300km above the Arctic Circle, we departed our bus for the wild, warm, welcoming expanses of Swedish Lapland. The trail of Kungsleden, literally 'King's Trail', carved a four-day path for us through untouched, eternal sunshine and patchworks of alpine streams at the time of unprecented heat waves in the north.
It takes a long time to get to Lapland by land. Sweden is so enormously long, that as we boarded a train - the first from Malmö, the largest city in the south, to the capital Stockholm, followed by an overnight train to Kiruna, a hub city in the north - we could have turned heel, driven across Europe, and made for either of our hometowns in England and Hungary, twice over within the same distance. But, 1850km goes suprisingly quick with comfortable beds and nonestop forests to gaze at.
1) Nikkaluokta - Kebnekaise - Tolpagorni (23km)
Kungsleden can be started at several trailheads, but being much less popular yet equally accessible as its nearest cousin, Abisko, we chose to begin our hike at Nikkaluokta. The first day was, as with most long-distance hikes, filled with the most energy. Racing through narrow, stoney paths, bordered by rich vegetation and crossed by small streams, most of the day went by without making much of an impression. That is, until we arrived at the base of Kebnekaise, the first mountainous region of the leg and the highest mountain in Sweden. A sign of the views to come, we refilled bottles and bought sweets at the disappointingly busy hut shop, and chose to press on. Kebnekaise is clearly another very popular spot, as tents were packed in and around the base of the mountain hut for 5 minutes walk either side.
Breaking away from the chaos, the path from then on only went up. The landscape slowly transformed as vegetation gave way for moss-covered rocks, dark, omninous moutains, and buffeting winds. Only hour later, and we were left completely alone. It was here, in a valley under the protecting shadow of Mount Tolpagorni, that we camped.
2) Tolpagorni - Singi - Tjäktjajåkka (17km)
The following morning was mixed with wonder and discomfort. It was here that we first understood the aggressive reputation that mosquitos have in Lapland. Sitting outside of the tent for half an hour unprotected could leave you with over 40 bites. No exaggeration, we counted. Even repellent didn't seem to offer respite for long. But, on the other hand, we also awoke to complete, wonderful loneliness.
Continuing on, we met the occassional walking group coming from the opposite direction, but after passing the station at Singi, we saw no one else. You see, the most popular route on Kungsleden starts at the previously mentioned Abikso, turns at Singi, and ends in the direction we came from (Nikkaluokta). Meaning that as we departed Singi, we split from the popular route for the first time, and the real wilderness began. Picking a spot halfway along the next leg, we camped in yet another valley, this time beside the huge Tjäktjajåkka river, which allowed us to wash clothes (and ourselves). But, being spoiled by the shade that Tolpagorni offered us the first night, this night was going to be tougher. While normally not a problem, it being summer and far above the Arctic Circle, midnight sun meant there was constant, direct sunlight on our tent, messing with our sleep patterns and occassionally baking us alive.
3) Tjäktjajåkka - Kaitumjaure - Teusajaure (15km)
It was only after the hike that we found out this weather was even more intensified by a record-breaking heat wave, where parts of Lapland reached over 33°C (91°F). Protecting from serious sunburn was certainly not something we expected to have do in the Arctic, but these are strange times. Following the flow of the Tjäktjajåkka, we slowly descended and made our way down to the station at Kaitumjaure. Here, we rested, refilled (water and sweets again of course), and chatted with a local about the route ahead.
If you are somewhat familiar with Nordic languages, at this point you may be noticing that none of these place names look at all Swedish. In fact, I wouldn't blame you to think that they are Finnish, perhaps named by past Finnish settlers. In actuality, they come from the languages of the Sámi, people native to the region of Sápmi, an area comprising Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Western Russia, and the preferred word to describe what we usually mean by 'Lapland' (the useage of which has some contentious history). Sámi languages are closely related to Finnish, though two words have also made their way into English: 'walrus' and 'tundra'.
Back in the Sápmi wilds, we set up camp for our third night in the station of Teusajaure. Placed next to a calm lake whose length seemed to extend over the far horizon, here there was true peace, lush ferns, and good conversation.
4) Teusajaure - Vakkotavare (16km)
The last leg of our hike on Kungsleden began, well, without any hiking. As you can see on the map at the top of this page, the peaceful Teusajaure lake that we slept next to directly crosses the trail. As well as a paid ferry that sails twice a day, three free-to-use canoes lie on the banks. Luckily, two of them were left on our departing side, meaning we only had to make a single crossing. Should there had only been one, then the departing bank would have been left with no canoes for the next hikers, meaning we would have had to make a return journey with a canoe towing another canoe to leave there, and then a third final journey back.
Stowing the canoe on the other side, the trail ahead didn't make any fuss in going immediately upwards, clearly trying to regain the lost altitude from the day before. What lay ahead for several hours was simple, clean, yet exhausting climbing. At the top we were rewarded with the best views of the trip, mostly owing to how close we were to Norway. Small ponds trapped in the mountain were also heated by the sun, a welcoming contrast from the normal glacial rivers, allowing me to comfortably relax alongside groups of swimming crustaceans that resembled brine shrimp (or 'sea monkeys').
Continuing on and descending for final time, wind and exposed rock gave way yet again to forests and green. The next day we would catch a bus from Vakkotavare station out and away from the trail, so we managed to find a level spot on the steep descending incline about a half hours walk from the station. Nothing but the loud, gushing river beside us and newly-acquired phone signals occupied our thoughts for the remainder of the day.
Thoughts and tips
This is undoubtedly the best hike I have ever done. I cannot understate the wonder of being so isolated in such unspoiled nature, seeing for miles across a huge valley towered by mountains and wide rivers, but there being no one else. Never once did I feel unsafe though: station huts were intermittenly placed, the midnight sun meant it never got too cold, and streams carrying clean, cold drinking water was available almost every 10 minutes.
Carrying all your equipment and several days worth of food can make it tough, particularly combined with the repeated ascent-descent trails, but this is what hiking is afterall. The constant sun was also personally difficult for me to manage at night, as although I brought a good sleeping mask (an unquestionable must), I find them uncomfortable and hot to sleep with. But, if anything was to make me hesitant to hike Kungsleden again, it would be the mosquitos. Their endless presence meant it was difficult to simply just sit and enjoy the views. Constantly applying repellent did help, but being bitten and having constant itches is just something you have to be at peace with.
Nonetheless, I would like to do more. There are 440km worth of trails on Kungsleden, of which we did 71. Further north is more popular, but further south is more boggy, so there are some tradeoffs. We had initially planned to continue further south on the trail for several more days, but unfortunately had to cut it short to get all the way back to southernmost Sweden to help transport some alligators (a story for another day). Since this hike though, I have also been lucky to experience Sápmi in the winter, this time on the Finnish side. Although traditional long-distance hikes in winter are incredibly difficult and risky undertakings, I think they are probably worth it, as wintertime in Sápmi is the most beautiful environment I have ever seen∎