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Swedish Lapland: Surviving the cold

Learn how to stay alive and appease the fire gods in the sub-zero wilderness of the Arctic Circle

Swedish Lapland: Surviving the cold
Image: Martin Smedsen

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“Bear Grylls is regarded as a comedian round here,” quips Johannes while stuffing another pinch of snus (Swedish tobacco) under his black-stained lip. “Seriously, that guy does everything wrong – running around in the snow. True wilderness survival is about staying calm and conserving energy, not wasting it.”

Johannes is only 19 but he’s not a man to argue with. He’s spent his whole life living 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, had frostbite on virtually every part of his body and has been learning bushcraft skills since he was old enough to walk. What he doesn’t know about staying alive in the cold probably isn’t worth knowing.

I’ve joined Johannes on a beginners’ course teaching city apes like me how to survive the winter wilderness in Swedish Lapland. It’s a brand new excursion offered at the amazing Icehotel in the northern village of Jukkasjärvi (pronounced you-kas-yayr-vi), and under the expert guidance of local residents, such as Johannes, guests can learn how to navigate the surrounding Narnia-esque woods, construct a snow shelter and build a fire with a flint in the short time it’d take nature to kill you.

After a bracing two-mile ride over the frozen River Torne on a sled dragged by a snowmobile, followed by a short trek to our forest camp, Johannes runs through our crucial survival checklist: location, shelter, fire and food. “If you’re lost in the forest, stop and look where you are,” he declares. “Do you recognise any natural landmarks? Where is north and south?”

If you’re well and truly lost, Johannes says it’s better to own up to this fact sooner rather than later as time is of the essence. Mother Nature is a violent and merciless creature, and when you’re stuck in the wild, your job is to survive until help comes, while hers is to find a way to defeat you.

Once lost, you should quickly construct some kind of shelter, such as the simple igloo-like snow wall Johannes builds around the base of a pine tree, forming a surprisingly cosy den. In fact, the ground temperature outside might be a bitter -20°C but inside it’s a balmy -1°C.

With shelter done, we get onto tackling the most vital stage of winter survival – building a fire. Johannes instructs one half of our group to collect dry birch bark and twigs for tinder while the other cuts up pinewood for fuel. Our survival guru makes it look easy as he scrapes the flat edge of a knife down on a flint, sending giant sparks onto the tinder pile. My first frustrated attempts create nothing more than hot air as I fumble with the blade but as Johannes wryly points out, “the fire gods can be unforgiving”.

The trick he says is to stay calm and be patient – in tough conditions building a fire can take hours – so after 15 minutes of diligent work I finally create enough sparks to trigger a small flame. I panic though, clumsily manhandling the smoking bark and in the process I lose the flicker. I’m back to square one but thankfully it isn’t long before I spark another smoking pile and transfer it to the waiting woodpile where the blaze really gets going.

Whether it’s from tapping into a primal instinct or simply succeeding at a task after half an hour in the biting cold, there’s something undeniably satisfying in watching a fire you’ve created from scratch while supping on a hot cup of tea, made from melting snow and boiling up pine leaves.

As we toast ourselves by the fire I ask Johannes if he’s ever found himself in a tricky situation. “Two weeks ago I was caught in a snowstorm and couldn’t see beyond my own hands so the pressure was on to get to safety,” he recalls. “But if you’re ever worried, just hug a tree,” he says in all seriousness. “You’ll stay in one place and you won’t feel alone.”

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