If you are thinking about walking the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT) and you want 160 km of open remote wilderness in Greenland, just mountains and lakes in the Arctic, then the ACT could be just for you. After walking the ACT recently I thought it would useful to put together this post as a planning and preparation resource for others wishing to walk the ACT. I hope this blog post can be a crucial source of information for you. Planning a trip is one of the most important aspects of any adventure, so always leave enough time for thorough research for your trip, this blog post forms part of your valuable research.
If there is any info you need and you cannot find it here, just email me and I will let you know and update the article with additional information.
Greenland is considered the world's largest island because Australia and Antarctica are regarded as continent landmasses. With a population of just 55,992*, for its size, it is one of the most remote areas in the world. I believe it is regarded as the least populated country in the world per square kilometre. It has the largest National Park in the world which occupies most of the North-East corner of the country, approximately one-third of the whole country. Greenland has been ruled by many countries in the past but sovereignty for the island falls to Denmark, hence the local currency is the Danish Krona. However much of government is now done by the Greenland government.
Getting to Greenland
There are two main regular airlines that fly into Greenland, Air Greenland and Air Iceland, but Air Iceland do not fly to Kangerlussuaq, they only fly into Nuuk the capital of Greenland and a couple of other locations. It is possible to then use an internal flight to get to Kangerlussuaq or Sisimiut, but that way wouldn't be cheap. Flights to and within Greenland are not cheap. Air Greenland operates Airbus 330 planes direct into Kangerlussuaq from Copenhagen, currently, this is your only real choice that is a reasonable cost. A return flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq in August is approximately £700 economy or £1400 business class.
Which Currency To Take
Greenland is part of Denmark so the Danish Krona. Most places take cards, but some are cash only, so make sure you take some cash with you.
What is the Arctic Circle Trail
The ACT is a backcountry trail 160 km long that goes between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut in the midwest of Greenland. The trail runs parallel to and above the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is at latitude 66.5 degrees above the equator and the ACT is at latitude 66.9 degrees above the equator. Half a degree equates to approximately 40 km north of the Arctic Circle. The trail officially starts/ends about 16 km outside of Kangerlussuaq in a very small place called Kellyville, population seven, however, I am not sure anyone lives here anymore, maybe a few scientists.
Extended Arctic Circle Trail
Although the trail starts officially 16 km west of Kangerlussuaq, many chose the ice cap approximately 40 km east of Kangerlussuaq to start their hike. I am calling this the Extended ACT for want of a better name. It turns the 160 km hike into 216 km, but it does allow you to take in the breathtaking scenery of the ice cap and Russell Glacier on the way back to Kangerlussuaq. Russel Glacier is a favourite of mine, pictured above.
How Difficult is the Arctic Circle Trail
The graph above is for the Extended ACT. As a trail, I would say it is intermediate. It was certainly tougher than I expected, far more undulation than expected. There are a few days with some four-figure elevation gain and loss and some of the marsh, boggy terrain certainly makes it more challenging.
Which Direction to Hike
Most people walk west, from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, but you can also walk west to east. Some things to consider when choosing a direction.
Walking west to east; you will generally find it slightly harder especially finishing at the ice cap as there is slightly more uphill in this direction, including a very steep climb out of the valley and will finish in Kangerlussuaq, which is home to the main airport so if you want to fly straight home from Greenland then walk west to east. Also if you wish to fly on to another location in Greenland, such as Ilulissat this may be a better option.
Walking east to west; you will finish in Sisimiut. This is the second-largest town in Greenland so there are a few things to see and do there. If you are not sure how many days you are going to take to walk the trail you will be better spending your spare days in Sisimiut than Kangerlussuaq as there is more to see and do. Also walking east to west means you have the sun at your back rather than in your eyes all day. If you time your walk right, you can also catch the ferry from Sisimiut to Ilulissat.
When to Hike the Arctic Circle Trail
Most people hike the ACT in Summer, but beware the insects can be very bad. Typically the insects drop off around the end of August, so for a relatively insect-free hike, aim to hike the last week or so in August if you want a summer hike. Maybe a thousand people hike the trail each year and most do this in summer. I hiked the last week in August and first week in September. A few hike in winter, March-April is probably the best winter months to hike as the days are starting to get longer and the snow is melting. Earlier in the winter, the temperatures can be brutal and parts of the trail impassable.
Wildlife & Polar Bears
Depending upon when you go will be the biggest factor for this. There are rarely polar bears on the west coast around the trail, but it does happen. When I walked it in 2019 there was a polar bear up by the ice cap where I started a few weeks before I hiked. Unfortunately, it was starving and was shot by a guide to avoiding any later incident. In the normal hiking months of June-August I don't worry about polar bears unless you hear there is a sighting when there. I believe one of the stores may sell flares, but other than that as a visitor you don't have many options as you won't have a firearm.
As for the rest of the wildlife, you will probably see arctic hares and lots of reindeer. If you are lucky you will see muskox.
The ACT is remote, you will have phone reception on the day at Kangerlussuaq and for a few miles out, then the reception will be gone until you reach almost Sisimuit. You will need to live without phone reception for the hike, so plan and be smart. My advice is to take an emergency device.
Search and Rescue
Greenland currently I believe has just one helicopter based at Kangerlussuaq airport which is actually lent to them by Denmark. However, Greenland has ordered 2 new H225 helicopters from Airbus in Oct 2019 in order to run their own SAR service. I am not sure of their intended delivery date. My advice is to take an emergency device and make sure you have a spare day or two worth of food. If the helicopter is grounded it may be some time if you have to wait for a land rescue.
Although Kangerlussuaq is the main airport into Greenland, there really isn't a lot there, most just use it for the supermarket shown above or as an entry point to get into Greenland. It is an old army base airport from the 1940's which was handed over to Air Greenland in 1992.
There is not a lot of choice for accommodation, just
Hotel Kangerlussuaq - Expect to pay around £200 a night for a double room in Hotel Kangerlussuaq.
Polar Lodge about £120 in the Polar Lodge.
Kangerlussuaq Youth Hostel
Also a little further away from downtown (if you can call 5 shops downtown) is the remote hostel Old Camp, expect to pay around £100 for a room here.
Apart from the 2 hotels, there is
Nordlyset Pizzeria-Thai Grillhouse
That is it, don't expect too much, with a population of 538* and most of those working for the airport, there is not much happening in town. Plenty of hiking and nature just outside town though.
Hotel Kangerlussuaq has some lockers at the bottom of the stairs by the canteen which you can rent on a daily basis. If you are walking the extended trail then these are an obvious place to leave all your extra food, no point carrying it.
Most of the time there is plenty of screw-on gas canisters, they are sold in the supermarket and a few other places around town, but they do have to come in by ship and you may find there are few or none in town. If you don't like cold food every day I would highly recommend bringing both types of stove with you, a canister stove and a liquid fuel stove. I brought both and actually when I landed there was no fuel in town. I had both types of stove with me so was ok. However, a kind hiker gave me half a can at Kangerlussuaq and when I got back there the town had received more. If there is no screw on canisters in the shops then you will easily be able to get white fuel or paraffin.
Sisimiut is the second largest town in Greenland, population 6233* set on the coast amongst some amazing mountains. Sisimiut has more activities than Kangerlussuaq, so remember this when you are planning your trip. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes along with a museum. The harbour offers boat tours and several companies offer hiking and ATV tours. Depending on the time of year dog sledding, skiing and snowmobiles may be available.
Flying Between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut
Air Greenland operates a 30-minute flight between these 2 locations, so it really does not matter from that perspective which way you hike, you can fly to your potential start point or fly back. Depending upon the season, it is around £100 one way.
There is a trail hut approximately every 20km or so along the trail. Some even have basic toilets, but they are "crap in a bag" style. Most don't have toilets and "nature poos" are the way to go, of course following Leave No Trace principles. Do not rely on beds being available, the huts can get very popular and some and tiny.
Maps & Guide Books
I would strongly recommend purchasing the 3 maps for the hike BEFORE you arrive, otherwise, you will be in for a shock, over 100 Euros for them at Kangerlussuaq. I purchased mine from Harvey Maps:
Kangerlussuaq - https://www.harveymaps.co.uk/acatalog/Kangerlussuaq-YFGM_08.html
As for the guidebooks, I didn't bother, for me, it made it more of an adventure to do my own research and leave a bit of mystery to the place.
A local in Sisimuit runs a Facebook group Arctic Circle Trail Facebook group. I found this group invaluable especially as there was a bush fire on the trail at the time I hiked and I used the group to get almost daily updates.