I’d never been on a snowmobile before my trip to Svalbard. Yep, you read that right… never. So you may think that signing up for an overnight (2 full days of snowmobiling) in a location so close to the North Pole is insane.
It was and it also happened to be one of my favorite experiences to date. Planning our 4 days in Svalbard was easy. We wanted to do ice caving and we wanted to see a polar bear—hopefully.
Where is Svalbard?
The Svalbard Islands are a group of islands located about 800 km north of mainland Norway in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Previously known as Spitsbergen, the Norwegian Archipelago is a visa free country with polar bears out numbering the residents.
Most people in Svalbard live in Longyearbyen which is the main town and place where visitors stay when they arrive. Longyearbyen has everything you need, guesthouses, shops, a movie theater and an airport. This small town is even home to the world’s northernmost brewery, Svalbard Bryggeri and the Global Seed Vault.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a large, secure storage facility that is located on an island in Svalbard, deep within the mountain. Inside the vault there are over 1 million seeds that are stored from countries all over the world. They are stored inside this mountain under these conditions so that the seeds are protected from natural or man made disasters.
Flights to Svalbard: How to Get There
To reach Svalbard, the Norwegian Archipelago, you will fly into the Longyearbyen airport. The Longyearbyen airport is small and located only 5km outside of the main part of town. Commonly, flights to Svalbard will require a stopover in Oslo or Tromsø before reaching your final destination in Longyearbyen.
Once you arrive in the airport there is a small shuttle taxi service that picks ups all passengers and drops you off at your guesthouse. It is the northernmost airport in the world and the airport code is LYR.
How to Choose the Right Snowmobiling Tour in Svalbard
In Svalbard there are a multitude of companies that offer snowmobiling excursions ranging from a couple of hours to multiple days. When you are first researching options for your trip it can be a bit overwhelming knowing exactly what excursion might be right for you. For me the main goal was a polar bear encounter and I knew that I needed to choose a trip that would offer me the highest changes of a sighting.
The best way to potentially see a polar bear in Svalbard is to leave the town of Longyearbyen and head into the arctic tundra. In order to maximize your chances it is best to embark on a multi day snowmobiling excursion through Svalbard.
Therefore, I decided to join the two day polar sledding safari offered through Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions. This trip is offered from February through April and costs 14,550 NOK ($1,722.00 USD) per person.
If you are not ready to embark on a two day excursions there are plenty of other options. Many companies offer day trips out of Longyearbyen on different routes. Some of the most popular day trips include visiting Tempelfjorden, Barentsburg, the East Coast and the Wild Fjords. You can even take snowmobiling trips at night to see the northern lights!
Snowmobiling in Svalbard: Day One
The day of your Wildlife Safari you will be picked up at your Guesthouse by your guide and taken to their base camp in town. For our trip we had Svein as our guide and Jessica as his assistant guide.
You will be fitted with snowmobile suits, gloves, boots and helmets to keep toasty warm for the duration of your trip. The handlebars of the snowmobiles are also heated so that is an added bonus to keep you warm.
You will be in a small group, ours had 5 people. The guides will pack up large steel containers filled with your personal bags, food, emergency kits, satellite phone, flare gun and other essentials. These containers are loaded on sledges and attached to three of the snowmobiles.
Before heading out, you will be given a quick beginner’s tutorial on how to properly drive a snowmobile. Luckily it isn’t that hard, even if you have never driven a snowmobile before. Soon you will be on your way with the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway far out of sight. As you drive deeper into rural Svalbard you will begin to see vast amounts of snow covered mountains and miles of snow covered fjords.
During our snowmobile excursion in Svalbard we drove east for many miles. First passing over the Sassendalen valley and stopping occasionally to make sure everyone was okay. During these moments we checked for any wildlife and admired the view.
We were lucky with beautiful weather, sunny blue skies, minimal wind and good visibility. We continued along until we reached Tempelfjorden. Here you can see the Noorderlicht (ship in the ice), a schooner that is frozen into the ice.
At Tempelfjorden, we passed by some fellow snowmobilers who informed us that they had spotted a polar bear nearby. Following Svein, we slowly & safely proceeded in the direction of the polar bear’s last sighting. Finally, quite a distance away, was a polar bear!
It was an exciting and humbling moment seeing such an incredible predator in the wild with only yards of snow-covered ice separating it and us.
Watching the polar bear in Svalbard from afar we poured hot water in our Real Turmat freeze-dried food bags and ate lunch while taking turns peering at the bear through the lens of our cameras and binoculars.
The polar bear eventually took his seal snack and disappeared behind a large boulder and was out of sight.
We hopped back on our snowmobiles and drove just a little further before stopping at the Von Post & Tuna Glaciers to have a little fun running around in the snow. It is way more difficult than you think to run in those huge snowsuits and heavy boots!
In the sunlight, the towering glaciers glowed a pristine blue and sparkled with the fresh snow. Just before driving off we stopped to investigate the unlikely fate of the polar bears latest seal snack.
Back on the snowmobiles again we drove out of the Von Post and Tuna Glaciers and continued on past Tempelfjorden when the weather started to decline. We ended up turning back and choosing a different route to avoid any mishaps.
We made a brief stop at a trapper’s cabin in Fjordnibba that now serves as a shelter for anyone who may need to get out of the inclimate weather or for safety. These trapper’s cabins can be found in additional locations around Svalbard. We drove our sleds up the Colorado Plateau for better views over the valley.
Soon after, we continued our journey back through Sassendalen eventually reaching Fulmardalen where we drove through a beautiful canyon.
The sun had almost set, turning the snowy ground into a ocean blue landscape dotted with arctic fox footprints. The drive from the canyon to our “cabin” was about another 45 minute drive.
We finally made it to Skrulsbreen, the location of our cabin, after snowmobiling for 120 kilometers (75 miles). Our cabin for the evening can best be described as a large storage container chained into the snow.
At first we were quite skeptical but it ended up being a lot of fun. It had a tiny stove near the entry, a small freestanding gas stove and a table with benches that doubled as a bed.
On top of the table was a 2 feet tall sleeping bunk where us girls ended up sleeping. It ended up being very cozy since we lined the bunk with reindeer skins and had heavy duty sleeping bags.
Svein served us beef stew for dinner and after we ate we all got ourselves ready for bed. To go to the bathroom we had to crack open the door to our cabin, wave our flashlights around to check for polar bears and slowly proceed outside and continue to check our surroundings the entire time we were out there.
Back in our cabin, we climbed from the top of the table and slid into our bunk, strategically rotating our bodies to fit in the small space. The wind picked up overnight and there were moments when I was convinced that we would wake up in an overturned cabin the next morning.
Snowmobiling in Svalbard: Day Two
Waking up the next morning we were served a breakfast of eggs and bacon before packing our sleds back up for our second day of polar sledding in Svalbard. Another guide, Frederic, met us at our cabin and would be our 6th person for the remainder or our 180 kilometer (112 miles) journey.
Today’s ride began much windier and colder than the day prior. We headed out of Skrulsbreen just as it began snowing thus decreasing our visibility. We passed through Elfenbeinbreen before continuing on towards Agardhdalen.
This area was on the coast where a steep cliff dropped off into freezing waters covered with floating ice chunks. We took a moment to see if any seals or polar bears could be spotted but unfortunately there wasn’t any wildlife.
Despite the strong winds and impending storm clouds, we continued along the coast where the terrain became much steeper, icier and rockier (the Norwegians call this type of terrain moreana).
Svein made the call to turn around and head back to safer ground. Due to the strong winds, icy terrain and weight of the snowmobile I had to literally lean completely off the scooter with my handlebars cocked all the way to one side just to not slide right off the cliff! The only thoughts going through my head in that moment was that I was ready to abandon the scooter and let it fly into the icy ocean.
Luckily that didn’t happen and we all made it back to safe ground. We continued over a glacier and through a valley until we reached Kjellsromdalen and stopped at a cabin, similar to the one we stayed in, for another Real Turmat meal.
The high winds didn’t stop and although it made it feel as though you were floating on a cloud, it was very difficult to see in anything surrounding you. There could have been a polar bear closer to us than we knew!
We drove longer, again making a few stops along the way, passing by Sveagruva. Sveagruva is a very small coal mining town where the miners fly in from Longyearbean for 1 or 2 weeks at a time working 12 hour shifts before flying home for their days off.
We drove our scooters around Sveagruva and continued on passing through Reindalen (reindeer valley). Just as the name implies there were many Svalbard reindeer wandering and eating along the mountain.
We stopped for a moment to stretch our legs and I was able to get quite close to a baby Svalbard reindeer who had the smallest antlers.
After our brief stop we continued on through Semmeldalen before passing through Adventdalen. There was a very steep hill where I had to press firmly on the gas to make sure that I got up it.
Some members of our group didn’t make it up. So Svein had to go back and help them. Therefore leaving myself and 2 others with a flare gun and some simple instructions: “There aren’t usually many bears around here. But just in case, make sure you shoot in front of the bear, not at it, and not behind it as to scare it into running towards you.”
Needless to say, I waited on my snowmobile ready to fly out of there if the need arose.
It didn’t, luckily.
Once the entire group had successfully made it up the hill we all drove off through the Longyear Glacier towards the sparkling city lights of Longyearbyen in the distance.
That evening, after we returned the snowmobiles and said our good-byes to Svein, we settled comfortably back into our room at Guesthouse 102.
During dinner we spoke to some of the fellow travelers who had been on a day trip to the east coast but had to turn around due to the snowstorm and had been unsuccessful in spotting any polar bears.
We felt incredibly lucky that we were able to experience the beauty of a polar bear in the wild during our overnight snowmobile safari. Despite some of the rough weather on the second day, this expedition was absolutely incredible and I would love to have another opportunity to embark on this journey again.
During our two day snowmobile expedition in Svalbard we traveled a total distance of 300 kilometers (186 miles). In the vast expanse of nothing but snow and ice, you will feel as though you are a part of the nature and the landscape. We went hours without seeing other people and I loved the feeling of solidarity that came with that.
Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions offer a wide array of trips, ranging from day trips to multi-day expeditions. We chose the 2 day snow mobile wildlife safari trip and rented the sleeping bag for an extra cost of 500 NOK ($60 USD). When we were not on our overnight snowmobile expedition we stayed at the cozy Guesthouse 102.
So, what are you waiting for? Would you like to seek out adventure in Svalbard on an overnight snowmobiling trip?