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Snowshoes, hot tents and contentment in Sweden

Like quite a lot of people, I suspect, I once considered the onset of winter, with the mountains locked in snow, as the end of play. Not being a particularly good skier, deep snow meant a full stop to three seasons of boreal travel. My discovery of snowshoes has radically changed things. Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a larger area so your foot doesn’t sink completely into the snow, a quality called “flotation”. As a form of hiking, it’s reassuringly simple and very easy to learn. Little extra equipment is required beyond the shoes themselves, walking poles, decent boots and, of course, a clothing system that’s waterproof but, above all, breathable.

It’s a growing means of winter travel throughout North America and Europe but although the current popularity of snowshoes started with snowboarders, looking for a way to access backcountry runs, their origins as a means of travel stretch back for centuries. In the past, snowshoes were essential tools for fur traders, trappers and anyone whose life or living depended on the ability to get around in areas of deep and frequent snowfall. Without doubt though, it is the Native American or ‘First Nations’ people of the boreal who first advanced them as a human tool and a means of travelling and thriving in the deep north.

Another key aid in the penetration of the north was a portable shelter, the ‘wigwam’, ‘tipi’ or ‘wiki up’, providing refuge and warmth. Again, there is a modern adaptation of this ancient human shelter, the ‘hot tent’. In short, a ‘hot tent’ is a heated tent, adapted to take a portable wood stove and chimney. Hot tenting has many advantages. First – and very important in a cold environment – you can get your clothing and footwear dry and free of moisture on a regular basis, allowing your kit to work at its optimum. Secondly, your stove is a constant source of heat for cooking and, crucially, melting snow for drinking water. Above all, a heated tent offers a warm and comfortable retreat from the grip of the deep winter holding fast on just the other side of the thin outer fly.

Last winter, I set out on a trip through the Swedish mountains to try out a multi-day snowshoe journey combined with hot tent living. An initial trial in Scotland gave me some months to refine my kit and clothing before I headed out to the deep cold of a Scandinavian winter in early March. With average temperatures as low as -25°C, the right clothes are as big an imperative as snowshoe and hot tent. I needed clothes that would make the exertion of hauling a loaded sled (‘pulk’) through snowfields comfortable, clothes that would breathe to prevent the build up of sweat which could dangerously freeze and clothes that would protect me when the temperatures plummeted as daylight ebbed away. I wanted that assurance for my first foray out in deep cold. Make no mistake, it is cold there in early March. The mean temperature is around -10°C with overnight lows of -20°C typical. Travelling in daytime is one thing but living out in those conditions requires a careful approach. With a degree of competence, the chances of death in that level of cold are low but what I wanted to guard against were cold injuries. Damaging sensitive tissue, especially in the extremities, is a real possibility. I opted for some Páramo favourites and built up a layering system. I’ll say a little more at the end of this post but suffice to say my clothing system was not something I had to worry about.

So on a Saturday morning in early March, I set out from the small village of Storlien and headed into the wilderness of Sweden’s mountains amidst the most intense and striking winter landscape. Initially I was accompanied by the buzz of snow mobiles as I acquainted myself with my mode of travel. Strapping on the snowshoes and harnessing myself to the pulk, I was concerned that I was going to find this strange means of journeying through my beloved Swedish mountains overwhelmingly difficult. I had no grounds for worry. Within metres of setting off I found that using snowshoes was intuitive and that the pulk mostly followed obediently behind – save for the downhill sections when it would eagerly shoot off as an advance party to my descent. Consequently, within minutes, I began to seriously enjoy myself and I was full of optimism that Saturday morning, not least as the forecast for the coming days promised much sunshine. Following the red crosses that marked the winter trail, I felt the usual relief of at last being under way. I was moving well with all I needed to survive, and indeed to live well, following behind me.

The success of that first day was crucial and would set the tone for the rest of the trip. The crux of it was pitching the hot tent that had worked so well in a frosty Scotland. The difference though was its use in this landscape moulded and formed by deep snow. Around 3pm I decide to start looking for my pitch. I decided on a spot sited in the tree line to provide both shelter from the wind and copious firewood for the stove.

Camping on metres-deep snow was one of the most interesting aspects of the trip. I quickly learnt that Saturday night that plenty of time was needed to get the tent up and taut. Snow is a different medium to work with and with a temperature of -15°C that day I had the freezing action of the intense cold to work with. First, flatten the pitch with the snowshoes. Then give it some time to freeze whilst engaging in some concurrent activity. Gathering and sawing firewood was one way to keep occupied until it was time to move onto the next stage. Next, the most difficult and most time-consuming bit, secure pegging points. Using a mix of snow anchors, sawn tree branches and my snowshoes was the most effective approach. Cheap Chinese rip offs of branded snow pegs were certainly not.

Within two hours the tent was finally up and organised the way I wanted it. Stove and wood were prepared. As dusk came at about 6.30pm the fire was lit just in time to greet falling temperatures. I soon found myself in a sanctuary bathed in a temperature of 25°C. A minor miracle, I thought, as I embarked on an evening routine, which gradually saw me fed and watered. Another complication of winter camping to overcome is the total absence of running water. To counter this I had bought a basic aluminium pot and, using the top of my wood burner, I was able to melt plenty over the course of the evening.

I slept well that night. The hardest part of that first camp was the moment I had to break out of my sleeping bag and into the frozen air the next morning. Clothes and boots on, I was able to start brewing up using the water carefully stored in thermoses overnight. The prospect of ready caffeine and warming food made the enterprise considerably easier and I’m grateful for my foresight.

What I learn that winter week is just how much more time is needed to accomplish tasks in deep cold. Dexterity is limited in thick gloves, take them off to hasten the task and you risk the rapid onset of numbness or indeed pain. Breaking camp took three hours from getting up. I’d reckoned on that but I felt the labour of it. Getting away that Sunday morning was welcome and by 11am I was heading on the ascent out of the forest and up into the mountains.

Above the treeline, the wind had picked up and the air was raw. Exposing an ungloved hand to the air resulted in almost instant pain and I needed to guard against the possibility of losing dexterity during the course of the trip. Another key factor of the trip became apparent that second day. ‘Ascent days’ were considerably more difficult than travelling on flat or descent. Going uphill, I became acutely aware that I was hauling around 25kg and that this was to continue for several hours until I reached the shelter of the summit mountain station. The weather was fierce now, bright but punishingly cold. Goggles on today and almost no skin exposed as I fought into the wind. Hard graft that day before reaching the mountain station that provided shelter for the night.

Next morning and another bright day dawns, but with no respite from the fierce wind. After a welcome breakfast, I reverse the divestment of the night before and head into the bitter cold. Snow streams in the constant wind. Goggles immediately on and hood pulled tight over my head I fight to secure my tarp around the pulk, protecting the load from spindrift.

The scene was incredible that morning. The interplay of snow, sun and wind struck not only me. As I prepared to head down towards Storulvan, skiers around me shrieked with joy as they headed onto the trail. What a morning!

I made quick progress that day; the wind easy to ignore amidst sparkling sun on snow. I ease myself downward with plans for another camp back in the treeline. Heading down out of the mountains and into the forest around Storulvan, conditions improve. Camp is reached by 3pm that day and again it takes some time to prepare. By 6pm all is set and I’ve commenced my evening routine. Camp offered a whole new dimension to that trip. Other people were around on the trails during the day despite the early season, but I was the only person who made the wilderness their home at night. The depth of silence was remarkable during the dark hours when the wind had dropped. That night I sat listening to the crack of the fire. There, in a light birch forest blanketed in snow and cocooned in heat, lay simple respite and contentment.

Over the following days, I journeyed through these mountains thanks to a broad river frozen solid which offered a wilderness freeway. I mused on the expression of northern peoples that winter is a time for travel. In some ways movement over this winter trip was easier than its summer equivalent. Gone were the wet marshes – now frozen solid. All directions offered possibility and I relished it.

My route took me back up to the roof of these mountains as I reached a literal peak of the trip. My light hot tent was not built for punishing high fell conditions so I based myself at the mountain station of Gåsen, which gave me an opportunity to park the pulk and head up with a day pack onto Gåsen’s 1,500m summit. Snowshoes made surprisingly light work of the ascent and I was transfixed by the view ahead. Before me a frozen mountain scape which stretched across into Norway.

My last days were spent in the forest of Vålådalen. The dropping of the wind over the second half of the week made camp life much more bearable. The abundance of pine wood in the forest gave real heat to the stove and I lived comfortably. With a more practised hand, the tent goes up fairly quickly. Wood is prepped and snow is melting on the stove for a welcome brew. I feel at ease with this way of life now and end my journey with a sense of accomplishment. I completed the last few miles on the trail, arriving at Vålådalen where I exited the trail head and made my way to Östersund before the flight back to the UK the following day. I’m quietly delighted by the success of the trip. My head is full of ambitious plans for future trips and I relish the prospect of many more winters to come. The tent and snowshoes are obvious key contributors to the outcome. The right clothes though were paramount and a system that’s warm, wicks moisture and breathes is essential.

I start with two Páramo baselayers – a Grid atop a Cambia. Then a breathable but warm mid-layer. I chose the Torres Activo and this lightweight insulating jacket is now a firm favourite. The Activo worked hard as a mid-layer under a wind-shell jacket as I travelled pulling a week’s food and equipment on the pulk through deep snow and uphill. The Activo kept my body at a constant comfortable temperature in sustained periods of exertion. Crucially it did not ‘wet out’ with sweat, which has the potentially dangerous effect of freezing. On my legs, Cascada II Trousers prove to be a huge success. Having acquired the Cascada II Trousers for general hill walking, I was absolutely delighted by their performance in cold and dry conditions where they coped well with both the exertion of pulling a heavy expedition pulk up a mountain to setting up camp in the evening as the temperature rapidly.

My Páramo worked well, I wanted that assurance for my first foray out in deep cold. Being there in daytime is one thing but overnighting in that cold requires a careful approach, the right attitude, so nothing hinders you from doing everything correctly and quickly. The right clothing guards against that so you move effortlessly from surviving to enjoying.

Mark Waring

Read more of Mark’s experiences in Scotland and Scandinavia

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