Sweden: snow-shoeing under the Aurora in Abisko

Lapland's wilderness offers prime conditions for aurora hunting. Track the lights on snowshoes through lands considered sacred by the Sami people.

Aurora night sky in Abisko  

Photograph by Felipe Menzella
By Monisha Rajesh
Published 22 Nov 2022, 08:00 GMT

Pulling off a glove the size of an oven mitt, I turn off my headlamp and watch the snow turn blue in the moonlight. The scene softens. It’s silent but for the squeak of powder compacting underfoot. Any noise is absorbed by the snow, which sparkles as though strewn with diamonds.

My guide Maja stops to check I’m OK and offers to slow the pace. It’s 9pm and I’m on a snowshoe trek through the woods in Abisko, a village in Swedish Lapland. Lying around 160 miles inside the Arctic Circle, it has no light pollution and is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, though tonight the clouds have moved in from the nearby Torneträsk lake.

Maja sees me twisting around in my Michelin Man-like snowsuit, scouring the sky. She reassures me that the weather is ever-changing and there’s still hope of spotting aurora.

A novice when it comes to winter gear, I expect to be strapping on tennis racket-type shoes for this hike, but am handed what look like a pair of upturned skateboards with metal teeth instead of wheels.

Wearing these, I’m instructed to “walk like a duck rather than lifting your feet”. Departing in the evening from Abisko Guesthouse, the trek usually lasts two to three hours and is suitable even for those whose experience of climbing is little more than a staircase or two.

Despite the -5C temperature, it’s a slightly sweaty trudge uphill, with flecks of ice stinging my cheeks. The cold invigorates and there’s a distinct aura of magic darting around these skinny trees. Previous hikers have already hardened the ice track and I shuffle behind Maja as she heads towards Stor Nabben mountain, which looms in the shadows.

Aurora Borealis light up the skies over Abisko.

Photograph by Felipe Menzella

Ducking between twigs and stray branches, we curve around to approach the base when Maja shouts: “Ha! Aurora!” With three claps she veers left off the path, disappearing knee-deep into powder, and points up. I’d been scrutinising moonlit slivers of cloud, willing them to be the lights, but there’s now no doubting this twist of aurora.

Like steam, the wisp lengthens then deepens to a Ghostbusters green. I follow Maja, who forges ahead pointing out animal tracks in the snow: elongated rabbit paws; cloven hooves of moose; and the frozen filigree made by tiny birds. This region of northern Sweden is historically inhabited by the Indigenous Sámi people, reindeer herders for whom the land is sacred.

Before we ascend Stor Nabben, Maja points to a distant mountain range, snow-stained and fearsome, but peaceful in the darkness. She indicates a semi-circle-shaped valley, which looks as though the Sámi gods took a clean bite out of the range. “This is Lapporten,” she says. “Between those mountains are two small lakes and the story goes that there’s a portal to the other dimension.” Halfway to Lapporten is Paddus, the holy mountain of the Sámi people.

In the past, Sámi men travelled there annually to pray to the gods. “Hiking there, you don’t feel alone, as if someone is watching,” says Maja. “Sometimes you see shadows running around, but it’s not a feeling of fear, just the presence of something.” Reaching the summit is easy enough and we find a bench and a small letterbox where visitors can write their names on a notepad tucked inside a little bag.

Maja produces a flask of hot, freshly made lingonberry juice. The sweet liquid feels furry against my throat as we sip the drink and look down on Abisko, where the lights from lodges glow like tiny orbs.

Shivering, I trudge about to stay warm as new aurora emerge. Like a screensaver, its green body shapeshifts from thin threads to falling rain, performing for about 10 minutes until the clouds drift in and knit together a blanket so thick that even the moon vanishes. The show over, we throw one last glance at the skies and descend once more into the magic of Abisko’s woods.

How to do it

A two to three-hour trek costs SEK590 (£48) per person, including all clothing and gear. abiskoguesthouse.com

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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