In the mountains, Death doesn’t leap onto you as he would on a busy expressway or a quaking war zone. He sort of hangs around behind you, trudging in your footsteps so as to not leave any of his own, creeping closer when you’re not looking, all the while muttering to himself. Death might be homeless.
Hiking is an immensely liberating and empowering experience, especially for us city types. Away from the metropolis’ clamoring fauna and artificial peaks, we finally have time to ourselves without the constant bombardment of strange people and glaring advertisements all squawking for attention. What we carry on our shoulders — our packs and our heads — are all we have and all we need.
But often the more desolately beautiful a thing is, the more ominously dangerous. Looking back on this and my other adventures, I realize that I don’t portray hiking in a very good light, but that’s not my intention. I want you to hike and see for yourself its wonder. That said, mine is the story of a fly that cannot help but be drawn into the fieriest depths of the lamp, and who made it out this time by a hair. Or feeler.
For general tips on hiking and packing for a hike, skip to the end.
The Kungsleden, or “King’s Trail”, is a 440km (270 miles)-long hiking trail in the Swedish Laplands, half of which lies within the Arctic Circle. Most hikers choose to challenge just the northern tip of the trail, also called the Fjällraven Classic route, spanning 110km (68 miles) from Nikkaluokta to Abisko. They fly in from Stockholm to a tiny airport in Kiruna (just off the east side of the map) and take a bus into Nikkaluokta.
Hikers typically take the Fjällraven in summer, when well-serviced tourist cabins are open along the trail, and spend 7 days to complete it, walking from cabin to cabin.
I don’t follow instructions.
At 0200h in the morning on 13 October 2018, a month after the season had ended and all have deserted the trail, I stepped out of my taxi into a subzero night in Nikkaluokta, the first night of my (intended) 3.5-day speedrun through the Fjällraven.
And it had already gone all wrong. 12 hours ago, my plane was circling Kiruna when the announcement system crackled to life overhead.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We cannot land.”
Outside, a fog as viscous as honey had suffocated Kiruna. I didn’t know how soon I was to see that fog again, but on the wrong side of the Boeing window. We turned back to Stockholm, were rebooked, and eventually landed in Kiruna at 2300h.
And there I was in Nikkaluokta. A single streetlamp was burning in the pin-sized village, the last one I would see in 4 days. In its reassuring whisper of light, with the cold sinking into my fingers, I pitched camp quickly — I had already lost half a day.
Journal, Day 0: Flight delayed. Reached Nikkaluokta at 0200h. Not sure how the schedule will be impacted.
I woke up to a quiet day at 0900h, downed a swift breakfast of rice crackers, strawberry jam and sugar, and pushed off. Within 15 minutes, Nikkaluokta and all its signs of civilization had vanished, and I was alone.
Overcast. Low-hanging clouds seemed to float just above my right ear, stretching their grey fingerless hands towards me and moaning like Level 1 zombies, except much faster and completely immune to insults to their mothers.
Progress was deplorable, and stress mounted in my throat. The further I hiked the more snow gathered on the ground — pristine, untrampled, and thick — there must have already been a few storms here in the frigid Laplands. My boots sank as if they were in quicksand — every step forward took twice the effort, and was always followed by half a step skidding back. I already knew how fatal snow would be from my hike in Greenland, but there I only hiked for 6 hours and covered 20km a day, whereas here I had to complete at least 30km a day to make it in time.
Fear and anxiety put one foot in front of the other and soon I was dashing (the hiking equivalent and not in a one-horse open sleigh). Death was giggling behind me but I hadn’t the time to pay attention.
I dragged myself past Kebnekaise Fjällstation at 1700h and pitch camp 3km west. The last rays were clinging on to the face of towering clouds in the distance, and the sun itself was nowhere to be seen. At 2000h, as I scraped the bottom of my can of luncheon meat, a gale picked up and began battering my narrow one-man tent. Inches from my face, it howled like wolves and pounded with the weight of a bear’s hefty paw; my little canvas world was a fresh Polaroid picture fluttering violently in the hands of an angsty teenager.
I grabbed onto the tent poles calmly and just laid there. Fear? Of course I would feel fear in a deserted valley, surrounded on all sides by midnight cliffs with Nature’s roar threatening to blow my minuscule existence off this hill. But fear is nothing new. I’ve endured more spine-chilling roars from my cadet instructor threatening to cancel lunch. Plus, what can fear do for me? The spirit is the only power of the powerless, and fear exists to break it.
People often ask me why I do crazy things like go hiking in the middle of nowhere. I do it because it never fails to give me intense fear, and a chance to overcome it. For what is worth doing that does not make you fear? I put on some jazz, swore at the weather gleefully, and switched off my torchlight.
Journal, Day 1: Very slow progress. Either terrain is too much or body cannot keep up. No choice but to push on. At this rate, will either have to walk 8–9h a day or give up. Windy night. Not sure if tent can survive.
A pack of rice crackers, two packs of strawberry jam, two packs of sugar. And some gummy bears, which I was glad for because it turned out to be a much, much longer day than I expected.
The snow on the trail was piling higher. The last few days probably saw northerly winds; every hill was barren on the northern slope but lathered in snow on the southern. Lo and behold I was traveling north. Every uphill felt like rock climbing, but instead of rocks it was gorgeous, powdery, structurally-unsound snow.
I reached Singi at 1200h as per schedule but it felt like my soul had already left my body. I still needed to get to Sälka, then beyond, before sunset. The stress from yesterday had coalesced into a dread as dark as the fog that was beginning to set in; soon after I lost all visibility beyond 50m. The painted rock cairns that indicated the trail backed away into the silver veil as I stumbled through what looked like the cross-section of a seething thundercloud.
The rain started at 1500h. Slyly, it inched nearer, closing its fist around its prey. I was ensnared in my own dogged focus on the vision of Sälka ahead of me, until sharp pains shot through my hands as they began to freeze onto my trekking poles. I looked down and realized that they were not mine — knuckles white and veins the color of ash, they belonged on the newest Boston Dynamics brainchild. They trembled, soaked through to the bones. So was I.
I quick-release my pack and throw on my waterproof jacket but I had long been taken prisoner by the downpour. The weight of water and the disabling cold pulled against my limbs and bit into my skin like rusted chains, and yet I was still 10 minutes from Sälka. Have I not been walking for months? It was 1730h. There was no telling if the sun had set for no light escaped the impregnable fog — and it seemed like I could not either. My legs could move no more; I sat down in the waist-deep snow (which was really more of a leaning back and slowly descending), assaulted by frigid winds and lashing rain.
If I push on, I would have to camp at Sälka and lose another 5 hours’ distance. There were two more steep climbs ahead in the trail, and at this pace I needed, on an already-depleted body and maximum 2 more days of food, 3.5 more days to hike almost 70km. In other words, I was stranded.
And there’s the I-might-actually-die-here moment.
It was a rather quiet one that just sort of drifted in instead of kicking down the door. Which is arguably more polite but also a little creepy. It became apparent how alone I was in the wilderness, a déjà vu that reminded me of Greenland and the reason why I started adventuring alone in the first place — to face my consuming fear of loneliness.
I’ve cured it in these moments of overwhelming solitude. Loneliness is needing someone else, and here I realized I no longer do. It’s just me, my Maker and a deadly game of rock-paper-scissors, which I shall win because I give up. I will turn back.
All was dark and hazy. Was it the fog, or my failing consciousness? Who knows. I pitched camp in the rain and darkness and struggled out of my soaking clothes, making a futile effort to keep the inside of the tent dry. Freezing. I couldn’t eat as every inch of my body shivered viciously and uncontrollably. Will the night ever end?
Journal, Day 2: I can’t end here. I will turn back. A king must first conquer his own pride. War is just as much about retreating as it is about charging. Getting out of here alive will be my victory.
I was awoken multiple times in the night by the patter of rain, relentless gunfire digging into my psyche. Make it stop. The horror of the previous evening was still saturated in my mind along with the rainwater in my clothes, and lying there, unable to move in my cramped rectangular tent, I imagined I looked like I was being buried alive in a flimsy coffin. I mean, I’m all for saving money but I’d appreciate if my last roof didn’t keep threatening to cave in on my face. I made a mental note to include that in my will. At 0630h, rain continued to fall and I feared the worst, but after I forced down breakfast (more gummy bears) it eventually let up.
The sun made its bashful appearance for the first time; the light amber glow peering over the once-gloomy valley lighted my heart with renewed hope. Perhaps I shall live after all. I’ll show Nature that she doesn’t get to decide when I die — I die when I say so.
I still had some ways to go, however. I fought tooth-and-nail to get to Sälka in two days, and now I must do it again in reverse, on low battery. But walking became easier for I knew the terrain, and some of the snow had melted from the warm morning. Where it was still thick I stepped in my own footprints to avoid tripping.
Outside Singi I ran into another hiker, the first soul I'd seen on the entire trip. Probably Swedish. We greeted each other like old friends that had never met, and he told me that even though it was empty there should be a room open in case of emergencies at Kebnekaise Fjällstation; maybe tonight I can sleep under an actual roof.
At 1630h I made it to Kebnekaise, and had never been so glad to see a couple of deserted little cabins. They were the lingering shadows of civilization, stretched long across the ground in the evening light that assured me that the end, albeit far, laid ahead. I scoured the area in search for the open room and did not find it, but stumbled across 3 Finns taking shelter in an old shed. They were going up to…Tarfala? Couldn’t really tell behind the accent. I moved in with them nonetheless, and we spent an hour together. They left after dinner, but before that they gave me four cans of (slightly dubious) beer.
People are great, aren’t they?
Journal, Day 3: Everything seems fine now. I will be clean and warm in Kiruna this time tomorrow. 19km to go, back to Nikkaluokta.
I had been walking for 8–9 hours each day, but I should be able to cover the last 19km in 6 hours, so I cut myself some slack and slept in till 0730h. Kept awake by the cold wind slipping through the shed’s porous walls and lack of door, I had gotten up during the night to check for the Northern Lights. Didn’t see any, unfortunately, but beheld a wondrous starscape instead.
Before leaving for the day I chugged two beers. For hydration.
The sight of the golden sunrise was enough to sing for. Too long I had taken the sun for granted in cities with man-made stars.
My left knee and right ankle had begun hurting the previous day, the former from scrambling up and down snowy slopes and the latter from getting mashed in all directions over rocky paths, like a joystick in the hands of an amateur playing Super Smash Bros.
My shoulders were aching too, and I no longer had the strength to raise my legs. Every step was pain, but also one less till the end.
1430h. An A-frame with a sign that said ‘Nikkaluokta’ greeted me as I stumbled out of the woods onto cold gravel.
OPS Mountain King, mission success.
Journal, Day 4: Beauty in a slab of wood. It’s all over now. Eat that. Not the sign.
Journal, scattered thoughts
If you spend as much time walking everyday as you would working a mid-tier management job while deriding bureaucracy, you would have a lot of time to think. Some of those thoughts would be chillingly intellectual; the others are as follows.
Preserved food tastes like the contents of a sarcophagus, but works wonders in de-activating one’s bowels. Though after four days it’s still a squeeze (to contain).
I’m not too sure about my haircut. On one hand, hair is a great way to keep the head warm. On the other, it would’ve caught on my hood and balaclava. What a formidable dilemma. Perhaps next time I’ll go bald and freeze like an egg in the wrong part of the fridge.
Trekking poles are annoying but sometimes amazing. They’ve saved me from so many sprained ankles, which would be a death sentence out here. Not that I have more than 2 to sprain.
As much as I hate fog for being the harbinger of rain, cold, and possible doom, when dyed by the early golden sun it takes on the appearance of the flares on a faded old photograph. Of course, if I’m not careful I’ll become the forgotten memory.
Whenever I can feel my toes, they feel like they are falling off.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I /— I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost. Yeah, and the difference is instead of being alive you’re dead in a swamp. Do what the map says.
While walking, several songs keep playing in my head. The most puzzling one is “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” by Louis Armstrong. There’s nothing out here I can kiss besides the Reaper and the oversized hare that just left this monstrous pile of fresh dung.
If you want to try hiking, but like a normal person
Spend some time in nature and see if you like it. Search up some short day-hike routes near you, and go on a couple.
Find your favorite season. Summer is always the most popular since it'll be warm, but that also means sweat and bugs. Late summer/early fall usually sees fewer bugs and people, but will be colder and wetter, especially in trails further north. Spring is great on some warmer trails for seeing wildlife and flowers.
Practice. Do a few day-hikes and short overnight trips, preferably with one or two friends, to accumulate experience and get used to the physical exertion, the elements and your equipment.
Do your first multi-day/long-distance hike either with company, or on a trail that has cell reception, during the season you're supposed to be taking the trail (usually summer).
Here is a list of my basic equipment for a long-distance hike. I plan using a military SOP called SMARTO: Signals, Medical, Ammo, Rations, Transport, Others.
Signals (Communications and electronic devices)
Phone and working SIM card, can double as GPS (you can download offline maps on Google Maps, or use specialized GPS apps like Gaia GPS)
Satellite phone and working SIM card (If trail has no reception; sat-phones work like GPSes)
Portable chargers and cables
Camera and batteries/film
Medical (First-aid and medication)
Basic first-aid kit (Bandages, band-aids, disinfectant, latex gloves, tweezers, space blanket)
Basic travel medication (Painkillers, cold and flu, allergy relief, food poisoning relief)
Specialized medication if needed (Epipen, altitude sickness pills, etc.)
* I also carry Vaseline to heal cracked skin and cuts.
Ammo (Equipment that you don't wear)
Water-resilient backpack (0-2 days = 30L pack; 3-4 days = 50L pack; >4 days = 70L pack)
Sleeping bag (there are different grades for different temperature ranges)
Water bottle or water bag (Camelbak)
Map and compass (if needed)
Multitool/Swiss Army knife, torchlight and batteries, rope, multi-purpose tape
Stove and fuel, crockery, cutlery, lighter/matches
Rations (Food and water)
Water (better if you can get it from streams on the trail; I also carry water-purification iodine tablets)
Coffee, tea, energy drinks, alcohol if needed (a flask of whiskey on a cold night saves lives)
Trail mix, or as I call it, squirrel food (nuts, raisins, dried mangoes/bananas are lightweight and high-energy)
Canned proteins (luncheon meat, tuna, etc. help repair muscles on a multi-day hike)
Sugary snacks (chocolates, sweets, gummy bears pack calories and keeps your morale up)
* I also recommend MREs (meals ready-to-eat), which are military rations. They're high carb and protein, don't come in bulky cans and actually taste ok if heated up.
Transport (In/out of the trail)
Many of the good long-distance trails are quite inaccessible. Make sure you book all the necessary flights, trains, buses or taxis beforehand to avoid being stranded.
Others (Clothes, personal and comfort items)
Boots (They protect your ankles from sprains. Do. Not. Hike. In. Sneakers.)
Socks (I also have a pair of waterproof socks because my boots are not - wet feet easily lead to blisters)
Waterproof top-layer/shell jacket
Warm mid-layer sweater or jacket
Base-layers/thermals, t-shirts and underwear (something that prevents chafing)
Water-resilient cargo pants (because pockets; also, sweatpants absorb water and don't protect from cuts)
Gloves, balaclava, cap, sunglasses if needed
Toiletries (including toilet paper, wet towels/body powder, sunblock and insect repellent)
For my detailed packing list, see my article on preparing for the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland.
For general information about hiking the Kungsleden, see the STF Kungsleden information page or the Distant North page by Cody Duncan (who recommends hiking late-season in September), or alternatively perform the highly technically-complex manoeuvre called the “Google search”.
Stay safe out there.