Winter bushcraft skills in Northern Sweden
Myself (jack) and Dan have recently been on an expedition to Sweden for a week. We set out with the ambition of living in the field for our duration gaining priceless experience and knowledge that you can only learn by being there. This was my second time out there within the space of a year but a first for Dan. I knew this was going to be challenging due to the bitter cold. On my last visit it was frequently below -30 degrees Celsius.
We arrived after midnight on the Friday so we had to spend the night in a nearby log cabin until morning
As soon as daylight broke we were off into the forest with all of our kit to make ourselves a shelter to stay in for the majority of our trip. We established a meeting point and split up to look for the perfect location to set up a camp. The weather was clear, calm and around -20oc. I stumbled across a flat area of woodland with trees – an ideal space apart to make 2 lean to shelters beside each other at 90 degrees. There was also a huge supply of dead free standing fire wood nearby so we decided to make this spot our home.
With no delay we started work on the shelter, daylight hours were short we had approximately 7 hours a day of precious light and we had already lost a lot of it by the time we found our camp. We collected as many materials as possible the woodland was dense here so thinning out some of the smaller trees would have had a minimal impact on the woodland itself. With lots of material to hand we did the best we could until we lost daylight. We both knew this was going to be a cold night as the shelters were far from done, the temperature was around -18 degrees Celsius and we were sleeping on the snowy woodland ground.
We got a fire roaring and settled in bracing ourselves for a long cold night ahead. We made a small fire barrier which helped slightly but we knew as soon as daylight had broken we needed to crack on with improvements to our camp.
Morning of day 3,we had managed to keep the fire going through the night so as we both woke we piled more fire wood on the fire, made a warm drink and made a plan for the day. The Night had been cold so we had plans to improve the shelter, add more thatching, make raised beds and increase the size of the fire for the evening as well as cutting more firewood, maintaining the fire and constantly melting snow for water. When you are living in such a harsh environment it’s really important to look after yourself properly, we had regular breaks for warm drinks, ate often and regulated our body heat well – you don’t want to overheat and sweat here because you will freeze at night. By the end of the day we both had raised beds which were off the cold ground and well insulated with spruce boughs.
This had made a huge difference in comfort and with regards to keeping warm through the night. We also found time to start putting a front on the lean to shelters. Lean to shelters are great but when it’s that cold I think it’s better to contain the heat from your fire to warm your environment up so that’s what we did. We settled in for night 2 in the shelter.
The raised beds made a huge difference to the both of us compared to the first night’s sleep. Feeling as recharged as we were ever going to get we started the daily routine of stoking the fire, making a warm drink and breakfast, collecting snow for water and scouting for firewood.
We had both decided to take the shelter to the next level; we were now aiming to cover the front side of the lean to just leaving a small door in the middle for access. We were doing this to contain as much heat as possible from the fire, the more enclosed our shelter was the longer the heat would remain in it. As afternoon approached we thought we would give ourselves a break from the shelter building and went to a new open area just outside the woodland to start making a shovel up snow hole. I had stayed in a snow hole a few times before but whilst we were out here we both wanted to make and stay in one. We began to shovel all the snow on the ground in to one central area, we spent no more than an hour on this as we had chores to do back at camp before it got dark. We made a decent start before we returned to camp.
We collected lots of firewood for the night and I then started to experiment with different methods of collecting water – I always like to do as much practical research as possible so I tried the Finnish marshmallow, a mosquito net full of snow, and I took the time to find out how many cups of snow made a cup of water, approximately 5.1 if you were wondering.
With all the jobs done for the day it was time to relax, an early night was on the cards for us both as all the hard work and the harsh environment was taking its toll on us.
The hard work we had put into the shelter was now paying off; each night’s sleep was now getting better and better. First task for the day after breakfast was another hour on the snow hole. It’s good to make a shovel up snow hole over a few days if you have that luxury as it gives the snow a chance to properly settle and compact.
Another good hour of shovelling was done and we were not far off our goal, we had a good pile of snow which was approximately 5 foot tall and 10 foot wide around the base. This was going to be the last night in our shelter so we headed back to enjoy our last afternoon in the forest as tomorrow we were going to be sleeping in the snow hole.
For the rest of the day Dan decided to make a door for our shelter and I did a bit more work on the roof and thatching. The final product was great over 4 days we had made an environment which we could have happily stayed in for week upon week providing we had adequate food as that was near on impossible to find out in this environment at this time of year.
When we were inside the shelter we had created an environment with temperatures well above 0oc the highest temperature we achieved in the shelter at one point was 18oc this was fantastic considering the outside temperature was an average of -15 degrees Celsius at night. I kept a detailed log on temperature throughout our stay in Sweden with the help of a couple digital thermometers. One last evening meal in the shelter and it was time to get our heads down at this point we had been out in the field for 4 days.
It felt strange packing all of our kit up on this morning, I had come to love the shelter and scenery of the snowy frozen forest but it was time to move on. Day light had broken so it was time to crack on. We boiled water for a warm drink ready to go, tidied and put the fire out. That fire had not gone out for the duration of our stay, Dan lit the fire on the first hour of our arrival and we kept it going for the duration. Taking the use of the fire a step further as we left camp I took a large fire dog with me we carried all of our kit out of camp as we walked I kept blowing on the fire dog until we reached our snow hole. We arrived dropped our kit down and relit the fire.
I ensured we got the fire going first as I knew from experience that digging out a snow hole can be cold and sometimes wet work. The fire gives us instant access to warm up, dry our kit and have an essential hot drink and meal.
We took shifts approximately 20 minutes at a time inside the snow hole as we were in a pair its vital that when 1 person is inside clearing snow out the other person is outside in case of a collapse also the person outside needs to make sure the fire is maintained hot water is accessible quickly and resting when possible.
We swapped over regularly until we had cleared enough snow out. We had finished after a few hours of work so we collected enough fire wood for the evening, sorted out our kit for the night, had a hot meal and still had time to spare so we used the time to relax and enjoy the beautiful clear night sky.
There was no light pollution here so on a clear night the sight was amazing. After 9.00pm it was time to get in to the snow hole for the evening, we used cyalume glow sticks to light our shelter up and we placed a tea light candle inside the snow hole.
The candle has a very important role, it acts as an oxygen indicator if it goes out then oxygen levels could be low so we took shifts on candle watch and had a broken night’s sleep. The temperature remained around -2 degrees Celsius inside whilst outside it was -12 degrees Celsius so the 10 degrees Celsius difference that we achieved was pretty good.
After a broken night’s sleep, our last day was here already. We headed back to the log cabin to relax and thaw out thinking that tomorrow we would be back in the UK. We had the day to ourselves so we used the time to have a go at making an improvised pair of snow shoes, we did a bit of exploring and I found some time to do a bit of carving. The trip was great and we achieved exactly what we set out to. First hand experienced cannot be read from a book – it has to be lived and that’s what we did!