Travel Destinations

Monday, September 21, 2015

Exciting Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden’s Lapland

Taking a Break Dog Sledding Outdoor Winter Activities Sweden's Lapland

We traveled to Swedish Lapland in hopes of seeing and photographing the Northern Lights.  But, since there was no guarantee we would see the Northern Lights, we decided to also plan some exciting outdoor winter activities so if our search for the Northern Lights was unsuccessful, we’d still have a great adventure trying some other once-in-a-lifetime experiences during our visit to northern Sweden.  (Be sure to watch the video of all four of our winter outdoor activities at the end of this article.) 

Moose Safari on Horseback

Blida the Icelandic Horse Ofelas Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

I keep seeing pictures of Icelandic horses all over the internet, probably because so many travel bloggers have been writing about Iceland lately.  Icelandic horses are beautiful creatures and I’ve wanted to see them in person myself.  I thought I would have to wait until we finally made it to Iceland, so I was surprised to learn there are some Icelandic horses in Sweden too.

Ofelas Farm Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Ofelaš is a small outdoor adventure company specializing in Icelandic horseback adventures through Swedish Lapland a short distance west of Kiruna and Jukkasjärvi.  Ofelaš has Icelandic horses which they imported from Iceland.  The name of the company, Ofelaš, is a Sámi word meaning guide.  Swedish Lapland is also known as Sápmi, the land of the Sámi people, and the Sámi culture is very important to many of the tour providers in Lapland, including Ofelaš.

Ofelas Moose Safari Path Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Ofelaš offers a number of tour options.  We chose the moose safari on horseback.  We were picked up in the morning at the ICEHOTEL and driven to the Ofelaš farm.  (We've written previously about what it's like to stay at Sweden’s ICEHOTEL.)  We were walked out to meet the Icelandic horses and our guide Jenny picked the perfect horses for each of us.  I was paired with Blida and Romeo was paired with Fengur.

Blida Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

We walked our horses into the stalls for a little bonding time.  We were each given a brush so we could brush our horses thoroughly.  Blida looked a little suspicious of me at first, possibly wondering what this Southern California girl was doing in the snow-covered land of northern Sweden, but she seemed to warm up to me during the brushing.

Swedish Moose Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

After the brushing session, we saddled up our horses and led them out to the yard.  Jenny gave us a quick lesson before we headed out into the forest to hunt for moose.

Moose in the Path Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

The moose safari was beautiful and actually relaxing.  The horses walked along the snowy trail through forest trees as we kept an eye out for moose.  The ride was very quiet so we didn’t scare the moose away.  I hoped to see one or two moose, so I was surprised by how many we actually saw.

Icelandic Horses Rolling in the Snow Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

After we finished our ride, we removed our horses’ saddles and bridles and watched as they rolled around in the snow.  

Ofelas Lunch Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

We then headed inside for a lovely lunch of soup, reindeer meat, potatoes, vegetables and warm lingonberry juice.  Warm lingonberry juice is a staple in Swedish Lapland during the winter and something we looked forward to every day.

Swedish Moose Safari Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

The tour takes about five hours from start to finish if starting from Kiruna, and six hours if starting from the ICEHOTEL.  Ofelaš offers transfers and they also provide helmets, warm outdoor clothing, boots, and gloves.  However, if you’re staying at the ICEHOTEL, I suggest just using the winter outdoor clothing provided by the hotel.  Tours can be booked directly through Ofelaš or through the ICEHOTEL.


Snowmobiles Under Northern Lights Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Neither Romeo nor I had ever been snowmobiling before, so we thought the perfect place to try snowmobiling for the first time was Swedish Lapland.  But we did have an ulterior motive for our snowmobiling adventure.  We wanted to see the Northern Lights!

We traveled to Sweden to see the Northern Lights.  But we knew seeing the Northern Lights wasn’t guaranteed so we wanted to plan lots of fun outdoor activities in case we didn’t see them.  Our snowmobiling tour was hopefully going to cover two activities in one, snowmobiling and photographing the Northern Lights.

Kiruna Guidetur offers a lot of different winter and summer tours.  One of those is an aurora expedition which combines snowmobiling at night with hunting for the Northern Lights.

Snowmobiling Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

We were picked up again at the ICEHOTEL and driven to the snowmobile garage not very far away.  We donned our helmets and goggles then received a lesson on riding snowmobiles.  I decided to leave the driving up to Romeo and I would just be a passenger on the back.

Driving through snow-covered Lapland at night was a very different experience.  It’s very quiet except for the sound of the engines.  It was also surprisingly easy to see the trail ahead with just the light of our snowmobile headlamps. 

Snowmobile Under the Northern Lights Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

We drove for quite a while before arriving at our destination in the Torne River valley, actually on top of the frozen river.  We lucked out and not only had a fun ride but also saw one of the most spectacular Northern Lights shows ever.

For more Northern Lights pictures, see our article Norther Lights: How to Photograph Them, Where to See Them.

Dinner in Sami Cabin Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

After the Northern Lights finally decided to take a rest, we trudged up the hill to Kiruna Guidetur’s Sámi cabin for a warm meal of lingonberry juice and reindeer stew followed by a dessert.

After dinner, we got back on our snowmobiles and rode back to the garage, still feeling on top of the world because of the Northern Lights show we had just witnessed.

Snowmobiling with Kiruna Guidetur Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

The aurora expedition tour with dinner takes 4.5 hours though I think ours was a little longer because none of us wanted to leave, including our guide Finn.  Hotel transfers are provided as well as helmets, winter overalls, gloves, and boots.  Drivers need to have a driver’s license.

Reindeer Sledding

Reindeer Sledding Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

When I learned there was reindeer sledding available in Swedish Lapland, nothing would keep me from playing Santa Claus, not even the expensive price tag. 

Lapland is the original home of the Scandinavian aboriginal people, the Sámi.  The Sámi people were nomadic and relied on reindeer to provide transportation for both people and possessions.  Joining a reindeer sledding tour with Nutti Sámi Siida provides visitors to Swedish Lapland the opportunity to learn more about these indigenous people.

Feeding Reindeer Moss Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

After being picked up yet again from the ICEHOTEL, we were taken to Nutti Sámi Siida’s changing room before heading to the reindeer camp, which is very close to the ICEHOTEL. 

We entered the reindeer enclosure to meet the reindeer and feed them some reindeer moss.  Then one of our guides lassoed the reindeer which would be pulling our sleds.  Each person drives their own sled pulled by one reindeer.  The sleds are made in the traditional style used by the Sámi people.

Reindeer Sledding Instructions Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Our drive through the snow started out tame enough.  The reindeer trotted slowly along the trail, pulling us along behind.  At one point the lead reindeer didn’t want to go.  My reindeer decided it didn’t want to wait and tried to go around.  I didn’t have the brake on well enough, so when the sled was pulled off the trail into the soft snow there was nothing I could do but hang on or jump off.  Jump off I did, face first into the snow.  That’s when the camera got put away, after I cleared away the snow that had made its way inside the case.

Reindeer Sledding Trail Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

The reindeer decided they were ready to head off again and we had a very pleasant ride through the snow and trees.

We stopped on the frozen Torne River so everyone could have a rest, including the reindeer.  It was after our rest that things got a little hairy.

After our rest we all boarded our sleds again.  The lead reindeer took off, going rather fast.  The rest of the reindeer followed suit.  This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, as we were riding along the wide open straightaway of the frozen river.  The problem was the 90 degree turn into the forest ahead. 

I’m going to do my best imitation of a race caller announcing a race because that really seems the most fitting way to tell this part of the story.

Romeo is in the lead, his reindeer running.  Katherine’s reindeer just took off, going faster than she wants.  The reindeer behind Katherine has decided it does not want to stay in formation.  It’s taking off, quickly gaining on Katherine and passing on the left.  It has now passed Katherine and is quickly gaining on Romeo.  They are now running neck and neck.  How Romeo is holding on to his phone videoing this thing is beyond me!  Bad news, they’re approaching the turn.  How are they both going to make this turn where the trail narrows to one sled wide?  They’re still neck and neck.  Whoa!  The two sleds just knocked into each other!  Somehow they’ve both remained upright!  Romeo better watch out for those huge antlers.  Those things look dangerous!  This race is going to be a close call!

The passing of the reindeer spooked my reindeer and it started going even faster.  I saw the turn coming up ahead and I just knew there was no way we were going to make the turn.  Sure enough, as my reindeer rounded the bend, my sled skidded off the path into the soft snow and tipped over onto its side.  The next few seconds felt as if they occurred in slow motion as I flew into the soft snow, turning my body mid-air so I could see the reindeer and sled fast approaching from behind and trying my best to make sure my body got out of the way.  I actually made eye contact with the girl riding behind me.  Thankfully the snow was soft and I wasn’t touched by the other sled.  However, imagine Romeo’s horror when he saw my reindeer running through the forest dragging behind it an empty sled bouncing on its side.

Reindeer Sledding Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Another girl got thrown from her sled at the next curve and the two of us trudged through the snow to meet the rest of the group, laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole thing and glad neither of us was hurt.  We boarded our sleds again and this time had a slow and uneventful return to the camp.

When we got back to the camp the reindeer were released into the enclosure and we entered a traditional Sámi tent for lunch.  Lunch was lingonberry juice, of course, and a really delicious reindeer taco, a pita type bread filled with sautéed reindeer meat and lingonberries.  We sat around the fire and continued to laugh at our crazy adventure of the day.

Sami Tent Lunch Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

Let me be clear that our experience was very much not normal.  Usually the reindeer sled excursions are slow and relaxed.  It is a good reminder that when you join tours involving animals, you must remember those animals have a mind of their own.

The reindeer sled excursion takes about five hours.  Nutti Sámi Siida provides hotel transfers and warm clothing including boots and gloves.  They also offer shorter (and less expensive) 3.5 hour tours that include driving a reindeer sled around a short track rather than the trail ride through the forest.  Tours can be booked through the company directly or through the ICEHOTEL.

Dog Sledding

So you may not be surprised to learn that I was a little nervous going into our dog sledding tour the day after our reindeer sledding adventure.

We got to the dog kennels and found three sleds and their teams ready to go.  When we were introduced to our team we were surprised to see them all laying down in the snow practically napping.  Romeo thought that was a sign they were going to go crazy once it was time to take off.  That wasn’t exactly what happened.

The beginning of our dog sledding tour was a comedy of errors.  Our dogs just did not want to go.  We would be sledding and then one of them would decide it wanted to lay down and take a nap.  The others would try to get around it, tangling up the lines.  We were constantly stopping to try to straighten them out.  To be honest, I was partially hoping we would just have to end the tour as I was a little nervous about being thrown off another sled.

We sat on the frozen river for quite a while waiting for someone to bring some replacement dogs.  While Romeo stood on the brake, I went to the front of the pack to hold them in place, not that they really needed holding as it seemed like all they wanted to do was go to sleep.  

Me and Hedwig Outdoor Winter Activities in Sweden's Lapland

During our wait, I fell in love with a dog named Hedwig.  Hedwig was one of the lead dogs.  She was smaller than the rest and when I sat at the front she immediately laid her head on my lap and fell asleep.  I am a sucker for dogs and I fell for her hook, line, and sinker.  I pet her, she licked me, we were a match made in heaven.

The crazy thing is it only took replacing one dog to get us going again.  While sitting around on the snow might sound like an inconvenience, what made me really happy from the experience was that it was clear if these dogs didn’t want to run, they didn’t run.  They only ran if they wanted to.

Once one of the dogs was replaced all of our pack were up and rearing to go.  From then on we were flying along the river and through the forest.  The experience was so much fun I got back my courage again and even took a turn at driving the sled in one of the easier parts. 

Riding a dog sled is a lot of work!  I was surprised by how athletic sledding is.  You need to shift your weight, sometimes even shifting your feet and entire body weight from one side to the other.  You need to brake a little when going downhill so the sled doesn’t run into the dogs, and on the uphill sections you need to get off and jog to help the dogs out.

Our guide Luc has been working with sled dogs for decades and was an excellent leader.  He also made up for the delay by extending our tour longer than planned so we could enjoy the entire experience.  We enjoyed a quick lunch of cream of mushroom soup (not the Campbell’s canned kind) before heading out again.  Our dogs had a nice rest and a bite to eat and when we were ready to go again, we could see how much the dogs loved to run.  They were barking and howling and jumping, ready to take off.

I am pleased to report there was never a worry of being thrown off the dog sled and we had the greatest time.  The only sad part was having to say goodbye to Hedwig and the rest of our team.

Our tour was provided by Jukkasjärvi Vildmarks Turer, but we booked it through Kiruna Guidetur.   We chose the Musher for a Day tour, a 4.5 hour tour which is the most authentic experience as two people drive a sled with six dogs.  If you don’t feel comfortable driving your own sled, you can join the Lapland Experience tour, a 2.5 hour tour where the tour guide drives and up to four people sit on the sled.  Similar to the other tours, winter coveralls, gloves, and boots are provided along with transfer service.  Before we left a friend suggested bringing a scarf to wrap around our noses and mouths.  She warned me sled dogs can relieve themselves while on the move, and the only thing blocking the flight path is your face.  Luckily our dogs chose to stop before doing such things, but there was the occasional smell that wafted backwards which a scarf can help block.

Our four days in Sweden’s Lapland were a complete success if I do say so myself.  We witnessed two spectacular Northern Lights shows and spent our days and one night experiencing exciting outdoor winter activities we had never done before.  Even if we hadn’t seen the Northern Lights our trip to Swedish Lapland would have been an amazing experience.

Thank you to Ofelaš and Kiruna Guidetur for making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.