The mean home range size of female polar bears (Ursus maritimus; 125 100 km2 ± 11 800; n = 93) is substantially larger than the predicted value (514 km2) for a terrestrial carnivore of similar weight. To understand this difference, we correlated home range size and sea ice characteristics. Home range size was related to (i) the ratio of land vs. sea within a given home range (42% of explained variance), and (ii) seasonal variation in ice cover (24%). Thus, bears using land during the ice-free season had larger home ranges and bears living in areas of great seasonal variation in ice cover also had larger home ranges. In another analysis we investigated how variation in a bear’s environment in space and time affects its choice of home range. We found that polar bears adjusted the size of their home range according to the amount of annual and seasonal variation within the centre of their home range. For example, polar bears experiencing unpredictable seasonal and annual ice tended to increase their home range size if increasing home range size resulted in reducing variation in seasonal and annual ice. Polar bears make trade-offs between alternate space-use strategies. Large home ranges occur when variable ice cover is associated with more seals but also a more unpredictable distribution of those seals.