What it's like camping (and swimming stark naked) at 78° north in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
I've wanted to go to Svalbard for years. I nearly added it on to my trip to Norway in 2015 – my first real solo travel experience – and then again last year when I went to Greenland. I kept talking about going and in the end got fed up of hearing myself say it. So a few months ago, I booked.
Originally, I chose flights to coincide with my birthday in mid-May, but I later found out that the Longyearbyen campsite, which is where I really wanted to stay, would not open until June. Oops. So I changed my flights to fly from Zurich to Oslo on June 2. The next day, I flew to Tromsø. And the day after that, I flew to Longyearbyen.
Svalbard is further north than I've ever been; 10° further north than Ilulissat on Greenland's west coast where I spent some time last June. And there's a real magic to experiencing it in a tent. I booked the Longyearbyen campsite for three nights, choosing to rent everything from them (tent, sleeping bag and mat) to let me travel light and have warmer equipment than I'd bring. I was given a tent that had apparently made it all the way down to Antarctica thirty years ago, plus two extra warm sleeping bags. They treat you well in Longyearbyen. I was very cosy.
As it's the start of the summer season, a lot of snow has been melting lately – and you can tell. The ground is a bit like a swamp in places. But a beautiful swamp nonetheless. You can camp here when the campsite is closed, but you won't get to use the building. It's certainly doable, but the hot showers, kitchen, and warm sitting area are just so good at the end of a busy day. And again, it saves space in your bag as you won't need gas, cooking stuff, etc.
It wasn't so busy during my stay, with a maximum of five others on any day. There were a few Dutch people, some who had done the Svalbard Marathon the weekend before and one couple who were keen to expand their Arctic swimming credentials with help from Wim Hof breathing techniques. They went in the water four times during their stay and had also recently swum at Jan Mayen, the volcanic island (life and relationship goals right there).
I got here mid-afternoon on Sunday, sorted out my tent a little bit, and then rented a bicycle from the campsite (100NOK for the day) to cycle into town. It's about a 15-20 minute cycle ride or a one-hour walk. It's a fair distance, but you're literally right next to the airport (just walk down the hill directly in front of the exit, avoiding the drain pipe that looks like a path but really shouldn't be walked on, my bad). That has its advantages. When booking tours, you can also always choose to be picked up from the airport.
The town has one supermarket and four or five outdoors shops, which was fine by me. It's a little problematic on public holidays though, which is what this Sunday was. The supermarket was closed, but there was a tiny corner shop with the weirdest possible selection of food on offer – foie gras, caviar, huge tubs of yogurt but no normal-sized portions, truffle paste, and an ice cream freezer taking up 1/10 of the space. But I made it work, and actually got food that would last me my whole three days at the campsite. I packed my goodies into my bag and headed back to the campsite.
I arrived back warm from the cycle and decided to jump in headfirst into my first challenge – literally. It was arctic dive time. The campsite has gained a name for itself through its Arctic Naked Bathing Challenge, requiring you to take a swim plus a full dive in the fjord... without any clothes on.
The campsite warden, a brilliant Dutch woman called Pine, went down with me to the water, carrying her temperature measuring stick. And to be honest: it wasn't actually as bad as I thought it would be. I was prepared for much worse. Being warm from my bike ride and there being a complete lack of wind almost certainly helped though. For me, the air was 5 degrees celsius, the water 2 degrees.
The most difficult part was trying to get out of the water over the slippery rocks, my feet feeling a bit numb and useless. But I did it! And I got the certificate and my name on the door; the sixth crazy person to head into the water this season so far. Also: you get a free shower token if you do it.
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One of the best parts of camping is the wildlife around you. Svalbard, of course, is no exception. While there were no polar bears (the airport covers the watch for the campsite, thank God), there were a few other locals to keep me company. Reindeer visited quite often, as did a little Arctic fox that was midway through exchanging his white winter fur for a grey-brown summer option.
There were also some nesting Arctic terns that were very keen to protect their nests. I heard that more than a few campsite visitors have been pecked from getting too close.
The campsite is Dutch-owned and currently Dutch-led by Pine the warden too – and there's an incredible supply of Dutch chocolate, Tony's Chocolonely, too. If you're here, you have to buy some. It's 40NOK for a bar and well worth it. My first bar was the dark chocolate with pecan and coconut, but my second one was the real winner - salted caramel. It's in an orange pack and quite possibly one of the best things to have arrived on Svalbard by boat lately.
If you're going to Svalbard, you probably want a bit of adventure in your life. So I'd heartily recommend the campsite. Get close to nature, feel the elements, and recapture the joy of a warm cup of tea after a day in the snow. I'll bet you'll remember it well.