The majority of Greenland’s nature is actual wilderness, with few or no paths, numerous mountains, rivers and glaciers. The very clear air means that it can be hard to judge distances; it is often a lot further to a given point than you might think. The terrain’s degree of difficulty varies from the very easy to the very challenging. It means there are options available for hiking tourists of all abilities. Both the laid-back pedestrian day-tripper and the experienced, well-trained hiker will find endless possibilities to explore the Greenlandic nature.
Everyone should be aware that help can be a long way away and that mobile phone coverage is rare when you are out in the heart of the wilderness. The weather is generally stable in the summer, but sudden weather changes can also occur. Thorough preparation is essential, as is having the right equipment and listening to the advice of those with local knowledge. Making and keeping agreements about expected news and return is equally important.
Paths by towns and settlements
There are paths close to most towns and settlements that lead out in the mountains. Some of these are marked as hiking routes, but many of the paths disappear once you move slightly away from built-up areas. It is therefore important to always keep track of where you are, and a map, compass and GPS (including spare batteries) are essential. There are a number of 1:100.000 hiking maps that are very accurate, but many areas are only covered by 1:250.000 maps, which are not particularly well suited as hiking maps.
When straying from the paths into open terrain, it is always tempting to take the shortest route. But the shortest route can sometimes prove to be the hardest. You can unintentionally find yourself in a place that you can neither leave nor get to – while it is much easier to walk and semi-climb upwards, it is also much harder to walk downwards. If you are hiking over the top of somewhere and need to start using your hands to go further, then your hike has in fact turned into a climb, and it can suddenly prove difficult to get back down. So always make sure a retreat is possible.
When walking in Greenland you will most certainly have to cross a stream or a river. Few hikers avoid getting their feet wet at one time or another.
The water flow in Greenland’s rivers can vary enormously. A small stream can swell to a gushing river if it starts to rain. The rivers born of glaciers vary significantly in intensity depending on the temperature. The water flow in these rivers is typically calmest in the mornings and roughest late in the afternoon. If you cannot walk across dry-foot, then you will have to wade through the water. Keep your hiking boots on, but take your socks off first. A good rule of thumb is that gushing water should never reach higher than your knees – otherwise you risk getting knocked over. A pair of hiking sticks/ski batons really help keep the balance. If you feel unsure then turn around.
If it is very important to cross, and you are unsure whether you can, then tie a rope to the person crossing. Should he/she fall in, they can be pulled to safety by someone else in the group – you need to be at least three in your group to do this. The rope should be doubled up so that everyone can use it to get across. If you have the slightest doubt, don’t do it.
All glaciers have crevices. A glacier with snow has hidden crevices and you should therefore avoid walking on a snow-covered glacier unless you have at least three people in your group with complete glacier equipment (braces, rope, ice axes, crampons and equipment for glacier crevice rescue). If there is no snow on the glacier, which is the case with the lower lying glaciers in the summer, then you can sometimes walk quite safely on them. You should however be equipped with crampons or smaller crampons that can be fitted to hiking shoes and boots as well as have a hiking stick. The ice is slippery with many sharp stones scattered on the surface, so it is easy to get cuts and bruises, – wear gloves, long trousers and long sleeves. NEVER walk without a rope on snow-covered areas of a glacier!
When choosing a safe place to camp, look around you: Is there a risk of rock falls? Is there a risk of high tide and waves reaching the tent? It is relatively easy to see where there have been previous rock falls and it is never a good idea to camp there, so this is something that should always be fairly straightforward to determine. There are often many good places to camp in the fjords close to the water, but there is a big difference between high and low tide, which means you can get caught out and the water can get too close to the tent. Check to see where growth is dense and dry, as this is where the water does not reach.
If you camp by a fjord with large icebergs or where a glacier ends, there is a risk of one of the icebergs falling or the glacier calving, which causes extremely big waves. Waves can reach several meters up on land. A good rule of thumb is to camp higher up than the distance the tallest icebergs reach above the water’s surface – or higher than the glacier front.
Wind and weather
The weather is often good and stable in the summer. The weather forecasts are more or less reliable 3-4 days ahead, but you can get a surprise visit from the Föhn winds from the inland ice, and every sunny day produces a fresh, powerful sea breeze in the fjords. The sea breeze always comes quite quickly in the morning and eases off in the evening. Kayakers will very quickly experience this and may choose to paddle early in the morning, which of course they can in summer as it is light all day and night.
A spell of bad weather with rain and wind lasting several days is to be expected in between, so never overestimate your own capabilities. The relatively low temperatures combined with rain and wind can lead to hypothermia, which can be a life-threatening condition. Better to be bored in your tent than soaked through and cold.
It can be a benefit that mobile phone coverage is mostly unavailable, because then you really do get to have a holiday and feel far away from the daily routine as well as be free from calls, texts and emails. The disadvantage is that help is further away, which means you need to keep your wits about you so that you are always ready to handle any emergency situation.
Should you want a greater degree of safety then buy a “SPOT – Satellite Personal Tracker”. The SPOT can be programmed to send a location and a daily “OK” to an email or telephone number of your choice. In an emergency situation you can send a “Help”, which will also instantly highlight your location. Better, and considerably more expensive, is an Iridium satellite phone, which you can use to contact people with directly. It allows you to provide exact information about your problem and help can be tailored to the situation.
Research and own experience
Greenland provides endless opportunities for all those wanting to experience a unique nature. For your trip to be successful you need to gather as much information as possible. Every destination holds a wealth of local knowledge that you should research and listen to. Such information combined with your own experience should give you an idea of the trip ahead of you and of what you need to do to prepare. If you are on your own or have any doubts whatsoever, then there are plenty of tour operators that can help arrange hiking and kayaking trips on a highly professional level.