I described the Arctic Circle Trail to my mother as “an easy 10-day walk in a straight flat line” before she agreed to join me. Yeah, I was wrong. It was tough. But damn, was it beautiful.
The Arctic Circle Trail is one of the most remote treks in the world, passing from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut and from near the Greenland ice cap to the sea – or the reverse, depending on where you choose to start. With no civilisation between the start and end, it requires you to be entirely self-sufficient.
Which direction is best to hike the Arctic Circle Trail: Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, or Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq?
Opinions differ here, of course. But I loved the Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut route and never regretted our choice.
Sisimiut is a much more appealing place to end up in than Kangerlussuaq (which is essentially an old army base). Once arriving, you can stay at Hotel Sisimiut and take the ferry up the coast for a few days of holiday – the most typical choice being to Ilulissat and the Disko Bay area. We wanted beer, some good food, and a bit of luxury to look forward to at the end, so we were glad we stuck by the usual Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut route.
If you hike in the opposite direction, from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq, it will likely be harder to get a taxi and skip the dirt road coming out of/into Kangerlussuaq (unless you can call and organise it, somehow). After checking out of Old Camp, we requested for a transfer to Kelly Ville (the more official albeit lazy start of the hike) and were incredibly glad we paid the 300DKK or so, although a taxi would probably be cheaper. Plodding along a dirt road for most of the first day with our packs at their heaviest isn’t how we wanted to get started.
But in any case, we saw a lot of people hiking from Sisimiut back to Kangerlussuaq (perhaps the majority, even). They generally seemed to be in search of something more unique and off the beaten track than the guidebook’s recommended route. Or, they wanted easy transportation home at the end of the trek: Kangerlussuaq is Greenland’s main airport, and you need to change here to get back to Copenhagen and the rest of the world anyway. I wanted a few days buffer before going back to reality, though, and Kangerlussuaq isn’t the best place to stick around.
How much of a physical challenge is it?
I was happy with my fitness and I had retained my mountain muscles and lungs from living in Switzerland, but the compounding day-after-day exertion and a pack weighing 30% of my body weight was of course much more challenging. My Mum commented that the other blog posts she’d read seemed to gloss over how challenging the trail is. Either that or everyone else is a complete badass. But I think that when you’ve completed a physical challenge, it’s easy to leave out the aches and pains and focus on the glory.
The thing is: the mileage isn’t that daunting on paper. During my weekends living in Switzerland, over 20km a day with 2000m ascent in the middle had become the norm, especially when I was working through the Via Alpina route across the country. But with a heavy pack, carrying all of your food with no potential for resupplies until the end? Yeah, things are much slower. At least they were for us. We averaged about 2.5km/hour, including breaks.
There was also the issue of feet. My boots were also good for the mountains, but less so for multi-day trekking. My Mum had North Face boots that she said were like slippers, confirmed by how she didn’t get a single blister. I had a lot of blisters, but at least they ruptured fast and didn’t reappear in the same places. But my main issue came on day seven – and it made me forget about my blisters pretty quickly.
After boiling water for breakfast, the stove tipped on my leg. By some incredibly good luck, there were Camelbaks with 3 litres of water right next to me and on my leg within ten seconds. Otherwise, it would’ve been much worse than it was – a second or third-degree burn on my ankle that I had to walk 70 kilometres on. Time for some mental toughness.
What’s the scenery like on the Arctic Circle Trail?
One thing made it considerably easier to stay upbeat and moving: the utterly otherworldly landscapes unravelling around me.
Let’s be clear: there are other much more conventionally beautiful places in the world… Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Patagonia to name a few. But Greenland isn’t about being conventional.
On each day of the trek, you’re blessed with Arctic nature at its finest and wildest. Countless lakes with both rocky and sandy beaches, paths slinking right along their edges. The willow that grew high over my head in places, which I’d forge a path through and try not to trip on a rogue root. Vast valleys with not a hint of civilisation, the echoes of birds’ calls ricocheting against the rock faces that look unchanged since the earth’s last major geological shift. The first blueberry bush a treat; the thousands that followed our go-to larder for sugar boosts, if you can only bend down to reach them.
For a true meaning of desolation and wilderness, head to the Arctic Circle for a long walk. Use the time to listen, receive, and reflect. It’s been one of the most impactful journeys of my life – and one of the hardest. Those two things often go together, I’m quite sure of that.
How many days does it take to complete the Arctic Circle Trail?
The bible for the Arctic Circle Trail is Paddy Dillon’s guidebook, Trekking in Greenland – The Arctic Circle Trail: From Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, published by Cicerone and with a new edition that’s just come out in 2019.
Paddy recommends setting aside 7 to 10 days, and the route in his book is hut-to-hut and takes nine days. We originally planned for a leisurely 11 days but ended up taking 10 (after I was injured and we realised food was dwindling, we sped up).
I think the Arctic Circle Trail shouldn’t be about speed. It’s a trail to slow down on… a place to be more aligned with nature, not the tempo of the world back home. If carrying food for every day wasn’t a factor, you could easily spend two weeks out on the trail, camped out by one of the beaches and immersed in a book, some writing, or just simple reflection, with no urgency to pack up and catch up with the guidebook.
How many people do you see on the Arctic Circle Trail?
Every evening when I wrote in my journal, I listed everyone we had seen on the trail that day. On a couple of days we didn’t see anyone else, but overall my tally totalled 43 people. We mostly saw couples, pairs of men, solo men, and groups of 3-4 women. We saw one school trip which skewed our average. No solo women, this time.
Most of the people you meet on the hike have fascinating stories, which isn’t surprising if you’re spending your holiday time on a remote trail above the Arctic Circle. One of the best parts of the trail is bumping into the same people again and again and getting to know them better (shoutout to the Canadian girls and the two Aussies!)
What are the huts like?
If you follow Paddy’s guidebook, there’s a hut at the end of every day. They’re pretty decent, and I imagine if the weather is bad they’re a welcome relief at the end of a hard day. We were lucky with the weather and decided to stay in our tents (my Mum just spent the one night in a hut, but kept waking up because she kept thinking someone else would arrive in the middle of the night).
I love my MSR tent and it was like a palace at the end of the long day. I also just prefer being outside. In any case, I definitely wouldn’t risk not bringing a tent… the huts could easily be full, or you might need shelter due to bad weather or other reasons several hours from a hut. Like us, you might also have some shorter days where you don’t reach the next hut before bedtime. Tents equal freedom, especially in a place like Greenland where you can set up camp anywhere.
What about hiking the Arctic Circle Trail solo as a woman? Is it safe?
Walking the Arctic Circle Trail alone was my original plan, but my Mum surprisingly agreed to join. If you are a woman thinking of hiking the trail alone, I’d say there’s no reason not to do it. If you can, bring a satellite phone and GPS tracker (I have a Garmin InReach Mini, which is a popular choice) to set your mind at rest – and pacify the people back home. You can communicate with each other and both see where you are on the map. I’m not sure why I didn’t buy one before; I know I’ll pack it for my future trips.
We both felt safe on the trail and I think I would if I were on my own too. The closest thing we had to a weapon was my Swiss Army knife, followed by “the loudest whistle in the world”. Which wouldn’t help much when there’s no one to hear you, but alas. Hiking the ACT has convinced me I can go on more solo adventures with my tent and a backpack, especially in Europe. If you’re prepared, have good gear and fitness, and have been on other adventures, you should be OK.
Um, what about polar bears?
I wasn’t worried – until I heard one had been shot near Kangerlussuaq a week or so before. We asked a few locals about this before starting the trail. You’re more likely to see them near Kangerlussuaq and the ice cap, but anywhere else on the trail would be incredibly unlikely. A guide in Kangerlussuaq told us that a polar bear needs around 25,000 calories a day (although Google suggests it might be half that), so they would struggle to travel far along the trail. A wandering bear would also be shot on sight if they pass by a town.
The main advice we received was that it would be very unusual to see one, although not impossible. If you see one, she told us the usual advice: make a lot of noise and try to look as big as possible. Crash your camping stove against something noisy, blow your world’s loudest whistle and… hope for the best.
In my life, I’m not going to live in fear of bears. Just like I try not to live in fear of someone attacking me in my tent, or hitting me with their car when crossing the street back home. Do everything you can to stay safe, avoid dangerous situations, and, of course, always be prepared and sensible. But there’s always danger of some sort. Living in fear might be most dangerous of all.
Spending ten days on the Arctic Circle has been one of my proudest moments. It’s been the adventure of a lifetime – and it’s set the stage for so many other adventures to come. I’ve proved myself that I can do it: I’ve confirmed I have what it takes physically and mentally to spend ten days in the wild, and I have gear I love too. For me, the Arctic Circle Trail has been my perfect adventure training ground. It’s tough, but I couldn’t recommend it enough.
- Packing list for the 160km Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland – what I packed, loved & didn’t use
- What I wish I knew before hiking the Arctic Circle Trail (and what I found out)
- Getting the ferry from Sisimiut to Ilulissat after the Arctic Circle Trail
- Waking up to icebergs at Ilimanaq Lodge in a solar-powered A-frame cabin