Every backpacking trip begins as an idea, a possibility of adventure. Something you have so see and do. Kungsleden was just the adventure that had been on my mind for quite a while. I had two amazing trips to the Swedish Arctic back in 2001 and 2004 and so it was time to return. Plus, I really wanted to come back with some images of this really scenic region and hoped that our timing might allow us to catch some fall colors along the way. Backpacking and photographing present a number of challenges, pack weight being the primary concern with a hike of around 120K. But hey, choosing between food or camera gear, the choice is quite easy...camera gear every time!
In planning a backpacking trip like the Kungsleden, the first big issue to sort out is who is coming along. No small matter. My wife Kim and I discussed it quite a bit and although I really wanted her to come along, she prefers day hikes to backpacking. This turned out to be a good choice. And we had a crazy good time in Stockholm (best city on the planet but don't tell any one...) before she headed back home . She has the fitness to do it quite easily but I think the next adventure up North (haven't told her yet...) will be based in Abisko so she can join the fun. Then my good friend and college buddy Gunnar, who is a native Swede expressed an interest in the trip as did his girlfriend Simona. I hadn't had a chance to meet Simona in person yet so what better way to get to know someone than to spend a week backpacking with them! Gunnar had been up North in Sweden before so he had an idea of what it would be like and I knew it would be a total blast to take in this adventure together. And indeed it was an adventure that we won't forget, ever!
Next we had to decide what time of year to go. Not entirely easy given busy work schedules and family commitments. We settled on early September for several reasons. The mosquitoes would be long gone, the region would be less crowded and the weather would still be pretty good. So we eventually settled on the exact dates and then began to work out the location and logistics. For me at least, the hike from Nikkaluokta to Abisko was the dream trip. I'd read about it quite a bit and the photos from the region were just amazing. Although there are other sections to hike along Kungsleden, this region is generally thought by most to be the best of the best with lots of side trails and options. Perfect. But now we had another critical decision to make which would be a huge factor on the actual trip. Should we start in Abisko and hike south to Nikkaluokta or should we start in Nikkaluokta and hike North. Both end points are easily accessible from the nearby airport in Kiruna which has daily flights from Stockholm. From Kiruna, there is a bus that goes to either location, Nikkaluokta or Abisko. So no difference there, less than two hours either way. And the terrain goes mainly through big, wide river valleys so there is not a great deal of elevation gain either direction so that's not too much of a consideration. In the end we chose to start in Nikkaluokta and hike North to Abisko. This turned out to be a really fortuitous choice in the end...
Another key part of the planning is whether you will be camping or simply stay in the cabins which are a day hike apart (20K or less). Also a fairly big decision. For me at least, I really wanted to camp and have the flexibility to leave early or stay out late and photograph without disturbing anyone else which might happen in a shared cabin. Camping also allows flexibility to stay where you want. The down side to this choice, of course, is that you add a fair bit of pack weight. But, if you train well in advance and get your body ready for that planned pack weight, then it's not that much of an issue. My pack was 20 kilos so 44 lbs on day one. For Gunnar and Simona the decision was also easy. Stay in the cabins! Very good choice because this meant they were able to travel very light and could really enjoy the modest hiking distances without getting too tired or sore.
Food choices require a little bit of preparation too. So, for this trip, since it was only a week long backpack, I decided to not take a stove and gas or food that needed to be cooked. The added enjoyment of a warm meal just wasn't worth the extra weight so I carried just enough calories each day in protein bars, fruit and high energy snacks to get me through. You can easily cook in the shared kitchen area of the cabins so really don't need cookware anyway. The amount of food turned out to be just right and I felt like my energy level was high throughout the trip. In some of the cabins, there is a small kiosk where you can buy food which is great to take in some extra calories if you need to. Handy, if you're cooking in the cabins but not so helpful for your food during the hikes each day. A relatively important and funny revelation that Gunnar discovered about halfway along! Something involving a can of tuna I recall...
In the end the trip could not possibly have gone any better. There were no injuries or illnesses (although my stomach got a little funky for a few hours on the final night) and the timing was perfect for the fall colors. Most of the trip is outside of the the tree line but man is the fall color around Abisko spectacular. Definitely going back there! And the other bonus that I was hoping for but didn't want to say out loud was the Northern Lights. Abisko is one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights and I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse. Which we got to experience. Magical. The hiking distances along the way did not present too much of a challenge but the terrain is incredibly rocky in sections which means the going is slow and it can be hard on the feet. And, of course, when the rocky terrain is wet, it can be super easy to slip, even if your pack is light!
But there was a new adventure for us each day and the terrain really changed quite a bit. The cabins worked out for all three us actually. I could hang out there, dry out a bit and even have a cup of hot chocolate. Most of the cabin keepers did charge a small fee for camping nearby which I did most of the time. The great thing about the cabins of course is hanging out with friends and swapping stories with the other backpackers literally from around the world. Amazing people with some incredible stories. I think staying in the cabins and meeting people was the highlight (among many) for both Gunnar and Simona. We really enjoyed getting to know Rob from Ireland who defied all conventional wisdom and was mountain biking the same trail as we were hiking each day. Amazing accomplishment over such a rocky and challenging terrain. Great guy too with some awesome tales and travels!
As it turned out, we had great weather which can definitely not be the case that far North when the seasons are changing. But, there were a few days when it was really windy, maybe 30mph plus. Fortunately for us, the wind was at our backs since it was blowing out of the South. The hikers headed South were really struggling to make progress, very slow going for them. We were lucky to say the least.
In the end, as we thought about it, there wasn't much we could come up with to do differently. I think the one thing I would do differently would just be to spend more time, stretch the trip out. With backpacking, it's not so easy to photograph as you're making your way from point A to point B each day. So even though I had the flexibility of the tent, there simply wasn't enough time to explore. I think the way to go next time would be to spend 2-3 days at each location and just explore. There are so many different day hikes from each cabin location that you'd need another day or two just to feel like you hit the high points. So, instead of a one week trip (or less as some choose to make it) I would really like to take 3 weeks to cover this section of the Kungsleden. And maybe for that length of time, the cabins might be the best choice, this way you could travel lighter but stay longer.
Not much I would do differently in the way of clothes or camera gear. Everything worked out great. I did make the last minute decision to take the fleece top instead of the long sleeve base layer. Never needed to use my rain pants even though we had some heavy rain at times. The quick dry hiking pants worked out great. On the camera gear front, I was mostly concerned about battery life since I do a lot of shooting in live view but 4 batteries for the week turned out to be just enough.
I'll write more posts and give a day by day description of the trail and photographic options along with some photographs from the trip.
If you're going to plan a backpacking trip to Kungsleden I would highly recommend Nikkaluokta to Abisko. Adventure of a lifetime! So good to have shared this with friends old and new.
Here are a couple of must have planning resources:
Kungsleden The royal Trail Through Arctic Sweden by Claes Grundsten
Fjällkartan BD 6
And if you can read Swedish, this is a great resource also:
Fjällvandra längs Kungsleden by Fredrik Neregård