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.

Arbitrary Goals

The “time” just provides a framework to allow you to get to a place where it’s going to be hard. If you just did it casually, it would be much more comfortable, and I don’t think it would be as transformative or profound, on a personal level.

So, I use the “time” as a beacon, or a motivator—whatever you want to call it—not to break a record, but more like if you challenge this time, it’s going to get you to a place where it’s going to be uncomfortable and hard and … you’re going to learn something.

Really loved that bit of Joe Grant’s Nolan’s 14 interview. It captured one reason a lot of my hikes turn out the way they do. I like being outdoors and have a few regular haunts. But sometimes I can’t talk myself into getting out until I have a “gimmick”, I call it. Some silly goal. Can I do 40 miles in a day? What’s it like to hike an all-nighter? Can I cover X distance in Y hours… with no running allowed? What if I hiked the same 3-mile loop until I lost my mind? So I put myself in these odd situations, and at times I’ve found myself 20 miles out from the trailhead, thinking, “Well, 20 miles to get back home. The only way home is to put the hours in… so might as well get on with it.” I go through all these emotional roller coasters and eventually there’s a certain peace that comes along, but only after I’ve really stretched.

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.”

Green

I spent a few hours at my favorite nearby park today. Heavy rains had the creek running high in the banks. Chilly air still had some snap to it, a different damp, one that makes your cheeks flush but makes you more eager to set out rather than bundle up. Walk along the creek, look out into the forest, and see the flora feeling the same way – branches blushing green, let’s get started, stretching out from the greys and browns of the last few months. Buds to unlayer and blossom soon enough. Just you wait. A few weeks ago I spent a week volunteering in Saguaro National Park, which was mostly grey and brown. I learned all about the cactus, succulents, flowers, trees, and more than I thought there was to know about grasses. It rained a bit before my arrival there, and there too I got to the first greens of the season peeking out. It was a preview of a preview, a hint of spring before spring. I came back home craving the first greens and what comes after. And out today, I think I see the plants craving it, too. Following through on their own promise. Just you wait. We’ll make it through the grey and brown and step out again.

On disclosures, Instagram photos of your kids, and the “artist as genius” myth

austinkleon:

“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”
—Charlie Chaplin, Limelight

My wife and I have been talking so much lately about “authenticity” and “honesty” online — this insane idea that you can really tell who or what someone is and how they are doing just by what they show you of themselves on the internet. That social media is somehow a more “authentic,” or more “human” way of presenting yourself, warts and all, to the world. (As if it weren’t, in fact, making it easier to invent more perfect, alter egos — as if we aren’t all carefully selecting and choosing the bits and pieces of our life to show each other — and as if, “IRL,” we didn’t already choose what bits and pieces to show our friends when they came over to dinner [“Sweep that mess into the closet! Do the dishes! Put away the embarrassing records!”]) And how, inevitably, you start measuring your own life against what you see of the lives of others. (cf. “Keeping Up With The Joneses” and “The Referendum” and my friend Paige’s “Why Facebook Makes Us Miserable.”)

This used to happen to me with other artist friends of mine who I follow online, but actually, it was a positive thing. I would see that so-and-so had been on a drawing tear, posting tons of really interesting drawings, and some of them would be really good, and it would get me wanting to draw. Only later, when talking to them in person, would it turn out that they were just as lazy and uninspired sometimes as I was. The myth contained in the images, in a way, did me good, because it made me push myself. But I wondered, for other aspiring artists who aren’t as driven or delusional as me, if the opposite wouldn’t be true, and they would feel discouraged.

This quandery got ratcheted up a bit more after our son was born. I started thinking about how fundamentally unprepared I was for the experience of caring for a newborn. It was simultaneously the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. (As I like to say, even the best baby in the world can still be a complete fucking monster.) I remembered how people told me it was tough, but nobody told me how fucking distressed and insane sleep deprivation would make me, how absolutely full of despair I would feel for that first month, how it would dredge up feelings I hadn’t felt in years, etc.

And yet, there I was, feeling pretty fucking dark, Instagramming perfect photos of my cute kid sleeping, my wife looking like an angel, etc. And there were my friends doing the same, even though I knew, after a drink at the bar, their struggles were mostly the same as mine.

I was talking about this with my friend Steven, and I suggested that there should be a kind of “shadow gallery” on Instagram — a place where you post pictures of your kid at his worst. He said I absolutely had to do this. (He had a friend whose first move after giving birth was to call all of her girlfriends who were moms and swear them out for not being honest with her.)

And then, of course, I thought of a “shadow gallery” for artists — places where they post their work at their worst, where they acknowledge, that they are, in fact, not natural-born geniuses. A blank Microsoft Word screen. A terrible, sloppy drawing. Their Google search histories…

(You’d think someplace like Dribbble would accomplish this — but every work-in-progress I’ve ever seen a designer post there has been borderline perfect. Things organized neatly…)

Then last night my wife sent me this post my a mommyblogger, acknowledging that the reason she seemed so productive is that she has a nanny.

Why are we, as women, so reluctant to talk about the people we hire to help us so that we can do what we do? What are we afraid of? People thinking we CAN’T do it all?

Well, duh.

We fucking can’t.

So what’s this big secret we’re trying to keep and who do we think we’re fooling?

And what is it doing to people who read our blogs and books and pin our how-tos and think that all of these projects are being finished while children sit quietly on the sidelines with their hands in their laps.

What is it doing to you?

We write disclosure copy on posts that are sponsored, giveaways that are donated. We are contractually obligated to label and link but where is the disclosure copy stating how we work from home with small children? How we shoot videos and meet deadlines and go to meetings and travel around the country attending conventions and conferences.

We have help, that’s how!

People have asked me, over the years, how I’m able to do so much. (My first thought is always, “So much? Boy, do I have you fooled.”) Now, I’m thinking of this idea of an Artist’s Disclosure. (Brian Eno had one in his Diary: “one of the reasons I am capable of running three careers in parallel is because I married my manager.”) I’m thinking about what my disclosure might look like, and whether I have the guts to share it, and whether it’d really do anyone any good, including me.

Reminds me: one hiker I met on the Appalachian Trail made sure to take pictures of himself during the worst days on the trail. Tired, cold, rain-soaked, heat exhaustion, dehydrated, muddy, cranky, whatever. It’s a way to remind yourself of the price of admission, and a reminder that you did, in fact, keep doing this cool thing despite the occasional suckiness.

On disclosures, Instagram photos of your kids, and the “artist as genius” myth

The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death | OutsideOnline.com

No one can yet predict exactly how quickly and in whom hypothermia will strike–and whether it will kill when it does. The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware.

In other words, I’m doomed. I remember reading Jack London’s To Build a Fire and watching the short film adaptation in middle school. Love it. Keep your gloves on, folks.

The Cold Hard Facts of Freezing to Death | OutsideOnline.com

Gannet & The Grand: A Wyoming Whirlwind Tour | The Ultimate Direction Buzz

On speed in the outdoors (after summiting Gannett Peak in 9 hours):

I used to be of the opinion that speed isn’t important. And, in an absolute sense, I don’t think it is. In a relative sense, however, I think that one’s speed does matter. This is because–relative to one’s innate ability–striving to operate as close to that ability as possible requires a level of commitment to the craft and presence in the moment that I have yet to achieve by other means. For instance, because I wanted to move quickly when climbing Gannet (or any mountain), I made a point to study the map carefully, read other trip reports, solicit advice from friends who had already made the outing. Not to mention spending countless hours in the mountains building skill and fitness (and having fun!). Without the impetus of speed I would’ve undoubtedly taken a more lackadaisical approach that likely would’ve left me irresponsibly underprepared, with less respect for the mountain, and, ultimately, less connected to both the landscape and the community of enthusiasts who venture into this gem of a mountain range. Going fast requires–above all else–paying attention, and achieving that fleeting measure of grace where my effort and abilities are meshed perfectly with the challenge is a huge motivating factor in what I do. I find that this practice of paying attention is one of the more instructive and valuable takeaways that a trip to the mountains offers me. Plus, I’m just really inspired by wild landscapes.

Gannet & The Grand: A Wyoming Whirlwind Tour | The Ultimate Direction Buzz

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.

The Zanskar Trek, I: Darcha to Padum

I just finished reading Chris Willett’s journals from the Indian Himalaya that I tumbled a while ago.

The purity of the alpine is not a reassuring quality. It is a fearful one, one that does not invite a person to linger or lounge. It is an abode that is best visited and not one to be domesticated, the living room of everything that is not the village, everything that is outside the bounds of settled, civil life.

But it is a place that one calls to some of us, bringing us to the hostile place to breathe the air and feel the sterility. It is a place, like the floor of Death Valley or, presumably, the ice floes of the Antarctic, that amplifies human existence. One does not feel insignificant in such places. Rather, one feels a sense of importance for no other reason that being alive.

It is not an importance born and cultivated to be ego satisfying or one that inspires arrogance. No, it is a sense that to be alive is an important quality and that to be alive is better than to be dead. Barren, lifeless places teach us this better than anything written, drawn, or recorded. And, besides, the alpine is a beautiful place to visit in fine weather.

The Zanskar Trek, I: Darcha to Padum