Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 2

The first night wild camping was not exactly conducive to a good night’s rest, despite my tiredness. First, I’d decided to try sleeping the opposite way round in my tent. Given that I’ve had the tent for around 8 years and slept in it dozens of times, and always been quite satisfied with sleeping with my head in the narrow end and my feet in the wide end, for some unknown reason I decided that it would be better to try it the other way round. The fact that it was not a success was partly because I wasn’t used to sleeping with my head sandwiched next to my pack, but also because I hadn’t realised how much of a slope there was on the ground, which meant I was facing downhill. However, even after reversing sleeping direction in the middle of the night (easier said than done in a “coffin” tent), I was still kept awake by the fact that my feet and legs were aching, and then by the fact that I needed to pee and it was pouring with rain. This brings me to one disadvantage of the almost 24-hour daylight in the Arctic – normally you can happily go for a pee in the dark outside your tent, but when it’s broad daylight in the middle of the night, this is a slightly more risky strategy. Still, too bad really as I didn’t fancy wandering far in the middle of the night in the pouring rain! Luckily no one was about, although apparently some reindeer wandered very close to our camp later that night. I did hear noises but never thought to look out of the tent, thinking it was just my imagination. I wish I had, as I could have got some fantastic pictures, as our photojournalist team member Mark managed to do. After the first night, I decided to use my Nalgene bottle for peeing at night, which, although tricky in a confined space when half asleep, meant at least I didn’t have to get out of the tent. I also kept an ear out for reindeer, but sadly never saw any.

So anyway, on to Day 2. This time I managed to work the Piezo lighter and get my stove going unaided for my breakfast, and also finally got the knack of unscrewing the pot of boiling water from the base, both of which had been problematic the previous night. Just as well really, because it was raining so hard there was no way I was getting out of my tent to light the stove and have breakfast! This also made me very glad I’d brought my own tent, as it has a large porch which is easy to cook in while still lying in bed, without risking setting fire to the tent. One of our team was too scared to light her stove inside her tent, having a smaller porch, and consequently went breakfast and coffee-less most mornings due to the rain. Good thing we weren’t in the Arctic in winter, or on a climbing trip, or she’d have been in real trouble! I was also very glad that I’d finally made the decision to bring the heavier thermal mug with a lid, as it meant that every morning I could make extra coffee and carry it hot with me to drink during the day without having to stop and get the stove out.

Luckily, the rain stopped just as it was time to start packing up and leaving. To be fair, I actually waited till the rain stopped, unlike some, but I knew I could break camp very fast since I was well organised, and I was ready to go at the designated hour of 10am. I still really have no idea why the plan was to leave so late, since most of us had been awake for some time, and we had another very long day ahead, but in the words of Tennyson: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” I refrain from asking if someone had blundered. It turned out that we didn’t die, so maybe not.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. We didn’t march into the Valley of Death, however, but some rather scenic surroundings, and despite my lack of sleep, I felt on good form. Today for the first time we saw snow on the mountains, and the terrain became more interesting, with a number of rather bouncy suspension bridges, which some of us enjoyed more than others.




I was the first of our group to arrive at the next checkpoint, Singi, which was bitterly cold, and unfortunately had nowhere to shelter from the wind except behind a few small rocks. I was, however, saved having to get my stove out, as a German man who was sharing my rock had just finished his lunch and had spare boiling water which he donated to me. Since it was already 2pm, I was very hungry, and it also meant I didn’t have to take my gloves off, so I was doubly grateful! The others arrived about 20 minutes later and we had a decent rest and availed ourselves of the (smelly but clean) long drop loos before continuing on. How could the loos be smelly but clean at the same time, you may ask? The answer is simple – they were always spotless, mainly thanks to the array of old men (there may also have been women, but I never saw any) who continually cleaned them and refilled the paper and sanitiser, but the nature of the long drop (a big hole in the ground, covered by a seat) meant that the smell of ammonia was overpowering. It also didn’t help that people kept closing the lid, which only made it worse as no air ever got in. 2000 people passing through in only a few days creates quite a lot of volume, as you can imagine!



The second half of the day was fairly uneventful, other than the fact that my blood sugar level crashed shortly before we reached the next checkpoint at Salka around 7pm, and despite a fistful of jelly beans and a chocolate bar, refused to come up. I pushed on to the checkpoint where a couple of the others had already arrived and had fortunately also just visited the shop, so were able to hand me chocolate and Jammy Dodgers, which soon sorted me out. I have to say that the Jammy Dodgers were much better than the English ones (so they should be, at around £5 a packet!). I visited the shop, which was almost pitch black, and since the writing on everything was in Swedish, I had almost no chance of figuring out what anything was. I managed to acquire some Jammy Dodgers and nuts, however, and (eventually) a cup of coffee. The coffee should have been straightforward, since I’d paid for it at the till, and then just had to ask the nice man sitting outside the shop to pour it for me. However, he had decided for some unknown reason that he was going on strike, and told me there was no more coffee. After telling him I’d already paid for it, he very reluctantly went inside again and retrieved the big thermos and proceeded to pour me a cup, muttering what I presumed to be Swedish swear words at me. I was too tired to care, but such was my need for coffee that I might have hit him over the head with my Jammy Dodgers if he hadn’t delivered! Since we were still waiting for some of the team who were struggling, and it was already late, we decided to cook dinner while waiting for the others, which meant that when they staggered in looking a bit the worse for wear, we had tea and hot water for food all ready for them. Tonight’s delicacy for me was the slightly scary-sounding “kebab stew”, which tasted a lot better than it sounded, with more Jammy Dodgers to follow.


I think we’d planned to go on a little further at this point to find a better campsite, but since there were a few dissenters who didn’t have the energy, we went for a compromise and found a spot just across the river beyond the checkpoint.  A couple of people decided that crossing the river (slightly precariously) was all too much, and camped with the masses below the checkpoint, but it was definitely worth the few extra yards to have a more peaceful spot to ourselves, and away from the midges. Climbing up onto the plateau, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset just as we went to bed, and I realised again how happy I was to be in this magical place.



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Trekking the Fjallraven Classic – Part 1

“Going anywhere nice for your summer holidays?” “Well yes actually, I’m off to the Arctic to trek 110km, camping wild and carrying everything I need.” Possibly not the way most people spend a week in August, but then I’ve never been like most people. Some would say I’ve never been normal. I don’t think it seems like an odd thing to do, but apparently others disagree.

Nevertheless, it was with a little bit of trepidation that I spent countless hours packing and repacking my 65 litre rucksack to fit in everything I might need. Admittedly, 90% of that time was spent squashing up my light down jacket, packing it, taking it out again, squashing up my warmer but bulkier and heavier synthetic jacket, comparing the weight and size, packing it, taking it out again, and repeating the process. Not to mention endless hours of discussion (aka mildly disguised panic) on Facebook with my long-suffering teammate in Scotland about packing dilemmas. I only took a slightly shorter time to decide between a heavier but more useful thermal mug with a lid and a lightweight mug without a lid. In the end I packed both mugs, and left the decision till I got to Sweden. I could continue discussing packing ad infinitum, but I’ll save that for a separate post.

We’d been on a pre-trip training weekend about a month previously, where we’d met the other members of the team (or rather, all but one, a journalist who was a last minute addition to the group), so in principle I’d had some practice at walking with around 15kg of equipment, and knew that at least there didn’t appear to be any complete psychopaths in the team (though there’s nothing like spending 5 days trekking in the wilderness in freezing cold, biting rain, slippery mud, with sleep and food deprivation and blisters to bring out the psychopathic tendencies in anyone). If you missed it, I recommend reading my account of the training weekend before you continue with this post.

The day before we were due to fly out, I took the day off work even though I’d pretty much finished packing, in order to unpack and repack my bag another 6 times and do a few last-minute things. In the end Siri (my long-suffering friend from Scotland, not the iPhone voice) told me in no uncertain terms to leave my bag alone and make a cup of tea, as by this time I was driving her nuts (and she was already on the train to Heathrow, so couldn’t make any more changes to her packing if I came up with any last minute words of wisdom). Come to think of it, I could probably have just asked Siri the iPhone voice for help and left the human Siri alone, but I don’t have an iPhone. Being me, as soon as I finally made it onto the train to Heathrow, I pretty much stopped panicking about packing, or at least until the following day when we arrived in Sweden and then had to make a few last-minute decisions about what to take out of my rucksack and leave in my bag to be transported to the finish line. I drove Siri mad yet again deliberating for hours about two different mid-layers, as the ones we had been kindly donated by Fjallraven were thinner than I’d been expecting, and I cursed myself for not having packed an extra lightweight top.  I was banned from ever mentioning hoodies again for the rest of the trip, and to be fair, that shut me up.

After flying to Stockholm and then connecting to the small town of Kiruna (with some trepidation waiting for our bags to arrive – luckily they all made it safely, but there were a couple of unfortunate souls from other teams who didn’t get theirs), it was time to relax and attend a briefing from one of the Fjallraven team about the trek (aka nab as many freebies as we could – not only did we get a very nice hoodie, as mentioned above, but also a hat and buff, and some snacks, just to make our rucksacks a little bit heavier. I can highly recommend the chilli biltong!). There was a popup Fjallraven shop also set up in the school gym, where the unlucky people who hadn’t got their luggage could spend vast sums of money kitting themselves out again. Amazingly, there were even boots for sale. You’d have to be pretty stupid to have not brought any boots with you, but it takes all sorts. I always wear my hiking boots when flying (when going hiking, I mean, not routinely just to fly in), because the worst thing to be without and have to borrow / buy new is a pair of boots, but some people were rather braver (more stupid?) and had packed theirs in their luggage!


Pre-trip briefing


Our route with checkpoints

Trek Day 1: Nikkaluokta to Kebnekaise

Having debated hotly among our team the previous night the merits of getting up at an ungodly hour to be in the first wave of start times (there were 3 throughout the day – early morning, lunchtime, and mid-afternoon), the majority vote had gone for the lunchtime start. This meant that we had a lie-in in the morning and the chance to repack our bags another 6 times, but had the downside that we had more than 20km to walk and would only start at 1pm, so it would be a late finish. I was happy with either option, but on balance I was happy as there wouldn’t be anything to do other than eat and sleep when we got to our campsite, and it never got properly dark, so arriving late didn’t matter too much, and I’m never a fan of early mornings. After collecting our gas and food and making the final packing decisions, we checked in our spare bag to be sent off to the finish line. It was incredible to see 3 giant containers just for the bags, but then you have to remember that there are over 2000 participants, so that’s quite a lot of luggage! I hoped I’d see my bag again, as it had my passport and house keys in it, amongst other things. But there wasn’t really anywhere it could get lost, so I wasn’t too worried.


Collecting gas and bread


Sending off our bags

When you’re getting ready to start 5 days of trekking, what you really want to put you in the right mood is a beautiful view and brilliant sunshine. We had neither. It was on with the waterproofs and rucksack covers, while munching our pre-trek reindeer burgers (our last chance of a non-dehydrated meal for a while, and they were surprisingly good) and trying to keep the rain out of our coffee.


I’m ready to go!

After an interminable speech from the race organiser that no one actually listened to, but which I imagine was a lyrical waxing about the joys of trekking in the rain and mud and how our spiritual energy would be revitalised by the end of it), the whistle finally blew and we were off! The rain actually stopped very soon, and we were soon walking through the mud and trees in sunshine. Our shoulders were strong as a gymnast’s, our feet were as smooth as a baby’s bottom, our boots were shiny as silverware, our hair could have promoted Timotei, and our Tshirts smelt like flowers. We were invincible. Briefly.

We made good time for the first few hours, fuelled by reindeer meat and powered by limbs that had spent the best part of the last 2 days sitting down, and we were eager for action. After a couple of hours we arrived at a beautiful spot by the river in glorious sunshine, and sat down for a rest, a snack and our first experience of the trail toilets (basically a shed containing a long-drop with a seat). Actually compared with other trails in Africa and Asia, these were in excellent condition despite the enormous number of users (we were encouraged to use these rather than going in the wild, for environmental reasons). You soon got used to holding your breath and putting a buff over your face to disguise the smell of ammonia, but they were always spotlessly clean.


Alan emphasising the importance of airing your feet at every opportunity

My sense of time had already gone out of the window (after all, you don’t usually start a walk of more than 20k at lunchtime), and it must have been about 4pm that we set off again with what seemed like an enormous mileage (or kilometrage, since everything in Sweden is metric) left to go. I soon learnt to banish all thoughts of time, which was easy considering that it never really got dark and that we would often end up eating lunch at 4pm and dinner at 10pm, although we usually managed breakfast around 7-8am. Some days, we didn’t eat lunch at all, and just snacked throughout the day on cereal bars, dried fruit, biltong, or whatever other squashed delicacies we were carrying in our pockets.


First checkpoint stamped!

At some point in the evening we reached the first checkpoint, Kebnekaise, after 19lm, and had our passes stamped (important so that the organisers knew we hadn’t been swallowed by a bog monster, broken a leg or suffered any other fatal incident on the trek and were still alive). We still had a few km to go until we reached the point where we’d planned to camp, however. There were a few very tired faces and almost a mutiny when we had to keep pushing on, due to other trekkers having already reached our preferred spot and set up camp there. I was actually feeling pretty good still at this point, so happy to carry on, and it was certainly worthwhile when we finally found a suitable spot to camp, with no one around. I wrote a little bit about this experience in another post on remembering why I love the wilderness experience. I was very glad I had a tried and tested tent with me (unlike the poor person using a tent he’d never even seen before, and which turned out to be incredibly complicated to erect). I was keen to get to my food, but I spent the next hour assisting with the recalcitrant tent, and we finally managed to make it suitable for sleeping in, even if not exactly looking like the photo on the instructions! After all, we were a team, and I’ve have welcomed the help if it had been me. I finally cooked my first of many dehydrated meals on the trek, which turned out to be a delicious and very filling game stew (yes, I did use the word “delicious” and “dehydrated meal” in the same sentence, and not just because I was hungry, it really was good!) and fell into bed just as the sun was starting to set.


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Five reasons why you should do the Fjällräven Classic

There are so many reasons why (if you like trekking) you should have a go at the Fjällräven Classic. In no particular order, here are five of them.

  1. How many people can say they’ve trekked in the Arctic? On the list of cool destinations, it’s pretty much guaranteed to give you hero status. And nobody will know (unless you tell them) that it’s not quite as extreme as trekking to the North Pole. And while you probably won’t see any polar bears, you might spot some reindeer.


    Not quite what you’d expect the Arctic to look like

  2. It’s incredibly well-organised. The Swedes – and Fjällräven in particular – really know how to make an event work. Granted, they’ve had more than 10 years of practice, and have fine-tuned it over the years, but with frequent checkpoints  (including shops where you can stock up on snacks and critical items, medics to check you out, and even saunas at some of them), excellent signage, all food provided, buses to and from the start/finish, and advice coming out of their eyeballs, all you really have to worry about it is putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end. Which is just as well, as this requires intense concentration given the assault course of rocks, river crossings, slippery mud and narrow boardwalks you have to negotiate. It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one, but there’s masses of support along the way, from the practical (a little man sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere brewing up coffee and offering to fix your gear) to the moral (Fjällräven reps popping up on the trail handing out sweets and encouragement, and strategically placed meditation spots to remind you that there’s more to the trek than pain).                                                                                           


    One of the constant surprises en route

  3. There’s nothing like being out in the wilderness for a few days to restore your soul. So much so that I wrote a whole separate post about this. On my return after describing the trip to a work colleague, his reaction was “You might as well spend a week tied to a tree being beaten with a stick.” I tried to explain that the pain was only a minor part of it, and that there were so many worthwhile reasons for going, despite the state of my feet on my return, but he just didn’t get it. Ah well, each to their own. But a sense of accomplishment does wonders for your mental health and general wellbeing.


    One of the many boardwalks through the wilderness

  4. New scenery, new culture. Admittedly, my grasp of Swedish pronunciation isn’t that much better than before I went, but I can at least pronounce Fjällräven more or less correctly now (thanks to the patience of the one Swedish speaker in our group). For the record, it’s supposed to sound pretty much like you have a mouthful of rubber bands. And the scenery is fantastic, even if the weather might be a bit on the drizzly side (which can at least make for some good old-fashioned moody photos).


    Snow patches on the hills

  5. You’ll make new friends and have some odd experiences. The beauty of this event is that with 2000 people entering every year, you’re bound to meet some new people. And it’s worth getting to know them. The plane between Stockholm and Kiruna is guaranteed to be almost exclusively full of trekkers during the week of the event, and it’s pretty easy to strike up a conversation. I sat next to two lovely Korean gentlemen on the way out, and a member of the Dutch police force on the way back, and had some fascinating conversations with them. The Dutchman in particular was full of interesting stories and information about the event, since it was already his second time doing it. It turned out that he was also a high-functioning autistic, though I’d never have guessed. Furthermore, on the trek itself you can’t help but chat to fellow trekkers. A German surgeon told me in the loo queue at a checkpoint one morning about how he’d found a young girl who’d fallen on the rocks the previous day and had dislocated her shoulder, and how he was able to put it back in place for her so she could continue the trip. (Other accident sufferers were not so lucky and had to be airlifted out by helicopter). A Hungarian man offered me some of his homemade firewater from a hipflask on a particularly cold and wet afternoon as we huddled round an open fire at one of the checkpoints.  I wouldn’t normally accept unknown alcoholic drinks from a stranger’s pocket, but I was incredibly grateful as I’d been cold right through to the core after several unrelenting hours in the rain, and it really hit the spot for the next few hours of walking! More bizarrely, a Dutch trekker got out his electric razor and started having a shave while we were huddled around the campfire. Admittedly, I had just mentioned that I wasn’t interested in men with more than 1/4 of stubble, so perhaps he had ulterior motives, but unfortunately I never saw him again.


    Fellow trekker contemplating the best approach through a river crossing

I’ve returned from the trip stronger, wiser and more knowledgeable, and with a new-found love of Sweden and the Arctic, not to mention some great memories and new friends. They say that the reason you forget about pain is because otherwise no one would ever undergo childbirth more than once. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I’m already looking forward to doing the Classic again some time.

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Top 5 tips for trekking the Fjällräven Classic

I can’t claim to be an expert trekker. There are many people out there far more experienced than I am, although I’ve now ticked off a few classics – Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Mt Toubkal, the Inca Trail, and the Abel Tasman –  as well as a number of other lesser-known ones. But the Fjällräven Classic last week was my first real experience of a long-distance trek carrying 15kg+ of kit, not to mention my first ever experience of the Arctic (though admittedly in summer the Arctic is more like the Scottish or Icelandic wilderness than the stereotypical image of snow, ice and polar bears). However, what I did have on my side was plenty of experience in the group I travelled with, being organised by Jagged Globe, accompanied by a number of seasoned trekkers, and none other than the famous Alan ‘all 8000m peaks’ Hinkes as our leader. I use the term leader rather than guide because you’d really have to try very hard to get lost on the Kungsleden (King’s Trail), that forms the route for the 110km Fjallraven Classic, even if you’re legally blind like me and can barely see anything of interest more than a few feet away. Furthermore, with 2000 people completing the event every year, there’s  a wealth of information to be gleaned from the fellow trekkers you meet en route, especially with a number of them having completed the event multiple times, and with plenty of time to kill waiting in the interminable loo queues at the checkpoints.

So without further ado, here are some of my top tips for the event, many of which would also apply to any similar trip.

  1. It’s not about the distance, it’s about the weight. You’ll hear this time and again on the Classic, and it really is true. 110km over 4 days (for most people) equates to only about 25k or 15 miles a day on average, which is nothing when you’re used to walking 20 miles a day in the hills. And it’s almost entirely flat, so it should be much easier. More on that in another post. What makes it hard is not the distance, but the 15-20kg you’re carrying. I tried to go as light as possible, even packing a half-size toothbrush to shave off a few grammes (though I didn’t go as far as cutting off the labels on my clothes), and still ended up with between 15-17kg depending how much water I was carrying at any one point. When I had an extra litre of water I really noticed the difference, and more than 16kg seemed to be the tipping point beyond which my shoulders and back really started to hurt. I could go on at length about tips for packing, so I’ve made that into a separate post. But in terms of water, it really is abundant, so you really never need to carry more than a litre at any one time.
    You’ll appreciate a light rucksack when you’re going uphill

  2. Take your boots and socks off at every opportunity. I can’t really take the credit for this one, as it was drummed into us at every opportunity by Mr. Hinkes (OBE). Although he can’t actually take credit for it either, as when he did the trek for the first time last year, he laughed at the locals who gave him this tip (after all, when you’re climbing Everest, the last thing on your mind is taking your socks off)  but he tried it and found it really did help. I’ve actually learned this tip previously from softball tournaments, where you can spend up to 12 hours a day running around in not-so-comfortable cleats, and most of us have learned to swap them for Crocs or flipflops during the rest periods). Note: if an Australian tells you to swap your boots for thongs, don’t put your underwear on your feet — it’s simply the Australian word for flipflops.                                                                                          DSCN8512
    Alan leading by example
  3. Be flexible. While you may plan to stop and have a lunch break, get out the stove and cook up a delicious dehydrated meal (not entirely sarcastic – the Real Turmat ones provided really are quite good, even if I wouldn’t serve them at a dinner party), and it’s a great idea to do so if you can, when the weather turns to freezing rain and biting wind, it’s much better to crack on rather than risk hypothermia and faffing around in the wet opening up your rucksack, not to mention freezing off your fingers in the process. Make do with your favourite choice of snacks until you reach a checkpoint or the weather improves. Similarly, you may plan a particular place to camp, or a goal to reach for that day, but conditions change, your body may give up on you, or conversely you may feel still energetic and want to push on a bit further. And of course, it’s not just you but also your companions that you may need to consider. There’s nothing wrong with pushing your body a bit out of its comfort zone, but there’s no point breaking yourself on day 1 either if you don’t have to.


    Unfortunately we were beaten to the spot we’d planned to camp at on day 1, so we had to push on a bit further

  4. Establish a good packing system and stick to it. It’s best to get this down to a fine art before the trek with some practice days out, if you can. Everyone’s very different in how they like to pack, but the basic principle involves making sure you know your system so you can quickly reach the things you need without having to delve around in your bag and faff needlessly. This typically means having waterproofs and extra layers (including hat and gloves) easily available, keeping plenty of sweets and cereal bars (or your favourite snack items) easily accessible (for me, this is my hip belt pockets where I can reach them without having to stop – especially useful when it’s pouring with rain and you don’t want to stop for proper food), camera at the ready (not just for the beautiful views, but also for when your companion slips and falls headfirst into the river, so you can quickly snap them before pulling them out), and stove and cooking materials (including mug, teabags etc) near the top of your pack so you don’t have to empty everything out when you stop for a quick brew. It’s also worth having a similar system for the items you need for camping – it’s likely there won’t be much spare space in your rucksack, so having a good system means you know how everything fits together, and your rucksack won’t have any sharp pointy things sticking into your back. It also means you can get everything ready fast in the evening when you’re exhausted, and similarly pack up quickly in the morning. As soon as you get lazy and stuff that mid-layer into an exposed side pocket instead of packing it away properly in a drybag, you can guarantee the rain will descend, you’ll forget it’s there and before you know it, your warm layer is soaking wet and useless.


    Cooking breakfast in the rain – it helps if everything you need is accessible

  5. Have fun! I’ll make no bones about it, the Fjällräven Classic is not easy (there’d be no point in doing it if it were!), and there will be moments when the rain is hammering down, you can’t feel your fingers, your feet hurt, your companions are monosyllabic (or even swearing at you), and there’s still 10km to go till the next checkpoint, but the challenge is a mental one. Some people turn to music to keep them going, but personally I prefer making myself laugh. My favourite distraction is to sing to myself a song about how horrible everything is to the tune of something really silly (Postman Pat or the Wombles are always good ones). If you’ve ever listened to “One Song to the Tune of Another” on Radio 4’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, you’ll understand why I can be found singing and laughing manically to myself in a rainstorm. I’ve long since given up worrying what others might think. One of my teammates told me he thought I’d entirely lost the plot when he was overtaken by me marching along a boardwalk at full speed, swinging my arms and shouting poetry  at passers-by (for the record, it was “Lepanto” by G.K. Chesterton, which is one of my favourite gutsy and onomatopaeic poems, guaranteed to drive me up the steepest hill – and in that particular instance, the only way to forget about my aching feet, back and shoulders). I also found Shelley’s “The Cloud” particularly beneficial when walking in the pouring rain. Luckily no one saw me practising Monty Python-esque Silly Walks in an attempt to amuse myself, or doing a quickstep along a boardwalk (or at least they were too polite to say anything if they did). Do whatever works for you, and forget about how silly you look.


    Who cares if it’s raining? I’m a ninja and I’m here to have fun!

And finally, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Despite the inclement weather which you’ll probably encounter at some point (the Arctic is hardly known for its desert conditions after all – one of the many reasons why camels are not popular modes of transport there), it’s a fantastic trip and one I would highly recommend. You’ll have stunning scenery, magical moments, laughter and smiles, seamless organisation from Fjällräven, and the satisfaction of having trekked 110km in the Arctic, even if you do come back with blisters and sore shoulders or worse. It’s worth it just for the hero status when you return, if nothing else. And if in the worst case you get helicoptered out with a broken leg or worse, your kudos will be even higher and you’ll have a great story to tell your grandchildren / dog / strangers in the pub.

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What’s so special about the Wilderness Experience?

Alistair Humphreys writes frequently about the benefits of microadventures and getting away from it all, even if only for a night. He was named as National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year precisely for his pioneering work on this concept. Having just returned from a 5-day trek in the Arctic Circle with Jagged Globe, which is pretty good going as far as wilderness territory is concerned, I can only echo his feelings. Even after being back in the UK for 2 days, I’m still feeling very disoriented. Oddly, the thing that’s affecting me the most is the level of noise, and I live on the edge of Sheffield where I have stunning views of the Peak District and it’s generally very quiet. I spend a lot of my time travelling, both for work and pleasure, being away from home at least twice a month, and out of the country at least 12 times a year, and I have no issues with staying in a comfortable 5-star hotel with all mod cons. Indeed, when I travel for fun, I often pick at least a youth hostel with a minimum level of comfort (electricity, hot showers, hot food, a bar and a comfortable bed) over camping in the freezing cold rain after a long day of walking. It’s easy to forget not only how much fun, but also how beneficial for the soul a night or 5 of roughing it can actually be.

It didn’t take long on our Arctic trek – the 110km Fjallraven Classic – before I remembered why I love wild camping. On the first night, after we’d been walking for around 8 hours with 15-20kg rucksacks carrying all our needs for the next 5 days, having started at 1pm due to the necessity of leaving at the official start time rather than earlier in the day, we were all pretty tired. But as we found a suitable spot to pitch our tents, and 5 minutes later my tent was up, my boots were off, I’d collected water from the river 20 yards away, and my stove was boiling for my dinner (a delicious dehydrated Swedish game stew, in case you’re wondering), I was in heaven. I couldn’t have been happier had I been in a Michelin-starred restaurant. There was no proper darkness, this being Arctic summer and pretty much 24 hour daylight, I was warm and dry, I had stunning views and it was silent. Nothing but me, nature, and 9 other fellow trekkers (it would be churlish to mention the swearing of the person who was struggling to put up their brand new tent they’d never used before). But even the fact that I was not entirely alone was not a problem — with thousands of acres of wilderness at our disposal, we had plenty of space between our tents and I had an unobstructed view of the stunning Swedish landscape.                                   DSCN8588

The fact that the mists were descending only served to make it more atmospheric as they swirled around our tents and clung to the mountain tops, emphasising our fragile vulnerability, but at the same time the sense of being at one with nature and the elements. I instantly remembered how much I enjoy wild camping, and I knew that no matter how hard the next 4 days would be, this was why I was here, miles from civilisation with only an emergency helicopter or my own two feet and several days walking for an escape route.

DSCN8533Having a tried and tested tent, my 10 year old Macpac Microlight Solo (known to my friends as the “hobbit tent” on account of its small size and low profile), meant I wasn’t worried about whatever weather the gods might choose to send my way (and they certainly sent some challenging conditions during the course of the trip!). The beauty of this tent is that despite its small size and weight, it’s designed with really usable space so that I can easily store my bag either in the porch or in the sleeping compartment, and can also cook in the porch with plenty of room in case of inclement weather.


Cooking breakfast in the tent porch during a rain storm

There’s also something very primal about having to fetch water from a river, light a stove and cook your dinner with nothing more than a gas canister and a tiny stove (in my case the excellent Jetboil Zip, pictured above). Although admittedly there’s nothing very primal about dehydrated meals, but catching and killing our own dinner was perhaps a step too far at this stage, and besides, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to be caught (although one of our team did spot some reindeer in the middle of the night).

Of course, it was a lovely treat to come home and be able to make a cup of tea by simply boiling a kettle, not to mention having plenty of that white liquid to go in it that actually bears resemblance to something emanating from a cow, unlike Coffee Mate or skimmed milk powder. And not having to get out of the tent in the pouring rain to pee in the night was definitely a bonus. I did, however, repurpose my pink Nalgene water bottle for use in those night-time emergencies when getting out of the tent would have required full waterproofs and wasn’t really on the agenda (top tip: practise at home first before trying this in a tent with minimal space). Don’t worry, I did wash it thoroughly before reusing it as a water bottle the next day.

But oddly, the thing I found the hardest on coming back to civilisation was dealing with the noise. Everything is so quiet in the wilderness (other than the delicate snoring sounds of the local bears and lions – surely not my fellow trekkers) that it takes some getting used to even just everyday sounds of people, traffic and animals, when you’ve become used to the solitude. The comfy bed and warm duvet may be more conducive to a good night’s sleep, but there’s something about the raw primal nature of the wilderness that draws me back time and again.

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Preparation is key: the Fjällräven Classic


I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I’ve found myself booked on a trip next month to trek the classic Kungsleden hiking trail in the northernmost tip of Sweden (Swedish Lapland – I didn’t even know there was a bit of Lapland in Sweden). It’s actually in the Arctic Circle, which sounds very impressive, but in August it’s more like northern Scotland than what most people would imagine as the Arctic. There are no polar bears for starters, so at least that’s one less thing to worry about being attacked by in the middle of the night. The event, the Fjällräven Classic, is a 110km trek, organised every year by Fjällräven, and attracts around 2,000 people from all over the world. There are official checkpoints and start times, and although we’re not really doing it as a race, some people do: the record time for completing it is something like 8 hours. I don’t think we’ll be doing it quite that fast, however (the plan is to do it in 4 1/2 days). We also get kit from Fjällräven and last but not least, the esteemed Alan Hinkes as our group leader. While he might have summited all 14 mountains over 8,000m (including Everest) and has an OBE, I’ve heard he only has one joke – it’s going to be a long week if so!

The reason this is challenging is more the remoteness than anything else, and for me the fact that we’ll be carrying all our kit including tents, stoves etc. When I thought back to the last time I’ve actually carried that much kit on a trek, the answer is actually “never”. I’ve been wild camping many times, but never unsupported, and I’ve done long-distance trails, but never actually had to carry a tent as there have always been huts of some sort on the unsupported trips. My mum suggested helpfully that we could always flag down a passing reindeer to carry our kit, but I’m not so convinced of the wisdom of that. It was bad enough in Morocco with recalcitrant mules carrying our kit and disappearing frequently into the sunset! The nearest I came to carrying a full pack was in New Zealand in 1990 on the Abel Tasman trail, but we stayed in a hut so didn’t need tents, although we did need stoves and sleeping bags. We did the whole thing in 2 days, although it’s supposed to take 4 – well we were young and fit and possibly stupid – so we saved weight by not having to carry so much food and fuel, and I also wrecked my knee the day before the trip, so we split most of my pack among the among the other members of the group to lighten my load and reduce impact on my knee. I trekked in Mallorca on the GR221 last year for 5 days, but again, we didn’t carry sleeping bags, tents or stoves, and minimal food as again we were staying in mountain huts where food was also provided every night and morning.

The other reason why this will be challenging is because I haven’t been able to use my shoulders for the last 2 years, and am still not fully recovered from the shoulder surgery I had in February – I have “functional movement” now but can’t get my arms behind my back still, can’t throw with my right arm, and can only lift the lightest of weights (which is still a major improvement on not even being able to lift a full kettle for the last 2 years!). Oh and following my mountain biking accident in Sardinia in April, my ankle is still bruised and swollen and decidedly dodgy. So walking with a 20kg rucksack will be interesting. I deliberated for a long time before booking the trip, and just as I had pretty much decided I could do it, I asked the advice of a friend who knows me well and has walked many times with me, and even she was a bit doubtful even though she is normally very positive about my abilities! Of course that made me more determined than ever to do it!


On day 2 of our training weekend carrying full kit – the fact that we did the “coffin route” over Hollins Cross is not prophetic I hope!

One of the good things about the trip is that Jagged Globe organised a pre-trip training weekend to meet the rest of the team and to practise trekking with a big pack and any campcraft skills we might be lacking. The week before the training weekend I lay awake almost an entire night worrying about whether I could actually carry a 20kg rucksack over 15 miles without dying, whether everyone else would be superfit and laugh at me, what kit I should take, and so on. For a 5-day trek (for the real thing) there’s only a limited amount of spare jelly babies and medical supplies you can conceivably carry. The internal debate went on for hours – on the one hand, I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, but on the other hand, I worry about stupid things as soon as I have to do something new. The challenge for me is often more about overcoming the stupid fears than the physical element. However, another friend reminded me that 75% of any challenge is the mental part rather than the fitness part, and that I am never one to give up on a challenge!

Of course, the training weekend turned out to be absolutely fine despite the fact that I came down with tonsillitis 2 days beforehand – not ideal conditions! When I felt the weight of my rucksack with everything in it, I was terrified at the thought of walking all day with it, but once it was on my back, I soon discovered that it was actually very comfortable. Despite the fact that the rest of the group were all more experienced with this kind of trip than I was, I wasn’t out of my depth at all, and amazingly had no major (or even minor) incidents during the weekend! The others laughed when I gave them the rundown on how to deal with a medical emergency. “We’ve never heard of jelly babies being described as life-saving medical kit before!” For them, a luxury, but for me, of course, they could literally be the difference between life and death. Even my first ever time eating dehydrated food wasn’t as bad as I had feared, despite everyone telling me that it was always disgusting. I learnt lots of small tips along the way (porridge mixed with hot chocolate powder is infinitely nicer; bringing real coffee instead of instant coffee would not have been considered “princess-like”; a spare water carrier is a really good idea and weighs nothing when empty; super lightweight tent pegs are an excellent way to save a bit of weight…).


Practising our cooking skills – porridge with hot chocolate is a great breakfast!

Most importantly, I managed to push myself just a little bit further out of my comfort zone. The real trip in August will push me just a little bit more no doubt, but at least I now feel prepared. And without a mountain bike to fall off or altitude sickness to worry about, I only really have to concern myself with being mauled to death by a very lost polar bear. I’m sure I could defend myself with a spork in that case. Or offer it a handful of jelly babies. Maybe I should take some spare.


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Resetting your comfort zone

One of the aims in my role as ambassador to the charity Action4Diabetics is to lead by example and show how people with diabetes (and potentially the resulting complications) shouldn’t be afraid to get out and do adventurous things. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you know me in real life, you’ll know that I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, occasionally with unfortunate consequences (like falling off mountain bikes, as I did (twice) last week on holiday). I feel very strongly that people shouldn’t feel limited by health problems, disabilities and other potential barriers to get out and do what they want to do, provided they’re sensible and take relevant precautions. However, I’m also the first to admit that it can be scary as hell, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll also know that I don’t shy away from talking about my own fears and insecurities. As a famous adventurer once told me: “It’s good to be scared when you’re out of your comfort zone. If you’re not scared about dangerous activities, you’re either a psychopath or you’ll make mistakes and die. Or both.”

I had a conversation recently on Twitter with someone who mentioned that there were lots of things that diabetes prevented them doing, because they felt it was too dangerous. Hiking and wild camping alone was one of them. I know other people who are too scared to travel alone or stay in a hotel room alone in case something happens. I feel quite sad when people feel limited in this way, especially when it’s about mental rather than physical limitations. There’s a world of difference between being physically unable to do something, and weighing up the pros and cons and making an active decision not to do something because you feel it’s too risky. Doing the latter is very sensible. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on anything risky. I don’t go mountain biking in the dark, because it would be ridiculously dangerous given my inability to see in the dark even with a powerful torch. I never went hiking up mountains in the dark either until very recently, because the danger felt too great for me, especially after a very scary experience on Kilimanjaro. But recently, I gave night hiking a go, after I found a very bright headtorch and in the company of people I trusted, and I survived without incident. I then tried night hiking on more difficult terrain, and it was scary, but I also survived without incident. Next time, I might feel brave enough to try it on my own. When I lost my sight, I sold my bikes because I thought I would never be able to cycle again. These things, and many others, have taken time for me to decide that they were worth having a go at and seeing if I could find a way to still do them. And mostly, I have found a way. It might be more dangerous for me than for other people, but I’ve weighed up the risks and decided that they’re worth taking.

As I wrote in my previous post about Sardinia, when I fell off my mountain bike last week I lost all confidence, and seriously considered giving up mountain biking. To be brutally honest, I didn’t really portray a very good impression of myself during that trip – I was scared and annoyed with myself for being negative, something which isn’t in my nature normally. I had too much time on my own thinking, as a result of being incapacitated for a couple of days, and I brooded instead of talking it through with someone who could understand. But since I’ve got back from the trip, I can see the funny side, and I can see the positive side. Nothing really bad happened, I learnt a lot, but I also made myself aware of my own vulnerability, something I try to avoid thinking about too much.

So back to the point of this post. There are lots of things in life that present obstacles. It’s always good to think things through logically and decide how to tackle them. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for deciding that something is beyond your capabilities, or is too dangerous. Interestingly, I’ve met a lot of people on cycling trips who have some kind of physical disability, and they put me to shame because they’re almost always much fitter than I am, despite their problems. It’s important to know your limits, but it’s also important to remember that your personal limits don’t have to be fixed. You can push them forwards when you feel confident, but there’s no harm in sometimes resetting them back in your comfort zone while you regroup.

A week after I fell off my mountain bike, I’ve thought long and hard about whether mountain biking is sensible or not. Given that anyone who goes mountain biking falls off at some point, and often frequently, I don’t think I need to rule it out just yet as something that’s too dangerous for me to do, I just need to learn to get better at it! Meanwhile, I’m also going to get a road bike again.


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