Contrary to popular (culture’s) belief, Svalbard is not an ice kingdom populated and governed by giant war-like bears. But if anything that’s a good thing. For a start it’s a lot easier to visit without getting thrown into bear prison. Real life Svalbard keeps all the good bits – like the ice and polar bears – but is open to visits from adventurous travellers like you and me.
Where is Svalbard?
Svalbard is an island off the north coast of Norway. Well, Svalbard actually refers to a whole bunch of tiny islands and islets, but it’s also used to refer to just the main island. You might hear it referred to as “Svalbard Island” along the same lines or by the name Spitsbergen. The main settlement of Longyearbyen, containing most of the population, can be found here.
Despite being Norwegian, Svalbard is a very long way off the the coast – think like halfway between Norway and the North Pole. This is not one of those pretty little islands like the Lofoten archipelago. Oh no – and it’s got weather to prove it.
4 Reasons to Seek Adventure in Svalbard
So, why come to these islands? Well here’s just a few reasons it might tickle your adventure tastebuds.
1. Extreme Weather
The weather in Svalbard is cold. Seriously cold. If your idea of fun is sunbathing, then this might not be the place for you. Although it does sport 24 hour daylight between 20th April and 22nd August. Midnight sun isn’t quite the same as beach sun, though. Summer temperatures peak at a balmy 7 degrees C and winter temperatures don’t come out of the negatives. Around -20 degrees C would be considered normal. Even the hardiest of northerners might need to bring more than just their big coat.
But there is something appealing about battling extreme temperatures. Particularly for those in the Type 2 fun brigade. And of course all this cold means some very good things: like snow and lots of it, glaciers, ice caves and incredible winter nights. In fact, there might not be anything quite so exciting as camping in ridiculously cold temperatures, wrapped in all your gear, feeling like a polar explorer and watching the Northern Lights.
2. Wildlife and Animals
Most people would connect Svalbard with polar bears. How much that is to do with Phillip Pullman and Christmas movies is debatable. But if you fancy yourself as a member of David Attenborough’s crew on Blue Planet, you might find Svalbard pretty exciting. If you spend any nights out in Svalbard’s wilderness, you’ll need to go on Polar Bear Watch while your teammates sleep. That’s no guarantee that you’ll see one, but there’s lots being done in Svalbard to protect and conserve these animals.
You might like to read our interview feature: Polar Bears, Glaciers; 24-Hour Daylight: An Inside Look at Adventure Life on Svalbard.
Other animals native to Svalbard include Arctic foxes, which are pure white to blend into their snowy surrounding, and reindeer. You might also get a chance to go dog sledding. These huskies are trained to pull equipment and passengers in sleds across the snow. It’s possible to see where the dogs are kept and raised too, gaining insight into this local tradition.
On the subject of traditions, Svalbard has an unusual history of exploration and, sadly, exploitation. Although much has changed since the days of oil company towns and hunting. Svalbard was discovered by modern day explorers at the end of the 16th Century. Just exactly who knew about it before then is contested by historians. We’ll leave them to it. Either way, its rediscovery brought in a succession of interest over the years from whalers, miners, oil companies and scientists. It’s a story of survival and exploration, but also of political and economic tensions. The remains of this story, in abandoned towns or scientific research bases, can make a good cultural focus for an adventure.
Modern day Svalbard is definitely taking steps away from its colourful history and towards conservation and preservation. The main town, Longyearbyen, has been “normalised” since the 1970s – making it a fully functioning community, not just a town owned by a single company. Since then things have only got better, with scientific research centres and tourism activities being established since the 1990s, allowing local people a means to a livelihood. It’s also home to a Global Seed Vault, a repository of plant seeds that’ll help us rebuild in case of the apocalypse… or something like that!
A set of islands with snow, glaciers, mountains and a frozen coastline makes a perfect setting for adventure and exploration. Whether it’s a multi-day polar trek or a stint at sea kayaking, there’s a lot of exciting potential. You can don crampons and hike out across a glacier or head deep down into the ice caves below it. There’s snowshoeing in the right conditions, or a snow mobile to get you across the island in a day.
Ready for an adventure in Svalbard? Take a look at our Arctic Wilderness Adventure in the summer or a Svalbard hiking and snowmobile adventure in the winter. Or have a browse of the rest of our adventure holidays for future plans.