Is your dream to see a polar bear? It was mine too, and we were fortunate enough to make it happen with a lot of luck and a little bit of planning. I’ve shared all the information we learned on our trip in this guide to help you set the best expectations for how to see a polar bear on your next trip to Norway. This guide will tell you when is the best time to see a polar bear, how to see a polar bear, where to see a polar bear, and help you set the right expectations for your trip.
polar bears are not in mainland norway
I repeat, polar bears are not in mainland Norway. To see a polar bear in Norway, you must travel to Svalbard, located high in the Arctic Circle. There is a 0% chance of seeing a real polar bear in mainland Norway. You may see plenty of statues or displays of polar bears, but it’s not the real thing!
where is svalbard?
Svalbard is an archipelago and is part of the Kingdom of Norway. It’s located less than 700 miles from the North Pole and you will have to fly there. Located within Svalbard is the only populated island of Spitsbergen that is home to the town of Longyearbyen. To travel to Longyearbyen, fly to the Longyearbyen (LYR) airport. You can typically find a flight to Longyearbyen from Tromso or Oslo in mainland Norway. This is the only commercial airport located in Svalbard and is the primary town on the island.
I’ll break down the locations for you in an easier way. Longyearbyen is a town located on the island of Spitsbergen that is part of the Svalbard archipelago which is a part of Norway.
Kingdom of Norway -> Svalbard -> Spitsbergen -> Longyearbyen. It was confusing for us at first too!
what is it like in svalbard?
The town of Longyearbyen has a number of hotels, restaurants, and activities from you to choose from to enjoy on your trip. On our trip to Svalbard, we stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel and Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg. We had to stay at two hotels due to weather delays. Which brings me to my next point.
While you are in Svalbard, be flexible! The weather forecast is more of a horoscope in Svalbard. It is very unpredictable at times and it can impact your trip. On arrival, our plane tried twice to land before it touched down at the airport. The flight the day prior had to turn around because of difficult weather conditions. Our flight also got cancelled the day I was expected to leave Svalbard. We stayed an extra night in the town and arrived at our next destination two days later than planned! It impacted the rest of our Norway itinerary, but it was important to stay flexible while visiting Svalbard.
polar bears are protected animals
Svalbard is home to approximately 300 polar bears year-round. As the arctic sea ice continues to recede more each year, polar bears are losing out on their prime real estate. Polar bears are classified as endangered creatures and each year become more at-risk for survival.
there are no polar bear excursions
There are no excursions that you can book to see a polar bear. Polar bears are protected animals and you cannot actively search for them.
Remember, protecting polar bears is the most important priority!
ways to see polar bears in svalbard
The best advice for how to see a polar bear in Norway is to book a boat excursion while in Svalbard. You may just be lucky enough to spot one on your trip! If you do, consider it an exception to the norm and also make sure to enjoy this very special moment.
There are plenty of tour guides that offer a variety of boat tours. You can choose from an enclosed boat or a rib boat, half day or all day, morning or evening, so there’s lots of availability possible based on your preferences. The best place to find excursions and their availability is directly on the Visit Svalbard website. This website had up to date booking availability and made it an easy one stop shop for us. We were lucky enough to spot a polar bear in Svalbard on our “catch of the day” tour through an operating company called Better Moments. This tour took us to see an amazing glacier and we enjoyed eating warm soup as we appreciated its grandeur.
you will rarely see polar bears in the winter
Polar bears have more room to roam in the winter when the sea ice builds up. It will be very rare that you will see polar bears on your trip to Svalbard in the winter since the polar bears have more surface space to live on. There are typically more polar bear sightings in the summer because the sea ice has melted and they are more confined to a certain area.
Svalbard also has 24 hours of darkness in the peak winter months, but you can still find adventure! There are opportunities to see the northern lights and Svalbard is the only place you can see the northern lights in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, polar bear sightings will rarely be part of your winter Svalbard itinerary.
your chance to see a polar bear iN norway is low
Will you definitely see a polar bear while in Svalbard? Absolutely not. Don’t get your hopes up that you will see a polar bear while visiting Svalbard. There’s only a five percent chance of you seeing a polar bear on your trip.
I know what you’re thinking, “so you’re saying there’s a chance”, but the chance is incredibly low. On the tour that we spotted a polar bear, the guide popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate. That’s how rare it is!
don’t go to svalbard just to see a polar bear
Many people go to Svalbard just to see a polar bear, and leave extremely disappointed. Set the right intentions for going to Svalbard and you’ll have an amazing time.
Svalbard is an adventurer’s paradise! There’s so much opportunity to have an action packed trip while in Svalbard. Make sure you are going to Svalbard for the right reasons – to see part of the world many never experience, to get as close to the North Pole as possible, and the chance to see some amazing wildlife like whales, walrus’, and reindeer… and yes, maybe a polar bear.
Your iphone isn’t going to cut it
In the exciting and amazing moment that you spot a polar bear, your IPhone or Android is probably not going to take the best photo. We took a photo of a polar bear with a cell phone and excitedly sent it to my family. Their response? They asked, “Is what we are looking for in the photo?”.
If you are lucky enough to see a polar bear in Norway, don’t expect to get very close. If spotted, boats must maintain a safe distance away from the polar bear. The polar bear should never know you are there! Prepare to pack a quality camera with a high zoom capability to take photos of wildlife in Svalbard.
when to see polar bears
When is the best time to see a polar bear in Svalbard? Plan for a trip to Svalbard in the late summer. We were lucky enough to see a polar bear while visiting Svalbard in August, and this may be the best chance you have to see them.
The tour guide explained to us that the polar bears stay dispersed and primarily stay on the east side of Svalbard throughout the summer and there are rarely any sightings until late in the season. When you start hearing reports of polar bears in the area, it means their food supply on the east side of the island has run out and they have to move towards the west side of the island to hunt until the ice starts to form. The guide explained that this typically happens in August and sightings become more frequent.
During our stay, a mom with a cub was spotted close to Longyearbyen multiple times. We recently learned that they were airlifted to a different area of Svalbard for the protection of both the polar bears and the residents of Longyearbyen.
do not look for polar bears on your own
Can you try to find a polar bear by myself? No way! Visitors in Svalbard are safe to walk around the town of Longyearbyen, but are advised not to go outside town limits without a guide or proper equipment. There are signs warning visitors of the danger from polar bears outside the town’s limits and indicate where those limits are.
You should not go past those signs by yourself! One tour guide explained to me that as long as you can see the town of Longyearbyen, the people in Longyearbyen can see you and this is the safe zone. If you can’t see the town, the people watching over the town for polar bears cannot see you.
When you book an excursion in Svalbard, you will notice all the guides carry two things with them: a flare gun and a rifle. Even our kayak guide had a rifle with him. The guides always carry protection in the event that you come across a polar bear unexpectedly. They are the experts, not you!
After our trip to Svalbard in August, we read in the news about a man who was killed by a polar bear in town only three weeks later. It was the fifth attack in 50 years and happened at a campsite right by the Longyearbyen airport that we had flown in and out of. The polar bear also was killed, and it’s heartbreaking for both the person and the animal.
You should now have all the information you need to plan your trip. If you see a polar bear in Norway, it’s an amazing bonus, but don’t travel to Svalbard only to see polar bears. You are guaranteed to have an amazing time in Svalbard when you set the right expectations.
If you liked reading this guide, pin it on Pinterest by clicking the “pin it” button on the image below!
Please let us know in the comments if this guide helped you, and share any other tips or ideas you have below!
PS. If you liked this article, check out our other articles!