These free cabins unlock Sweden's wild side

An informal network of cottages, bunkhouses, and hiking shacks provides an offbeat, outdoorsy way to explore the Nordic nation.

By Jennifer Barger
Published 21 Jun 2022, 11:42 BST
Sweden has an informal network of free, overnight cabins, including this one in the Uppsala region. The dwellings—which range from primitive hiking huts to modern cottages—are first-come, first-serve.
Photograph by Moa Karlberg

Visit Sweden, and you have the right to walk, bicycle, ski, and camp anywhere with the exception of private gardens, yards, or farmland. Known as allemansrättenor the right of public access, it’s an integral part of the country’s culture.

Besides this open invitation to pitch a tent, many wilderness areas and parks also hold cabins that are free for anyone to stay in. A kind of Scandinavian answer to Scotland's bothies, some are former hunting lodges or fishing shacks, others are onetime country homes donated to governments and municipalities. 

There are more than 250 of them, ranging from primitive to somewhat plush. Swedish photographer Moa Karlberg captured dozens of them in the book, Stuglandet (“the country of cabins”), which she coproduced with writer Kjell Vowles.

Hikers travel along Sweden’s High Coast in Skuleskogen National Park. There are five free-to-use cabins in the forested park near the Baltic Sea.
Photograph by Moa Karlberg

“I got to know about the culture and history of places in Sweden that weren’t touristy hotspots,” says Karlberg. “We saw lots of forest and lots of lakes.” Their photos and text depict dwellings and dreamy scenery in regions including starkly beautiful Lapland and Gävleborg on the Baltic Sea.

There’s a 19th-century cabin with groovy blue and white peacock wallpaper and woolly rugs in Gotaland and tiny red cabins, their warm, wooden interiors lined with cozy bunkbeds, scattered throughout the countryside. “I like being in nature, but I’m not a hardcore wild camper,” says Karlberg. ”In these cabins, you can enjoy the simple life, but it’s much more convenient than a tent. You can be inside if it rains.”

The Lunsentorpet cabin, located in the countryside near Uppsala, Sweden, provides overnight stays.
Photograph by Moa Karlberg
Some of Sweden’s free cabins are comfortably furnished, including the Blommastugan cottage, a historic, three-room building amid the wilderness near the town of Torsås.
Photograph by Moa Karlberg

Many of her photos depict the magic of spending time with other wanderers in the wild: families with fleece-bundled kids hiking in the woods, friends gathered around a rustic table drinking coffee. ”You meet a lot of people when you visit these cabins, since they can’t be reserved and they are open to anyone,” says Karlberg.

Vowles started the project hoping to reveal both lesser-known regions of Sweden and to publicize these free cabins, which aren’t well documented. He and Karlberg first published the guidebook in 2017; it was updated and expanded in 2021.

“Some people in Sweden have old family cabins, but not everyone knows about these other places to stay,” says Vowles. The book (in Swedish only) gives detailed information and maps on where the dwellings are; travelers can also find many of the cabins via the website Naturkartan.

The book, and the pandemic push to explore the outdoors, have made some of the cabins better known. There are even travelers who make pilgrimages to multiple properties in a year, racking up numerous overnights in bunk beds and fireside chats with strangers. 

Take Erika Åhlund and her partner, Christer Moberg, who bought the Stuglandet guide in 2017. “Since then, we’ve stayed in 48 of these open cabins,” says Åhlund. “The cottages give us relaxation from everyday life in the city and our apartment.” 

All of the cabins have wood-burning stoves, meaning cottage collectors like them can visit in the spring to kayak and forage for berries or in the winter for cross-country skiing. You just need to bring food and a sleeping bag before checking in. 

“Swedes have such a close connection to the forest, and this is another way to explore it,” says Vowles. 

Moa Karlberg is a Swedish photographer. Follow her on Instagram.

Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram.


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