The levels and distribution of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were determined in soil samples from background locations in the UK and Norway, to investigate their spatial distribution and the controlling environmental factors. Concentrations ranged between 42 and 11 200 μg kg−1 (geometric mean 640 μg kg−1) and 8.6 and 1050 μg kg−1 (150 μg kg−1) dry weight in the UK and Norwegian soil, respectively. Proximity to sources and locations susceptible to high atmospheric depositional inputs resulted in higher concentrations. Statistically significant relationships were observed between PAH and total organic carbon (TOC) in the Norwegian samples. High molecular weight PAHs correlated with black carbon (BC) in UK-woodland soil. These observations support the hypothesis that TOC plays an important role in the retention of PAHs in soil and that PAHs are often combined with BC during combustion emissions. PAHs with 4 and more rings comprised 90% of total PAHs in the UK soil, but only 50% in the Norwegian soil. The mixture of PAHs implied that fractionation occurred during long-range atmospheric transport and deposition. The lighter PAHs with lower Kow values more readily reached the most remote sites. The heavier PAHs with higher Kow values remained in closer proximity to sources.