How to travel safely
in Greenland

Your guide to reducing risk while visiting Greenland.

Harsh terrain,
climate and weather

Of the approx. 456,000 km2 of ice-free landscape in Greenland – the total area of which is 2,166,000 km2 – less than 100 km2 is populated. Most of the terrain consists of completely deserted rocky or mountainous terrain, without trees, that often ends in steep slopes down to the open sea or deep fjords. The climate is arctic and harsh, with very changeable weather. These conditions create a number of potentially dangerous situations for those who move around both in cities and in nature.

On this page, we will go through a number of risky moments that you, as a guest in Greenland, should be particularly aware of, in order that you can have a safe and secure trip.

In Nature

If you are going to move around in nature on foot in Greenland, it is important that you have considered all eventualities with respect to safety, and have the right clothing and equipment. 

In general, Visit Greenland strongly recommends everyone who is heading out of the towns to bring a GPS device which can send emergency calls, so the Search and Rescue (SAR) team has the GPS position of those in need. You can also read our article on safe hiking in Greenland.

Before you head out into the landscape, you should always inform the police or someone else where you are going. There are also a number of concrete risk scenarios you should be particularly aware of.

In towns

Over the course of the long winter (October – May), the roads are not cleared to the same extent as in the rest of the world, because this is not practically possible. Furthermore, salt is not used on the roads (with the exception of the bus stops in Nuuk), but grit is spread every now and then. Instead, people drive with studded tires. This means that locals are used to ice on the roads, by the side of the roads and where pedestrians walk.

These conditions, in combination with steep roads and strong wind gusts, can easily cause pedestrians to lose their footing and injure their limbs or head. Pedestrians who are not used to these conditions or who are not so mobile should be very careful, and if necessary have a steady person to hold onto. Sturdy hiking boots are strongly recommended, and you should also consider snowshoes or crampons/studded shoes, according to where you are walking. In most bigger towns you can hire this kind of equipment.

Weather phenomena on land

If you are on foot in nature in Greenland, you should be aware of the following potentially dangerous weather situations. Also, take a look at our general article on weather and weather phenomena in Greenland.

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Hurricane-force storms

In the autumn particularly, extremely low pressure can occur, which can result in storms of hurricane force building up quickly. Because there are almost no trees in Greenland, as a hiker or pedestrian you are completely exposed to the wind gusts and have nothing to hold onto, so you can actually risk being blown over and injured.

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Whiteout

Winter storms often come in combination with a lot of snowfall, and in these kind of ‘whiteout’ situations you can easily lose your orientation, so you can’t find your way to your destination, and there is a risk of falling down a slope or of getting lost.

Meltwater lakes / rivers

In the spring, large invisible meltwater lakes can form under the snow, which pedestrians / hikers can risk falling into. The biggest risk is falling into a meltwater river under the snow, which is particularly dangerous.

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Sudden frost

The temperature can suddenly drop from a moderate positive temperature to below freezing, even in summer. This means, among other things, that terrain (e.g. rocks) that were previously wet and moderately slippery, can suddenly become as slippery as ice and cause severe falls and crashes.

Cold / hypothermia

The weather in Greenland is very changeable and the temperature can drop by more than 10 degrees within minutes. At the same time, it may start to rain heavily or gust strongly. This exposes hikers to the risk of hypothermia. Even if you have water- and windproof clothing, you can be exposed to hypothermia if you do not have a place to seek shelter, such as in your own tent. Visit Greenland has made a video which gives good clothing advice.

Disorientation, terrain and animals

Since pure, raw nature fills 99.99% of Greenland’s land area, it is easy to get lost, and there is plenty of dangerous terrain to pay special attention to.

Getting lost

If you are not trained in using hiking maps or don’t have a GPS device that can guide you, it is easy to get lost in the landscape. Also, if you have not brought a tent, sleeping bag and food, you can quickly be at risk of hypothermia or hunger if you do not find the town or are found by someone else. It is important to tell people in town where you are going before you leave, and it is advisable to bring a radio (emergency calls should be made via VHF channel 16) or bring a GPS device that can make emergency calls (and send your coordinates automatically).

Steep, slippery rocks & landslides

There is not a lot of even terrain in Greenland. Unfortunately, there are many hikers who come to harm because of steep and slippery rocks. You should never underestimate how dangerous a steep, rocky path can be, so it is better to be overcautious. In addition, many of the rocks are covered with a layer of organic material which becomes slippery when moist / wet.

You should also be aware of the risk of landslides, as the rocks are very porous in some places. You should generally only walk along well-known and mapped hiking routes.

Polar bears

Although it is extremely rare for hikers to encounter polar bears, they should of course be mentioned. We’ve created an infographic on how to act in the event of a polar bear encounter.

Rabid foxes

There are rabid polar foxes in many places in Greenland, and it has been known for them to attack and bite. They cannot kill a person, but if you have bitten, you should be treated as soon as possible to avoid rabies infection, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Conditions when sailing

Sailing is one of the most common ways of moving from one place to the next in Greenland, as there are no roads outside the towns. Greenland offers an endless coast with deep fjords, which are dotted with impressive icebergs and glaciers along steep cliffs. As beautiful and fascinating as this is, it can be just as dangerous to move around on the water. If you find yourself in need of help while at sea, and you have a radio with you, you can call ‘mayday’ over channel 16 on the VHF band.

Calving icebergs, glaciers & tsunamis

In the summer, Greenland’s majestic icebergs are constantly changing and moving with the current, as their surfaces melt in plus degrees. When an iceberg is affected by the current and melting, pieces of it will break off many times during its life cycle – this is called ‘calving’. This happens when the iceberg’s centre of gravity changes so much through melting and changes in the current, that it suddenly becomes off-balance and tips over in the water, while large pieces break off. For the largest icebergs, this is a very violent event, as pieces the size of housing blocks suddenly tumble down towards the sea’s surface with crashes and bangs. When they hit the water, they create large waves – often complete, mini-tsunami waves at several meters in height. The same can happen with the tongues of glaciers – often with even greater force than calving icebergs.

You should, therefore, always keep a good and safe distance from both icebergs and glaciers, as it is impossible to predict when they will break. The most dangerous thing is to be hit by a flying block of ice. See our infographic about icebergs.

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High sea

If you are sailing without a guide, for example in a kayak or another kind of vessel, there are major risks associated with rapidly rising ‘fjord winds’ or storms. In summer, in Greenland’s deep fjords, strong winds can occur that move down the fjord due to thermal differences – even on days that otherwise seem to have quiet weather. If you are surprised by a fjord wind, you should seek shelter on the coast as soon as possible, e.g. in a bay. You should be aware of the physical form of the coast, as strong onshore winds, islets and a coast full of large rocks can be a very dangerous combination.

The same can be said of the sometimes rapid build-up of low pressure that can cause the weather to change to stormy and rainy within a short time.

You should always have an Arctic Survival Suit on or with you, if you are sailing in small open vessels, and always have a GPS device with you that can make emergency calls.

Walrus attack

In very rare cases, walruses can attack people in kayaks and other small vessels, as they are very territorial. But, firstly, the walrus populations in Greenland are very far from the towns, secondly, there are only a few places where there actually are walrus populations, and, thirdly, nothing should happen if you keep your distance and don’t bother the walruses.

Domestic travel

We have made this video that describes how to get around in Greenland, from place to place. There are often several hundred kilometres between each major town, and, therefore, planes, helicopters, ferries and (charter)boats are the most common means of transport.

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Fixed-wing propeller aircraft

Air Greenland’s Dash-8 propeller aircraft, with space for 37 passengers, service 16 airports in Greenland. If you cannot make it all the way to your destination by plane, you must use other means of transport for the last part of the trip. There has never been a fatal Dash-8 crash in Greenland. Air Greenland’s pilots fly every day in challenging terrain and weather conditions, which makes them some of the world’s best pilots. It is therefore very safe to fly with Air Greenland’s domestic aircraft.

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Helicopters

Destinations without runways for Dash-8 aircraft are serviced by helicopters. Air Greenland’s helicopter pilots are also kept sharp every day and are world class.

Ferries

Sarfaq Ittuk is Greenland’s largest ferry. It services 12 cities on the west coast of Greenland, from Qaqortoq in the south to Ilulissat in Disko Bay, from 27th March to 29th December.

In Disko Bay you can sail between 15 destinations with Disko Line’s smaller ferries. Disko Line also offers ferry transport between 8 destinations in western Greenland as well as between 14 destinations in South Greenland. None of these companies’ current ships have had incidents with fatalities.

Dogsleds & snowmobiles

In a smaller number of places, you can travel by dogsled or snowmobile between destinations. In North Greenland in the winter, for example, while the sea ice is stable enough, you can travel by dogsled and snowmobile between towns and settlements, but over the past few decades, with the increase in global warming, the season for this has become shorter and shorter. Transport over land by dogsled and snowmobile is much more difficult due to the rough terrain, but the distance of approx. 160 km between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq is relatively even, and is therefore one of the safest places to travel by dogsled or snowmobile in winter. It is essential to have appropriate clothing for these kinds of trips, as low temperatures, combined with the chill factor, can easily give passengers a chill.

Illness while traveling

If you visit Greenland as a tourist, you can expect to be treated by the local health system, but be aware that not all destinations have hospitals or healthcare professionals. All the major cities have a hospital staffed by doctors, but it is only Queen Ingrid’s Hospital in Nuuk that has specialised departments, and even here, it is often necessary to send patients who require particular kinds of treatments to Denmark.

It is extremely important to remember to bring extra doses of medication, if you take medication for severe conditions, such as heart disease. You cannot expect to be able to get special medication in hospitals in Greenland. You will find practical information about hospitals in Greenland on this page.

Before you travel, check if your health or travel insurance covers transport home in case you get so badly injured that you can’t make it home yourself.

Extreme sports

Greenland is decidedly an adventure destination, and it is a place that offers opportunities for a variety of extreme sports activities and expeditions. These kinds of activities, in a rough and harsh wilderness with severe weather and climate, naturally involve special hazards. It is your responsibility to ensure that you act safely and responsibly if you are engaging in extreme sports, and it is strongly advised that you:

  • investigate whether you have health and travel insurance that covers the worst-case scenario, such as SAR and transport home
  • investigate whether you need special permits and insurance (if crossing the inland ice, you must seek permission from the Expeditions Office and have a special extra insurance that covers you for SAR operations)
  • ensure that you have appropriate equipment, food, training and experience
  • always have GPS equipment with you that can make emergency calls
  • familiarise yourself with the necessary and required security procedures, e.g. SAR procedures
  • always move around in deserted areas in groups – never alone

COVID-19

In March 2020, Greenland was closed to tourists until the 15th of June, when a phased reopening strategy was introduced. It has moved through several phases, each with its own entry restrictions.

If you are considering visiting Greenland, you should read our page, Status of Covid-19 in Greenland and a Covid-19 FAQ.

Travel insurance

You, as a traveler, are yourself responsible for having travel insurance that covers all eventualities during your trip, and for ensuring that it covers transport home if you are injured and need special transport home that is not covered by other insurance policies, or by the conditions attached to your plane ticket. This also applies to any necessary quarantine and special transport home related to COVID-19.

Summary

Greenland presents a number of risk factors by virtue of its raw, desolate, expansive and changeable nature, but as long as you use common sense and take good advice and guidelines from professionals, travel agencies and authorities, as well as locals, you can safely move around Greenland, both on land and on the water.

Those elements that make Greenland potentially dangerous to travel in are simultaneously the things that make the country so beautiful, impressive and fascinating.

Article by: Mads Lumholt
Marketing Analyst at Visit Greenland