This destination guide covers a snowmobile tour on Svalbard to the Russian mining town of Barentsburg.
A Svalbard snowmobile tour
If there were two activities I knew I wanted to experience in Svalbard, it was taking a snowmobile ride and visiting the unique Russian mining town of Barentsburg.
Fortunately, these two activities can easily be combined in a single tour!
In practice, these two activities can only be done as part of an organised tour.
Even though you can technically rent a snowmobile and head off into the wilderness, it would be a foolish to do without knowledge of the terrain.
Perhaps more importantly, it is actually illegal to head out of Svalbard’s capital of Longyearbyen without a gun to protect yourself against polar bears, and given that a permit to carry a firearm is next to impossible to come by as a tourist, you will have to join an organised tour if you want to take a snowmobile ride or want to visit Barentsburg.
Booking a snowmobile tour
There are many tour operators in Svalbard that can arrange guided snowmobile tours to visit Barentsburg, an activity that will take a full day.
Unsurprisingly, this won’t come cheap.
Remember that while Norway is already expensive in general, Svalbard is even more expensive due to its extremely remote location in the arctic.
I booked my trip through Spitzbergen Adventures via the website Visit Svalbard and paid 3,190 NOK (329 EUR) for a full-day snowmobile tour to Barentsburg.
Overall, I was highly satisfied with the tour outfit and I ended up having a great trip to Barentsburg.
The tour did include everything you need for a snowmobile trip: The snowmobile itself, fuel, a special outfit to wear, helmet, gloves, snowshoes, a lunch in Barentsburg, pick-up and drop-off at your hotel and importantly insurance as well.
If there are two of you, you have the option to save some money by sharing a single snowmobile, with one person riding as a passenger on the back (it is possible to switch positions at a halfway point during the tour).
No prior snowmobile experience is required, although it is important to be physically fit enough to handle the at times heavy steering and maintain concentration for several hours.
You do however need a valid driving licence (class B passenger cars) if you want to ride a snowmobile on Svalbard.
Since all the other participants of today’s tour were staying in various hotels located farther away, I was the last person to be picked up and transported to the Spitzbergen Adventures office, which is situated inside a warehouse on the outskirts of town close to my own accommodation.
The tour commenced with a detailed briefing on the planned route and mandatory health and safety instructions.
After that it was time to dress up for the ride.
We were all provided with a complete snowmobile outfit, which had to be worn over our layered winter clothing and jacket.
It may sound like a lot of clothes, but trust me, you need it to protect yourself from the cold when you are driving at speeds of up to 80kph when the outside temperature is -25 degrees Celsius.
The outfit included a one-piece jumpsuit, special snow boots (worn over your regular shoes), a balaclava, helmet, and special snowmobile gloves.
After the briefing we were driven to the starting point in the middle of Longyearbyen where all the snowmobiles of the tour outfit were parked.
Here, our guide gave all the technical instructions on how to actually operate a snowmobile.
As it was my first time riding a snowmobile, I was definitely curious to see how the experience would be.
It turned out that operating the controls of a snowmobile was actually extremely easy, although it did take me some time to get used to handling the machine on uphill stretches at lower speeds.
Start of the ride
The one-way distance between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg is 55 kilometres and it would take us a few hours to complete the ride.
We were instructed to drive in a convoy, following each other closely.
I was assigned to the rear of our group, which consisted of around 10 to 14 people.
The initial part of the journey took us along the main road in Longyearbyen and across a frozen river in the town’s outskirts.
After crossing the river, we were immediately faced with the most challenging part of the route, as we had to conquer the mountain pass just outside of Longyearbyen.
On flat terrain, it is remarkably easy to steer a snowmobile, even when reaching high speeds of around 80 kilometres per hour (50mph).
I would even argue that steering at high speeds is easier than at low speeds, as it becomes easier to overcome the friction on the skis!
Handling the slow turns of a mountain pass therefore requires quite some physical strength as well as concentration.
Another challenge I encountered was accidentally hitting the throttle lever a few times during the climb up, which caused me to be unexpectedly propelled into corners at high speed instead of reducing speed as intended.
Fortunately, I was able to regain control of the snowmobile each time without crashing.
As the day progressed, I slowly got a better grip of the snowmobile and its controls.
After reaching the summit of the pass we immediately continued our journey downhill and only paused a little later to admire the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
It’s truly a remarkable experience to witness the vast expanse of snow-covered mountains stretching as far as the eye can see without any sign of civilisation.
Once we were down the mountain pass, the rest of the journey to Barentsburg was rather easy, although we still had quite a long way to go.
The journey initially took us across a vast plain where we could simply drive in a straight line in speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour.
About two-thirds into our journey, we entered an area with small hills scattered with rocks.
Navigating through this area required us to slow down significantly as we had to zigzag our way around these rocks and hills.
I was tremendously enjoying the ride.
During the snowmobile tour to Barentsburg we even came across some deer and an arctic fox!
After a while we reached the fjord on which Barentsburg is situated.
Here, we made another stop for photos and to take in the breathtaking views of the mountainous coastline.
Arrival in Barentsburg
After approximately 15-20 more minutes of driving parallel to the coastline, we finally arrived at the Russian mining concession of Barentsburg.
In the next chapter of this trip report I will cover the unique history and sights of Barentsburg, as well as the snowmobile ride back from this Russian mining town to Longyearbyen.
The snowmobile tour to the Russian mining town of Barentsburg on Svalbard was an exhilarating adventure through stunning arctic landscapes.
Although it was not without its challenges, embarking on a snowmobile ride to Barentsburg is certainly possible for a first-timer, provided that you are physically fit for the full-day trip.
A snowmobile tour on Svalbard isn’t cheap, but the beautiful, untouched nature as well as the uniqueness of Barentsburg will make for some great memories you won’t easily forget.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Snow Seeking in Svalbard: A Winter Trip Into the Arctic‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Low-Cost Travel to Norway: Oslo on the Cheap
2. Review: SAS Business and Gold Lounge Oslo Airport
3. Review: Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg Hotel, Longyearbyen
4. Longyearbyen: A Visit to the World’s Northernmost Town
5. A Svalbard Snowmobile Ride to Barentsburg (current chapter)
6. Barentsburg: A Visit to a Unique Russian Coal Mining Town
7. Pastel Winter: The Famous Blue Sunset Skies of Svalbard
8. The Long Way Home: Three Flights From Longyearbyen