In early February I noticed an advert in the staff room for a trip to Sweden to participate in the Hilleberg Outdoor Academy 2018. Two tours were available in March and September. I put my name down really hoping I would be chosen for the winter tour as I wanted to see Sweden in all its snowy glory and also thought that the winter tour would be more of a challenge. I was delighted when George Fisher’s picked me to go on the March tour and had a frantic few weeks gathering all the kit required for the trip. I treated myself to a few new pieces of kit and everything else was borrowed from either the George Fisher staff test pool or from my very kind colleagues.
I departed for Sweden on Monday the 5th of March flying from Manchester to Stockholm. I had the evening free to explore the old town of Gamla stan and its beautiful architecture before flying on to Östersund the following day to meet the Hilleberg group. My first impression of Sweden has been a lasting one, breath-taking views of trees and snow as far as the eye could see. After meeting at Östersund’s tiny airport we were treated to an all you can eat lunch then taken to Hilleberg’s office. We were given a short presentation about the tour, given our test kit (a full set of Woolpower merino wool underwear, a Morakniv fire starter knife and both Blå Band and Real Turmat test food) and then were given a tour around the building with introductions to the Hilleberg staff. I was surprised how small the premises was and how few staff there were for such a world renowned company. After an opportunity to repack our bags and borrow kit such as snow shoes we set off for our first nights camp on the small wooded hill behind the Hilleberg office. I found it quite hard to trust in the test products we had been given and leave my own kit behind but I need not have worried.
Our group consisted of fifteen participants from the UK, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany and our two leaders from Hilleberg Christian and Emil. We were split into teams of seven and eight for the length of the trek. Within the teams we were split further into pairs in which to share tents. My partner was Johanna, an enthusiastic walker and camper from Stuttgart. Our first night was spent in the Nammatj 3 GT tent, a lovely spacious tunnel tent. It was a whole new experience for me pitching my tent in snow, which you had to compact down with your snow shoes when you had found a good spot to pitch. We had a group campfire that evening with sausages, baked potatoes and halloumi! I was surprised at how well I slept in spite of the cold (around -8 Celsius that night) and was very excited to start the proper trek the next day.
In the morning we said goodbye to civilisation and took a bus for an hour and a half north west of Östersund to the Vålådalen Nature Reserve. We left small bags of clean clothes at the Vålådalen Fjällstation and then set off into the wilderness. It was an easy walk that morning along the road, covered in snow of course, to Nulltjärnarna Lake where we stopped for lunch. A few picnic benches next to a frozen lake were a spectacular site for our first opportunity to use our stoves. After lunch we had a brief clinic on map reading and compass use for those who weren’t too familiar with navigation.
The afternoon consisted of a fairly short walk across the frozen lake and towards the mountains to our campsite for the evening, a frozen wetland. During the afternoon trek my right knee became quite painful from the weight of the snow shoes. I also had a spectacular fall into a hollow by a fallen down tree. When you fall in snow of that depth it is so hard to get up and also highly amusing for all concerned. The snow holds onto you and it took two people to haul me up. When we reached our camp site for the evening we had a clinic in putting up the group tents, Hilleberg Altais, then we pitched our own tent for the evening, the Staika (a tough dome tent). We used the Altais for cooking as a group and socialising in the evenings. I had some initial problems getting my Bensin stove to work properly (I had previously only ever used gas stoves) but after a lot of help from my team I got it going.
We slept well in the Staika and awoke to some amazing views across the frozen wetland towards the mountains the following morning. Johanna and I were group leaders on the Thursday so we woke the rest of the group then planned our route for the day over breakfast. We had a short clinic on the different labels of Hilleberg tents (black, red, yellow and blue) then set off for the day’s trek. The perks of being group leaders included putting your bag, along with the tents on the two Fjellpulken or ‘pulke’ for short. A pulke is basically a sledge that is harnessed around your waist and can be pulled across the snow. This was much easier than carrying my 25kg pack for my painful knee. The morning was very tough going, walking off track through waist deep snow in dense forest. We were attempting to cut south west to meet a Winter Trail.
Christian and Emil had explained to us that there are summer, winter and Skidoo trails in Sweden. The summer trails can usually only be found when there is no snow and are longer and potentially torturous routes as they go around all of the lakes and wetlands. The winter trails are marked by red crosses at the side of the trail and are only advisable to be used in winter as they cross the lakes and wetlands when they are frozen. We picked up the winter trail shortly after lunch and the going was much easier after that. We made our camp that evening a short distance away from the trail in a forest clearing. The Thursday night was a little different in that it was our turn to try out the one-man tents. Johanna took the Soulo, a small dome tent and I had the Akto an extremely lightweight tunnel tent. Christian taught me how to pitch the Akto with doubled poles as we were expecting strong winds overnight. The Akto is a light weight tent and easy to pitch but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of space. I think at the time I commented that you had to be a Yoga master just to get into the Akto.
I must admit that I did not have the best night sleep in the Akto. It felt very claustrophobic and ice that had formed on the inner tent from frozen condensation kept falling on my face during the night. I also had to be dug out of my tent by Braam, as so much snow had fallen during the night! We started the morning with a clinic looking at the specifics of the range of tents we were using. It was interesting to learn the details but also to get the group members opinions on what was good or bad about their tent. Braam and Bo were group leaders on the Friday and they kindly decided that I should continue to pull one of the pulkes as it was less painful on my knee.
The morning trek was fairly easy going on the compacted winter trail. I was really surprised to find myself walking through a deciduous forest of mainly silver birch trees. I’m not sure why but I had expected to only see conifers in Sweden. We made it to Stensdalsstugorna Fjällstation by lunch time. This had recently been rebuilt by the Swedish Tourism Association after a fire destroyed it several years ago. It was a luxury to be able to use a composting toilet and draw fresh water from a well in the river Stensån.
In the afternoon we headed south east on a different winter trail that led us into the foothills of Lill-Stendalsfjället, an imposing mountain off to the south west. The afternoon trek was very pleasant above the tree line and we made our highest camp that night just off the trail around 770 metres above sea level. That evening Johanna and I had the Kaitum 3 GT, which was really easy to pitch and an absolute palace of a tunnel tent.
The Friday night turned out to be our coldest with temperatures dropping to -20 Celsius. Unfortunately we had pitched the Kaitum on a slight slope and I spent most of the night fighting to avoid slipping down off my mat. The morning clinic was a discussion on tent materials, particularly Dac pokes and Hilleberg’s Kerlon fabric. Some really interesting points were raised on UV radiation and ant damage! The morning walk was a steady climb of approximately one hundred metres elevation on the winter trail. I really struggled to carry my rucksack with the pain in my knee and low energy levels. When we reached the highest point where the trail split Thomas kindly took my rucksack and strapped it to his pulke which made it significantly easier for me. We took the fork of the trail that headed north east and mercifully downhill and back into the forest. The scenery was absolutely amazing, it was very windy and seeing the patterns the wind created in the snow was fascinating.
For our last camp we pitched on another frozen wetland and had a clinic on how to pitch a tent with no snow pegs. We were pitching a Nallo 3 GT and really had to use our initiative, using hiking poles, snow shovels and even filling the tent bag with snow to act as anchors. Our last tent was the Tarra, a geodesic tent. It was more difficult to pitch than the dome or tunnel tents but once we got it up we found it to be a comfortable and spacious tent.
That last night camping I slept with hand warmers inside my bivvy boots and was almost warm! The weather on the Sunday was absolutely spectacular, clear blue skies and breath-taking views of the mountains. It was an 8km trek along the undulating winter trail back to the Vålådalen Fjällstation. We reached the Fjällstation mid-afternoon and had a final moment together as a group on the edge of the wilderness which was quite poignant. Christian and Emil treated us to Swedish waffles with local delicacy Cloudberry Jam and then we were allowed to take a shower and make use of the hot tubs and saunas. The evening finished with a Hilleberg test, a delicious meal and the presentation of our Outdoor Academy Diplomas and a slideshow of the week’s photographs. One last moment of Swedish magic was seeing a baby reindeer that night outside the Fjällstation.
There was one last stop on the tour on Monday before we departed from Östersund airport. That was a guided tour of the Woolpower factory with Eva. It was fascinating learning about the process behind manufacturing their merino wool products and really interesting to meet some of their staff. I couldn’t believe that their most experienced seamstresses sew sixty long sleeved crew neck t-shirts in one seven and a half hour shift! We were all really impressed with the Woolpower test kit we were given. I put on my long johns and long sleeved crew neck t-shirt on the Tuesday afternoon and didn’t take them off until the Sunday evening and they really didn’t smell that bad! I was also converted to wearing a Woolpower Balaclava; it really did keep you nice and warm although I developed a rather embarrassing Balaclava tan.
Of the kit I purchased/borrowed from George Fishers there were a few products that I was really impressed with. Firstly I bought myself a pair of Haglöfs Vandra Gore-Tex waterproof over trousers. These were so comfortable and really effective at keeping the wind off me to the point at which I managed to trek most days in just the Woolpower long johns and the over trousers on my bottom half. Since returning home they have also been great at keeping the Lake District rain off me when I’m out volunteering for Fix the Fells. Secondly I was really impressed with the Outdoor Tech Kodiak Mini 2.0 power bank. This was our Christmas present from work last year and was incredibly useful. The product advertises that it will charge an iPhone fully three times. I was concerned that in the cold weather it would not be as effective so took my own and borrowed another one from my colleague Liz. I was really surprised that my power bank charged my iPhone fully five times and managed a further half charge which got me through the whole week without using Liz’s power bank. Retailing at just £20 it is a really handy piece of kit to throw in your rucksack. Finally I borrowed a test pair of Leki Micro Vario Carbon women’s trekking poles. Fitted with snow baskets these were absolutely invaluable for the whole trek. I had never used trekking poles before but was soon converted and amazed at how much easier they made it to walk with a heavy pack. The other participants were particularly impressed with how light my poles were and also the fact that they are collapsible.
The food we ate over the course of the trek is also worth a mention. I took with me a range of Summit to Eat freeze dried foods that we sell in the shop along with other foods like oat biscuits, dried apple rings and of course chocolate. The Summit to Eat foods were easy to prepare, simply open the pouch, remove the oxygen absorber, fill to the stated level with boiling water, stir then seal the pouch and wait for eight minutes. All of the meals were filling and edible but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the flavour of the food. I much preferred the taste of the Blå Band and Real Turmat test meals that we were given, although they took about twice as long to prepare. Emil also gave us the opportunity to try some local foods like reindeer, which had a very strong flavour. I must admit I was very glad when we got back to the Fjällstation and could have some fresh food.
I was asked if there was anything I didn’t enjoy about the trip. The honest answer is no, I really did enjoy every minute of it. I guess it wasn’t too pleasant when it got so cold that your eyelashes froze but I just saw the cold as part of the challenge! Since returning home, you will not hear me complain about the cold weather in the UK anymore.