Svalbard: things to know if you go there in winter

This is for VIBI, who asked about my preparations for Svalbard. Now I can tell you about things to know from actual experience.

  • The cold dry air will kill your lips. Take lipbalm of some kind – this is the one thing I have never seen anyone mention and it’s something I can feel and I’m aware of every minute of every day. Ow.
  • Getting from the airport. The bus is waiting outside the airport for any scheduled flight. Dump your bags in the hold, board and the driver will come and collect 75kr from you. He will also announce the stops. First stop is the university/Polar Institute/Museum, second stop is town centre (Basecamp Hotel, Svalbard Hotel & Lodge), last stop is Spitsbergen Hotel. I don’t know what stop the Polarrig is. The tourist information centre (top of the high street) has the times for buses back to the airport.
  • On the subject of the airport bus – they absolutely have a monopoly on this. You can take a taxi for twice the money and less of the convenience (you will probably have to wait for it to arrive whereas the bus is right there) or you could walk the mile and a half but the airport is out of the polar bear safe zone and it’s probably not actually legal to do that.
  • If you’re doing any adventurous activities outside of Longyearbyen (dogsledding, snowmobiling etc), the company will provide thick padded oversuits, thick padded boots and good mittens. You’ll need half-decent base layers and a half-decent coat for general day-to-day getting around but you don’t need anything serious for serious activities. Be aware that you might want your big coat and boots and hat while you’re walking around town but you’ll overheat very quickly if you go into a shop.
  • Polar bears are not the threat they’re made out to be. You will hear the story of the last bear that came to town (to come on this blog later) but generally, they avoid inhabited areas. You almost certainly won’t see one. I met a guide who’d been living here for months and has never seen one. All the same, if you venture beyond the town limits, marked by polar bear signs (get a photo next to these), you will need to carry a rifle and flare gun, although bears aren’t really scared of the flares any more.
  • Nothing is open on Sunday. If you have an afternoon flight on Sunday and have to check out of your room in the morning, you are absolutely stuck for a few hours. If you don’t have a flight on Sunday, make sure you’ve arranged an excursion instead because you’re not going to get anything out of hanging around town.
  • There are at least four or five shops selling outdoor clothing here. There is a supermarket which sells just about everything else, besides food. The pharmacy is in the shopping centre opposite the supermarket. There isn’t a whole lot else.
  • The swimming pool is a little bit further up the valley, about five or ten minutes walk from the top of the high street but it’s only open to the public between 5pm and 8pm on weekdays.
  • You’ll need to take your wet snowy boots off at the door of your hotel, the pool and the tourist information centre. I haven’t encountered this anywhere else.
  • Souvenirs: there’s the fur shop, opposite the Svalbar for fur coats, fur-lined mittens and scraps of sealskin too small to do anything commercial with. A couple of shops in the shopping centre sell t-shirts and blanket badges. My favourite is the outdoors shop next to the fur shop which sells an assortment of hats, water bottles and flasks all emblazoned with Svalbard logos.
  • When you’re booking your accommodation, use one of those price comparison websites. I am in the Svalbard Hotel and I’m paying somewhere between a third and a quarter of its usual price, although I’m aware that’s a much bigger and better bargain than you usually get. There are only five hotels here that I know of (Svalbard Hotel and Lodge, Spitsbergen Hotel, Polarrig, Basecamp and the Radisson Blu which is currently closed for refurbishment in low season) and so there isn’t a lot of competition.
  • You can book activities online, through your hotel and in the tourist information centre. Dogsledding will almost certainly go through Greendog, sightseeing with Maxi Taxi and just about anything else will be Spitsbergen Travel (they only appear to have one guide, the glorious Alex). I recommend activities because you’re going to get very bored very quickly if you try to entertain yourself for more than a couple of hours in Longyearbyen.
  • Some kind of low-profile spikes for your boots may come in helpful. They sell them here – the shop two doors down from the fur shop has big signs proclaiming SPIKES on its doors so I assume you can get them there if you can’t find any at home.
  • Milk is really expensive. I think it’s currently about 38kr ($4.40) a litre but five years ago was 45kr a litre.
  • Yes, it’s dark but you really learn about the nuances of dark here in November. In the morning, if it’s not cloudy, the sky turns the baby blue of early sunrise, only the sun doesn’t come up. Later it’ll turn royal blue and if you go out of town, away from the phenomenal light pollution of Longyearbyen, you’ll find that you can see pretty well without lights.
  • It’s not the temperatures themselves that are the problem here, it’s the wind magnifying those temperatures and a snowstorm even in town can be really painfully dangerously cold.
  • So as to be visible in the dark, all the locals wear reflective things. The kids wear hi-viz vests, the adults wear either reflective sashes or armbands or they wear flashing LED armbands. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to too (I didn’t and I didn’t die) but if you’ve got them handy, maybe stick them in your luggage.

2 thoughts on “Svalbard: things to know if you go there in winter

  1. Hey Juliet,

    Big Thanks for this post. Everything you wrote here is really useful to know. I will keep on following your blog fro upcoming interesting trips.


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