Braving the eternal ice: Your guide to dog sledding in Spitsbergen, Svalbard (even for first timers)
A bone-chilling wind blows against my cheeks, while my arms are desperately clinging to the handle of the sled racing precariously over the white mountain backs. The passing mountains and ice are all but a blur, accompanied by the constant barking and howling of the dogs pulling me ever onwards. Yet few things feel as natural as dog sledding in Spitsbergen. Thousands upon thousands of years of breeding culminate in my perfect adventure among the eternal ice wastes. The dog sled has been the favorite mode of transport for the Inuit and it became mine in a matter of minutes.
For the inhabitants of Svalbard, dog sledding is a hobby. These days snowmobiles are the most popular mode of transportation, and, one might add, arguably the most reliable and fastest way to get anywhere during the long arctic winter. That being said, almost every permanent settler in Spitsbergen has a dog pen somewhere. Most of them will offer dog sledding tours in one way or another.
So here came my chance at experiencing a true adventure at minus 30 odd degrees. I really can’t remember the name of the guys I finally ended up booking – my hotel took charge of all the arrangements (read all about hotels in Spitsbergen here). If you are a bit flexible with time and date, I am quite positive that you can work something out locally as well.
The dog sledding experience begins
There are no dog pens to be found directly inside Longyearbyen. I am not sure if they are banned or not, but it certainly makes sense. You wouldn’t want to hear the barking and howling of the dogs all night. This is why a car picked me up directly at the hotel, along with 5 other travelers who booked the tour and drove us a couple of miles outside into a lonely valley.
There a lonesome farm awaited us in the shadows of the faint arctic sun. Barely more than a little shack was surrounded by a sheer endless mass of dog huts. I didn’t count them, but I’d wager there were more than a hundred huskies all in all. Some of them more than ready for your picture book!
Not wasting any time, our guide quickly introduced us to our gear. Even though I was already wearing 4 layers, he gave us an extra overall on top. Professionally warded against minus 27 degrees Celsius on that day I looked more than a bit like the Michelin Man. Made me wonder, despite the soothing explanations of the guide, how the dogs fared with their scant bit of fur.
This might be a good time to add that this was my first time ever going dog sledding. I’ve seen a couple of races before but never did I actually steer one myself. And this, to be quite frank, is the amazing part of the dog sledding experience in Spitsbergen. Even as an utter beginner you will be able to master the sled. That being said the guide took a few minutes to tell us something about the beautiful dogs before we got right into it.
Steering my own dog sled
Two people were assigned to one sled – naturally, we had to hook up the dogs ourselves. That turned out to be harder than originally thought. The huskies are very strong, and, after a long day doing nothing, very, very eager to finally get going. Once everything was set the guide detailed the most important commands. But do not be afraid! It really boils down to stop and go. The smart creatures will handle the rest on a proper track.
And as short as this explanation we set out. The tracks skidded along a hillside and then entered a sweeping valley. I have to admit those first few meters were a nightmare. Going straight on a dog sled is very easy. Basically, you just need to stand upright and let go. But when the tracks aren’t even the sled will continuously pull to the right or to the left – ready to tip over. I had to hold for dear life while counterbalancing the sled by leaning to the left; much like on a sailboat.
The more than bumpy start had my dog sledding-partner so scared that he was content with sitting in the front seat for the rest of the day and leaving the reins to me. To be fair I got used to the needs of dogs and sled very quickly. I am not sure if I was a natural (since the other teams had quite a few problems) but after the first kilometer, I started to thoroughly enjoy the trip.
I was quite amazed how fast the dogs pulled the sled. In fact, I had to use the breaks very, very often. On the downhill passages, I had to do full breaks, pressing on them with all my body weight, as not to topple offer. (The breaks are little more than iron claws in between the runners. By pressing or standing on them the claws dig into the snow and slow down the sled.) Later, I would learn that this is in fact quite normal. You also have to actively push the sled upward. Else the dogs will just stop running thinking you’d break, when in fact, it’s just your bodyweight slowing down the sled going upwards.
Every couple of mile or so our team, consisting of our guide and 3 more sleds, would stop. Dog sledding is, all in all, quite exhausting and these stops were more than welcome. Our guide also brought along warm tea and other amnesties to warm us up a bit. Honestly, that wasn’t really needed. Sure my face (the only part of my body being marginally exposed to the air) was cold. Due to frequently running along the sled or pushing it I was, in fact, feeling comparable warmish. Or let’s put it differently – despite minus 20 something degrees I was not constantly shivering.
Among the fading arctic light, more than 20 kilometers into the white nowhere, we would finally turn around heading back on the same track. This time I had to lean to left, where before I had to throw my body weight on the right runner, to keep the sled upright. Whoever decided to use tracks straight on a hillside certainly didn’t think of first-time mushers like me. Okay, I admit – I am exaggerating. I managed and I managed well all things considered! There were only a few of these hillside passages. And after all, I really wanted some challenge. Going around a straight level track would have been boring for a day trip, eh?
Here is a video of how I fared:
Hope this could give a good impression of what to expect from dog sledding in Spitsbergen as a beginner. Be aware that there are way more tours offered. Given time and preparation (and skill lol) you could also go on longer tours. Since the weather can be quite unpredictable and of course bone-chilling cold these tours are better left to the real pros!
What to wear for dog sledding
Like I already told you, the tour operators will normally provide you with a warm overall, gloves and shoes. Despite that, you should dress as warmly as possible underneath. Do wear everything in layers – that even applies to socks and gloves. Start with something very thin and work yourself upwards. I wore skiing underwear, another pair of thicker skiing underwear, and a full hooded mountaineering suit, two pairs of socks, thin finger gloves (the only way to take pictures!), fingerless arctic mittens and a balaclava. In terms of balaclava, it pays off to bring one or two spares (the freezing moisture will make it very hard to breathe at a time).
Also, don’t forget to protect your skin. Taking along a very fat sunscreen will quite literally save your nose. Getting frostbite is easier than you think – especially since your numbed nerves won’t let your notice it. Also bring along sunglasses.
Price of sledding in Spitsbergen
Dog sledding tours in Spitsbergen will come at quite a steep price. Do not be surprised if they quote 200 Euro or more for a day tour per person. Norway isn’t exactly a cheap place to start with, and the harsh conditions of the arctic don’t make sustaining a business easier. Fodder and for dogs, the rent for the special equipment and of course a guide needs to be covered by your fee. All things considered, 200 euros is, in fact, a fair price and one that is well worth the adventure you will experience.
Is dog sledding in Spitsbergen worth it?
Spitsbergen is a world of ice and snow. So be warned – the eternal ice wastes really brought me to my limits. Still, I hope that I was able to highlight dog sledding as one of the best things you can do there. The animals are amazing in more than one way. They give you the unique opportunity experience the imposing nature without the disturbingly loud noises of motorized crafts. I’ll even go as far as saying that you haven’t been to Svalbard if you haven’t been on a dog sled at least once.