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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.