Hiking and backpacking in Swedish Lapland

The Padjelanta. Afternoon sun coming out over Lake Vastenjaure. Photo by the author.

The author is Lars Bergquist.

Contents:

Hiking and backpacking in Swedish Lapland is somewhat different from both the U.S. and from continental (Alpine) Europe. Most of the specific info here is about north Lapland and treats of the sub-arctic mountains above and around the tree line, near the Norwegian border. They are easily reached by air or by train from central Sweden. Norway and the Atlantic coast is an alternative approach; in places, you can pop over and walk down to the coast in a day! You might try Narvik, for instance.

Nature


The fjäll (Swedish for treeless heights, just like Scottish fells) are mostly somewhat rounded and not very high, with few summits above 2,000 m (ca 6,500 ft). Still, nice climbing is to be had if you do suffer from acromania. The mountains belong to the Caledonian folding system, from way back in the Paleozoic, like e.g. the Scottish hills. There are a number of moderate-sized glaciers. Permafrost, and thus tundra in the strict sense, exists in a few places only, but the vegetation is is distinctly sub-arctic. Immediately above the tree line is usually a belt of hip-high entangling willows, below it dwarfish birches, not coniferous forest as in the Alps. The tree line is mostly at ca 800 - 900 m (2,600 - 3,000 ft) in Lapland. The flora varies in richness from somewhat monotonous on soils above acid bedrock to luxuriant where lime is available to the plants. Lichens, a staple food for reindeer, are important.

The birdlife is fairly rich in the summer while there are few large mammals except reindeer. These are very closely related to the North American caribou, but they are cattle, not game. Brown bear and wolverine are found, but you won't see them - in this open terrain they will spot you long before you spy them. Elk (moose to you Americans) go all the way up to the tree line. Sorry, no polar bears.There are no snakes and the main nuisance is mosquitos and gnats, which can in places drive you to distraction in late June and early July. They may be killed even in National Parks, if you do it manually.

The weather is very fickle, and you may well experience three seasons in one day. Expect occasional, sometimes continous rain from the North Atlantic. In the summer season, day temperatures usually range from +5 to +15 degrees Celsius (ca 42 - 58 F), but they can at times reach 20 degrees (68 F). When the temperature climbs above 14 degrees or so, the Lapps complain about the terrible heat wave.

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Planning a Tour
There are basically two options: a camping tour with a heavy pack, or using the really good system of huts maintained (mostly) by STF, the Swedish Touring Association, along marked trails in (mostly) roadless country. The huts, and also boats at lake crossings, are available in the summer season from late June to the middle of August. Before that, you don't hike - you wade. After that, the first snow falls.There's usually permanent snow cover from late September. (There's a winter season too, for skiers. It begins in February - March, when the sun reappears; remember, there is permanent night around mid-winter at or above the Arctic Circle.) STF info is found at the end of this posting.

Trails
Though the County Administrations, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) maintains the 'state trails system' of nearly 5,500 km (3,400 mi.) of marked trails, most of them in the far North, where there are links to the Norwegian trails. The Agency also maintains the huts in the Padjelanta National Park, which together with the adjoining Sarek NP, Stora Sjöfallet NP and the Sjaunja Nature Reserve is a part of the largest protected area in Europe. Sarek, the Padjelanta and adjacent protected areas are now a World Heritage, known as the Laponia. Trails are moderately rough. There are suspension footbridges across dangerous streams (Indiana Jones style) and planking across many bogs, but expect some wet passages and unaided brook crossings. The water is glacial but always potable in lakes and brooks above and not too far below the tree line. We have no Giardia here - honest! But mind your step and use your head. Off the trails, we lose a few people now and then due to ill-considered attempts to cross too deep and swift-running brooks. A telescoping or take-down walking staff is a great help if it is long enough, i.e. at least shoulder height.

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Huts

The Såmmarlappa STF hut in the Tarra Valley, by the swift-flowing
Tarra River. The high plant in the foreground is an angelica (Angelica archangelica)
which is common in meadows and by the streams in Lapland. Photo by the author.

These offer rustic communal bunking. Mattresses and covers are provided, there is no need to carry anything but a bag-style sheet (but you can of course bring a sleeping bag if you like). There are wood stoves and propane ranges for heating and cooking, respectively; kitchen and eating utensils are available. You hew wood and carry water, take out the slops and sweep the floor when you leave. There is a hut warden, but for maintenance and information, not for room service. No booking. Nobody is ever turned away, but in foul weather, you may have to accept improvisations. Do feel welcome. Just drop your hat on an unoccupied bunk, write your name in the guest book and go find the warden, so you can pay. If he or she is out, there's always a friendly evening round. - Some huts also sell provisions - every second day's march along the main north-south Kungsleden (the Royal Trail) between Abisko and Kvikkjokk, all of them in some areas further south. This of course is canned goods, stuff like pasta and dried or freeze-dried food, sweets and stove fuel (see the section on gear). Remember that this is not only road-less but also electric power-less country - no refrigeration except that offered by the brooks, which usually do keep fridge temperature. Sometimes you can buy fish (fresh or smoked arctic char, a three-star delicacy) and the local soft flat bread from the locals. Do that if you have the chance, but don't count on it.

Overnight fees vary. They are higher in high season along the most frequented trails sections (especially along the Kungsleden from Abisko and south) than they are on the less-traveled trails. They are lower for STF members. Buy a membership card in the first hut - that pays. For the latest fees, e-mail or fax STF (see info at end of page). Remember, most of the huts are provisioned by snowmobile in the winter and by helicopter in the summer, so fuel, food and materials get expensive.

Abisko, Kebnekaise and Saltoluokta in Lapland, other places further south, have fjällstationer which are simple but good hotels/pensions with lots of activities, a friendly atmosphere and good food. They also sell equipment, such as stoves, some clothing etc. If you stay there, you can rent things you need. Kebnekaise is the climbing Mecca. One of the main gateways to the Padjelanta is Kvikkjokk. Here, the station has been 'demoted' to hostel status due to its small size. It does thus not offer full pension, but breakfast is served and there is a self-service kitchen.

Note that Swedish hostels (vandrarhem), though affiliated with Hostelling International (HI), do not discriminate against non-youths. They are well-regulated, clean and safe. The majority of them are run by private persons in association with the STF. Pre-booking is advisable, just as at the stations, but those at the trailheads follow hut policy toward hikers.

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Off-trail Hiking
Because of Sweden's (and Finland's) unique Law of Public Access, you can hike and camp everywhere with the only provisos that you do no damage, take nothing of substantial economic value, respect privacy and hamper nobody's legitimate activities. You cannot cut or dig out living plants, but you can pick berries and mushrooms and use fallen branches for fuel (but making a fire is at your own risk - be responsible and remember that the turf itself can start burning without anybody noticing it if you are careless). "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints - at worst." Fishing is by license but not expensive. With eight million people in a country the size of California or nearly as large as France, and about ten thousand lakes, there's lots of free space. In Lapland above the tree line, be careful not to disturb the reindeer herds of the Lapps, who may have spent days rounding them up for earmarking or slaughter. Some restrictions on camping and fishing are in force in national parks. Here, rules differ, but they are normally posted at the entrances of the parks, both in English and Swedish.

Maps are very good, frequently updated (floods sometimes sweep away bridges) and self-explanatory. They carry legends in English and German. Off-trail hikers should however learn three Swedish words:

Låst means 'locked'.
Renvaktarstuga means 'reindeer herder's hut' and, usually, 'locked'.
Förfallen means 'delapidated'.

Reindeer fences run generally north-west - south-east and keep the animals of different cooperatives ('Sami villages') apart. There are gates where trails cross them. Otherwise, it is OK to climb across them as long as you do not damage them.

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Safety
There is a rescue service, but you may have to pay for it if you have been negligent or irresponsible. Many huts have shortwave emergency radios (they are marked by a phone symbol on the maps) but off the trails, caution (and company) is advisable. A broken ankle can mean a long crawl to the nearest hut. Always carry map (the relevant section of Fjällkartan 1:100,000 with overprinted trail info; you can buy it at any fjällstation or from good map shops abroad), compass, knife, whistle, first aid kit and something to make a fire. Keep a weather eye on the weather and be alert for signs of it deteriorating. Remember, the place is not regularly patrolled the way for instance the U.S. National Parks are - you are on your own. Be sensible. The Norwegians say 'don't be ashamed to turn back'; and if even they say so, it is probably true!

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Gear
For a trip between huts, 2.5 cu.ft. (70 - 75 litres) is enough volume for the pack. Remember the need to protect not only yourself but also the pack against rain. Expect temperatures ranging between a fair summer's day and freezing, so bring extra underwear, a sweater, a wool hat and gloves. Wear high walking style rubber boots (with sturdy soles and steel shanks in the sole; this is what most Swedish hikers use) or high leather boots well greased, and carry water sandals or quick-drying canvas shoes with rubber soles for brook crossings. Do never ford barefoot! This is a major cause of accidents. In my experience, and that of some very crestfallen Continental guests, low Alpine-style boots are pretty useless. Most of them are not suitable for long-distance hiking in any case, due to their excessive stiffness.

If you are considering camping, then I would say that 'three-season gear' is not good enough. Swedes favor tunnel- or dome style tents with inner tents semi-permanently attached, no loose rain flies. Such a tent can be erected single-handedly in a high wind, if necessary. The cooking fuel generally available on-trail is denatured alcohol for Trangia-style stoves. If you insist on propane or white gasoline, you will have to buy it in a town and bring it along. Propane gas is not terribly popular, as temperatures are often rather too low for that fuel to work efficiently. Army Rangers use alcohol or multi-fuel stoves.

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Good Hikes
These are plentiful. This is just a sampler of easy and pleasurable routes. All of them, except the last (Sarek) offer hut-to-hut hiking, and seldom more than 20 km (12.5 mi.) between them, usually much less (12-14 km).

Trails in Northern Lapland


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Abisko - Nikkaluokta by Kungsleden
This is a classic. You go to Abisko by train or bus by way of Kiruna or Narvik. Provisioning in Abisko village, which has a good supermarket. Two days via Abiskojaure (hut) to Alesjaure (hut, with a shop and, when I last visited the place during a Lapp heatwave, a refrigerator with cold beer...). From there to the Tjäktja Pass (hut) and south along the valley via Sälka (provisions) to Singi (hut). Here you leave the Kungsleden and turn east, one day's march to Kebnekaise through the dramatic Ladtjovaggi valley. From Keb is one day to Nikkaluokta and the bus to Kiruna, but you can cheat and take the helicopter. This is OK, I did it once after an eight day solo. Alternatively, you can continue south three days from Singi by Kaitum (provisions) and Teusajaure (hut) to Vakkotavare (hut), where another bus takes you back to civilization, meaning Gällivare (on the Stockholm Kiruna rail line) or the delightful Saltoluokta station. Relevant maps: BD6 Abisko-Kebnekaise-Narvik, or BD6/30I Abisko-Kebnekaise. For the southern section only, there is BD8 Kebnekaise-Saltoluokta. This is good if you want to stay at Salto and do day trips.

Abisko - Abisko
You start as above and walk to Alesjaure (which is a nice place for a day of rest). From Tjäktja, you take an unmarked but easy trail through the mountains to Nallo Hut, which is as Arctic as they come. You have to ford practically to the front door. Then 9 kms down Stuor Räitavaggi valley to the beautiful Vistasvaggi valley and the Vistas hut. (From there, you can go down the Vistasvaggi to Nikkaluokta, but that is really a two-day hike and you will need a tent). But it is just one easy but scenic day's march back to Alesjaure, a sauna, and then back to Abisko. Alternatively, you can go clockwise Alesjaure - Vistas - Nallo - Tjäktja - Alesjaure, or Vistas - Nallo - Sälka - Singi - Keb, as I did on that solo. By the way, Abisko is the perfect place for a stay with day trekking. The little National Park is famous for its flora. Maps: as above.

The Padjelanta
The bus that takes people to and from Vakkotavare also goes to the Ritsem STF hut (provisions) with a boat line to the Akka and Vaisaluokta huts. Both are starting points for the Padjelanta trail. This goes four days across rolling meadow and moor, west of the mountains of Sarek, to Staloluokta by Lake Virihaure. (Stalo is also accessible by helicopter from Kvikkjokk, to the dismay of purists. Provisions are sold in the Lapp camp). Then two days across high moors to the Tarra valley, and then four or perhaps three days down to Kvikkjokk, the sauna and the bus. Såmmarlappa is a good stopover in the valley (provisions). Padjelanta ('the Highlands' in Lapp) is an Eldorado for botanists and the Tarra valley is also famous for its jungle-like vegetation. Ten day's marches in all. Map: BD10 Sareks nationalpark.

Saltoluokta - Kvikkjokk
The Vakkotavare - Ritsem bus also stops at Kebnats jetty, with a boat to Saltoluokta fjällstation by the Lapp camp. Four days' easy hiking to Kvikkjokk via Aktse (provisions). Aktse is one of the gateways to Sarek and an exceedingly beautiful place. The delta lands and the Rapa valley are of great biological interest. Kvikkjokk is accessed by bus from Murjek (a whistle-stop on the railway line from Stockholm to Kiruna) by way of Jokkmokk. Map: as above.

Sarek National Park
This is tougher. Sarek is deliberately being kept wild, hut-less, even mostly trail-less. It is accessible from Kvikkjokk (via Pårte hut and a high traverse), Aktse, Salto (via the Sitojaure hut and then a boat trip to Rinim at the mouth of the Bastavággi valley) and Ritsem - Akka (one day to Kisuris on the edge of the park). Sarek is built up of partly glaciated massifs, divided by long valleys. A traverse will take at least five days to one week, approach marches not counted. It can rain prodiguously in Sarek. And people have been lost without trace there and never heard of again. Map: as above.

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People
Both ethnic Swedes, some ethnic Finns and of course Lapps live in the area. The Lapps, who prefer to call themselves the Sami and are so termed by the Swedes nowadays, are not at all picturesque. They seem to dress mostly in North Face clothes, Swarowski binoculars and communication radios and they often travel by helicopter. Only a small minority of families belong to the reindeer cooperatives ('villages'), and even these are no longer nomadic: only a few full-time herdsmen follow the deer. Families may however spend their vacations with Dad in the summer grazing lands up by the Norway border. A considerable number of Sami live in Stockholm and work office hours. The traditional culture and the language are alive and developing however, and crafts like knife-making, bone and antler engraving, woodcarving and tin-wire embroidery are an important source of income. Articles by quality workers carry a red seal of approval. No 'airport art' here! In Jokkmokk there is an interesting Sami museum, Ájtte (meaning Storehouse). There is a lively music movement, fusing rock and the traditional improvised song style, the joik. Most young people of all ethnic groups understand and can make themselves understood in English. The Sami are well educated and organized and politically aware. Respect them, and they will respect you.

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Contact Info
Your best contact in Sweden:
STF Main Office
Email: info@stfturist.seSweden
Fax: int + 46 8 678 19 58 (08 is the Swedish area code)
Travel Bureau: as above, also phone int. +20 29 29 29
STF Home Page: www.meravsverige.nu
This is a very spare page. The best approach is by e-mail or fax, asking for specific information. STF is run on the members' money, so do not expect to be showered with free glossy brochures. STF organizes group hikes with equipment, food and guides, if you do not want to strike out on your own.

Several stopovers are also wired:

  • Abisko: info@abisko.stfturist.se -Home page: www.stfabisko.com
  • Kebnekaise: info@kebnekaise.stfturist.se -Home page: www.stfkebnekaise.com
  • Kvikkjokk: info@kvikkjokk.stfturist.se -Home page: www.jokkmokkhostel.com
  • Ritsem: info@ritsem.stfturist.se
  • Saltoluokta: info@saltoluokta.stfturist.se -Home page: www.stfsaltoluokta.com
Remember that off season, these places have skeleton staffs only.

Naturvårdsverket, the Environmental Protection Agency, is found on
NVV Home Page: www.environ.se/
which has information on the National Parks.

Sametinget is an official organization to represent the Sami people in their dealings with the State. They have a very nice site at
Sametinget Home Page: www.sametinget.se/english/

All in all, we have lots of guests from the Alpine countries who find the rolling mountains, the open valleys and the nearly total absence of parking lots, Pizza Huts, Bierstuben and tourist traps a refreshingly different experience. The fact that you can find yourself in places where the nearest road is four or five day's walk away does add a macho dimension to it, it seems... and lots of machos are women.

Note on those funny characters:
Scandinavian languages use three special accented characters which are sorted separately, at the end of the alphabet. They are (the order varies in different languages):

å -Somewhat like the 'o' in English 'horn'. Also French 'eau'.
ä -Like the 'ai'-sound in English 'hair', or the 'è' in French 'chère'.
ö -Similar to 'ea' in English 'heard', or French 'eux'.

The North Sami and the Lule Sami languages (there are three Sami languages in Sweden, and several more abroad) have a new ortography which is found on the appropriate sheets of the Fjällkartan. It is heavily accented, looks like Czech and must be a nightmare for a PC user.

You are welcome to contact me, but I am not an official organization with a publicity budget, and I work nine to five attending to entirely different matters. Your best bet is the STF (see above).

Lars Bergquist

timberwolf@bahnhof.se

I also have a Home Page which also carries a couple of travel stories.

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This page updated January 2001

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