When the first explorers discovered the glacier-covered archipelago about 1,000 miles above Norway called “Svalbard”, the land probably appeared slowly from the grey arctic backdrop, the imposing mountains silhouetted like a Lovecraftian alien planet. For me, Svalbard came suddenly into view from an ever-lightening night sky as my plane traveled further North. The dark of Oslo turned to twilight as the anticipation at 20,000 feet grew. Suddenly, someone in the plane audibly gasped. High mountains of jagged rock and stark white snow emerged from misty cloud cover below. The land looked magic and strange in that dim daylight so foreign to 1 AM. Daydreams of long abandoned hunting cabins, silent mining towns, and the sublime feeling of untrodden earth under my boots filled my head as the cabin pressure began to lessen.
My fellow passengers and I emerged blinking in wonder into the brisk air and walked from the plane to the Longyearbyen Airport terminal. Several small maintenance buildings were connected to the main grey terminal, which stood out like a rectangular corrugated monolith against the mountains in the distance. It was August, and I’d arrived slightly too late in the summer to experience the midnight arctic sun. However, I quickly ascertained by a westerly lightness in the color of the sky that the sun was lingering just below the horizon line, casting the airfield in dream-like nautical twilight.
Even in the middle of summer, Svalbard is chilly, though certainly not as cold as one might expect the arctic to be. That night it was about 39 degrees Fahrenheit. When planning my trip in the comfortable lounge chairs of a Dublin city cafe, I’d studied the average temperature for August and assumed, “well, its above freezing, so I’ll be alright.” Now stepping over the threshold of the aircraft door, and feeling the first gust of wind and cold rain droplets collect in my hair, I realized my miscalculation. This would not be a problem for most of my fellow travelers, who were due to board a small armada of immaculately maintained (and most-importantly heated) Norwegian shuttle buses to accommodations in Longyearbyen. However, I would be spending my first night under the arctic sky in a tent. After so much time hiking in an unusually warm Irish summer, I’d forgotten a universal rule of camping: It is one thing to hike in the cold, it’s another to be stuck outside and try to sleep in it.
I wasn’t completely unprepared for a cold night outside. I had just spent a few days resting my blistered feet at Bogstad Camping about 6 miles outside of Oslo. Before that, I’d completed a 30 mile trek in Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula from Tralee to the town of Dingle itself. I’d learned my way around my summertime gear during that time and had spent a few cold and rainy Irish nights in various sheep pastures and fields. Still, I’d prioritized ultralight gear in my planning to keep my luggage down to one bag. Because of this, my sleeping bag was very thin (A North Face Lynx synthetic bag for those wondering), and I was pushing the extreme edge of its comfort limit by adding a Thermolite liner. Despite my poor planning, I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to sleep under an arctic sky, no matter how cold I might feel. I grabbed my large German-made hiking backpack (Deuter Aircontact Pro 60+15) off the only baggage carousel in the airport, and I trudged down the hill towards the sea. Ahead of me, on a stretch of flat mossy ground between the waters of Isfjorden and the airport, was Longyearbyen Camping.
Under a misting rain I navigated the rocky switchback path down an embankment and selected a small patch of moss on which to spend the night. There were several considerations to my selection, one of which was very much unique to my location. Naturally I wanted to not set up my tent in a low spot given the threat of heavier rain. Because it was half past 1 in the morning, out of courtesy I wanted to keep my distance from any other tents while I pitched camp. But most importantly in my mind, I wanted to not be the outermost tent. This was because Svalbard is well known for having more polar bears than people. Even though I knew that the campsite was surrounded by a loose perimeter of cabins and the airport runway, I figured I’d sleep better with a little extra buffer zone around me.
On a soft bed of damp moss, I spread out my tent footprint (MSR Hubba Hubba NX). The wind fluttered the tent fabric, unfolding and holding it aloft for me to pin down. I snapped the structure of the poles together as quickly and quietly as I could. I was not fast enough however, as by the time I had fixed the rain fly onto the poles, a blanket of water beads covered the floor of my tent. Anxious to get out of the wind and get some rest, I climbed inside and set out my belongings which were stored in a rainbow of color-coded dry-bags. I then put on every piece of clothing I had to keep warm. This included wool base layers, a wool and a synthetic mid layer, a pair of hiking trousers, my thickest boot-socks and sock-liners, gloves, and a wool hat.
About five minutes after I had completed the arduous task of zipping the sleeping bag around myself into a cocoon set atop a crinkling inflatable mattress, I realized a second oversight. Hiking clothing is designed to keep you warm in motion, keeping in body heat while venting sweat through thin but thermally retaining layers. However, in a static sleeping position, a combination of thin technical layers isn’t as effective as you might think. Despite the multitude of space-age fabrics adorning my shivering body, I was not comfortable. What’s worse, I realized I’d left a half-eaten granola bar in my backpack under the vestibule of the tent. I momentarily feared a bear walking hundreds of miles to find my granola bar under several layers of damp nylon and then finding me. This scenario lingered in my mind for a moment. To me it seemed the most improbable and stupidest way to die. The thin walls of my tent did little to block out the dim light of the sky, and even without any sort of headlamp I could see clearly in my tiny nylon enclosed world. A deep breath in, and I relaxed my body. My shivering subsided. The arctic wind moved slowly outside. Dreams of polar bears and an untouched land seeped into my soul like the cold seeped into the patchwork of fabrics close to my skin. I could see my breath glide in front of my face. A moment later, and I was asleep in the northern-most populated area on Earth. I have never fallen asleep feeling so happy in all my life.
If you are planning on traveling to Svalbard, I highly recommend you spend your first night at the campsite by the airport. I have woken up in hostels, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, on the floor of friend’s apartments, and campgrounds next to RVs and motor homes. Only once have I woken up to the sublime splendor of a bright arctic morning in the chill of late summer. I could hardly contain myself while unzipping the tent vestibule. The zipper caught the rain flap several times in my haste to open it. In the first waking moments of my day I emerged into the cold air at the mouth of Isfjorden, in sight of Longyearbyen and majestic mountains and glaciers across the bay. The calls of migratory seabirds filled the morning. I cried. I really did.
I must admit I did not camp for my entire time on Svalbard. After a few chilly nights at Bogstad camping outside of Oslo, I’d made the decision for my time in Svalbard to book two nights in a hotel room and one in a hostel bunk-bed. Even in continental Northern Europe, I found my sleeping bag to be severely lacking for warmth. Shivering myself to sleep in the dark outside of Oslo, I knew I wouldn’t sleep well with my current gear much further north. Besides that, Longyearbyen Camping is a fair distance from the town of Longyearbyen itself, and I very much wanted to spend time exploring the settlement. I decided I’d allow myself to relax after a few weeks on the trail and enjoy proper accommodation. My first night in Svalbard was sacred to me however and was certainly not to be wasted in the comfort of a hotel room. Instead, I woke up cold, but fully satisfied I’d made the right choice to camp. How many people get to say that they spent a night at the most northern campsite in the world? I quickly broke down my tent and folded away what little gear was still dry. My damp rainfly came with me to the lodge. I needed to pay for my stay and cook up a dehydrated breakfast with instant coffee.
The main lodge of Longyearbyen camping is a stout and cozy dwelling with the most incredible views of any accommodation in all of Longyearbyen. There is a kitchen, toilets, and showers, as well as a common area. The guys who run the campsite are some of the coolest people I’ve met while traveling. The campsite is owned by someone from the Netherlands, and it is staffed by a group of lovely Dutch folks who know the owner through one means or another. The guy running it the season that I visited was named Job. He wore a Mohawk haircut and spoke with a thick accent, which I embarrassingly mistook to be Norwegian. He politely corrected me. Job had instructed me via-email to simply pitch my tent wherever I liked when I arrived at night and to pay him in the morning. The campground staff are quite laid back, though of course they insisted that I sign the usual paperwork which released the campsite from liability if I was eaten by a polar bear.
When I spoke to Job about paying for my stay, he pulled a small sticker-covered lock-box from beneath his desk and asked me for the equivalent of about fifteen US dollars in Norwegian Krone. I had neglected to bring any cash at all. Job then told me that the only ATM on Svalbard was in Longyearbyen, about a mile down the road. In retrospect, I probably should have assumed the northern most campsite on Earth would not have a credit card machine, given that I’ve been to camp grounds in far-less-remote New Hampshire that don’t have them either. However, Norway is a remarkably technologically connected country. In one of the countless YouTube videos I’d watched on Svalbard before visiting, I’d been informed that everywhere, even the buses, take credit cards. This turned out to be correct for all of Longyearbyen. Apparently, I had found the one place where it wasn’t. Job was very nice about it though, and I promised I’d pay him on my way out of town to the airport. I even offered to leave something behind as collateral. Job laughed at me and shook his head. I still felt bad. “Hey, I mean I can’t just run off” I said, running my mouth. “Don’t all you guys own guns up here?” Job gestured to the locker against the far wall of his room and ran his hand through the strip of hair on his head, “Yeah, I own three.”
A quirk of Svalbard is that it is the only place on Earth residents are required by law to own a firearm of ample caliber to bring down a bear. This makes sense in a place with no roads between remote settlements and an estimated two polar bears for every one person. This isn’t as scary as it might seem. Because the sun never sets in the summertime, bears are easily spotted before they can enter a settlement. However, in winter and during the long arctic night when it is dark for two months, the bears can be stealthy and deadly. I asked Job about walking to town from the campsite, as I had read online that the road was technically outside of the safe-zone of the town. “Yes, it’s possible,” Job told me. “Because of the cars, and because it’s very rare to see a bear this far south in the summer.” Job then added, “During winter though, it’s very dangerous in the dark.”
In the kitchen I boiled water in my camping pots at the stove despite the presence of communal cookware. I decided that I might as well use my fancy MSR cook-set if I’d lugged it this far. The cup of instant coffee and paper sachet of oatmeal I ate was one of the most serine meals involving instant oatmeal and coffee ever experienced by anyone I imagine. I cannot express enough the sublime feeling of starting your day in view of fjords and the glacier covered mountains. I finished my coffee sitting on an embankment by the water and played a few tunes on the harmonica.
Longyearbyen camping is friendlier and more bohemian than any hostel I have ever stayed in. They have a plethora of scientific posters in the kitchen explaining the local wildlife. These were left by countless international research teams who have used Longyearbyen Camping as a base. On a small shelf by the door are some postcards for sale. On this same shelf is a signed list of names written by visitors who have jumped naked into the arctic water. This is known as the “Arctic Naked Bathing Club.” To join, a staff member of the campground must sign off that he/she witnessed your feat of bravery. In effect, this is the site of the world’s northern-most polar plunge. My biggest regret of my time on Svalbard is not joining this elite group of adventurers.
While I struggled to hang my tent rainfly off the porch in the wind, the Dutch folks who worked for the campground were laughing that someone appeared to have vomited up curry in one of the toilets. The guy who had drawn the short straw and had to clean it up was annoyed but laughed along with his friends. “It isn’t human!” he kept yelling from around the corner. “I hate people so much! I’ve been here four years, and this is the worst I’ve had to deal with!” His friends were all standing around smoking cigarettes in the morning sun, and I laughed with them. The smoke trails and ash floated by my rainfly waving in the breeze like a shapeless green flag. The camp’s collective laundry was hung up on railings and clothes lines in the sun. Between the gaps in the wall of fabric, distant mountains loomed. That afternoon I was due to take a steamship across the fjord to the abandoned Soviet mining settlement of Pyramiden.
Part 2 coming soon!