What to Expect on a Svalbard Polar Bear Tour

If observing polar bears in their natural habitat is at the top of your bucket list for 2019, your best bet is to take a voyage to the ends of the Earth to Svalbard. If you’re unfamiliar with this tiny Norwegian archipelago (located between mainland Norway and the North Pole), we’re here to share everything you need to know, including what to expect on a Svalbard polar bear tour, and more.

Travel to: The Arctic Circle

A lone polar bear in the wild

Nothing compares to seeing a polar bear in the wild |© Christopher Michel/Flickr


Capital CityLongyearbyen
CurrencyNorwegian Krone (NOK)
Sovereign StateKingdom of Norway
Official languageNorwegian

Why you need to visit Svalbard

Known as one of the northernmost inhabited areas in the world, Svalbard is famous for its snow-capped mountains, endless fjords, magnificent glaciers, and of course, hundreds of polar bears that grace the surrounding ice sheets, among other other Arctic animals.

What type of travellers are best suited to a Svalbard polar bear tour

This remote and rugged destination in the past were reserved for groundbreaking adventurers or extremely wealthy explorers, rather than first-time travellers. Nowadays, an expedition towards the waters of the Arctic Circle is much more accessible, and almost anyone can explore the incredible terrain of Svalbard with a similar level of comfort as a trip across mainland Europe.

On board one of the ice breaker ships looking over the front of the ship

Life onboard the ship will be an experience like no other | © Christopher Michel/Flickr

When to visit Svalbard

Before you start to plan your trip, you need to ask yourself a few essential questions to determine what type of experiences will capture your attention. Is a polar bear tour or cruise your first and only priority when visiting Svalbard? Do you want to see the aurora borealis, or would you instead go snowmobiling across the snowfields? Maybe you’re aching to go hiking or kayaking?

Each of these experiences is best enjoyed at different times of the year. Allow us to break it down for you:

  1. The Aurora Borealis (November to February) – For many travellers, the aurora borealis is the holy grail of experiences, and in Svalbard, it is best experienced during the colder months. However, note that much fewer tours run during this time, as polar cruise ships can’t sail through the ice.
  2. Snowmobiling or dog-sledding (February to May) – If you want to go snowmobiling or dog sledding, the best time to visit is between February to May as there will still be enough snow and enough light to participate in this activity safely.
  3. Polar bear excursions (May to September) – For polar bear excursions, the best time to visit is in summer, as this is when the ice melts and ships can navigate the icy waters.
  4. Glacier hiking (February to May) – If glacier hiking sounds like your type of adventure, the best time to visit is between February to May. Similar to snowmobiling or dog sledding, this is the time of the year when it’s safest to participate in this activity.
  5. Kayaking (May to September) For travellers who hold kayaking through the fjords at the top of their must-do list, the summer months between May to September is the ideal time for this activity, as some of the ice will have melted away.
An infographic depicting the best times to visit the arctic circle

The best time to visit Svalbard is in the summer, when you can participate in a full range of activities | © TourRadar

What to expect on a Svalbard polar bear tour

What will the expedition cruise ship be like?

Depending on the tour operator or who you book with means the ships will vary. However, there are a few similarities. The most important feature of all vessels in this region is the ice-strengthened hull which enables the boat to navigate the Arctic waters with ease. As for the vessel size, the number of cabins on board may host as few as 50 twin-share cabins, and as many as 80-100.

Other small luxuries on the boat will include 24-hour tea and coffee available, a sauna to warm up after a long day outside animal spotting, a polar-themed library, a bar, a small gym, and even a clinic with a licensed doctor onboard, so you know you’ll be in good hands.

Person sitting on a ship looking out into the icebergs

Take time to enjoy the views on the boat | © Guillaume Baviere/Flickr

What type of activities can you expect on a Svalbard polar bear tour?

The best part about a polar bear cruise is that the trip takes place during the time of the year when 24-hour daylight takes place, meaning wildlife can be seen at any time of the day while you’re on the boat. But fear not: you won’t be stuck on the vessel for days at a time.

During your days on the ship, you can expect to embark on regular excursions in a small Zodiac boat in search of wildlife, and, weather depending, you can participate in optional activities such as kayaking or snowshoeing in search of more animals.

Views over Longyearbyen

Views over Longyearbyen | © Christopher.Michel/Flickr

What is the food like on a Svalbard polar bear tour?

Unlike the polar bears, you won’t need to search long and far for your next meal. While you’re on the boat, a dedicated team of chefs will be on hand to deliver a delicious buffet breakfast and lunch, and a three-course meal each night. 

Just remember that in the colder regions your body will be using far more energy to stay warm, so don’t be afraid to treat yourself with an extra serving (or two) during your polar expedition.

What will the weather be like on a Svalbard polar bear tour?

While Svalbard might seem to be covered in ice year-round, the temperatures in the summer months (June-August) average around 3-7°C.

What should I pack for a Svalbard polar bear tour?

The only thing you need to remember when packing: layers, layers, and layers! When you’re on the ship, you’ll need to be mindful that you’ll be moving from the inside of the ship to the outside at just a moment’s notice when a polar bear decides to approach the side of the boat! Once you do step outside, wearing layers will help to prevent a chill from hitting you, as you could quickly end up standing out on the deck watching wildlife for a long time. Other items you’ll need to pack:

  • Waterproof pants and jacket
  • Thermal bottoms and a long sleeve top
  • Neck warmer
  • Sunglasses
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Casual clothes including jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, yoga pants, or relaxed shirts to wear on the boat
  • Bathing suit for the polar plunge (if you’re feeling brave)
  • Waterproof bag/backpack

Are you up for the challenge? Take a look at our top tours to Svalbard here.