On August 17, 2019, my husband Colin and I completed a trek of the full length of
Sweden’s Kungsleden Trail, much of which is in the Arctic Circle. We walked a total of 443 km in 19 days. It was, by far, one of my most epic adventures.
The Kungsleden Trail stretches between Hemavan in the south to Abisko in the north. It passes through forests, mountain valleys, open fells, and is traversed by countless streams, rivers and lakes.
I’ve been asking myself if I had to choose one amazing thing about our trek to talk about, what would it be? There’s so much to mention. But I’ve decided that the one memory that has left the strongest impression on me is the people we’ve met.
One of the many special things about the Kungsleden is how truly off the beaten track it is. On some parts of the trail, we would walk for hours without seeing another human being. That, in itself, was special. But even more special was when we would finally see another human being. The excitement of it! We’d first notice something moving far off in the distance. I’d focus my eyes and ask Colin if he was seeing what I was seeing. “Is that a human, Colin, or is that just another rock in the shape of a human?” I’d ask. As we got closer, our suspicions would be confirmed. “It’s a human, Colin! It’s a human!” Then we’d decide all the things we needed to ask them about the part of the trail that we were about to walk. Where is the nearest water? Is the trail rocky? How far would you say is the nearest emergency hut? But more importantly, we were eager for the chat. What country are you from? Why did you choose to do the Kungsleden? Where did you start? How far are you going? Oh, how I loved the chats! The experience has made me decide that I need to use less social media and get myself out and about more often to meet real people.
We met Richard, the 67-year-old American academic/international development consultant who has travelled the world. When we met him, he told us that he had hurt his back and was cutting his hike short. He had already done quite a large part of the trail in an impressively short period of time. He told us he was averaging 25 kilometers a day and he was doing the trail all on his own!
We met Dwayne (American) and Madeleine (Swedish), a multi-talented, impressive, and inspiring young couple. We walked with them for a couple of days and had several longer conversations, during which we discovered that they were having the same exact silly arguments on the trail that we were having. I was laughing so hard, mainly at myself, that my sides hurt! They both also tried to sell us the virtues of the Swedish sauna, which I hadn’t really properly acquainted myself with up until then. It was only after we left them that I finally decided to go for the whole sauna, or “bastu”, experience. And what an experience it was!
When I think sauna, I think a hot wooden room in a gym, usually in the pool area. You turn a shower on before you walk in so that you’re wet, you sit in the sauna and sweat for 10-15 minutes, you stand under a shower again, and you’re done. Bastus on the Kungsleden Trail are very different, though. The trail is serviced by about 16 cabins of varying sizes that have places for cooking and bunks for sleeping. It costs to use these cabins. It also costs to camp in their general vicinity. But they are well worth the money if you use them every now and then. We camped near two of these cabins and bunked up in them twice. These ‘fjallstugens’ are actually formed of several cabins each. Among them is often a bastu, situated near a stream, river or lake. The bastus have a women’s only hour, a men’s only hour, and a mixed hour. Swedes do saunas in the nude and seem to be very comfortable in their nudity. The great thing about these trail bastus is that, after a long, sweaty day of hiking, you go in and strip off in the changing area, and then walk into a cleaning area where there are buckets of hot and cold water. You mix these in a basin and use that as a warm shower to properly wash yourself. Once completely washed, you then sit in the sauna for as long as you wish. You are then meant to run naked outside into the cold stream/lake, take a dip, and then finally go back for more sauna and a final warm wash. I tried sitting naked during women’s only hour for my first bastu experience but felt really awkward. So my subsequent two bastu experiences were in my bathing suit. Much better. But the degree of cleanliness one achieves doing all this is just amazing. I couldn’t even describe it. The bastu chats are also very nice and a bit surreal, given that everyone in the room is completely naked. Madeleine, thank you for insisting that we all try it out.
We also met Will on the trail, a 21-year-old Australian university student. I have a special message I want to send to Will’s mama: You should be so incredibly proud of your son. I am certain you already are. Will is such an intelligent, kind, respectful, and responsible young man. Will, you have such a bright future ahead of you. I KNOW it. I can’t wait to hear about how you get along with your studies and future career. You will be a star. We met Will in a small supermarket in Jakkvik, a tiny village about a third of the way on the trail. I would have wanted to stick with him for the rest of the trip if he wasn’t too fast for me. Nevertheless, we did get to walk with him for a couple of days, along with Dwayne and Madeleine. He slowed down just to keep us all company for awhile.
One day, while we were walking, I thought I saw the shape of a human sitting by a rock in the distance. As we approached the shape, I then thought I saw a wheel next to the human. A single wheel. I knew my eyes were playing tricks on me as they often did on that trail, so I was interested to find out what was actually there. When I got to the shape, I took a proper look and then stopped dead in my tracks. “Do NOT tell me you are doing the Kungsleden Trail on a UNICYCLE!” I exclaimed to the young woman sitting by the big rock. She chuckled. “Well, it’s more like I’m carrying my unicycle on the Kungsleden Trail.” Jenni Rinker (I made sure to write down her name) explained that she goes on trips around the world on her unicycle, and that she’s cycling as much of the Kungsleden as she can, pushing it alongside her when it’s not possible to be on it. I can’t wait for her to blog about her trip on lifeofajenni.com.
We also met a British couple around our age from Oxford. We had a longish chat with them about what we were doing and how much we were enjoying it. The woman and I (I never got her name) excitedly talked about how amazing wild camping was but how even more amazing it was to skinny dip in a large stream at the end of a long, sweaty day of hiking, with absolutely no one around for miles and miles.
We met a young British supermarket manager who works in the winters, saving up every little bit of money he can, and then quits his job in the summers so he can go on his grand trekking adventures. Now that he’s finished the Kungsleden, he’s off to trek in Kazakhstan! We met a young Belgian navy officer who clears landmines from the sea. Elsewhere, we met a burly Belgian army officer, sporting shorts and a t-shirt on what we felt was the wettest and coldest day of our whole trek. Colin and I were wearing multiple layers of our warmest, most waterproof clothes.
We met many many young men and women in their early 20s doing the whole trek on their own. They were from places like the UK, Spain, France, and Germany. I was most impressed with the young women, and I kept thinking what you’d need to do to raise a daughter that was so responsible, independent, and adventurous that, when she decided she wanted to go on holiday she chose a long trek in the Arctic Circle instead of going drinking with her pals in Mallorca. And when she doesn’t find anyone to join her, she just goes and does it herself, smiling all the way. We spoke with a few of them. I was utterly impressed with them all.
We met an older German couple, probably in the second half of their 70s. This wasn’t their first time to trek on the Kungsleden. They told us that one time they came, they ended up walking through one of the mountain valleys in a horrible storm. They knew it would be stormy but they did the walk anyways. Everyone was worried about them but they didn’t seem to be worried about it at all. They arrived at their destination that evening safely, they told us. When our tent pole broke the night after we met them, our initial knee-jerk reaction, coming from a lack of experience in wild camping and thru-hiking, was to panic and start thinking that we’d need to cut our trip short. But then Colin and I got to talking. “What would that German couple do if their tent pole broke? They wouldn’t start crying and thinking they’d have to cancel their trip! They’d just do the whole trek without a tent if they had to!” We also told ourselves that our British friend Richard, who has been a hiker and a mountaineer most of his life and who has sort of adopted us on social media, would think we were total fools if we ended our trip because of a broken tent pole. Putting ourselves in Richard’s and the German couple’s shoes made us think in new and improved ways. We decided there MUST be ways to solve a broken tent pole situation. We just need to think creatively. We just don’t yet have the experience to deal with this sort of situation. That experience is gained by doing. So let’s figure out how to get this fixed. We came up with many ideas to support the broken tent pole or to even camp without tent poles. We knew we’d make it. Things were made easy for us, however, when we got to our next destination and met someone with a spare emergency tent pole stent. He lent it to us and we were very grateful. We taped it in place around our broken pole and it held itself together for the remainder of the trip.
The one person who made the most lasting impression on me was Ghiath, a Syrian photographer we met while cooking in one of the cabins after we’d finished more than half the trail. We were making a complete ruckus with Will, Madeleine and Dwayne. Three or four other hikers came in to do their cooking and would join in on the conversation. We almost always ask people’s names and where they come from. When Ghiath told me he was from Syria, my heart almost stopped. I began speaking to him in Arabic to test him. He WAS Syrian! Meeting Ghiath was extra special. It’s taken me awhile to try to figure out why it felt so special to me. I think it’s because I felt he was my people. Ghiath talked a small bit about the Syrian Revolution and I mentioned the Egyptian one. We both knew revolution. We knew the repercussions of it. We come from similar contexts. We may have experienced similar traumas. We probably have similar hopes, fears and disillusionment. And despite everything we’ve been through, everything we’ve seen, everything we’ve lost, here we are, still trying to live life. Ghiath gave me a huge brotherly hug that evening. I got another one the following morning as we departed the camp. Those two hugs meant the world to me.
But the Kungsleden Trail wasn’t only about the people.
We saw reindeer! Herds of them!
We skinny-dipped. We wild camped for the first time in our lives. And we did it for several nights in complete and utter solitude. That was the most amazing feeling. We got hot weather, cold weather, dry weather, wet weather. It was all great. We managed to keep ourselves clean most of the time. I learned that one can feel properly clean by using water only and no soap or shampoo. I learned that clothes can feel properly clean following a few wooshes in a running stream and a drying on the back of a backpack. I learned that I’d rather dunk my whole body and head into a freezing lake at night than go to sleep feeling sweaty and stinky. And that I had the guts to do that. I learned that I can make a tiny tube of toothpaste last more than three weeks. I learned that I can ignore huge, ballooning blisters and just walk on them until the skin thickens so much that all feeling, and thus pain, is lost. I learned that it’s shitty to hike for long distances with an upset stomach and semi-diarrhea. It’s even more shitty to have to dig your own poop hole when you’re on the verge of an explosion. There were a few slips, stumbles and falls, with scrapes, scratches and bruises. These weren’t fun, but they weren’t the end of the world. Neither was the diarrhea. You teach yourself to just get up, ignore the pain, and keep walking. I learned that hiking without a bra is AMAZING. My bra straps were digging into my shoulders underneath my backpack’s shoulder straps. I also hated having that extra bit of sweaty clothing to wash. When I noticed another 50ish Swedish woman walking without a bra I decided: When in Sweden, do as the Swedes do! It wasn’t a flattering look. I’ll admit that much. But I truly did not care. I was comfortable and that was what was important. I learned that it’s smart to spend a little bit of extra money (actually, it was A LOT) to buy ultralight gear and make the load lighter on your back. The lighter the load, the easier it is to walk the long distances. I learned that it’s never going to be easy for two people, no matter how close, to spend that amount of time in that close of proximity to each other without having a few arguments. And I learned that strong relationships can handle a few arguments.
This trip was amazing for so many reasons. I haven’t mentioned half of them.
But I’ll sum up by saying this:
If you have little to no experience thru-hiking and wild camping but want to give it a
shot, the Kungsleden Trail is a perfect place to start. It’s almost impossible to get lost on this well-marked trail. It is well serviced throughout most of it with staffed cabins where you can stay if you need shelter. Some cabins have shops. You also pass through several small villages along the way where you have a limited selection of food items. What this means is that, if you’re willing to pay a little bit extra, you don’t have to carry more than four or five days-worth of food at a time. There’s always a shop within at most five days of walking, usually less. If you want to save money, you can carry all your food on your back from home, or you can courier your food from your country or from Stockholm to stops along the way. You can do only small stretches of the trail if you like. There are ways you can join and leave the trail to get back to civilization. All the information can be found on the Internet. We found Cicerone’s “Trekking the Kungsleden” particularly helpful. This book provides a significant amount of detail about each section of the trail. We carried it with us and it was well worth the weight. Many other people had this same book on the trail.
My resolution to myself is to try to get out more and just talk to people like I did so comfortably on the Kungsleden Trail.
Thank you, Sweden, for being such a welcoming country with lovely and helpful people. I have fallen in love with you!