Hiking Kungsleden

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Back in July 2017,  I spent a couple weeks hiking Kungsleden, a 270-mile trail in northern Sweden. I started at Hemavan and walked ~215ish miles north up to Saltoluokta, with time constraints keeping me away from the last chunk.

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Researching the trail was a bit challenging. While there was a lot of content on general trekking approaches, I didn’t find a lot oriented toward the more ultralight/lightweight approach I prefer. There wasn’t a ton of information in English, either. And because I do almost all of my hiking in the southern U.S., it was a little difficult to translate my own experience into what I would need to have a good time in a far different environment. So here I’ll jot down the gear and resources I used, in hopes it will help the next person along. (I meant to write this sooner, but… 🤷‍♂️).

Timing and Conditions

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I hiked from July 3 to 17. It was a higher snow year (I am told), and my start date was a few weeks earlier than peak season begins. When I began there was still snow lingering on many portions of the trail. Snow crossings happened on most days, but none of it was particularly difficult. It was rare to see patches longer than 100 meters or so, none of it was very steeply sloped, and I had only a bit of post-holing here and there. There was quite a lot of water on the trail – creek crossings, snowmelt, boggy sections, etc., so keeping feet dry was just about impossible.

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Temperatures ranged from high 30s on the coldest mornings, in the 40s and 50s on most days, with sunnier ones briefly in the upper 70s or low 80s. I was lucky to only have heavy rain on a couple of days. Those were pretty miserable, and just about perfect for hypothermia. Just about every day had some strong winds at some point. Walking from the south to the north kept the prevailing winds at my back, and I’d highly recommend a northbound hike for just that reason.

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The hut system is very nice, and I took advantage of it here and there.. Most have bunks, gas stoves, etc.. The best part is many have little shops with enough food to buy for the next few days. There isn’t a ton of variety, but if you’re hiking at a fair pace, you don’t really need to carry more than 2-3 days of food and a few bites to fill in the cracks.

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On to the gear.

Kungsleden Gear List

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Clothing

Item Rationale
Goodhew merino-alpaca quarter crew socks Durable, warm As expected, lots of miles left on these. Seemed to hold on to mud more than other merino socks I’ve used – side effect of long-hair alpaca, perhaps? I only used one pair for hiking, the other reserved for nighttime toastiness.
Adidas Traxion trailrunners Light, flexible; Deep cleats for mud and gravel; mesh for easy drainage Great choice. Feet wet every single day but shoes never waterlogged too long.
Swrve slim pants Cut for city cycling = deep pockets; no extra fabric to flap in wind, puddle at ankles, soak up water; don’t like zipoffs or cargo pockets; polyester more stretchy and comfy in rain and in bed Perfect choice, very happy
Lightweight merino long-sleeve shirt Comfy when damp; thinner for quicker drying; no stink Rarely to worn alone; usually needed additional layers for bugs, cold
Prana polyester long-sleeve quarter-zip hoody Easy temp adjustment; love the thumb loops Worn daily over the merino, usually all day. Hood very useful for light bug pressure when headnet too hot/fussy. (Interested to try a midweight merino with synthetic button-up?)
Under Armor spandex boxer-briefs No stretching, bunching, chafing, smell Perfect choice
Patagonia R1 hoody Warmth when active; deep venting; thumb loops! Hood is still a little tight and short for my long neck :(
Polyester balaclava Adjustable warmth when not wearing R1 Kept my cap from blowing off across the moors; lifesaver for nose/mouth when cold, dry air started to affect my lungs
Topo Designs camp hat Woven better than mesh for wet/wind; broad, flat brim helps when wearing glasses in rain Perfect choice
Casio digital watch Slim, inexpensive, water resistant; tells time Never took it off
Generic fleece gloves Warmish Perfect for small temperature adjustments. Worn daily. Not great in rain, but jacket sleeves helped. These things are… 15 years old?
Rab Kinetic rain jacket Light; long sleeves cover hands; great hood It worked great, but maybe a liiiiiiittle too light. A few more days with heavier rain would change my calculus here.
Sierra Designs rain pants Inexpensive, durable Light enough, sufficiently windproof; not going to spend much on something with limited performance requirements that gets heavy wear
Marmot Ion windshirt Helps with insects + cold, wind when active Absolutely perfect… for only one single day (cold, windy, alternating snowfall and sun). Otherwise, easily replaced by rain jacket.
Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic insulated jacket Nuclear option, just in case Mostly used as pillow. Could be replaced with 8-10oz vest, perhaps.
New Balance running tights Night-time layer if everything is drenched Never needed
ULA Circuit backpack More durable as luggage than my lighter packs Worked perfectly; love the hip pockets
Tarptent Moment tent Not bringing trekking poles; sets up easily Loved all the mesh for views and bugs; managed well in heavy winds
Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20º sleeping bag Only other option was summerweight bag A little bit overkill, but no complaints
Supercat alcohol stove Inexpensive, fuel everywhere, easier to fly with Would bring again
Evernew .9L Ti pot Trusty ol’ standby
20oz bike water bottle Water everywhere, don’t need a lot while moving Also very useful for drink mixes and steeping lots of tea at end of day
Platypus 2L water bottle Camp convenience
DEET Mosquitos waking up… Essential for middle stretch – boggier, lower-elevation campsites

(Not listed are the usual essentials and conveniences – sunglasses, first aid kit, chapstick, nail clippers, small light, journaling stuff, maps, etc.)

Helpful Links and Resources

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I got a lot out of Danielle and Wayne Fenton’s Kungsleden journal, and found their book quite useful as well. The photos were super helpful for understanding terrain and weather and such. Ditto for Distant North and Aaron Teoh‘s pages. (That said, there’s a fine line where you can read and see too much ahead of time…). Over on BackpackingLight.com, the trip reports from Kristin Gates‘ and Jörgen Johansson’s trips in Alaska were useful for rounding out Arctic travel knowledge, as were as various forum posts. The Swedish Mountain Maps app was really useful for daydreaming in advance, and the occasional peek at the terrain. The STF Kungsleden Facebook page is good for the on-the-ground trail conditions in the days leading up to the hike. The Calazo maps are really good, and I was glad I had them along.

And there you have it. Enjoy your hike.

A Hole

A while back I went trailrunning with an old friend. We went off trail at one point and cut through the woods toward nowhere in particular, toward wherever we would end up. We came across a hole in the ground. Holes are inherently interesting – something missing, a ready-made mystery, and you can fill them up with whatever stories you want.

We hauled up a long branch and eased it down the hole ’til we hit bottom. We marked the spot at surface level and drew it up again, like we were checking the oil. We stretched out on the ground next to the branch to measure it out. Six feet plus five-and-a-half plus, oh, maybe three-and-half. We had ourselves a fifteen foot hole, maybe two feet wide, and no explanation. Didn’t need one.

We dropped a pine cone down and listened for it to hit bottom. It took a while. I thought about dropping in, just to scare myself a little. I think I could have gotten back out. Pretty sure. Probably. As long as the mossy sides weren’t too slick. I wondered what reception was like down there.

Seeing What Is There

This past Saturday, I woke up early and went hiking. The day started gloomy like the photo above, then misty, then drizzly, and the weather got worse and worse as the morning went on.

Toward mid-day, the rain was coming down pretty steady. I came around a bend on the trail, walking up to a lookout point. A man and woman were standing there with their ponchos on, looking out at the wall of rain and fog and the dark fuzzy outlines of the ridge beyond.

I started a little small talk. “Not much of a view today!”

The guy smiled and laughed and gently corrected me: “Well… it’s different.”

Beltline

I did some volunteering with Trees Atlanta recently. In one of their offices they had this 10-year-old map of the Atlanta Beltline, with plans for the surrounding landscapes. Very cool to see this early vision – and a different one than the neighborhood/transit-focused one we’re used to – back when it was mostly just a dream. It still is, but it’s also on its way. I like that they still have it around.

Hiking Laugavegur

Wow. Unearthed this 3.5-year-old draft from the dusty back hallways of my computer. Read on for one of the best hikes of my entire life…—

In mid-September [of 2008], just slightly off-season, I spent a couple days hiking Laugavegurinn (translates something like “the warm pools way” or “the hot springs route”) in south-central Iceland. I started at Landmannalaugar and hiked south to Þórsmörk. Immensely helpful in planning my hike, which I sandwiched between some tourist days, were Andrew Skurka’s Iceland page, Jonathan Ley’s Iceland photos and advice, and Ferðafélag Íslands, a group that maintains some of the very nice huts along the way.

The weather wasn’t very extreme, but it did change frequently, like every half-hour or so. Temperatures were mostly in the mid-40s to high 50s F (5-10C). Low-hanging clouds mostly–just a few hours of genuine, full sunshine. No terrible rainstorms, but the occasional rain changed to sun changed to mist change to light rain change to fog, etc. Heavy winds were common, as there was no tree cover until the last 30 minutes of my hike.

I’ve got the full set of photos on the Laugavegur available on Flickr, but here are some highlights:

First morning out, looking back at the hut at Landmannalaugar:
Landmannalaugar valley

A short walk over a lava field and into the hills beyond:
First morning of hiking

Unfortunately fog and high winds were the norm on the way to Hrafntinnusker, where the trail skirts a volcanic crater at about 3000 feet. This is where I had repeated moments of being lost and found, lost and found. And when I stopped to take a break with no shelter from the wind, my hands froze. Lesson learned:
Limited visibility

I made it over the crest of the volcano and back down, then stopped and warmed up at Höskuldsskáli hut for an hour or so. The old season’s snow had melted, and the new snow hadn’t yet arrived. So the next stretch was up and down and up and down a series of small creek valleys.
Little waterfalls

Here’s a look back where I came from. The hut is a speck about 1/3 of the way in from the right edge of the image:
Rhyolite hills

Then uphill again, where thankfully the weather was fair enough to see those famous rhyolite hills:
The money shot

Next was a steep drop down to Álftavatn, where I spent the night:
End of the first day

The second morning featured several very cold river crossings. Bláfjallakvísl was easily the widest, deepest and coldest I’ve ever crossed on foot. Just over knee-deep at the worst, and really swift. NOT fun. VERY stressful. I had to run for about 10 minutes afterward to warm my frozen legs again.
Bláfjallakvísl

I was glad that the Nyrðri Emstruá had a bridge!
Nyrðri Emstruá

The most of the rest of the day was mostly flat, going through some very cool volcanic wastelands. Only a few little plants could eke out a living there:
A little life

I finished the second day in the early afternoon at Emstrur/Botnar hut, so I spent a few hours trail running and exploring the surroundings, like the Markarfljótsgljúfur. The Markar river canyon is about 500 feet/180m at the deepest point.
Farewell to Markarfljótsgljúfur

The third day was the warmest and best weather, the only day I got to wear shorts. The trail snaked down to cross the river at the bottom of the Syðri-Emstruá canyon (Entujökull glacier in the background), then bent back to head towards the right side of this photo:
Syðri-Emstruá canyon

A walk in the lovely Sandar, a glacial wash, and then up the basalt cliffs in the distance:
Short walk in Sandar

Up and over the basalt cliffs, it goes on to the Almenningar plateau:
Doing what I do

One last break to reflect on the trip before the last major river crossing…
Thinking it over

…and then into the more lush environs of Þórsmörk Reserve:
Lush

And lastly, I took a quick jaunt up Valahnúkur while waiting for the bus back to Reykjavik.
On Valahnúkur

I highly recommend this trail if you happen to be nearby. I’d gladly do it again.

SweetH2O 50K 2011 Race Report, or How to Run an Ultramarathon with Only Three Weeks’ Training*

New favorite t-shirt
I had talked about doing the SweetH2O 50K for the previous 4 years, pretty much since it first started. I’d put it on the That Would Be Cool to Do list every year, and when springtime rolled around I’d forget about it/chicken out/go traveling/kick myself for not registering. After a nice wake-up conversation with a friend, I decided it was time to put up or shut up. This would be my first ultra… and my first marathon**, technically.

“Training”
Emphasis on the air quotes. I’d been out for a long (~30M) hike/trailrun about a month before the race, but that’s somewhat typical for me a long day in the mountains. I took my time, took lots of breaks, and didn’t really think of it as a training. I didn’t even remember the 50K was coming up until about a week later. I registered on March 23. The race was set for April 16. Between those two dates I did a grand total of 26.5 miles of running, which I now find funny/brilliant/lucky but at the time had me a bit panicky. I figured I was pretty much screwed overall fitness-wise, so I focused on hill-climbing runs, keeping the core muscles in tune (situps, pushups, planks, various leg raises, etc. etc.), and lots of stretching. I’m lucky I’m young and resilient. Next time, it would be wise to plan ahead and take it a bit more seriously.

Highlights from the Race

  • Being so nervous at the starting line that I had to leave the pack and face the opposite direction before the gun fired. And then I was fine.
  • Settling in at the very back of the pack, where I knew I belonged, for the for few miles with a couple other guys also running their first ultras.
  • Ridiculously beautiful morning weather! Perfect.
  • A giddy, loopy, ridiculously fun runner’s high/ Transcendental Experience of the Union of All Things from ~8-12M.
  • Tripping and falling into a creek at the ~16-mile mark. Soaked from neck down.
  • Passing people. I’m human.
  • Drinking a nice cold Mama’s Little Yella Pils at ~22M. Aid stations rule.
  • Metabolic crash into my own personal hell at ~24-27M. This was a dark place, a highlight only in hindsight.
  • Finishing in 7:47 (#141/250) and not feeling all that bad.
  • My awesome new shirt and hat.

Philosophical Observation
One part of the race route (a giant loop, run twice) is an out-and-back spur to an aid station. This is a maybe 2-mile round trip where you have runners going both directions. The brilliance of the course layout is this spur comes after a nasty section of just brutal hills, and the second time you run the spur is right around the marathon mark, i.e. when it’s hot and you’re crashing. But this is also the only time you cross paths with your fellow runners. And the thing is, everybody is cheering everyone else when they pass by. “Good job. Keep it up. Stay strong. Not much further. Looking good. You’ve got this. Doing great.” I don’t want to get too hippie-dippie about it, but it is amazing how much these platitudes can lift you up, and how quickly I fell into saying them, too. And when you remember that they’re coming from people who are every bit as tired, sore, thirsty as you are and just as likely to be in their own hellish mental state… there’s something special there. You feel grateful to be out there, struggling, but supported and somehow maybe saying something another person needs to hear. Life lesson.

In Conclusion
Now that I finally gave myself a chance, I think I’m hooked. Next stop, 50M.


*Misleading title. Please don’t follow my advice.
**I have little to no interest in road marathons, unless I hear about a really amazing course somewhere.

This past weekend I did the 40-mile hike I’d been pondering for a while. It was hard. It was worth it. I will do it again. I hadn’t done proper hiking since early January, so I was feeling a bit like Dickens:

Restlessness, you will say. Whatever it is, it is always driving me, and I cannot help it. I have rested nine or ten weeks, and sometimes feel as if it had been a year—though I had the strangest nervous miseries before I stopped. If I couldn’t walk fast and far I should just explode and perish.

Looks like a couple people already wrote the book I was thinking about creating: Appalachian Pages, a thru-hikers’ guide for the Appalachian Trail. The real winning idea here, the one that I wanted to see, was having the elevation profile watermarked on each page so you can sneak a peek at the day’s challenges in a glance:

sample page from Appalachian Pages

Thank God they saved me the work. It looks great. If I ever end up on the AT again, I wouldn’t be surprised if I carried this book instead of the classic AT Data Book.

Mike Clelland’s illustrations are relentlessly cheerful. The lines are so relaxed but precise and I love the heavy use of arrows and labels:
mike clelland's illustration of a snow cave

mike clelland's illustration of a pulley system

mike clelland's climbing illustration