Greenland - Walking the Arctic Circle Trail

The very idea of trekking the longest waymarked trail in Greenland must conjure up images of endless ice-fields, marauding polar bears, desperate struggles for survival and huge expense. In fact, the Arctic Circle Trail offers a reasonably easy trek, provided it is approached with careful thought and planning.

Forget about the huge ice-cap and polar bears, which are there if you want them, but don’t feature on the trail. Instead, concentrate on one of the largest ice-free parts of Greenland, between the international airport at Kangerlussuaq and the western seaboard at Sisimiut.

The Arctic Circle Trail is genuinely north of the Arctic Circle for its entire length, which means that in midsummer there is no nightfall, and for the brief summer season ordinary trekkers can enjoy the wild and desolate tundra simply by following stone-built cairns. Bearing in mind that there is absolutely nowhere you can obtain provisions on the route, for over 100 miles (160km), the hard part is to be ruthless when packing food and all the kit you need to stay alive. Water is clean, fresh, plentiful and freely available. If you bring all your food to Greenland and limit your spending, the trail can be completed on a budget.

Some trekkers burden themselves with huge and heavy packs, which require great effort to carry, which in turn means carrying a lot of food to stoke up with extra calories. Think light and pack light. There are a few basic wooden huts at intervals along the route, offering four walls, a roof, and bunks for between four and 24 trekkers. They aren’t staffed, can’t be pre-booked, and offer no facilities apart from shelter. If you carry a tent, you can pitch it anywhere you like, subject only to the nature of the terrain and the prevailing weather.

In general, the weather comes from two directions - east and west. An easterly breeze, coming off the ice-cap, is cool and incredibly dry. A westerly breeze, coming off the sea, will bring cloud and a measure of rain. It won’t snow in the short summer season, mid-June to mid-September, but for the rest of the time, varying amounts of snow and ice will cover the trail, and in the middle of winter it will be dark all the time and temperatures will plummet far, far below freezing for months on end.

The international airport at Kangerlussuaq enjoys around 300 clear-sky days per year, so the weather should be good, and the trail starts by following an easy tarmac and dirt road. Beyond the research station at Kellyville, the trail is simply a narrow path across empty tundra dotted with lakes. If you plan to walk from hut to hut, then the route will take maybe nine days, unless stages are doubled-up. Using a tent offers greater flexibility, and some trekkers complete the route in as little as a week. Huts are located at Hundesø, Katiffik, The Canoe Centre, Ikkattook, Eqalugaarniarfik, Innajuattok, Nerumaq and Kangerluarsuk Tulleq. Youth hostels and hotels are located at the terminal points of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut.

There is the option to use a free kayak to paddle all day along the large lake of Amitsorsuaq, rather than walk along its shore. There are only a handful of kayaks, and if they are all moored at the ‘wrong’ end of the lake, then walking is the only option. The trail is often low-lying, below 500ft (150m), but climbs on occasions over 1300ft (400m), notably around Ikkattook, Iluliumanersuup Portornga and Qerrortusuk Majoriaa. There are a handful of river crossings whose difficulty depends on melt-water and rainfall. These are difficult early in the season, but much easier to ford later. The largest river, Ole’s Lakseelv, has a footbridge if required.

The end of the trail is the colourful coastal town of Sisimiut, the second largest town in Greenland, with a population of only 5500. Weather at this end of the trail is basically a 50/50 lottery between wet and dry days. There are flights back to Kangerlussuaq, though very rarely, trekkers have been known to walk back.

Paddy Dillon has walked the Arctic Circle Trail in both directions in order to write and update the Cicerone guidebook.

Hiking maps are available from Harvey Maps. Useful information can also be found on the official website for the Arctic Circle Trail.

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