Base camp in Spitsbergen during Winter

Svalbard Travel Guide

Practical information

00:15:46
Language(s)
Norwegian
Currency
Norwegian Krone
Time zone
GMT +2

Svalbard history and culture

The first mentions of Svalbard lie in the Icelandic Sagas which tells about a Viking expedition reaching 'Svalbarði' in 1194; writing that is was a few days sail north from Iceland. However, the first documented evidence of humans landing on Svalbard was a Dutch seafarer called Willem Barentsz. He was aiming to find the North Eastern passage, to shorten trade links between Europe and the Indian and Pacific oceans but after landing on Bear island and then Spitsbergen he was lost to a tragedy and unable to return home. After his initial findings, further exploration lead Svalbard to becoming quite commercialised and by the early 1600s Svalbard's walrus population became victim to a hunting  expedition by amateur British trading company, the Muscovy Company. Within several years, they had depleted the archipelago's walrus population to extinction and moved on to whaling. There was a little more competition in this field and tensions rose over fishing rights. The Dutch eventually agreed to partition the island, then when the Muscovy Company went bust, they allowed limited access to the English, French and Danish ships. With whaling occurring on an irreplaceable scale, the whales retreated into open sea and by the end of the 17th century the population of bowhead whale east and west of Greenland had suffered a complete collapse. European whalers roled out, to be replaced by Russian trappers. Staying until the mid 1800s, these hardy folk were the first to voluntarily stay through the winter, trapping for the fur of Arctic fox and Polar Bear. In the late 1700s, they were joined by Norwegian trappers, based on similar products of fox, bear, seal, reindeer and walrus. This was a profitable business up until the mid1900s, with peaks of produce along the way as the animal population declined then rose with a break in trapping, only to decline once more. With the evacuation of all inhabitants of Svalbard in 1941, 400 people had overwintered and trapped.

Alongside these commercial trips, geological and scientific expeditions took place. The results from these expeditions improved our understanding of ocean currents, geological development, the shape of the Earth, Arctic animals and plants. In the 20th century, the need for coal rapidly grew and with the occurrence of the World Wars, Svalbard again became a hotbed, but this time for miners. In January 1920, a tragedy in one of the American mines (known as Mine 1) killed 26 miners. This, along with the harsh elements, steadily drove away all dreams of profits and mining sites were left to ruin in the remote wilderness. Svalbard was a meteorological stronghold in the World Wars and after Germany established a weather station there, the Norwegian Exile Government in London together with the Allied Forces made the decision to evacuate the population to England and Arkhangelsk respectively. They also set alight all the coal left on the island to ensure it didn't fall into German hands. A small allied unit set then set themselves up in Isfjorden area. In response, the Germans proceeded to bomb Grønfjorden in Isfjorden to sink their ships then shelled Barentsburg, Grumant and Longyearbyen, Svea and most of the houses in Van Mijenfjorden. The rest of the war brought no real trouble. 

Svalbard's adventure tourism industry boomed in the late 1900s and it is now a mecca for those wishing to experience authentic, remote landscapes. The wildlife population has grown since the eradication of commercial hunting and a small population has since returned to the northerly regions of Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund. 

Time Zone

The time zone in Svalbard is GMT +1.

Languages

Norwegian

The local language of Svalbard is Norwegian and any attempts to communicate in this dialect will be appreciated. However, most people on the island will also speak English.

Useful Phrases

  • Ja - Yes
  • Nei - No
  • Vær så snill - Please
  • Takk - Thank you
  • Vær så god - You're welcome
  • Unnskyld - Excuse me
  • Beklager - I am sorry
  • God morgen - Good morning
  • Hvordan har du det? - How are you?
  • Jeg heter - My name is

  • Æ - "ah" sound
  • Ø - "ur" sound
  • Å - "or" sound
  • J - "y" sound in yes
  • KJ, KI and KY - soft "k" sound without blocking the throat
  • SJ, SKY, SKJ and SKI - "sh" sound as in shop

Currency

Norwegian Krone

The currency in Svalbard is the Norwegian Krona (NOK).

Please be aware that Svalbard is nearly cash free due to the absence of banks. Payments are made with credit or debit cards so it is important you take a card with you for any incidental purchases. Please inform your card provider that you intend to travel to Svalbard (Norway) before  departure, this will ensure that your card continues to work properly while overseas. 

The the latest exchange rates please visit www.xe.com
USD
NOK

Electricity

Electrical sockets in Svalbard are type F – standard European style with two round pins – and are 230v. However, for the majority of your trip you will be out in the wilderness where there is no electricity. We recommend you ensure everything is fully charged before leaving Longyearbyen and for the really essential equipment like your camera, make sure you have packed some spare batteries.

Weather

Strong winds are a common occurrence in Spitsbergen due to a phenomenon called katabatic winds. As the sun warms the air, this air rises and the cold air around the glaciers flows with gravity down the glacier to the sea. The strength of the wind depends on the size of the glacier, with maximum speeds of around 80kph / 50mph. The weather is usually calm in June and July, with the north winds beginning to blow in August. The wind direction can vary depending on the fjords which will channel the wind – the north and south facing fjords are the most exposed.


There may also be low cloud cover and fog over the mountains during the summer. The weather is very changeable and poor weather does not normally persist for more than 2 days. Light and weather conditions can keep us from being able to distinguish topographical features in the terrain or the transition between land, sea and sky. You lose all visibility and further travel is obstructed. White-outs occur when it is intensely cloudy and snowy, or when the strong winds whirl up snow from the ground.

The average annual rainfall in Longyearbyen is just 200 mm, the record rainfall for a single month only 56 mm. With such low rainfall, Spitsbergen is officially classed as a desert and forms part of the largest desert on earth, the Arctic polar desert. Rain showers are extremely rare, and when they do arrive it is just a light drizzle which only lasts for a few hours while on your Svalbard expedition.

The average temperature during the summer is  approx. 5 degrees. In the winter, temperatures can fall to -30 degrees. The apparent temperature (felt air temperature) can be much lower than what the thermometer tells you, however, due to wind chill, for example a temperature of 5 degrees can feel like -2 with a strong wind. 

Safety and Security

Your safety and well-being is always the number one priority at Kandoo Adventures.


We operate all our travel destinations in accordance with the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advice, which publishes travel advisory notices for British nationals. We also closely follow the advice of ABTA (The Association of British Travel Agents) which provides support to UK tour operators.  

In addition to this, our extensive, directly-managed operations in each of our destinations, provide us with detailed knowledge and up-to-date information, which enables us to make informed decisions and operate our trips safely.

We always recommend that you regularly check the FCDO's travel advice, in order to keep up to date about the country you are planning to visit.

If you are not a UK resident, we would recommend that you visit your government's travel advisory website for further information:



Alternatively, you may wish to visit our Travel Updates page or seek further information from the World Health Organisation.

Lost or delayed luggage

We recommend that you pack as many essential items as possible in your carry-on luggage. If your luggage is delayed we can then do our best to kit you out to start the trek on time. In the event that your luggage is delayed or lost, our procedure is as follows: 


  • Establish what items are missing and a contingency plan for each critical item
  • If it reaches 6pm on the evening before starting the trek and your luggage has not arrived we recommend buying and/or hiring items immediately as a precaution
  • We will take you to a shop where you can buy toiletry items, e.g. toothbrush. You will be able to find everything you need on arrival.

We will do everything we can to help if your luggage is lost or delayed. Be sure to check your insurance policy coverage for lost luggage cover

Polar Bears

Often referred to as the land of polar bears, the presence of bears in Svalbard has a huge impact on daily life. While you may be lucky to see a bear on your expedition, the aim of our expeditions is not to go searching for polar bears; in fact we may even amend our itinerary to move away from an area if bears have been sighted. There are numerous safety rules in place should we encounter a polar bear. Our guides are licenced to carry an obligatory weapon out in the wilderness but this would only be used as a last resort. In the settlements such as Longyearbyen, all buildings are kept unlocked, so if a bear is sighted in the area then people can take shelter in the nearest building.  
Landscape of the North of Spitsbergen

Geography

The Svalbard islands are located between 74° and 81° north, the most northerly part of Europe extending well into the Arctic circle. This region comprises one of the largest deserts on earth, the Arctic polar desert. Despite not fitting into the traditional view of a desert (ie hot and sandy!) the low annual rainfall is low enough to class it as a desert. The ground in Svalbard however is permanently frozen. This is known as permafrost and only the top layer (approx. 1 meter) defrosts in the summer. This freezing prevents water from running further down into the ground, and can cause a very wet terrain. Pingos are tall mounds of gravel-covered ice found in areas of permafrost. A pingo is created by water being pushed up through a weak layer in the permafrost. The water pushes loose soil up and forms a mound. Pingos can be up to 40 meters tall.


This is a stark environment. Around 60% of Svalbard is covered in glacial ice and 30% is barren rock, with mountain peaks rising up to 1700 metres. Glaciers, covering the majority of the island, contain crevasses and channels of melted water that are covered by snow bridges almost all year round. Crevasses and other openings in the glacier are very difficult to spot. The largest crevasses are usually found by the glacier front, in areas with icefall and where the terrain under the glacier is uneven. You will also find crevasses between glacier and mountain, and where glaciers meet. Glaciers can calve on land and into the sea. Calving can also occur in all seasons, causing large cracks and tidal waves in the ice. Small ice bergs formed by calving from the glaciers

are common in the fjords. Drift ice sometimes in large quantities, is common in Svalbard in the summer months.

Svalbard is a land of extremes. During the polar night, from November to February, it remains dark with only moonlight or the northern lights providing any light when the sky is clear. Then from mid April to mid August, the sun never drops below the horizon as Svalbard enjoys the midnight sun.


The arctic climate creates a harsh environment but it is also surprisingly fragile. It is vital that human activity does not have catastrophic effects on these remote areas which are so vulnerable to external influences. Kandoo have long been a supporter of Leave No Trace and we apply these principles in Svalbard as we do in all our destinations to ensure that we help to preserve these unique environments.

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