated: 08/08/2022

As winter maintains its stronghold over much of the northern hemisphere, what better time for a team of Iceland-based Nordic Visitor team members to jet off to... Svalbard.

Meet Björn and Kolbrún (AKA Kolla), intrepid travelers and Nordic Visitor employees who braved the arctic Svalbard in late February. Read on to learn about Nordic Visitor's most northerly destination, in their words...

Björn and Kolbrún in Svalbard
Björn and Kolbrún dress to impress in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

NV: What is it like being in the wilderness of Spitsbergen? What should people expect?

Björn: "There is something magical about being in Svalbard. Knowing how far you are from everything, combined with the landscape and the freezing cold make for a true arctic experience. Expect to experience cold like you've never experienced before. Add a little wind to that and you'll be amazed how much you like it."

Kolla: "The darkness also really distorts your perception of your surroundings. The first day we did not head out until late in the evening, so it got totally dark while we were snowmobiling to the ship. It was great actually – I have never seen a clear sky with such bright stars and we even saw the northern lights dancing! But I had imagined that we were driving through narrow valleys, and it always felt like the mountainside was just right next to you.

"Then on the last day of the snowmobiling tour, we took the same route back to town from the ship, this time in daylight, and it was so different. I actually asked the guide if we were really driving the same route, because it had felt so enclosed in the darkness, when it was actually very, very wide valleys and over frozen fjords!"

NV: Speaking of the frozen fjords and the cold, how did you keep warm? Any special tips?

K: "Layers, layers, layers!"

B: "And wool, wool, and more wool. The key to keeping warm in Svalbard is putting on layers. Woolen underwear is the most important. In Svalbard long johns are not only in fashion, but vital to keeping you warm in the freezing temperatures."

NV: What kind of training or experience do the tour guides have in Svalbard?

B: "The tour guides were extremely experienced, with broad knowledge about the area.  They know all the risks you can encounter on Svalbard and how to avoid them and stay safe. One guide told us that last winter he drove his snowmobile 17,000 km. That is almost the distance from Svalbard to the South Pole -- now that is experience!"

K: "The main focus of the guides in Svalbard is always security. So they are all well trained in what they do -- be it snowmobiling, dog sledding, etc. -- but in addition to that they have all gone through security and first aid classes. Plus they all have gun licences, as guides always need to travel with a rifle in Svalbard."

Noorderlicht Svalbard
A visit to the Noorderlicht schooner, for an overnight stay, some fun, and spotting polar bear tracks.

NV: How likely is it to see polar bears in Svalbard? Did you see any?

K: "We did not see any polar bears, but we did see footprints. Our guide had been out with a group the weekend before and during the night a polar bear came for a visit to the cabin. It was just strolling around the deck, outside the house. We visited that cabin on our trip, had lunch there, and there were footprints not far from the house, so they were most likely from this bear."

B:  "The only polar bears we saw were stuffed, at the airport and in the Svalbard Museum. Svalbard is a fairly large island and it has around 3000 polar bears living there. Therefore it is not statistically likely that you'll encounter a polar bear while staying in Svalbard."

Colourful houses built on stilts in Longyearbyen
Colourful houses built on stilts in Longyearbyen

NV: What was it like sleeping on the ship in the ice? What did you eat and how do you keep entertained?

K: "It was actually great sleeping on a ship frozen in the ice! The Noorderlicht schooner is warm and very cosy, and the captain and staff on board the ship are very welcoming and nice.

"The funny thing is that you know that you are on board the ship, so you kind of expect to feel the movement of the ship, which is of course not going to happen as it is frozen stuck in the ice. So you do start to imagine it a little bit!"

B: "Each day we had a lovely three course dinner on the ship. We even got ice cream for dessert...  just to add a bit more ice to our experience!

"There's no mobile phone reception on this ship, so that was a good excuse to get to know our travel companions; we spent the evenings telling stories and getting to know one another."

What from your trip did you find most surprising or worth mentioning?

B: "For a small community, Longyearbyen seems to have everything you need. It even has a Thai restaurant and a Thai shop. Also, Svalbard is a duty-free area and Longyearbyen has a good variety of outdoor clothing stores, where you can buy high quality clothing for your arctic adventure for a good price."

K: "I would say that just the cosy atmosphere is a thing worth mentioning. You don’t need to bring fancy clothing to wear for dinner, you can just wear what you find comfortable. For example, we went to a bar one evening in Longyearbyen, straight from the dog yard, all dressed in all our best outerwear and no one blinked an eye!"  

Lonyearbyen Svalbard Scooters
Snow scooters are an optimal way to get around in Svalbard.

What was your personal highlight from the trip?

K: "Celebrating my birthday on a snowmobile tour across the frozen landscape, under the sky and northern lights!"

NV: If you had one piece of sage advice to pass along to other would-be explorers of Svalbard what would it be?

B: "Dress according to the weather. It will be cold and it is better to have one too many layers of clothing than too few. Bring hand warmers to put into your gloves when you are cold. They work wonders."

K:  "I would also say go with the flow, because you are travelling to an arctic destination where you often need to make changes to programs if the conditions are not right. Those changes can often be great, and you will just get to experience some other adventures! So don’t think about the ones that you did not manage to do -- think of them as reasons for another visit to the Arctic!" 

Svalbard Scenery
Breathtaking scenery in Svalbard.

Interested in embarking on your own arctic expedition?

If you like the looks of Björn and Kolla's trip, then check out our Best of Svalbard in Winter package for all the details. If you have something else in mind, we have a selection of travel packages to take you to Svalbard that you can book as-is or customize to fit your specific wishes.

For a closer look at the unique aspects of life and travel in the Nordic countries, check out other stories by Nordic Visitor staff in our My Destination blog series.

Post by: Catharine

Catharine Fulton is a journalist and travel writer. Though born and raised in Canada, she found herself stuck in the Nordic region since moving to Finland in 2007 to pursue her MA and then migrating to Reykjavík, Iceland in 2009, where she lives with her Icelandic husband and tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to master the Icelandic language.

More posts by Catharine