A Royal Ramble

The 440km long Kungsleden in Swedish Lapland offers hiking through some of Europe’s greatest wilderness.  Lara Dunn heads north of the Arctic Circle to tackle part of it.  Read more articles like this in Totally Active Magazine.

The Kungsleden stretches 440km from Abisko in the far north of Sweden down to Hemavan, passing through one of Europe’s largest wilderness areas as it goes. The Swedish Tourist Association/ Svenska Turistföreningen (STF) run huts at roughly day stage intervals along the signposted trekking trail. One of the most popular sections is the northern one, with its opportunity to experience 24 hour daylight, the Midnight Sun if the timing is right, and pristine tundra replete with reindeer, grouse and birdlife. One of the biggest draws is also the utter peace and quiet, there’s no mobile phone reception, no electricity and the only running water is the crystal clear and plentiful streams flowing by. Along with a constant babbling soundtrack these also provide water for drinking, washing, cooking and to sluice down after the wood-fired saunas at each hut. The route is so popular and so well signposted that it’s a great first “big trek” experience for anyone fit enough to carry an expedition pack for 10 days.

The Trek

Like all good plans, this one had started at the pub with just enough knowledge and experience to allow it to expand and acquire a life of its own. Having trekked in Swedish Lapland for five days a few years ago, the idea of heading up into Europe’s largest wilderness area for ten days of remote hiking didn’t sound unfeasible at all. Plus, this time there would be four of us rather than just two, and we’d be taking advantage of the excellent system of STF huts, rather than camping as we did before, meaning we “only” had to carry all our food and clothing for ten days. It was decided, the next summer we’d trek the northern section of the Kungsleden from Abisko, far in the north of Sweden down to Vakkotavare, a breeze at just over 100km.

The journey started with a flight to Stockholm, then 17 hours on a sleeper train filled with more huge rucksacks than I’d had hot dinners. Seemingly everyone on the service between Stockholm and Abisko had the same idea. The Kungsleden is, in fact, a bit of a national rite of passage, with pretty much every Swede embarking for a spot of trekking there at some point in their lives, from young urban hipster to well-heeled retiree. The landscape through which the train travelled, impeccably on time, was a seemingly endless blur of trees, backlit by an almost-but-not-quite sunset. It was mid-summer and we were heading north into the land of the midnight sun.

The mountain station at Abisko, also home to the Aurora Sky Station which is definitely on my list for a future visit in winter, was the jumping off point for our ten day trek, offering a well-stocked shop for those last minute panic purchases (berry picking bag anyone?). Setting out the next day, it wasn’t long before we started to find our rhythm, just in time to realise that the first stage was actually very short! Getting into Abiskojaure hut good and early, we soon settled in to chat to the fascinating hut guardian, a Danish octogenarian who had been visiting the area every year for the past 40 years and shared tales of wolverines, blizzards and getting lost in the hills.

We soon found out why that first day was short. Day two, from Abiskojaure to Alesjaure was one of the longest of the whole trek, with a rocky, gently rolling landscape unfurling before us, the path marked by paint daubed rocks and the tall red marker sticks of the winter version of the trail. In winter, cross-country skiers tour this magnificent route. Very tempting. Finishing up with a slog through an exhausting stretch of bog, the wooden huts of Alesjaure were a sight for sore eyes and feet. Perched on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a lake, it was a stunning location. Just a short distance away was a Sami village taking annual stock of the reindeer herds, sorting and tagging the rangy animals before their summer of roaming began in earnest. Venturing outside at midnight, the sun still hung fiery and day bright in the sky, far above the lake, merely bobbing up and down a little during its daily pass rather than ever actually setting. June and July are a magical time in the Arctic, a time of perpetual daylight, industrious bumblebees and suddenly blooming flowers.

A day of persistent rain and greyness that Scotland would be proud of greeted us on the trek onwards to Tjäktja. Thankful for good waterproofs, we did lament the loss of the relaxed tea breaks in the sunshine we had enjoyed the day before. On arrival at the hut, we were greeted with a glass of orange squash each, a simple pleasure that made us feel really welcome and a nice change from the cold clear stream water we’d been drinking all day. Resting up was a good option, as we knew we would have to cross a snow field tomorrow to get to the highest point on the trail, the Tjäktja pass, before descending towards a much anticipated rest day at Sälka, the mid-point on our trek.

The snow was quite a slog. Looking back down from the small rescue shelter at the top of the pass, we could just about see the hut we had stayed in the night before, looking ahead we could see a magnificent vista stretching ahead, its scale quite intimidating, the trail just a tiny line disappearing into the distant horizon. We’d be spending the next few days trekking along that valley surrounded by white dusted peaks.

Whilst our fitness was increasing (at least in part probably due to the weight of food we were carrying decreasing!) we were delighted to be spending a rest day in the heart of that wide open valley. Sälka sat in such a beautiful and serene setting, that we happily embraced some chores such as drawing water from the stream and chopping logs, all the while glancing around at our surroundings. A wood-fired sauna saw off the grime and aches of the trail, while some gentle walking without packs or just sitting in the sunshine reading a book helped recharge the batteries. It didn’t just feel like the middle of our trek, it felt like the middle of nowhere and yet the centre of everything.

Leaving reluctantly, we set out on the final days of our trek, reaching Singi quickly, it’s close as it also serves the end of the leg of the Kungsleden that travels past Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest peak. With our backs to that huge valley, the terrain began to change, becoming more wooded and on a smaller scale. Mosquitos started to make their presence felt more as we descended slightly to the mist shrouded hut at Kaitumjaure, where we were greeted with a small basket of delicious wild strawberries. Yet more descent led us past woodland and the effusive colours of early blooming Arctic flowers everywhere. Another scenic sauna and a wander along the lake shore had us marvelling at the ever changing landscape through which we were travelling. Just a single day’s trek remained on the other side of the lake and it really felt that our adventure was winding to a close, but that final day offered up a glimpse of a wild moose and a glorious sunny day.

Sitting at a table, complete with crisp white tablecloth, at Saltoluokta Mountain Station, it wasn’t hard to turn our backs on the past ten days of dehydrated meals, as we tucked into a sumptuous reindeer stew with buttered potatoes, but a real wrench to leave the trail. The wide open spaces and stunning wildness of the Kungsleden would stay with us forever though.

Kit and Clothing

Trekking rucksack

Between 60 and 80 litres in size. This needs to be very comfortable as it’s going to be a constant and heavy companion for 10 days. A waterproof cover is a good extra.

Food and cooking equipment

It’s best to cater for the whole trek as although some food is available for sale in huts, choice is very limited. Stoves are available at huts but being self-sufficient is good, as are tea breaks.

Sleeping bag

A sheet sleeping bag is fine if you’re guaranteeing staying in the huts along the way. For camping, a three season sleeping bag and tent or bivi is a good idea as it can get cold even in summer.

Boots

Comfortable three season trekking boots are the best for the sometimes rocky, sometimes wet and muddy trail. Gaiters are also a good idea for the frequent stream crossings and occasional snow fields.

Clothing

Trekking trousers (zip-offs can be handy), a couple of shirts or t-shirts, a fleece or merino layer, Primaloft jacket and a few pairs of socks and underwear. A waterproof jacket and trousers are crucial.

Trek it yourself

The Kungsleden doesn’t really open for business until mid-June. It is theoretically possible to trek it before then but none of the STF huts are open and there’s likely to be lots of snow still and variable weather. In mid-June (when I trekked it) there’s the benefit of 24 hour daylight, quiet trails and getting the jump on the worst of the mosquitoes. July and August are peak trekking times and offer beautiful arctic flowers and warmer weather. Trekking late season, up to the middle of September, offers a glimpse of the Arctic autumn and even the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.

Flights into Stockholm Arlanda are the easiest, with a train from the airport arriving into Stockholm Central station where the trains north also leave from.

The overnight train from Stockholm to Abisko costs from £115 return seat only, £185 for a bunk in a 6 berth cabin or £215 for a bunk in a 3 berth cabin.  Swedish Tourist Association membership (approx. £38) allows for members’ prices at the STF huts on the Kungsledena – £32 to £36 a night.

See www.visitsweden.com for more information.

Both KE Adventure and Nature Travels offer Kungsleden trekking trips.

About the author:

Lara prefers the wilder emptier parts of the world and enjoys nothing more than taking to two feet or two wheels to explore them. There’s a poetry to the simplicity of life on trail and any trip that involves seeing a greater number of animals than people gets her vote.

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