Friday, 17 October 2014

Arctic Trail Trip Report Part 1 - Nordkalottleden Trail

Hiking in Lapland has been high on my list of ‘must go’ places for many years. I remember reading a number of articles by Chris Townsend on the area and as I also have Norwegian relatives it made sense for me to visit. Still I hadn't really looked closely at the area before April and I had absolutely no idea which route I would take. Rather than spending weeks researching hikes I did what I normally do and asked my route oracle, Christine (German Tourist). If ever I want to know anything about a route then she is where I start as there really isn't many routes that she hasn't hiked or at least knows a lot about. This proved to be the case and after a Skype session 2 routes were suggested, the Nordkalottleden, and Kungsleden Trails. The Kungsleden trail is very famous so I had some idea about that but the Nordkalottleden was new to me. Christine also hadn't hiked it yet but was interested because she will be going that way the following year. A plan was formed that would see me hiking all the Nordkalottleden and most of the Kungsleden Trails which would make a combined route of just over 1000km or around 5 weeks hiking. Perfect!

The Nordkalottleden (Swedish), or Nordkalottruta (Norwegian), and Kalottireitti (Finnish) Trail is approximately 800km in length. It starts in the far north of Norway, in a town called Kautokeino, and heads south. Always not far from the Norwegian/Swedish border it even manages to pass into Finland at one point. You actually cross a border boundary 15 times and it always remains north of the Arctic Circle, hence its English name of Arctic Trail. You have a choice of two finishing points and they are Sulitjelma (Norway) or Kvikkjokk (Sweden). According to Wikipedia you will hike around 380km in Norway, 350km in Sweden and 70km in Finland. I finished in Sulitjelma and measured the route using my Suunto Ambit 2 GPS watch at 704.67km, which is about right as the Kvikkjokk finish is a few days hike further east.

Near the start of the Nordkalottleden, not far from Kautokeino
Border marker cairn. No fences out here just a few cairns or perhaps...
...a post...
...some cairns are more impressive than others!
My original plan was to finish at Kvikkjokk, which is where I would pick up the Kungsleden Trail, but shortly before I started the hike Mark Waring suggested I use a route that he had come up with for his long hike across Sweden in 2013. Mark suggested that his route would be much quieter than the Kungsleden and have less logistical issues with boat crossings so at the last minute it was added in. Because this hike covers more than 1 trail I will break it down into two sections with this part covering the Nordkalottleden Trail and the second everything else.
Norway's mountain are often rocky and rugged
Part 1 - Nordkalottleden

Other Resources

There's not much out there on the web in English and I only found a couple of useful references to the Nordkalottleden Trail with a site called Travelling On Foot being the most useful as a thru-hiker. That blog is only half finished and as he hiked it back in 2007 I doubt it ever will be. It's also 7 years out of date but I still found it incredibly useful with my trip planning. Nielsen Brown also has a great blog about the Nordkalottleden and he Section hiked the trail much more recently. If you want in-depth information about route sections and the trail itself then his blog is the place to go. He also talks a lot about kit choices and as he hiked it over a number of years he had time to adapt his kit to the environment. Hopefully with those 2 excellent resources and what I have here you will find all you need.

Remind you of Scotland? Did me!
Getting there

I flew with Norwegian Air from Gatwick (UK) to Alta (Norway) via Oslo for a cost of £170. When I first researched flights I tried from my local airport (Leeds/Bradford) and was getting quotes of £600-700 but when checking direct from Gatwick that dropped massively to £170. Normally I find local connecting flights make little difference to the final overall price but in this case it was a huge, so do check. I was able to travel on a National Express coach to Gatwick for £20 from Leeds so my total outward travel cost was £190. Amazingly I was able to get a BA flight home to Leeds/Bradford (via Heathrow) from Oslo for £25!!! Incredible! One thing to bare in mind, as I only found this out by accident, is that even though I thought my baggage had been checked through all the way to Alta I actually had to pick it up, clear customs and immigration in Oslo, and then recheck it in. Apparently this is because Norway is not part of the EU. From Alta a bus service runs most days down to Kautokeino for 260 NOK. I arrived on a Friday and unfortunately the next bus wasn't until Sunday evening so I had 2 days in town. Alta is a full service town that has a number of hotels, a campground, supermarkets, takeaways and everything else you could possibly need. It doesn’t appear to have any hostel accommodation though. As I was visiting family in Oslo I took a train from Trofors (Norway) to Oslo for 799NOK. Trofors was the finish of my full hike and is not near the end of the Nordkalottleden.

Lakes big and small cover the entire area

Coming from the UK I did not need a visa. UK citizens are granted 90 days on arrival and with that you can travel freely between Norway, Sweden and Finland. This is really good news for UK and most other European travellers. Hikers from other areas will need to check what applies to them. This website will be helpful.
Expect rain at anytime but with that comes drama and unexpected beauty

My main maps were electronic running on the excellent Viewranger app for iPhone. I ended up buying the full Norway maps (£79.99), Sweden North (£49.99) and just the tiles I needed for Finland because I knew I would be returning to this area in the future and it would work out better value in the long run. Viewranger has been my default trail navigation system since 2010 and has always worked perfectly on the iPhone. I don't like it quite so much on Android as on my Note 2 it can get very sluggish after extended use with a big gpx file loaded in. Closing the Viewranger App and reopening sorts that out but I don't want to be messing about doing that on the trail. I also carried a backup iPhone, with identical maps, and some backup paper overview maps. I had the route as a gpx file on both iPhones, as well as a Suunto Ambit 2 gps watch. If you would like my gpx route files then contact me.

Some of the scenery is as good as I've seen anywhere in the world

All 3 countries have an excellent hut system covering the Nordkalottleden Trail and it’s actually possible to use a hut most nights if you wish. I didn't use any huts on my hike because I find they isolate me from the wilderness but it was reassuring to know they are there if needed. Many have emergency phones and some are even staffed and sell basic supplies. Because I didn't use the huts I’m limited in what I can tell you about them.
Typical mountain hut
Huts - Norway

Most huts on route will be locked and you will need a DNT key to get access. To get a key you need to be a member of the DNT or affiliated association in another country. A deposit of NOK 100 is required for a key, which is refunded upon return. I was lucky to be loaned one before I set-off so didn't have to bother trying to get one. Even if you have a key these huts are not free to stay overnight and a cost of around 200-300 NOK applies. This would be expensive for a long hike but if you have the money then these huts are truly excellent and a real home away from home. The one I let myself into for a look around even had a music system running from a solar panel/battery system! They also have, fitted, fully equipped kitchens, bedrooms, a sofa in the lounge and a wood fire with loads of pre-cut wood. I’ve never seen huts of this calibre before on any trail.
Typical locked Norwegian hut
Huts - Sweden

All the staffed huts on the Nordkalottleden Trail are in Sweden and most of these will be found on the much more popular Kungsleden Trail. These huts often sold basic food/fuel supplies but again I didn't use them so can’t tell you what they had. They seemed but more like hostels in the wilderness than mountain huts. There are also many non-staffed huts in Sweden and these are similar to those you find in Norway. Again you will need a key for access to the main hut but some also had an unlocked area that anybody could use in bad weather. As with Norway there is a cost to stay in these huts overnight.

Swedish hut with woodshed
Huts - Finland

I don't have any experience of the huts in Finland but the few I saw looked similar to the Norwegian/Swedish counterparts.

Finnish hut

Supplies can be an issue on this hike if you don't want to make big detours off trail. For instance the section from Abisko to the southern terminus of the Nordkalottleden is up to 384km depending on if you choose to finish in Sulitjelma or Kvikkjokk. 

My resupply strategy was 

Kautokeino (Norway) to Kilpisjärvi (Finland) 184km
Kilpisjärvi to Abisko (Sweden) 183km
Abisko to Sulitjelma (Norway) 324km

Wild camping is legal and stunning sites are easy to find...
...they will be exposed with so few trees so take a good tent
Protection can often be found from dips in the ground

Alta/Kautokeino. I brought supplies with me from the UK for this first section as I knew options would be better and prices lower. Alta does have a couple of large supermarkets, and while I didn't check Kautokeino it is of a size that it too would have some options. Both Alta and Kautokeino have hotels and there is a daily bus service (not Saturdays) linking them together. I stayed in the Thon Hotel in Alta (910 NOK/night) and it was a nice modern hotel which included breakfast. Free wifi is available in your room and the bus stop to pick up the Kautokeino bus is directly opposite the hotel.

a perfect but buggy camp on a still day

Kilpisjärvi to Abisko. Kilpisjärvi has a reasonable sized supermarket with all you will need for resupply and is located right in the centre of town. I stayed in the Kilpis Hotel which is opposite the supermarket (112 EUR/night) including breakfast. The hotel is very run down and the rooms looked worn and battered but it was clean and the staff friendly. There are no laundry facilities and wifi, though free, is only available around the reception area. They also have cheaper hostel rooms.

Hiking is easy for the first few days being relatively flat

Abisko to Sulitjelma. Abisko is split into 2 parts with the supermarket being 2km further down the road than the STF hotel/hostel. It’s a good size and has everything you need for resupply. The STF hotel/hostel sells basic supplies too (including hiking kit) but would be limiting for this long 3-400km section and prices are very high. They do sell freeze dried camping food if that is your thing. I carried 12 days food which was enough to cover this tough long section but that meant hiking an average of 32km/day with a very heavy pack. To reduce the amount of food carried there are a couple of options. You could probably eat in the manned STF huts on the Kungsleden Trail saving a couple of days food (do check that these huts sell supplies as I haven’t). It is also possible to get a boat over to Ritsem from Vaisaluoktastugan, which has a small camp shop, but that will take you nearly a full day to get there and back. If you are finishing in Kvikkjokk then you could resupply in Sulitjelma and either walk back the way you came and rejoin the trail at Stugorna (64km round trip), or hike along the south side of Lake Lamivatnet and Eidevatnet and rejoin the trail at Pieskehaurestugan. I would go with the latter option as that hike is spectacular. I stayed in the STF hotel in Abisko for 1110 SEK/night and thought it overpriced for a basic, but modern, hotel room. If you want an evening meal then you must book it when you arrive but breakfast is included. Free Wifi was in all rooms and there is laundry facilities. They also have cheaper hostel rooms or you can even camp in the grounds.
There were plenty of berries and mushrooms coming into season on the trail. I just didn't know which were safe...
...don't think I would try this!
...or this!
While I wouldn't eat this it was beautiful... was all the Lichen (?) on the rocks

Sulitjelma has a basic supermarket next to the church (when you come off the trail turn left after the church) and a nice hotel (710 NOK/night) 1.5km away from the store (turn right at the church). This was my favourite hotel and the staff went out of their way to accommodate me. Free Wifi was available in the room and they also had the best showers I've ever used. Unfortunately no laundry facilities though. There is also a daily bus service to/from town.

Currencies, cash and costs

You will need 3 different currencies as only Finland uses the Euro. Norway uses the NOK and Sweden the SEK. There aren't many places to get cash on-route, Alta has an ATM but I don't know of anywhere else. All the hotels I stayed in, and the supermarkets I visited, took cards without problem so you will only need cash for services in smaller places. If you want to take a boat over to Ritsem (or any other boat) then you will have to pay in cash (boats are usually 300SEK each way). If you stay in huts or buy supplies from the STF Huts then you will need cash (larger STF huts, in popular places, MAY take cards but do check). I carried 1000NOK, 60EUR and 3000SEK for the full hike (not just the Nordkalottleden) and I didn't spend any of the EURO’s, 800 of the NOK and most of the SEK. I could have got by with much less SEK but ended up spending it on accommodation that could have been paid for by card.

Scandinavia, and particularly Norway, has a reputation for being expensive but I didn't find it so bad, yes Oslo was expensive but on the trail, up north, prices were only around 10-20% more and resupplies were often only slightly more expensive than in other countries I’ve visited. The entire 6 week hike cost me £977.17 (not including flights but including everything else) which is about what I would expect for a hike like this. The key to keeping in budget in Scandinavia is not to eat out, or drink alcohol, both of which can be outrageously expensive. Buy your food from supermarkets, or get takeaways rather than a sit-down meal, and things can be much more manageable.

most mornings started misty but that soon burnt off


There are only 2 boat crossings on the Nordkalottleden and one of those is optional. Hiking down the Kungsleden, from Abisko, it’s possible to get a boat down Lake Alisjavri if you can’t be bothered to hike along its banks. I didn't use that boat of course but it’s an option. The second (and only real crossing) is by row boat across Lake Bovrojavri and this is less than 50m between the 2 banks.

You should find a boat like this on both banks
Short crossing of around 50m
When you arrive you should find a boat on either side and you will have to row over to the opposite bank, pick up the second boat and row back, drop off your original boat and row back over. 3 crossings in total! It’s an easy row in good conditions but still took about an hour to get everything where it needed to be.

Loaded up and ready to go

If you need to resupply in Ritsem then you will need to catch a boat for that across Lake Akkajure too.

Hiking the Nordkalottleden Trail

The trail itself is fairly similar to my previous hike on New Zealand's Te Araroa Trail in that it is of variable quality and not always distinct, or even present, in some areas. What you find is that when the trail coincides with another popular trail, like the Kungsleden or Padjelantaleden Trails, then the route will be obvious and normally of good quality. Away from these areas there is often nothing more than an occasional cairn or faint blob of paint on a rock pointing the way.

Norwegian trail marking is generally good with a big red T on a rock or...
...a sometimes hard to see blob of red paint hidden behind some plant or...
...a lovely clear cain with red paint. My favourite was... 
...this beauty!
Swedish trail marking varies from over-the-top like this to...
...totally invisible orange paint that looks just like...
...this naturally occurring alge covering many rocks. Or sometimes...
...a proper signpost with distances and often facilities.
Your not in Finland long but the trail is well marked
Expect the trails to be rough, and often rocky, but always wet and boggy. Don't expect to meet many other hikers except when you share the trail with one of the more popular hikes, away from those and outside the national parks, you may not see another hiker for days.

The kungsleden can be busy but wasn't so bad when I was there...
...but with scenery this good who cares?

Certainly few hikers thru-hike all the Nordkalottleden, I only met 2 other hikers doing the full trail and they were both from Germany. Section hiking is more popular and there were a handful doing it in 2 week stints, and again they were German hikers. I didn't met any hikers from the UK or United States and surprisingly few Scandinavians. As for the actual hiking the Nordkalottleden is a bit of a gem and has most of what I look for in a trail, it was quiet, challenging and scenically stimulating.

Near the Norwegian border
Starting in the north it’s relatively flat, being on a plateau, and I found it like a strange mix of the Scottish Cairngorms (plants, rocks) and England's Yorkshire Wolds (small rolling hills) mixed in with Peak District bogs.
All looked kind of familiar to me
That only lasts for a couple of days before you are dropped down into a wonderful gorge for a fantastic, but rugged and buggy, section before climbing out and heading off towards Finland and the first resupply town of Kilpisjarvi.
Wonderful hiking but hot and buggy
One section had safety rail but wasn't really needed
This area is very popular with fishermen...
...and as most people come and go by boat it can be a bit overgrown

Soon you are back into Norway and the Ovre Dividal national park before crossing into Sweden and the start of the world famous Kungsleden Trail at Abisko. Borders out here only exist on maps, or perhaps marked by a cairn but you freely travel in and out of countries and barely notice. After a couple of busy days on the Kungsleden you head west and follow the Sweden/Norway border and its here that most of the really spectacular scenery is. The trail is also at its quietest and route finding can be a little difficult at times. Most of the grandest scenery is in Norway which is simple stunning with high rugged mountain topped with glaciers, huge lakes stretching as far as you can see and rocky rugged terrain with many wet boggy areas. Sweden is very similar but just not quite on the same scale.

I liked the ruggedness of Norway...
...and will have to return...
...with never-ending views like this why wouldn't you?
Sweden has much to offer too
Can't say much about Finland as it chose to hide on the days I was there

I’ve mentioned the bogs a couple of times but I should say that this trail is REALLY wet and boggy. Even though this has been a dry summer I still had wet feet almost all-day, everyday. It’s not a big issue if you have fast drying (and draining) footwear but it’s something you have to accept. When the trail was built they did lay down boarding over the worst boggy areas but this is now rotting away and doesn’t appear to be getting replaced.
The trail is really wet and boggy and hiking through this is the norm. They have tried...
...and boarded some of the worst bogs...
...expect to have wet feet all-day, everyday

The same is also often true of bridges, some of which are in a terrible state and often I chose to ford a river rather than cross a bridge that looked like it would collapse at any moment.

Bridges varied from this beauty on the Padjelantaleden Trail to...
...this wreck. Glad I wasn't on this when it snapped. Long drop to rocks with a pack...
Most of the small bridges were damaged... the point that I didn't bother with them...
...or they were destroyed anyway...
...many were crossable with care...
...but ever the best were inferior to what I experienced in New Zealand

The other real issue is bugs. During the summer months the bugs can be incredibly bad. The first few days of the trail were a bit uncomfortable as it was very hot (31C was recorded at 1 hut), still and damp underfoot, just as the bugs like it. I have never experienced mosquitoes as ferocious as these before, within seconds of stopping there would be clouds of literally 100’s of them queuing up to feed. A headnet was essential but uncomfortable given the heat, as were my fingerless gloves which I covered in DEET repellant. That along with bug proof long trousers and a wind shirt over a hiking shirt kept the buggers out.

Mosquitoes were a real issue for the first couple of weeks
I'm not looking too happy here but it was...
...31C and I'm wearing a headnet, gloves, wind shirt, hiking shirt, long trousers

My overall impression of this trail was that it felt like Scotland on a bigger and grander scale. If you are sick of hiking between wind farms and the bulldozed access roads that now fill Scotland then this is an area you should look to. Before I went I was told that Scandinavia would be a step-up in wilderness from Scotland but a step down from North America and I completely agree with that. It never felt really wild like I have experienced on some other hikes and there was normally plenty of manmade objects around, be that a village (surprising many of those), power lines for a hydro scheme, or a communication mast on a hill or perhaps a fence. I guess if you took a 10km/sq area of Scotland and stretched it to 100km/sq then that might give you an idea of what it’s like out there.

Scenery to die for but not always true wilderness, notice the power lines for a hydro scheme
There are many tiny Sami villages on route, mostly deserted in the summer
...some have some amazing turfed huts or even...
...a church
...not sure what this post box was doing here but it had mail!
There are many relics of the 2nd World War still around...
...this bunker being one of many... was another one... slightly more 'worn' condition

Mobile coverage

Phone reception was surprisingly good on the northern half of the trail with even a 3G service on many occasions. It wasn't so good down south but I still had reception at some point most days. I'm not bothered about checking emails or Twitter but it's nice to get a weather forecast. I downloaded the Norwegian weather app as it has a reputation for being very reliable and found it good. Problem is it doesn't work off-line even if you have previously downloaded the data so it was of limited use on the trail. Due to the new Europe wide roaming laws it's reasonably affordable to use your UK SIM card (or any other European SIM card) while on the trail.
The morning light is my favourite time. I try to be up to catch it.

If you have hiked 3 seasons in Scotland then you know what to expect and bring. Expect windy exposed camping, driving rain and possibly some snow or sleet up high. The ground will always be boggy and the bugs ferocious (mainly mosquitoes but also midges and sandflies). Bring a shelter that is comfortable above tree-line (there aren't many substantial trees). Waterproofs with good storm flaps rather than just water resistant zips (always leak) are wise. I always had a spare pair of dry socks for the evening and I also brought some Reed Aquatherm socks to put over my dry evening socks when outside the tent in my wet shoes. A sleeping bag rated down to freezing should be ample and you want a pack big enough to carry 14 days of supplies. My warm Buffalo Mitts were much used and kept my hands warm and dry. It can also be very hot so a hiking shirt is more comfortable and more bug proof than a base layer so I took both. A sun hat was essential as was a headnet and bug repellant. My layer system consisted of a merino hooded baselayer T-Shirt, overlaid with a nylon hiking shirt (sometimes used as the baselayer). Thin 100 weight fleece as a mid-layer and finally a wind shirt. If it rained then I had an eVent waterproof jacket. For camp insulation I took a very light down jacket but didn't really need it. Lower body consisted of merino boxers, synthetic long johns, nylon hiking trousers and a very light waterproof pant. For my feet I had 2 pairs of synthetic hiking socks (rotated and washed daily), thin dry camp socks and Reed Aquatherm waterproof socks. Hands had fingerless hiking gloves (mosquitoes didn't seem interested in my finger ends) and Buffalo Mitts for cold and wet weather. I also carried a down beanie hat.

When to hike

The hiking season is relatively short with July through to September being the most popular months. I chose an Aug 1st start date so that I could finish my full hike (Nordkalottleden was only part of my hike) by early September. That gave me the best opportunity to miss the worst of the bugs but finish before the early winter snows arrived. It sort of worked well, I certainly had bad bugs in the first couple of weeks but after that they were fine and I only had some sleet and light snow on the trail, and not much of that. If I was just hiking the Nordkalottleden then I would start a week later and aim to finish the 1st week of September. August up north in Lapland it never really gets properly dark, the sun did officially set but it was never more than dusk and then immediately dawn again. Had I been a month earlier then the sun would have been up 24hrs/day. Perhaps take a blindfold.

Mid August and some minor snow on the passes
Stats from my Nordkalottleden hike

Distance 704.67km measured by Suunto Ambit 2 (60 sec GPS sampling)
Days taken 26

Average 27.10km/day

Part 2 will cover the rest of my hike