Hiking in the Nordic countries
| Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden|
Vikings and the Old Norse • History • Sami culture • Winter • Right to access • Hiking • Cuisine
In the Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden there are large sparsely populated areas suitable for wilderness backpacking and multiple day lodge-to-lodge hiking, and areas for day hikes even near most towns and villages. The freedom to roam, also called right to access or, in Swedish, allemansrätten (every man's rights), gives access for anyone to most of the nature.
In the winter, which may mean from January to February or from October to May, depending on the destination, cross country skiing is the way to go, at least for longer distances in many areas – hiking and back-country skiing are more or less considered the same activity. At destinations with hiking trails, there are often skiing tracks in the winter.
Some of the advice below is also relevant for other ways to explore the natural landscape.
Norway, Sweden and Finland together cover an area of well over one million square kilometres, ten times wider than Austria and Switzerland combined. The hiking area includes the humid, mild Atlantic fjords and coasts of Norway, through the wild alpine high peaks of the Scandinavian mountains, to the wide plateaus and deep forests of the interior.
Only a few generations ago most people in the Nordic countries lived in the countryside. With a sparse population and meagre fields, forestry, fishing and berry picking gave important supplemental income to many. Today, hiking, fishing and berry picking are essential parts of the vacations for many of the local people, mostly as pastimes at the summer cottage. Not everybody is a serious backcountry hiker – but there are quite a few.
Because of the sparse population, especially in the north, trails will be quite quiet, other than near the main tourist resorts. Outside trails you will see few people even near cities.
Even the remote areas are seldom truly untouched. In the north most areas are used for reindeer herding. Most unprotected forests are used for forestry. This should not hinder you from enjoying the feeling of unspoiled nature most of the time.
Climate and terrain
Type of terrain and weather conditions vary hugely, from the steep mountains of Norway to the almost flat plains of Finnish Ostrobothnia, from the moderate and rainy climate of the Atlantic coast to the nearly continental climate of inland Finland and from warm temperate climate in the south to glaciers in the mountains and tundra in the very north.
Less than 5 % of the land area of Norway is developed (farmland, roads, cities), and the proportion is similar in the other countries. In Norway, about 50 % of the area is some kind of open space without forest, including solid treeless ground and bare rock, more than 30 % is forest and about 5 % is wetland and bogs (particularly in East Norway, Trøndelag and Finnmark), 5 % is freshwater (rivers and lakes) and 1 % is permanent ice or snow. In Finland, 70 % is forest, while the open space consists mostly of lakes and bogs, in the very north also large fell heath areas. Also in Sweden wetlands are common (about 20 % of the area). About 63% of Iceland is barren landscape, 23 % has vegetation of some kind, 12 % is covered by glaciers and 3 % are lakes.
Weather forecast services are generally of good quality, but local experience may be needed to interpret them: wind conditions vary depending on local topology and for temperature only average day maxima are told in many forecasts, variation and night temperatures have to be deduced. Wind is generally stronger in the high and barren mountains and along the outer coast. Difference between maximum and minimum temperature a given day is normally in the range 3–15°C (5–30°F), unless there are significant weather changes. A clear sky will usually mean a cold night. Average maximum day temperatures in July range from about 15°C (60°F) to about 23°C (75°F) depending on location, in January from about freezing to about -10°C (15°F), high mountains not counted. Temperature extremes can vary from +35°C (95°F) in the summer to -50°C (-55°F) in the northern inland winter.
Weather forecast services and information about the climate are available for Finland from the meteorological institute (smartphones) or Foreca, for Norway from the Meteorological office and weather news and for Iceland from Icelandic meteorological office.
The area is in the border zone between the Westerlies and the Subarctic; the weather can be dominated by a certain weather system or there may be hard to predict alternating weather. Near the Atlantic coast (i.e. in Iceland and in and near Norway) and at high altitudes quick changes in weather are common.
High mountains and glaciers are difficult to visit some times of the year. When judging the altitude, remember that the tree line can be at well under 400m in the northernmost parts of Finland and Norway. In Norway's and Iceland's high mountains snow can remain after winter through June, and large patches can remain all summer. On foot, Norway's high mountains can generally be visited only second half of summer and early autumn (typically July through September, visitors should get specific information for each area).
The surface in the high mountains is mostly very rugged, often loose rocks, boulder, snow and glaciers – hiking is usually strenuous and good boots are needed. This rugged, barren surface appears at much lower altitude in Norway than in continental Europe or in US Rockies; even at 1000 to 1500 metres above sea level there are high alpine conditions with hardly any vegetation and snow fields remaining through summer.
At lower altitudes, but above the tree line, there is often an easy to walk fell heath. This is the typical terrain in the "low fells" (lågfjäll), such as in the very north of Finland and between the high mountains and the forests in Sweden. Wet terrain near the tree line is often thickly covered with willow (Salix) shrubs, quite onerous to get through. Valleys are often forested, primarily with fell birch, but also some spots with pine and a bit lower still, pine and spruce forests.
The pine and spruce forests are the westernmost part of the great North Eurasian taiga belt. The taiga belt covers most of Finland and Sweden and parts of Norway (particularly East Norway and some border regions). In lowlands, especially in some parts of Finland and Sweden, there are also vast mires and bogs. The ice age left eskers, which give the landscape a peculiar rolling character in some regions. Much of southern Finland and Sweden were under the sea level when the ice left, and the bedrock is often visible even on low hills, with trees growing where enough soil has accumulated, giving a sparse forest on the hilltops. Except for some regions, only a minor part of the land is farmland. Forest dominate, although much of it is used for forestry, with many clearings. Old forest is found here and there, saved by difficult terrain, and larger areas far enough from roads and rivers.
Elevations and landforms
The highest altitudes are in the western sections of the Scandinavian peninsula from the very south of Norway, through central Norway and border regions with Sweden and until Troms and Finnmark counties in the very north. These elevations are often referred to as the Scandinavian mountains. The highest summits are in Norway's Jotunheimen, where the highest peak is 2469m. Some 200 peaks in Norway are above 2000m – mostly in Jotunheimen but also in Rondane and Dovrefjell. Sweden's highest peaks are in Lapland near the border with Norway, with a handful of peaks above 2000m. Iceland's highest peaks are in Iceland's interior and South Iceland, with one peak above 2000m. Lowlands in Norway are largely limited to valleys and shores. In general, the higher altitudes also means the wildest terrain, particularly along Norway's Atlantic coast with immense fjords (such as Sognefjord) and towering peaks rising directly from the ocean such as in Lofoten. There are however some high elevations with more gentle landforms (high plateaus), such as Hardangervidda plateau, Dovrefjell, long stretches of uplands between the great valleys of East Norway, and Finnmarksvidda (interior Finnmark plateau). Because of the colder climate in the very north, Finnmarksvidda and other elevations in Finnmark are rather barren even at just 300 to 500 metres above sea level.
Unlike the western section, Finland is characterised more by gentle landforms with forests or open ranges. Finland's highest elevations are about 1300m only, and mountains higher than 1000m over the sea level can be found only in Finland's "arm" in the extreme north-west. Save for a few exceptions in the east, you will seldom encounter mountains higher than 300m south of Lapland. On the other hand, much of Finland is covered by lakes and streams.
Compared to Finland, Sweden is hillier and much of what's north of the Stockholm–Oslo line is forested wilderness without any major cities. Finally Scania, the southernmost part of Sweden, reminds more of Denmark, the Netherlands or northern Germany — it is basically flat as a pancake, and much of it is farmland.
Iceland is similarly barren as Norway. Iceland's highest elevations are in Iceland's interior and in the Tröllaskagi mountain range in North-Iceland. Elsewhere in Iceland elevations are lower than 600 meters.
In Norwegian, "mountain" ("fjell") mostly refers to elevations reaching above the tree line. Less steep, relatively level, treeless plateaus without pronounced peaks are often called "vidde" (the list below on partially includes such plateaus as for instance the wide Finnmarksvidda of the north).
The Scandinavian mountains can roughly be subdivided as on the map.
- A & B: Arctic mountains
- C: Central border highlands
- D: Fjords range
- E: Central mountains
- F: Southern highlands
The summer hiking season is generally mid May to early September. Hiking is mostly easy in these times and there is less need for preparations, skills and gear than other parts of the year – but check this is true for the intended destination. In the north and in high mountains June is still a time of melting snow and high waters in the streams. At higher altitudes and mountains such as Norwegian Jotunheimen and Hardangervidda snow may persist through June and large patches of snow may remain through late summer. Rotten snow and high waters make hiking in early summer difficult in those areas. Even in Finland there is a Midsummer skiing competition (at Kilpisjärvi). If you want to avoid mosquitoes and midges, August may be better than July. In August nights are getting dark, children are returning to school and some tourist facilities close for the winter.
Early autumn (mostly September) is the time of ruska, when leaves are turning red and yellow, an especially beautiful sight in Lapland and Finnmark (but the period is often short there – winter can come early). Many locals go out to pick mushroom and lingonberry. This is often a nice hiking season; days are generally mild although frosts may be appearing at night and the first snowfalls may be appearing late in the month. Insects are largely gone and the air is usually crisp. Late autumn (October–November), on the other hand, is not the best season for most visitors: it is dark and wet, with the odd snowfall but no reliable snow cover (ski resorts do open, but often depend on artificial snow). In November the temperature sometimes drops to -15°C or less even in southern Finland.
In midwinter there is no sunrise at all in the north – and there can be extreme cold. Days are short also in the south. You might want to experience the Arctic Night or Christmas in the homeland of Father Christmas (Finns believe he lives in Lapland and hordes of Brits are coming to visit him). Otherwise you might prefer February in the south or early spring in the north for any winter hiking. If you are going to use ski resort facilities, note the peaks at winter vacations; you may get bargains by some timing. See also Winter in the Nordic countries.
Spring is a much loved season by many locals. Days are light, the sun is strong and nature is awakening. Wilderness hikes can be demanding, with deep snow here and bare ground there, and much water, but many destinations are unproblematic. Spring is particularly late in the high mountains of Norway, even in June some areas are accessible on skis only (July to September is summer season in the high mountains).
Freedom to roam
The basic everybody's rights (right to access, freedom to roam) are the right to freely roam by foot, by ski or by boat, the right to stay overnight in a tent and the right to pick edible berries and mushrooms. In what non-wilderness areas the rights apply varies somewhat between countries – e.g. in Iceland entry to any enclosed area off roads requires landowner's permission – as do some details. The rights (more correctly: lack of landowner right to prohibit) are accompanied by the expectation of being considerate and do not allow for breaking specific laws, doing harm (such as walking in fields with growing crop or leaving litter or opened gates behind) or disturbing residents or wildlife. Some details are codified in law, but much is up to interpretation; court cases are rare.
When visiting national parks and other "official" destinations, read the instructions for the specific area. Mostly the provided services (such as designated campfire and camping sites) compensate for local restrictions. You are encouraged (sometimes mandated) to follow the trails, where such are provided.
See Right to access for a more thorough discussion and links to guides for the specific countries.
- See also: Campfire
You should always be careful when making a fire – make sure you know what that means. It should always be watched and carefully extinguished. In particular the spruce, which is widespread in the Nordic countries, create a lot of flammable material. Use designated campfire sites when possible. Do not make fires on rock (which will crack) or peat (which is hard to extinguish reliably). In Sweden you need no permission, as long you are careful. In Iceland fire is permitted outside protected areas where there is no risk for wildfire or other damage (but firewood is scarce). In Norway, making a fire is generally forbidden from 15 April to 15 September, except at generously safe distance from forest, buildings and other flammable material or on designated sites approved by the fire department. In Finland open fire always requires landowner's permission, but in the north there may be a general permission for state owned land (check the areas covered and the terms). Being allowed to make a fire does not include a right to take firewood; do not harm trees or aesthetically or ecologically valuable logs. In Iceland wood is an especially scarce resource and what would pass as formally not allowed but doing no harm (and thus accepted) in the other countries could definitively be bad there. In emergencies you use your own judgement.
In particularly dry circumstances, there may be a total ban on any open fire outdoors. In Finland such bans are common in the summer, advertised by region (in Lapland: by municipality) in most weather forecasts as "warning for forest fire" (metsäpalovaroitus/varning för skogsbrand).
In national parks and similar there are campfire sites with firewood provided for free. In some large national parks and wilderness areas making fire may be permitted where there are no campfire sites nearby (check the rules for the area). Do not make excessively big fires, but use firewood sparingly. If some of the firewood is ready-made and some not, or some is outdoors, new firewood should be made and taken indoors instead of what is used. You should usually not replenish from the nature.
To make a fire in difficult conditions, some of three kinds of tinder is usually available in the forest: dead dry twigs low on spruce trees (only take those easy to snap off – the spruce easily gets infected), birch bark or resinous pine wood. The three require different techniques, so train (somewhere where taking the material does not harm) before having to use them. For the spruce twigs the key is having twigs with enough fine material, having enough of them and having the right compromise between enough air and enough heat. For birch bark, use the white layers. For pine the key is to have fine enough slices. Pine usable as tinder is recognized by the scent (at a fresh cut) and by it being long dead but not rotten, often as hard parts of an otherwise disintegrated moss covered stump (train your eye!). In the fell birch forests, where there is no dry wood, the birch wood should be split into thin enough pieces to get the fire going. Above the tree line you can use dry twigs, but getting enough dry firewood can be difficult.
Due to the northern latitude, the sun wanders quite near the horizon both day and night much of the year. Twilight lasts much longer than nearer the equator, for more than half an hour in the south and for several hours in the Arctic Night (with no daylight).
Daylight is limited in late autumn and early winter, and hours available for hiking are very limited at least in dense forest, in rough terrain and where orienteering is difficult, especially as the sky often is cloudy in late autumn. In winter the snow will help even the stars to give some light in the night, which may be enough in easy open terrain once you get used to it – moonlight may feel plenty.
From May to July nights are quite light throughout the region. There is Midnight Sun for a month and a half in the far north and only a few hours of (relative) darkness even in the south around Midsummer. By August, nights are getting dark and in late autumn, before the snow comes, there are very long dark evenings.
Be aware that sun rays can be extremely strong in summer at high altitudes because of clean air, reflections from lakes and snow fields, and little vegetation.
Staff at any information centre, hotel etcetera are usually fluent in English and information aimed at tourists is mostly available also in English. At large tourist attractions, hotels and the like there is usually personnel fluent in several languages, but in family businesses elderly people are not necessarily fluent except in their mother tongue. You will mostly be able to survive on English, though – and you may meet a Sami born in a goahti but speaking several foreign languages fluently.
The north of the Scandinavian countries is the homeland of the Sami people; they are the majority in a few municipalities and big minorities in others. Because of the language politics half a century ago, many Sami do not speak Sami, but many do, especially in northernmost Finnish and Swedish Lapland and most of Norwegian Finnmark. They also speak the majority language of the country and by the borders, possibly the language of the neighboring country (Swedish and Norwegian are also mutually intelligible). There are large groups speaking Finnish dialects (in addition to the majority language) in the Swedish Tornedalen and in parts of Finnmark.
In the archipelago of Uusimaa, the southern Archipelago Sea, Åland and the coast of Ostrobothnia Swedish is the traditional language. You will survive on Finnish or English, but the Swedish-speaking people may not be very impressed by your trying to greet them in Finnish.
In some of the sparsely populated areas, such as Lapland and the Finnish archipelago, tourism is an important supplemental income for many. Small family businesses do not necessarily advertise on the Internet or in tourist brochures. You have to keep your eyes open and ask locally.
- Fire is needed by the newcomer
- Whose knees are frozen numb;
- Meat and clean linen a man needs
- Who has fared across the fells... – The Hávámal
The freedom to roam allows you to go more or less anywhere. There are forests or other kinds of nature open to the public in all parts of the countries. Those who like wilderness backpacking or want to be off roads for several days might look for the least populated areas, such as in the northern inland of Finland, Norway and Sweden, in or just east of the central Norwegian mountains (Jotunheimen, Hardangervidda, Dovre), in eastern Finland and in Iceland's interior.
Note that wilderness backpacking in the Nordic countries can mean hiking without any infrastructure whatsoever, possibly not meeting anybody for days and being on your own also when something goes wrong. This is something many people come for, but if you doubt your skills, choose appropriate routes. There are all levels of compromises available.
The best hiking or scenery is not necessarily in national parks or nature reserves. It may, however, be worthwhile first considering "official" or otherwise well-known destinations, which cover some of the most valuable nature and some of the finest landscapes. It is also easier to find information and services for these.
Protected areas of different types are sometimes intermingled with each other. There may, for example, be areas with severe restrictions inside a national park or a less restricted boundary zone outside the park. There are also protected areas that have little influence on the hiker, restricting mainly actions of the landowner and the planning authorities.
In Finland, national parks, wilderness areas and some of the other destinations are maintained by Metsähallitus, the Finnish forestry administration, which has information about the destinations and hiking in general on their website. Information is also provided at their customer service points and national park visitor centres, where you might be able to reserve a bed in a hut or buy fishing (or even hunting) permits. Also Finnish National Parks has information on most "official" destinations.
In Norway, "national park" primarily denotes protected status for undeveloped area. Hiking and scenery is often equally nice outside parks. National parks are often surrounded by a zone of "protected landscape", which from the hiker's point of view often is the most interesting and usually the most accessible wilderness.
Otherwise national parks are the most obvious destinations. They cover especially see-worthy nature, services are typically easily available and most are reachable without much fuss. There are usually shorter trails near the visitor centres, suitable to quickly see some of the typical nature, for day trips and for less experienced hikers. In the larger ones there are also remote areas for those wanting to walk their own paths. Contrary to practise in some other countries, national parks do not have roads, fences or guards – in Norway only trails and lodges.
There are national parks throughout the countries, covering most types of wild (and some cultivated) landscapes: Finnish National Parks, Swedish National Parks, Norwegian National Parks, Icelandic National Parks.
The visitor centres ("naturum", "nasjonalparksentre"), sometimes quite a distance from the park itself, often give a useful introduction to the nature and culture of the area. There may be films, guided tours or similar, worth checking in advance. Some of the centres are closed outside season or not manned at all.
Recreational areas are often more easily reached than national parks and may have fewer restrictions. Many of them are suitable for hiking, although they are smaller than most national parks and seldom offer the most majestic scenery.
In Finland National Hiking Areas are maintained by Metsähallitus.
Most towns have at least some recreational areas, usually reachable by local bus or by a walk from the town centre. There are extensive hiking possibilities outside some towns. For instance around Oslo there are wide forests with well-maintained trails or paths (some with lights) within reach of metro and city buses, and within Bergen there are several mountains next to the city centre.
There are hiking and skiing routes around most ski resorts and similar. Sometimes they connect to national park trail networks.
Nature reserves generally have the most strict form of protection and rules for the specific reserve should be checked in advance. They are created to protect the nature, for its own sake and for research. Usually there are hiking trails through the bigger ones and there may be some lodging or camping facilities outside the protected area. They may encompass very special or well preserved nature. They are mostly smaller than national parks and (those with trails) usually suited for a day trip or one day's hike. Deviating from trails is often allowed in wintertime or outside the nesting season.
Wilderness areas in Finland are remote areas defined by law, with severe restrictions on building infrastructure or any exploitation other than for traditional trades (such as reindeer husbandry, hunting or taking wood for household needs). The status has little direct impact on a hiker, but they are interesting destinations for those that do not want ready made trails. The areas are important for reindeer husbandry, there might be fishers, but mostly you will be alone, possibly for days. There are some trails and wilderness huts in the areas and there are usually some tourist services nearby. Licences for hunting small game (in season) are typically available. For examples, see Käsivarsi, Pöyrisjärvi and Muotkatunturit.
You may hike more or less anywhere you want to. The usual reason not to use an "official" destination, is that you want to hike or roam near the place where you otherwise are staying or happen to pass by. Even near the bigger towns there is usually plenty of quite unspoiled nature. The freedom to roam allows you to enjoy it as long as you keep away from yards, cultivated land and similar. Be considerate and polite when you meet people and try not to disturb others.
Most of the countries (about 95% of Norway) is some kind of wilderness where the public is allowed to hike. Even in such wilderness there may be occasional roads reserved for logging or power line maintenance. In Finland such roads are quite common in unprotected areas.
Trails are often meant for use either in summer or in winter. When using them outside the intended season it is important to check the viability of the route. Winter routes are usually meant for cross-country skiing and may utilise the frozen lakes, rivers and bogs, while summer routes may have all too steep sections, go through areas dangerous in wintertime or simply be difficult to follow when marks are covered with snow. When evaluating the route, be sure to understand whether any descriptions are valid for the present conditions. Local advice is valuable.
Usually deviating from trails is allowed, except in nature reserves and restricted parts of national parks, although not encouraged in sensitive areas or areas with many visitors. Many experienced hikers prefer terrain without trails, at least for some hikes.
In addition to hiking trails at separate destinations there are some long distance hiking trails and hiking trail networks connecting nearby protected areas and recreational areas. They usually follow minor roads some or most of the distance, going through interesting natural surroundings wherever possible and sometimes passing by villages and tourist attractions, where you might be able to replenish. Lengths vary from suitable for a one day hike to the extreme European long distance paths. The longest routes are usually created by combining trails of different trail networks, which increases the risk of some parts not being well signed or maintained. There may even be parts missing. As hiking on other persons' land is perfectly allowed, you can make your own adjustments to the routes, but this may sometimes mean walking by a road or through unnecessarily difficult terrain.
In contrast to many trails in continental Europe, the hiking trails seldom go from village to village, but tend to mostly keep to non-inhabited areas. There is usually no transport (for instance for luggage) available. Where the trails follow traditional routes (from the time before the cars), they usually do so in the wilderness, where few villages are to be found. Newer trails have usually been made for exploring the natural landscape, not to connect settlements. Many trails lead from permanent settlements to shielings (summer farms, seter in Norwegian, fäbod in Swedish, karjamaja in Finnish) in the forest or in the high valleys, then onwards to pastures further into the uplands, high plateaus or high valleys. In Norway, such shielings are often starting points for hiking trails at higher altitudes, DNT lodges are often found at old shielings. DNT maintains some 20,000 kilometers of summer trails in Norway.
There are three hiking routes in the Nordic countries that belong to the European long distance paths network (long sections are missing or unmarked at least in the Finnish parts):
- E1 hiking trail runs from Italy through Denmark and southern and middle Sweden to Nordkapp in Norway
- E6 hiking trail runs from Turkey through Denmark, southern Sweden and Finland to Kilpisjärvi (the north-west tip of Finland by the Swedish and Norwegian border). You can continue by the Nordkalottleden.
- E10 hiking trail runs from Spain through Germany and Finland to Nuorgam (the northern tip of Finland, by the Norwegian border). From Koli National Park to Urho Kekkonen National Park in Finland the route is known as the UKK route.
The Nordkalottleden/Nordkalottruta trail (800 km) goes through Sweden, Norway and Finland offering versatile northern fell landscape, with easy to travel fell highlands, lush birch forests, glaciers and steep-sided gorges.
Some Finnish trails are described by Metsähallitus. For trails at specific destinations, see that destination. There are also trail networks maintained or marketed by municipalities and other entities, such as the Walks in North Karelia network.
Good quality hiking equipment is available in many specialist shops, the largest probably being Partiovaruste / Scandinavian Outdoor Store, owned by a Finnish Girl and Boy Scout foundation. Such specialist shops should also be able to give good advice.
Every hiker must be familiar with the proper equipment for various seasons and areas as well as their style of hiking. In the Nordic area, choosing the right equipment may be particularly challenging outside the warmest summer and for the higher mountains.
- Map – 1:50,000 standard topographical maps with trekking info are generally recommended; 1:25,000 are available for some areas and give greater detail, necessary for hikes in forests, where sight is limited; 1:75,000 and 1:100,000 are usable for good trails but may not give enough details in rough or steep terrain
- Compass – you want robust, low-tech navigation
- First aid kit
- Bottle(s) for water – e.g. used mineral water bottles
- Sunglasses – in summer, on snow and at high altitude
- Sunscreen – particularly at high altitude and where there is sun and snow
- Sleeping bag, hiking mattress and tent – on overnight hikes, unless you know you will get by without
- Food, snacks
- Camping stove – on any longer hike
- Cutlery etc.
- Repair kit covering any essential gear (by your definition of essential on the hike in question – knife and tape will get you a long way)
- satellite navigator (GPS) – not a substitute for map & compass
- Mobile phone (pack watertight and keep off most of the time)
- Torch, candles
- Towel (light)
On short hikes or in easy terrain you may get by without some of these. The right foot wear is the most important for a successful hike.
- Foot wear:
- Jogging shoes are acceptable on tractor roads and other smooth trails in the lowland
- Rubber boots are good in wet terrain, unless the terrain is too rough for them
- Hiking boots with ankle support and a sturdy sole on rougher trails and in the terrain
- Gaiters or tall (military style) boots useful in muddy areas, after snow fall or in areas with dense low bushes
- For steep hills, on very rocky surface, crampons and/or heavy backpacks stiff, durable mountain boots often needed
- Flexible, light hiking/sport trousers in synthetic material is useful for most conditions, preferably water repellent, if you have two pairs one pair should probably be suitable for hot weather
- Shirt on body:
- Cotton or synthetic on warm days
- Wool or similar on cool days/high altitudes
- In the backpack
- Mosquito repellent (for the warm season, particularly in the interior)
- Wool underwear
- Shirt/jumper (wool or microfleece)
- Wind proof, water repellent jacket
- Raingear (on short hikes the jacket may be enough)
- Head cover (for rain, warmth, sun and mosquitoes)
- Neck cover (in high altitude for all but the shortest hikes, otherwise probably not necessary)
- Light gloves/mittens (high altitude, also otherwise if weather can become cold)
Already 15 cm (half a foot) of snow makes walking arduous, and much more is common also in the south, in some areas more than two metres (6 feet) is possible. Walking is thus a serious option only around your base or camp, at much used trails (do not spoil skiing tracks!) or if you know there will be little snow. On Norway's Atlantic side heavy snowfalls are common, particularly a bit inland and uphill. Several metres of snow has been recorded along the Bergen railway (near Hardangervidda). In the city of Tromsø the record is more than two meters, in the month of April, more than a metre heavy snow is common. The deep snow typical in Western Norway and Troms county is often heavy and sticky, making hiking really difficult.
Snowshoes probably work as well here as in Canada, and there are snowshoe trails at some destinations, but they are much slower than skis in most Nordic conditions.
This means cross-country skis are necessary for most Nordic winter hiking. Depending on conditions you may get away with skis meant for track skiing, but if you are going to ski off tracks, "real" cross-country skis are much better. There are many options though, mostly depending on whether you are going to mountainous terrain and whether deep loose snow is to be expected. Also check what possibly breaking parts there are, and whether the skiing boots are suitable for all conditions (warm enough etc.).
For clothing, advice for cold weather apply. You should have light enough clothing not to get too sweaty going uphill (especially important when it is cold, as you will not get dry easily), but also warm enough when having sought shelter for a snow storm.
When the sun comes out in earnest, i.e. after midwinter, be careful about snow blindness and sunburn. Mountain goggles are good also in some windy conditions (the snow carried by strong wind sometimes feels like needles).
Most people hiking in winter in the north or in the mountains stay overnight indoors, at wilderness huts. In severe weather it may however be hard to get to the hut, and in some areas there simply are no huts where you would need them. If you might have to sleep outdoors, make sure your equipment is good enough. In the south, where temperatures are comparably manageable, even quite cheap winter sleeping bags are enough, at least in mild weather or when sleeping by a fire at a shelter.
From most towns there is some hiking terrain in reach by local bus and by foot. Here is some advice for more remote destinations, such as most national parks.
There are usually coach connections with stops near your destination. Watch out for express coaches that may not stop at your stop. Connections that start as express may stop at all stops in the far north.
Some destinations do not have direct coach connections. There might be a school bus, a regular taxi connection or other special arrangements to use for the last ten or twenty kilometres.
There are usually parking areas near the starting points of hiking routes in national parks and at similar destinations. You might, however, want to consider leaving your car farther away and use local transports, to be freer to choose the endpoint of your hike. On the other hand you can drive your car on minor roads without coach connections and stop at your whim – and for planned hikes you often can have a local business drive your car to a suitable location near the endpoint.
You are allowed to drive on some private roads, but not all. In Finland and Sweden roads that get public funding are open for all to use. Generally, unless there is a sign or barrier you are OK. Parking may be disallowed in Norway except in designated places, in any case you should take care not to block the road or any exits. Some private roads are built for use with tractors, all-terrain vehicles or similar (or maintained only before expected use) and may be in terrible condition. In Iceland also many public roads (with numbers prefixed with "F") require four wheel drive cars and many mountain roads are closed in winter and spring. See Iceland for details.
Winter driving requires skills and experience, and should be avoided unless you are sure you can handle it. Nordic roads are regularly covered in ice, slush or hard snow during winter. Not all minor roads are ploughed in winter. In Norway even some regional roads are always closed in winter and there is a telephone service (ph 175 in Norway) to ask about temporarily closed roads and road conditions.
Some destinations are best reached by boat. There may be a regular service, a taxi boat service or the possibility to charter a boat (crewed or uncrewed).
Taxi rides are expensive, but they may prove worthwhile to avoid hiring a car or bringing your own, and to allow you to choose starting and ending points of the hike more freely.
Sometimes there are special arrangements that can be used, such as a reduced rate or shared regular taxi service, or a possibility to use a taxi transporting children to or from school (minivan taxis are common for these services).
Although taxis in the towns are usually ordered via a calling centre, in the countryside you might want to call the taxi directly. Numbers may be available from the yellow pages of the phone catalogue, from tourist information centres, visitor centres or tourist businesses.
In Norway and Sweden there are train connections to some hiking destinations. Also in Finland train can be a good option for part of the voyage. Trains usually take bikes and some long-distance trains take cars (loaded quite some time before departure, be sure to check details). There may be combined tickets, where you get a reduction on ferries or coaches by booking the voyage in a special way.
Abisko Turiststation is a train station in Abisko National Park (part of Laponia). Hardangervidda can be reached directly from the spectacular Bergensbanen railway between Oslo and Bergen, and some stations are available by train only. The Nordlandsbanen (Trondheim–Bodø) railway runs across the Saltfjellet plateau, while the Dovrebanen (Lillehammer–Trondheim) runs across the Dovrefjell plateau. The Kiruna–Narvik railway (or Iron ore railway) runs through the Narvik mountains and passes the wild areas at the border between Norway and Sweden.
Some destinations are remote. There may be an airport near enough to be worth considering. The airport probably has good connections to the area.
If you want to spend money you might be able to hire a seaplane to get to the middle of the wilderness – but part of the joy is coming there after a tough hike and few areas are remote enough to warrant such a short-cut other than in special circumstances. There are flights for tourists to some attractions in the wilderness.
Most destinations are reachable by bike. If the destination is remote you might want to take the bike on coach or train or rent a bike nearby.
There are networks of snowmobile routes in parts of the countries, e.g. covering all of northern Finland. Rules for driving differs between the countries. Driving around by snowmobile is forbidden at many destinations, but routes by or through the areas are quite common. Ask about allowed routes and local regulations (and how they are interpreted) when you rent a snowmobile. Note avalanche and ice safety implications and do not disturb wildlife. Maximum speed is about 60 km/h on land, with trailer with people 40 km/h, but lower speed is often necessary.
In Finland driving snowmobile on land requires landowner's permission. Driving on lakes or rivers is free, unless there are local restrictions. There are designated snowmobile tracks especially in the north, leading by national parks and wilderness areas. There are two types of tracks maintained by Metsähallitus, snow mobile routes ("moottorikelkkareitti", "snöskoterled"), which are regarded roads and thus cost nothing to use, and snow mobile tracks ("moottorikelkkaura", "snöskoterspår"), for which a permit has to be bought. Also some local tourist businesses make snowmobile tracks. Snowmobile safaris are arranged by many tourist businesses. Minimum age for the driver is 15 years and a driving licence is required (one for cars or motorcycles will do). Helmets and headlights must be used. Check what tracks you are allowed to use; driving on roads is not permitted, except shorter stretches where necessary, as in crossing the road or using a bridge.
Snowmobiles are extensively used by the local population in the north, especially by reindeer herders (permits are not needed for using snowmobiles in reindeer husbandry or commercial fishing).
In Sweden snowmobiles may in theory be driven without permission, where driving does not cause harm (there has e.g. to be enough snow), but local regulations to the contrary are common, especially in the north. In the fell area driving is generally restricted to designated routes. Minimum age 16. A driving licence is needed, a separate snowmobile licence unless the licence is from before 2000 (foreigners might be treated differently, ask). Headlights must be used.
In Norway all use of motor vehicles in the wilderness is generally forbidden unless specific permission is obtained. A driver's licence covering snowmobile (snøskuter) is needed. Helmets and headlights must be used.
In Iceland driving a registered and insured snowmobile is allowed when the ground is frozen enough and there is enough snow not to cause harm. Driving in national parks and cultivated lands however is forbidden. A driving licence for cars is needed.
There are no entrance fees to national parks, wilderness areas or other hiking destinations. There may however be service available for a fee, such as lodging in cabins (which is highly recommended at some destinations) – and of course fees for transportation, fishing permits and the like.
There are several systems for fishing permits. Normally you pay for a permit for fishing in general and separately to the owners of the waters or an agency representing them. Some fishing is free. Salmon waters (many inland waters in the north) are often not covered by the ordinary fees, but use day cards instead. Make sure you know the rules for the area you will be fishing in; there are minimum and maximum sizes for some species, some are protected, and there may be detailed local regulations. Note that there are parasites and diseases that must not be brought to "clean" salmon or crayfish waters by using equipment used in other areas without proper treatment. Tourist businesses and park visitor centres should be happy to help you get the permits and tell about needed treatments.
In Finland, fishing with a rod and a line (with no reel nor artificial lure other than a jig) is free in most waters. For other fishing, people aged 18–64 are required to pay a national fishing management fee (2016: €39 for a year, €12 for a week, €5 for a day). This is enough for lure fishing with reel in most waters, but streams with salmon and related species, as well as some specially regulated waters (not uncommon at the "official" hiking destinations), are exempted. For these you need a local permit. Fishing with other tools (nets, traps etc.) or with several rods always requires permission from the owner of the waters, in practice often a local friend, who has a share. There are minimum sizes for some species, possibly also maximum sizes and protection times.
In Norway fishing with a rod and a line is free in salt water (living bait and fish as bait are prohibited). Norway's rivers and lakes are generally private and landowner permission is required. In water with salmon and related species a state fishing licence is also needed.
In Sweden fishing from the shore with hand-held tools (rod-and-line, lure and similar fishing) is generally permitted in the biggest lakes (Vänern, Vättern, Mälaren and Hjälmaren in southern Sweden, Storsjön in Jämtland) and in the sea. For fishing with nets etc. or from a boat, check the regulations. Other waters are mostly private property and a permit is required. The permits can often be bought from e.g. a local petrol station or fishing shop, for some waters also on Internet or by SMS.
In Iceland fishing does require buying an permit from the land owner. This also applies to fishing within national parks.
The additional meat got by hunting has always been welcome in the countryside, and hunting has remained a common pastime. Especially the hunt on elk get societies together, as the hunt is usually by driving. Among city dwellers hunting can be much more controversial.
For hunting yourself, you need general hunting and arms licences, and a permit for the specific area, time and intended game. Check the regulations well in advance.
The licences are usually easily obtained if you have such in your home country, but regulations are strict and some bureaucracy needed. You should of course acquaint yourself with local arms and hunting law, the game you are going to hunt and any similar protected species.
The permit is usually got either as a guest of a hunting club (which has obtained rights to hunting grounds), through a governmental agency (for state owned land; Finland: Metsähallitus, mostly for the wilderness areas) or through an association administering renting of private land (common in Norway).
Big game hunting (moose and red deer) in Norway is generally reserved for landowners and most forests are private. Reindeer hunting is possible in some areas of Southern Norway, largely on government land in the barren mountains. In Finland big game (including also e.g. wolves and bears in small numbers) requires special permits, usually acquired by the hunting club in an area. You may get a chance to join, but probably not to hunt independently.
Freedom to roam is mostly about getting around by foot or ski, but you may also want to use other equipment. There are often trails but seldom roads inside the protected areas.
You are allowed to use nearly any road, also private ones, unless you use a motorized vehicle. With a motorized vehicle you may drive on most private roads, but not on all (see By car above), and use of motorized vehicles off road is restricted: usually you at least need landowner's permission. In Norway and Iceland there are also restrictions on the use of bicycles outside trails or tractor roads.
As all Nordic countries are members of the Schengen agreement (and have far-reaching cooperation), border controls are minimal. Unless you have something to declare at customs, you can pass the border wherever – and if you have, visiting any customs office before you go on your hike may be enough. This is especially nice on the border between Sweden and Norway, on Nordkalottleden near Kilpisjärvi, where Norway, Sweden and Finland have common land borders, in Pasvik–Inari Trilateral Park and (for the hardcore backcountry hiker) if combining visits to Lemmenjoki National Park and Øvre Anárjohka National Park. Note that the border to Russia is quite another matter, paperwork is needed to visit that border area.
If you have a dog, be sure to check the procedures: there are some animal diseases that need documented checking or treatment before passing the border.
Dogs should be on leash at all times, except where you know you are allowed to let them free. They can easily wreck havoc among nesting birds and among reindeer. They are disallowed altogether in some areas. In any case you must be capable of calling your dog back if it e.g. finds a wild animal, livestock or another dog.
At least on longer hikes you will need a compass, a suitable map and the skill to use them. Official trails are usually quite easy to follow, but there might be signs missing, confusing crossings and special circumstances (for instance fog, snow) where you can get lost. Finding your way is your own responsibility. A GPS navigation tool is useful, but insufficient and prone to failure.
Magnetic declination is 20–25° in Iceland, thus important to note. Elsewhere it is roughly in the ±10° range, usually – but not always – negligible on land and in the inner archipelago. Finnish compasses often use the 60 hectomil for a circle scale; declination may be given as mils ("piiru"), i.e. 6/100 of degrees. One mil means about one metre sideways per kilometre forward, 10° about 175m/km.
For Finland, Maanmittaushallitus makes topographic maps suitable for finding your way, in the scale 1:50,000 (Finnish: maastokartta, Swedish: terrängkarta) for all the country, recommended in the north, and 1:25,000, earlier 1:20,000 (peruskartta, grundkarta) for the south. You can see the map sheet division and codes at Kansalaisen karttapaikka by choosing "order" and following directions. The former map sheets cost €15, the latter €12. For national parks and similar destinations there are also outdoor maps based on these, with huts and other service clearly marked and some information on the area. For some areas there are detailed big scale orienteering maps, available at least from local orienteering associations. Road maps are usually quite worthless for hikers once near one's destination.
Newer maps use coordinates that closely match WGS84 (EUREF-FIN, based on ETRS89), older ones (data from before 2005) a national coordinate system (KKJ/KKS/ISNET93; difference to WGS84 some hundred metres). In addition to coordinates in degrees and minutes (blue), metric coordinates (black and red) according to (some of) the old KKJ/YKJ grid, the local ETRS-TM grid and the national ETRS-TM35FIN grid are given in kilometres. Old maps primarily show the metric (KKJ/YKJ) coordinates.
The data is free (since spring 2012) and available in digital form, packaged commercially and by hobbyists (but maps included in or sold for navigators are sometimes of lesser quality).
Explanatory texts are usually in Finnish, Swedish and English. Maps can be ordered e.g. from Karttakeskus.
For Norway there are Turkart (including trail and hut information etcetera; 1:25,000, 1:50,000 and 1:100,000) and general topographic maps by Kartverket (1:50,000, 1:100,000 and 1:250,000). Maps at 1:50,000 give enough detail for navigation in difficult Norwegian terrain (standard maps in Norway), maps 1:100,000 tend to be too course for hiking. Maps at 1:250,000 can be used for general planning, but not for navigation in the wilderness. Maps can be ordered e.g. from Kartbutikken or Statens Kartverk. Electronic maps are available from Norgesglasset. Online map for general planning is provided by the Trekking Association.
For fell areas in Sweden there are two map series by Lantmäteriet, Fjällkartan 1:100 000 covering all the fell area, and Fjällkartan 1:50 000 covering the southern fells. The maps include information on trails, huts, weather etcetera and are adapted to the trails and overlap as needed. They are renewed every three to five years.
For most of the country there is Terrängkartan (1:50 000, 75 cm x 80 cm). The road map, Vägkartan (1:100 000), covers the area not covered by Fjällkartan and includes topographic information. It may be an acceptable choice for some areas.
For Iceland there are sérkort in 1:100000 scale with walking path information.
Maps are often for sale in well equipped book stores, outdoor equipment shops and park visitor centres. Maps for popular destinations may be available in all the country and even abroad, maps for less visited areas only in some shops. Ordering from the above mentioned web shops is possibly restricted to domestic addresses.
Note that maps, especially when based on older data, can have coordinate systems other than WGS84.
In border areas you often need separate maps for the countries. Some electronic maps handle the situation badly (the device showing blank areas of one map instead of information of the other map).
Polaris (North Star) is high in the sky, often seen also in sparse forest, but low enough that the direction is easily seen. Other natural orienteering aids include ant nests (built to get as much warmth from the sun as possible, thus pointing to the south), moss preferring the shadow and the boundary between grey and red of pine tree trunks, being lower on one side.
On marked routes there are usually bridges or other arrangements at any river, but at least in the backcountry in the north, in the mountains and in Iceland there are often minor (or "minor") streams too wide to jump over. In times of high water fording may be difficult or even impossible. Asking about the conditions beforehand, being prepared and – if need be – using some time to search for the best place to ford is worthwhile. Asking people one meets about river crossings ahead is quite common.
Often the streams are shallow enough that you can get to the other side by stepping from stone to stone without getting wet if you have rubber boots or similar. The stones may be slippery or may wiggle; do not take chances.
In a little deeper water you will have to take off boots and trousers. Easy drying light footwear, or at least socks, are recommended to protect your feet against potential sharp edges. If you have wading trousers, like some fishermen, you can use those to avoid getting wet. A substitute can be improvised from raingear trousers by tying the legs tightly to watertight boots (e.g. with duct tape). Usually you get by very well without – avoiding drenching boots and raingear would your construction fail.
When your knees get wet the current is usually strong enough that additional support, such as a walking staff or rope, is needed. Keep the staff upstream so that the current forces it towards the riverbed, make sure you have good balance and move only one foot or the staff at a time, before again securing your position. Do not hurry, even if the water is cold.
Unless the ford is easy, the most experienced one in the company should first go without backpack to find a good route. If you have a long enough rope he or she can then fasten it on the other side. A backpack helps you float should you loose your balance, but it floating on top of you, keeping you under water, is not what you want. Open its belt and make sure you can get rid of it if needed.
The established place to cross a river is often obvious. Sometimes an established ford is marked on the map (Finnish: kahlaamo), sometimes it can be deduced (path going down to the river on both sides), sometimes you have to make your own decisions. Always make a judgement call: also established fords can be dangerous in adverse conditions, especially when you lack experience. Never rely on being able to ford a river that can be dangerous, instead reserve enough time to avoid the need if fording looks too difficult.
When searching for where to cross the river, do not search for the narrowest point: that is where the current is strongest. A somewhat wider section with moderate current and moderate depth is better. Hard sand on the riverbed is good, although not too common.
Timing can be key at some fords. With heavy rains you should probably ford as soon as possible or give up. Rivers with snow or glaciers upstream will be easier the morning after a cold night.
At rare occasions the best way to cross a river may be to use an improvised raft, which can be constructed e.g. from your backpacks, a tarp, rope and a couple of young trees. Make sure your equipment is well packed in plastic bags and that there is no current getting you into danger.
For short hikes you might not need any special equipment.
In most areas wet terrain is to be expected. Maintained hiking trails do have duckboards at the worst places, but they are not always enough.
In some mountainous areas the terrain is rocky and sturdy footwear is necessary.
In remote fell areas there are few bridges and bridges marked on your map may be missing (destroyed by flooding rivers). Be prepared to use fords and perhaps improvised rafts. Water levels may be very high in the spring (downstream from glaciers: the summer) or after long-time heavy rains, making wading dangerous also in streams that are otherwise minor. You can usually get information at least on marked trails and on the general situation in the area from park visitor centres and tourist businesses catering to hikers. On marked routes the river crossings should not be dangerous or require special skills during normal conditions, but always use your own judgement.
There are vast bogs in some areas. Before you go out on one, be sure you can get off it. The main problem is loosing your way such that when you give up and turn back, you find too difficult spots also there. Avoiding these you will get more and more off your original route. Remembering the used route accurately enough is surprisingly difficult.
Winter hikes are usually done by cross country skis. The more experienced hikers have skis intended for use also outside tracks, which enables wilderness tours, in landscapes which look untouched by man. Also with normal cross-country skis you can experience astonishing views, along prepared tracks or near your base.
Where there are hiking trails, there are often marked cross country skiing routes in the winter, with maintained skiing tracks. The route often differs from the summer routes, e.g. to avoid too steep sections or take advantage of frozen lakes and bogs. The standards differ. Near cities and ski resorts the routes may have double tracks, a freestyle lane and lights, while some "skiing tracks" in the backcountry are maintained just by driving along them with a snowmobile once in a while. A few skiing routes are even unmaintained, meaning you have to make your own tracks even when following them, unless somebody already did. Mostly the tracks are groomed regularly, but not necessarily shortly after snowfall. On tours arranged by tourist businesses, you may sometimes have tracks made specifically for you.
When there are snowmobile tracks it may be easier to follow them than to ski in the loose snow. Beware, though, as snowmobiles may follow their routes with quite high speed and tracks made by independent drivers may lead you astray.
In northern inland areas the temperatures may be low for much of the winter, which means the snow is dry and loose (except in groomed tracks and where hardened by the wind). Some days (and nights) can be unbelievably cold. This is the price for skiing in the Arctic Night.
The best skiing season in the north is when day temperatures rise above freezing, giving a good hard surface in the morning, after the freezing night. Watch out for snow blindness and sunburn. Get up early: the strong sunlight and often warm days soften the snow and skiing off groomed tracks can turn arduous in the afternoon.
While enjoying fine weather in the north or in mountains, do not forget that the weather can change quickly. Being caught in a snow storm in treeless areas is dangerous, especially if you are not trained and prepared. Also, if you get belated and have to spend (part of) the night outdoors, you should be prepared for quite other circumstances than in the day.
In late spring in the north, when nights are no more cold enough, the snow is soft also in the morning – there being snow left does not necessarily mean skiing is easy. At the same time melting snow floods every tiny stream. Planning a trip on the last snow, you should make sure you understand the conditions.
Often ice conditions on lakes, rivers and the sea allow for long distance ice skating and hiking by skates. Going on your own is a bad idea, as ice conditions may be hard to predict, but clubs and some tourist businesses arrange tours. Make sure to bring specific safety equipment for this kind of skating (unless your guide provides it).
Biking is generally included in the freedom to roam in Finland, Sweden and the Norwegian mountains, but bikes leave traces and may cause erosion – and you are not allowed to cause harm. You might want to avoid sensitive or unspoiled nature. In Norway's lowlands, that is below the treeline, cycling is allowed only on trails and roads. Cycling is also forbidden on select paths in the lowland. In Iceland you are only allowed to bike on trails, roads and paths.
In some national parks and wilderness areas biking along some of the trails is allowed and encouraged, while biking in protected areas may otherwise be implicitly or explicitly forbidden.
You might also want to bike in ordinary countryside, using minor roads through the villages and spending your nights in tents, taking advantage of the right to access. Some research to find B&B:s and similar may prove worthwhile, e.g. to get tea and buns in a nice environment and a chat with locals. The B&Bs often sell some products of their own, such as handicraft or goat cheese. A call in advance may be needed.
The Rallarvegen (Navvy road) is a popular bicycle route, originally a construction road along the Oslo–Bergen railway.
Horse riding is generally included in the freedom to roam, at least in Finland and Sweden, but where riding is more than casual, it does have an impact on lesser roads and in the terrain. If you hire horses, the stable probably has arrangements with local landowners and road maintainers. Do ask what routes you are supposed to use.
There are many destinations that are best experienced by boat, or where a canoe offers a worthwhile different experience. In some, you can have a local business transport you part of the distance with a riverboat and continue by foot.
In Norway motor transportation is prohibited in all inland waters, in the other countries in some specific waters. Private piers may not be used without permission. Otherwise there is seldom any restrictions on getting around by boat, as long as you are considerate.
Canoes and small boats can often be rented near the destination. Yachts can often be chartered at bigger towns. If you want to use anything big or fast you should know the ordinary regulations. See also Cruising on small craft.
If you are going down rapids you should have enough experience to know what to ask or make sure your guide knows you are beginners. There are many tourist businesses that are happy to help.
Canoes, kayaks and other boats should not be moved between water systems without proper disinfection to avoid contamination (such as salmon parasites and crayfish plague; having the boat get thoroughly dry may be enough), or checking this is not needed in the specific case.
By the coasts, in the big lakes and in the archipelagos there are good opportunities for sea kayaking. Destinations include the Archipelago Sea, lake systems of the Finnish Lakeland and the Mälaren archipelago in Svealand.
Skimming through descriptions of national parks may give you an idea of things you do not want to miss.
In the winter nights of the far north, occasionally in the south, you may see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). In most of Iceland, in Troms, Finnmark, northernmost Norrland and in northern Finnish Lapland they occur 50–75 % of nights with clear skies, but do not count on seeing them on your visit, as the sky can be cloudy. Out in the wilderness the magic is even stronger than when just going out to watch them. The probability is highest quite late, when your day normally is done, but as you are outdoors much of the time you have good chances to see those occuring early.
Other phenomenons you might see are halo phenomenons, such as sun dogs, and light pillars, all of which emerge when sun or moon light are reflected through ice crystals in the atmosphere.
There is also the Midnight Sun north of the Arctic Circle, when the sun does not set at all, for several weeks in northern Lapland and Finnmark. Even where the sun does officially set, it does not get really dark at all, save for southern Sweden. On the other hand, in the middle of winter it will be dark for much of the day (again, above the Arctic Circle, there's polar night for up to several weeks around Christmas). This makes for good opportunities to see the Aurora unless it's cloudy. There will still be a kind of "dawn" for a few hours in the middle of the day and the snow will amplify the little light that exists. Especially clear moonless nights in snow covered treeless areas offer a magical feeling, where the little light provided by stars (and potential northern lights) in fact may be enough for finding one's way.
Snow occurs regularly for a couple of months in the winter – again, this season starts earlier and ends later the further north you go. Lakes and to some extent the sea (most of the Bothnian Bay and Bay of Finland, sometimes nearly all the Baltic) freeze over and it is possible to ski, skate, ice fish or even drive on the ice in the winter (but only if the ice is thick enough, ask and watch the locals!). Cross-country skiing may be the best way of getting around. The winter in the Nordic countries can be a whole new experience for visitors from warmer countries. On the Atlantic coast and in the southern third, the weather is warmer and there might not be very much snow but a whole lot of rain at the former instead.
Wintry landscapes differ much depending on weather conditions. In some conditions frost covers vegetation with delicate structures, in others heavy snow covers the trees, in some the trees are bare because of wind or thaw. Especially in the north extreme crown-snow loads are created by moisture forming hard rim on top of the snow. Spruce in the north grow differently to those more to the south to cope with the loads.
There is a lot of forest in this region, except in Iceland, on the higher mountains (mostly these are in Norway) where virtually nothing grows, in highlands in the north and on the tundra. The taiga – with mostly pine and spruce, some birch and minor patches of e.g. aspen, alder and rowan – dominates much of the region. In the south there are also e.g. beech and oak woods, while far in the north and near the tree line fell birch dominates.
In the autumn leaves turn yellow, orange and red before they fall. As the length of the day and temperatures drop more rapidly in the northernmost part of the region this makes for stronger colours. In Finland some people even travel to Lapland to see the colours of the autumn known as ruska (a nice hiking season even if the timing gets wrong).
Some of the largest archipelagos in Europe can be found in Scandinavia. If you travel by boat from Stockholm to Turku or Helsinki, you will see several islands for most of the time. The Archipelago Sea outside Turku has some 40,000 of them (if also islets are counted). A very long and more mountainous archipelago stretches along the Norwegian coast – to experience this archipelago in full, cruise on the Hurtigruten. There are of course also smaller ferries taking you from island to island. Along the Norwegian coast there are some 300,000 islands, more than in any other country in Europe. Smaller archipelagos of notice can be found on both sides of Kvarken – the High Coast near Umeå and the Kvarken Archipelago near Vaasa, which together form an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet another archipelago can be found in Bohuslän just north of Gothenburg. If you want to see lake archipelagos, the Finnish Lakeland, especially Saimaa, is definitely the place to go to.
There are traces of the ice age; all the region was covered by more than a kilometre of ice in the last ice age, until some 10.000 years ago. Eskers formed where materia was pushed away by the growing glacier and where water from melting glaciers brought sand, gravel and stone. Giant rocks were carried by the ice and left far from their origin (often ascribed to acts of giants in local folklore). Loose stones in turbulent streams carved giant kettles. Stones and gravel pushed by the glaciers groomed the bedrock, as seen from the smooth bedrock at many shores. The same phenomenons in smaller scale are still ongoing at the present glaciers. In Kolvananuuro nature reserve in Kontiolahti there are traces of an ice age 2500 million years (sic!) ago; the Finnish bedrock is among the oldest globally (which is why mountains are missing: they have been worn away, the Scandinavian mountains are much younger).
On the cultural side, in the northernmost part of Finland, Norway and Sweden you can experience Sami culture. There are also interesting stones and engravings to see here and there – petroglyphs, rune stones, border markers and memorials. Ancient trapping pits, used to hunt big game (reindeer and moose), can be seen in the barren uplands – keep in mind that ancient artifacts are by default protected by law. The Norwegian uplands and mountain valleys are still used to graze domestic animals, until recently there were thousands of "summer farms" ("seter", shielings) were milk maids produced cheese and butter from goats and cows during summer. These shielings exist as ruins or are maintained as holiday huts, a handful are still run as dairies.
In the fell region and in the north there are many Arctic species. In the taiga, especially in the east and north, there are many eastern species not found in Western or Central Europe. As large woodlands and otherwise undeveloped areas remain, many species that are rare or extinct in the more densely populated parts of Europe are found, even common.
For most mammals, you have to have some luck to spot them, even the most common ones. Not having too much noise at your camp and walking quietly, perhaps against the wind, will help increase your chances – as well as the risk of your getting too close before you notice them, mind advice on dangerous animals. Many animals are active at dusk and dawn, so keep your eyes open at those times. You also have a bigger chance to find faeces and pawprints – especially in suitable fresh snow – and other traces, than seeing the animals proper.
There is bear (Eurasian brown bear, Ursus arctos arctos) in northern Sweden, all of Finland and parts of Norway. It mostly lives in coniferous forests, the biggest concentrations being in North Karelia. In winter it sleeps. The droppings are often easy to identify, dominated by bilberry in season.
The wolf was extinct in Scandinavia, but immigrating wolves from Finland and Russia have now established a more or less sustainable population by the border between East Norway and middle Sweden around Värmland. There are wolves all over Finland, but sparsely except in North Karelia and Kainuu. You are much more likely to hear wolves, or see their tracks in the snow, than seeing the wolves themselves. The pawprints resemble those of a big dog and are mostly identified by studying the behaviour: wolves often move long distances with few detours, and they regularly change front foot from left to right and back at those long distances. In a pack, wolves often use a common trail, looking like that of just one wolf.
Most wolverines are found in the Scandinavian fell region. In Finland they live in northern and eastern Lapland and in the Suomenselkä watershed region between Lake-Finland and northern Finland. The population is sparse.
Lynx and red fox are common in all the area. The Arctic fox is severely endangered, but Norwegian efforts have had good results and it can be found in several areas in the Scandinavian mountains and very sparsely in northernmost Finland.
Half-wild reindeer is a common sight in the reindeer husbandry area, i.e. the northern parts of Finland, Norway and Sweden. There are populations of wild fell reindeer in the Dovrefjell-Rondane area. There are wild forest reindeer in Kainuu and at Suomenselkä. Reindeer was once a very important game, and prehistoric trapping pits are still a quite common sight in the north.
Elks (Am.: moose), "king of the forest", is present in all forested areas, most easily seen in fields, clearings etc. Red deer live in western Norway and southern Sweden, roe deer in suitable habitats in all the region except the north. American white-tailed deer is common in Finland (introduced in the 1930s). With some luck you will see some of these, at least you will see faeces.
Mysk oxen were reintroduced in Dovrefjell in the 1940s, having been absent from Europe for 9000 years, and there are now herds also in a few other areas.
Boars are quite common in Götaland and Svealand in Sweden. Boars immigrating from there or from Estonia and Russia can occasionally be seen in other regions, but they have problems surviving hard winters more to the north.
Other land mammals
European badgers are quite common, but nocturnal. In cold areas they sleep all winter. They are absent in the northernmost areas.
The otter is again getting quite common in Finland, while probably still rare in Norway and Sweden. The beaver was extinct in Finland and Sweden, but reintroduced, in Finland using also American beavers (then thought to be the same species).
Lemmings occur in vast numbers in and near the fell areas some years, while they are seldom seen otherwise. This fluctuation greatly impacts also owls and birds of pray, some migrating or not nesting when rodents are sparse.
The squirrel is common in the taiga and in the south, more seldom seen in the fell birch forests. Siberian flying squirrel lives primarily in old mixed forest, which is a threatened biotop, and is seldom seen as it is nocturnal, but may be quite common in Finland nevertheless (they are found by searching for droppings in the right habitats).
There are two species of hare: the mountain hare is common in most the area, while the European hare is common in southern Finland and has a smaller introduced population in Sweden. The former is smaller (but paws are large, an adaption to deep snow), white in winter except the ear tops, and a master at making confusing trails (running back and forth, jumping to the side etc.).
Other carnivores include raccoon dog (in Finland, south of the Arctic circle), pine marten, mink (originally escaped from fur farms, now common), European polecat (in Finland except Lapland, in southern Sweden and in south-east Norway), ermine and least weasel. The European mink, not very closely related to the American, is classified as extinct here, partly as outcompeted by the latter.
You will also encounter many different birds, and in the spring and early summer you'll often hear the cuckoo.
Iceland and Norway have steep cliffs, where thousands of water fowl nest.
Norway's coastline has the largest number of the big European sea-eagle (also known as white-tailed eagle). The big bird is protected by law and can only be observed from a distance. The large number of eagles, particularly around Bodø, means that they are frequently seen. The eagle has also become common by the Finnish coasts, thanks to massive conservation programs after especially chemicals such as DDT and mercury had made it nearly extinct. By the fjords, in the Scandinavian mountains and in the Finnish northern inland, there is also the golden eagle (called "king eagle" in Finnish and Swedish).
Other birds of prey live in the mountains and along fjords, for instance the rough-legged buzzard (can be confused with eagles or hawks), goshawk, and falcons such as the gyrfalcon. A good binocular is usually needed to better see these birds.
Water bodies also have animals to spot, especially the Atlantic Ocean where you can see whales, seals, fish, and a range of smaller creatures living in the sea. You can see seabirds as well, ranging from gulls to white-tailed eagles. One rare encounter is the critically endangered Saimaa ringed seal (saimaannorppa), a seal that only lives in Lake Saimaa.
Swimming is allowed and possible nearly everywhere in the hundreds of thousands lakes around the region – or in the sea and rivers. You should keep a reasonable distance to homes, cottages and private peers (in Norway at least 50 metres from residential buildings). In many areas sandy beaches are rare, but smooth cliffs by the shore common and sometimes preferred by locals. Look out for streams, half-submerged logs and slippery rocks. Towards the latter half of the summer, lakes and the sea (particularly the Baltic Sea) may get infested by cyanobacteria ("algal bloom"), which produce neurotoxins. In that case you shouldn't swim there. Otherwise the water is usually clean (a brownish colour is common in many areas and nothing to worry about).
The further north you get, the colder the water will become and swimming in the Arctic Sea or in a lake or stream in the far north will likely be a somewhat cold experience even in the summer. Still, some of the locals love to swim in cold water, even in the winter where it's frozen over. A hole is made in the ice (Swedish: vak, Finnish avanto) after which it is possible to swim in the near-freezing water. There are many events in the winter themed around winter swimming.
In Finland, this is often accompanied with a sauna bath to warm you up before and after, although going to the sauna is common all around the year. There are saunas at most Finnish hotels and cottages and at some huts, for a fee or for free. At more primitive facilities, you are often supposed to heat the sauna yourself, to carry water and to make firewood.
It is possible to gather your own food in the wilderness. From Midsummer to autumn you can pick berries and mushrooms (see the Eat section). Note that mushrooms can actually be the most dangerous thing you'll see in the forests; make sure you know the mushroom you are picking and the possible local doppelgangers. Hunting and fishing are quite popular activities on the countryside, but except for fishing under certain circumstances you will usually need permission from the landowner, the authorities or both (see the Fees section).
While hiking is something done by foot, there are other ways of getting around too, some of which are experiences in themselves. If you want to get around in the woods (or elsewhere) when there is snow, cross-country skiing can be a good alternative. Rivers, lakes and the sea are places for canoeing, kayaking and yachting (see the Get around section). If you like mountaineering, your best opportunities are in Norway or near the Norwegian border in Sweden. For this activity you need more gear than for regular hiking, and in some cases – e.g. for glacier tours – a guide too. Elsewhere mountains are generally lower and not so steep, hence it is possible to reach the peaks by just walking. Rock climbing is possible here and there in most of the area.
There are also other destination-specific activities such as gold panning at some spots in Lapland.
You are allowed to pick berries and mushrooms and you can buy permits for fishing (some fishing is free, but this varies by region) and sometimes even for hunting (be sure to complete the needed paperwork beforehand). What you get can be used to make your meals more varied and can sometimes allow you an extra day, but do not count on it. Picking berries or mushrooms near others, or their homes and cottages, can be considered rude.
As anywhere, food for a few days can quite easily be carried, but for longer journeys you need to plan carefully. Even when most of the journey is through wilderness you might pass places where you can replenish. Food is sold at many huts: selvbetjent hytte (with dried and canned food) and betjent hytte in Norway and many fjällstuga in Sweden. In Finland and Iceland such "huts" are rare, you will have better luck trying to pass by a village with a shop, the smallest ones sometimes serving you on request outside normal hours as well.
You can also get meals at some destinations: food is served in the fjällstation in the Swedish fells and betjent hytte in the Norwegian outdoors. In Finland some tourist businesses serve meals also in the wilderness on request (if not too far from usable roads or off-road routes), otherwise you could at least have a good meal before or after your hike – or have a guide catering for the meals. The normal way is to cook one's own food, though, at least most of the time.
Cooking food over an open fire is nice and you may have plenty of opportunities, but open fires are not allowed when there is a risk of forest fire, and not everywhere. Wilderness huts have stoves, where you can cook your meals, but you are advised to also carry your own camping stove. Check in advance that fuel is available for your stove, in the right package if you use gas; locals typically use denatured alcohol (Sweden: "T-sprit", Finland: "marinoli" or "sinoli", note that also other products sold under the last name) or propane (or propane/butane/whatever), in Iceland mainly the latter [check!].
If you plan picking mushrooms, do make sure you pick only edible ones and treat them correctly, and if you have any doubt in your ability to avoid eating poisonous mushrooms, carefully consider whether to pick any at all. Beware that some deadly mushrooms may resemble edible ones growing where you come from. Be especially cautious about anything that can be mixed with Amanita species such as Death cap and European destroying angel or with Deadly webcap. The false morel Gyromitra esculenta is regarded a delicacy, but is potentially deadly unless carefully prepared the right way. "Safe" mushrooms that are often picked include chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and many species of ceps (Boletus), e.g. porcini (Boletus edulis). Most mushrooms are extremely perishable, so handle them with care. Mushroom picking trips with an expert guide are arranged at many locations, or you might have a knowledgeable friend who could give you advice.
Commonly picked berries include bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), bog bilberry (V. uliginosum), strawberry, raspberry, lingonberry (cowberry), cranberry, cloudberry and crowberry. There are also poisonous berries, but they should be easy to distinguish from these. The berries can be eaten untreated, although some of them are at their best as juice or jam. Picking cloudberry may be restricted in northern Norway and northern Finland, so check before picking large quantities (eating as much as you want on the spot is always allowed). In Iceland berries may be picked only for immediate consumption.
Choice of food varies very much depending on the length of the journey and possibilities of replenishment – and personal preferences. Also, the season affects choices: in cool weather you might not need a fridge, but many fruits and vegetables dislike freezing temperatures (heard at a winter camp: "may I have a slice of milk, please").
In Finland, a common choice for hiking breakfasts is oat porridge with soup made from berry powder (kissel, fruit soup; Finnish: kiisseli, Swedish: kräm). Lunch should be easy to prepare, an extreme variety being to heat water at breakfast and put soup powder in it at lunch. Sandwiches are common on shorter hikes. If weather and terrain permits, a somewhat more time-consuming lunch can be made. The heaviest meal is usually eaten in the evening (contrary to local practice at home) — often freeze-dried stews or meals with dehydrated mashed potato or pasta combined with e.g. suitable tins. On longer hikes crispbread (näkkileipä/knäckebröd) is often used as snack and accompaniment. Fresh fish made by open fire is a luxury, as is self-made bread or wild herbs as complement. Some prefer to avoid the industrialised food altogether, using home-dried ingredients.
Wash up dishes some distance from the water source and pour used water on land, not in the stream (there is no bear problem here). Washing-up liquids are usually unnecessary if you can use hot water.
In the wilderness you can usually drink good-looking water from springs and streams without treatment, and most hikers do. There is no guarantee, however. A dead elk or reindeer upstream even at bigger streams can make you severely ill with no warnings. In general, streams from high ground have the best water, particularly from areas too high for animals to graze. In the high mountains, free-flowing streams offer superb water quality, and lakes in the high mountains also have good water (but water directly from glaciers has lots of particles and is best avoided). In periods of warm weather, water in minor slow-running streams can easily become unhealthy. Heavy rains, although they increase the flow, also increase the amounts of unhealthy elements from the ground.
You might be advised to boil your water for a few minutes unless tested (and it is wise to do so if you have any doubts about the quality; boiling seems to be more effective than filtering) – but drinking the water fresh from a stream is one of the pleasures. Water with visible amounts of cyanobacteria is unusable also as boiled, but you would probably not drink that anyway.
Where natural water (or snow) can be used, you do not want to carry excess water. Half a litre to one litre per person is usually enough for breaks between water sources. In wintertime you might prefer a thermos bottle.
When planning where to eat or stay overnight, remember that the smaller streams running off fells without glaciers may be dry in hot summers. Have a backup plan with more reliable sources if in doubt.
In populated areas the water is more likely to be unhealthy, e.g. because of roads, settlements or grazing cattle upstream. Also in some boggy areas, and in certain types of terrain in Iceland, good water is hard to find. Tap water is nearly always potable (except in trains, boats and similar); you can expect there to be a warning if it is not.
At "official" destinations there are usually wells, unless a nearby stream can be used. The water may or may not be usable untreated. If the water is supposed to be good, there should be official test results confirming the quality. The snow is usually clean if it looks so, and can be melted on the stove (if there is both a gas stove and a wood heated one, the wood stove should mostly be used for this, to save gas).
Private wells may not be used without permission, but if you are polite, people at any house will probably be happy to give you water.
You are probably going to carry a tent, at least as a safeguard. Using it is free in the wilderness, but when camping at a site with facilities, you may have to pay for the service.
There are also lodging facilities of varying standards, especially at "official" destinations and maintained trails. In northern Finland there are open wilderness huts (in the south lean-to shelters are more common), where small parties can stay overnight for free. In Sweden and Norway you usually have to pay for the lodging, but the huts have a more hostel like standard, sometimes B&B or hotel like. The "huts" are usually cottages, but some resemble the traditional goahti (kota, kammi, gamme, kåta). If you have a dog, check where it is allowed. Some facilities are meant only for those moving by foot or ski (check separately, if you e.g. are using a snowmobile).
In Finland most wilderness huts are maintained by Metsähallitus, the governmental forestry administration. Many huts in Norway are maintained by "dugnad" (common work) by local clubs of the non profit DNT, Den Norske Turistforening, or administered by DNT. Within the Norwegian DNT-system there are more than 500 lodges available. Svenska Turistföreningen (STF) administers many of the huts in Sweden. There are often discounts for members of the tourist associations involved, and possibly of their sister organisations in other countries. You will also need the key of DNT to access many of the huts.
You might want to stay at a hotel or other non-wilderness facility before or after your hike. There is also the possibility to rent a cottage as a base for your hikes, either by the roads, with service in reach, or in the backwoods.
There are accommodations with sheets and pillows in some areas, but unless you know you are going to get to use such service every night, you will need to have sleeping bags and hiking mattresses. Mostly the "three season" version, with "comfort" temperature at freezing or somewhat below and "extreme" temperature about -15°C to -25°C, is the right choice. Freezing night temperatures are possible all the year in the north and in the mountains, most of the year elsewhere. Sleeping bags for "summer" use are adequate in summer with some luck (at least with a sheet and the right pyjamas), but use your judgement before trusting one for a certain hike. If hiking in cold weather, the hiking mattress is not just a luxury, but as essential as the rest of the gear. It need not be expensive, but should be good enough.
Unless having some experience or going for extreme adventures, you probably do not intend to sleep outdoors without a fire in winter. For mountain hikes and for winter hikes in the north, unless you have a good guide, you should make sure you have some understanding of the worst case scenarios.
Sleeping bags for the winter are unnecessarily warm indoors. A version with double bags (use only one when in a hut) is probably a good choice.
Even when you plan to use huts, a tent may be a necessary safeguard. Local hikers mostly use tents with waterproof roof and bottom and a mosquito proof but breathing inner layer. The typical size is "2–3 persons". Larger tents are often clumsy and heavy. In the fells the tent should be usable also in hard winds (learn how to cope).
There are tents warmed by fire, either with a stove (typically the same types as the military uses) or constructed for an open fire (the Sámi lávvu, the Finnish laavu or loue or similar). They are quite commonly used, but weight or need of firewood make them impractical on many wilderness hikes. In some of these, three season sleeping bags are adequate also in cold winter nights.
In spring and autumn, when the nights are not too cold and the mosquitoes are absent, a laavu, loue or tarp tent can be a real alternative also where you cannot keep an overnight fire: lighter than tents, giving shelter in the evening and getting you closer to the nightly nature.
You might get away without a tent in areas where extreme conditions are unlikely. In Norway, where light packings are the norm, bivvy bags or similar are commonly carried instead, but you should know how to survive in any foreseeable conditions with the equipment you choose.
There are no fees for using the tent in national parks and similar in Finland. There may be a fee in Norway and Sweden, if you want to use facilities of non-free huts (toilets etcetera – which you are supposed to intend to use if you camp nearby).
You are often allowed to camp freely in the backcountry. In minor protected areas, where there is no true backcountry, camping is often restricted to designated campsites, possibly outside the area proper. Camping by infrastructure such as campfire sites and lean-to and cooking shelters is usually allowed (put the tent up at a small distance, so that also others can use the facilities).
Outside protected areas the right to access allows camping, as long as you keep the distance to people and do not disturb. If you are staying in the same place for more than one night (or a few, if far enough from people), you should make sure the landowner does not mind. Probably you should ask for permission and give something to show appreciation.
Camping sites do have fees. If you are planning to stay near a camping site you should probably use it and pay the fee – but you are free to find a suitable place for your tent somewhere further from people, if you prefer.
Lean-to shelters (Finnish: laavu, kiintolaavu; Norwegian: gapahuk; Swedish: vindskydd, skärmskydd) are structures with a leaning roof and three walls, often of timber, with a campfire place near the missing front wall. They are common in Finnish national parks and usually primarily intended for breaks, but can be used for spending the evening or even the night. There is often a pit toilet, a woodshed and some water source nearby.
Although the lean-to shelters are constructed also for overnight stay, you might sleep more comfortably in your tent nearby. The shelters are usually designed so that the fire will be of little use to persons sleeping, to avoid massive consumption of firewood. In Sweden some, but not all, shelters are meant for overnight stays.
There are similar shelters made from tent fabric (Finnish: laavu), which can be carried instead of a tent. Where keeping a big enough fire through the night is possible, they offer a lighter and warmer solution than normal tents – but the firewood is hardly available in non-emergencies unless you know the landowner. Traditionally these, or similar shelters made from spruce branches, were used with a log fire, which would burn steadily through the night (rakovalkea, nying; the dimensions of the logs: an inch an hour, the length of an axe handle per person). Lone Finnish wanderers would use an even lighter loue or erätoveri (a kind of tarp tent) in the same fashion.
Day huts (in Sweden: rastskydd, in Finland päivätupa, raststuga) are wilderness huts not meant for staying overnight. They can be nice locations for a lunch break and similar and in emergencies they may be used also for overnight stay.
In many Finnish national parks there are so called "Lap pole tents", primarily used as day huts, but at least some suitable also for overnight stay. They are much more primitive than the normal wilderness huts, their construction inspired by the Sámi timber or peat goahtis.
The Norwegian emergency huts (nødbue) are also commonly used as day huts.
The Icelandic day huts are generally emergency huts (neyðarskýli), run by the local search and resque teams. Road signs with an red house and a blue border will lead you to the emergency huts.
Open wilderness huts
Open wilderness huts are unmanned and unlocked cottages open for use without any fee. They are typical for the Finnish national parks and wilderness areas, but open wilderness huts exist also in other countries.
Most wilderness huts in Finland are maintained by Metsähallitus. Wilderness huts maintained by others (typically by reindeer herders, fishers, hunters or the border guard) work much in the same way, but are usually not marked as such on official maps. Nowadays many of these other huts are locked, especially at popular destinations.
The wilderness huts may be very primitive, but typically provide at least beds (without mattresses or blankets; traditionally, but seldom nowadays, one wide bunk bed for all to share), a table and benches, a stove for heat and cooking (often separate, the latter with gas), firewood, a well or other water source and a guest book. There may be a folder with instructions. There should be a pit toilet nearby (use your own toilet paper). You usually get light by your own candles and torch. The capacity varies, with beds for six to twelve persons being typical; sleeping on the floor is not unusual.
Wilderness huts may not be used for commercial overnight stays, but may otherwise be used by anybody moving by foot for one or two nights. In some huts you are explicitly allowed to stay somewhat longer. The ones arriving last have an absolute right to the facilities: if there is no room left, earlier guest have to leave, be it in the middle of the night (such latecomers are probably in dire need of the shelter). Usually there is room for everybody, with proper consideration, but larger parties coming early should go to sleep in their tents instead (or use a reservation hut), to avoid hassle.
If you stay for more than one night, you should put up your tent and keep the hut tidy, so that you easily can leave it for another party turning up (still having some equipment drying and making food indoors is usually no problem). Otherwise the newcomers will probably themselves put their tent up. If the area is busy, you should leave the hut after one night, unless there are special reasons for you to stay (drenched equipment, snowstorm, what have you).
Much of the responsibility for maintaining wilderness huts is by their guests (regular maintenance being done only biennially at many remote huts). Check the stove before using it and report any faults that you cannot repair yourself. Make sure there is dry firewood ready for use (the next party may arrive late, wet and cold).
In Sweden similar wilderness huts can have a fee, paid after the visit by giro forms available at the hut. Unlocked compartments of manned huts (or a small unlocked hut nearby), available for emergencies when the hut is closed outside season, work in a similar way.
In Iceland too you are supposed to pay for using unlocked wilderness huts. Some of the huts are intended for use in summer only and may lack a stove. There are also emergency huts (usually painted red or orange), where you are not supposed to stay in normal circumstances. If you do use the hut, sign the guest book and tell if you used any of the supplies.
Also in Norway there are open huts for overnight stay in emergencies (nødbue), often used as day huts otherwise. The standard resembles that of Finnish open wilderness huts. In some areas of Norway (particularly those not covered by the trekking association) there are also very basic huts maintained by regional mountain councils.
Locked wilderness huts
Some wilderness huts are locked, with the key available from a park visitor centre or similar location. In Norway the key of DNT is used for most of these, but not all. A few of the Norwegian huts are closed in midwinter, in the hunt season in autumn or in the reindeer calving season in May–June. In Finland booking is compulsory, in Norway typically not possible.
Ubetjent hytte in Norway resembles the open wilderness huts in Finland, but has mattresses, blankets and pillows (use your own sheet bag/sheets). Extra mattresses are available, so that everybody gets a place to sleep even when the hut is crowded. The price is typically NOK100–200 per person for a night, but sometimes quite a bit more.
Selvbetjent hytte is also unmanned (except possibly in season), but with possibilities to buy food, which is paid together with the accommodation. The food item selection is intended to be sufficient (but no perishables).
Reservation huts in Finland are often available at popular destinations, meant for larger or commercial parties and those wanting a guaranteed bed. They are often located by an open wilderness hut (and may consist of a separate locked department of this). They are like the open wilderness huts, but often have mattresses, blankets and pillows. The fee is about €10 per person for a night.
Wilderness huts in Iceland have sleeping bag accommodations (use your own sleeping bags), a WC and either a kitchen or a stove. The huts are open during the summer, closed during the winter. To ensure a place in the hut you should reserve in advance. The price is typically 4500–7000 ISK for a night. Some of the wilderness huts are manned during the summer.
Manned wilderness cottages
In Sweden and Norway it is common to have bigger staffed wilderness cottages in popular areas. You may or may not be able to reserve a bed beforehand and there may be service available, such as food to buy or meals served. The standard is sometimes like that of a hostel or even a hotel.
Fjällstuga in Sweden are often located by trails at 10–20 km distances, equipped with mattresses, blankets, pillows and kitchen utensils. There may be a sauna and a kiosk for buying food (quite limited assortment). The guests are supposed to fetch water, make firewood, clean up etcetera themselves. Booking beds may or may not be possible. Larger parties or persons with dogs should announce their arrival beforehand. Prices vary, typically 150–400 SEK/night/person.
If the cottage is closed outside seasons, there may be an unlocked room available for emergencies (see open wilderness huts above).
The Swedish fjällstation are larger establishments, with both hostel and hotel like lodging, restaurant, self-service kitchen, sauna and other facilities. In season booking beds is recommended. Outside season the fjällstation may be closed, with an unlocked space available for emergencies (see open wilderness huts).
Betjent hytte in Norway often have electricity, dinners with wine, bedrooms for a few persons each and dormitories, showers and drying rooms. Their web pages usually show weather forecasts for the area. The price for room and meals might be around 700 NOK/night/person for members (cheaper in dormitory).
Outside season they may function as unmanned self-service (selvbetjent) or serviceless (obetjent) hytte.
Rental huts and cottages
If you want a base for exploration of an area you might want to rent a hut or cottage. Some may be available for a single night also. The cottages may be maintained by governmental agencies, tourist businesses, associations or private people. The standards and prices vary wildly.
Statskog in Norway has some 80 cottages for rent across the country for NOK400+ per night.
Many former border guard huts, little used open wilderness huts and similar in Finland have been transformed to rental huts. These are usually maintained by Metsähallitus.
It is not legal to park a motor-home on most parking places. Usually it is legal to spend the night on a rest area along the roads, but especially in southern Sweden, there have been thefts there. It is recommended to stay at camping sites if having a motorhome. In Finland, using rest areas for caravans is possible at least while visiting some wilderness areas.
Hotels and other high standard accommodation is used by many hikers before or after a long journey, to get a good rest and as a way to become ready for the civilisation (or for the hike). There are often hotels and other high level accommodation available near "official" hiking destinations.
You might want to buy an all-round hiking and handicraft knife, either a Finnish "puukko" or a Sami "leuku" or "niibi", and a Sami wooden cup "guksi" (Finnish: kuksa, Swedish: kåsa). Quality varies from cheap import to masterpieces by local craftsmen – and the price accordingly.
The literature for sale at park visitor centres may be interesting – and a postcard is never wrong. There are some souvenirs to buy, but you probably want to look in real shops also.
Some shops in the country side have an impressing collection of things, worth investigating if something breaks or you lack something essential. They may also be willing to order things for you. Buying food here instead of in supermarkets will help these shops survive, but hiker's specialities, such as freeze-dried foods, may not be available. Opening hours are often short (but sometimes very flexible) and some shops are closed off-season.
You might want to check beforehand where to get products of local artists, craftsmen and craftswomen. Tourist shops may have quite a limited assortment of the real thing, with lots of (possibly imported) kitsch instead.
- You are on your own.
- Be aware that in general there are no guards on duty and mostly no fences. Also warning signs are used sparingly in the Nordic countries – do not expect any in the wilderness. People are supposed to use their own judgement; if something looks dangerous, it probably is.
- You do not have immediate help available on your hike. While cell (mobile) phones add to safety, hikers can not rely on them: In some areas there is no phone coverage in the lowlands and valleys. You have to be able to help yourself for quite a while in any likely situation. The obvious minimal precaution is to never go alone and never without experienced enough company.
- Somebody knowing your plans and calling for help if you do not return on time is a good life insurance (if you are delayed, do tell the person or, if that fails, the emergency service).
- Stay warm and dry
- The main hazard in the Nordic countries is cold weather, which can turn minor mishaps into emergencies. Hypothermia can happen even in summer at above freezing temperature. Water and wind increases cooling tenfold and can turn an easy hike into an unpleasant and even dangerous situation. At high altitudes (such as in Jotunheimen) strong wind and snowfall can occur even if there is nice weather in the valleys beneath. Bring basic winter clothing (beanie, gloves, scarf, warm jumper, wind proof jacket) even in summer for higher altitudes and longer hikes.
- Frostbite is a risk at temperatures considerably below freezing, particularly when wind adds to the cooling effect. Frostbite occurs first or primarily in extremities (fingers, toes) and exposed areas of the face. Hypothermia and frostbite are related because hypothermia causes the body to withdraw heat and blood from the limbs to protect the body core. Alcohol, smoking, medical conditions and insufficient food and water increase the risk.
- In mountainous areas there are all the usual risks, including fog, high waters, avalanches and snowstorms even in the summer at sufficient altitudes. Heed the advice and you will be reasonably safe. See also Snow safety and Mountaineering.
- Know where you are
- It is easy to get lost at ridiculously short distances in unfamiliar terrain. Take a careful look even if you are going only for a minute. Dense forest, fog and open plateaus with no clear landmarks are the most difficult.
- Always take a map and compass with you when leaving the immediate vicinity of your camp (electronics is no substitute, only a supplement – instead of checking battery status you should create a good mental map). Learn to use a compass for navigation and learn to match your map with the terrain.
- If you do get lost, admit it and stop immediately. A few minutes of good rest is surprisingly effective at making you think clearly again. Lines in the terrain can be used to find way back, for instance rivers (rivers can lead you to settlements or to lakes and other points that can be identified on the map), power lines and slopes. But beware of slopes making you change direction and leading you only to a local depression, rivers leading you to hard-to-walk wet terrain, etc. Check the map for what lines are usable.
- Bugs and animals
- Mosquitoes and black flies are a nuisance in June and July, especially in Lapland and Finnmark. They do not carry diseases, but repellents, long sleeves, long pants and perhaps a mosquito hat in the worst areas are recommended. Avoid keeping doors and windows open in the evening.
- Ticks can carry Lyme disease and TBE in some areas (mainly south Norway to south-west Finland). The risk is small for a casual visitor, but you may want to take precautions.
- There are big predators like bears, wolves, lynxes and wolverines in the Nordic countries, but they are generally no threat to people, as they will flee in most circumstances once they smell or hear humans. Back out if you encounter bear cubs, as their mother will protect them. Also musk oxen, elks and boars can be dangerous if you go too close.
- If you are hiking in the hunting season (the autumn), in areas where hunting is allowed, you should wear some orange or red clothing. Ask for local advice about whether any areas should be avoided. Hunting season varies by species. Moose hunting is common in the forest areas of Sweden, Finland, East Norway and Trøndelag. Red deer hunting is common in West Norway. Reindeer hunting occurs mostly in the barren mountains.
- Be careful in sun
- Clear Nordic air, high altitude and snow patches can multiply the effect of the sun, which hardly sets during the Nordic summer. Snow blindness is a serious risk, so bring UV-resistant sunglasses, and preferably mountain goggles. Bring sun cream or sun block (sun protection factor). Light can be strong in the highlands even if the sun is not visible.
- Glaciers are one of the most dangerous places for visitors to the Norwegian outdoors. Never underestimate the power of the glacier. Observe warning signs. Never approach the front of the glacier. A glacier is not a stable piece of ice, it is constantly moving and huge chunks regularly fall off.
- The sun's rays get reflected from the white snow, so it necessary to use sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes. Bring warm clothes for tours on the glacier.
- Do not enter a glacier without proper equipment and a skilled local guide.
Rules of mountain conduct
Norway's trekking association has compiled a set of rules or guidelines for sensible hiking, "fjellvettreglene":
- Don't go for a long hike without training.
- Tell where you are going.
- Respect weather and forecast
- Be prepared for storm and cold weather even on shorter hikes. Bring a rucksack with the kind of gear needed.
- Listen to experienced hikers.
- Dont hike alone.
- Use map and compass
- Turn back in time, it is nothing to be ashamed of.
- Don't waste your energy. Dig into snow if necessary.
Out of the Nordic countries, Iceland is the only one with active volcanoes.
As a precautionary mesure carry a cell phone and a battery powered radio, and heed to warnings from the Icelandic civil protection about hazardous areas. Listen to either the radio station Rás 1 or Bylgjan. Rás 1 is on the LW frequencies 189 kHz and 207 kHz. For the FM frequencies see rás 1 map. For the FM frequencies of Bylgjan see bylgjan map. Pay attention to any SMS messages you get, as the Icelandic civil protection does send out SMS messages in Icelandic and English to phones in hazardous areas.
Should an eruption occur the ash can spread throughout the whole country depending on the wind direction. Eruptions increase the chance of lightnings and a glacial eruption will generate n flood in rivers with sources at the melting glacier.
Regardless of where you are in the country during an eruption, consider the wind direction and consider whether the wind can spread the ash to you. As an alternative you can use the mobile website of the Icelandic met office. If so, walk high up in the landscape to avoid poisonous gases, cover your nostrils and mouth with a cloth. Should the ash get thick or if you have an asthma, go into the next day or wilderness hut, close windows on the side that the wind blows at, close the chimney and stay there until the wind direction changes.
Should you be in close proximity of an eruption walk opposite to the wind direction to get out of the area. If you have concerns that you cannot abandon a hazardous area in time, do not hesitate to call the emergency number 112.
Many people you meet on remote trails are there to be with nature only. They might not be interested in socializing and will probably frown upon noisy behaviour. It is common, though, to stop and exchange a few words, e.g. about the terrain ahead. Some might of course be interested in where you come from. People are often less reserved with strangers when they are in the wilderness.
Smoking is disliked by many and can be a serious hazard. In hot and dry periods a cigarette butt can cause a forest fire (even if "extinguished"), so just like with other litter, avoid leaving them in nature. Smoking indoors is mostly prohibited. Where locals smoke you might follow their example, but otherwise try to be a good example yourself.
Even if there is right of access, wilderness is often privately owned. In Norway only barren high mountains are public (government) property. Trails and bridges are usually maintained by volunteers (the trekking association for instance) or by landowners for the visitors' benefit. Keep in mind that you are a guest on somebody's private land. There can be grazing animals and big game that should not be disturbed. Do not leave garbage behind. It is increasingly popular among visitors to build stone cairns in the wilderness, along rocky beaches and on mountain passes. Stone cairns are used to mark trails and can in fact be misleading to hikers. Visitors building cairns often pick stones from stone fences, some of which are actually cultural heritage or in use. It is illegal to alter nature like this, even if only with a simple boulder.
Similar considerations apply on public land. Most of Lapland is government-owned due to the Sámi not having had the same notion of ownership. The inhabitants are as dependent on the wilderness as if they owned the land. And where facilities are maintained by taxpayer money, they are the result of a common will, which should be held in no less regard than private donations.
As names on maps and signs usually indicate topography, understanding some landscape words can be useful. If you have the possibility to study large scale maps beforehand, you might want to check the meaning of the most frequent prefixes and suffixes, but some are listed here. They often tell things not obvious from the map about the terrain feature or give hints about the history of the area.
In the Sami area place names are usually of Sami origin, also when this is not obvious. E.g. Lemmenjoki is originally "warm river" (from Sami: leammi; Finnish: lämmin), not "river of love" (Finnish: lempi, lemmen). Terrain features of the area are often called by the Sami word (e.g. "jåkk", johka, instead of the Swedish words for streams).
The languages involved use compound nouns. Names are typically created by compounding words, where the last part indicates what landscape feature it is. For instance Jostedalsbreen is a name created from Jostedal (Joste Valley) and bre (glacier), in other words, the glacier at Jostedal. Often the words are in plural and/or genitive, which slightly modifies the words, in Finnish and Sámi not always too slightly.
In addition, in Norwegian and Swedish, the definite article ("the") appears as a suffix, integrated in the word, so breen means the glacier.
There are a couple of different Sámi languages and their orthography was standardized just a few decades ago, which means there are spelling differences also independently of which of the languages is involved.
Swedish and Norwegian
- fjell, fjäll
- mountain, summit, peak (refers to landscape stretching above the tree line, may refer to a specific summit or to mountains in general)
- high, open plateau (above tree line)
- innsjø, vann, vatn, sjö
- lake, pond
- tjern, tjärn
- pond, small lake, tarn
- forest, woods
- myr, kärr
- mire, bog
- ur, taluskon
- scree, talus deposits
- bre, fonn, skavl, glaciär
- glacier, snowdrift
- juv, kløft/klyfta, ravin
- gorge, ravine, canyon
- elv, bekk/älv, å, bäck
- river, stream, creek
- barren mountains
- tree line
- path, trail
- øy/ö, holme, skär
- island, islet
- foss/fors, vattenfall
- waterfall, rapids
- fell, fjall
- high open plateau
- vatn, tjörn
- lake, pond
- mire, bog
- fjord, bay
- gjá, gljúfur
- gorge, ravine, canyon
- eyja, sker
- island, islet
Finnish and Sámi
- vuori, tunturi/tuodtar, vaara / várri
- mountain, summit, peak; vuori is the general word in Finnish, tunturi and vaara do respectively do not extend past the tree line – but várri in Sámi is the general word for hill or mountain (often about big steep ones), often "translated" as vaara; tunturi/duottarmailbmi is also used about all the region above the tree line
- kaisa/gaissa; kero/tseärru; oaivi; kielas/gielas, kaita/skäidi; rova/roavvi
mountains of different forms: high snow covered peek; heap-shaped mountain above the tree line; round mountain above the tree line ("head"); ridge; stony hill with sparse forest
- mäki, kallio, harju/puoldsa
- hill, (hill of) solid rock, esker
- skäidi, selkä/cielgi
- ridge, watershed area (selkä also expanse of sea or large lake)/ridge with birch, by a mountain
- high and steep hillside
- lake, pond
- water, often meaning "lake" in names
- lähde, kaltio/galdu
- pond, small lake, tarn
- suo, rahka, räme, aapa/aaphe, jänkä/jeäggi, vuoma/vuobme
- mire, bog; suo is the general word, the others different types; vuoma/vuobmi also valley
- frost mound (in mire or bog)
- glacier, snowdrift
- rotko/autsi, ävdzi, gorsa
- gorge, ravine, canyon
- joki, eno, puro, oja/eädnu, johka,
- river, stream, creek
- metsä; kuusikko, männikkö, koivikko etc.
- forest, woods; the latter woods of different tree species (kuusi=spruce, mänty=pine, koivu=birch)
- border, limit
- tree line
- border zone
- kuusimetsän raja
- (northern) limit for spruce ("kuusi") forests
- polku, reitti
- path, trail
- mökki, pirtti, tupa; kammi/gamme
- cottage, hut; turf hut
- Sámi village or community
- spirit, holy object
- saari, luoto
- island, islet
- koski, niva, kurkkio, kortsi/gorzze
- rapids, the latter ones steep and stony
- suvanto, savu
- still water (below a rapids)
- steep rapids, minor waterfall
There may be mailboxes and stamps available at shops and tourist businesses. Instead of poste restante you might want to use a suitable c/o address. Ask about local practises.
There is generally good mobile phone coverage in the Nordic countries, but not necessarily where you need it. Some wilderness huts have phones for emergency calls (not any more in Finland)
In mountainous terrain there is often no signal in the valleys. In remote areas there may be no signal except on fell tops. 3G is often only available near big towns and important tourist resorts and along some main roads. You may want to test important Internet services with a low speed connection (even 9600 bit/s) beforehand. There are SMS weather services.
Coverage varies from one provider to another. If you have more than one phone (SIM card) in the company, you might want to have different providers. Note that the best signal may be from a neighbouring country and you thus may have to pay for international calls even with a domestic SIM card, if you let the phone choose provider.
Keep your phone dry. Remember that batteries are used much faster where there is bad signal. Keep your phone off most of the time. Electricity is usually not available in the backcountry, not necessarily even in cottages and homes.
The emergency number 112 works in all the Nordic countries. There may be special numbers for some emergencies, but 112 can handle them all. Calls to 112 are toll free and work without any regard to locks with most phones. Just type in the number. In fact, you might in some cases want to remove the SIM card to make sure the phone uses the best connection available. Sadly, the Swedish 112 puts SIM-less calls on hold until you press "5". In Finland such calls will be placed on hold for about half a minute before they are answered.
For satellite phones the emergency service number is +46 63 107 112 (Sweden) or +358 16 333 7540 (Finland, check!). Inmarsat-14 satellites are only about 15 degrees above the southern horizon and thus easily blocked by higher terrain or other obstacles. Iridium does not have this problem.
Do not hesitate to tell the emergency service about any problems that may lead to an emergency. Make sure you also call them to tell them you are safe, and likewise when you are late and somebody may call to start a rescue operation. The expenses are easily five figure numbers – in Euro per hour (normally paid by taxpayer money, but you do not want to abuse the system).
Location might be best told as ETRS89/WGS84 coordinates (check beforehand whether that is what is used on your map). Direction and distance from a well-known location or any coordinate system on your map can also be used. Tell some names near the position also, to avoid mistakes. Note that both 360° and several mil systems (60, 63 or 64 hektomil for a circle) are used on compasses and that some names, such as Ailigas ("holy fell"), are ambiguous. In Finland the emergency service may ask for municipality and address (they serve huge areas), but they will be reasonable when you tell them you do not know.
There are often waste bins at huts, shelters and campfire sites. Especially in the backcountry you should avoid using these, and pack out instead. Emptying waste bins in backcountry means unnecessary and costly traffic. Food scraps and similar should not be placed in a waste bin unless you know it will be emptied soon. Small amounts of organic waste, such as food scraps, can be placed in pit toilets (and more advanced composting toilets). There are separate composters at some locations. At recycling points paper, metal and glass may be taken care of separately. Off trails organic waste can also be buried, if need be, but especially in peat and above the treeline, decomposing may take many years. Pure paper can be burnt in campfires and stoves, but metal or plastic covered paper should be packed out. Do not leave waste for others to burn.
Along trails there are usually toilets at huts and often at shelters and campfire sites, usually sufficiently for your bigger needs. These are usually dry toilets: an outhouse with a hole in the bench and a bucket with peat, sawdust or similar to cover your faeces with. You may have to use your own toilet paper. Washing your hands is usually your own problem. Off trails and between huts, advice of Leave-no-trace camping can be followed.