The Fjällräven Classic | Conquering the King's Trail in Sweden
A multi-day hike through the wilderness of Northern Sweden sounded exciting on paper. But we weren't prepared for just how exciting things would get...
It’s only day three of our week-long trek, but as we struggle to pitch our tent behind the shelter of a boulder it’s obvious our best-laid plans have already gone out the window - or at least the mesh flap which passes for one. With the winds gusting at over 40 knots (a force nine gale in layman’s terms) we’re lucky the whole thing hasn’t blown away.
The following morning, a grim-faced volunteer at the next checkpoint tells us: “It’s been bad. I've just been looking at some statistics. We had 60 tents pitched near here last night and maybe 11 or 12 collapsed."
"The Classic was dreamt up by Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate the Scandinavian concept of friluftsliv."
None of this, it’s fair to say, fits with the picture I’d painted to my long-suffering girlfriend Simona when I’d persuaded her to come on the walk with me a month or so before. “Hiking, camping and cooking in the open air. It’ll be fun," I’d said. “Plus loads of people do it every year, how hard can it be?"
Started in 2005, the Fjällräven Classic is a multi-day trek along a stretch of the trail known as the Kungsleden (or “King’s Trail") in Northern Sweden. It was dreamt up by the brand’s founder Åke Nordin as a way to celebrate not only the company itself, but also the peculiarly Scandinavian conception of adventure it embodies, known as friluftsliv.
Literally this translates as “free air life" but (as you might expect from the people who invented flatpack furniture and the Tetra Pak) there are multiple layers of meaning folded into this neat little word. It’s not just a description of an activity, it’s also tied to a set of beliefs - the idea getting outside is good for you, that access is a fundamental right, and that the outdoors is for everyone, not just the hardcore.
Given the everyman ideals he’s espousing, Nordin’s idea of a fun hike looks quite daunting, at least on paper. The route stretches for 110 kilometres, beginning where the tarmac road ends at Nikkaluokta and winding through broad glacial valleys and past Sweden’s highest peaks. The finish line, which we’re told will take around a week to reach, is in the small frontier town of Abisko, nearly 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
However, I wasn’t lying to Simona when I told her that lots of people complete the trek every year. From its humble beginnings when just 152 took part, the event has grown exponentially. In 2016 more than 2,000 people finished the Classic, and as we line up at the start, it’s obvious that our fellow trekkers have come from far and wide. We see Canadians, Germans, Koreans, Japanese, many of them obviously fans of of Fjällräven, who’ve dressed head-to-toe in the company’s kit for the occasion.
"There are actually people from 38 nations at the Classic this year, and only one quarter are Swedish," says Anna-Luisa Stadelman, one of the startline volunteers, who admits to being something of a Fjällräven fangirl herself. “It's my seventh year here," she explains. “I'm German originally but I studied in Sweden in 2002 and first came on the Classic in 2008."
As we set off, it’s easy to see what keeps people like Anna-Luisa keep coming back to the Classic year after year. Everything is as well-organised as you’d expect a mass-participation event to be. Maps, camping gas and free freeze-dried food are handed out to participants, and there are busses to take us to the start line. When we start walking the group quickly strings out, so it never feels crowded however, and by the time we stop to pitch our tent on the first evening, we’re completely alone.
When you’re this far north of the Arctic Circle in August it only gets dark for a couple of hours each day, and even then the light never fully leaves the sky. This means the sunsets are long, drawn out and spectacular. We cook our dinner in front of an incredible display as the sun goes slowly down over the snow-capped peaks ahead of us, painting the sky orange, red and purple as it sinks.
The following morning is equally idyllic. We’re in no rush, and wander down to the shore of a nearby lake to wash before hitting the trail. The water is bright turquoise, the result of glacier run-off further upstream, and icy cold. Simona, who’s Italian, thinks I’m mental for wanting to swim in it, but the sun’s shining and I warm up quickly once I’m out.
The hiking remains relatively easy until we reach the first checkpoint the picturesque fjällstation, or hill station, beneath Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain. Fjallraven Classic rules forbid us from staying in the pretty wooden huts (you have to camp from start to finish for the challenge to count). But thankfully they don’t stop us from eating in the restaurant.
Named Elsa’s kök (Elsa’s kitchen) after the legendary hostess who managed the hill station from the 1930s to the 1960s, it’s impressively gourmet given the remote location, serving modern Swedish food to guests seated at long, communal tables.
Our fellow diners are a mixed bunch - day trippers who’ve flown in on one of the distinctive red helicopters that resupply the Kungsleden’s network of huts, hikers who’ve been up the mountain (a hike that’s apparently the equivalent of going up Ben Nevis) and the properly hardcore.
One side two wealthy 40-something women from Boston tell us how they come hiking in a different destination every year, travelling from hut to hut while someone else transports their bags. On the other side there’s a young Belgian couple who have already been on the trail for fifteen days. They obviously take this sort of thing very seriously. “We bought a kiln this year so we can make our own dehydrated food," they tell us.
If the hiking thus far has shown us what attracted the Americans here, then the next few days will give us a taste of the more serious side of northern Sweden - the reason people like our Belgian friends consider the Kungsleden a challenge worthy of their attention.
"As we’re cooking breakfast, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite."
It’s cold when we wake up, and drizzling slightly. Even through the trees that surround our tent, we can feel the wind is beginning to get up and as we set off and walk out above the treeline, both the rain and the wind get worse. Extra layers are put on, hoods are put up and rain covers are stretched over our backpacks.
We lean forward onto our poles, drop our shoulders and power on. But it’s exposed up here, and the storm seems to make the packs on our backs feel heavier. Suddenly carrying the extra camera gear, which has made my pack a hefty 25kg and taken Simona’s up to 19kg, doesn’t feel like such a good idea.
At one point we pass two fellow Classic participants, a Russian mother and daughter team from St. Petersburg, huddled behind a rock, sheltering against the wind.
They look like they’re struggling, and we’re glad when we see them make it to checkpoint two later that evening.
They’re far from the worst off though. A look at the route map on Fjällräven’s website shows images of happy hikers splashing around in a stream at the next checkpoint, Sälka. Yet it was here that the storm hit hardest, flattening all of those tents. “Some people carried on," says Marie Olsson, the volunteer who’s been helping people pick up the pieces. “But because they’re staying in the huts it won’t count as completing the Classic."
One couple have decided to call it a day altogether - as we’re eating our lunch one of the resupply helicopters lands next to us and they climb in, looking very grateful for the rescue. “Their tent was one of the ones that was destroyed," says Marie sadly. “But also their boots were not good, their backpacks were too thin." We thank our lucky stars that we’re kitted out in the right gear.
Certainly if the next few days teach us anything, it’s that neither the Kungsleden as a trail, nor the Classic as an event, should be underestimated. The terrain is never particularly steep, but the pathway is often strewn with rocks and can be tricky underfoot. For long sections the trail is just planks over boggy marshland and when the winds aren’t high enough to be an issue, the mosquitoes definitely are.
At the Tjäktja checkpoint we find three volunteers, Mathias, Tomas and Frederick, bundled up in multiple jackets and sheltering inside the check-in tent against the weather. “You wouldn’t believe it," says Frederick, “but sometimes it’s so hot at this time of year people are walking the Classic with no shirts on. You have to jump in the streams to cool down."
“Hmmm," says Simona, as we warm our hands around the cups of tea they’ve kindly poured us. Then we head back out into the rain.
But if there are moments where the Fjällräven Classic doesn’t feel like a summer holiday, they’re few and far between. More often, we find ourselves revelling in the sense of space, blown away by Lapland’s bleak beauty.
As we’re cooking breakfast one morning, with not another soul for miles around, we look up to see a herd of wild reindeer trotting across the hillside opposite. They stop just long enough for me to grab my camera and fire off a few frames, before they disappear over the next ridge.
On our penultimate day we find ourselves heading northwards across a wide open plateau, the sun dipping slowly behind the tents of a traditional Sami settlement to our left. Off to the right, we can see the tongues of two massive glaciers, reminders of the ice age that shaped and sculpted this ancient-looking landscape. “I feel like we might see a dinosaur here," says Simona. If we did it certainly wouldn’t look out of place.
In the end, we don’t come across any sauropods. But we do come away with an appreciation of why this part of Sweden has attracted generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Svenska Turistföreningen (the Swedish Tourist Association, or STF), has been managing and promoting this wilderness since it was first formed in 1885.
At strategic points along the trail, they’ve created what they call meditationsplats (meditation spaces) marked by stones carved with quotations by Däg Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat and author.
As the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld was a man who gave his life to the cause of peace (quite literally - he was killed on the job in 1961). And when he wasn’t working this part of the world, where he had a house, was where he came in search of it.
Taken from his book Markings, the quotes are carved here in Swedish and Sami. Neither are languages that I speak. Nor am I normally given to meditation. But standing next to the stones and looking out at the rugged landscape which surrounds them, I start to understand why it was that Hammarskjöld thought this place was so special.
It’s the same reason Åke Nordin was so keen on enabling other people to explore it. Friluftsliv might be a tricky concept to define in English, but spend a few days hiking here, in Fjällräven’s home country, and it’s instantly obvious what the whole thing is about.
Do It Yourself:
Contestants on the Classic must stay in the tent that they carry with them. However, you can stay in the STF huts along the Kungsleden if you're not part of the event. Visit swedishtouristassociation.com for the English language version of their website.
At the end of the Classic, we stayed in the Abisko Guesthouse (abiskoguesthouse.com)
Joining the Fjällräven Classic
You can sign up for the next Fjällräven Classic Sweden (or any of their global spin off events) at classic.fjallraven.com.
As a way for international visitors to explore this unique part of Sweden, it really is hard to beat. Fjällräven provide food and gas to participants, as well as organising a finishing party. Navigation is very straightforward but it's worth remembering that while there are regular checkpoints, you're on your own for the most part, so make sure you have everything on Fjällräven's helpful packing list.
The Fjällräven Classic Sweden usually takes five to six days to complete, although you can definitely do it faster - the first pair across the finish line when we took part were trail runners who completed the whole thing non-stop in under 20 hours!
Tristan and Simona's trip was hosted by Fjällräven. For more info visit fjällräven.co.uk
To read the rest of The Remote Issue, click here.