Bob from Nature Travels meets up with Andrew from Switzerland to try out the 5-day itinerary of our Self-guided Packrafting and Hiking in Tiveden tour in late May and some expedition meals from Firepot Food along the way.
Following a smooth flight with Norwegian from Gatwick, I boarded the train for the 20-minute ride from Arlanda airport to Stockholm Central. Always on the lookout for a bargain, I chose one of the Intercity trains. It’s not necessary to take the costly Arlanda Express service to get into Stockholm quickly from Arlanda airport – the Intercity trains take just a couple of minutes longer at a fraction of the cost.
I found Andrew luxuriating in a particularly comfy-looking coffee shop chair at the station. Andrew had last joined me for a Nature Travels trip some years ago, when we’d paddled Canoe Tours in Bergslagen together, and I was very much looking forward to our adventure. He’d flown in from Zürich earlier in the day and had already been soaking up the stylish city vibes for a few hours.
I grabbed a wrap from the 7-Eleven at the station to sustain me for the train journey. One of the many things I love about Sweden is that they know how to make a good sandwich. None of your limp, tasteless British triangles here. This was a succulent feast, packed with fresh salmon, rocket and salad, and with the exceptional exchange rate at the moment (13.5 SEK to £1 at the time of writing – the highest I can remember since I lived in Sweden more than 20 years ago), cheaper than the bland and soggy equivalent I would have been buying at home.
Then it was time to board the train to Hallsberg – an easy 1.5-hour dash through typically bucolic Swedish countryside aboard one of the new “Mälartåg” trains, shiny new double-decker beauties tastefully outfitted in chic Scandi style, all wood veneer and shining chrome.
Hallsberg is a modest little place, but a major hub for train connections in this part of Sweden, and consequently well served with regular, direct trains from both Stockholm and Gothenburg. We disembarked in the bright evening sunshine and five minutes later were checking in at Hotell Stinsen, just across from the station.
We were greeted by the lady at reception like old friends – a lovely welcome after our journey. She even offered to keep the restaurant open for us so we could sample the fish and chips (which reports tell me are pretty good), but we politely declined and settled instead for a companionable beer to round off the day in the English pub that is part of the hotel.
Next day we had some time to kill, as we weren’t meeting our host, Ulrika, until 3pm. Although 4pm is the standard meeting time, to allow for guests who wish to arrive in Sweden the same day to make their way to Hallsberg, we had arranged to start an hour earlier.
After gorging ourselves on the hotel breakfast with the excuse that we needed the calories for the trip ahead, we did a quick shop for extra lunch provisions and snacks at the supermarket just across the road. Another of the things I love about Sweden is that any food you can reasonably (or even unreasonably) imagine making into a paste, putting into a tube and squeezing out again onto “tunnbröd” (a kind of tortilla), you’ll find it in a Swedish supermarket.
It’s the perfect camping lunch!! Take your pick – squeezy brie, squeezy blue cheese, squeezy shrimps and cheese, squeezy crayfish and cheese, squeezy bacon and cheese, squeezy ham and cheese, squeezy mushrooms, even squeezy reindeer – you get the picture.
Despite being large and voluminous, our packs were looking alarmingly full and feeling pretty heavy by the time we’d fitted the extra food in, and I was starting to wonder if we’d have space for the tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and of course the packrafts that we’d be issued with later.
But it was too late now – we put such thoughts aside and set off to explore the delights of Hallsberg. While pleasant enough, that didn’t take long! When we managed to persuade ourselves we must be hungry again, the “dagens lunch”* (lunch of the day) buffet at the Thai restaurant across the square provided a very affordable and tasty way to fill the last couple of hours.
*Travel tip: “Dagens lunch” is a feature of most restaurants in Sweden and is generally excellent value. While eating out in the evening in Sweden can be expensive, lunch can be a real bargain. There’s typically a choice of two dishes (one meat/fish, one vegetarian) or a buffet, and soft drinks, coffee and biscuits are usually included.
And then finally it was time to rendezvous for the start of the tour, back in the lobby at Hotell Stinsen. At this point we met Danni and Robert, two Nature Travels guests who would also be starting the tour the same day (doing the 4-day itinerary and so ending a day earlier than us). After a few minutes, Ulrika arrived, we piled into her car, and were off for the ride to the start point at Östra Laxsjön.
The weather was beautiful – clear, warm and sunny – but it was windy. With this in mind, Ulrika suggested that we drive a little further along the lake than the usual start point, where we could begin paddling in more sheltered conditions. We unloaded and walked together to the launch site, which was also a very nice spot to camp.
Here Ulrika took us through the basics of packrafting – how to inflate the raft using the airbag provided (which takes just 5 minutes or so once you get used to it, although I was initially rubbish at it) and how to attach our backpacks to the raft so that we could then easily shoulder the packs to be able to walk with the packrafts inflated.
There’s just as much hiking as packrafting on this tour, but for a number of the hiking sections, especially the shorter stretches, you don’t need to deflate the raft. Hiking with the packraft inflated was much less cumbersome than I would have thought (read on).
For some reason, anything involving straps is a bit of a challenge for me. Like using the bag to inflate the raft, at first I made a right mess of it, producing a spaghetti tangle of cord that entirely failed to hold my pack in place securely. While Andrew, Danni and Robert proudly displayed their packs trussed as tidily as Christmas turkeys, I struggled red-faced to re-tie my knots for the third time while Ulrika looked on with an indulgent smile. As I was about to suffer the ultimate embarrassment of Ulrika stepping in to do it for me, I finally wrestled the thing into submission, and we were ready to take to the water for a test paddle.
While I’m certainly no stranger to canoeing and kayaking, this was my first time in a packraft, and there are a few differences you notice immediately.
Firstly, because you’re skating along on top of the water and the raft is very light (just 4kg including the buoyancy aid and paddle), it’s extremely manoeuvrable – you can turn on a postage stamp. They cut through the water much better than I thought they would and you can make progress quite quickly, but stop paddling for a second and, if there’s the slightest wind, you’ll start floating off course and spinning around straight away. The flipside of that, of course, is that if the wind is behind you, you can just sit back blissfully and look at the clouds while you get blown along!
They’re also very stable and very comfortable. There is an inflatable seat, which helps keep your bottom dry, as inevitably some water drips off the paddles into the raft.
The paddle position is semi-reclining, quite different to the more upright position you have in a canoe or kayak. You might decide to bend your knees and fit your feet inside the raft, but we found it most comfortable to have our feet up on the sides, one either side of the pack. So it feels rather like lying in the bath. This is a little odd until you get used to it, and means you can’t use your body as much as when paddling other craft, but is generally very comfortable. I’d assumed I’d need to wear footwear that I could get wet when in the raft, but in the end we found it was fine to paddle in our hiking boots as long as we were careful getting in and out.
We got used to it all in just a few minutes, and with the wind still blowing, decided that we’d like to pitch camp here tonight, enjoy the evening, and set off properly tomorrow. Ulrika took us through the route, gave us maps and description and some information about alternative pick-up points if we found we weren’t going to make it all the way to the end, then gave a cheery wave and disappeared down the path.
It was time to pitch the tents. Although we were only two persons, Andrew and I had one tent each for the trip, as he had assured me his snoring had been known to register on the Richter scale in neighbouring countries and had brought his own snug little one-man tent to spare me. I would be using a lovely Vaude Power Lizard (a tent with such a cool name I think I have to buy one myself) provided by Ulrika.
By this time, the Thai buffet felt like a distant memory and it was definitely time for dinner. With some relatively challenging hiking on this tour, coupled with the need to allow an extra 4kg for the raft equipment, it’s important to keep your pack weight down as much as you can, so we’d opted for dried expedition meals for dinners and breakfasts for the trip.
These had kindly been supplied to us by John at Firepot Food. Like Nature Travels, Firepot is a Dorset-based business. They specialise in high-quality expedition meals, with a wide range of flavours and using locally sourced ingredients as far as possible. They are also the first company in their field to offer fully biodegradable packaging as an option (though the meals we were using were in the standard packaging).
A few days before the trip, I’d paid a visit to John’s production facility in deepest rural Dorset, had a fascinating tour of the place, and left laden with a selection of packets all with enticing-sounding names. I’m vegetarian, so John had given us veggie-friendly meals (the non-meat meals are actually all vegan) -two different porridge flavours (Baked Apple and Toasted Banana) for breakfast and several different dinners ranging from Porcino Mushroom Risotto to Tuscan Stew.
When you have the luxury of being able to take heavier and bulkier foods, I do enjoy cooking a proper camp meal during a trip. It’s part of the ritual and joy of being in the outdoors. But on a tour of this kind, when you need to travel as light as you can (and you’re likely to arrive at your camping spot at the end of the day tired and hungry), expedition meals offer a huge advantage.
The Firepot Food packs are without doubt some of the best I’ve tried. They’re very easy to prepare (boil some water, fill the bag to the stated level, stir, wait 15 minutes, open and enjoy!), very filling, and crucially are also carefully planned to provide plenty of calories and nutrients. They also save lots of fuel compared to boiling pasta or cooking other ingredients from scratch.
The other advantage is variety – you can have something different every night, especially for dinner. They currently offer a total of sixteen different meals, of which nine are vegan, seven are meat and nine are gluten free. So there’s plenty to choose from!
Morning came and finally it was time to start our adventure properly. It was still windy, but perfectly manageable. We breakfasted on the Baked Apple porridge, broke camp, and launched into Östra Laxsjön.
Being the first participants of the season for this new tour, we were “guinea pigs” when it came to matching the route description to the landscape around us. Ulrika had of course researched and tested the route herself in detail, but we would be the first “guests” to try out the description in combination with the maps. As Ulrika said, “Maybe what’s an obvious big rock to me might not be so obvious to you!” So the four of us decided that we’d paddle together today and see how we got on.
As it turned out, finding your way on this tour is generally very straightforward. Like all navigation on the water, it can sometimes be tricky to see immediately where you are on the map – is that an island over there or just a peninsula, are we in the right bay? But pay careful attention to where you need to go, look at your surroundings, check the map regularly, and know which direction you’re paddling in (a compass is handy), and there’s really nothing to it.
While this is quite a remote area and, outside Tiveden National Park at least, you’re unlikely to meet many other people during your tour, many of the hiking sections are on official marked trails such as the Bergslagsleden long-distance hiking path, and the worst that can happen if you get lost is that you’ll end up needing to back-track a bit or find a summer house containing a friendly local to ask the way. Don’t forget, even if you’re tired and lost, there’s no need to worry. You’re carrying your home on your back – just pitch camp and sleep on it!
One of the unique features of this tour is how flexible it can be in terms of pick-up locations and therefore level of challenge. Though the area is remote, there are several possible road access points where pick-up can be arranged if needed. While you may plan from the start to reach the standard end points (Vitsand in Tiveden National Park for the 4-day tour, Igelbäcken on Lake Vättern for the 5-day tour), you really don’t have to. If you find it harder going than you expected, if the wind or weather is against you, or if you just decide you want to take it easy and pootle about in one area for a couple of days because you’ve found a particularly beautiful spot, arranging an alternative pick-up point is just a phone call away. While reception can of course never be guaranteed and you may sometimes need to hunt for a signal, we found we had good mobile reception throughout the tour.
Our first day of paddling took us west into Västra Laxsjön with a short land transport before turning south and our first proper hiking stretch of the tour. As the path was good and the forest not too dense, we were able to walk with our packrafts inflated.
This was much easier than I expected. As you have your pack securely tied to your packraft for paddling anyway, all you need to do is hoist the pack onto your back and you’re ready to go. Provided there isn’t too much wind, you barely notice that you’re walking along looking like a giant inflatable snail.
You do need to be careful to avoid any overhanging branches or other obstacles, especially when walking through the forest – the raft material is very durable, but a sharp twig or thorny bush can still easily give you a puncture, especially if you walk straight into it. Although a puncture kit is provided as part of standard equipment, you definitely want to avoid needing to use it. Provided you take care and follow the guidance given in the route description (there will be times when it’s necessary to deflate the raft and pack it down), there’s no reason why you should have any problems.
When you do need to deflate the raft, it’s straightforward and quick to do so, and getting everything ready again when it’s time to launch into the next lake doesn’t take long. But having the option to do a number of the hiking stretches during the tour without packing the raft away was a definite bonus.
We stopped for lunch in the sunshine and then launched into a smaller, narrower lake, Grytsjön. It was simply beautiful here, and almost immediately we heard the distinctively loud splash of a beaver entering the water. Ulrika had told us to be on the lookout for beavers, and I was excited about the possibility of seeing one during the trip. Despite my many canoe and other tours over the years in areas where beavers are regularly seen, somehow I’d managed never to spot a wild beaver before. I was delighted that we were able to spend 15 minutes or so watching this master architect of the water swimming back and forth.
There was a great campsite at the end of the lake which beckoned temptingly, but we elected to push on and end our day with the longest hike so far, about 4km. We deflated the rafts and headed off.
We were so busy marching along and chatting in the sunshine that we walked right past a very obvious sign (at least it was obvious once we saw it) showing the Bergslagsleden trail turning off into the forest, so managed to add another couple of kilometres to the day’s hiking by mistake. Finally, as afternoon turned into evening, we reached our goal for the day, starting to feel pretty tired by now!
At this point we decided to part company with the others – Danni and Robert made camp at a very nice spot on the mainland, while Andrew and I paddled a few hundred metres further on to look for an island to camp on.
We found one, and it was beautiful. As we landed and made to pull our rafts ashore on the smooth rocks, Andrew was so overwhelmed by how lovely it was that he lost all control of his limbs and promptly fell in. Fortunately, it was only his pride that was hurt, and as I put the water on for tea (which, as everyone knows, immediately improves any situation), Andrew adorned the pine trees with boots, trousers, t-shirt and socks to dry in the evening sunshine like oversized, squelchy Christmas decorations.
Sweden can be so beautiful sometimes that it’s almost unbearable. This was one of those spots – serene, tranquil, with the spring sun shining through the trees, water boatmen skating on the water, the haunting cry of a “loon” (diver bird) echoing over the lake, a heron flapping lazily in silhouette across the evening sky. At times like this, there really is nowhere else in the world I would rather be. Even Andrew’s socks dripping quietly onto the blueberry bushes somehow added to the perfection of the scene.
It was Tuscan Stew and Dal and Rice with Spinach on the menu tonight, and we could not have asked for a better view for dinner.
We awoke to another bright blue morning and fortified ourselves with Firepot porridge – trying the Toasted Banana this time – before breaking camp. “Leave no trace” is the guiding principle of wild camping, and I spent a few moments making my tent spot, where I’d cleared the pine cones away to make a smooth surface to sleep on, naturally scruffy again before we took to the water.
We spent the morning paddling through a series of picturesque, narrow lakes, interspersed with short hikes. The wind had dropped and it was relatively easy going for the first part of the day, but we still had some adventures. Part of the fun of this trip is that, while many of the hikes are on clearly marked trails, there are also a few “cross country” bits, where you need to bushwhack your way through the forest for short sections to reach a gravel road or appropriate launching spot.
We then had a decision to make about how to end the day. We’d soon be entering Tiveden National Park, where camping is much more restricted (wild camping is strictly forbidden and you must use only the designated camping areas). There was a lovely spot shortly before the entrance to the park where we considered pitching camp for the night, but that would have left us with potentially quite a lot of distance to cover for our last two days if we were to make it all the way to the standard 5-day end point by Monday.
And so we crossed into the National Park to end our day with what the description called “a hike of 4km in challenging terrain”. We wondered what this might mean, as we’d mused as we eased our tired legs around camp the previous evening that some of the hiking sections had been reasonably challenging already!
And then we found out. Tiveden is a beautifully preserved area of old-growth forest set in a landscape of rocky ridges. You immediately feel you’ve entered another world. The trees and vegetation here are markedly different, another fascinating variation on this already very varied trip.
Walking the trails here without a pack would be straightforward – just an easy stroll in the woods – but with a heavy backpack you really need to take care. There are tree roots everywhere to trip you up and interminable short climbs and descents over smooth and slippery rocks to sap your strength. I was glad of the hiking pole I’d brought with me to help negotiate the twists and turns.
We reached the campsite tired but happy. It was a little touch of civilisation here – being inside the Park, there was a dry toilet, fireplace and recycling facilities. We took the opportunity to leave behind some of the empty food packages we’d collected so far, had a wash in the lake (where the water was surprisingly warm for this time of year, though it took a while to get all the bits of peat out of our swimming trunks afterwards), enjoyed another Firepot feast, and promptly fell asleep.
The wind was strong when we awoke and began with a hike to Stora Trehörningen, the main lake in Tiveden National Park. Guests doing the 4-day tour would normally end here at the northern shore, but we’d be heading south before turning east to reach Vättern, Sweden’s second largest lake.
When we came to Stora Trehörningen, it was apparent we weren’t going to be getting onto the water here. The wind had whipped the surface of the lake into some imposing looking waves, and while the packrafts are extremely stable and it would have been perfectly possible to paddle, it would have been a tiring battle to make any headway. We’d hoped to be able to spend some time exploring this lovely lake before carrying on, but it wasn’t to be. Instead we elected to follow the hiking path around the bottom end of the lake to continue our journey south.
This is another feature of this very flexible tour that offers a real advantage. If conditions are unsuitable for paddling at a particular point, there’s almost always the option to do those sections on land instead. This is not the “easy” choice – the hiking is probably the most physically challenging part of this tour as a whole – but it means that you always have the possibility to adapt to the weather.
So our 1km hike became a 4km hike, but at least we didn’t need to fight the wind. When we launched into Lilla Trehörningen, it was sheltered and we paddled pleasantly along for a while, before it was time to shoulder our packs again and leave the boundaries of the Park.
As we’d had to swap our paddle for a walk earlier, there was going to be a lot of hiking today! By the time we stopped for lunch in the hot afternoon sun, we were both starting to feel it. Andrew lay down in his packraft – we’d been able to walk with the rafts inflated – closed his eyes and started to look worryingly comfortable. For a while I was wondering if we’d be getting any further at all today.
But then for the first time in the trip, we cracked (excuse the pun) Andrew’s packet of powdered eggs for lunch. I’d never had powdered eggs before, but they were a revelation – in no time at all we’d made light, fluffy scrambled eggs which went perfectly with the last of our “tunnbröd”. They gave us the energy to push on. In fact, without them I think we might still be there.
But there were more treats to come. As we reached the lake, Andrew spotted a sign for a caravan park advertising a cafe and small shop. Before I could say “ice cream”, he’d dumped his pack and was marching off up the road with the purposeful stride of a man on a snack mission. I sat down in the sun and waited. And waited. And waited.
I was starting to wonder if he’d found a hotel, checked in and abandoned me, when eventually a figure appeared in the distance. As it approached, it became clear it was carrying something. No, not just something, several somethings, which turned out to be not only ice cream, but a frankly indecent amount of extra chocolate, crisps and soft drinks. We sat on our rafts in the afternoon sun and ate most of it immediately, trying to ignore the little voices in our heads saying, “I know you’ve been working hard, but come on, not THAT hard!”
But if you can’t treat yourself to an ice cream (and a bar of chocolate, a large packet of crisps and a fizzy drink) once in a while, then it’s not a holiday, is it?
The last paddle of the day wasn’t a paddle at all, and we certainly didn’t burn off any of the chocolate. By now there was a gentle breeze behind us, and we literally just lounged in our rafts, revolving gently in the sunshine while the wind carried us down the lake.
And at the end we found one of the nicest camping spots of the whole trip – an idyllic little bay where we passed a blissful evening watching the sun dip towards the lake while pike splashed about in the reeds and the trees turned a blazing orange. A fitting spot indeed for our last night under canvas.
Today we really didn’t know what to expect. We needed to reach the end point by 4pm, but weren’t at all sure how long it would take us. The paddling today would bring us out into Lake Vättern, Sweden’s second largest lake. If it was really windy, as it had been in Tiveden, then it would either take us hours to make our way up, or we’d need to abandon the idea completely and call for an alternative pick-up point.
But as we reached our launch point into Vättern, we saw that the water was wonderfully calm. Once again we entered a new world, as we left the forest behind for a stunning inland archipelago landscape. To our right the great expanse of Vättern stretched away as we hugged the western shore to paddle through a network of beautiful little islands.
We were making very good time, so found a particularly attractive cluster of islands on which to enjoy a long, lazy lunch, before launching for the last time for the short paddle to the end point for collection and the ride to Askersund.
As we came into land at the small harbour, Andrew summed up what we were both feeling: “Can’t we just keep going?”
But no – for now it was time to return to civilisation. We’d be spending the night in Askersund before taking the train back to Stockholm the next day.
If you’re overnighting after the tour, Askersund is a good choice, especially if you’ve already stayed in Hallsberg. Just bear in mind if you’re there on a Monday (the normal end day for the 5-day packrafting tour), especially outside high season, that many of the restaurants may either be closed or will close early in the evening, so don’t wait too long to make dinner plans!
We stayed at the very charming Garvaregården B&B. The rooms are small but cosy and full of character, and everything is set around a beautiful central courtyard.
Breakfast was also fantastic and served with a smile by the lovely host, Rolf, and set us up well for the journey home. With the sun still shining, we walked the few minutes across town for the bus to Hallsberg and onward train to Stockholm.
And so our trip had come to an end. It’s always funny how a few days in the outdoors can simultaneously feel like a lifetime and just the blink of an eye. There were so many impressions to take with me home, and so many things I’d loved about the trip – the fun and flexibility of the packrafting itself, the varied landscapes and terrain we’d travelled through, finally spotting a beaver, and, perhaps most of all, the chance to spend a quality few days in the company of a good friend. Oh, and of course the ice cream.
Bob from the Nature Travels Team
- If you’re keen to try the wonderful world of packrafting for yourself but are travelling solo (all our self-guided tours require min. 2 persons), we also offer guided packraft tours in Finland.
- For more information on Firepot Food and their range of expedition meals, see https://www.firepotfood.com/