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7 ways to learn Arctic survival skills

A new tour in northern Sweden is tapping in to foraging skills and ancient know-how to give you all the Arctic survival skills you need for life in Scandinavia's snowy north

By Amelia Duggan
Published 10 Nov 2018, 08:00 GMT, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 14:22 BST
Arctic survival skills
Photograph by Getty Images

1 // Get your bearings
You don't have to be a nomadic reindeer herder to know that the sun rises in the east, swings south and sets in the west. But a Sami can read nature's subtle clues, too: moss will grow thicker and greener on the southern side of a tree because it sees more sun, and branches on the northern side will often reach higher looking for light from the south. A crescent moon can offer clues as well: if it's seen before sunset, the full side signals west, while a moonrise after midnight will have a crescent that's illuminated on the eastern side.

2 // Fire it up
Any survival expert will tell you that making fire is your first priority in the wild and since the Sami's ancestors arrived in these parts some 9,000 years ago, they know a thing or two about creating flames in the Arctic. The lower the elevation the more material will be available, such as moss, grass, scrub, driftwood, spruce trees, birch and willow (found near streams and lakes). To spark fire, carve a convex magnifying glass out of ice, creating a smooth finish using the heat of your palm, and angle it at tinder, which should be set on bare earth (dig down through snow).

3 // Send it up in smoke
Need to signal to your fellow Arctic wanderers? You're looking to make smoke signals using coniferous boughs that contain resin, like the tamarack tree, which create the thickest, darkest smoke.

4 // Grub up
When foraging for plants, a general rule is to avoid anything with shiny leaves, thorns or umbrella-shaped flowers. A foraging staple of the Sami is the cloudberry — a tart, creamy-tasting berry rich in vitamin C that's found throughout boreal forest, alpine regions and tundra. They're similar in form to a blackberry but take on a golden colour when ripe — the Finnish have been making lakkalikööri liqueur from them for centuries.

5 // Take shelter
While modern survivalists would swear by packing ice into a primitive igloo and cosying down in a blizzard-grade sleeping bag, the traditional Sami use a lavvu — a dismantlable teepee. Key lessons learned from the use of the lavvu include elevating sleepers above the cold ground by laying animal skins — or other accessible layers — over a bed of birch twigs, and also ventilating fumes from indoor cooking fires to avoid deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.

6 // Get sharp
A Sami's best friend is their stuorraniib knife, a machete-like blade suitable for butchering and cutting branches. In the wild, create a stone blade from a large flat 'core rock', which you chip into a blade using a large, smooth 'hammer stone'. The blade should be bound tightly to a wooden handle using the strongest twine at your disposal.

7 // Spear through
While the Sami are most famous for their reindeer husbandry, in their heyday, when their territory spanned parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, many were expert fishers. In the Arctic, river spearfishing is an amateur's best bet, using a sharp-tipped pole with carved barbs that secure the fish once spiked.

Secrets of the Sami 

Off the Map Travel's new Fall into Foraging package combines cosy cabins and night-time aurora viewing in Sweden's Luleå archipelago with lessons from an expert guide and chef out in the Arctic wilderness. Itineraries from £1,799 per person. 

Follow @AmeliaDuggan

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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