In 2018, I went to Svalbard for an exchange semester at UNIS. I have been back to Svalbard as a tourist several times since. In October 2022, I will be back as a visiting master student. Preparing for my upcoming studies up there inspired me to write this blog for people who are going to study at Svalbard for the first time. Here are some things to keep in mind when preparing for your studies at UNIS in Svalbard!
There is quite a lot to prepare for a trip to Svalbard, both with regard to planning, as well as with regard to gear and equipment. I will discuss both preparations for studies in summer and in winter, but first, I will note down a list with things I consider most important to prepare before the start of the studies.
Things to prepare well in advance for studies on Svalbard
In this first section I will mention a few things that should be organised well in advance to make your life with regard to studying at UNIS quite a bit easier. The sooner you prepare these things, the smoother your start in Svalbard will be.
Flights to Svalbard: Norwegian or SAS
For starters, despite growing rapidly, Longyearbyen has a rather small scale society. The options to travel to Svalbard are therefore limited, and Svalbard can only be reached through two airlines: Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and Norwegian. The flight options are absolutely sufficient, but not abundant. Make sure you book well in advance, otherwise the travel options will become limited and much more expensive. This goes for flying to most destinations, but this is definitely worth noting for flights from and to Longyearbyen, too.
I recommend arriving at least a few days before the start of your studies to get your housing in order, have some time to relax from your trip and familiarize yourself with Longyearbyen and purchase some more gear in case your are lacking some. Arriving in advance also gives you the chance to meet up with and get to know some other students.
Student Housing on Svalbard: Samskipnaden
Generally, during the spring and fall semester, the student buildings are quite full. Apply for student housing well in advance – my recommendation: as soon as you are accepted – to make sure the room type you prefer is available. The student accommodation in Longyearbyen is called Elvesletta. The housing company that is responsible for student housing on Svalbard is Samskipnaden.
Another thing you might want to do well in advance is to apply for the right to rent a rifle. As you might know, when you walk out of the town, at least one person of your group needs to carry a rifle for polar bear protection. When you have the right to rent a rifle, you will have more freedom to explore Svalbard. You can apply for a loan permit for firearms at sysselmesteren. In order to apply for the right to rent a rifle, you need a copy of your passport, a certificate of good conduct (criminal records) from the police and documentation on sufficient proficiency in the use of firearms. If you have been studying at UNIS before and succesfully completed the rifle training, you might be able to get a certificate through UNIS. The waiting time for this permit is currently at least 10 weeks, so do this as soon as you can! Unfortunately, there is no way to get this in order when you don’t have a documentation on sufficient proficiency in the use of firearms.
Although most injuries and material damage can be avoided by good preparation and responsible behavior, there will – because of Svalbard’s extreme environmental conditions – always be a higher risk for accidents on Svalbard than in most other places. For this reason, make sure you are in the possession of the necessary insurances (e.g. travel and health insurance) and that they cover the risks you are exposed to on Svalbard.
Get into shape
The environment on Svalbard is more extreme than in a lot of other places on the earth. I highly recommend going on outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing and snowmobile trips. Besides being fun, these activities are some of the most common means to see and experience as much from the island as possible. The rough terrain and long distances however require a decent physical condition. It could be worth considering to get fitter in the months prior to going to Svalbard, to make most out of your time there.
Save up money
One of the last preparations I recommend for students preparing for their trip to Svalbard, is to save up money. This is for several reasons: first of all, living on Svalbard is quite expensive. Norway is an expensive country in general. For this reason, housing and living expenses are relatively high. Products sold on Svalbard are VAT-free, but because the Island is located so remotely and transportation of goods is limited, products still have a high price – especially compared to some other countries. But note: at a lot of stores on Svalbard, you can get student discounts!
Besides the general living expenses, it is absolutely worth it to go on (touristic) trips (such as visiting Pyramiden or going on snow mobile tours) and to equip yourself with proper outdoor gear and clothing. Both (touristic) trips as well as proper gear are quite costly. Considering this and the relatively high living costs, I recommend to – if possible – save up money for your studies at UNIS in advance.
Outdoor gear & equipment
Studying at UNIS is quite different from the average university. The courses are all, to at least some degree, based on fieldwork and the circumstances in which fieldwork is conducted can be quite extreme. One of my main and possibly most important tips is to make sure that you have the right gear. And if you do not have the proper outdoor gear yet, make sure you get it before you come to the Island or directly after arrival.
Wool, Windproof and Waterproof
At UNIS and on Svalbard, you will definitely hear about the ‘3 W’s: Wool, Windproof and Waterproof’. Both in summer, as well as in winter, this is an important guideline to keep in mind. On Svalbard, the relative humidity is generally very high. Besides that, in the winter you will have to deal with snow and ice. In summer – and sometimes even in winter – you might have to deal with rain and wet surfaces. One of the easiest ways to become cold and miserable is by getting soaked. Therefore, make sure you wear a waterproof jacket, a waterproof hiking pants and waterproof boots.
Secondly, on Svalbard it can get cold – very cold. Compared to other regions at the same latitude, the temperature on Svalbard is generally quite mild, but it’s still in the Arctic and temperatures can drop (well) below -20°C in the winter and early spring. It is not always necessarily the absolute temperature that can make it dangerously cold. It is more the combination with humid air and the wind. It can get quite windy, and blizzards are common. Therefore, make sure that next to waterproof, your clothing is also windproof.
Lastly, make sure you have wool base layers. Wool is a good insulator and wool can adsorb and release moisture. This is important; you don’t want your body covered in a wet layer when you start sweating during outdoor activities in the cold, because this is dangerous when you cool down again.
Other gear & equipment to bring to Svalbard
Besides clothing, other gear might be useful, such as glacier gear, bikes and snow boots. Next to useful equipment, it is also worth thinking about hobby equipment such as skis or a camera and drone to make pictures of potentially one of the most extraordinary adventures of your life. Below, a list will follow with items I recommend bringing to Svalbard. Bold are things I recommend bringing either way, in normal fond are items that would be nice to bring in case you have them and/or can afford to bring them. Also check out UNIS’s official packing list.
- several layers of warm (woolen) clothes (including underwear!)
- waterproof & windproof jacket and trousers
- waterproof & windproof mittens
- (warm) hiking boots
- sports gear
- study items (e.g. laptop, notebook, outdoor notebook)
- certificate of good conduct
- camera (& tripod)
- spikes/crampons, to walk on glaciers
- camping gear (tent, sleeping bag)
- swimming gear
Specific things to bring for winter (October-April):
- vitamin D
Specific things to bring for spring/summer (March-September):
- sun glasses
It is noteworthy that UNIS provides student equipment during its weekly handouts. However, the demand of the gear is generally higher than the supply; items can be limited. So again, if you already own certain useful items, I highly recommend bringing them.
Long term students
For students that are staying more than one semester and PhD students, it might be worth it to purchase a rifle and snowmobile. These are both items that give you freedom, since the main means of transport on Svalbard is the snow mobile and you need a rifle to go out of town. It might also be worth it to invest in a snowmobile if you go to Svalbard in the spring semester (specifically, from January to April). It is quite common for temporary residents staying over the winter/spring to buy a snowmobile before the season and sell it after.
Other information sources
In the months and weeks ahead of your studies, keep an eye out for emails with official information from UNIS and the housing company (Samskipnaden). Also, on UNIS’ website a ton of additional information can be found. Check for example UNIS’ webpages arriving on Svalbard, Longyearbyen student guide from A to Z and health, safety and environment.
Lastly, information about the local gym/swimming pool can be found here, toposvalbard can be an extremely valuable tool for planning trips and yr.no is the best weather site/app for Svalbard. However, be aware that the weather on Svalbard can change very rapidly and unexpectedly and that weather apps on Svalbard are even more inaccurate than elsewhere. Be prepared for anything!