ARCTIC CIRCLE TRAIL | Planning and Packing
Preparing to trek the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland as part of my personal project, OPS Arctic Fox.
I completed the 165km journey in April 2017. This is my story. Below is how to do it.
Experienced trekkers/hikers, or those with a similar skillset (e.g. soldiers). You’ll need to have navigation skills (map-reading, compass-using, or just be able to afford a GPS) and some basic survival ability. No need to be Bear Grylls but you have to be able to read the weather, know your physical limits, procure water and generally take care of yourself in the wild. The trek takes 7–10 days for people of average fitness (I completed in 8 with 1 day of rest in between), so you must be able to carry loads of about 20kg and walk about 20km a day for that length of time.
The Arctic Circle Trail is a 165km-long trekking route on the western coast of Greenland. It’s known as one of the best long-distance routes in the world, since it’s relatively unknown to tourists (and thus virtually untouched), and offers views of unending mountains, lakes, wildlife, completely untamed. Also tons of snow and ice if you choose to visit in spring like me, but it’s not recommended (read ‘When’).
Late summer (September) is the best. Temperatures will be a cosy 15–25⁰C, as compared to subzero from mid-fall to mid-spring. Greenland has a mosquito plague every year that begins when the snow begins to melt in June, and ends abruptly when the temperature begins to drop in September. I suggest waiting till the mosquitoes die out. Also, water levels in late summer will be lower than that of early summer (June-July), which is of a great help considering there are a few river crossings on the route.
Without the help of specialized equipment (such as snowshoes and skis), I would advise to not visit anytime besides in summer or early fall. Heavy and unpredictable snowfall, especially around the coastal western end of the trail, will drastically increase the danger levels and quickly deteriorate the terrain. Having trekked in early spring myself, I say with confidence that I would not have made it even halfway if not for an extremely reliable GPS (Gaia Maps for iPhone), a couple of snowmobile tracks and the patience to spend hours wading through sometimes chest-deep snow.
The ACT lies slightly north of the Arctic Circle itself, on the western coast of Greenland. Most people choose to trek from Kangerlussuaq (eastern end) where the international airport is located, to Sisimiut (western end), the second-largest city in Greenland behind the capital Nuuk, before flying back to Kangerlussuaq and subsequently out of Greenland. The reverse is also viable, and a few even choose to make a round trip.
The trail officially starts at Kellyville, a research facility located about 15km from Kangerlussuaq airport. Some also choose to start from the ice cap east of Kangerlussuaq, which will extend the trek by a day. You can book a tour to the ice cap (Point 660) with World of Greenland Arctic Circle and have them drop you off there to walk back. Otherwise, you can start walking right from the airport or take a cab to Kellyville.
Along the trail there are 9 huts free for use (in order if beginning from Kangerlussuaq): Hundeso, Katiffik, Canoe Centre, Ikkatooq, Eqalugaarniarfik, Innajuattoq, Nerumaq, Kangerluarsuk Tulleq (2 huts). The positions of these are detailed on a set of three maps by Harvey Maps: Kangerlussuaq, Pingu and Sisimiut. Of course, you’ll also need decent map-reading skills. Another must-have is the extremely comprehensive guide Trekking in Greenland: The Arctic Circle Trail by Paddy Dillon, that will provide additional in-depth information on the trek, the huts, Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut and Greenland in general.
Two things: views and solitude. Armed with an abundance of lakes, mountains, valleys and wildlife (reindeer, hares, musk oxen, and the elusive Arctic fox), this trail has everything you want to see in the backcountry. However what really sets it apart is the complete lack of civilization. Beyond a 15km radius of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, not a single human inhabits the area. In late summer, you’ll probably meet no more than a handful of fellow hikers on the way. Otherwise, there’s a chance you’ll not come across anyone at all. It’s said that only about 300 people attempt the ACT every year. This makes the trek ideal for those seeking a short respite from the world to spend time with themselves or their significant others.
I’m unfortunately still single (DMs welcome) so I trekked on my own. Over the 8 days, I met several locals, two of whom gave me an authentic dog sled ride, and a couple of Danes on vacation, but for the most part I was entirely alone.
How (Gear & Logistics)
SMARTO, or Signals, Medical, Ammunition, Ration, Transport, Others, is a planning model I was taught in the army. Adapted for use in this context…
Since the chances of meeting another human being are so slim, a good communication device is vital. There’s no mobile service on the trail, and therefore you must bring a:
- SATELLITE PHONE
There is currently only one service provider that covers the entire Greenland (and also entire globe) and that is Iridium. I carried an Iridium 9555 (retails for USD$1045, mine was a second-hand at USD$450 with prepaid thrown in), and the other choices comprise the 9505a which looks like a relic from the 1900s (retails for USD$795) and the 9575 Extreme, which is hardy as f*ck as the name suggests and has GPS tracking and data capabilities (retails for USD$1295). In addition, you’ll need to buy a prepaid/post-paid package — 1 month prepaid costs USD$160.
In case of emergencies, contact the police (politi) at either Kangerlussuaq (+299 84 12 22) or Sisimiut (+299 86 42 22) for help. For medical aid, there is a nursing station in Kangerlussuaq airport (+299 84 12 11) and a hospital in Sisimiut (+299 86 42 11), but note that they can’t send ambulances into the ACT to pick you up. So try your best to stay alive.
The towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut are pretty small, so you can get by fine without mobile phone service. The sat phone will take care of all your needs; it gets excellent service practically all over Greenland, even in the towns, thanks to the open terrain.
This isn’t too complicated — the basics are pretty much the same for traveling anywhere. I would, however, include some other non-medicinal emergency supplies.
- PARACETAMOL (for mild flu, fever, headaches)
- LACTEOLFORT/TRIMAXAZOLE/CHARCOAL (for diarrhoea)
- ANY SPECIALIZED PERSONAL MEDS (allergies¹, asthma, painkillers, etc)
- FIRST-AID KIT (basic plasters, bandages, alcohol wipes)
- IODINE TABLETS² (for water purification)
- SPACE BLANKET and HAND-WARMERS (for obvious reasons)
¹ It’s a good idea to bring allergy medication even if you have no known allergies. You might have one you don’t yet know about that you might get exposed to, especially when traveling. I don’t think you need to go as far as an Epipen though; pills should do.
² Water from the numerous freshwater lakes scattered across the ACT is generally considered very clean. However, you could bring water purification tablets just to be sure. Or a LifeStraw. But tablets are more OG. Be sure to let the tablet do its magic for at least half an hour before drinking.
Ammunition (essential equipment)
You won’t be needing rifles and ammo here, but there is some equipment you can’t do without. Namely:
- A SOLID 50–70L BACKPACK
- WATERPROOF BOOTS¹
- WATERPROOF SHELL (rain is not unlikely)
- -5–15⁰C SLEEPING BAG
- TREKKING POLES²
- WATER BOTTLE
- MULTI-TOOL/SWISS ARMY KNIFE
- GPS and BATTERIES/CHARGER, MAP and COMPASS
- TORCHLIGHT and BATTERIES
- MULTI-PURPOSE TAPE
- STOVE and FUEL³
- CROCKERY and CUTLERY⁴
- PLASTIC/ZIPLOCK BAGS (for trash, used clothing, etc)
- TENT and GROUNDSHEET⁵
- CAMERA-RELATED EQUIPMENT
- THERMALS (with a proper sleeping bag summer nights are bearable)
- ROPE (paracord or otherwise)⁶
- TOWEL and SANDALS⁸
- LOAD-BEARING UTILITY BELT⁹
¹ Wet feet aren’t just a morale-killer, they skyrocket the risk of abrasions, blisters and infections. An alternative is non-waterproof boots paired with waterproof socks. My boots were as porous as Zimbabwean monetary policy but I had a pair of Dexshell waterproof socks that were built like tanks; dry feet all the way. I wore a normal pair inside those to avoid having to ever change out of them.
² This might be optional to some gung-ho types, but because there are several river crossings I strongly recommend bringing at least one. I’d rather use a large sawed-off tree branch for stylistic reasons, but nothing grows beyond ankle-height on the Arctic tundra so no chance of that.
³ Warm food and drink is very, very good for morale. However, since you can’t bring stove fuel on planes, you’ll need to buy it in Kangerlussuaq or Sisimiut. Last I remember, the Kangerlussuaq supermarket only has Coleman and Camping Gaz, which as stove pundits will know, aren’t very versatile. They did, however, also stock Coleman stoves so if you don’t mind dropping a few extra bucks you could just buy the whole set there. If not, bring stoves that work with these canisters. Mine didn’t, but I made some DIY modifications (not safe — almost blew up the canister and set fire to the Hundeso hut) and forced it to work.
⁴ Depends on what food you bring. I made do with a military mess tin and no cutlery. Scooped canned mackerel with the lid and drank coffee straight from the tin.
⁵ Very highly recommended, but technically optional if you plan to sleep in the cabins every night. I didn’t bring one because sleeping outside in early spring might mean death, but in summer it’ll be a pleasant experience.
⁶ May not seem important to hikers, but very useful to soldiers. I used mine to secure equipment, make modifications to my backpack and as makeshift crampons in the snow (by tying knots on my boots), but snow isn’t a problem in summer.
⁷ With a working stove this isn’t necessary, but still good as an emergency measure. And, you’ll be surprised how entertaining watching a candle flame can be when alone at night. Also, note that generally airlines only allow one disposable lighter (not torch or wind-proof types) with carry-on, and zippo is usually banned.
⁸ You can make your life easier if you wear sandals for the river crossings and dry off before putting your boots back on. An alternative is to tie plastic bags around your boots to keep water from getting in (especially from the top).
⁹ I carried a utility belt with military load-bearing pouches attached to carry my cameras, water canteen, first-aid, ropes, and an assortment of light multi-purpose gear (knife, compass, tape, etc). This is unconventional wisdom compared to what hikers are usually advised to do, but in my opinion this transfers some crucial weight from the shoulders to the str0nger lower back, makes essential equipment more accessible and acts as an extra cushion against the backpack. Unintended side-effect: makes you look like the toughest creature on the planet (see last photo).
Ration (food and water)
There are a myriad of food and drink options available nowadays to hikers. The traditional squirrel diet (trail mix) still works fine, but I’m not a big fan. Here’s what I brought:
TRAIL MIX (peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, curry powder to taste)
DRIED FRUITS (dried mangoes, banana chips)
CANNED FOOD (fish and ham are the best, but these are relatively heavier)
Each day on the trail, I had one pack of MRE for breakfast, about 200–300g of trail mix for lunch and dried fruits and canned fish for dinner. In total I consumed about 5kg of food over the 8 days.
Water, as mentioned above, is readily available on the trail. Some extras I brought along for morale are:
COFFEE & TEA POWDER
APTONIA FLAVORED ENERGY DRINK POWDER
Having warm coffee every morning is good for the soul. Even if it’s out of a grungy aluminium mess tin.
The best way into Greenland is through Copenhagen by Air Greenland. The flight will take you from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq in 4.5hours, and operates about 5 days a week, depending on season. There will be more flights in summer, but each return trip will typically cost around USD$600-$1000. Flights are sometimes also available from Reykjavik, but these are usually rarer and more costly.
Upon reaching Sisimiut (if starting from Kangerlussuaq), take a half-hour in-land flight to Kangerlussuaq before transferring to an international flight. This will only cost a couple of hundred on top of the return flight. All bookings can be done through Air Greenland’s website.
Also, be sure to set aside about USD$30 for the taxi ride from Sisimiut to its airport, which lies about 10km beyond the outer edge of town. Besides that, no further transportation preparation is needed for the entire trip. Both Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq are both easily traversed on foot.
It’s also useful to note the accommodation options here. Both towns boast fully-equipped hotels (Hotel Kangerlussuaq, Hotel Sisimiut and Seamen’s Home in Sisimiut), but prices are incredibly steep, with rooms starting at about USD$100 a night. Not a result of monopoly or exploitation, just a consequence of sky-high living costs all-around. If budget is an issue, there are youth hostels in both towns (K & S) where you can get a bed for USD$25 a night.
Others (personal items)
Under this category I’ve placed clothing, toiletries and comfort items, all largely personal preference. Whatever listed below is my own packing list and simply a reference. However, you’re also free to emulate exactly what I’ve done and how I live my life if you so wish to, but note that I have not yet endorsed an official fan club.
I got every piece of non-S.I. gear on various clearance sales. Total cost amounted to about USD$350.
- CQR TACTICAL CARGO PANTS (ripstop nylon, water-resistant)¹
- MILITARY STANDARD ISSUE THERMALS
- PATAGONIA CAPILENE BASELAYERS
- OUTDOOR RESEARCH WINTER FERROSI JACKET (midlayer)*
- US POLO ASSN HEAVY CANVAS TRUCKER (water-resistant shell)*
- MILITARY S.I. THINSULATE GLOVES*
- OUTDOOR RESEARCH STORMTRACKER SENSOR GLOVES*
- MILITARY S.I. SOCKS
- DEXSHELL WATERPROOF TREKKING SOCKS
- CLIP-ON SUNGLASSES
- MILITARY S.I. BALACLAVA*
- MILITARY S.I. JUNGLE WARFARE BOOTS
- MILITARY S.I. VELCRO BELT²
- POST-TREK T-SHIRTS (The North Face and Condor Outdoor)
- BOXER BRIEFS³
¹ I strongly advise against normal cotton pants. Your ass might get wet from sitting on something, and a wet ass is as mood-killing as wet feet.
² If you need a belt, get a velcro one. Buckled ones are heavier, less adjustable and sometimes cause abrasions when the buckle rubs against your skin.
³ Avoid loose boxers and some lower-quality triangle briefs. Chafing/abrasions.
*Saved my life in the spring, but not absolutely necessary in the summer
- MILITARY S.I. BODY POWDER¹
- TOOTHBRUSH & TOOTHPASTE
- TOILET PAPER³
- SUNBLOCK (SPF 50+)⁴
- INSECT REPELLANT
- NAIL CLIPPER
- ROLL-ON DEODORANT
¹ Do not go 7–10 days without powder unless you’re Bear Grylls. It’s not just unpleasant — bad hygiene increases risk of illness and infections in case of open wounds, and just feels like shit.
² Seems weird but isn’t. It’s a military miracle remedy for abrasions, chafing and small cuts on long marches and missions.
³ Do not just chuck an entire roll into your backpack. Remove the cardboard core to save space, and only take the amount you need. If you’ve never counted squares before, 8 per day will get you through the trek comfortably (12 if you plan on having explosive diarrhoea every single day).
⁴ Please bring this. You don’t want to put yourself through complete molting.
- THIS MEME
All you need to get through anything.
The ACT journey will be tough but stunning. If you imagine the Arctic to be a whitewashed winter wasteland, then you’ll be very much astonished to find a lively, lush landscape sprawling before you in summer as you step onto the tarmac in Kangerlussuaq.
Yet, do not let the myriad of colors distract you from the underlying risk of spending more than a week in the wilderness alone. Be prepared, and even more so be alert. Your satellite phone and GPS may be your only means of salvation if you encounter so much as a sprained ankle. In the summer of 2016, one lone hiker from Hong Kong went missing on the trail, and till today not a trace of him has been found.
If you’re considering challenging the ACT on foot in spring like me, then at least make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. I didn’t (I walked right into record-breaking annual snowfall). It’ll be everything you’d expect the Arctic to be — freezing, blizzard-ing and generally frightening. But of course, to even seriously think about it means you’re probably way more experienced than me, so go right ahead.
Regardless whether you are a seasoned survivalist or a newbie looking to undertake your first major trip, thanks for reading, have fun and don’t die!
If you enjoyed this post, please leave a clap to support, it really goes a long way to help!