To the Bitter End: Trekking on Lapland’s Kungsleden Trail

July 29, 2012

As we approached our first trek in Europe we knew that it would be unlike anything we had attempted to date. First of all we would be hiking self-supported, meaning that we would not have a guide and be responsible for carrying our own supplies (including all our food, stove, fuel, sleeping bag and tent). Being self-supported requires us to hike carrying about 40 pounds / 18 kilograms each. This is something we had not done since our first trek in Australia back in March. We would also be trekking in Lapland, one of the harshest environments in the world.

Lapland is not a country but a region that spans Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. It is one of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas. It is mainly above the Arctic Circle, which is one of five major circles of latitude on the earth, located at 66°N latitude (as a reference point, Fairbanks, Alaska, is at 64°N latitude). Here, there are periods of 24 hours of daylight in the summer (around the summer solstice in June) and 24 hours of darkness in the winter (around the winter solstice in December).

Although there are over 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) of marked trails in Lapland, there is not much information about hiking here. We relied on Internet research and conversations with other travelers to determine what we could expect as we trekked. Two things kept coming up during our research: weather and mosquitoes. Rain is common in the summer and even snow can occur. Being in a subarctic climate, it can also be very bitterly cold. Mosquitoes are known to be quite prevalent, especially in July. Some of the gear we brought for our entire journey was targeted just for this trek so we were ready to use it as needed.

We traveled by overnight train from Stockholm to the mining city of Kiruna, the largest town in Swedish Lapland, and located about 90 miles (145 kilometers) inside the Arctic Circle. We arrived in Kiruna just a few days after the sun had stopped shining for a full 24 hours a day, but we still had continual light, with no darkness, while we were there.

The Kungsleden, or King’s Trail, was first cleared in the 1920s and now runs about 275 miles, or 443 kilometers, through four national parks and a preserve. To hike the entire route would require a month. Instead, we chose to trek the northern-most section that runs from Abisko, an hour’s train trip from Kiruna, south to the Sami camp in Nikkaluokta, an hour’s bus ride back to Kiruna. We allotted a week to cover the 64 mile (103 kilometer) route.

There are huts located at seven to 12 mile (12 to 20 kilometer) intervals but we opted to camp instead. Except for the first 10 miles (16 kilometers), which is in a national park, hikers have the freedom to camp anywhere along the trail. The first morning of our trek we took the train to Abisko. Almost immediately we were trekking through birch forests with a large river beside us. After only an hour on the trail, we were startled by the sight of an adult moose and baby, who were grazing along the river. The weather was overcast but the rain held off.

Since it never got completely dark, the hour of the day became secondary as we did not have to worry about finding a campsite by a certain time at night. So when we were sure that we left the national park boundary we looked for a place to camp and found a nice spot amidst some trees. We did encounter some mosquitoes so after we made dinner we ate in the tent.

The next day was spent climbing steadily upward while we faced rain and a stiff cold wind blowing against us. The wind was so strong that we sometimes had trouble staying on our feet. Those we met on the trail told us that it was an unusually cold and wet summer, even for this area. As we hiked, the forest gave way above the tree line to alpine terrain with mountains rising up sharply around us. The ethnic Laplander, or Sami, people manage their herds of reindeer during the summer months here. Occasionally, we passed their basic camps.

Since there had already been quite a bit of rain this summer, the numerous river crossings were made challenging by the higher water levels. For one crossing we had to remove our hiking boots and put on our water sandals, as the water level was up to our knees! The trail stayed high, along ridges with views of lakes and the valley below. The only place we could find to camp the second night was on an extremely cold and windy ridge which made for a restless time in our tent as we felt it might fly apart any second. In fact, one of our tent ropes eventually failed and the tent began to collapse in the morning! Even with all our warm clothes we were cold in our sleeping bags that night.

That morning, waking to more wind and rain, we discussed our options, since the weather and mosquitoes continued to not be optimal. We could turn around and walk back the way we came and cut the trek short or we could continue onward and move more quickly through the hike. We opted to move forward since we could hike as much as we wanted with the around-the-clock daylight and cover plenty of ground during a given day. We had already gone further the first two days than we planned so we decided that we could probably complete the hike a day earlier by continuing to push the pace.

On this third day of the trek we crossed many rivers and then entered an area of snow before we reached the highest point of the hike, at the Tjäkta Pass (3,740 feet / 1,140 meters). As the rain intensified and temperature dropped, we came across a small hut shelter at the pass so we went inside and took a break until the storm abated. During this section of the hike it struck us just how remote we were. We did not see anyone for the remainder of the day.

After the pass, the trail dropped sharply down into the Tjäktavagge Valley, which is regarded as one of the most magnificent in Lapland. This narrow valley stretches for about 25 miles (40 kilometers), with a river winding like a ribbon between the stark mountains on both sides. We now hiked closer to the valley floor through this section of the trek. This was our favorite part of the trip as we had some brisk but dry weather. This allowed us to enjoy this beautiful valley as we hiked. We did not take for granted those moments when the sun came out! We were also fortunate to see two herds of wild reindeer and a red fox just off the trail.

By the time we completed the fourth day of our hike, we were almost an entire day ahead of schedule. We had left the main Kungsleden route earlier in the day and turned east to hike down an adjacent trail towards the Sami camp of Nikkaluokta and the bus back to Kiruna. Along the way we passed the base of the tallest mountain in Sweden, Kebnekaise, at 6,926 feet (2,111 meters) high.

The trail dropped back into forest and with the lower elevations came the mosquitoes back in force. Fortunately we had DEET and head net coverings to wear as we hiked, so we only received a few bites. Even so, the last morning, it was a little disconcerting to wake up and see hundreds of mosquitoes sitting on the outside of the tent, waiting for us to emerge.

We had chosen a campsite nestled in the trees and near a river. At this point we were only about five miles (nine kilometers) from the end of the trek. As we began hiking that last day, we realized that we might be able to complete the trek quickly enough to catch an earlier bus back to Kiruna. So we sped up and boarded the bus in Nikkaluokta with four minutes to spare. It had been raining the entire morning so we were happy to be on a warm bus, heading back to civilization.

Our 5 ½ days along the Kungsleden provided us with a real taste of the bitter Arctic environment. We were happy that we had our cold weather clothes, rain gear, head net and DEET to keep us relatively comfortable while hiking in these harsh surroundings. Even with the hardships that we faced, we were treated to some fantastic vistas and glimpses of wildlife that inhabit one of the northern-most regions of the world. The remoteness of Lapland was an awe-inspiring experience and one we will not soon forget.

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