Kungsleden is a hiking trail in Swedish Lapland that stretches from Abisko to Hemavan. It was created in the early 1900’s by the Swedish Tourist Association (STF). It was planned that the trail should pass through the most beautiful locations of this area, and in this way become the “king of trails”, hence the name Kungsleden in Swedish.
The total length of the route is approximately 440km which includes seven boat crossings of a total of ~19km. In addition there is a 30km road stretch which connects the trail between Vakkotavare and Kebnats, serviced by bus.
The trail is pretty varied in nature. It is undulating with exposed passages over mountains and more sheltered sections at lower elevation over open grass plains and in beautiful birch forests. Underfoot, it can be quite challenging at times. It is uneven and a bit rocky most of the time and a few sections are pure stone blocks of varying size. Planks or boards that have been laid over bogs are frequent and they can be rotten, slippery or broken in places. Some sections are boggy and wet without boards. There are also many bridges over rivers and streams. That said, in many places the trail is fairly smooth and runnable. I guess it all depends what you are used to. The season and the weather will also dictate the condition of the trail.
I had been thinking about Kungsleden for a couple of years before I decided to give it a try. Kungsleden is one of the few long trails in Scandinavia that has a history of Fastest Known Times (FKT’s). I was also tempted by the fact that the trail is very remote and most of the trail is located above the arctic circle.
I didn’t want to run solo, so I asked Elisabet Barnes if she wanted to team up. Elisabet has a very strong running resume and it is an extra bonus that she’s Swedish.
Normally you hike this trail in 20+ days and few people do all of it in one go. We had one week. We decided to start in the north in Abisko and go south, seeing how far we could get in that time. The challenge lies not only in the running, but in the fact that you have the boat crossings to contend with and also the road connection between Vakkotavare and Kebnats. The boat crossings are serviced by the hosts of the huts or other boat owners. Most run a fixed schedule with generally two crossings per day, some need to be pre-booked. At some crossings you can row, but the logistics present some challenges if you are trying to do this trail fast. There is a rule that there must always be at least one boat by a shore. So, if you arrive at the shore and there is only one boat there, you have to first cross once, then take a boat on tow back with you from the other side before you can finally cross. For a 4km crossing, that’s 12km of rowing, in potentially windy weather… The road stretch is serviced by one daily bus in September (two daily buses in high season). If you miss it you have to wait a day, staying in the Vakkotavare hut, or hitchhike.
We set off from Abisko on 18th September at 9am, with approximately 6kg each in equipment. This included food for two days, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, the necessary clothing, some very basic toiletries, first aid and other essential equipment, plus a tent. In hindsight, all my kit choices were nearly perfect. If I was to do the trail again, I would swap the tent with a lightweight bivi-bag and possibly skip the sleeping mat.
Day 1: Abisko to Sälka, 60km / 1220m ascent
We had a rough plan and that included getting to Sälka on Day 1. The first part from Abisko to Abiskojaure is beautiful and although wet and with plenty of bog boards it is runnable. It passes through birch forest, along the bubbling Abiskojåkka river. From the birch forest the trail then ascends out of the trees and reaches Alesjaure. We stopped here for a coffee and some snacks in the serviced hut which had a shop.
After our coffee break we continued to the highest point of Kungsleden which is the Tjäktja pass at ~1100m elevation. The terrain up here consists of large blocks of rock and is challenging and slow to negotiate. We had saved a Coke and a Fanta for the pass and it was a nice treat! Once through the few kilometres at the top there is a gradual descent down to Sälka which, although quite rocky, is more runnable. We stopped for 5-10 minutes in the shelter at the top and chatted to some hikers who had stopped there. Most people we met were really fascinated in our “project’ and the speed at which we were going. Of course, it makes a big difference if you carry 6kg or 20+kg…. We reached Sälka after about 8.5 hours and could get accommodation in the hut. Dinner and sauna was a perfect end to a productive first day.
The guys from Czech Republic who joined us in the sauna were perhaps a little bit uncomfortable with the temperature when Elisabet filled up the wood burning stove to max. I tried to explain them that this was sauna the Swedish way. They also didn’t brave the ice cold stream outside but this was excellent recovery for the body and a nice way to feel relaxed.
Day 2: Sälka to Saltoluokta, 49km / 1066m ascent
Motivated by good progress on Day 1, and with fresh legs from the sauna (or was it the nourishing Norrlands Guld beer??), we decided to try and reach Saltoluokta on Day 2. Saltoluokta hosts one of the few more serviced lodges along the route which meant that we could get dinner in the restaurant if we made the boat from Kebnats at 5:15pm. Reaching Saltoluokta also meant that we would have negotiated some tricky logistics which, if we were unlucky, could delay the trip with a whole day. This was however not without challenge to achieve and we wouldn’t know until later in the day if we could pull it off.
We set off from Sälka early after some breakfast which we made in the self service hut kitchen. We passed the Singi hut and continued onwards to Kaitumjaure.
Running together with Elisabet was very “easy going”. Sometimes we chatted about running and life, other times we were quiet for hours. I think she was in her own bubble, and I had enough with my own thoughts. The best thing with Elisabet is that she’s always positive. If I, for example, complained about a boat captain not answering the phone, she said: “no answer is better than a definitive “NO”. I never heard her complain about the weather or the technicality of the trail.
We had our first boat crossing in Teusajaure. Here we had to cross by boat to be able to continue but we were outside of the boat schedule as there are only two crossings a day: one early morning and one early evening. Luckily, the host was helpful and he agreed to take us across. I think it helped that Elisabet smiled to the host and talked to him in Swedish 🙂
Thanks to making this crossing we could continue running and reached Vakkotavare in the afternoon. This hut is by a road and beautifully positioned within the national park of Stora Sjöfallet, overlooking the lake Akkajaure. We were done with running for the day but we had to figure out a way to get the 30km from there to Kebnats in order to take the boat to Saltoluokta. The only bus for the day had left a few hours earlier. We bought four bags of chips in the shop, some other snacks, and Fanta (Elisabet’s favorite) + Coke. We then went down onto the road to Kebnats. Not many people pass here but as we were munching on our chips we couldn’t believe our luck when a motorhome came towards us. A friendly couple from Askersund, here on holiday, stopped, opened their doors for us, and kindly gave us a lift to the boat.
There was now a 2-hour wait for the boat in Kebnats, but that was a lot better than not making it to Saltoluokta at all so we didn’t complain. However, there is no shelter in Kebnats and it did get pretty cold. We were entertained for a bit by a local hunter who came down on his way home to give his dogs a run off. They were beautiful Norwegian Elkhounds. Turned out he was Same (Lapp) so we were happy to at least have met someone from the indigenous people of this area.
It was a relief to have the boat finally arrive. Once in Saltoluokta we could get beds, dry our clothes and have dinner. It certainly was a welcome treat.
Day 3: Saltoluokta to Kvikkjock, 73km / 1683m ascent
With continued optimism we decided to set our goal on reaching Kvikkjock on Day 3, the next lodge with more extensive service and a restaurant. This was an ambitious distance of ~73km but including two boat crossings, reducing the actual running to ~65km.
We had managed to book the first boat crossing the night before, though it had to be earlier than we wanted. As such we had to set off at 6:30am from Saltoluokta and didn’t have time to enjoy the breakfast they served which was a bummer. We had our own breakfast which we prepared in the self-service kitchen.
We began with a near 10% climb for 4km to reach above the tree line and then had a more undulating, runnable stretch on the mountain before descending again to Sitojaure where we would take our first boat. It was cold this morning with a fine layer of snow all the way. It was beautiful.
Once over on the other side of the lake we had a quick break at the wind shelter before pushing on. We had tried several times to reach the hut host at Aktse by phone, which was the next place from where we needed a boat transport, but without result. It later turned out that it wasn’t possible to call the hut, only for them to call out. We just had to chance it or else we could lose another day. At the end of the day, not knowing was better than a definite “NO” so we pushed on.
We reached the hut mid-morning and were told that it was not possible to have a boat transport until 5pm (the standard slot). This was a bit of a blow but after some chatting about what we were doing the host agreed to take us across. We stocked up on various sweets and snacks in their shop and off we went. This boat took us across Laitaure. We could see the national park of Sarek to the west, and the next section of the trail, to Pårte, would take us through some of it.
This next section was stunningly beautiful. We passed an Australian guy and chatted for a while with him. He was going to Norway afterwards so I gave him some tips about “Hurtigruten”. Actually, most people we met the whole trail were not Swedes (or Norwegians) and this was reflected in the feedback from the hut hosts. It was very interesting to meet all these people from all over: Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, UK, Australia, Switzerland and more.
As we started the final stretch from Pårte to Kvikkjock we were faced with our biggest challenge yet. This section was wet, with deep mud, exposed roots and large blocks of rock. We had to dig deep to find our most positive thoughts and kept counting down the kilometres even though they went pretty slow here. We joked about being ready for the Barkley Marathons and questioned our sanity a bit as we climbed over the rocks. Every slippery bog board was now a relief as it meant a little bit of running was possible.
We eventually made it to Kvikkjock and the dinner just in time. We could have a warm shower, sleep in beds, dry our wet clothes, and even enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner. Felt like we deserved it big time!
Day 4: Kvikkjock to Vuonatjviken, 67km / 1811m ascent
On the morning we had to do a 3km boat crossing first thing from Kvikkjock before we could start running. We had booked this the night before and were met by the very friendly and knowledgeable Björn Sarstad who would take us to Mallenjarka. The only “problem” with Björn was that he liked to talk and talk and talk about the area and the local flora/fauna. After he had chatted with Elisabet for 20 minutes, I started getting very impatient and set off along the trail. We had a long day in front of us!
There were no more boat crossings this day so just up to us. However, there are also no huts on this stretch. The huts so far had been lovely as they served as mental check points and a shelter for a few minutes if you needed a break. Now, all we had was 63km to Vuonatjviken with no natural pit stops.
If Day 1 to 3 had run reasonably smoothly, Day 4 threw all it had at us. The terrain was tough, very wet and boggy. In the beginning, through the woods, it was warm but raining. Then we ascended up on the snow covered mountain and were rewarded with meeting a herd of magnificent reindeers.
About half way, I got quite cold and we had to put more layers on. Elisabet had (at least) three pairs of gloves, I had one pair. I was a bit jealous when she put on a merino wool liner and a Gore-Tex shell mitt.
We had snow, sleet, and the added wind chill. The terrain was boggy so we sank to our ankles with every step. There was nothing we could do but to push on. And so we did. This section was probably the most exposed and potentially most dangerous of the whole trip. If something had happened up here (like a broken leg) we would have been in trouble.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, we reached Vuonatjviken. This was just before dark, after 10.5 hours on our feet. We were exhausted. Maybe more from the battle with the elements rather than the running. We were able to get a cabin for the night and to dry our clothes.
In order to continue the next day we had to cross with boat the 5km over Riebnes from Vuonatjviken. We were totally in the hands of Jan who drove the boat and he was not keen on taking us over before 9am. Ideally we wanted to leave at 7am to make the most of day light the next day but there was nothing we could do but have a lie in and prepare for some night running the following day.
Day 5: Vuonatjviken to Snjulttje, 69.5km / 1641m ascent
Jan seemed in a much better mood this morning and greeted us with a smile and chatted as he took us across lake Riebnes.
The route from Riebnes was varied and we had three climbs with a total of just over 1600m of ascent. Quite early on we had another boat crossing but it was short and not serviced so we had to row. Unfortunately, the luck wasn’t with us and as we arrived at the shore there was only one boat there. The other two were on the other side. We rowed across and agreed that, since I was a bit faster than Elisabet, I would sort out the boats so she could run on to the next stop which was Jäkkvik. This was where we were going to fill up supplies from the small supermarket.
Elisabet had started to slow down a bit after the boat crossing of lake Riebnes. Beeing very positive, she didn’t complain at all, but I saw that her foot was causing her trouble (and of course pain).
Once in Jäkkvik I found Elisabet in the shop which was a short detour off the marked trail. I spent a fortune on food, but I needed to stock up. I bought food for a couple days on the trails in addition to snacks and drinks. Snickers, chocolate, chips, freeze-dried food, Coca-Cola and nuts on addition to four wraps that I ate even before I left the store.
From Jäkkvik we climbed steeply again up to just over 800 metres. The weather was kind to us and after descending again we eventually reached Adolfström at around 41km. Here there was a general store. It was closed but we knocked, and a kind lady opened and let us in. We bought some drinks and had a chat. We wanted to enquire about the shelter we had set our eyes on as our goal for the night. She confirmed that it had a wood burning stove and that was really all we needed. That would be enough for us to dry our clothes and get a roof over our heads for the night.
It was now late afternoon and we had another 23km to go so we had to push on. We knew we would be running in the dark this time. Elisabet’s ankle had gotten worse even though she’d taken pain killers during the day. We now had to run around a lake and the trail, although ok, had some slippery rocks to negotiate. Still, we made good progress.
As darkness fell on the mountain we put our head torches on towards Sjnulttje. It seemed like an eternity, and the ground once more became wet and boggy, but eventually we reached the shelter. This consisted of a small cabin with a couple of benches, a table and a wood burning stove, a shed for wood storage and an outdoor toilet.
Much to our disappointment the cabin was already occupied by three hikers and there was no more room. They were already in their sleeping bags but welcomed us in. It was pitch black outside and the lake was a bit away so getting water was difficult. The hikers kindly lent us some of theirs and we made dinner. We then decided to sleep in the wood shed as there really was very little space in the shelter. The wood shed was stuffed with garbage and of course; fire wood, but we managed to find some space for our sleeping mats. Luckily for us, the night temperature was quite decent with around seven degrees. I think we both slept OK.
Day 6: Snjulttje to Servestugan, 83km / 2200 m ascent
As we woke up, it was apparent that Elisabet’s ankle did not look good. It was swollen and I was afraid that she had a stress fracture. But we were out in nowhere so there was nothing to do and Elisabet said she still hoped to be able to finish the whole trail and get to Hemavan. We had another 125km to go, planned over two days.
Breakfast consisted of coffee and a freeze-dried meal bought the previous day in Jäkkvik. It was freezing. Our clothes hadn’t really dried and putting wet socks on was not pleasant. However, we knew they would get soaked within 5 minutes anyway so it was just a matter of persevering.
The first stretch of the day was 23km to Rävfallsstugan, a hut along the way with no services. Just before we reach the hut, Elisabet broke the silence and suggested three possible solutions:
1. That we called for assistance to have her evacuated from Rävfallsstugan.
2. That she stopped in Ammarnäs.
3. That she tried to walk/hobble/crawl all the way to Hemavan.
We discussed the three options, and very soon agreed that the only thing to do was that Elisabet stopped in Ammarnäs. She wanted me to continue the trail to Hemavan.
We walked together over the mountain. With 5 km to go to Ammarnäs we were in the more protected birch forest and the weather was OK. Elisabet wanted to walk into the village by herself, and I continued solo.
I had very mixed emotions of being alone on the trail. On one hand, I felt good about the opportunity to reach Hemavan the day after, possibly in record time. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Elisabet and I wasn’t sure if she would make it by public transport to Hemavan (and the flight home). Then I quickly reminded myself that she is a pro runner and quite possibly a more experienced traveller than I am.
I ran out of Ammarnäs at around 5 pm, with the aim of reaching Servestugan (that’s another 32km on very technical trails). After an hour or so, my phone had coverage and I called Elisabet to get an update on her progress. She told me she was on her way to Hemavan in a helicopter! I hadn’t even thought about that option. I laughed and continued running into the night.
Later, Elisabet told me that the drive around the mountain is 250 km long and that public transport is close to non-existent. The helicopter flight wasn’t cheap but probably the best thing to do.
I reached Servestugan around 9 pm and was greeted by the host and his family. They had seen my headlamp for 45 minutes and wondered if it was a quad bike or a motorcycle, as my headlamp was moving a lot faster than a normal hiker.
Well inside the hut, I enjoyed a freeze-dried meal, a beer and good chat with the host and his family. They were really nice and friendly! May be because I was their last guest of the season?
Day 7: Servestugan to Hemavan, 53km / 1000 m ascent
My alarm wake me up at 4 am, and I was ready to leave Servestugan before 5 am. I ran in the dark for 90 minutes and enjoyed it a lot. I pushed quite hard this last day on the trail. I guess I wanted to reach Hemavan as soon as possible 🙂
I made some quick stops at the two finals huts before Hemavan; Syter and Viterskalet before I started the last stretch of downhill running thru the ski resort.
And finally, at 11:51 in the morning, I arrived in Hemavan after 6 days, 2 hours and 51 minutes on the Kungsleden.
What is an FKT?
Fastest Known Time (FKT) – attempts are normally split into supported, self-supported or unsupported. Supported means you can have a support team that meets you along the way. This generally allows for the fastest and lightest trips and add an element of camaraderie and safety. Self-supported means that you don’t have to carry everything from the start of the trip, but you can stock up in shops along the way. This would normally be the style that “normal” hikers do it. However, it is not recognised as a self-supported attempt if you travel with another hiker/runner. Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. You have to carry everything you need from start to finish.
Since Elisabet and I ran together for 90 percent of Kungsleden, my FKT will be a supported record.
I have done quite a bit of research, and I haven’t found anyone that has travelled from Abisko to Hemavan on foot faster than me. That I am pretty proud of!
I do however, think it is possible to do the trail a lot faster than Elisabet and I did. If I was to do it again, I would aim for less than five days. But to go sub five, I (or anyone else who tries) must be very lucky with the boat crossings. And of course, the weather and other external elements.
To everyone we met on the trail, whether hut hosts, boat drivers, shop owners, fellow hikers, and others: if you read this and met us, thank you for being so friendly, helpful, interested in what we were doing and welcoming. We didn’t meet that many people, but I was blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of everyone we encountered. This all added to the week being so fantastic.
With the support of Altra Running, Injinji, Mountain King poles, Gore Running Wear, Adidas Eyewear and Yeti, I had some of the best gear available on planet earth. The base weight of my pack (excluding food) was just over four kilos. I use lighterpack.com to set up a detailed kit list. Have a look!
This trail, whilst serviced by fairly frequent huts, is very remote. It is possible to buy food along the way, but you can’t count on doing it every day depending on what section of the trail you are travelling along.
The huts are open from June to September, see exact dates at the STF website.
You should have a means of communication (we had a satellite tracker from Inreach/Garmin) and be able to survive should the weather get bad.
Most huts accept credit cards but cash can be useful for some of the boat transports.
Budget for a helicopter transport should something happen. Unless you are in serious danger you may not be covered by the mountain rescue service and if you have to get out for one reason or another, road transport is only available from very few locations.
The weather and trail conditions, daylight hours, number of hikers, room in the huts, frequency of transports, mosquitos etc. all vary based on when in the season you go. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide what you think might work best for you.
You can drink water from the streams, no filter is needed.
Kungsleden is extremely well marked and there are very few places where there is any confusion. That said visibility can get very poor on the mountain if the weather is bad so a gpx track can be a good backup.
There is no electricity in the STF huts, only in the more serviced lodges and some privately run cabins, so if you are relying electronic devices, bring a charge unit.
A mobile phone with TELIA (the main Swedish mobile operator) will ensure the most coverage.
Sweden has something called Allemansrätten or “The Outdoor Access Rights” or “The Right of Public Access”. This pretty much means that you are free to roam wherever you like, including to camp, as long as you protect nature and adhere to certain rules.
My body has recovered well after the week in Sweden. I lost a couple of kilos, but do think they will come back very soon. I have two or three more races left in 2017, with Cappadocia Trail in October as the A-race. I also want to do a heavy training block on one of the Canary Islands this fall, preferably in November or December.
Will I go back to Kungsleden? I hope so! I would love to support Elisabet if she wants to set a new FKT. She has some unfinished business in Swedish Lappland 🙂