walkhighlands

Hiking the Kungsleden Trail – 440 km through Swedish Lapland

Date walked: 17/06/2021

Distance: 440km

This year, we hiked the Kungsleden Trail in Swedish Lapland – a 440 km hike across northern Sweden that takes you from Abisko in the very north of Sweden all the way down to Hemavan, most of it within the Arctic Circle.

Upsides
 Top notch hiking infrastructure
 Experience the ‘midnight sun’
 Magnificent views

Challenges
 Post-holing in snow up to your waist
 Hungry mosquitos and other bugs
 Freezing wind on your face

For some first impressions, watch the first chapter from Abisko to Salka here:

Antonio is putting together a full video, should be available around October this year.

For the patient reader
Those of you who read my Cape Wrath Trail Adventure last year will remember that the original plan had been to do a trek in Swedish Lapland. The lifting of travel restrictions finally made this dream possible. Stepping right from the plane at Stockholm Airport into the Swedish night train, we stepped out in the northern city of Abisko on a rainy and cold morning – a total of 17 hours later. Sweden was definitely a larger country than I had imagined.

The Trail
The Kungsleden (or King’s Trail) is a well way-marked trail that runs 440 km across Swedish Lapland across the so-called ‘fjäll’ (yes, like in Fjällräven) that broadly describes a high and barren landscape. A good part of it coincides with the land of the Sámi, an indigenous group of traditionally semi-nomadic reindeer herders, who live across Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Russian Kola peninsula. Many names along the trail refer to original Sámi names and provide an indication as to what may be expected, for example: jaure = lake, luokta = bay, jakka = river.
Sami hut.JPG
Sami hut

Keen to avoid anything that flies (following last year’s midges nightmare in Scotland), we started the trail ahead of the official—and for that sake mosquito—season, both of which usually kick in after midsummer when temperatures start rising. The Kungsleden is a very popular trail, especially its northern and more dramatic part from Abisko to Nikkaluokta (alongside Sweden’s highest mountain, the Kebnekaise). Starting early also meant avoiding the crowds. The downsides are, however, low temperatures, massive amounts of snow (including the odd difficulty to retrieve one’s foot), and the fact that the network of huts along the trail would not be open for another week or two (read on why this became an issue).

Hiking in Swedish Lapland
Swedish Lapland is vast and it is indeed remote – think of Scotland and then stretch it out times 100 and you probably get a pretty good idea of its scale. It’s just that big. The fjäll landscape (yes like in Fjällräven), whilst providing amazing views in good weather, can easily turn nightmarish in a mix of heavy rain, strong winds and cold temperatures. It is for that reason that the Swedish Tourist Association (STF) has been maintaining a network of huts in the Swedish outdoors with the aim to “make nature and culture accessible to everyone”. And those huts are no joke, with the most thoughtful set-up imaginable. Set within very remote areas, each hut comes with a few essential must-haves: an emergency room (open year-round against a small fee), a hut or two each hosting several beds (on a first-come first-serve basis), a traditional and infallible ‘Jotul’ stove with dried wood galore and drying racks above, an outdoor toilet (including toilet paper), a washing and a wastewater area. To my amazement and in testament to the Swedes’ astute knowledge of male psychology, each hut also carves out a dedicated tree or two for the ‘gentlemen’. During the main season (approx. July to mid-September), each hut is run by a hut warden who allocates sleeping slots and ensures that people share the common tasks (collecting water, carrying out waste water, chopping wood for the next guests). However, for those who want to roam more freely or are on a budget, Sweden’s Allemansrätten (everyone’s right) also provides opportunity to wild camp as long as you leave no trace.
Gentlemen.jpg
The 'Gents'

The Cold
Walking through the famous ‘Kungsleden’ gate that marks the beginning of the trail, the first part of the trail takes us through Abisko national park of mostly light birch forest. While we meet a few returning day hikers at the beginning of the trail, the trail soon quiets down as we pass a meticulously laid out camp spot in the middle of this national park – where we meet Christine, a recent high school graduate from Germany. Germans by far turn out the largest nationality on this trail, even outnumbering the Swedes themselves.
Antonio Filming.jpg
Abisko to Alesjaure

Walking out of Abisko national park, we cross one of the many ‘summer bridges’ that are set up every year ahead of the hiking season and greatly minimise the river crossings. Their somewhat wobbly nature accompanied by a ‘cling-cling’ sound takes a little getting used to and more than once reminded me of the infamous Tacoma Bridge that moved vertically in windy conditions and eventually collapsed. The bridge takes us right to Abiskojaurestuga (stuga = hut), one of the first huts in the season to open the next day, and we spend some time chatting with the hut warden Helena (a product manager at Sweden’s largest telecoms provider Telia in her ‘regular’ life). Contrary to our assumption, we learn that what appears a ‘low-skilled’ summer job in fact attracts hundreds of high-skilled workers each year, such that jobs have to be allocated through a highly competitive selection process. Helena herself proudly tells us how she made the final list in her sixth year of applying (!) There indeed must be something magical about the experience, as many wardens we meet along the way turn out to be regulars, some with more than 20 years of experience. Some of the larger huts tend to run a small shop (the food gets snowmobiled in during the winter, cheaper than bringing it in by helicopter) and Helena is just as excited as we are as we purchase a selection of Swedish cookies as her very first customers.

The following day, we get a first glimpse of the real thing. As we brave heavy rain and strong winds full on, we run into a group of four Swedes, who inform us of the large snowfields ahead as they approached the highest point on the trail – the Tjäkta pass– and decided to turn around to try again later in the year. Wet and frozen, we are somewhat discouraged by the news, but decide to press on and see for ourselves. This is where the wind shelters along the trail provide a welcomed break – typically in a triangular shape and of course each with its own outdoor toilet. This kind of shelter turns out to be the standard model (Ikea?) along the trail, and is always very skilfully set along the key and most exposed spots on the fjäll. We spend half an hour chatting with a father & son duo from (you guessed it) Germany and set off again taking full advantage of the approaching Swedish midsummer and, not for the last time, walk long past midnight.
Stuck in snow.jpg
Post-holing

The following day welcomes us with very cold temperatures albeit a somewhat friendlier looking sky. As we approach the Tjäkta pass, we start post-holing across the first snowfields. Surrounded by snow, the suspension bridge across a canyon looks rather impressive and the warning that limits its crossing to a single hiker not entirely confidence inspiring. As I cling my way across to Tjäktastuga (one of the highest and last huts to open only in two weeks’ time), we meet Sam: an American PHD student in Uppsala who is completing the popular Abisko–Nikkaluokta loop. Eyeing the sky that is opening up, we decide to seize the opportunity to climb Tjäkta in decent weather and for the next eight hours post-hole our way across various snowfields, which makes for a fun but incredibly cold, very wet and slow-going experience. Whilst the weather has indeed been holding, temperatures are absolutely freezing when we finally arrive at Sälkastuga close to 1 am, and even more so our feet that endured hours of ice-water entering our shoes. The next morning welcomes us with a gorgeous ‘sunrise’ (so to speak as the sun never sets) and we make our longest day yet across amazing landscape. I am talking blue sky, unobstructed views across an incredibly long and vast valley, and broad rivers that glitter in the high midsummer sun – the way you’d imagine Alaska at its best (added bonus: without the grizzly bear).
snow.jpg
Walking up Tjäkta

At Singi (the next hut) we leave behind the popular Abisko-Nikkaluokta loop. Almost instantly, the trail becomes a lot less fun and more slow-going. 25 km later we arrive in heavy midnight rain at Kaitumjaurestuga. The next day, we bump into Sunny: a Berkeley trained computer engineer from India, who discovered the Swedish outdoors when he moved to Sweden to work for Eriksson. We strike up a friendly chat as we descent towards Teusajaurestuga and our very first boat crossing on the trail.

Getting stuck
The Kungsleden requires several boat crossings varying from 1 to 5 km across the many lakes. During the season, it runs on a system of three rowing boats: there always needs to be at least one on each side of the lake. Thus, if in luck, you will find two on your side: take one, row across and never look back. If out of luck, you will find just one. This means you will need to row across, pick up one of the two boats on the other side, tow it back to the original shore you came from, then row across again: three crossings in total, which takes a lot longer than one might imagine.

We, however, are faced with a third option: when we get to the shore, there is no boat at all. Ahead of the season, the bridges are out but the boats are not. Somewhere in the distant, we make out a white boat on the other side of the lake. We explore the various adjacent huts and discover a broken motorboat as well as Jamil, a Swede from Stockholm who had arrived the previous day to find himself stuck in the same situation. We are initially hopeful to find the rowing boats in one of the many sheds. For a while, we debate the moral implications of ‘borrowing’ a boat and leaving it on the other side of the shore. Sunny suggests to leave an apologetic note and a 200 kroner bill (why 200, go figure). A little while later we manage to peak through a small hole in the wooden walls of the shed and confirm that the sheds are empty. As we spend the afternoon plotting our escape, we soon narrow down our options to three:(1) waiting until the hut opens in a week, (2) backtracking to the Nikkaluokta loop + train (3) bushwalking along the lakeshore, which we wrongly estimate to take about a day (we’re later told it would have taken two).

We soon discard the first (none of us has enough food) and second (who likes to backtrack). Prior to leaving London, we had also booked a night at Saltoluokta, a popular mountain station, including a shower (!) and three-course dinner (!!). This is no doubt a big motivating factor. By now, it has been five hours since our arrival, when – against all odds, we suddenly spot what appears to be the white boat approaching us. Enthusiastically, we welcome Michal: our Polish saviour who had set off two weeks earlier at the southern end of the Kungsleden to walk it northbound. In the excitement of the moment, Michal had failed to mention an important detail: the boat is partially broken. As my husband and I (plus the four backpacks) set off first (testing the waters in the literal sense), we discover that one of the rowlocks had rotten away over the winter—the row pops out and needs to be placed back with every single stroke (unless you prefer going in circles). Rowing across thus takes a good amount of patience and stoicism, somewhat in short supply after a long day. As I disembark, I watch my husband making his way back to pick up Sunny and Jamil, accompanied by a good amount of swearing (he actually swears a lot more than he advances), and then the three men approaching again. All in all, it takes more than an hour for a 1 km crossing…

It is 7 pm when we finally set off again across the Stora Sjöfallet national park, a high plateau that is both stunningly beautiful and somewhat intimidating with large clouds looming very close above our heads. With the ‘hotel’ night in mind, we had bid farewell to Sunny and Jamil and race across the landscape to Vakkotavarestuga, where the Kungsleden requires a bus & (motor) boat ride to continue onto its second stage. We arrive at the hut around 1 am, a purpose-built single hut that is squeezed in between a steep climb down from the plateau and the road that itself drops steeply onto the lake. Tired and cold, we tiptoe into the hut (Michal had told us that the hut warden had arrived with him on the bus the previous day). With a feeling of guilt and trespassing, we check ourselves into the sleeping room to the right of the common room:

Me: “Do you think we should knock and let the warden know we’re here?”
Antonio: “No way he has not heard us. He’s probably used to it.”

To my tired mind, this sounds convincing. As I emerge from the room the next morning, I look into the surprised face of an elderly Swedish man in his late 70s, who turns out to have hearing troubles. But his many years of experience as a hut warden (going back to the early 1970s!) let him take it stoically enough (“Alright, let me have my coffee first”) and we spend the morning chatting on the stairs of the hut whilst taking in the sun. To our surprise, Sunny and Jamil also emerge from the lakeside. Turns out they arrived at 3:30 am (!) and somehow managed to squeeze their tents in between the road and the lake. In the best of spirits, we board the minibus, then a larger bus and finally a boat ride to Saltoluokta, a few hours later.

The mosquitos
After a good night’s rest, wash, laundry and dinner at the beautiful Saltoluokta fjällstation, we set off the following day for the second stage of the Kungsleden on an incredibly sunny day. However, with the sun come warmer temperatures and as we arrive at the next boat crossing at Sitojaurestuga, we’re not only welcomed by Sunny (with whom we catch up again) but also a significant number of mosquitos that unfortunately turn the beautiful lakeside into a nightmare.
Salto to Kvikkjokk.jpg
Saltoluokta to Kvikkjokk

In the morning, together with Sunny, we decide to take the one-day ‘detour’ to one of the famous viewpoints (Skierfe) that looks across the amazing river delta of the Rappadalen valley. Past Skierfe and Akkastuga, the Kungsleden transitions into an incredibly slow going, more forest-y section. This is definitely the part of the trail when the ‘mosquito situation’ starts dominating any conversation with other hikers. One hiker we meet reports counting 390 bites on his body before he gave up counting.
Skierfe.JPG
View from Skierfe onto the Rappadalen Valley

On June 26th we arrive at Kvikkjokk, a popular end point for section hikers and a natural point of convergence for the small group of people we met along the trail. We reunite with Sunny and Jamil, Linnea and Andreas (a Swedish couple who started at Saltoluokta) and two young Swedes (including the one with the +390 mosquito bites). Together we spend a lovely evening chatting away, revelling in each other’s company and our achievement (we had by now walked 220 km, or half the total distance). Largely because of the emerging ‘mosquito situation’, our group of new friends unanimously decides to drop off at Kvikkjokk. We briefly debate following suit but after quite some debate and a good night’s rest, spirits are high again (“they are not as bad as the Scottish midges”), and we decide to continue – always forward, right? Next, we purchase two overpriced gigantic bottles of mosquito repellents (one each). The next morning, we take the boat to the beginning of the trail head on the other side of the lake. “Alone”, the TV show comes to mind as the boat drops just the two of us off and we wave good-bye to Sunny and the others who had tagged along for the ride before catching the afternoon bus. The section between Kvikkjokk and Jäkkvik, as dramatic as it is, is also the least popular of the trail, mostly because of the lack of STF huts, which requires a few days of self-sufficiency.
by the river.jpg
Kvikkjokk to Jäkkvik

The mosquitos are a serious problem during the steep climb up through dense vegetation, and even more so the horse flies that nerve-wrackingly buzz around their prey (us) in large circles. For hours on end, the buzz just never goes away and there is also no stopping. We are very much reminded of our Scottish nightmare and each silently ponder on what it will be like in the days to come. Locals tend to say “this year the mosquitoes / horse flies / midges are particularly bad.” Honestly, either I am the unluckiest person on the planet or they always are and it’s a worldwide ploy to keep tourism coming. To our utter disbelief, the weather has also turned exceptionally hot. This is anything but compatible with the need of full mosquito gear. Miserably, we climb on, incredibly hot under our long clothing soaked in mosquito repellent. Life gets better again as we reach another plateau a few hours later. For the next days we cross another high pass, a large plateau (including a fairy-like ‘rock garden’ with small ponds surrounded by pink moss), a moon-like landscape, and walk by the base of a very impressive mountain. Despite the onsetting heat and strong sun, a mild wind still makes it surprisingly cold on top of the plateau. I wonder: if it is this cold on a hot sunny day, how cold will it be when the weather goes south? For the next three days, we only meet two groups of hikers (you guess it: Germans and Poles). Thanks to the altitude, the mosquitos become manageable but the sun keeps hitting relentlessly. We arrive at Jäkkvik, the end of the third stage, on a hot summer day with not a single cloud in sight. Certainly not what anyone would expect within the Arctic Circle.

The heatwave
Jäkkvik is a very pretty little town with amazing accommodation hosted in a former church and a friendly manager, Matt, whom I suspect (but forgot to ask) also serves as the local priest. It also hosts a disproportionately big ICA supermarket, which is really the highlight after having lived out of our own supplies for two weeks. The next day (and quite a few ice-creams later), we set off towards Ammarnäs (stage 4). To our disbelief, the temperatures just continue rising and will eventually reach above 33 degrees (!) as the terrain moves from forest into open and flat, turning the next stage into a mosquito sweat bath. The open landscape is definitely not made for this kind of weather, and the sun mercilessly shines down on us 24/7 (we both end up with a sunburn, and my husband develops symptoms of heatstroke). There simply is no place to hide once out of the forest. And so, on the hottest day in Lapland since 1914 (the news even makes it into the Guardian here), we end up crossing a mosquito-infected swamp. As usual, enduring mosquitos 24/7 turns out as much a mental game as a marriage challenge. We pitch our tent at the ‘highest’ point we find in this vast swampy area, and retreat into our ‘sauna tent.’ We stare outside the tent hoping for the mosquitos to become less (they don’t), and finally somehow manage to fall asleep. Two hours later and half the way roasted, we are already up. So are the mosquitos. It is 4 am in the morning, the sun is shining, and we walk the last 20 km towards Ammarnäs on an empty stomach.

We spend two days in Ammarnäs – a mountain village in the Vindelfjällen mountains. Vindelfjällen is Europe’s largest nature reserves and the river itself is one of the last unmanaged rivers in Europe and a mecca for fly fishing enthusiasts. Unfortunately, we soon realise that our Skierfe detour robbed me of the one day I would have needed to complete the trail (hindsight is a good friend) and so we spend two summer days in Ammarnäs, getting to know the local population of 70 and the many mosquitos that chose an urban life. Three buses and a train eventually take me back to Stockholm, while my husband will take four more days to complete the last part of the trail.

Afterthought
Would I recommend the Kungsleden? Absolutely. As opposed to the Scottish Cape Wrath Trail, the Kungsleden is considered a ‘novice trail,’ which we had deliberately chosen to familiarise ourselves with the Swedish hiking conditions before attempting more challenging trails (Sarek is the endgame). It is excellently way-marked and the network of huts for most of the trail means that you will always find shelter in bad weather, which the fjäll area is generally known for and where windchill can get rather real. It is quite astonishing how easily we cooled down during a few unbridged, pre-season river crossings and in moments of intense rain. I have no doubts that hypothermia can become an issue.

In our case, we definitely had a lucky streak – especially the first two weeks with the ideal mix of cold temperatures and blue sky. Because that is your trade-off: you either need to face the cold or the mosquitos. This essentially narrows down the season to the two weeks before midsummer (but you will run into the different challenges) and the brief period of late August/early September (if you are lucky and the Arctic winter does not arrive early). June will let you experience midsummer and early September may bring the chance of seeing northern lights.

The best part of the trail is the wonderful people you will meet. As the trail is less frequented off season, you soon turn into a small community of like-minded hikers tied together by the challenges that an early start may bring. Given the long-distance nature of the trail and the efforts it takes to get in & out, you also get to experience all that Lapland is about: the reindeer, the pristine landscape and the remoteness (which thanks to the network of huts is still manageable in terms of safety in an otherwise often hostile environment). The two other things that struck me is the supply of fresh drinking water from rivers, creeks, streams, etc. (no need to filter)–water in London has never tasted as good again– and the fact that there are no ticks, which usually keeps me on the edge when outdoors.

All in all, the Kungsleden is an absolute gorgeous trail (especially its northern/most frequented section), one that provides a good physical challenge whilst the good way-marking and hut system offers the opportunity to relax mentally and enjoy the trail worry-free. However, if you ventured off the trail, I’d bring a GPS and locator beacon. Like so many others, I have caught the fjäll bug and will definitely be returning to hike in the Arctic Circle and Swedish Lapland.

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caromiri


Activity: Walker
Mountain: Jungfrau
Place: All of it
Gear: Sitting pad (versatile)
Member: Austrian Alpine Club - UK chapter
Ideal day out: I like challenging trails but not a big fan of scrambling
Ambition: Nordkalottleden




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Statistics

2021

Trips: 2
Distance: 510 km

2020

Trips: 3
Distance: 1564 km


Joined: Aug 31, 2020
Last visited: Oct 10, 2021
Total posts: 23 | Search posts