Bear Watching in Finland – Guide to Bear Safaris

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Bear watching at Martinselkonen Wilderness Center, Kainuu, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The brown bear is Finland’s national animal, a mythical creature that has always been feared and respected. For the ancient Finns, the bear was such a sacred creature that its name was not uttered in vain. The bear was called by many nicknames such as honeyhand and apple of the forest.

Finland is one of the best places in the world to watch northern predators, and it’s much cheaper than you might think. Spending a night in a hideout watching bears, wolves and wolverines costs the same as a double room in a mid-range hotel, around 100-150 euros. Not a bad price for such a memorable experience!

Finnish top predators compare to the world’s most legendary creatures. I know what I’m talking about: on my travels I’ve seen tigers in India, lions and cheetahs in Africa, and whale sharks in the Indian Ocean and manta rays and hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. Based on these experiences I dare to say that meeting a brown bear in a Finnish forest is an unforgettable moment.

This article presents the best places in Finland to see bear, wolf and wolverine. In addition, I share tips and personal experiences of various hideouts where I’ve spent many nights watching Finland’s top predators.

Wildlife watching in Finland

What makes Finland such a good destination for watching bears and wolves? There are two reasons: Finland is one of the few countries where it is legal to feed predators by carcasses, and right next door is Russia, whose wild border areas support Finland’s predator population. The best viewing places for Finnish top predators can be found in the wilderness of Eastern Finland.

There are about 2300-2500 bears in Finland (Natural Resources Center 2020), so encountering them in the forest by chance is extremely rare. If you want to see a bear in its natural habitat, you can do so in the commercial wildlife hideouts of Kuhmo or Suomussalmi.

Wolves and the wolverines are much more rare than bears, but still there is a very good chance of spotting them, too. On the other hand, seeing the shy lynx is so rare that it’s not even worth dreaming about.

In addition to bears, wolves and wolverines, Finland’s largest birds of prey, the sea eagle and the golden eagle, can also be spotted from a hidden stall. 

Bear safari in Finland – what is a hideout?

wildlife watching hide
Bear watching hide in a swamp in Kuhmo region, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Bears, wolves and wolverines are watched from small hidden stalls suitable for photography. Carcasses (or other food such as fishbones and dog crackers) are placed in front of them to attract predators. Usually you are able to see the animal you wanted during the first night – several times.

There are two types of stalls. Photo hides for nature photographers are simple booths with tele lens openings in three directions. The decor is Spartan: plastic chairs, narrow bunks for resting, and a plastic bucket with a lid as the toilet. The photography hides are most often single or double, and are a little further away from the larger “viewing cabins” for groups.

The viewing cabins look more like a cottage than a booth, and are quite comfortable compared to the photography hides. However, they are no luxury either; for example, forget about brushing your teeth.

For sleeping, the larger stalls have a bunk bed, a mattress, and a duvet or a sleeping bag that has seen life. In the hidden stalls you sleep – if you sleep – with all clothes on. Viewing stalls usually have a dry toilet.

wildlife watching hide
Wildlife watching hides have narrow viewing windows and openings for telephoto lenses. Photo: Ville Palonen

Wildlife safari company’s guide takes bear-watchers to photo hides and viewing cabins early in the evening – often late in the afternoon – and they spend the whole night until the next morning. It is not possible to get out of the hide in the middle of night unless it has been specifically agreed beforehand that you can stay there only for part of the night. It is absolutely forbidden to leave the hide without permission in any circumstances! In other words, you must sit inside the cabin or booth for at least 12 hours. But don’t worry: bear watching is so exciting that time simply flies!

You have to be quiet in the stall, but you don’t need to hold your breath. You can eat sandwiches and other snacks,, drink coffee from thermos, and even chat quietly whispering – in any case, the animals can smell that a human is lurking in the booth. 

However, loud noises should be avoided. The quieter you are, the better chances you have in seeing shy wolves and bears. It is a good idea to take a joint restroom and rattle break maximum every couple of hours.

Smoking, alcohol and talking on the phone are completely prohibited. Online surfing and texting is allowed, if mobile data works at the spot (obviously, no WiFi).

Spending the night in a bear spotting hide costs 100-250 euros per adult, depending on the location and additional services (meals, transportation, etc.). But there are also low budget places: we have spent a night in a rather nice bear cabin for only 30 euros per person, and we watched the bears up close for several hours.

Is bear watching suitable for children?

Yes, bear watching is suitable for families. Tested! For younger children, it’s a good idea to download a few movies to your cell phone or tablet to keep them quiet. Remember the headphones!

But: if you’re not quite sure if the little ones in the family will be able to sit still in a small booth around the clock and be completely silent, consider again! If a child starts to act up in the middle of the night, all the nature photographers and tourists sitting in the nearby hides will have their night ruined and money wasted.

Once again: everybody, including small children, must be completely quiet while watching bears. It is not possible to leave in the middle of night under any circumstances.

What is the best time to watch bears in Finland?

bear watching finland
Bear watching at Martinselkonen Wilderness Center, Kainuu, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

The best time to watch brown bears is summer. The bears are hibernating in the winter (October-April), and although wolves and wolverines can be seen, watching the animals in winter is challenging due to the limited amount of daylight and cold weather.

In summer, there is enough light throughout the night. However, it is worth remembering that during bear hunting season the bears are (for a good reason) much more timid than usual. The bear hunt begins on August 20 and usually lasts until early September

Autumn is a great time to spot the top predators as the landscape bathes in the bright colors of autumn and the darkening nights create their own atmosphere for sitting in a hide. April is also a good time, as there is still snow, plenty of daylight, and the bears have already woken up from their hibernation.

Read more: Best time to visit Finland – the four seasons

Suomussalmi – the largest number of bears

Martinselkonen Wilderness Center in Kainuu, Finland, is famous for baby bears. Photo: Ville Palonen

Finland’s largest concentration of bears can be found in Suomussalmi, in the Martinselkonen Wilderness Center, located near the eastern border. Bears are guaranteed to be seen, and plenty of them! In fact, you can see almost too many bears in Martinselkonen. The experience is almost absurd when a dozen bears run around  in front of the hide. The description given at the beginning of this article is about Martinselkonen.

Bear safaris have been organized at Martinselkonen Wilderness Center for 30 years, and bears no longer seem to care much about the presence of people, so they can come just a few meters away from hidden stalls..

You are guaranteed to see bears in Martinselkonen any given(summer) night, but instead one night you should stay two so you could watch the bears in different environments: in the forest square and in the swamp. While the square is often filled with bears, the swamp feels (and looks) like a more authentic setting for bears.

Martinselkonen is a great place to photograph bears, but in Kuhmo region bear safaris offer a more authentic nature experience.

Kuhmo – bear and wolf at the same time 

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Wolf can be spotted at bear safaris in Kuhmo region, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Kuhmo competes with Suomussalmi for the title of the best bear viewing place in Finland. Bears can be seen almost certainly in Kuhmo’s hidden stalls. Bears are usually watched on the edge of a swamp. The experience is amazing: the swamp spreading in front of the stall is like a painting where bears arrive all night to bustle.

What makes Kuhmo an exceptional place is that you often see wolves at the same time as the bears – the only place in the world. Many international nature documentary filmmakers have visited Kuhmo to film interaction between bears and wolves.

In the Kuhmo region there are several entrepreneurs who organize bear and wolf safaris. One of the most praised is Wildlife Safaris Finland. Their headquarters are right next to the border zone, and additional services include dining, sauna and rental of professional photographic equipment.

Read more: Kuhmo bears article

You can also see bears really cheaply in Kuhmo. There are small private entrepreneurs in the area, some of whom organize bear watching more on a hobby basis. We spent a night in a bear watching cabin which cost only 30 euros per person. And yes – we got to watch the bears for an hour at a distance of not more than ten meters. Money well spent!

Lieksa – the best Place in the world to see a wolverine

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Best place in the world to watch volwerines is Lieksa, Finland. Photo: Ville Palonen

Wolverine loses to bears and wolves in size, but wins in wit. Wolverine has small ears, big paws and a thick blunt tail. But the appearance should not be fooled: a wolverine is a small but fierce animal that fights even a bear if necessary. Wolverine likes to climb trees, and its activities are fun to watch, especially if you have already been on a bear safari. Highly recommended!

Wolverine is highly endangered in Finland. According to the Natural Resources Center’s estimate, there are less than 400 wolverines in Finland – fewer than endemic Saimaa Ringed Seals in Finland. 

The best place in the world to see a wolverine is considered to be Lieksa in North Karelia. People around the world travel to photograph wolverines at Erä-Eero’s photography hides, where, the wolverine can almost certainly be seen at any given night. There is also a good chance of spotting a bear. 

Read more: Erä-Eero article

Tips on equipment for wildlife watching hides in Finland

  • wet wipes and xylitol gum for “evening wash”
  • comfortable clothes that you can also sleep with
  • a warm jacket and beanie
  • wool socks in winter
  • pillowcase (hides have pillows and sleeping bags),
  • binoculars (you can see better in low light with binoculars)
  • power bank (many stalls have a mobile weak phone network that drains battery fast)

On behalf of the house, a lunch box is often packed. It can contain for example a thermos bottle of coffee, a ham cheese sandwich, yoghurt, a banana and a bottle of water. You can also bring your own snacks, but you should avoid crumbling packaging – no crisps! Alcohol is not allowed.

Photographers need their own ball head (the tripod must not be used due to noise), which is screwed into the shooting opening. A suitable focal length for the lens is 300-600mm – 200mm can be a bit too short.

Read more: Wild East – Kainuu and North Karelia regions of Eastern Finland

Video: Finland Bear Watching

Finland’s outdoor attractions on a map

The map below has the best national parks in Finland, and many other recommended outdoor attractions like best day hikes, wildlife safaris, fishing spots and canoeing routes.

Did you like this article? If you’re planning a trip to Finland, please book your hotel or rent a cottage by clicking on our affiliate links. We get a small commission, but you don’t pay any extra. Thanks for your support!

Ville Palonen (born 1976) is a freelance photographer and travel writer who loves mountains, wildlife and road trips. He has visited 80 countries and travelled in adventurous destinations like Amazon, Himalaya and Borneo. In Finland Ville spends his time photographing, hiking, fishing, hunting and mushrooming. Ville's favourite destinations in Finland are treeless fells of Lapland and wild parts of East Finland.

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