It’s Friday night and I’m curled up in my toasty warm flat, listening to the wind and rain outside. Despite the imperfect weather, I’d rather be outside. It has been 2 weeks since my wonderful wild camping weekend in the Cotswolds, and as the memory slowly fades, I’m reflecting on some of the best times I’ve spent in the great outdoors. There have been so many, from army cadet camp in Snowdonia aged 16 to climbing a mountain in Malawi to childhood summer holidays spent exploring the Irish countryside.
But one adventure I had stands out above all of the rest. Maybe it was because it was my first true solo trip, maybe it was because of how badly I needed to get away from everything, maybe it was the perfect landscapes that I woke up to each morning, but walking a section of the Kungsleden in Arctic Sweden back in 2007 changed my life.
Let me just tell the story of how I ended up in that neck of the woods. I was working in Costa at the time, which I absolutely loved, but one day I had a really bad morning at work. I’m talking horrendously bad. Full of emotion, I went into Millets on my lunch break and bought a camp stove. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this camp stove, but after I had been made to feel so small by a colleague, I had it in my head that somehow this camp stove was going to be my way of restoring my self-esteem.
Later that evening, I went home and did some research on places where I could put my new camp stove to good use. It had always been a dream to hike the Appalachian Trail, but this seemed too far, too expensive, and not really feasible. I searched for European trails, and came across the Kungsleden – a 440km trail in northern Sweden, above the Arctic circle. While there wouldn’t be time to hike the whole thing, I decided to cover a segment of it. I booked my flight to Kiruna airport, and a few weeks later I found myself in the Scandinavian sun.
This was 10 years ago, so the details are a little bit hazy. I think I walked for around a week covering 20-25km a day. There are huts that hikers can stay in, some of which have shops where you can restock your freeze-fried dinners, but I chose to camp throughout, as I really wanted to be on my own and get some headspace. Each night, I pitched my tent by a stream that was pure enough to drink from, and each morning I got up and put my trusty camp stove on to make up sachets of porridge oats and a cup on instant coffee.
The simplicity of my routine was wonderful. I was able to pitch and strike that tiny lightweight tent like a pro, and carrying everything I needed on my back over varying terrains became easy. I had an Achilles niggle, but I powered on, determined to cover my distance each day. Those few days I was on the trail was the closest thing to perfection I have known.
When we think about the Arctic, we think of snow and polar bears. I was only just North of the Arctic Circle, so there were certainly no polar bears, and as it was July, most of the snow had melted, besides the odd patch. It was also 24-hour sunlight, so I was able to sit outside of my tent and read my book as late as I liked, by the glow of the midnight sun. It was hot when I was walking, with cold nights.
The Kungsleden is one of the best-known trails in Europe, and I was walking it at the busiest time of year. However, other hikers were few and far between. There were times when I went a whole day without seeing another human and this made me feel like I was truly out in the wilderness.
One thing I won’t forget in a hurry is the silence. There was often no breeze, no rain, it was some distance to the nearest gurgling stream, and I would stop just to listen to the silence. True silence isn’t something we often come across. There always seem to be distant sounds – traffic, airplanes, the humming of appliances, the weather. There were times when I really couldn’t hear a thing.
Hiking that segment of the trail was an incredible experience, and one I think about often. I am going to write another post on it soon focussing on what I learned from that trip. Like I said, it was life-changing, and there were lots of challenges and lessons that help me in my travels today. Keep an eye out for my next post, which will give a more in depth look at what I learned from this special adventure.
Sadly, the featured image on this post (with me looking fly in a mosquito head net) is the only picture I have left from the trip. My photos were all in hard copy, which I have since lost, and this was the only one I put on Facebook, as I remember thinking people wouldn’t want to see endless snaps of landscapes. (Plus, at a certain point, I broke my camera dropping it when a reindeer startled me). It makes me really sad not to be able to look back at what I saw, as my memory isn’t great.
It’s a reminder to relish every second, because those moments that were the most spectacular of my life are ephemeral, so it’s so important to enjoy them at the time.
Experiencing this trip when I was young, inexperienced in travel and yearning to grow as a person paved the way for a lot of the experiences I have had since. However, it remains the most adventurous thing I have ever done, and I think I should learn from my 20-year-old self.
Be spontaneous. Take risks. Live outside your comfort zone.
I am so glad I did back then.