Svalbard preparation

My next big adventure is to Svalbard. In November. I know. I guess I’ve realised that was a bit of a mad idea.

So I did some homework. I’m a big believer in doing some research, especially if you’re going somewhere special and there isn’t anywhere more special than Svalbard.

What have I learnt? Well, temperatures in November average -11°C. Average. That means it’s going to be really, really cold. That means I need to invest in at least a couple of sets of merino thermals. My Primark ones have always been good enough (Primark thermals are astonishingly good; the best I’ve ever owned so far) but it’s time to up my thermal game. Likewise, I’m going to need a bigger winter coat. Mine is good and warm and perfect for mainland Scandinavia but I’m not going to be able to fit as many layers underneath it as Svalbard’s winter requires. I’m probably ok for everything else, I’ve spent enough time in Iceland and Lapland to have acquired adequate gloves and hats and boots.

Then there’s the atmospheric conditions. Svalbard has five seasons: spring, summer, autumn, dark winter and light winter. Guess when I’m going? I’ll be there in dark winter! It’s far enough north that in November, the sun isn’t going to rise above the horizon at all. However, what I’ve learnt is that it isn’t going to be pitch black the whole time. You see, between day and night comes twilight and there are three kinds of twilight, depending on how far below the horizon the sun is. The lightest twilight is civil twilight. Svalbard won’t get that in November but it will get at least a few hours of nautical twilight, which is when it’s light enough to see the horizon but need a torch for close-up stuff and it’ll get a little bit of astronomical twilight, which is dark enough that an amateur like me won’t notice the difference between it and night.

The internet said the darkness isn’t necessarily complete. The moon, stars and Northern Lights shining on the snow will light it up a bit – having been out in the dark on a snowy night in Iceland under a full moon, I can agree with this. Midnight was almost as light as day. So I had a look at the moon that week. It’ll be a half moon but that particular week, it won’t make it above the horizon. So I’m entirely dependent on stars and the Northern Lights, which I’m hoping to see enough that I get sick of them by the time I go home.

Next are the polar bears. Svalbard was quite famously the scene of a polar bear fatality in 2011. They don’t generally wander into town, so I should be ok between the hotel and the supermarket (which is likely to be expensive) and I’m not stupid enough to think I can venture out of town alone. You need a rifle for protection, you need a permit and you need to know how to use the thing. Not knowing how to use the rifle is one of the biggest causes of injury in Svalbard and I don’t intend to become another of its numbers. No, I intend to be going out as part of a group trip with a professional. I’d love to see a polar bear in the wild – who wouldn’t? – but I have no desire to shoot one or to see anyone else shooting one. Fortunately, shooting is the last resort. You shoot flares at it first to try to frighten it away. All the same, if the opportunity comes up in the next two and a half months to learn how to handle a rifle, it might not be a stupid idea to take it.

I’m taking the quickest flights there from London and it’ll still take me upwards of fifteen hours to get there. Previous attempts at investigating flights have been incredibly expensive but actually, this is costing me less than I’ve often paid for flights to Iceland and the reason I’m going is, basically, that it’s cheaper and easier than getting to Norway North Cape, which was where I originally intended to go that week. I’ll change planes at Oslo and I may change planes at Tromsø, although Opodo doesn’t seem sure about that. Flights from London to Longyearbyen can take up to fifty-two hours and up to three changes, according to Skyscanner, my go-to for anything a bit out of the ordinary like this, so I’m very lucky to get such a quick flight. Flights home are much quicker and easier, for some reason. I guess there’s not many flights in and out of Longyearbyen and coming home aligns better with flights out of Oslo than going in does with flights into Oslo.

It’s madness. I look at a map and I look at how far north I’m going and I shudder and wonder why I’m doing it. Svalbard is about as far north as your average tourist can possibly get. It’s about as far north as it’s possible to go unless you’re doing an actual North Pole expedition. It’s further north from Iceland than Iceland is from home. It’s at 78° north. Home is about 51° north, Reykavik is 64° north. I go on Google Maps, I go up to Iceland, then across to Norway and then up and up and up and up. It’s horrifyingly far north. I have a feeling I have far more homework to do but I have two and a half months to do it.

If you’ve been to Svalbard, or if you’re going to, and you know things I should know, please tell me. Is there anything in particular I shouldn’t miss out on doing or seeing or experiencing in Svalbard in dark winter?