Why You Cannot Travel Outside Longyearbyen On Svalbard Alone (Without a Gun!)

The remote arctic Norwegian island Svalbard is home to many seemingly weird laws and regulations, like the fact that it’s illegal to own a cat on the island, or the fact that you cannot be buried there.

But one of the weird laws that actually makes a lot of sense is the one about it being illegal to travel outside of Longyearbyen’s city perimeters without being armed! So is this for real, and what’s up with this weird regulation?

It’s really illegal to travel outside of Longyearbyen on Svalbard without a method of protection yourself against polar bear attacks. This means that you need to have a firearm or flare gun with you, or travel with someone in the group that is armed with this.

The law is in place for your own protection, but you can get fined if you don’t adhere to it.

Polar bear sign on Svalbard.
Polar bear sign under the aurora borealis (northern lights) on Svalbard.

Are polar bear a real threat on Svalbard?

Polar bears are a serious threat to anyone traveling outside of Longyearbyen’s city perimeters, and they do pose a serious risk to humans.

A hungry polar bear will actively prey on humans if it has the chance, and will hunt humans for food. You don’t really stand a change against a polar bear if you’re unarmed or don’t have any means to scare it off.

There are on average 1 death due to polar bears per 10 years on Svalbard, so fatalities from polar bear attacks are rare. But they would be much more common if people didn’t have a method to scare them off.

Polar bear
A polar bear. Photo published with permission.

Armed guides can be used on excursions

Getting a weapon permit on Svalbard tend to take a few weeks at best, so it’s not really realistic for tourists to be able to use their own weapon or be armed themselves. This means that in most cases you need to use a guide when traveling outside of Longyearbyen. The guides will be armed and educated in polar bear protection, so you can feel perfectly safe when on an excursion.

This also means that you cannot really go on private excursions without a guide on Svalbard for the most parts.

It’s possible to get permits for flare guns, which are more relaxed to get your hands on compared to the permits for rifles. Contact the Sysselmester to apply for a flare gun permit if you have the need for one.

I also want to mention that while it’s legal to go outside of the city perimeter carrying only a flare gun, the Sysselmester recommends that at least one person in the group is armed with a real gun.

You can travel within Longyearbyen without a weapon

While there are hundreds of polar bears on Svalbard, the city of Longyearbyen is considered a safe haven. It’s perfectly safe and legal to walk around unarmed within the city.

You will see signs when you are about to go outside of the city limit (like the one at the top photo in this article), so don’t cross that point without being armed.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

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