The small town of Churchill, Manitoba, is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
Each year in October and November, the Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears follows its migration route in preparation for hunting season on the frozen Hudson Bay to begin. And it just so happens that the route takes the bears almost directly through the town of Churchill.
Churchill's history (and its history with its polar bear residents) is a story for another post, but for now the important thing to know is that, come “polar bear season,” there are often more polar bears in the area than people.
Add to this the fact that Churchill is fairly accessible and equipped for hosting tourists, and it's one of the top places in the world to see polar bears in the wild.
Going to see polar bears in Churchill has been on my bucket list for years, and I finally made it happen in 2018. The experience blew my expectations out of the water, and it's absolutely something you should add to your bucket list.
Choosing a Churchill polar bear tour
The best way to see polar bears in Churchill is by booking a tour. Yes, you *could* make your way to Churchill on your own and potentially hire someone to drive you around to where bears often roam near the town limits. But I don't know that this is something I'd recommend from a safety standpoint (and definitely do NOT go looking for bears on your own on foot).
Your best bet in terms of having both a safe and memorable experience in Churchill is to book a polar bear tour with one of the companies in town that takes guest out to bear-watch in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA).
There are several different tour options in Churchill. These include:
- The one-day trip – Yes, there are fly-in day trips to Churchill from cities like Winnipeg, Calgary, and Saskatoon.
- Pros: It's probably the most affordable option since you aren't paying for accommodation or meals.
- Cons: One day really isn't enough, especially if you run into flight trouble!
- The DIY tour – Get yourself to Churchill via either plane (there are direct flights from Winnipeg) or train (the journey takes 2 days), stay in town, and then book daily sightseeing trips on a Tundra Buggy or Polar Rover (the official names for the vehicles used by the two main bear-watching companies in town).
- Pros: You can save a bit of money by staying in town and booking your own transport.
- Cons: Group sizes on the day trips from Churchill can be large; they pack the tundra vehicles to capacity during polar bear season!
- The packaged tour – The option I recommend is the packaged tour. You can still opt to save some money and stay in the town of Churchill and go out on day trips, or you can splurge and stay out at one of the tundra lodges.
- Pros: All of the details are handled for you, from your flights to/from Churchill to your accommodation to your tours out onto the tundra.
- Cons: These are definitely the most expensive polar bear tour options – especially the ones where you opt for a smaller group and/or stay out in one of the tundra lodges.
All of these options include having an interpretive guide with you, who can tell you all about Churchill, polar bears, and some of the specific bear behavior you might see. The guides hired by Churchill's tour companies are top-notch, and many are experts when it comes to things like photography and/or polar bear conservation.
The guide I had on my tour had spent 13 years working in and around Churchill for Parks Canada (like the National Park Service here in the US) before switching over to tourism. He knew a lot about bears, and even more about the history of Arctic explorers. He also appreciated my jokes about polar bears giving side-eye (because they TOTALLY do).
The polar bear tour I chose
Since this was a bucket list trip that I had dreamed about for years, it was one I was willing to save up for. I therefore knew I wanted to splurge and book a multi-day packaged tour that included staying out on the tundra instead of in Churchill.
There are three main companies to choose from for this sort of tour: Frontiers North Adventures, Great White Bear Tours, and Churchill Wild. Frontiers North and GWBT both have mobile lodges out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, while Churchill Wild has three permanent eco-lodges on the Hudson Bay coast.
The tour I ultimately chose was the Tundra Buggy Lodge Enthusiast tour with Frontiers North Adventures.
This was a 6-day tour that included 2 overnights in Winnipeg, dogsledding and free time in Churchill, and three full days of polar bear viewing on the company's Tundra Buggy vehicles.
I chose this tour for a couple reasons. First, Frontiers North has been operating polar bear tours since 1979, and they have 12 out of the 18 permits that allows them to operate on the 33 kilometers of trails within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Second, I did a Northern Lights tour with them five years ago and had an excellent experience – so it was kind of a no-brainer to book with them again.
I chose the “enthusiast” level of tour because it means a smaller group (you'll only share a Tundra Buggy with 19 other people as opposed to 39), and the Tundra Buggy Lodge option because… well, obviously!
Staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge
Yes, you can save some money by staying in the town of Churchill. But then you spend about 2+ hours each day being transferred from your accommodation out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area where most of the bears typically wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze.
Meanwhile, if you stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, the polar bears basically come to you.
Frontiers North's Tundra Buggy Lodge sits at the aptly-named Polar Bear Point, within the CWMA and within sight of the Hudson Bay. It's not at all uncommon for curious, bored polar bears to come sniffing around the Lodge.
I spent 3 nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge and 3 fulls days bear-watching on a Tundra Buggy in late October. We saw our first bear within an hour of being at the Lodge, and were “late” leaving each morning because of curious bears blocking the way. I even laid in my bunk and watched bears out the window a couple times!
Inside the Tundra Buggy Lodge
After I booked my trip, I tried researching what staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge was really like. … And I didn't really find very much! So here's the lowdown:
The Tundra Buggy Lodge can accommodate up to 40 guests at a time. Guests are split up into two groups, and each group is assigned one sleeping car. The sleeping cars (and all the cars, really) resemble really big train cars.
The sleeping arrangements are in bunk beds. Each pair of bunk beds has a privacy curtain and its own thermostat/heating system, and each individual bed has an additional privacy curtain, a light, a shelf, a window, and 4 electrical outlets. These beds have real mattresses and cozy Hudsons Bay Company wool blankets. You're also provided with towels.
Other than the bunk beds, the sleeping cars have a storage area for your coats/boots, 3 toilets and 2 showers. That might not seem like a lot for 20 people to share, but it worked surprisingly well. The showers are on timers to conserve water (you get 2 minutes of hot water per push), so people don't generally take long. I found if I hopped in the shower during “happy hour” before dinner, I never had to wait.
Speaking of dinner… the Tundra Buggy Lodge also has a dining car (called Dan's Diner) where they serve up a buffet-style breakfast each morning, and a 3-course sit-down meal in the evenings. The food is REALLY good – we had things like Arctic Char and elk medallions, along with really tasty desserts.
The staff also provides wine, coffee, and appetizers in the lounge before dinner. The lounge car is a comfy car with tables and seating for hanging out before and after dinner. In the evenings, the staff or researchers from Polar Bears International will often give presentations; we had presentations on climate change and the relationship between people and bears in Churchill.
The lounge car is beautiful, with lots of skylights and even an outdoor observation deck on top just in case you get lucky and the Northern Lights come out while you're there.
Is the Tundra Buggy Lodge right for me?
You may hear things like “bunk beds” and “shared bathrooms” and think that maybe the Tundra Buggy Lodge isn't something you'd enjoy. But the Lodge is so well done and so perfectly positioned that I'm not sure there's a better place to stay if your goal is seeing polar bears!
The only thing I'd recommend is to bring some noise-canceling headphones or earbuds to help you fall asleep if you're a light sleeper. The Lodge does provide free ear plugs, but if you have some of your own that you like, I'd bring those!
*And note that the Tundra Buggy Lodge went through a complete renovation a couple years ago, so ignore any older reviews you might find on TripAdvisor!*
Seeing polar bears in the wild
Now let's get to the important part: seeing those polar bears!
As I've already mentioned, staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge means that you don't have to go very far to see polar bears. There were bears around the Lodge at all times of day, and when we DID leave to look for more bears, we never ended up going very far.
Regardless of what polar bear tour you opt for in Churchill, you'll be heading out into the Churchill Wildlife Management Area on large custom vehicles. Frontiers North uses the Tundra Buggy, a 4-wheeled vehicle that my husband describes as a “school bus monster truck.” (Great White Bear Tours uses 6-wheeled Polar Rovers.)
Tundra Buggies stand nearly 10 feet off the ground, and rumble over the tundra on tires that are 5.5-feet high. Top speed? 28 miles per hour.
You ONLY traverse on the trail network that already exists in the CWMA; there's no off-roading allowed in order to try to protect the fragile tundra environment. This does sometimes mean that you won't get as close to some polar bears as you might like, but your driver will always do his/her best to get you in the best spot for photos.
But hopefully you'll get as lucky as my group did. We were on the tundra at the height of “polar bear season,” and we had upwards of 20 bear “sightings” per day. We saw massive male bears, mama bears with cubs, sparring teenaged bears, and lots and lots of sleeping bears.
Up close with polar bears
Everyone is always curious about how close you really get to the bears. After all, a good zoom lens can make things look at lot closer than they really are.
But when it comes to polar bears in Churchill, you can get VERY close.
Because of how accessible it is, the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears is one of the most-studied groups of polar bears in the world. Tour companies have been taking people out to see the bears for decades, and the animals know that the Tundra Buggies and other vehicles aren't a threat; they are just part of the tundra landscape that the bears have become used to.
It's not uncommon for bears to come right up to the tundra vehicles. Some will sniff around cautiously as they circle around a vehicle and silently pad away. But braver ones (or maybe just hungrier ones?) will come closer, sometimes even standing up on their hind legs for a better sniff. The Frontiers North guides call this “Buggy Love,” and it's always a guest favorite.
Don't worry, though – the Tundra Buggies are far enough off the ground that you aren't in danger from even the biggest polar bear giving you Buggy Love, so long as you don't hang out the window or over the side of the outdoor observation deck.
And speaking of windows… the benefit of going on a tour with a smaller group size like I did is that no one has to fight for a window seat. With a group of 20, it's easy for everyone to get a great view of the bears.
A typical day on a polar bear tour
If you choose to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge like I did, here's what a typical day will look like:
- 7 a.m. – Breakfast in the dining car
- 8/8:15 a.m. – Board your Tundra Buggy for a full day out on the tundra
- 10:30/11 – Stop for coffee/snacks; your driver will try to find a bear for you to watch
- 12:30/1 p.m. – Stop for lunch; you bring your lunch out with you in the morning and eat right on the Tundra Buggy. Lunches we had included things like tacos, pasta, and build-your-own sandwiches.
- After lunch – You'll have to make a pit stop back at the Tundra Buggy Lodge in order to drop off your dishes so the kitchen staff can get everything washed before dinner
- 4 p.m.(ish) – Return to the Tundra Buggy Lodge for the evening
- 4:30-5:30 p.m. – Drinks and appetizers in the lounge
- 6 p.m. – Dinner at Dan's Diner
- After dinner – Possibly a presentation in the lounge
- 10/10:30 – Bedtime for most people, though of course you can hang out in the lounge as late as you want!
Since you've traveled all this way to see polar bears, the bulk of your day is spent out on the tundra. The Tundra Buggies are luckily pretty comfortable, but you do spend about 8 hours per day on them.
On a couple days, we did have one or two people in our group return to the lodge after lunch when we stopped to drop off our dishes; if this is something that would help make your trip more comfortable, be sure to talk to your guide!
When to go to Churchill to see polar bears
Polar bear season generally begins in Churchill at the beginning of October, and tours run through mid-November. It's of course impossible to fully predict bear behavior, and the tour companies have no control over when the Hudson Bay will freeze.
When I was planning my trip, I didn't want to go too early in the season (for fear that no bears would be around yet) or too late in the season (for fear that the Bay would freeze early). I opted to go more in the middle; I was up in Churchill from October 24-27.
Like I mentioned earlier, I lucked out and was on the tundra at the height of polar bear season. We had no problem seeing LOTS of bears and all sorts of different behaviors.
In fact, we saw so many bears that on the last day of our tour, we took a less-used trail and went to look for other animals like Arctic Fox and ptarmigan and snowy owls.
In 2018, the first bears were spotted in early October, but the ice froze early and the last groups in mid-November did not see many bears at all. I think late October is a pretty good bet for a very good chance of seeing bears.
(And no, you won't get a refund if you don't see bears; these bears are not in a zoo, and none of the tour companies have any control over where/when they show up. This is why I recommend spending more than just one day on the tundra, just in case!)
How much do polar bear tours cost?
I won't lie, guys: it is NOT cheap to go see polar bears in Churchill. Even if you choose the cheapest option (i.e. taking the train, staying in a budget spot in Churchill, and booking just one day on a tundra tour), you're still looking at spending at least $1500 per person.
The tour I booked (the Tundra Buggy Lodge Enthusiast tour) was roughly $6500 USD. But this was a bucket list trip for me (and for most of the people who go on it), so I was willing to pay for it. I personally think it was worth every penny, and you really do get what you pay for in terms of guides and overall experience.
Here are some sample costs for some of Frontiers North Adventures' polar bear tours:
- One-day tour: $489 CAD ($365 USD) per adult
- 5-day tour with accommodation in Churchill: $4,149 CAD ($3,104 USD)
- 5-day tour with 2 nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge: $6,249 CAD ($4,675 USD)
These tours fill up FAST, too. Many of the most popular tours will fill up months in advance. (I went in October 2018, but booked my spot in December 2017!)
What to pack for a polar bear tour
Temperatures can vary depending on when in the season you go to Churchill. In late October, temperatures were hovering just below freezing, though the wind often made it feel much colder. By late November, once the bay was frozen, temperatures plummeted to way below zero (I had friends who went late in the season when it was -40!)
Some key things you'll need to pack include:
- Layers, layers, and more layers – On most days I wore a base layer (I like these bottoms and this thermal turtleneck), a mid-layer (usually leggings on the bottom and a down vest or fleece on top), and an outer layer (including my Columbia Omni-Heat pants and either a light down jacket or my long Cocoon Coat from Rohan depending on whether I was going to be outside much or not).
- Glove liners – Along with a hat, scarf, and gloves, you should also bring some glove liners with you that will let you operate your camera or phone. Even though you spend most of the day inside your Tundra Buggy, it can still get cold when all the windows are open for people to take photos.
- Warm boots – I don't know about you, but if my feet get cold, the rest of me gets cold. So I made sure to pack my winter hiking boots for this trip along with warm socks in order to keep my feet toasty. And if you're spending any time in Churchill, taking some Yaktrax with you will come in handy, too, since they don't really clear snow and ice from the roads.
- Slippers for the Lodge – The one thing I was super glad I packed were a pair of cozy slippers with rubber bottoms to wear at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Having these meant I didn't have to clomp around the lodge in my winter boots. (Though note that you do have to walk outside to get from one car to another, so I don't recommend sock-style slippers!)
- Noise-canceling headphones – These can make for easier bunk sleeping at the Lodge.
- A good camera – Plenty of people on my tour were snapping photos on their phones or point-and-shoot cameras. But if you really want to come away with excellent photos of polar bears, you need a fast camera and (probably) a good telephoto lens. I shot almost all my bear photos on an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with a 70-300mm lens. And while I'm happy with my shots, I know people with nicer cameras got even better images! This is a trip where it would be worth renting a good camera if you don't own one.
The good news is that if you don't have cold-weather gear, you can rent it from Frontiers North. They rent out parkas, snow pants, and warm boots that you can pick up once you get to Canada.
Seriously, guys, this is one of the coolest things I've ever done, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again. In fact, I might be tempted to repeat this trip in another few years because climate change is real, and scientists predict that we might not even HAVE polar bears in another 100 years.
A polar bear tour isn't going to be the cheapest vacation you'll ever take, but it absolutely belongs on your travel bucket list.
Is a polar bear tour something that's on YOUR travel bucket list?
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