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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Trail Party: Fjällräven Classic (Sweden)

It’s a 70-mIle hike. It’s an international mIxer. It’s a mobIle festival of 2,200 trekkers fueled by Norrlands Guld beer and reindeer burgers. It’s Sweden’s Fjällräven Classic, and it’s an entIrely new set of rules.

by: Evelyn Spence

Day 2: First bridge after Kebnekaise (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
Day 2: First bridge after Kebnekaise (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
Souvas: Reindeer meat, mashed potatoes, and lingonberries (Evelyn Spence)
Souvas: Reindeer meat, mashed potatoes, and lingonberries (Evelyn Spence)
Trekkers pass Sinnicohkka (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
Trekkers pass Sinnicohkka (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
Trekkers wait to begin (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
Trekkers wait to begin (Courtesy of Fjallraven)
    Tags:

Rule #1: Embrace the crowd

Backpackers are not generally anti- social in all aspects of life. Personally, I like people. But I’ve always gone hiking to get away from the people I don’t know—and most of the ones I do. So even though I know what I’ve signed up for, I have to take a deep breath when I stand elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of other hikers and wait for the starting gun to set us free at Nikkaluokta, Sweden, on August 10, 2012. I wanted to get out of my Pacific Northwest comfort zone, and it doesn’t take long. The Star Wars theme plays over speakers and a cheer rises above the music. Trekkers from 22 countries yank their shoulder straps an inch tighter. Each sports a wristband, backpack tag, and special passport with a barcode and ID number. I pocket my own passport and look around at the glacier-carved mountains extending west and north like enormous molars beneath a far-northern sky, and then at the scrums of people with neon orange flags tied to their packs who are about to share a trail for the next five days. Solitude? Not a chance. At the annual Fjällräven Classic, the overriding social principle is quite the opposite: Love thy neighbor.

Rule #2 Obey the Rules

The Kungsleden, or King’s Trail, extends 270 miles from Hemavan up past the Arctic Circle to Abisko—through U-shaped valleys where primordial rivers unfurl like banners between thousand-foot walls. Spidery wil- lows, patchwork lichen, and brush-laced ponds lend a subarctic texture to the terrain. The fjäll—treeless heights—are mostly rounded, like Scottish fells, and they reach merely gentle elevations: The high point of the Classic is 3,770-foot Tjäktja Pass.

Traditionally, some parts of the Kungsleden see fewer than 500 trekkers each season. But for a few days every August, more than 2,000 people gather here to participate in the Fjällräven Classic, a celebration of Swedish hiking that gear manufacturer Fjällräven established in 2005. And they all converge on a gorgeous 70-mile section of the King’s Trail from Nikkaluokta to the northern terminus.

The mandatory gear checklist includes stove, fuel, hat, gloves, “long underpants for a dry change,” and a sleeping pad at least as long as your back. Lack of equipment will result in a time penalty of 24 hours for each missing item. You must follow a designated route with eight checkpoints, but you can camp wherever you want.

Though rules suggest a competition, and indeed, times are recorded, the “contest” is loosely interpreted. Some tights-wearing speedsters finish in less than 18 hours, some people take a week. Regardless, everyone gets a gold medal. Backpacking with rules initially strikes me as odd. But then again, it sure would have been nice if someone gave me a trophy when I hiked the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Rule #3 Pack light ...

Ten miles into the first day, the outsole of my 15-year-old hiking boot separates from the midsole, which then crumbles like Styrofoam. I worry, limping along gingerly, and then I realize I don’t have to: The first checkpoint, Kebnekaise (stage 2), has a gift shop and outdoor rental center for people who want to summit the peak. It sells gaiters, sunscreen, and souvenir tees—and happens to have a used pair of full-shank German-engineered mountaineering boots in my size, which feel like cinder blocks but save my feet. When I take off my new kicks in the foyer to go into the restaurant for a hamburger (see rule #6), I see another hundred pairs of boots.

At Alesjaure (stage 6), volunteers hand out freeze-dried meals from huge barrels and distribute full fuel canisters (I came too prepared with both). The medical tent staffers are busy patching up blisters (wish I’d ditched the first-aid kit). Stove fails or tent leaks? Help is never far away.

Rule #4 ... but not too light

You’ll want all-conditions layers. It can be rainy, foggy, windy, snowy, 32°F or 70°F— sometimes, as I experience, all of the above in a single day.

Rule #5 Slow Down

Save your fastpacking for the John Muir Trail. I overcome my urge to get there at the first lunch stop. The meal–stove, Backpacker’s Pantry, tea, the works—is much more elaborate than I’m used to at home. To me—trained to down peanut-butter pretzels and M&Ms so fast I hardly break stride—it feels frustrating. We have miles to go, people! But I watch the others and learn to take it easy. For most, the Classic is a vacation, not a series of checkpoints. We’ll reach the end when we reach the end, midday chicken korma or not.

Over the coming days, I learn a few things about my new trailmates. The Poles always have something to say. The Danes will be drunk. The Slovaks are proud of their mountains, which are “real.” The Germans are, well, German. (Americans? We have a rep for nosiness, natch, but I only encounter one other, and he quietly disappears into the Euro crowd.) The Swedes greet everyone enthusiastically. Hej (pronounced “hey”) is the universal hello in Sweden, and when repeated—Hej- hej—it implies increased friendliness and excitement to see the other party. At every checkpoint, it’s Hej-hej. Every unsuspecting trekker heading in the opposite direction on the Kungsleden, Hej-hej. The hundreds of volunteers who walk along the trail and ask how you’re doing, bandage your blisters, stamp your passports, and serve you food—they say Hej-hej, and I say it back. Most of them live here for a week. Many of them have done it for years. When I ask them why they do this, they invariably say, with wonder, “Look around.”

When I do, I see not just hills and cliffs and brooks, but people, most of whom seem to be in the varying throes of wilderness rapture. Yes, we seek vast outdoor places for their power to quiet our modern souls, but they also bond us together when we share hard work and awe under the open sky. The Classic offers bonding, and then some. On the last night, I sleep in a tent with a young Dutchman who tells me, over the sound of a stranger’s harmonica five Hilleberg tents away, that he’s fallen in love with the mountains and can’t wait for his next trip. This is not a proving ground. This is a portable adult summer camp, a moveable Lollapalooza.

Rule #6 Don’t Diet

At the start, volunteers hand out free bags of Polarbröd (long, flat wheat rolls), an allotted three freeze-dried meals per day, and canisters of fuel. But that’s just the rations you get with registration. In the middle of the wilderness, somewhere around 68 degrees north and miles from the nearest road, I stop along the eastern shore of the azure lake Ladtjojaure and stand in line for 20 minutes at a shed called Lap Dånald’s to buy a reindeer burger from a local Sami for about $17.50. Totally worth it.

You also get plenty of complimentary treats along the way. Come checkpoint Singi, at mile 21, I inhale suovas—fantastic flatbread folded around mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam, and grilled reindeer. At the penultimate checkpoint, mile 57, I eat as many pancakes—topped with lingonberry syrup and whipped cream—as I can, then pass out under a birch tree with fourscore of my new best friends.

Rule #7 Try the Sauna

At mile 29, I see a dozen naked men running from a pine cabin down to the banks of the burbling, icy Tjaktjajåkka to roll in the water, refill buckets, and grab armfuls of chilled Norrlands Guld beer. I hesitate. I have Puritan ancestors. But the sauna is a Scandinavian tradition. I leave my clothes on the porch and enter a steamy, dimly lit room with 15 others. I stay until the heat drives me out; I feel both loose and vibrant, like my circulation is in happy overdrive, my muscles relaxed, my mind cleansed. I feel alive.

Rule #8 Sleep Can Wait

At the latitude of the vast, ice-cream- scooped Tjäktjavagge (vagge is valley) in late summer, the sun rises before 4 a.m. and sets well after 10 p.m. How can you waste all that daylight? More weight savings: Leave the headlamp behind.

Rule #9 Celebrate past the finish

When I cross under the final banner at the Abisko Tourist Station, mile 70, people cheer for me, and an official stamps my passport, and another one pins the gold medal on my five-days-gone wicking baselayer. Still another someone hands me a pita stuffed with freshly cooked moose meat and a plastic bottle of cold Norrlands Guld.

As more hikers cross the line, I join the cheers and reflect on an experience most American backpackers could hardly imagine. In our vast wilderness areas, we feel entitled to our solitude and peeved when it’s intruded upon. We limit permits to our most spectacular parks in order to preserve some ideal of nature without people. It’s the opposite of this “the more the merrier” approach. I wonder if in Sweden, and in wider Europe, people are more accustomed to sharing spaces both urban and wild—and that by sharing the trail, literally, they build a special kind of camaraderie. Aren’t we all lucky to have this together? It’s like they’re able to connect with wilderness and each other at the same time.

Would this work in the U.S.? A giant hiking party might be just the way to inspire more people to enjoy the outdoors (and bond with their brethren without quitting work to take a five-month thru-hike). Sure, there will always be fastpackers and peakbaggers and record-setting distance hikers. But why shouldn’t there also be a venue for funpackers?

At Abisko, the celebration continues into the night at the Trekkers Inn. I crowd- surf to an astonishingly bad cover of Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy.” Doesn’t matter. Happy people always trump bad music. The Polish team, of course, yells. The Swedes chew tobacco and offer a final Hej-hej. The Danes get wasted.
Wilderness solitude? Start to finish, not for a moment. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do It: The Fjällräven Classic occurs in mid-August each year. The King's Trail is best in summer.
Fee: About $270, includes transportation to/from Kiruna, luggage transfer, fuel canisters, and three freeze-dried meals per day.
Info: fjallraven.com


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Ian
Feb 14, 2014

Wow. Looks like I have a vacation to save up for. Great writing!

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Rene Alvarez
Nov 15, 2013

I'm confirmed for 2014. It's going to be great.

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