This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Lofoten Islands are among the world’s most scenic and formidable destinations for winter surfing. Massive Arctic swells regularly hit the bay of Unstad, a tiny town with an outsize reputation. But surfing is not the archipelago’s only draw; adventurers also explore the hiking trails, fishing culture, and northern lights.
Enveloped by Arctic currents and narrow fjords, the Lofoten archipelago lures thrill seekers—including wintertime surfers. Riding the frigid waves here requires a dose of Norwegian indre kraft, or inner strength. In the past decade, technical advances in cold water attire have made it possible to spend much more time in normally numbing temperatures. “It’s just us, our surfboards, and the vastness of nature,” says German surfer Aline Bock. (This Norwegian concept of outdoor living could help us through the coronavirus winter.)
After surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, or hiking, adventurers can break their icy isolation by warming up to the centuries-old fishing culture that defines the islands. Among the weathered red rorbu cabins, racks of cod dry in the wind, providing the main ingredient for the local fish stew. Daylight is fleeting above the Arctic Circle in winter, which gives ample opportunity to chase the green swirls of the northern lights, especially around the villages of Reine and Svolvær.
Awarded a “sustainable destination” seal of approval by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the Lofoten archipelago has focused on preserving its culture and reducing the negative impact of tourism. As climate change causes glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise, the islands’ waves may eventually become too treacherous to ride. Successful conservation efforts, such as ending offshore fossil fuel development, could benefit the environment as well as the people. (Winter surfing is hot. Can it survive climate change?)
By the numbers
18: Population of Unstad, the islands’ most famous surf spot
41°F: Average water temperature in February
120: Miles above the Arctic Circle