Learning in the Arctic
Geographers, scientists, sailors and explorers define the Arctic in different ways, but for trekkers, the defining characteristics of the Arctic are the absence of trees, roads, people, cell phone signals and (in summer) sunsets and darkness. Svalbard is an isolated archipelago located at 78 degrees northern latitude, a mere 12 degrees or about 1.000 km., from the North Pole. Svalbard offers every type of terrain found north (or south) of the treeline in the circumpolar regions of the Earth, and thus provides an ideal learning environment for anyone seeking the skills to safely do your own multi-day treks through the polar regions.
In the Arctic, we must traverse the terrain as it was before human populations put their mark on it. That means rock fields, crevassed glaciers, spongy mosses, deep snowfields, wet bogs and untamed melt water rivers. There are no roads, and even faint trails are rare. Normally, we follow the reindeer tracks, as they energy efficiently contour the land. Your boots will be tested here, and gaiters are highly recommended. Light footwear, trail shoes and five fingers will not serve us well in the Arctic. In winter, everything will be covered by one or two metres of snow, and we must be mindful of avalanches and whiteouts and otherworldly snowstorms.
Our courses are for you who want to open up the Arctic wilderness, and explore it under your own steam. Among our students are trekkers preparing their own Arctic adventure, wildlife journalists and photographers working in the Arctic, and researchers preparing scientific field work. We teach the basics, giving you a solid foundation for any prolonged outdoor activity in the Arctic, be it mountain climbing, glacier travel, kayaking, scientific field research, or nature photography.
The Arctic environment is fragile and plants and animals live on an ecological knife’s edge. The Arctic is among the last places on earth left unspoiled by human activity. We want to keep it that way. In Svalbard Trekking we leave no trace in the wilderness. We pack out any and all waste materials. We make driftwood fires only where nothing grows. We pick no plants or other vegetation. We do not collect antlers. We do not disturb wildlife. We do not build cairns or other structures. We bury human waste or throw it in the sea, and we burn the toilet paper. Bring a garbage bag and keep a box of matches with your toilet paper. That way, we get to pass on the land to another next generation of adventurous trekkers.
Svalbard Trekking offers courses for every skill level, and each course is marked with a ‘difficulty rating’ from one to four. One is the equivalent of an easy half-day summer trek through light terrain, while four is a 10-day self-reliant ski expedition through the Arctic winter. If in doubt, just ask us.
Learning by doing
We will cover staying warm and dry, water treatment and hydration, camping in the Arctic, food and nutrition, basic health and safety, polar bear precautions, long-distance trekking routines and land navigation. The goal is mastery of a free and comfortable lifestyle while traveling the Arctic for extended periods of time. We learn this by doing it. Our groups are small, typically four or five, likeminded and self-reliant students. There is no group work. All exercises are individual, and overseen by an instructor. Success is simple: You have done it, on your own, in the field, and when you depended on the results. Then you do it again, just to be sure.
Arctic summers are usually dry and sunlit around the clock, but the weather is notoriously unpredictable and fast-changing, and the forecast is not to be relied on. It is perfectly common for neighbouring valleys to experience completely different weather. Rain is rare, but not at all impossible, so bring proper raingear. Umbrellas will not do here, as rain is often accompanied by forceful winds, and we are sometimes inside dense clouds, where the air itself is wet. Summer temperatures vary but are generally around 5°C or 23°F, but feels less frigid and more ‘fresh’ due to the dry Arctic air. You will feel this when you exit the plain at the airport. The winter weather is cold, dry and often crystal clear under an azure sky, interrupted by horrific whiteouts and howling storms. Be prepared for anything. Winter temperatures are generally around -15°C or 5°F but can go below -30°C or -22°F.
There are no ambulances in the Arctic, and emergencies usually involve calling in a helicopter. When on a course, you are fully covered by our search and rescue insurance, so all you need is your regular travel insurance. Nonetheless, always let us know about anything (yes, really, anything!) that may affect your ability to complete a course before we head out. We can do a lot to accommodate you. Your guide will handle safety issues, and you will notice that we always carry a rifle, a signal pistol, and med kits on all treks. In addition, we carry satellite phones and polar bear trip-wire systems, which surround our tents at night. And yes, you will learn how to use them for yourself.
For our courses, you will need to bring your own basic equipment, which is listed specifically for each course. In general, pack simple, light and solid gear that you have personal experience with using. Forget nothing, do not run out, bring redundancies, and think about what might break, and what you will do when it does. Our courses will give you amble opportunity to critically review your equipment, usually making your backpack lighter and your life outdoors easier and safer.
Polar bear encounters are rare and usually undramatic when they happen. We simply walk the other way. We try to avoid bears and to discourage human contact. Polar bears are usually found on the coastline, on the sea ice, or swimming in the water. They are usually looking for seals on the ice, so If we see no seals and no ice, the odds are that there are no polar bears either. Nonetheless, a few bears are shot on Svalbard every year, and human fatalities happen every decade or so. You should not expect to see polar bears on our treks, as we do what we to leave them alone.