Taking Time Off The Trail To Experience A Truly Swedish Phenomenon…
We never envisaged that on the second day of our journey on the Kungsleden trail, we’d be bailing out early to sit naked with a group of strangers in a little, wooden room heated to nearly 100 Cº! (Well, almost naked…) As newcomers to the Swedish sauna, we weren’t quite brave enough to bare everything the first time round. But this taster session certainly provided an insight into the Swedish psyche, where nudity is completely normal and natural, making us reserved Brits feel very prudish indeed. It also enabled us to get properly acquainted with sauna etiquette ready for our second visit where we did bare all, as we were assured that sweating away life’s problems in a baking-hot sauna is an essential part of the Swedish experience!
We had to quickly get comfortable in our own skin, and as first-time visitors, overcome that initial ‘awkwardness’ of knowing where to focus your eyes. But once you let go of your own hang-ups, you can really enjoy the sauna for what it is – the perfect place to relieve a bit of stress and tension, and revive your aching muscles, which we very much needed after yesterday’s intensive start. We found the experience to be both wonderfully relaxing and super-liberating, plus a little crazy. This is in reference to the bit where you then go outside (still naked) and run into the lake to refresh yourself in the freezing water. (We were told that in winter you roll in the snow instead!) No wonder the Swedes incorporate saunas into their daily lives… And have installed them, together with the mountain huts, along the 270 mile Kungsleden trail! We couldn’t wait to reach the next one!
But before our first initiation into Swedish culture, we had some heavy rain to contend with and a wet tent to pack up… Here is a round-up of Day 2 on the Kungsleden, a fairly uneventful day on the trail had it not been for stripping down to our undies and trying our first sauna!
Continuing on the Kungsleden… We brought along our little Lego hiker ‘Mini-Me’s’.
Day 2 – Wild Camp to Tarnasjo Mountain Hut (7.7 miles/ 12.4 km, 5 hours) – Sunday 14th August, 2016 – ‘Quite Susceptible to a Swedish Sauna!’
After yesterday’s mammoth 10 hours of walking, we decided to stay put in the tent and have a little lie in, in the hope that they’d be a break in the rain long enough to pack the tent away without us getting soaked before we had even set off. Yes, the constant drizzle we had experienced throughout our first day on the trail had persisted through the night, becoming more of a downpour by morning. I was glad I had kept my umbrella in the side of my pack, so I could at least have partial shelter when nipping out of the tent for a toilet break, (unlike Wayne who had disposed of his at the hostel to save a few grams). We really didn’t want to be facing 21 days of hiking in the rain; we could have stayed at home for that! So we tried to remain positive, and hoped that the forecast of better weather from the next day, would for once, be correct.
Ominous skies… Ready to face another rainy day on the trail.
Breakfast was a quick bowl of muesli, thereby negating the need for Wayne to stand out in the rain to get the burner going; then we thought we’d just brave it. By the time we’d packed everything away, put our damp gear back on and taken the tent down, it was around 11am. It was a really late start again, which would hinder our plans for walking another 25 km, but thankfully by this time the rain had slowed into a fine drizzle once again, with our direction of travel looking brighter and more promising.
We just had to grin and bear it! Setting off in wet-weather gear fully expecting wet boots by the end of the day.
Today involved circumnavigating lots of water…
Which was helped with several bridge crossings.
Wayne takes the lead as we continue heading north.
A typical established ‘wild’ camp site close to the trail.
A plant we quickly became familiar with was the dreaded bog cotton. Spotting those fluffy white heads alongside the trail is a sure sign of boggy wet ground, to be avoided completely when looking for a wild camp spot.
Taking our time traversing more waterlogged ground.
Thankful of the boardwalks assisting us over some of the worst sections.
What also lightened our spirits was speaking to an Aussie guy who was hiking in the opposite direction. He was a lot wetter than us, and was intending on pushing through to Hemavan and completing the trail today, having hiked the entire route from north to south. Regaling us with tales from the northern section, he made us even more excited and determined to get there – confirmation that what the guidebooks promote is true – the beauty and spectacular scenery of the north far outweighing that of the southern section. However, the valley we hiked through yesterday begged to differ. Both grand and impressive, if it hadn’t been for such dreadful weather, it would have been a spectacular walk indeed! We commented that the craggy mountains and rolling hills carpeted in light green were just like those of the western lakeland fells back home, except that everywhere you looked it was on a much larger, grander scale. The valleys were more vast, the mountains were more immense – basically it was the Lake District on steroids!
A good section of the trail!
We commented that the tremendous landscapes of the Kungsleden are reminiscent of the western fells back home in the UK.
But no sooner had we got going, than we found today’s walk to be reminiscent of our hike around Loch Lomond on the West Highland Way in Scotland. You might be thinking this observation to be complementary – it really isn’t. Loch Lomond proved a tiresome trudge alongside the lake over laborious rocks and roots, making it one of those days where you are simply walking to get the day done, not for the love of it. And today was quickly becoming one of those days too! After leaving our wild camp spot, the trail headed lakeside, causing us significant stress to our feet and ankles as we had to pick our way over undulating rocks and roots, whilst also contending with thick, suffocating mud. It was both burdensome and tiringly long, although technically on paper we’d only hiked a few miles. We couldn’t be growing weary of the trail already as we’d hardly got anywhere!
Panorama of one of the lakes we passed.
More boardwalks helping us on our way.
Taking a rest break at another wild camp spot.
Heading around the lake, the weather looks more promising.
It was the seemingly endless 4km stretch to Tarnasjo Mountain Hut that made our minds up. We decided to cut the day short and camp there for the night. The added bonus being two significant features: the mountain hut had both a sauna (bastu) and a drying room (tork). (We were also told we could shower and do laundry – but neither turned out as we expected – I’ll explain more later!) The fee for camping at the hut and using the facilities was 100 SEK each with our YHA/ Hostelling International membership card. For around a tenner each to sit indoors in the warmth, use the gas cooking stove, long drop toilet, drying room and indeed the sauna – we couldn’t complain.
Reaching the Tarnasjo Mountain Hut where we decided we’d had enough for today!
The Tarnasjo Mountain Hut is located beside Tarnasjo Lake.
The on-site boutique shop sells a limited selection of goods. We decided to purchase a tin of Swedish meatballs for dinner that evening.
Newbies to the whole thing, in preparation for our first sauna visit, I quizzed the host on the bare essentials (see what I did there!) or conversely the ‘proper’ etiquette after reading up a little and knowing that ‘naked is normal’. She was a lovely Swedish lady who spoke excellent English, and on sensing my apprehension, I was pleased and somewhat relieved when she said ‘naked or bathing suit’, whichever you prefer. She then told us the set times of operation. Essentially at all of the mountain hut saunas along the route, there are three sessions of around an hour each – ladies, gents, and mixed sex, not necessarily in that order. Apart from informing us that the sauna was located next to the lake and that the showers and laundry facilities were there too, the host then gave us no further information. So basically for us it was a ‘suck it and see’ situation. (If you are not familiar with that British idiom, it means to try something that you have not done before to discover what it is like, or whether it will be successful!)
The designated camping area is above the lake. Wayne began pegging out the tent.
Our mobile home was up in minutes and since the rain had finally stopped, it had some time to dry out.
The rest of our gear was put in the tork – the drying room – an invaluable feature of the mountain huts.
After pitching the tent and putting our damp gear in the drying room, we ventured down to the lake to find the sauna and check out the facilities. I can’t believe I was really expecting a proper hot shower and flushing toilet. In fact, the makeshift shower located at the back of the sauna cabin was a bucket with a shower head attached, perfectly reasonable in the wilderness! And the toilets, well they were of the long drop variety, but very civilised with loo roll and sanitising hand gel, a nice extra touch. Nothing ventured, nothing gained… I opened the door to the sauna, whilst Wayne was busy photographing the lake from the jetty. Seeing ladies’ clothing hung up on pegs, and wanting to make the most of the hour, I quickly stripped down to my underwear then hesitantly opened the internal door. Three middle-aged naked women were sitting on towels on the small benches. They looked me up and down, seemingly disapproving at my current attire, which made me very conscious that I wasn’t naked and perhaps should have been! After hurriedly blurting out that it was my first time in a sauna, they invited me to sit with them, and were friendly enough. Only two out of the three spoke a little English, so I explained we were hiking the Kungsleden and they relayed that they were enjoying a short break together, hiking the southern section between Ammarnäs and Hemavan.
The weather still looks very unpredictable from the lakeside.
The sauna located next to Lake Tarnasjo.
The sauna is a truly Swedish experience! We were apprehensive of getting naked the first time. Inside, it’s a very intimate space.
Traditional saunas are heated by wood burned in a stove with a chimney. A basket of rocks is heated by the stove onto which you throw water to increase the humidity.
I still couldn’t help feeling a bit over dressed and a bit of an English prude, so felt the urgent need to explain that in England we would wear swimwear in a sauna, and that I wasn’t sure of the etiquette here in Sweden. Admitting this was a good thing as the women then proceeded to explain some sauna do’s and dont’s, (like the fact you’re supposed to sit on a towel), as well as showing me how you can fill up a bucket with hot water from a jacket around the stove, which you can then use for washing or doing laundry. I’m so glad that I waited and these ladies explained what to do, as I would have washed our clothes with water from the freezing cold lake! Speaking of freezing cold lakes, one by one they ran out to the lake and submerged themselves in the icy water, so of course I had to follow suit. All the while I was thinking to myself about Wayne sat on the jetty and the eyeful he was going to get as three naked ladies ran into his view! (Rather more embarrassing for him as he hastily averted his gaze, than to the women who carried on unfazed!) He was very glad they gave me such a good introduction, as by the time it was the men’s session in the sauna and his turn, he at least knew what to do!
The jetty where Wayne had an eye-opening experience!
The sun finally makes an appearance over Lake Tarnasjo.
Whilst Wayne enjoyed some male bonding time and a dip in the lake himself, I set about washing our essentials in a bowl of hot water (taken from the sauna). I stood at the lakeside by the jetty, but this turned out to be a huge mistake as I was attacked by a fervent cloud of biting gnats. They were both annoying and unstoppable, no matter what avoidance tactic I used. I tried to cover every bit of bare flesh possible, but the only real respite I got was back in the tent when the job was finished.
Later that evening, we sat inside the hut and used the kitchen facilities for preparing dinner. Not only were we newcomers to the sauna, but it was our first time trying Swedish meatballs from a tin as well. I have to say, they look rather like dog food on first inspection, but once heated through they do taste quite good. (Never underestimate the powers of a hot meal at the end of a day’s hiking!)
Wayne preps dinner inside the hut.
On the menu tonight: Swedish meatballs with instant mashed potato and a bread roll.
Dinner by candlelight! It doesn’t feel like we’re roughing it on this trail with the excellent facilities of the mountain huts!
Despite us not getting very far today, we had learned some important lessons in Swedish culture and pushed the boundaries of ours. We had also made our first friends on the trail, a couple of Swedish guys on a fishing trip who we’d see again at various points over the next week and who would teach us a few things about the local flora and fauna. Local knowledge is a gift!
After chatting in the hut with fellow hikers about what we could expect to see further up the trail, we made it back to the tent and into bed around 10pm. Very much looking forward to our next sauna experience, we were refreshed and ready to see what Day 3 would bring!