The Ultimate Guide to Polar Bear Tours in Churchill Manitoba

A Manitoba Polar Bear sitting on a frozen, snow-covered Hudson Bay.

Updated August 2020

When you think of polar bears, does Churchill, Manitoba come to mind?

Never heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s a small, remote hole-in-the-wall town in north-eastern Canada, but for polar bears it’s the cat’s meow.

The tiny hamlet (population 900) is one of the best places in the world to see the white behemoths firsthand, earning it the nickname “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.”

Churchill is not a destination where you should wing it.

During the high season (October through November), a small group of experienced outfitters offers a variety of polar bear tours that also include an introduction to the region’s vast tundra and arctic wildlife (think wolf, Arctic hare and fox, moose, caribou, black bear, and ptarmigan) while highlighting Churchill’s unique history, heritage, and indigenous culture.

A view down Kelsey Blvd, the main drag in Churchill, Manitoba, one of the best places to see polar bears.
A look down Kelsey Boulevard, Churchill’s main street. | Photo: Travel Manitoba

(For a more thorough description of other cool things to do in Churchill, many of which are part of multi-day tours, see 17 Awesome Things To Do In Churchill Manitoba)

To help you choose the perfect polar bear tour for you, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the companies and the packages they offer.

Why Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the World

Situated at the convergence of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay, the former 18th-century trading post, is smack dab in the middle of a major polar bear migration route.

Why have the bears bequeathed this favored status upon the region? It’s simple. In winter, the area where the fresh water from the river feeds into the salty water of the Bay is the first to freeze. 

A Churchill, Canada polar bear nurses a cub on the rocks at the shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba.
A mother nurses a cub on the shore of Hudson Bay

Polar bears are marine mammals and they use the ice floe for hunting seals––their main food supply––and after months of fasting on land, the sooner they can eat, the better. More time means they’ll, gain more weight, and for females, the potential to bare healthy offspring increases.

From June through August, the bears roam farther inland and are more challenging to see. They are most visible in October and November when the polar bears head toward the coast, and good ole Churchill, Manitoba. 

Why a Multi-day Polar Bear Tour is Better Than Booking Ala Carte

The best (and safest) way to experience Churchill polar bears (and all the other cool things around town) is by working with tour operators offering multi-day trips with expert expedition leaders, naturalists, activities, accommodations, transportation, and logistics included. Churchill is not a destination where you should wing it.

Though I’m stating the obvious, you should never try to see these Arctic wonders on your own. Male polar bears can weigh up to 1300 lbs and stand 10 feet tall (female polar bears are smaller but still huge compared to a human), and they have no problem attacking humans without warning––they are stealthy predators. They’re also fast. Really fast. Can outrun you in seconds fast. No Joke.

An Inukshuk on the edge of Hudson, Bay, one of the best places to see polar bears.
An Inukshuk, a traditional means of communication among the Inuit culture

There are three premium operators working in Churchill. Below, I’ve broken down what they offer and what makes each one special so you can choose what adventure is right for you and your budget. 

(Note: If you are determined to book everything on your own, some companies provide activities a la carte. But book far in advance, otherwise, you’ll be out of luck. Multi-day tour guests are given priority if spaces are limited. 


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An Arctic fox curled up on the tundra. One of the many other animals you're likely to see on Churchill's polar bear tours.
Arctic Fox bedding down

The Leading Operators in Churchill

The three leading outfitters providing multi-day tours are:

Lazy Bear Expeditions is a family-owned business based in Churchill. Frontiers North Adventures, also family-owned, is headquartered in Winnipeg with an office in Churchill. Natural Habitat Adventures hales from Boulder, Co.

All three have excellent reputations, and while they all offer many of the same types of excursions, they each have their own take and sensibility.

Lazy Bear and Frontieres North, also offer limited day tours.

(Note: My only personal experience is with Lazy Bear Expeditions as an invited guest on the company’s “Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure.”)


A profile close up a beautiful husky, one member of a sledding team. This is an activity usually part of Churchill polar bear tours.
Dog Sledding

Common Features of All the Polar Bear Tour Companies

Tundra Vehicles and Viewing

All three companies use customized Tundra vehicles for daytime polar bear and wildlife viewing. They each call them different names (Tundra Buggy for Frontiers North, Lazy Bear’s Arctic Crawler, and the Polar Rover Nat Habi uses in partnership with the local outfitter Great White Bear Tours). 

Fundamentally, they are all heavy-duty, extra-wide, bus-like vehicles with an attached deck outside. They have enormous monster tires for the terrain and offer viewing opportunities both inside and out. 

Naturalists and Expedition Leaders

For most of the tours detailed below, trained naturalists and expedition leaders accompany guests throughout the trip, except for a few Frontiers North’s itineraries that don’t provide a 24/7 escort.

On the more cerebral side: Frontiers North and Nat Hab programs provide guest lectures with Polar Bears International researchers and scientists.

Stuffed polar bear inside the Itsanitaq Museum in Churchill which is a usual component of polar bear tours in Churchill, manitoba
Inside the Itsanitaq Museum

Culture and Heritage Integration

Woven into every program (in one way or another) is a tour of Churchill as well as visits to sites focusing on indigenous history, and local heritage 

Dog Sledding / Carting

Depending on the itinerary, each company offers dog sledding in the winter or dog carting in the summer in partnership with local mushing companies.

Heli-tours

There are two local companies used by the three operators. A couple of programs include flightseeing, while others offer it as an add-on for an additional fee.

For a more detailed understanding of what there is to do in Churchill year-round, please read my post, 17 Thrilling Things You Can Do in Churchill.  

The entrance to the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill, Manitoba

Lazy Bear Expeditions 

Where You Stay

Both of Lazy Bear Expeditions tours use the Lazy Bear Lodge as a home base. The 33-room rustic lodge was built by hand using reclaimed wood from the boreal forest and recycled glass from the 19th-century Hudson Bay Trading Post.

The Lazy Bear Cafe is at one end of the lodge and features an enormous 20,000 pound stone fireplace. It’s one of the most popular haunts for travelers and locals alike. (Note: they don’t serve alcohol, but they do serve local game.)

A small gift shop sells fleeces and other cold-weather clothing as well as souvenir-type trinkets.

The lodge also provides free wi-fi and high-speed internet.

Two women eating inside the Lazy Bear Cafe, part of Lazy Bear Expeditions offering polar bear tours in Churchill
The Lazy Bear Cafe

Ultimate Polar Bear Adventure

(5-Nights; October – November)

Exploring for polar bears and other wildlife aboard Lazy Bear’s Arctic Crawler for two days, dog mushing, and various cultural highlights. If the skies are clear, you’ll likely see the Northern Lights too!

Things you should know

  • There is Shuttle service to and from the airport in Churchill
  • First and last nights of your polar bear tour are in Winnipeg 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars  
  • Packages include round trip flights from Winnipeg to Churchill (could be commercial or charter)
  • If you’re a solo traveler, there is a single supplement
  • Some meals included

Not Included

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg.
  • Travel insurance or evacuation services
  • Tips

( In the summer, Lazy Bear is the only outfitter to offer Aquagliding, which gets you up close and personal with Beluga whales, which is an extraordinary experience. You can read all about it in my post: Don’t Miss Churchill’s Astonishing Beluga Whale Migration 


Polar Bears playing in front of Frontiers North's Tundra Buggy Lodge
Photo: Simon Gee

Frontiers North Adventures

Where You Stay

Frontiers North works with one of Churchill’s local hotels, or in winter, guests may stay in the company’s “Tundra Buggy Lodge” or a combination of the two.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge is an ultra-wide, train-like accommodation for 40 passengers and is set in the wilderness away from the city. It features shared sleeping berths, a lounge, dining hall, and staff quarters. A rooftop observation deck is ideal for gazing at the Aurora Borealis.

Highlights and Difference

Wapusk National Park

(November) 

Offered once a year, “Polar Bears at Legendary Cape Churchill ” takes place in neighboring Wapusk National Park where Frontiers North is the only company licensed to host visitors. 

Thanadelthur Lounge 

The Thanadelthur Lounge is a heated viewing station far away from the city lights, with skylights and panoramic windows that frame the Aurora Borealis above.

An Exclusive Relationship with Polar Bears International (PBI) to Provide Experts in the Field

“A few of the departures are joined by a PBI Ambassador, species expert or scientist at some stage of the tour.” 

The Tundra Buggy Lodge is used by PBI as a field office, meaning guests staying there have access to the researchers while in the field.

Frontiers North also created Tundra Buggy One––a mobile broadcast and research center––designed for PBI’s use. It’s used by scientists to study bears and broadcast life video and webcasts called Tundra Connections, which are free to the public and made possible by Frontiers North and Explore.org.

They are the only company able to offer access to PBI staff in the field.

Berths inside Frontiers-North-Adventures' Tundra Buggy Lodge. It enables guests to stay in the middle of the tundra, which is the best place to see polar bears.
Photo: Eric Lindberg

Photography

Departures cater to the needs of the photography enthusiast. Typically led by a well-known photographer. (Not all itineraries)

Snowshoe Trekking

The classic winter sport escorted by an interpretive guide. (Not all departures)

Train

A couple of trips listed as “VIA Rail” add two days winding through Saskatchewan and Manitoba before arriving in Churchill.

Riding Mountain National Park

This departure adds Riding Mountain National Park to the schedule before heading to Churchill.

Frontiers-North-Adventures Thanadelthur Lounge with glass windows and skylights, perfect for viewing the Aurora Borealis a.k.a The Northern Lights
Photo: Mike Gere

Tours

Adventure(r) vs Enthusiast

Packages listed as “Adventure(r)” are the most economical options. Groups are larger (40 max), and activities are unescorted by an interpretive guide. “Enthusiast” tours are smaller (22 max) and include an interpretive guide to accompany guests throughout their stay.

Churchill Town and Tundra  Enthusiast

(Oct; 6-days)
Time built in to explore the city paired with two full days exploring with the Tundra Buggy searching for bears and other wildlife.

Churchill Town and Tundra VIA Rail Enthusiast 

(Oct – Nov; 8-days)
This adventure adds a two-night train journey through the wilds of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point Enthusiast 

(Oct – Nov; 7-Day)

Days spent on the Tundra Buggy, nights are spent in the wild in the Tundra Buggy. The trip also includes dog sledding and cultural highlights.

Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point Specialist 

(Oct – Nov; 8-days)

Same as above, but emphasizing photography with extended tundra stays and “plenty of photo opportunities.” 

Guests of Frontiers North Snowshoeing on the tundra during a polar bear tour
Photo: Jessica Burtnick

Conservation Journey: Polar Bears 

(Oct-Nov; 7-day)
Three nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Buggy One “a mobile broadcast and research station.” Presentations by Polar Bears International’s Chief Scientist Dr. Steven Amstrup on climate change and its impact on the polar bears and what the organization is doing to help.

Polar Bears at Legendary Cape Churchill

(Nov; 12-day)

The company refers to this as the “Ultimate Polar Bear Viewing and Photography Expedition.” The staff includes expert photography guidance and interpretive guides. By day you are roaming the countryside in a Tundra Buggy, and at night, you’ll sleep in the lodge. 

Things You Should Know

  • First and last night are in Winnipeg at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel at the airport. 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy.
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars.  
  • Tour includes a round trip flight from Winnipeg to Churchill could be commercial or charter.
  • If you travel solo you’ll have to pay a single supplement 
  • The number of meals included in the fee varies depending on the program

Not Included

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg.
  • Travel insurance or evacuation services
  • Tips
Nat Hab Adventure's Tundra Lodge parked in the Manitoban tundra
Photo: Alek Komarnitsky

Natural Habitat Adventures 

Where You Stay

Guests stay either in a Churchill hotel or depending on the itinerary, the 32- room Tundra Lodge set in the wild for premium viewing.

In the lodge, guests stay in private windowed cabins with shared toilets and showers. The lounge, dining car, and outside platforms provide ample space and opportunity to observe and photograph the Aurora Borealis, polar bears, and other arctic species. 

(Natural Habitat Adventures works in partnership with Great White Bear Tours and Sea North Tours for some of the elements included in their polar bear journeys.)

Highlights and Differences

Group Size

No more than 16 travelers. Nat Hab offers the smallest groups of the three providers.

Their Rovers transport up to 35 passengers, but with a maximum of 16 people, everyone has plenty of space and a window.

Natural Habitat Adventures - Mushers' camp with teepee
Photo: Natural Habitat Adventures

Four Different Locations for Aurora Gazing

For those who have dreamed of gazing at the Aurora Borealis, Natural Habitat Adventures has four fun locations in which to view if the weather is in your favor.

Exclusive to the company, the Aurora Pod is a heated structure with glass windows and skylights providing a 360-degree view of the night sky. Heated plexiglass domes, a secluded woodstove-heated cabin, and a mushers camp replete with a teepee and campfire round out the other vantage points.

Photography

Specific photo departures are available on four of the tours. All are led by an expert naturalist/photographer who provides real-time coaching in the field for wildlife, landscapes, and Northern Lights. Photography lectures take place in the evening.

Igloo building

Learn the ancient art of Igloo building (not all tours).

Tours

Classic Polar Bear Itinerary  

(Oct; 6 or 7 days) 

Polar bears are the focus of this expedition with adventures on the Polar Rover, once at night. There’s dog sledding through the boreal forest, the chance of the Aurora Borealis, and ample time to check out the town.

A polar bear checks out the Natural Habitat Adventure's Polar Rover
Photo: Brad Josephs

Ultimate Churchill Adventure  

(October & November; 7 days)

A scenic helicopter ride over the tundra is one of this itinerary’s highlights. A wilderness landing will enable you to climb inside an unoccupied den. Plus, a trip to the heated plexiglass Aurora Domes should the weather be in your favor. 

Churchill Arctic Family Adventure

(Mid to late November) 

Excursions tailored to engage and excite young people, with guides who are hired for their rapport with kids. The family will also enjoy a helicopter flightseeing tour on this trip. 

(Note: As this tour takes place later in the season, there is a possibility that the polar bears may already be on the ice.) 

Polar Bear looking up through the grate of Nat Hab's Poler Rover
Photo: Henry H. Holdsworth

Tundra Lodge and Town Adventure 

(October & November; 7 days)

Just what it sounds like, a combination of polar bear viewing and other activities along with and a comprehensive tour of the town, as well as two nights in the Tundra Lodge. 

Tundra Lodge Adventure 

(October & November; 6 – 7 days)

Spend three nights immersed 24/7 in the wilderness by overnighting in the Tundra Lodge and exploring in Polar Rovers by day.

  • Photo departures are available on this trip

Northern Lights and Arctic Exploration 

(October & November / 7-days – limited to 14 travelers) 

The Glass Aurora Pod and plexiglass Aurora domes, a mushing camp teepee, and an isolated cabin are used for nightly Northern Lights observation.

  • Photo departures available on this trip
Natural Habitat Adventures - Aurora Pod with guests looking up a the Northern LIghts
Photo: Alexander de Vries

Things You Should Know

  • For all tours, your first night in Winnipeg kicks off the week with a hosted dinner at the Fort Garry Hotel. 
  • The company’s lodge and rovers are used in partnership with Great White Bear Tours.
  • The carbon emissions from your trip are 100% offset by the company, which has been carbon neutral since 2007. 
  • Natural Habitat Adventures is the World Wildlife Fund’s official conservation travel partner. 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy.
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars.  
  • Tour includes a round trip chartered flight between Winnipeg and Churchill to maximize your time in the wild.
  • The number of meals covered in the fee varies depending on the program.

Not Included

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg.
  • Travel insurance or evacuation services
  • Tips
Polar Bear walking in the snow in northern Manitoba

Operators for Day and Half-Day Polar Bear Tours

Day tours or half-day tours that can be booked a la carte.

Frontiers North Adventures

Autumn Tundra Buggy Day Tours (8 hrs)


North Star Tours 

A spin-off of Sea North Tours providing a wide variety of polar bears, beluga, northern lights, town tours, MVIthaca hike, as well as private guiding services.


Nature 1st Tours 

Provides half and full-day polar bear tours.


Hudson Bay Heli tours

Specializes in 60 and 90-minute heli-tours. During the migration season, the company offers a moneyback guarantee.

Custom Helicopters

Helicopters have large, high-visibility windows. After your ride, you’ll celebrate with champagne, and hor’s d’ oeuvres’ post-flight.

Answers to Questions You May Have

How Do You Get To Churchill?

It’s simple, there are only two ways to get to Churchill: by plane (2hrs) or by train (2 trains per week approx 40 hours) from Winnipeg. There are no roads.

Calm Air is the domestic carrier most companies use.

When is the Best Time to Visit Churchill?

For Polar Bear viewing, October and November are the best. You might see bears in August or September, but would be looked at as a bonus, not likely.

Polar bear walking on a frozen Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba

Am I Guaranteed to See the Polar Bears?

Wildlife, in general, is never something that can be guaranteed. That said, guides are well trained. They will do their best to put you in the right place at the right time to see polar bears, but if you need guarantees, don’t go. Not seeing polar bears is a possibility, and you have to be ok with that. Remember, there are other exciting things to see and do. 

What is the Weather Like in Churchill?

Volatile. Warm to cold and back again. You’re in the subarctic next to the water, leading to all kinds of interesting possibilities. In October and November, make sure you have plenty of layers because it gets cold. Seriously cold. For recommendations, check out my post: “Use this Winter Packing List, and you’ll Never Be Cold Again.” 

When You’re in Town, is it Safe From Polar Bears?

The smart way to think about it is in town it’s “safer.” Churchill’s Polar Bear Alert Program is very good at keeping bears out of the city, but they do get in. It’s just a fact. Doors to homes and cars are never locked so people can step inside for safety if necessary.

If you hear firecracker shells, it means the team is actively hazing or moving a bear from town. Do not gawk or seek out the confrontation to watch.

Always pay attention to your guides. They know what to do in an emergency.

Another thing, if you come across a bear and it sees you, back away slowly, keeping your eyes on it at all times. Do Not Run. It will only incite the animal to charge. If you have a bag, drop it while you’re backing up, the bear may stop to sniff it and give you extra time to make your escape.

Do I Need Travel Insurance?

Yes. Most tour operators will require it, but if you go on your own, I still say absolutely. 

I always recommend travel insurance but it’s the medical coverage that’s most important, in my opinion. Churchill is in the middle of nowhere, and anything could happen, and I’m not talking about being attacked by an animal. I’m talking about slipping and breaking your leg. Something benign, and you’re going to want to make sure you’re able to get the best help possible, which may require an evacuation. Please don’t assume your credit card has it covered. It usually doesn’t.


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2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Polar Bear Tours in Churchill Manitoba

  1. Keith says:

    Now we are spoilt for choice! Love the polar bears and all the other wonderful wildlife. While the price tags are huge, it certainly qualifies for any bucket list 🙂

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