Spitsbergen is part of the Svalbard archipelago, that final and outrageously beautiful Norwegian frontier before one reaches the North Pole. First discovered in 1821, Svalbard consists of some 150-odd islands: 4 major and 150 or so minor ones. Over half of the landmass is covered in ice all year long and all of it is home to large colonies and groups of some of the most enigmatic polar wildlife on earth.
The largest of all the islands and the one which boasts the most (still limited) infrastructure, Spitsbergen is the Arctic region destination which welcomes the most foreign visitors every year. This is an outdoor adventurer’s playground, attracting enthusiastic explorers all year long, and from all over the world. Given its northerly location, Spitsbergen enjoys quite a mild climate – you know, relatively speaking – with little rain and temps that range between -14 Celsius in winter and up to a balmy 6 in summer. From the Northern Lights of winter and the endless dawns of summer, Spitsbergen is one of the most rewarding and fascinating places you could visit.
Overview of Spitsbergen
Longyearbyen is the vibrant Spitsbergen capital and best base from which to explore by land. Just over 2,000 people live on the island, although you’ll most probably set foot on land to search for polar bears instead. Both don’t see the sun rise for up to four months of the year, and every March the town erupts into festivities to celebrate its return. It’s a wondrous spectacle and a truly memorable event.
Hiking and kayaking are arguably the most popular activities on Spitsbergen. If you have time, you can also tackle a hair-rising hike to Mt Newtontoppen, which rises just over
1,7000m and is the tallest peak in all of Svalbard. The waters around the islands are actually quite shallow (about 200m on average) especially when considering that the open seas on either side of the archipelago (the Arctic and Norwegian Seas) plummet to depths of over 2,000m. This attracts a phenomenal concentration of fish and, in turn, sea birds and larger mammals. Widllife watching, as you may imagine, is the aim of the Arctic game here.
The nature on and around Spitsbergen, as with all of Svalbard, is splendidly unspoilt. So harsh is the environment that even after a few centuries of trying, man has barely made a mark. None that lasts beyond a few monuments, anyway. Spitsbergen is the true Realm of the Polar Bear, a dramatic corner of our planet where it’s the resilient animals which hold centre court. No matter where you go, a polar bear will never be too far away. In Longyearbyen you’ll see deer wandering the city streets, and find seal on local restaurant menus, reigning a little less than supreme, granted. You can tackle expeditions on foot and by Zodiac during your stay on Spitsbergen, and explore the furthest reaches of Svalbard accessible only by expedition ship. This is perhaps the most priceless luxury of all. On a Spitsbergen expedition cruise you can reach some of the most remote lands and bodies of water on earth. The Arctic at its most raw and overwhelming best, that sums up Spitsbergen adventures to a T.
What to Pack When Visiting Spitsbergen
On Spitsbergen expedition cruises, the biggest inhibitor to bringing a colossal amount of ‘stuff’ is space. Rather than a hard suitcase, we recommend you pack your belongings in a large soft bag, one with wheels and a hard frame for easy handling. A small waterproof backpack is the only way to go for day trips and excursions on Zodiacs and, no matter what time of year you visit Spitsbergen, you should always pack merino wool thermal long johns and long-sleeve tops. Your hiking boots should be ankle high, waterproof and comfortable, but not too heavy. They should also be well worn in. Get into the habit of packing a spare pair of thick socks in your day pack, in case you get your feet wet mid-way through an excursion. Because getting in and out of Zodiacs requires some flexibility of movement, you should ensure your clothing choices don’t restrict your movement at all. You need not be a Russian contortionist to get on and off your Arctic expedition ship, but some agility is more than necessary.
Spitsbergen is a windy place so don’t forget a wind-breaker, woolly hat and a pair of warm gloves too. Expect the temperatures to change dramatically and sporadically, which they most often do. Many expedition cruises to the Arctic will include certain specific equipment, so make sure you ask about inclusions at time of booking.
Dreaming of exploring Spitsbergen by expedition ship? Don’t dream…PLAN! We’ll help you choose the ideal Spitsbergen Arctic expedition to suit your tastes, travel styles and travel time, and get you ready for the most formidable adventure of your life. Contact us for more info.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”