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Sleeping mats are an essential but often undervalued part of your camping equipment. Prices may start at just a couple of pounds, but the old adage “you get what you pay for” is often as true with sleeping mats as it is for any outdoor equipment – economise on your sleeping mat at your peril!
A good night’s sleep is central to your enjoyment of any outdoor experience, and is especially important if you are planning to be out for an extended period, for example on one of our 7 or 14-day self-guided wilderness canoe tours in Sweden. Poor sleep will not only affect your mood, but you may feel tired and listless, be more sensitive to cold and may also find your judgement is impaired.
In this article we take a look at the different types of sleeping mat to help you choose which is most suitable for your camping holiday in Sweden, whether you are timber rafting through the forests of Värmland or trekking in Sarek National Park in Lapland.
In a previous article on choosing the right sleeping bag, we discussed that temperature ratings for sleeping bags are often calculated on the assumption that they will be used in conjunction with an appropriate sleeping mat. Your sleeping mat should not only cushion and support your body for comfort but also insulate you from below and is an essential component in keeping you warm while you sleep. Three times as much heat is lost by conduction (i.e. from your body to the ground) as from convection (from your body to the surrounding air).
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing a sleeping mat, for example:
- How much the mat weighs and how small it packs relative to its comfort and insulating properties.
- Whether you prefer a firm mat or a softer one.
- Whether you will be using your mat only during summer or year-round.
- What kind of mat you prefer (self-inflating, non-self-inflating or closed cell).
- Your budget and how regularly you intend to use your sleeping mat.
To self-inflate or not to self-inflate?
Self-inflating sleeping mats: A self-inflating sleeping mat has a layer of foam which is contained within an airtight shell. To inflate the mat, a valve is opened drawing air into the foam. After a few minutes, the mat is fully self-inflated and the valve can be closed. When packing, you open the valve and expel the air by rolling the mat and then close the valve to stop air re-entering. Thermarest is probably the most well-known brand for this kind of sleeping mat (and they can even be converted into a chair!).
Non-self-inflating sleeping mats: Non-self-inflating mats, as the name suggests, must be inflated by the user. Air-only mats are unlikely to provide sufficient insulation for any use apart from summer camping, but non self-inflating mats may also be filled with down or synthetic insulation and are then much warmer. Though the mats themselves tend to be thicker than self-inflating models, as they do not have a foam layer inside they may weigh less and pack down smaller.
Bear in mind when inflating your sleeping mat that the moisture in breath can be damaging – water vapour may over time begin to rot the material inside. Some models allow you to use the sleeping mat storage sack as a bellows to avoid getting moisture from your breath into the mat.
Closed cell sleeping mats: This kind of mat does not inflate, but is simply a piece of foam. Budget priced mats tend to be of this design, but are generally best avoided as they are likely to have poor insulating properties, provide little support and may rip and mark easily.
However, good quality closed cell mats, such as the Thermarest Ridgerest, are also available.
Many Nature Travels holidays in Sweden feature wild camping, one of the great joys of the outdoors. While your sleeping mat is central to your enjoyment of your holiday, it is not always necessary to bring your own. On some of our experiences, such as our guided sea kayaking tours, camping equipment including high quality sleeping mats is included, while for other experiences, for example our range of self-guided canoe tours, it is possible to hire a sleeping bag package including bag, liner and sleeping mat as an optional extra.
Whichever option you choose, we wish you sweet dreams and a very enjoyable time camping wild in Sweden!
The Nature Travels Team
(Nature Travels clients receive a discount of 15-25% for purchases both online and in-store with Cotswold Outdoor – simply quote the code printed on your booking confirmation when making your purchase. The code may be used for multiple purchases and is valid until 1st April 2010).
Sweden’s western archipelago is a marvellous area for sea kayaking – a sparse, other-wordly landscape of granite rock islands floating on a quiet blue sea. The final activity of this year’s academy was a 2-day sea kayaking tour, taking us between some of the larger rock formations and camping wild overnight on our very own uninhabited island.
We started by Land Rover, bouncing along the narrow coastal roads heading north to a shallow beach where we would launch off to begin our trip. After the kayaks had been laid out on the sand, our head guide Ulrika got us together for some instruction on efficient paddling technique, some safety considerations and, most importantly, advice on how to enter and exit our kayaks without falling in!
Photo: J. Hermanson
Then the food and camping supplies were distributed and magically stowed away in the bowels of our boats before we took to the water, beginners in double kayaks and the more experienced paddlers taking singles.
An hour or so’s paddling brought us to our lunch stop, a smooth and gently sloping slice of rock with a wonderful view over the surrounding coastline. Once again we’d expected to be served camping rations, and once again we were pleasantly surprised, as Ulrika opened a series of bags and boxes to reveal a delicious selection of fresh tortillas, smoked mackerel and “skagen röra”, a kind of Swedish prawn cocktail.
Photo: J. Hermanson
Sea kayaking is eminently suitable for novices, but that’s not to say it doesn’t take some technique. As the afternoon wore on and we progressed further up the coast, passing small picturesque fishing villages, gliding between narrow sounds between the rocks, and watching cormorants and herons go about their business, our paddling became more efficient and our steering more accurate, and gradually we came to concentrate less and less on the act of kayaking and more and more on the beauty and tranquility of our surroundings. Even the occasional common seal popped its head above the water to say hello.
As dusk approached we came to our camping spot for the night, a small island deserted apart from a small cemetery dating back to the First World War. We were surprised and interested to find that the island was the final resting place of a well-known German poet, Gorsch Fock, who died in May 1916 in a great sea battle out in the Skagerack Sea, a battle which claimed the lives of 10,000 soldiers. It may sound spooky, but far from it – the island had a wonderful atmosphere of calm.
Photo: J. Hermanson
After pitching our tents, anchoring the guy ropes securely to prepare for the windy night that had been forecast, we broke out the stoves and began to make dinner. Ulrika once more had everything planned to perfection – bottles of red wine appeared mysteriously from her kayak and were set upon gratefully, and we were divided up into cooking teams and given a recipe sheet from which to prepare the best fish soup I’ve ever had, a local recipe from Bohuslän incorporating fresh shrimps, vegetables and chunks of succulent salmon steak.
Camping doesn’t get any better than this, a thought that was expressed frequently and with enthusiasm later in the evening as we collected around a roaring campfire fuelled by driftwood to reflect on the day’s adventures.
The windy conditions which had been promised arrived with a vengeance in the early hours, our tent sides flapping crazily and noisily in the darkness, and we awoke a little bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived the following morning. It was just a short paddle to our pick-up point and the trip was soon to be over, just a short taster of the possibilities this area has to offer for paddlers. Our mini-expedition may have been short, but the memories of paddling and camping in this beautiful region will last a lifetime!
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
The area in which we were paddling features in our Sea Kayaking in Fjällbacka Archipelago experience. Just to the north of this region, we also offer Sea Kayaking in Koster Archipelago, a region shortly to be designated Sweden’s first Marine National Park.
Nature Travels also offers sea kayaking holidays in the eastern archipelago as well as guided and self-guided canoeing holidays in Sweden.
After a relaxing morning’s canoeing bathed in sunshine and soothed by soft breezes, the organisers had something very different for us in store for the afternoon.
We landed on a small beach at the other end of the lake, dragged the canoes onto shore and hoisted our packs. The afternoon’s adventure was to be an orienteering exercise in small teams. The distance to cover didn’t look far at all, but we hadn’t counted on the unforgiving terrain we would be traversing, and it wasn’t until many hours later, tired, sweaty and stiff (but rather proud of ourselves), that we would finally emerge from the deep woods to make camp for the night.
The exercise started easily enough. Maps and compasses in hand, we took turns within the group taking a bearing and walking on the compass, trusting that little needle to guide us unerringly to our next checkpoint. But we soon found ourselves a long way from any paths, wading through bogs, battling through dense stands of pine and struggling up steep slopes peppered with boulders just waiting to snag a misplaced foot or twist an unwary ankle.
Photo: Tommy Sollén
Our confidence was bolstered by successful hits on our first two checkpoints, but dashed on our way to the third. We walked further and further, convinced that by now we must have overshot the mark and be faced with a long detour. After a good while spent scrambling through the undergrowth with dwindling hopes, we finally came out onto a beautiful high plateau. The trees thinned out to reveal a stunning 360 degree panorama of a carpet of forest stretching to the horizon, broken only by the glimmer of sunlight on the rivers and lakes below. The low sun lit the whole scene in amber, picking out the autumn colours of the forests beautifully, and the view certainly served to lift our spirits, especially when we glimpsed the orange checkpoint marker peeping out at us from behind a lonesome pine – it seems we hadn’t gone so far wrong after all. Trust the compass!
From here it was, in the best sense, downhill all the way. The loose rocks and closely-packed trees made going slow and potentially treacherous, but an hour or so later we popped out of the woods to find ourselves in more open country. We pitched our tents, broke out the stoves, and headed off to a small peninsula looking out onto the lake to make a start on dinner. On the menu tonight was dried camping rations, which we were looking forward to only in the sense that when you’re hungry and in the outdoors almost anything tastes OK.
But the quality of dinner was to take an unexpected turn for the better when, walking a short distance off into the forest to examine a tree felled by a local beaver, I looked down to see the ground covered in a yellow carpet of wild chanterelle mushrooms.
Photo: Tommy Sollén
Finding chanterelles in Sweden is an instant way to make a whole army of enthusiastic lifelong friends, and it wasn’t long before almost everyone in the group was tucking in to this delicious delicacy – the “gold of the forest”. Camping rations are OK, but they can’t compete with fresh chanterelles fried in butter…
(continues next week)
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a variety of hiking holidays in Sweden, including Sweden’s most famous long-distance path, the King’s Trail in Lapland, and the mighty wilderness of Sarek National Park. Many of our active accommodation and log cabin holidays in Sweden also offer excellent opportunities for self-guided hiking.
Canoeing, wild camping, sea kayaking, orienteering, endangered species and a lobster safari – we only had a few days, but somehow managed to find time for all these things on a recent visit to the glittering coastline and stunning autumn forests of Dalsland and Bohuslän in western Sweden, just a couple of hours from the beautiful city of Gothenburg.
The occasion was this year’s Outdoor Academy of Sweden, an annual event bringing together tour operators, equipment retailers and journalists from all over Europe to explore the endless possibilities of the Swedish outdoors and test some Scandinavian-made outdoor clothing and equipment along the way.
The adventure began on Tuesday with a coach transfer from Gothenburg’s Landvetter airport. Although Gothenburg is Sweden’s second city and Landvetter its main airport, it’s a surprisingly relaxing and pleasant place, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Heathrow we had left just two hours before.
By late September in western Sweden the forests are in the full glory of autumn, and we drove through a stunning landscape of reds and yellows up into the county of Dalsland. After the equipment handout, it was time to pitch camp for the night under a clear sky peppered with stars in the silence of the forest for our first night under canvas.
After breakfast around the camp fire next morning we took to the water in collapsible Ally canoes. It was the first time I had used a packable canoe and I was amazed and their lightness and flexibility. As we set off through the morning mist, negotiating low hanging branches and steering our way around fallen trees, the sun cast shafts of light through the thick forest and it felt more like a trip through the Amazon than western Europe.
A few hours later we emerged from a tunnel of trees and paddled out into a great wide lake, the sun shining brightly in a cloudless sky and surrounded on all sides by shimmering clear water ringed by dense forests of birch and oak. Making our way through the twists and turns of the river, squeezing under bridges and drifting past huge patchworks of spider webs in the foliage had been terrific fun, and now the tranquility of paddling quietly across the lake bathed in autumn sunshine offered another kind of outdoor experience – a real tonic for the soul.
Some time later we reached our goal for the morning, a nature reserve on the opposite shore of the lake, where it was time to break out the camping stoves, hunt around for the ever-elusive penknife in the backpack, and get down to the serious business of making lunch!
(continues next week)
Bob from the Nature Travels team
Nature Travels offers a wide range of self-guided canoe holidays in western Sweden from 4 to 14 days, suitable for friends, families and groups. Both wilderness canoe tours and rural canoe routes are available, and all experiences include wild camping. For details, please see www.naturetravels.co.uk/category-water.htm
A camp fire is the centre of social life in the Swedish outdoors, a focal point for conversation, a place to cook and eat, a source of heat, and a hypnotic and endlessly fascinating thing to watch. Without a camp fire, life in the outdoors is a colder experience in all senses of the word. A fire at the end of a long day out in the wilds will lift the spirits and soothe the body.
Wild camping and the freedom to light camp fires is one of the great joys of any outdoor experience in Sweden, and one of the many things which attracts visitors to this vast and beautiful country. But with this freedom comes important responsibilities – the responsibility to guard effectively against the risk of your camp fire spreading out of control, and the responsibility to take only what you need and in the least damaging way from the local environment. Sweden’s forest resources may seem endless, but their ecology is fragile. In northern and mountainous regions where temperatures are low for much of the year and available daylight limits the growing season, trees just a few centimetres high may be surprisingly old and ecosystems can take a very long time to regenerate after any damage.
Potential for the most dramatic problems comes from the risk of forest fire. While natural fires are vital to the fertilisation and regeneration of some forest ecosystems, as with everything in nature, it is maintaining a balance which is important. Large fires can have an enormously damaging impact on local wildlife, in some cases destroying whole populations of threatened species, and the ecology of the area can take decades to recover. In addition, of course, they can pose an enormous risk to human life and property.
While the UK has had a rather damp start to the 2008 summer season, Sweden by contrast has been basking in the sunshine, with above average temperatures and an extended dry period. This is good news for visitors (our early season canoeists had some truly wonderful weather for their tours in May!), but with the sun and the lack of rain comes the increased risk of forest fire. This has already led to serious problems in some parts of Sweden. As we write, large fires caused by the extended dry spell are raging in the northern province of Hälsningland.
The potential for forest fires was illustrated dramatically recently when one of our clients was unfortunate enough to have a problem with his camp fire during a canoe tour, resulting in the complete destruction of his sleeping bag, rucksack, camera and clothes and melting the paddle for their canoe. He and his travelling companion acted quickly to bring the fire under control, narrowly avoiding a much more serious incident, and to their great credit then spent what must have been a most uncomfortable night at the spot to ensure that the fire was completely out before returning to base the following day. Fortunately, the key to their hire car, which had also almost completely melted, was still functioning!
With this in mind, here are a few hints and tips for enjoying the warmth and comfort of your camp fire safely and limiting your impact on the local environment during your experience in Sweden:
When not to light a fire
Observe any local or temporary restrictions regarding the lighting of fires. During particularly dry conditions when there is a high risk of forest fires, local restrictions may be imposed prohibiting the lighting of fires. Check notices and local information for the latest situation. Certain protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves may also have their own rules regarding the lighting of fires and use of forest resources.
How to make a fire
When lighting your fire, please make sure you observe the following guidelines:
1. Choose a suitable place for your fire, with a base of gravel or sand. It should also have easy access to water in case you need to put the fire out quickly. Check the wind strength and direction – sparks can carry some way and ignite the surrounding forest or grassland.
2. You should not light your fire on a bed of peat or moss, which burn very easily. Peat fires can smoulder and burn underground for a very long time, and may still be burning below ground level even when the fire seems to be out from above. Similarly, you should avoid lighting your fire in any earthy, forested area. You should also avoid lighting your fire near to anthills or old tree stumps, both of which may catch fire very easily.
3. Do not build large bonfires – this is a waste of resources and extremely dangerous. Keep your fire small, focused and controlled (this also makes it much better for cooking on if you are planning to make food on your fire). Dig a shallow hole in which to make your fire or make a circle of stones around the fire to contain it. Do not use wet stones, which can crack and explode when heated. Also, do not light your fire on or next to flat rocks. This chars and may crack the rock and looks very unsightly, and the marks will remain for a very long time.
4. If there is a strong wind, do not light a camp fire.
5. Do not burn rubbish of any kind on your fire. Even cardboard and paper is difficult to burn completely and will leave an unsightly residue. Burning paper can be carried into the surrounding trees by small gusts of wind. Do not try to burn plastic or food waste. Please take everything with you and dispose of it correctly.
6. When collecting fuel for your fire, it is permitted to use small branches, twigs and pine cones which are lying on the ground. Bear in mind that dead wood provides an extremely valuable habitat for a wide range of species – more species of insect can be supported by dead wood than live wood – so avoid larger branches and stumps. Just because they are no longer on the tree, doesn’t mean that they are not still extremely important to the local ecology!
7. You must not take any material from live trees or damage them in any way.
How to put out your camp fire
Do not leave the campsite before the fire is completely extinguished – it must burn down completely before you leave. Use water to put the fire out, then poke it to extinguish any embers. Use a small trowel to dig up the earth under the fire to ensure there are no embers or smoke remaining.
What to do if your fire gets out of control
If you can, call the fire brigade immediately. In Sweden, the number is 112. It is important to stop the fire spreading in the direction of the wind. Take some bunches of branches from pine or juniper trees (these are better than leafy branches). Wet the branches if possible. Use the branches to sweep the burning pieces towards the fire while pressing the branches against the ground to put out the flames. Clear brushwood and twigs out of the way and remove moss from the path of the fire. DO NOT beat at the fire with large strokes, as this will spread sparks.
What to do if your clothes catch fire
Get down on the ground and roll over and over. If someone else’s clothes catch fire, lay the person on the ground and smother the flames with a blanket or jacket. Protect their face by covering from the head downwards. Bear in mind that some fabrics, e.g. nylon, can catch fire and melt and may increase the risk of injury.
Use cold water to cool burning clothes and soothe burn injuries. If clothes are stuck to the skin, do not try to remove them. You should keep affected skin in cold water for at least 10 minutes.
General camp safety
You should never have an open fire or any glowing coals inside or near your tent. Have a knife to hand to cut your way out in case of emergency.
If using a camping stove, wait until any unused fuel and utensils are cool before packing the stove away or pouring the fuel back into the bottle.
A last word…
A camp fire on a long Swedish summer evening (or a short winter one if you’re winter camping!) is a wonderful experience. If you follow the simple guidelines above when collecting your fuel and lighting your fires, you will be able to enjoy your fire safely and ensure a supply of fuel and a pristine environment for those who come after you.
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a wide range of outdoor experiences in Sweden, most of which offer wild camping. In the summer, we offer a range of self-guided canoeing holidays and guided sea kayaking expeditions, all of which include wild camping. In winter, it is possible to experience the joy and challenge of winter camping on our Go Camping by Dogsled, Winter Mountaincraft in Jämtland, Snowshoeing in Wolverine Country and Dog Sledding and Winter Bushcraft experiences. For information, please see our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk
The UK has seen an enormous increase in interest in bushcraft skills in recent years, largely thanks to the popular series of television programmes by Ray Mears. But you do not have to be an experienced wilderness adventurer like Ray to enjoy and practise the art of bushcraft – the skills and techniques are accessible to all ages and levels of experience. It’s the journey of discovery that counts!
Sweden is an excellent place in which to learn and practise bushcraft skills. Its vast areas of sparsely-populated mountains, lakes and forests provide an ideal environment for the bushcraft enthusiast. The forests are rich in edible plants and berries for foraging, while the clean lakes and rivers make for excellent fishing.
Perhaps even more importantly, Sweden’s Right of Public Access (see our previous blog article on this subject here) allows a unique freedom of access to the countryside, including the opportunity to camp wild. This means that extended expeditions into the wilderness with wild camping are possible and that bushcraft skills can be practised in precisely the environment they were intended for!
Nature Travels offers a range of experiences which give you the opportunity to learn and practise bushcraft in Sweden.
Our popular self-guided Canadian canoeing experiences are ideal for those wishing to develop their bushcraft skills in a natural wild setting. Ranging in length from 4 to 14 days, we offer canoe tours suitable for families with young children and more challenging expeditions aimed at those seeking an extended wilderness experience. These longer tours are also particularly suitable for groups, such as University Armed Forces and scout groups. Whichever tour you choose, all the canoe tours allow wild camping for the length of the route and fishing licence can be purchased to cover all of part of the route (depending on the tour).
For those wishing to combine a tour in the wilds with tuition in bushcraft skills and a chance to put into practice what you are taught, we have recently added an exciting new dedicated bushcraft experience. Bushcraft Canoe Tour on Revsund is suitable both for active families (minimum age 12 years) and for small groups. A 6-day private guided canoe tour with your own bushcraft guide and instructor! With accommodation in Laplandic tents or self-build shelters along the way, Bushcraft Canoe Tour on Revsund is the ideal way to learn and implement basic bushcraft skills. You will also have the chance to soothe your tired muscles with a session in a wood-heated sauna and lakeside “bathing barrel”!
Finally, for a real adventure in construction using only natural materials, why not try Timber Rafting on Klarälven? You will be taught how to build your very own raft using nothing but logs and rope, before taking to the river for 5 to 8 days of wild camping and Huckleberry Finn-style adventures! Not only a great chance to practise bushcraft skills, but an unbeatable exercise in teamwork!
For anyone interested in bushcraft and the outdoors, Sweden offers a range of opportunities hard to find anywhere else in Europe. For more details on our range of outdoor experiences in Sweden particularly suited to the practice of bushcraft skills, please see our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk/category-water.htm
The Nature Travels Team
Having achieved widespread popularity in central Europe, snowshoeing is just beginning to become known here in the UK, as a growing number of people discover how liberating it is to be able to step off the beaten (or ploughed) track and strike out into the white wilderness.
This February I had the chance to join our local guide Torkel for four days of snowshoeing and winter camping in the silent expanses of Vålådalen Nature Reserve in western Sweden.
Torkel is no stranger to the frozen wastes, having traversed Greenland in the footsteps of Nansen, and no stranger to adventure, having been the first person, along with his wife Annica, to make an extended expedition right around Sweden.
With the prospect of exploring the mountains in such rugged company, I was just a little apprehensive about what I’d let myself in for as I slithered along in my little Vauxhall Corsa hire car up the 30km forest track through a howling snowstorm to Vålådalen Tourist Station, where we were to assemble next morning to head off into the wilds.
That evening, I received a cheery call from Torkel asking me to drive down the road a few kilometres to his house to collect some equipment I had arranged to borrow. I looked out with trepidation at the blizzard raging outside.
“Umm…are you sure?” I said. “Couldn’t I pick it up tomorrow? What about the snow?”
“Snow? What snow? Oh, don’t worry about that, there’s just a dusting…”
And so I set out of the station car park, windscreen wipers going for all they were worth but failing miserably to clear my vision, headlights straining weakly through the white onslaught. “Ah, there’s the road”, I thought confidently, and swung hard left and down the hill. It took just a few metres before it dawned on me that what had looked invitingly like a minor road was in fact a ski track, and sure enough a couple of seconds later I ground decisively to a halt, the nose of the car wedged alarmingly deeply into the snow.
After much grunting and straining and spinning of wheels, there was nothing left for it but to call Torkel to come to my rescue to help push me out of a snowdrift I’d apparently deliberately driven myself into.
After such a shaky start, I was determined to prove my worth as an experienced adventurer over the next few days. We gathered next morning in reception and were taken into a side room to divvy up the food and other equipment for the trip. We were each presented with a mixture of individual food rations (including the worryingly termed “coma bag”, a high-energy mix of chocolate, dried fruit and nuts to munch as needed along the trail) and communal items. We staggered off laden down with all our various bits and pieces to try to find a place for it all in our packs. Some of the more foresighted members of the group had arranged to borrow a “pulk”, or sled, to drag behind, and as I looked at the effortless way they seemed to pack everything down I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have done the same.
When Torkel had lobbed an enormous sack of Santa Claus proportions in my direction the previous evening and proclaimed matter-of-factly, “Here’s your share of the stuff”, I had honestly assumed that he was joking. It had taken me much of the night and a great deal of straining and puffing to get everything into my pack, which was now bulging at every seam. Not heavy at all, as the equipment I had borrowed was top-of-the-range: lightweight Hilleberg tent, two sleeping bags (a synthetic outer and down inner) and Ridgerest sleeping mattress, but the bulk of it proved a real packing challenge. Still, somehow I found a little extra space for the food rations, and at last we were standing together, expectant and ready.
“Have you all brought toilet paper?” asked Torkel, and as one we all scattered sheepishly off to the loos (apologies to any guests at the mountain station at the time who are reading this and found a mysterious absence of loo roll for the rest of the day).
I had done a fair bit of snowshoeing as day tours before, both in Switzerland and Sweden, but I had never had the chance to try an extended expedition. As we flopped around the car park like drunken penguins trying out our snowshoes for size, I just had a feeling that this was going to be a great trip. The wind had dropped, it had stopped snowing and the sun was beginning to peep through the clouds. Mild, stable weather conditions had been forecast for the following days, and we were all very excited indeed. Even Torkel seemed positively brimming with enthusiasm for the trek, which is a very good thing for a guide to be.
“Where are we going?” we asked. “I don’t really know”, answered Torkel with a cheeky smile. This felt a bit odd at first, but was to turn out to be one of the huge attractions of the whole experience for me. There was no fixed route, no fixed destination. We walked when we wanted, stopped when we were hungry, and pitched camp when we were tired. The profound satisfaction of an extended trip where we just walked for the sheer fun of it and to see what we would find was as uplifting as it was unexpected.
It took just a few minutes of self-conscious wobbling before we found our balance, adjusted to the unexpected weight of the packs and sleds and got into the stride of things. We passed quickly along some of the prepared cross-country tracks surrounding the station and then suddenly Torkel stopped in his tracks, looked up as though struck by divine inspiration, and announced “This way!” Clambering over a fence, he headed off into the woods, making fresh tracks in the virgin snow.
As well as being a patient and inspiring guide, Torkel also turned out to be a knowledgeable and passionate naturalist. One of the other real surprises of the trip was to be how much we would learn about the flora and fauna of this region over the next few days, from which lichen are eaten by the passing reindeer to how to tell the difference between pine marten and weasel tracks. Every few minutes we would stop to look at some new discovery, fresh elk tracks in the snow, their depth clearly indicating the great weight of this majestic animal, the phoenix-like patterns left by a capercaillie taken flight from its night shelter beneath the snow, the pitter-patter tracks of a pine marten scurrying from tree to tree.
We stopped for lunch in a forest glade, and set to working out how to get the Primus stoves lit. Always a big fan of Trangias myself (great for general camping, not so good at low temperatures), this was unfamiliar territory for me, and it took a fair bit of fiddling about to get lunch on the go. Torkel maintained a good balance between hanging back to let us work things out for ourselves and pitching in to rescue us from disaster, and before too long we had two stoves hissing away happily melting snow for tea.
When we started to get cold, Torkel had us all “doing the penguin”, hopping up and down with fingers splayed out to the sides to encourage blood flow. We felt silly, but it didn’t matter – there was no-one to see us. In fact, it wouldn’t be until we returned to the station four days later that we would see another human being.
Looking around, at the forest with the imposing bulk of the Jämtland mountains rising behind, at our little group bustling about with the paraphenalia of lunch, at the lichen hanging like miniature beards from the trees, I felt strongly that this was going to be a very very good trip indeed. And, to make life perfect, the tea was ready…
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
This article describes the first day of our Snowshoeing in Wolverine Country experience. The Vålådalen Nature Reserve is also the setting for many of our dog sledding holidays in Sweden, as well as for our summer mountain skills training and guided hiking tour, Mountain Magic for Beginners.
Look out for the next instalment, when we go in search of our first camping spot and discover something fishy in Torkel’s sled…
Sweden’s vast forests and rolling mountains are home to a huge diversity of animals, few as elusive and mysterious as the Brown Bear, perhaps the most magical of Sweden’s Big Five predators and a timeless symbol of the wild.
What kind of bears are there in Sweden?
The bears which inhabit the forests and mountains of Sweden are Brown Bears, Ursus arctos. In the wild, a male can weigh as much as 350 kg and a female up to 240 kg.
Are there any polar bears in Sweden?
No! The nearest polar bears are in Spitsbergen in Norway, almost 1000 miles north of Stockholm.
How many Brown Bears are there in Sweden?
The Brown Bear is a shy, secretive animal, and very rarely seen. Most Swedes, even those living in the areas most densely inhabited by bears, will go their whole lives without ever seeing one in the wild. Population estimates are therefore extremely difficult. However, there are a number of ongoing research projects aiming to better understand the Swedish Brown Bear and plan effectively for its conservation and management. A 2004 study by the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project put the Swedish population at somewhere between 1635 and 2840 individuals, with an annual rise in population of 4.7%.
Which parts of Sweden have Brown Bears?
Brown bears are widely distributed across the northern half of the country, with particular concentrations in certain areas. There is some evidence to suggest that their range is increasing. The Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project survey in 2004 yielded the following distribution data:
What do Brown Bears eat?
Brown bears are omnivorous – they eat a wide range of foods from berries to bees to voles. Brown Bears may also hunt and catch larger animals, including moose. In the summer, their main food consists of ants, which they dig up from the large anthills found in the forests. They also eat the roots, shoots and buds of a number of plants.
Do Swedish Brown Bears hibernate?
Yes. During the autumn, Brown Bears fatten up on the raspberries, crowberries, cloudberries and blueberries which carpet the Swedish forest floor in preparation for hibernation. A good year for berries is also a good year for bears! Once they have built up sufficient fat reserves to see them through the long cold winter ahead, they then collect moss and twigs to make their hibernation den, which may be in a disused anthill or perhaps a spot at the foot of a large fir tree.
When do Brown Bears have their cubs?
Brown Bear cubs are born in the den during the winter, in litters of 1-4. Though naked, blind and helpless when they are born (weighing just 300-400g), they grow quickly on a diet of rich milk and by the time they are 6 months old are ready to leave their mother and make a life for themselves.
Are Brown Bears hunted in Sweden?
In the past, bear hunting was common, but today the Brown Bear is a protected species in Sweden, though licences can be granted to hunt particular individuals.
What should I do if I meet a Brown Bear in Sweden?
That depends on where you are (and where the bear is!) when you see it. If you are in a car or other vehicle, then simply relax and count yourself incredibly lucky that you are enjoying a rare and privileged glimpse into the life of Sweden’s largest predator.
Bear cubs are irresistably cute, but if you see a cub, resist the urge to approach it or try to take photos – the protective mother will be close by and may not understand your friendly intentions!
If you are camping in an area where there are bears, don’t leave food waste around your campsite. Bears have a keen sense of smell and it is important that Sweden’s bears remain shy and wild – associating the presence of humans with food would be catastrophic for Swedish bears and potentially dangerous for campers.
Brown Bears mate between May and June, and during this period bears are active both at night and during daylight hours. Young males are searching for females at this time and cover long distances in their search, while last year’s cubs are making their first independent forays into the world.
Young bears, like all young animals, are very curious creatures, and may not have learnt to be as wary of danger as adult bears. Make sure they notice you by talking loudly, and then slowly withdraw from the area.
There is a very slim chance you may meet a bear if you are out in the forest picking berries (as the bears love berries too!), though the chances are that they will have heard or smelt you and decided to leave long before you arrive. If not, once again, talk loudly to show your presence and leave the area slowly.
If you find a bear at rest or perhaps eating a kill, it is important that the bear does not perceive you as a threat to its food. Stand as tall as you can, speak loudly and retrace your steps slowly. Do not run.
Almost all dangerous incidents with bears happen with wounded animals (for example, when a hunter has accidentally encountered a bear whilst out hunting for elk and shot at the animal). Like any animal, fear and pain will make it aggressive. Contrary to the images in films, standing on hind legs is not an aggressive posture for a bear. It simply allows the bear to have a better view of the surroundings, and to confirm what their senses of smell and hearing have told them.
If the bear starts to come towards you, then it has perceived your presence as a threat. It may be protecting a cub, or perhaps a carcass nearby. Perhaps the bear had no opportunity to hide when you approached or has just emerged from its hibernation den. If you have a dog with you, the dog may have provoked the bear. Talk loudly and leave slowly, but do not hit or threaten the bear, and do not run.
Whatever the reason for the bear’s approach, an attack is unlikely – the bear is probably just “faking”. Confrontation for any wild animal is a dangerous thing, as it may result in fatal injury, and many animals, including bears, gorillas and elephants, employ this tactic of “fake” charges to avoid the need for a real fight.
In the very unlikely event that you are attacked by a bear, try to distract its attention away from the attack. Place an object (such as a rucksack or fishing equipment) between you and the animal. If this fails, lie down on the ground in a foetal position or face down on your stomach. Cover your neck with your hands and protect your head, and “play dead”. Making yourself as small as you can and behaving as passively as possible will help to persuade the bear that you are not a threat.
What Brown Bear signs can I look out for?
In some areas you have a good chance of seeing signs that bears are sharing the forest world with you. You may be lucky enough to see their tracks in mud or snow, or perhaps to see hair caught on fencing or scratch marks on a tree trunk.
There is no reason to be afraid of meeting a bear when you are out canoeing, hiking or wild camping in Sweden – the chances of encountering a Brown Bear in Sweden are extremely low. In the whole of Scandinavia, there have been only four known cases in the last 100 years where a human has been killed by a Brown Bear.
So make the most of the peace and tranquility of Swedish vast tracts of wilderness, and enjoy the uplifting sensation that you may be travelling through the homeland of one of the world’s most fascinating and much misunderstood creatures – the Brown Bear!
The Nature Travels Team
If you are travelling to the forest farm for either our Summer Fun on a Forest Farm or Winter Wonderland on a Forest Farm experiences, you may like to visit the nearby Järvzoo, which is home to a wide range of Swedish wildlife, including Brown Bears, with large enclosures and semi-natural surroundings. Visitors use a walkway to move through the park which takes you above the animals, allowing excellent views unencumbered by fencing and wonderful photo opportunities.
We also offer dedicated wildlife experiences giving you intimate encounters with two of Sweden’s other elusive forest dwellers, the wolf and the moose. For further details please see Elk Safari Adventure and Howling with Wolves.
If the word “snowshoes” conjures visions of intrepid 19th century explorers trudging bravely across an Arctic landscape with tennis racquets tied to their feet, think again! Snowshoeing, while yet to gain significant popularity among UK winter sports enthusiasts, is fast becoming a major sport in many countries and is a fantastic way to get out and about in the wintertime. It’s also much less effort than you might think! There is a saying among snowshoeing enthusiasts: “If you can walk, you can snowshoe!”
Photo: Annika and Torkel Ideström
Modern snowshoes are lightweight and extremely comfortable, and the technique is very easy to learn. Most people find than within a few minutes they are completely at home on their snowshoes. As your knowledge of and your familiarity with the equipment improves, you will find your technique becoming more and more efficient, and your movements more and more natural.
Snowshoeing offers the winter outdoor enthusiast the freedom of the summer hiker, and allows you a free rein to explore both on and off the beaten track. What’s more, snowshoeing is a very flexible activity – you do not need to go to a special area to go snowshoeing – snowshoeing is possible anywhere where there is enough snow! Trails which may be well-known and familiar in summer take on a new, other-worldly character in winter. The landscape takes on a new freshness, and the clear winter air allows sharper long distance views than may be possible in the summer heat haze. And if you get lost, as a last resort you should be able to follow your own tracks home!
The real joy of snowshoeing is that it allows you to explore the quiet and uninhabited spaces of winter without the technical knowledge of the skier and with much less cumbersome equipment. For many people, whose experience of the winter mountains has been limited to the crowded and noisy ski slopes, snowshoeing comes as something of a revelation – a chance to escape the crowds and experience the calm beauty of a winter world far from the madding crowd back on the pistes. As the author Florence Page Jaques says in Snowshoe Country, “I love the deep silence of the midwinter woods. It is a stillness you can rest your whole weight against…”
Snowshoeing is an extremely accessible sport and can be practised on many levels. You may choose to follow well-marked cross country ski trails through the quiet forests keeping largely to flat country, or take to the hills for a uniquely intimate encounter with the winter mountain world, its silence and its grandeur, its shy wildlife and secret paths. It is a magical feeling to be the first to place your prints on a deep unbroken blanket of freshly fallen snow, as well as an exhilarating one to run headlong down a steep slope covered in light powder!
Snowshoeing is good for you, and good for the environment! It is an excellent form of exercise, and the cushioning effect of the snow means that there is less wear and tear on knees and other joints. The snow also protects the ground from the erosion which may be caused by summer outdoor activities. What’s more, because snowshoeing requires no infrastructure, it is not dependent on the damaging lift systems and associated developments which scar many of the world’s mountain areas.
Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a wide area so that you don’t sink completely down into the snow as you would if wearing hiking boots. This “flotation” allows you to move through the snowy landscape much more efficiently, and is one reason why one of Sweden’s most fascinating predators, the wolverine, is able to pursue prey successfully through deep snow. Its broad furred paws mean that it can much faster across the snow than its prey animals like the reindeer, which distribute their weight over a much smaller area.
Snowshoes usually have a raised section at the toe, which improves maneuverability and makes it much easy to climb uphill. They are normally secured with simple bindings, and the heel is left loose. Special snowshoe boots are often not necessary, and snowboard boots or winter hiking boots may be suitable, especially for shorter expeditions.
Photo: Annika and Torkel Ideström
Of course, safety is a vital consideration at all times when in the winter mountains, and as with any winter sport it is essential to be fully informed and, where necessary, to use knowledgeable guides when exploring away from marked trails and routes.
Nature Travels offers a unique wilderness snowshoeing experience in the land of the wolverine. With an experienced local guide to lead the way, you have the chance to spend an exhilarating 4-day snowshoe holiday in the majestic area of Jämtland, sleeping warm under canvas each night below a limitless expanse of stars and exploring the silent forests and breathtaking mountain landscape by day. No previous experience of snowshoeing is necessary – so let the adventure begin!