Finally! The short hiking season in the Scandinavian mountains is about to kick off. Time to let your boots get lost in the mountains and woods over snow-free trails, to enjoy summer evenings in absolute silence and to disappear of the grid for days or weeks on end. These mountain areas are wild. You can go on for days in a row without meeting a single soul, and the nearest settlements or roads are usually quite far away. Good preparations are essential for a pleasant and safe trip. Here is a short overview of how I plan and what I have on my hiking essentials list, a list that has been evolving up to the preparations for hiking in Sarek National Park, the thoughest hike I have in my personal history so far.
Up in the mountains, winters last long and snow can be around for much more time than it is down in the valleys. I still got caught by surprise two weeks ago when we were hiking up to Flatbrehytta and did not find a tent spot because there was still too much snow around at the top. If you have limited experience, stick to the main hiking season, which is usually from the beginning or half of July until the beginning of September. If you are planning to hike off-season, prepare well and take an emergency beacon with you (for example a SPOT system). Try to include some huts on your route that you can use as shelter in case of very bad weather. Check out the webcams that are installed in many mountain stations today, they are the most accurate image of how your target area is looking like at any given moment. Have a close look at several weather forecasts and always prepare for changing weather.
Two years ago I learned about planning the hard way as we set out to hike on Kungsleden in Swedish Lapland from Abisko to Nikkaluokta. We left in the beginning of June, late spring and right in the melting season. Winter came late and stayed long that year so on our hike we encountered to over a meter of snow and lots, lots of meltwater. In a way it was fantastic: we had the whole trail to ourselves and only met reindeers, foxes and hares before we made it to Kebnekaise mountain station.In another way the hike was brutal: all of us lost in between 7 and 10 kilos on the ten day hike, and I came home with a nose full off frost bite after hiking through a snow storm for a full day.
While packing your bag you will most certainly face the dilemma between comfort on route and pack weight. Some things are nice to have with you – but too many nice things will make your bag very heavy and no one wants to round around with what feels like a giant rock on their backs. Think carefully about what you really need and what is actually a luxury, and start your planning with the absolute necessities. Set up your clothes in layers: it is better to take 3 layers than one big sweater, as layers make for better insulation and allow you to adjust to weather conditions more accurately. As your level advances you will start needing gear you did not include before: dry bags, emergency beacons, gaiters, walking poles, etc. You will have to compromise on comfort to take the gear you absolutely need for a smooth walk.
My own list in short looks like this:
Base layer: merino woollen short or long sleeve and possibly pants, depending on climate
Middle layers: two fleece sweaters, one for walking and one to put on and layer up in the evening
Outer layer: good rain and windproof jacket, possibly rain pants. I don’t use them a lot, I think it is smarter to invest in very good hiking pants that dry fast. It keeps the weight down and I usually don’t find rain pants very breathable.
The same that applies for your body applies to your feet: use liner socks and thicker socks to absorb transpiration and increase comfort, take a beanie, maybe a buff and gloves if you set out into the mountains. My personal sin is to take a scarf, I just love the cosiness of it on cold evenings after long days of walking.
Other essentials include a cooker, all camping equipment if you are out in the back country, water treatment and water containers, a good knife, sunglasses, sunscreen, something to protect your head from the sun, and a head torch.
After long days of going up and down ridges, getting yourself over loose rocks, wading streams and going through dirt no one likes to be starving because of a lack of appropriate food. Taking the right kind of food is, in my experience, just as important as taking the right gear. You need energy to keep going and you get that energy from nutritious, carbon-rich meals. If you are going for a long and serious tramp, include some fat in that as well.
After some trial and error on Kungsleden and in Höga Kusten Matthias and I set up the following diet for Sarek: in the morning, we had musli rich in nuts that we soaked overnight (it eases digestion) with some milk powder for protein and honey or jam. For lunch, we had fiber rich knäckebröd with various spreads such as cream cheese (from a tube, very handy for hiking), dried hummus, dried bean paste (both rich in protein and very energetic), and some slices of dried sausage. In the evenings we took frozen dried instant food from Real Turmat, my favourite brand amongst available hiking food in Scandinavia. Frozen-dried food is expensive, but it is worth it: the bags are tasty, fill you up pretty good and at least give you the impression of having some real food around. Plus, they have many nutritious elements that cheaper instant food options lack. For in between we prepared two snack bags a day of 50g each filled with a mixture of nuts, chocolate and energy bars for when you need a little boost.
Now that you’re all set and ready to go there is only one thing left you need to do: find your way. Know how to read a map, or at least be accompanied by someone who knows. Having a look at the map in advance helps to see routes, estimate travel times by identifying obstacles and scheduling your daily rhythm. On serious hikes, you will need a compass as well. When trails are absent or poorly visible you need to know where you are going. It often sounds quite straight forward and when yo are on higher elevation you usually see where you are heading, but valleys and forest can be tricky and it is easy to lose trail. A GPS can come in very handy as well, as you can check exactly where you are and where the trail is supposed to be. Plus, you see how many kilometres you are walking exactly, and which unnecessary detours you have been making.
I remember that on Kungsleden, we found a map not long after starting the hike in Abisko National Park. We left it where it was, as we assumed that the owner would probably backtrack to look for it. The day after we came to a confusing point where it was unclear in which direction the trail was going. Two valleys were going in somewhat parallel directions yet ending at very different points. After carefully looking at our map and GPS we went on to the right track, meeting another (and one of the very few) hiker. He had met a member of the group that had lost the map, and he went back to get it while his friends continued hiking. These friends went into the wrong valley at the same point where we had been doubting, so the group got separated without any means of communication in a frozen mountainous area somewhere in Lapland. I don’t know how the story ended, but I hope it is good.
So before you continue after breaks, check that you have your maps, compass and GPS with you and they are not lying on a rock somewhere. Waterproof the maps and take extra batteries for the GPS.