I had an incredible time hiking the Arctic Circle Trail last month (July 15-26). I went with my Mum and we did a pretty good job at preparing, but like any other adventure, there are always things you wish you knew.
On the other hand, there was also a lot we were glad we’d found out before. We learned so much about the trail through Paddy Dillon’s guidebook / ACT bible, the Arctic Circle Trail Facebook Group we trawled through for months, the many blog posts we read, Reddit threads we browsed, and many other sources of trail wisdom.
While hiking the trail, I kept a note in my journal of all the ACT lessons we thought could be useful for our past selves – and hopefully others. These are relevant to us, but you might disagree or want to adjust a few to suit yourself. That’s fine by me – and I’d love to hear of any suggested alterations or additions. If you’re getting ready to hike the trail or thinking about doing so, I hope it’s useful to help you prep and imagine what’s ahead!
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1. Kangerlussuaq – Sisimiut was the best direction for us. I wrote why in my ACT round-up post.
2. Paddy Dillon is fit. People who hike the trail in 2 days are both very fit and crazy. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can book a ferry for 6 days after you set off from Kangerlussuaq and easily get there without much of a struggle. I wouldn’t plan under 10 days and would spend more time on the trail if I could carry more food. Part of the magic was slowing down and avoiding the tempo of life back home.
3. There is more elevation than you might expect – and it’ll feel harder with your packs on than other hikes you’ve been on. Be ready for it, even if that just means scheduling a bit more time.
4. Choosing Hotel Sisimiut was worth it. Even though it’s pretty basic, it’s by far the most comfortable place in town. Knowing that we were walking towards a hotel – with a decent restaurant and beer – gave us something to think about and look forward to. We arrived a day earlier but was able to get the last double room available.
5. We needed more calories. Work out what your daily calories will be based on the food you’re packing. We loved Real Turmat meals – although they’re super expensive (about £10 each), we looked forward to eating them. On a future hike like this, I’d probably pack freeze-dried meals for lunch and dinner instead of just-add-water couscous etc as small evening meals. But that will be heavier.
6. Have a hot breakfast. Porridge every day made us very happy. “Imagine if we’d packed müesli…” I pondered aloud on more than one dreary morning.
7. Eat your biggest meal in the middle of the day. The energy burst for the few hours afterwards was where our best stretches came from.
8. Pack sugary food for the hard moments. I will be forever indebted to milk chocolate caramel and sea salt Tony’s Chocoloney. We also packed a few freeze-dried desserts each that provided very welcome calorie boosts on days we were struggling. Another good thing you might find out: in July there are blueberries everywhere.
9. Clif energy bloks were great to have in our pocket. We also had those Dextro Energy tabs that fizz in your mouth.
10. Be wary of agreeing to share a tent with others. Although it saves weight, we would have gone insane if we didn’t bring our own tents. We also spoke to some groups who seemed to regret it. Unless you’re a couple (and then, who knows), alone time at the end of the day in your own fortress is blissful.
11. You can tie guy ropes to bushes, especially when you’re on softer ground.
12. Know your gear and test everything before you set off. Especially new gas canisters after picking them up in town. A week or so before setting off, I had a trial run with my tent and went through three new sleeping mats before I was happy. I also confirmed I can’t sleep with an inflatable pillow.
13. It’s easy to get gas in town. We tried emailing a few companies that we’d heard mentioned in the trail Facebook group to order canisters in advance, but the ones that got back to us all said the same thing – you can’t reserve it, you can only get it when here. We found it easy to get gas at our hostel (Old Camp) though, and you can also buy it at supermarkets and even the little airport shop upon arrival. We have an MSR Windburner and it was easy to pick up a type of gas that worked, even if it wasn’t what I was used to.
14. Compress what you can. Like quite a few other hikers, we used Sea to Summit eVent compression bags (I should be a brand ambassador for STS, the amount of things I have from them). I had a small one for my clothes, a small one for my waterproofs, and a medium one for my sleeping bag. As well as compressing things down, it made it much easier to find things and pack and unpack really quickly.
15. Think about your trash bag. We bought a Sea to Summit Trash Dry Sack and it was perfect. It keeps your rubbish in one place and it won’t leak onto anything else. A plastic bag or two won’t cut it – you’ll be dealing with leftover vegetable hotpot in your sleeping bag, or worse. If you leave rubbish behind, there will be a lot of people throwing bad karma your way. That includes leaving it in huts or trying to burn it. Don’t spoil the trail for its human and animal visitors.
16. You can wear the same clothes pretty much the whole way. Hiking trousers, waterproof trousers, two tops, 2-3 underwear, 2 pairs of socks, fleece, down jacket, waterproof jacket, cold weather hat/buff and gloves, night clothes – sorted.
17. You can wash your clothes, but don’t wash directly in the lakes. For your laundry session, collect water before moving 200 feet away to wash and pour the dirty/soapy stuff in a hole. If the weather is clear, it’s easy to let clothes dry on a makeshift washing line or attached to your bag. The wind can be really fast-drying.
18. My Páramo shirt (I’m not sure they still sell it) was my favourite piece of clothing. It’s fast-drying, long-sleeved, airy, and covers a huge amount of skin. As a pale redhead, covering up is my best defence strategy.
19. Pack a buff. You can keep your head warm at night without putting your head inside your sleeping bag, or keep your ears warm on windy or cold days. I didn’t have a cold-weather hat, just a buff and my Rab down jacket with a nice hood.
20. You might use your sunhat more than you think. I packed a wide-brimmed hat and was so incredibly glad I did. One day of the trek felt ridiculously hot and sunny, so having some shade added a lot to my happiness. It also kept the mosquitoes away from my face (I had a head net too, but only used that once). My hat was on during more days than not.
21. Set aside clean socks and clothes for nighttime. I’m so glad I brought sacred evening/sleeping clothes. For me, it was thermal leggings (which could double up as cold weather day wear) and a thin wool top.
22. You’re going to end up weighing everything, talking about weight, and wishing you had less weight. We were really strict about what we packed and it was still too much. So if you’re not strict, it could be horrendous. Most of your weight will and should be your food – and you should still be clever about this.
23. Try to adhere to the 25% body weight or less rule for your pack. But as small women like us, there’s a high chance you might go over that. We were definitely over it. Physics says that’s probably ok. But if you’re not very fit and don’t train your upper body, I’d be very careful. Know your body and what you can do. And don’t pack stupid stuff (*waits for someone to read this post and tell me that something I packed is dumb AF*).
24. Bring a small first aid kit. Without this, we would’ve been screwed. After the stove tipped boiling water on my leg not long after the halfway mark, the plasters, antiseptic cream, painkillers, bandage we had packed meant we could get to the end. Strong 600mg ibuprofen and normal-strength painkillers were godsends. The length of physio tape we’d originally packed for unhappy muscles and joints was great for securing the bandage. Think about multi-purpose items. I think it’s also worth bringing a few antihistamines and Imodium just in case. It didn’t total that much weight, but it was worth every gram.
25. Packing a tiny bottle of hand sanitiser doesn’t make you a wimp. When cleaning and bandaging my burnt leg, it was really useful.
26. A Kindle and notebook are worth the weight. I read four books on the trail and looked forward to my reading time every evening. My Kindle battery lasts weeks, so I had no trouble there.
27. I was much less stinky than I thought I’d get. You don’t need much to keep clean. I packed a tiny 40ml bottle of Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash which you can use for washing yourself, hair, dishes, and clothes. Just make sure your soapy water goes in the ground at least 200 feet away from lakes and other water sources. Don’t lather up in the lake. We also had three communal packs of Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes, each containing 12 small wipes. I used about one a day for cleaning my body and some for toilet trips. They’re biodegradable, but belong in your trash – not on the ground).
28. Water purification tablets give you peace of mind, but you probably won’t need them. We didn’t use any. I’d still pack them, but less of them, as we had a pack of 50. The water was cleaner than we both imagined.
29. Bathroom logistics are nothing to worry about. Pack your trowel and read up on leaving no trace. It’ll involve digging a six-inch hole 200 feet away from water and putting toilet roll/wipes in your trash. That means not leaving it the ground. Even if that’s what others have done… which they do. Please don’t. The toilet paper that came with our trowel was pretty good, and we also had three packs of wipes between us. My Mum also smuggled in an emergency roll of Andrex that we did use, but not all of it.
30. You can swim! Just make sure to clean all of the non-natural stuff off your skin first (think suncream, mosquito repellant, etc) further inland (200 feet) and remember to follow all leave no trace principles.
31. Bring the route maps, even if the cairns are reliable. GPS is great, but maps don’t run out of battery. We used them quite often. You need them for Kangerlussuaq, Pingu, and Sisimiut and can get them from Harvey Maps. And pack a compass (we had a Silva one), even if you probably won’t use it.
32. Download the Greenland GPS hiking app on your phone (iOS / Android). This was our quickest way of getting back on track if the path disappeared. This happened quite a few times (especially in rocky and boggy places), but we never got properly lost. With the app, you can immediately see where you are on the route. While you can do the same with other apps, like the Garmin one, I found this was faster.
33. The chance of seeing a polar bear is essentially nil, as you probably thought. But for the 0.000001% chance you see one, know what your plan is.
34. Our Garmin InReach Mini was so worth it. The subscription is expensive (we went for the Expedition option that gave you unlimed messages for the month), but I’d pay it again for several reasons:
- The fires started up about a week before we set off. The status kept changing, so having someone who could check the Arctic Circle Trail Facebook group and message us with updates was incredibly useful. We could then pass these details on to other hikers on the trail.
- We used the weather reports to get a vague idea of conditions. Don’t put your money on it, by any means, but our InReach gave some sort of hourly and daily forecast on a couple of days.
- We could see how many kilometres we’d hiked that day and what our average speed was. The first day or so, we were way too slow. It wasn’t until we realised how much battery the InReach maintained and we started turning the tracking on every day that we saw how slow we really were.
- And, of course, it gives you GPS – meaning you can track your position on a route you previously uploaded, and people back home can see how you’re getting on.
Good to know
35. You can get a certificate at the end! Call by the Hotel Sisimiut reception and say you’ve completed the trail. I’m not sure about Kangerlussuaq hostels, but ask around!
36. Go with the flow. Not everything works out all the time. Plans change. You’ll forget something or a bit of gear will break. You’re on an adventure, in the wild, in the middle of nowhere. Be prepared, but enjoy the freedom and the unpredictability of the trail. It’s not paint-by-numbers and there’s no manual. Have fun!
Have I missed anything, given bad advice (eek), or do you have any other suggestions? I’d love to hear from you!
My other posts about the Arctic Circle Trail: