Panama is known for many things, the canal foremost of course, but also the beaches, coffee, chocolate… One thing it’s not particularly well known for is hiking. And that’s fair. I was there for a post Disneyworld Marathon reward trip with the intent of lying on beautiful beautiful beaches along with a bit of urban exploration, which I did, but I also explored the trails a little bit.
Mid-December to mid-April is the busy seasons in Panama, as it tends to by less rainy (especially on the Pacific side), and the hot weather makes it a phenomenal escape from winter destination. I went in January, so the Caribbean side was still a bit on the rainy side (think strong, but occasional tropical rains) but it was fine.
Panama City is not a walkable city. The easiest way to get around the city is by unmetered taxis. Always ask beforehand how much it will cost to get you where you want to go, and if you are unsure how much it should cost, ask at your hotel. There are also public buses (some, the Diablo Rojos, are super cool looking), but I personally never figured out how to use them.
The penultimate hike in and around Panama City is the trek up Cerro Ancon. The “trail” goes up to the top of Cerro Ancon, which offers great views of Panama City and the Panama Canal (and is apparently a great place to do yoga).
There are a few ways to get to the beginning of the “trail”, I hailed a cab and told it to take me to “Mi Pueblito” on Avenida de los Martires (which is a tourist attraction itself, though one I did not visit). From there I walked up the road a little ways, took some stairs, and was on my way. You can catch a cab back on Avenida de los Martires.
The “trail” is actually a paved road, and you CAN drive to the top depending on the time and day, but it’s really not that hard of a trek (takes about 30 minutes) and is a great break from the bustle of Panama City. Supposedly you can see wildlife as well, but I think you have to be a little lucky.
Pro-tip: If you hail a cab back from “Mi Pueblito”, the lane of traffic closest to you will be heading out of the city. This makes it convenient to hail a taxi out to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre or the Amador Causeway.
Another place to escape the city, the Amador Causeway is approximately 3km long, is lined with palm trees, and is a good place for a relaxing stroll or bike ride. It’s part of the route for Panama Ironman 70.3 which is pretty cool! There are bike rental places on the Causeway, and the easiest way to get there is by taxi. There are also a few places to eat out there, so it’s a good way to kill an afternoon.
Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is a surfer’s paradise. It is a fairly small island with the majority of the accommodations concentrated on one part of the island (Bocas Town). Pretty much anything you could want to do (snorkeling, surfing lessons, chocolate farm tours) will be based out of town. Though if you are a seasoned surfer, there are a few places closer to the beaches.
There are really only two roads out of town, one is reasonably flat but only paved part way (to Playa Bluff), the other is a bit more rugged (to Boca Del Drago), both lead to beaches! I rented a bike in town and cycled the flatter road to Playa Bluff, where I found a great little place called “The Beach Bar (on the beach!)”. Despite being more or less in the middle of nowhere, the food was fantastic and was brought to me while I was lounging on my beach towel :) Also, if you are too lazy to take your bike all the way there, you can get a taxi to take you out, and leisurely cycle back. Almost all of the taxis on the island are Toyota Hiluxes, so you can throw bikes in the back!
This is easily the most famous hike in the country. Volcan Baru is a dormant volcano and the highest point in Panama at 3474m. The summit provides you with spectacular views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, providing you are not there in rainy season. And here is where I confess that I didn’t hike it…
From the trailhead to the summit, the trail is 13.5km with ~1830m (6000ft) elevation gain. There is no drinkable water along the trail. The trail itself is wide, easy to follow, and unremarkable. That’s because the trail is actually a road that was put in place to install radio towers near the summit. Now, you and I can’t drive this road as it is VERY rugged, but you CAN charter a bad ass Jeep with a local driver to take you almost all the way to the top. That’s what I did, I feel a little guilty for not hiking it, but the Jeep was pretty damn cool and I had just run a marathon!
If you are not a lazy bones like I am and want to hike it, most people start hiking the trail around midnight to reach the summit for sunrise. Mamallena Hostel in Boquete provides transport from town to the trailhead for a minimal fee (though I’m unsure how people were getting from the trailhead to town afterwards). If you are doing this you would want to bring a headlamp (or “torch”), a warmish jacket, and PLENTY OF WATER. As the trail is wide and easy to follow, if you a confident hiker you shouldn’t need a guide. Most guides say it takes 4-6 hours to get to the top, but I can’t personally attest to this.
Quetzal Trail (Sendero de los Quetzales)
Another trail I did not hike… The logistics for this one can be a bit trickly, as one end of the trail is near the town of Boquete and the other end is near the town of Guadeloupe. The trail is approximately 10km, though some people seem to park at one end of the trail, hike a few kilometers in and hike back to their cars. One of the main features of the trail is the chance of seeing a legendary Resplendent Quetzal (bird). When I inquired about this trail in Boquete, I was steered towards a guided hike of…
The Waterfall Trail
I took a guided tour of this trail, as it is also a great place to see the mysterious Quetzal bird, and I am a terrible terrible birder. There is absolutely no way I ever would have seen one if I didn’t have an experienced guide pointing them out to me. We saw quite a few, maybe 5, though my pictures of them aren’t fantastic because even with a professional guide I had trouble spotting them (that’s on me, our guide was great). The trail itself is an easy 5km, uphill but not overly steep, that ends at a beautiful waterfall.
Also I must suggest if you are in Boquete, you should visit a coffee plantation. Boquete is also known as the Napa Valley of Coffee. I highly recommend the Finca Dos Jefes tour, it was very informative and you get a bag of coffee!
As for the beaches, the best ones I found were in the San Blas Islands. I was sad I was only there for a day!!
If you are the type of traveler that brings a tablet or E-reader on your voyage, or if you are stuck inside and want a literary escape, I’ve compiled a list of free E-books that might pique your interest. They are all available on Project Gutenberg (which lays claim to 45,541 titles), but often are also available free through your device’s E-Store.
I, personally, have a Samsung tablet. I’ve found the Google Play Store has a great “Top Free” section for further inspiration. I’ve got a couple more books in the queue and will add anything I find interesting.
Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!
Three in Norway (By Two of Them) by Walter J. Clutterbuck and James Arthur Lees (1882)
A personal account of what is likely the first canoe trip in Norway, written with English charm and humour. Of particular interest to me, as it takes place in what is now Jotunheimen National Park.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K Jerome (1889)
Another English travelogue, apparently they have a thing about traveling in threes! This one is an account of a two week (fortnight) boating holiday up the River Thames. Humourous, easy read. You can still recreate the trip today, apparently the inns and pubs they mention are still open!
Climbing on the Himalaya and Other Mountain Ranges by Norman Collie (1902)
An account of mountain climbing from the early days of the sport. Mostly focuses on the Himalayas, they were surrounded in mystery at the time as Europeans were excluded from entering Nepal at the time, but also has chapters on the Canadian Rockies, Norway’s Lofoten Islands, the European Alps, and various peaks in Great Britain. Can be a bit rambly in places, but it’s easy to skip to the good parts.
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885)
A classic “Lost World” tale. Legendary hunter Allan Quartermain (also of League of Extraordinary Gentleman fame) leads a group of Brits in search of the legendary King Solomon’s diamond mines in Africa (many adventures ensue).
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (1922)
One of two free offerings by one of the best mystery writers of all times. An English post WWI adventure with a twisting plot I won’t attempt to summarize.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
Probably needs no introduction, but a great easy reading marine adventure tale.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
An account of the Chilkoot Trail during the 1898 gold rush from the perspective of a sled dog. A must read if hiking the Chilkoot Trail. White Fang is also available, but I haven’t read it yet.
South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917;
Written by Ernest Shackleton himself, an account of his failed attempt to cross the Antarctic and one of the most incredible survival stories of all time.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
A classic “man vs nature” tale that pits the captain of a whaling ship against a legendary white whale.
The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1600s)
Very long book about a meandering journey of a crazy Spanish guy who believes he is a Knight of yore and his mostly faithful assistant Sancho Panza. Written in the 1600s and a great read if you have a lot of time on your hands (maybe if you’re through hiking the PCT!)
The Swiss Family Robinson; or Adventures in a Desert Island by Johann David Wyss (1812)
I don’t think I’ve actually read this one, but as I have saw the movie as a child, I feel qualified to add it to the list. Classic “deserted” island tale. Easy to read and a great way to take a mental vacation from the problems of modern civilization.
A summary of lost and forgotten gear. And why I really should have a gear check list :)
West Coast Trail – Summer 2009
Overprepared! This was my first backcountry hike and we brought way too much food, about twice as much as we actually needed.
Looking back at pictures, the compression sack to my sleeping bag was insufficient and if it had rained I would have been in big trouble (somehow I spent 5.5 days on the WCT without it raining once). Also didn’t break in my boots before the 75km hike, which worked out okay!
Yellowstone – Fall 2009
Hiked into Shoshone Geyser Field with a few cans of beer. Put them in the Firehole Rover to cool, but secured them improperly. Luckily we found them caught underneath a log not too far downriver!
Kalalau Trail – Winter 2009
Stove was confiscated from Hawaiian Airlines (turns out they do not allow camping stoves of any kind!) We rented one in Hanalei near the trailhead.
Forgot my glasses in the hotel we stayed at, left them on the sink after I put my contacts in (I also left my contact case).
Forgot Advil and someone ended up with a strained knee.
All of this and the fact that we had way too much stuff (a -7C sleeping bag!) meant it was unsuccessful and we’ll have to go back and do it again :)
Spontaneous hike, didn’t have any of my regular gear, hiked it with trail runners with no ankle support (unadvisable!)
With snow in the forecast, I had to buy an extra sweater and gaiters in Jasper.
Someone forgot tent poles…
Should have had hiking poles, we probably could have made it over The Notch if we had them. Had to turn back.
Joshua Tree – Spring 2011
Decided not to bring a sleeping pad even though I only had a 0C sleeping bag (flew into LA and was saving luggage space). Was cold but stuck it out.
On strong advice from the tour leader, bought hiking poles. I had never used them before and it was a very good idea.
Even though I KNEW there was snow on parts of the trail, I didn’t bring hiking poles, a toque, or gloves. Had to buy them in Skagway. Yes, two consecutive hikes where I had to buy hiking poles!
For some reason I didn’t bring anything but cotton t-shirts, even though it was a road trip and I had no limits on what to bring. So I bought a shirt in Portand, OR (No sales tax!)
Impulse bought a Smores Grill at the Yosemite General Store.
Bought an extra pair of gloves and extra water bottle at the Kebnekaise Mountain Station to summit Kebnekaise (though I didn’t end up needing them). Lost one of the gloves within three days.
Damaged pack cover on the Kungsleden (the cover was too small and I strapped it on over my hiking poles). Bought a new one in Oslo for Jotunheimen.
Forgot to bring pants to sleep in (and wear around camp). Bought some new ones in Jasper.
Lost my raincoat on day one. Luckily it only rained on day one and was something I wanted to replace anyway.
The Berg Lake Trail is an approximately 46km out and back trail (~ 23km each way) just inside the British Columbia border in the Canadian Rockies (bordering Jasper National Park in Alberta). It is located in Mount Robson Provincial Park, and is best known for its spectacular views of Mount Robson and its glaciers. Basic information can be found at the government website. The Berg Lake Trail also connects with the Moose River Route and the North Boundary Trail that crosses Jasper National Park.
Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3954m, and is summitable only by skilled mountaineers as it requires traversing glaciers and technical climbing gear. So most visitors do not make this attempt, but if you’re luckily, you can see climbers from the Snowbird Pass Route. We were there during the 100th anniversary of the first summit of Mount Robson and the Alpine Club of Canada was having a summit party in the area.
The park is located along Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16), and is a reasonable drive from most of Western Canada or the Northwest US. For those coming from away, the closest major international airport is YEG (near Edmonton). Most people from away were pairing the trail with trips to Jasper and Banff National Parks. I have been to both parks many times and highly recommend them. For accommodations near the trailhead, there are a few B&Bs and campsites within a few kilometers. Otherwise you’re most likely to find accommodation in the town of Valemount, approximately 30 minutes from the trailhead, and some good food at the Caribou Grill.
The trail is open roughly May to September, but most hike the trail in July or August. The trail crosses into high elevations, the campgrounds along Berg Lake are above 1500m, so even in the height of summer it’s fairly cold at night (but if the sun shines, very warm during the day). So layers!
It can be done as a very long day hike, but seeing as there are a lot of options for day hiking from the campsites along Berg Lake that offer the best views of the mountain, I would recommending staying at least two nights.
It is a very busy trail, so reservations are recommended well in advance if you have a preferred campsite or a large group, though some walk on spaces are available at the information office at the trailhead. We booked two months in advance for three sites and were somewhat limited in campground choices. Either way, if you are camping in the backcountry, you must register at the trail office before hiking and watch a short video. The trail office hours are reasonable, 8am-7pm PACIFIC TIME during peak season, 8am-5pm in the shoulder seasons. You can check in the day before or the day of.
There are campsites approximately every 2-7km with varying services and numbers of sites. All have designated tent pads (that can fit 1 large or 2 small tents), waste water pits, outhouses, and bearproof food lockers. Kinney Lake, Whitehorn, and Berg Lake campgrounds have shelters with picnic tables, while the rest do not. The Berg Lake campground is the most popular and best equipped in the Berg Lake area, but if your taste is for something a little quieter, Marmot or Rearguard Campgrounds are perfectly nice.
The majority of the trail is fairly easy, with two sections of switchbacks between Kinney Lake and Whitehorn, and Whitehorn and Emperor Falls campsites. There were plenty of families with smaller children on the trail, and we hiked it with a few inexperienced hikers (most of them made it). To make it easier on the way in, we stayed at Whitehorn Campground, which was 11km from the trailhead, and hiked the more difficult 8km to Marmot the next day. We spent two nights at Marmot and hiked out 19km the next day. As it is mostly downhill, even our inexperienced hikers found this acceptable.
From the Berg Lake Campgrounds (Berg Lake, Marmot, Rearguard, and Robson Pass), many spectacular day hikes are available. My group did the Hargreaves Lake Route, which is approximately 2km straight uphill and gives you great views of Mount Robson and Hargreaves Lake and Glacier the day we hiked from Whitehorn to Marmot, and the Snowbird Pass Route the next day. If we had more time, we would have also done the highly recommended Mumm Basin Route.
The Snowbird Pass Route is one of the most difficult hikes in the area, but one of the most rewarding. The less experienced hikers in our group only hiked the beginning of the trail along the river. It is a full day hike, from Berg Lake Campground it is approximately 9km one way (18km total), with 800m of elevation gain. The trail is generally well marked, though requires a little bit of scrambling and navigating by cairns, and can be a bit psychologically difficult in places. The terminus of the trail is Snowbird Pass, which overlooks Coleman Glacier, but there are great views of Robson Glacier and Mount Robson all along the trail, and there is a beautiful marmot filled meadow approximately 5km in. We started the trail around noon (which is probably too late to start unless you are a strong hiker), I was one of the last people up to the Pass, and we were back at Marmot Campground by 6:30pm with plenty of daylight left. The views were so beautiful, I will inundate you with more photos!
I also made a map of the Snowbird Pass Route (from the main trail) using my Spot GPS, GPS Utility, and Google Earth. I tried to make a map of the whole trail, but the signal was patchy due to trees (and rain). Click to enlarge.
Very basic free trail maps are available at the Trail Office, the trail is so well marked you don’t actually need a more detailed map, but if you like to have one you may be able to buy one at the trail office and I found some at MEC in Vancouver.
There is the possibility of encountering bears, though it is pretty unlikely. You should use precautions and store your food in the bearproof lockers provided, but I felt comfortable not having any bear spray with me.
For the final chapter of my Scandinavian hiking extravaganza, I decided to visit the western fjords of Norway and hike the insanely popular Preikstolen (Pulpit Rock in English). Preikstolen is a steep half-day hike to a granite cliff along Lysefjord (the light coloured fjord). It is about 3.8 kilometers each way, and the recommended hiking time is two hours each way. I did it a bit faster, but spent a lot of time on the trails at the top, so four hours of hiking total is reasonable for the average hiker. There is also a swimmable lake near the top, so you could definitely make a full day trip out of it.
Most people access this hike as a day hike from Stavanger, though there is a DNT Mountain Lodge at the trailhead if you want to spend more time in the area (note they also sell ice cream). I also spotted a few tents up above Preikstolen. However you want to do it, you can access the trailhead by the ferry to Tau (leaving from Fiskepiren Ferry Terminal) which connects with two different bus companies to the trailhead. It is also a car ferry if you want to drive yourself to the trailhead. I did it as part of a Norway in a Nutshell self guided tour out of Oslo, so I’m not 100% sure on prices and ended up taking the wrong bus company to the trailhead (for some reason they accepted my ticket). Buses leave at different times depeneding on the day, but meet the ferries. This website has a neat video and some information and for detailed information I would recommend visiting the Stavanger Tourism Office. They also had a handy free guide with other hikes in the area. You can also get the logistics arranged for you out of Stavanger by Pulpit Rock Tours, the hiking is still self guided. All in all, it could take a few hours each way to access the trail depending on your timing. I started from Fiskepiren at around 1pm, and returned back to my hotel around 7pm.
To the Western Canadians, this hike is best described as a combination of the Grouse Grind and Stawamus Chief. The trail itself isn’t overly remarkable. It’s steep and crowded like the Grouse Grind (though not quite as steep and with fewer stair sections), and has stunningly beautiful views of granite cliffs like the Chief. If you don’t know these hikes, I’ve written them up here.
It is very busy in summer, hiked by around 100,000 people each year, many of whom are not seasoned hikers and don’t understand basic trail etiquette, but the views are definitely worth it. Also, when you get to the famous Preikstolen ledge, you will find a more difficult “hill trail” marked with red Ts. It requires a little bouldering and is much less crowded and has some great photo ops.
As part of my tour, I also did a Lysefjord boat tour and got to see Preikstolen from the bottom. Several tour companies run daily tours and I would also recommend it.
Jotunheimen National Park in Central Norway is one of the most popular parks in the country and there is plenty of reason for it. It contains many of the highest peaks in Scandinavia (namely Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind, which register at over 2400m) and road or boat access to lodges means you can experience it in as much or as little comfort as you like.
I chose to hike in Jotunheimen as I was already planning to hike the Kungsleden in Sweden and wanted to get in more hiking before I went home. Jotunheimen seemed to be what came up most frequently when I would google search “Norway” and “Hiking”.
The logistics of getting to the park are fairly simple. There are roughly two buses per day from Oslo to the most popular hiking area in the park, Gjendesheim Lodge, which is the trailhead to the Besseggen Ridge. The buses generally need to make one connection, but the bus drivers announce where you need to go in Norwegian and English.
Due to its mountainous location, Jotunheimen’s hiking season is fairly short, basically June to September, with July and August being most popular. This makes the lodges and more popular areas of the park somewhat crowded, though you shouldn’t have much trouble booking last minute or adjusting what days you have booked in what lodge.
Camping is allowed almost anywhere in the park and most lodges allow you to camp in the area and use the facilities, for a price of course. Mountain lodges are regularly spaced throughout the park, and are not exactly what I would call rustic. They all had full service restaurants and a small store where you can buy very basic provisions (chocolate bars, beer, wine, fruit). They do not have self-service kitchens, so you have to rely on the restaurants for your food. All of the lodges we stayed at had road or boat access, and honestly were a little too populous and refined for my liking.
Jotunheimen has a fairly extensive network of trails which are well marked with the distinctive red T. I wasn’t sure exactly where I should hike, different websites had many different suggestions, and lodges in the park are run by different companies. So I consulted the Den Norske Turistforeningen (DNT) website. They are the Norwegian hiking authority, and run many huts throughout the country. They also run reasonably priced guided tours, and seeing as I was tired out from doing logistics for the Kungsleden, I decided to join the “Across Joutnheimen” tour (sometimes called “Around Jotunheimen”). Still, if you want to do it yourself, and it is very reasonable to do it yourself, the DNT can help you out with routes and there is a centrally located office in Oslo. The one thing I don’t like about the site (and it seems to be a Norwegian problem in general), is that they tend to describe hike lengths in hours, not in kilometers (or even miles). I understand they’re trying to describe the difficultly of the route, but hiking time is highly subjective. Visit Norway and Visit Jotunheimen also have good information and ut.no has a spectacular interactive map. If you dig a little, ut.no has the distances of the routes in kilometers, I’m not certain of their accuracy, honestly they seemed to overestimate a bit to me, but I’ll list them along with the routes below.
If you just want to hike the Besseggen ridge, most people seem to stay at Gjendesheim, take the ferry to Memurubu first thing in the morning, and hike the ridge back to Gjendesheim. This means you are going uphill for the steepest section, which is the easier way to do it.
The route and lodges:
Gjendesheim: This is where the bus stops and where the large parking lot is. Very nice DNT run lodge.
Gjendesheim–Memurubu: Over the infamous Besseggen Ridge along Lake Gjende. This is a difficult day of hiking due to ~1000m change in elevation which can be steep and narrow in places, and also due to the crowds. Approximately 30,000 people hike this section every summer. But don’t worry, most people don’t go any further and the rest of the park isn’t so crowded. About 16km total.
Memurubu: Accessible by boat from Gjendesheim (and Gjendebu). Privately run lodge.
Memurubu-Glitterheim: Fairly difficult hiking, towards the end of the day you’ll ascend to a plateau and mountain pass that are quite rocky. But the beginning of the hike is mostly hiking along a lake. Listed as 26km.
Glitterheim: The base for summitting Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak at 2465m. We attempted to summit, but the weather was too bad. There is access by gravel road for supplies, but you can’t drive directly to the lodge. DNT run lodge.
Glitterheim-Spiterstulen: There are two main routes between these lodges: one over the summit of Glittertind and one along the base of the mountain. I wish we had taken the summit route as we missed summiting the day before. The valley route is moderately difficult, you still have to hike over a pass and a rocky plateau. I talked to some other people who took the summit route and it was reasonable. Listed as 20km (the summit route is listed as 19km).
Spiterstulen: The base for summiting Galdhøpiggen, the highest peak in Norway at 2469m. We didn’t attempt it, but it is a reasonable peak to summit. Accessible by a paved road. Internet here for a fee. Privately run lodge.
Spiterstulen-Leirvassbu: A moderate day of hiking. It rained quite a bit for us, so I don’t have a lot of pictures. Listed as 17km.
Leirvassbu: Accessible by road. Very well stocked bar. Irish coffees (with Baileys) cost 55NOK. Free internet access. Privately run lodge. Leirvassbu can be bypassed, there is a cut off trail from Spiterstulen to Gjendebu that is well marked.
Leirvassbu-Gjendebu: Moderate hiking along a series of lakes and down a waterfall, back to beautiful Lake Gjende! Couldn’t find a distance for this section of the hike. Maybe 15km.
Gjendebu: Another nice DNT run lodge. Irish coffees here cost 100NOK, but with a healthy shot of Jamesons are worth every crown.
Gjendebu-Memurubu: Another ridge hike along Lake Gjende, fairly difficult ascent to the ridge (with chains to help you up in sections), but otherwise stunningly beautiful and far less crowded than Besseggen. Also, you can send your bag on the ferry and just hike it with a day pack. Listed as 9km.
Here we took the ferry back to Gjendesheim and caught the afternoon bus back to Oslo.
A book I wish I had come across before I went: Three in Norway (by two of them). A 19th century account of three Englishmen travelling in Jotunheimen. It’s available for free at Project Gutenberg.
I bought the Cappelens Kart version of the Jotunheimen map at Gjendesheim. There is also another version, but you need two maps to cover the whole park.
If anyone knows the distances between all the lodges in the park, please let me know.
There are quite a few river crossings, and if there has been significant rain they can swell. Not to a point where I would consider them dangerous, but I would recommend gaiters and maybe stream crossing shoes.
I wish I had brought my Spot GPS so I could make a little map like I did for the Kungsleden, but I didn’t have time to review to data from the Kungsleden to see how good it was.
The Kungsleden is a 440km trail in Swedish Lappland, though it would be more accurate to say it is a trail system. It partially coincides with the Nordkalottleden (or Nordkalottruta in Norwegian or Kalottireitti in Finnish), which is an 800km trail system between Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The Svenska Turistforeningen (STF) is the authority for the Kungsleden and runs all of the huts (making it the premiere source for detailed information).
The trail is located within the Arctic Circle, which makes the hiking season quite short. The huts open for the summer season at the end of June and stay open to the middle or end of September (depending on the weather of course). I hiked it at the end of July, which is the beginning of the high season and encountered variable weather (driving rain to relentless sun and snow is always a possibility in the mountains). Though it was very busy at the mountain stations near the ends of the trail, the huts along the trail were not full.
There are many options for hiking, though most people hike the main trail of the Abisko-Nikkaluotka section, which is approximately 110km and has huts every 10-20km. That is what I did, but there are also cabins off of the main trail along somewhat less trodden trails (Vistas, Unna Allakas, and Tarfala being the most popular, I sincerely regret not visiting Tarfala). If you are tent camping you can set up your tent pretty much anywhere. I chose to stay in the cabins to reduce the weight of my pack (I managed with 12kg), though staying in the cabins you lose the flexibility of hiking as much or as little you want per day, and the cabins can be on the noisy side. Also if you are tent camping, you can camp near the huts and pay a fee to use the cabin facilities.
Logistics are fairly simple. Most people either fly or take the train to Kiruna, which is a nice little iron ore mining town (the LKAB mine tour is highly recommended if you have the time and can be booked at the Kiruna visitor’s centre). If you’re hiking north to south as most people do, you can take the bus or train to Abisko Turistsation (the STF Mountain Station at the beginning of the trail), and the bus from Nikkaluotka (a small town which marks the end of the first section of trail) back to Kiruna. Buses and trains are regular, but the exact times change depending on the day and season, so I’ll just leave you the links.
The hiking isn’t overly difficult. You’re basically hiking through a series of valleys, and the valleys are separated by passes. Tjäktja Pass is the highest of these at around 1100m. The main trail is well trodden, significant rivers are crossed by bridge, and boardwalks cover many of the swampy and bouldery areas. All these reasons made it my choice for my FIRST solo hike.
I had never been hiking in Europe and had never hiked on a trail with a hut system so I didn’t really know what to expect. On the Kungsleden, the huts can be divided into two catagories: Mountain Stations and Mountain Cabins. The Mountain Stations have electricity, Wifi, running water, pretty well stocked stores, and are located near the ends of the trail. The Cabins are spaced regulary along most of the trail and have no electricity or running water, but are equipped with propane stoves, outhouses, dishes (including pots and pans), and bunk beds with pillows and blankets (you’ll need to bring a sleeping sheet). Some have stores with basic provisions (cans of beans, museli, crackers, camping meals, chocolate bars, etc) and saunas. The Mountain Stations can and probably should be booked ahead, the Cabins cannot be reserved ahead of time, but no one is turned away. Note that you cannot pay at the Cabins by credit card, and will either need to pay in cash or buy a Mountain Pass beforehand.
The huts along the main section of trail are as follows:
Abisko Mountain Station – One of the big mountain stations, has all the amenities: showers, restaurant, wifi, and a decent shop if you forgot some basic gear.
Abiskojuare – A standard sized mountain cabin with a small store, a sauna, and a few bunkhouses.
Alesjaure – One of the bigger mountain cabins, all the cabin amenities, even propane heat in some of the bunks and drying rooms.
Tjäktja – A small mountain cabin with no store or sauna, I didn’t stay here.
Sälka – One of the bigger mountain cabins, all the cabin amenities, several bunkhouses.
Singi – A small mountain cabin with no store or sauna. The last cabin before the Kebnekaise cut off.
Kebnekaise Mountain Station – The biggest and most popular of the stations, I booked the rest of my trip around the availability of this station. A sight for sore eyes after a few days of hiking. If you are tired of hiking at this point, you can take a reasonably priced helicopter ride from here to Nikkaluotka.
The distances between huts are as follows:
Abisko Mountain Station – Abiskojaure: 15km easy hiking, mainly below the tree line
Abiskojaure – Alesjaure: 20km moderate hiking, a small pass in the first 5km (also a cheater boat that can take along part of the lake)
Alesjaure – Tjäktja: 13km moderate hiking
Tjäktja – Sälka: 12km moderate to difficult hiking, crosses Tjäktja Pass in the first few kilometers
Sälka – Singi: 13km moderate hiking (note if you want to hike Sälka to Kebnekaise there is a bypass trail around Singi)
Singi – Kebnekaise Mountain Station: 14km moderate hiking
Kebnekaise Mountain Station – Nikkaluotka: 19km easy hiking (there is also a cheater boat that can take you ~5.5km along a lake), back below the tree line There is some accommodation in Nikkaluotka.
Kebnekaise Mountain Station is also the starting point for summiting Sweden’s HIGHEST mountain, Kebnekaise (approximately 2107m depending on how much snow is at the top). In fact, I’d say most people I met at the Mountain Station had just hiked the 19km from Nikkaluotka to climb the mountain and were leaving the same way. You can hike the western route on your own, or take a guided tour of the eastern route with the STF as I did. The eastern route involves glacier walking, easy rock climbing, and if you’re lucky and the snow is still on the glacier, glacier sliding! It’s as fun as it sounds! But it is difficult and was a tough 10 hour day. I booked ahead of time via email@example.com and paid at the Mountain Station, though you can book once you get to the Mountain Station as well.
Wildlife isn’t much of a hazard on the trail. I mostly saw reindeer and small birds. There are very very few bears in the area, so no one takes bear precautions.
I expected to be able to buy a map at Abisko Mountain Station before I headed out on the trail, but unfortunately they were sold out. Fortunately they were in stock at Abiskojaure and the trail is very well marked. If you want to buy it before reaching the Mountain Station, it was in stock at Alewalds in Stockholm. Alewalds is also a great place to buy any gear you might have forgotten.
Very few North Americans hike the trail, I only met one native English speaker outside of the Mountain Stations. Everyone I encountered spoke English very well and was happy to speak to me, though the reindeer were quite standoffish.