The northernmost tip of the route goes through the arctic tundra. Actually, I think it is not yet technically tundra as the terrain Nordkalottleden goes through is still forested and as far as I know the tundra is tree-less by definition but on this rolling hill landscape trees are small and the route often takes the high areas on the hills where trees are absent.
This region is a plateau around 400 to 500 m. high. It’s still amazing to me how this high latitude land is still covered in forest. The landscape is an endless cover of dark green dotted with blue lakes of considerable size. Birch trees are the only ones able to make a living here and they’re already quite small in size (but not in number!). The hills rise as high as 600 m., just barely beyond the tree line.
Marshy areas are common. Wherever there’s a depression, there’ll be a lake or a marsh, usually both. Marshes are also commonly found besides rivers in flat areas.
The views are expansive but flat and featureless. The tundra is beautiful and daunting but not particularly spectacular.
Most of the route goes through mountain terrain over the northern tip of the spine of the Scandinavian peninsula. The mountains here are modest in size and the relief is usually smooth. The terrain is still showing clear evidence of recent glacial activity: the valleys are wide and long and the hills are usually rounded. There are lakes virtually everywhere. Millions of lakes of all shapes and sizes. Wherever the glaciers dug slightly deeper or left a morraine wall, there’s a lake. Flowing water has not yet had time to carve more abrupt landscapes (it’s trying though).
The route here usually keeps between 500 and 1000 m. high, linking valleys through long passes or high plateaus.
The mountains were the nicest place to be. Views are open, landscapes are beautiful and the whole place feels isolated and pristine. When the sun was shining, it was all so colourful, a brilliant display of green and blue.
only a few times along the route does Nordkalottleden dip low enough to change the climatic zone it traverses. I came to call these the Deep Valleys. Birch trees would show up again first and if low enough, pine trees too. The trees would be of a good size and the vegetation in general is thicker.
The deep valleys were usually a warmish, damp place. No more easy hiking, the terreain is usually rocky and irregular, the vegetation is thick and the whole feel of the place is somewhat oppresive. Still ok if dry but in rainy weather the vegetation would get loaded with water getting the hiker as soaked as a hiker can get.
Hiking in Lapland can be a wonderful and miserable experience. All in the same day. I appreciated the isolation, the expansive panoramas, the arctic light and how pristine the place was. I felt as free to roam as one can feel. It was hiking freedom paradise.
On the other hand, it was a tough experience of constant bad weather in a daunting environment. Physically and psychologically tough.
There are some aspects to hiking in Lapland that stand out and are worth noting:
Water is everywhere and it’s universally drinkable. You can drink straight from streams, rivers, lakes, ponds or puddles. I felt like I could even drink from marshes. Nobody treats the water for drinking in Lapland. What’s more, there’s so much water than you don’t even need to carry any. Thirsty? just walk a few meters…
I actually would carry some water sometimes (if I was in some kind of hurry) so I could drink without stopping but I’m serious: you could avoid carrying any. At all.
So water is your friend but in Lapland it’s also your enemy. Hiking with lots of water around is not nice. It can be treacherous or even impossible. Fording rivers is a major event along Nordkalottleden. Mid to late season, they’re usually not difficult but they should be a concern.
Marshes are another outstanding feature. Wherever there’s a slight depression with no drainage, you’re bound to find a marsh. They’re commonly found besides lakes or rivers, when these latter flow through flats. From the distance, the presence of long, light green grasses indicates a marsh. Sometimes they’re just anywhere. Water pools in the strangest of places like a mountain slope.
Marshes are definitely not hiker-friendly. It’s like a middle ground between a lake and real ground: you sink somewhere between ankle and mid calf deep in every step. Wet feet are an immediate consequence but that’s a concern only on the first couple of steps. After that, it’s just difficult, tough walking.
The trail tries to go around marshes but eventually you come down to one and have to cross it. There are infinite small marshy areas that’ll challenge your sanity if you try to keep dry feet by going around them or hopping over rocks or whatever you think will stand your weight (and probably won’t). It’s usually better to accept defeat and wet your feet… that’s what the running shoes were for, after all!
In the most popular areas, you find wooden platforms over the marshes. Sometimes, they’ll provide for dry, stable footing and quick progress and you’ll love them. Other times, they’ll be half sunk in the marsh and may have become a slippery hell that may send your butt into the mess below.
The mountains were a fantastic place to be: open views, wild and isolated. Usually dry terrain (drier than in the valleys or the tundra) and just plain freedom: you can hike anywhere, camp anywhere. Sometimes, it was almost a pity to be following a marked route… you’d want to go explore every valley, climb every hill. Smooth relief and little vegetation makes the terrain universally hikable and the scenery is outstanding. Green grass and blue lakes all over the place. If the sun was shining, everything shined together. Shame I didn’t see the sun much.
As commented above, there were three basic kinds of terrain along Nordkalottleden. Hiking was different for each:
The northern tundra
The tundra was technically easy hiking but I found it quite demanding psychologically. The mostly featureless landscape and the oppresive character of the place made it so. The terrain is often marshy and in mid-august there were still plenty of bugs. The trail is faint or non-existant most of the way but the signalling is so good it’s almost excesive. Following the way was never a problem, even in the fog. When the route takes the hill crests, it’s much better as the terrain there is drier and the breeze usually takes the bugs away.
A typical 4 km/h pace should be easy to average.
Above the tree line, it’s basically just grass. The terrain is open and universally crossable. The relief is smooth and the height gain or loss is usually not more than 500 m. at a time. The valley bottoms are wide and open and there are some flat-like areas. The typical section goes from a valley to the next across a high pass or a highland plateau. The climb up or down may be somewhat steep but it usually won’t. The route avoids the crests even though many of them would be just as easy to travel but probably too exposed in bad weather.
The route is usually easy to follow. Trail tread is good in some parts but it may be faint in others and it’s often inexistent in the highest areas but the signalling is there to fill the voids. Some parts may be tricky to travel in low visibility though.
The tread may be anything from very good, smooth grass to a rocky nightmare It’s usually something in between. Above 900 m., it’s mostly rock and little or no vegetation. This is usually easy to travel though it may get tricky if the rocks are wet.
Again, the usual 4 km/h average is reasonable.
The deep valleys
Nordkalottleden is a real trail throughout the stretches in the deep valleys but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy stroll. The tread is rocky and irregular and the going is tough with frequent, short ups and downs. The vegetation is thick and it’d actually be tricky to make progress with no trail. If it rains, the hiker gets soaked to the bone due to the damp brush. Route finding is straightforward. Bugs were still an issue in mid august in these areas.
Hiking in the deep valleys was welcome for a change but it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. 3 km/h was a reasonable average.
Nordkalottleden is basically a route devised over existing trails or… non-existing trails. The route has been carefully and thoroughly way-marked though so route finding is usually not difficult.
Trails vary in quality. There’s usually one in the lower areas or where the route is close to a trailhead. There’s always a trail in the areas with thick vegetation where its absence would be a real problem. In the northern tundra section, the route goes sometimes over dirt tracks but doesn’t necessarily follow them. In the mountain areas, the presence of an actual trail is quite random. It usually disappears in the higher ground but it may be faint or absent also in the valley sections.
The best trails are found where Nordkalottleden shares tread with one of the other long, more popular trails in the area, either Kungsleden or Padjelantaleden: these two are far more travelled and developed and the trail here is always good and clear.
As with the trails, signalling varies greatly. It’s also a factor of which country each particular section belongs to because the signalling systems are different. In general, the signalling is good and easy to follow, even in low visibility conditions but there are a few sections where it’s not as good or even some void stretches. A map is always a must, in my opinion and I wouldn’t set out without a compass even though I rarely used mine.
Signs are usually cairns with a red paint mark. In forested areas, the same red paint is usually found on tree trunks. The paint mark is either a thick dot or a T (which is the initial for Turistforening, the organization that cares for the trails in Norway, among other things). Cairn configuration depends on the local available rocks: either the typical rock pile or a big, thin, flat sided boulder standing.
Norwegian signs never let me down but some sections had greatly spaced cairns that sometimes took a while to find. Not to worry in good weather but a potential problem in low visibility conditions.
Signs are consistent through the short finnish section: wood sticks, 30-40 cm. high with orange painted tops. There’s also sometimes a plaque on one side with the Nordkalottleden logo. These signs are regularly spaced so they’re easy to follow, helped by the fact that trail tread is also obvious. The finnish care for the trails in their only mountain region.
Sweden is the most varied. There are cairns like in Norway but the paint is orange and it’s always in the shape of a thick dot. There are also wooden sticks like in Finland, also topped in orange with the occasional plaque with the logo. There are also a few stretches with orange paint on tree trunks.
The signalling becomes spotty sometimes. Only in sweden I lost the marks completely for a good while. I don’t know if they were absent or just barely visible. For a longer, adjacent section, the paint marks were almost gone and some cairns were not standing so it was necessary to look carefully. It was tricky in bad weather.
Apart from the trails themselves and their signs, already commented, there are a few other structures to help hikers progress, basically over water of some sort:
Most rivers can be forded and quite a few of them have to be. On many others there is a bridge. All the river crossings on the Kungsleden or Padjelantaleden sections have bridges and where Nordkalottleden is on its own it all depends on the popularity of the trail stretch where the river is.
Bridges are built to stand the spring flows so they’re hanging from off-shore supports. They look flimsy and some move a lot when crossing but I didn’t see a destroyed one; either they’re solid enough or rebuilt regularly.
There are a few really big rivers with bridges that span several dozen meters. I don’t think fording would be an option in these.
These are commonly found over the marshy areas. They consist of two parallel, flat boards that allow the hiker to walk over the marsh without sinking or getting wet. These are found only in the most popular areas (all along the Kungsleden and Padjelantaleden) and their quality varies: where there are also transversal pieces that prevent the main boards sinking, they’re a real luxury to walk on. When there aren’t, the tread boards usually sink in the marsh so they provide a marginal improvement with the additional risk of slipping over the wet, flat surface.
Huts are located at regular intervals along Nordkalottleden. There’s only one stretch in between huts (around 50 kms.) too long to cover in one day. The hut system is slightly different depending on the country. I’ll go into more detail in the logistics section.
Huts are charming and a good safety option in an isolated and often unwelcoming environment. Camping out was still my first and best option in every man’s righ land but I also enjoyed being inside sometimes.
Summer is usually very nice for hiking along Nordkalottleden. Temperatures are mild, hardly ever too cold or too warm. Not the ideal for laying on the beach but nice for hiking. Warm clothes are needed though as it’s often breezy and the terrain is quite exposed. Usual temps can be expected between 5 and 15ºC. During the summer months, the weather is usually stable but rain is always a possibility.
So far the average news. My news are somewhat worse: I experienced unstable, bad weather throughout the whole trip. Three and a half weeks of bad weather in a row. Everybody I talked to (many locals among them) were telling me it wasn’t usual but… it may happen.
The appropriate word here is “unstable”. The weather wasn’t always that bad but it was pretty much always intimidating, always stormy. I only had mild temps during the very first days of the trip in the tundra section and one of the deep valleys. Once up on the mountains, it hardly ever got above 10ºC. On a bad weather day, temps would be between 0 and 5ºC.
It rained a lot on me but the rain was often sketchy and thin. It wouldn’t rain for many hours in a row but it would rain almost everyday. The rain was usually thin, sometimes it was more like a wind driven mist.
As far as the theory goes, summer is almost ideal hiking weather (for those who like cool weather, at least) in Lapland but the potential for bad weather is there and the place is exposed enough to make it worse.
The weather systems usually come from the west, maybe with a northern or southern component too. The eastern flanks of the mountains are supposed to follow more settled patterns.
The bad thing about bad weather in Lapland is it may get quite serious. Unlike most hiking routes in less severe environments, where you go up in the mountains and there’s a valley to go back down to if things get ugly, in Lapland there’s no valley to go back down to. Sure, you can leave the highlands but it wouldn’t help much: the lowlands aren’t that much lower.
During my Nordkalottleden experience, the weather was a major obstacle. I must admit it was as much a psychological issue as it was physical and I must add the weather I found was considerably worse than average.
Instability: The one thing that was bothering me the most was the constant instability. I coudn’t relax. I coudln’t take settled weather for granted, not even for one day. Even the most sunny, calm, perfect day would turn into wind, cloud, rain or any combination of those. I guess it’s something you learn to live with but by the time I was starting to get used to live with it the weather turned even worse with colder temps and permanent cloud cover. Rain turned to snow. It felt like winter to me.
Rain: Out of 24 days, I had rain in around 20. It rained on me even in Abisko which, according to statistics, is a very dry place… not the day I was there, indeed.
Lapland rain was hardly ever strong or long lasting. The permanent instability conditions commented above would apply to the rainy weather too: clouds would come and go and the long lasting cloud cover, whenever happened, would bring spotty rain showers. Many times the rainfall was rather misty, so thin you would hardly feel it. It happened to me several times that I realised it was raining when I noticed drops breaking on a pond surface. Or I could hear the drops on my tent wall but wouldn’t actually see or feel the rain if I went outside.
Wind: It was often breezy in Lapland while I was there. The whole place feels exposed and barren and I guess the breeze is part of that feeling. Only a few times I had to face strong winds but then I felt how exposed the place is. The relief is so smooth you don’t easily find a place to hide. Hiding for a short break would still be easy but finding a sheltered spot for the night wasn’t.
Snow: I saw virtually no snow from the previous season, everything had melted away by the time I was there. I saw fresh snow during the last 10 days of my trip and I had to cover significant distances on snow during the last week. It started snowing regularly at night by the end of august and the snow line would be lower every night: from around 1300 m. down 900 m. in a few days, as the temps were getting colder and colder. From then on, the hiker would find fresh snow in the high areas. It started snowing also during the daytime.
Route finding was never compromised by walking on snow because I was lucky to be following well marked sections by that time. It would have been a problem to follow cairns in other areas. The worst part about walking on fresh snow were the boulder fields where the snow would hide the rocks and gaps but wouldn’t support your weight so you had to be extremely careful to avoid injury. This made progress tedious.
Lapland is water-land. Water is everywhere, so many times in the form of streams and rivers. On Nordkalottleden, the hiker has to cross water flows regularly. Many you can just jump over; others are wide but so shallow you can hop over rocks (even if it takes two minutes of rock hopping to get across). Quite a few of the big streams and rivers have bridges which are found on the most popular sections of the route such as near trailheads. All the sections where Nordkalottleden shares tread with either Kungsleden or Padjelantaleden have bridges over every river or stream. No real obstacles to speak of yet.
Then, there are still quite a lot of sizeable streams and rivers with no bridge that have to be forded. I didn’t perceive any of them as difficult or dangerous but I had to pay attention and be careful in several of them, if only for those few steps where it got a bit deeper. Hiking poles where a huge help, as usual, with the plus that it’d be difficult to find a substitute on the spot; usually, it’d be impossible.
Lapland rivers are usually wide, relatively shallow and slow flowing. It’s usually no problem to find a flat area where the river expands and it’s shallow and slow enough to cross safely. Sometimes, it may take several minutes to complete the widest crossings and it’s even possible to find paint marks on rocks in the middle of the ford! So don’t be scared by those apparently huge rivers that you can see on the maps: they’re wide but so much spread out that it’s usually no problem. Water will hardly go beyond your knee. Actually, some of the trickiest fords didn’t appear so wide in the maps.
I checked all the bridged rivers. I’d say most of them were fordable but obviously I didn’t try. Some might have been difficult. There were at least a couple of really big rivers (or were they three?) in a row in the Padjelanta that I bet were impassable. They span the longest bridges in the whole route. These were wide, big rivers with a strong flow and they looked deep. They’d probably be fordable way upstream (several kms.).
Bear in mind all this info belongs to mid-august to early september. I went late in the season partly to ease the river fords. I know it’s probably the number one danger in the backcountry. I bet many of the fords that were doable or even easy for me would be very difficult, dangerous or even impossible in june/july.
Lapland is water-land. Water is everywhere, so many times in the form of the dreaded marsh. The land is still showing glacial erosion evidence in all those small depressions now filled with water. Where the depression is too shallow to hold a lake, it holds a marsh. Snow covers these poorly drained basins for most of the year so they don’t have a chance to dry.
Marshes are found everywhere water cannot drain. Lakeshores are a good place. Sometimes, river banks are a huge marsh too if the land is flat enough. The tundra section (northernmost Nordkalottleden) is probably the wettest of the whole route due to the marshy areas but they can be found anywhere. The mountains are drier though. The higher, the drier.
Hiking on marshy terrain is a pain. Your feet get wet and dirty and it’s slow and tough going. You walk over some kind of soup where your shoes sink somewhere between ankle and knee. Actually, if you dip that far you’d better go find a shallower spot. Mid calf is usual and still kind of acceptable.
You learn to identify marshes from the distance fast: see that flatland with long, light green grass and you know the ground is not gonna be real ground. In my experience and opinion, the route does a reasonable job at trying to avoid the marshes, only crosses them when needed and on the narrower strips but sometimes it may be worth trying to go around if you value your dry feet. Trail route choice may not be so careful where there are wooden platforms over the marsh but who cares then.
The marshes are probably one of the reasons for hikers to use high cut, thick leather, waterproof boots but they may also be the reason to avoid them (I mean, the boots): I used running shoes throughout my Nordkalottleden trip and I knew I faced wet shoes and feet pretty much every single day but at least I knew my shoes would have a chance to dry some. Wet heavy boots are not very foot friendly.
I travelled late in the season trying to avoid the worse of the bug season or, hopefully, the whole of it. And I almost did.
Arctic regions are well known for their bugs and Lapland is no different. The most memorable hiking setting can be ruined by a bug hell that can drive you literally nuts. I’ve experienced this in mountain regions which are a kind of “little arctic in the highlands” but never in the real arctic.
There’s really nothing I found in the Lapland bugs that I had not already seen before. If anything, I’m sure there were more biting bugs than the typical mosquitos but I’m not certain which ones of all those different flies were the biting ones. Maybe all of them.
Mosquitos are quite like any other mosquito I’ve tried before. The flies (if that is a correct name at all) were small but not as tiny as the sandflies, midgets, no-see-ums or whatever they call them in different places. There were different kinds and at least one of those would bite, sting or whatever they do but the itch would last longer than that of the mosquito stings. On the other hand, flies were slow moving and it was easy to kill several on one single, casual slap.
I used a combination of clothing and repellent against the bugs. I carried no headnet and missed it during the buggy days but was happy with the choice after seeing the bugs dissapear on day 4. I tried to use as little repellent as possible: my pants were mosquito and fly proof but my top base layer wasn’t (mosquitos could definitely go through it) so I had to wear the windproof shirt. This was about to be standard wear for the rest of the trip but not on the tundra where it turned into a sweaty experience. It wasn’t that warm but it was damp. I used repellent on my neck, ears back, throat and part of my face, always far from mouth, nose or eyes. I used controlled-release DEET in cream fashion and it worked well. It made a difference. I didn’t have to fight the suckers on those spots which basically eliminated all the waving and lots of stress.
I found plenty of bugs in the northermost tundra section, particularly in the low, wet areas. Marshes were a double nighmare of bugs and missing ground. It used to be buggy on the forest too. On the hill crests, it was drier and breezier and hence much less buggy. Bugs could even dissapear completely. I found plenty of bugs too on Reisadalen, the first of the deep valleys, where Nordkalottleden makes a long traverse. Once I climbed up the mountains out from Reisadalen, the bugs dissapeared to never come back. There were more wet and/or low lying sections but I guess it was already too late in the season.
Nordkalottleden is a summer only trail. The region is commonly traversed in spring too but on skis. Winter is very cold and there’s no daylight for a couple of months.
The hiking season goes roughly from july to september. Here I’m not speaking from direct experience but that’s what they say. In late june through july, there’s no dark and the weather is warmest but rivers may still be difficult to ford and bugs are a huge problem. August is considered the best time to be up there with early september a close second. Days are still long. Temps get colder but the weather should still be stable. Fords are at their easiest and there are little or no bugs. Mid september is usually the end of the season. Many of the services (huts, transport) close after the second week of september. Winter usually sets in shortly after.