What's the best time to visit the Arctic?
Understanding ‘what’s on offer and when’ is a fundamental part of planning any trip to the North in helping decide when to travel.
A helpful approach is to think in terms of the 3 distinct times to visit: Spring, Summer & Autumn as the trips, activities and areas which are accessible differ markedly across the seasons.
Within each season, each month also displays its own particular nuances.
Arctic Weather Guide
March marks the beginning of The Arctic coming back to life after the long, dark winter. Temperatures are still cold, but the sun edges above the horizon for the first time in months and Arctic people celebrate its return.
On Svalbard, the onset of spring ushers in the best period of the year for exploring by dog sled or snowmobile, making good use of the snow ahead of the summer melt.
With average temperatures of -40°C to -20°C (-40°F to -4°F), the Canadian Arctic is still largely inaccessible for all but the hardest or most determined. In Wapusk National Park, newborn polar bears cubs are emerging from their dens.
The ice which has incarcerated the land all winter is beginning to thaw, while the length of daylight hours and average temperatures are increasing with each passing day. Warmth is starting to creep back into the North.
Svalbard’s summer visitors start to return, signalled by the arrival of walrus from their more southerly wintering grounds. The emergence of mother polar bears from their dens with last season’s cubs coincides with the birth of ringed seals pups - favourite food of hungry bears!
Express helicopter flights to the North Pole only operate in April.
May is characterised by a higher frequency of sunny days and the arrival of the Midnight Sun, which will bathe the High Arctic in 24/7 hours of daylight through to the end of August. The ice is breaking up in coastal areas, providing access for Svalbard’s first ships of the season and returning whales.
The other significant change in May is the arrival of The Arctic’s summer birds who head North annually to breed in their millions. Nesting begins as soon as the cliff ledges become snow-free.
For polar bears it's the time of male courtship battles, while it's peak weaning season for two year old cubs who have now got to find their own way.
The Arctic’s ice and weather patterns may now be less predictable than in the past, however the ebb and flow of the seasons remains distinct and continues to directly influence the activities available.
By June, high summer is in full swing and is marked by a general hive of activity as everyone - man and beast - makes the most of the narrow window of opportunity. Expedition ships will be at their busiest for the next few months and the first icebreaker voyages to the North Pole depart.
Throughout the region, birds in vast numbers crowd every cliff and ledge. Walrus males are moulting and polar bears cubs start learning to hunt from their patient mothers. It's a tough time for newly-weaned seals pups who are now on their own.
Some of the most outstanding wildlife encounters are at the ice floe edge, also known as the ‘line of life’. Possible sightings in northern Baffin Island include polar bears, harp/ bearded/ ringed seals, bowhead and beluga whales.
The continued recession of ice opens up ever larger areas, both on land and around coastal areas.
By July the western side of Svalbard is largely ice free; Hinlopen Strait which allows a full circumnavigation of Spitsbergen though doesn’t typically become ice-free until around mid month. The Canadian High Arctic at last begins to open up for visitors too with the arrival of the first expedition ships.
On the wildlife side, polar bear mating season peaks, walrus aggregate for safety in ‘haul outs’ and egg-laying season attracts the unwanted attentions of opportunist scavengers like gyr falcons, skuas, gulls and arctic fox.
It's peak hatching season and the bird cliffs are in a general frenzy providing bountiful pickings for scavengers and a brief time of plenty for arctic foxes, skuas and gulls.
August is also when the narrow channels of Canada’s Arctic archipelago are sufficiently ice free to allow transits of the fabled Northwest Passage.
As August draws to a close, expedition ships leave Svalbard to head southwards down Greenland’s east coast, taking advantage of the brief access before the pack ice closes back in. Walking the autumnal tundra, stalking musk ox and glimpsing the Northern Lights are highlights.
Dog sledding in spring, standing at the North Pole in summer or encountering polar bear in Churchill in autumn, it's the inexhaustible variety of Arctic experiences which keeps me returning again and again.
Alex Mudd Polar Specialist
The ice has now reached the point of greatest recession and the chilly tentacles of autumn start to be felt throughout the Arctic. As the month progresses, temperatures start to noticeably drop and ice begins to re-form.
A benefit of the nights drawing in again is the chance to experience the Northern Lights on one of the last expedition voyages of the season.
The Arctic’s summer wildlife are preparing to head back south for warmer overwintering grounds. Female polar who mated begin searching for a suitable denning area and preparing for winter.
The expedition ship fleet has now departed Arctic waters, sailing south for Antarctica. Temperatures are plummeting and hover consecutively below zero. Female polar bears are denning, few seals remain and apart from rock ptarmigan all other birdlife has flown south and winter is setting in.
While by October visitors have all but disappeared from the Arctic, for the Canadian town of Churchill - the Polar Bear capital of the World - it's the busiest time of year. Migrating polar bears awaiting the re-freezing of Hudson Bay provide guarantee sightings of the King of the Arctic through October & November each year.
Winter has returned to the ‘Northlands’ and the Arctic is once again incarcerated in its icy girdle. The hours of daylight throughout the region are diminishing. For the people of the Arctic, the onset of winter’s darkness ushers in a time for socialising after the busy summer.
November is a frenetic month in Churchill with ever more polar bears arriving in the area with each passing day. Hunger and close proximity to one another tries their patience as they wait, balanced out by the need to conserve energy.
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