Although most people choose to hike the Bear’s Trail during the summer months a hike right before winter has its perks. The trail isn’t crowded, the air is crisp and there are no pesky insects bothering you.
However, the colder and darker season also means there’s a bit more to take into account before hitting the trail. I’ve put together the kind of blog post I wish I’d have had the chance to read when planning my hike. I hope you find my tips for the Bear’s Trail helpful!
The Bear’s Trail – What’s That?
So for those who land here who haven’t heard of the Bear’s Trail, or Karhunkierros as it’s called in Finnish, I want to give you a brief introduction.
The Bear’s Trail is one of Finland’s most famous and popular hiking trails. It’s located in Kuusamo, in the northeastern part of Finland. The trail meanders through Oulanka National Park, leading hikers through some of Finland’s most stunning landscapes and natural wonders.
Depending on where you choose to commence your hike it’s either 82 or 71 kilometres long. Some take it slowly and want a whole week to complete it, others do the whole thing running in less than 24 hours. But for most people it’s around 4-5 days of hiking.
Along the trail there are both camping sites and wilderness huts that can be used for free. At Oulanka Visitor Center you can have a nice restaurant meal.
So now that we’ve briefly covered what Karhunkierros is, let’s move on to the tips for hiking this trail during the autumn season!
1. Don’t Forget that the Day is Surprisingly Short
The most important tip is this first one: remember that daylight is limited. Not only is the day shorter. Once it gets dark it gets really, really dark.
This can come as quite a surprise for someone who’s seen Finland only during summer, when the sun stays up practically 24/7.
So how does this affect your hike?
You’ll have to plan your autumn hike a bit more in depth than your summer hike. You don’t want to be too optimistic about time and suddenly find that the sun is setting and you’re still several kilometres from the next hut or campsite.
For example I did this hike during the first week of October. In the morning it was dark until around 7 am when then sun started to rise. And then there was sufficient light for hiking until around 6 pm when it quickly became darker and darker. By 7 pm it was already pitch black.
If you arrive at your destination for the day once it’s already dark it can be hard to find your way around the hut and campsite. There’s obviously no electricity so it really is super dark everywhere, even though you have a headlamp.
So ideally, try to make it to the camp at least around an hour before it gets dark to give you some time to locate the nearest water source, find wood for the fire, get a fire going and set up your sleeping pad.
In the morning we would wake up around 6.30-7.30 am and then make breakfast and pack our stuff. This always took surprisingly long in the dark hut and by the time we were able to hit the trail again it was usually already around 9-9.30 am.
2. Pack a Thermos
Those hiking during the autumn season – especially in October when temperatures can drop below zero – should make sure they have something warm to drink during the hike. Bringing a thermos on this hike was one of the best decisions I made (shout out to my brother who suggested this – thank you!).
While planning our Karhunkierros hike I pictured how we’d sit at the campfire sites, boiling warm water for coffee and hot chocolate and resting our feet. The reality wasn’t like this at all.
With the demanding trails and heavy backpacks, breaking a sweat is inevitable. Once you stop it can get pretty cold standing still in those sweaty clothes in the cool air.
Unpacking all the equipment needed to boil water, getting a fire going as well as the process of actually boiling the water (not that fast in the cool air) would have taken ages. Not only would I have been freezing at this point, but we would also have lost too much valuable daylight hiking time.
In reality the short day and cold air allowed for stops of only around 5-10 minutes.
Needless to say, I was so incredibly grateful for the warm beverages the thermos allowed us to have during our breaks. We’d boil water in the morning and fill it and I carried it in my backpack’s sidepocket that has easy access.
I don’t know if anything has ever tasted so wonderful as the warm coffee and hot chocolate I drank during our breaks hiking Karhunkierros!
3. Compartmentalise with Sealable Bags
Autumns are a bit unstable weather-wise. If you’re unlucky you might have pouring rain every day of your hike. Even if you have a good rain cover for your backpack some of your stuff will most likely still get a bit wet, or at least damp.
Having small, sealable plastic bags (like Minigrip) can really come in handy. For example, I packed all of my snacks in one, all of my breakfast stuff in another and medication in a third.
Not only will this make sure everything stays dry – it’s also a real time saver! When everything you need for a snack break, breakfast or in case of an emergency is conveniently packed into one sealable bag you’ll find it all a lot faster.
4. Make Sure You Pack Headlamps
There is one item that’s more important than anything else if you hit the Bear’s Trail during the autumn season. And that’s your headlamp. Make sure you have at least one with you and that it has enough battery left.
A flashlight is useless if you’re trying to cook, collect wood or doing any other activity you need your hands for. The headlamp leaves you free to use both hands.
You’ll obviously need the headlamp during the dark evenings and nights at the campsite or in the wilderness huts. But even after the sun has already risen, the huts are dark and the headlamp is super handy. It’s also crucial in case you for some reason don’t make it to the campsite before dark.
When we’re packing for a longer hike we seldom find ourselves in a situation where we have lots of space left in our backpacks. But in case you do, you might want to consider packing a campsite light or 1-2 tealight candles to bring with you. They give you a warmer, less sharp light than the headlamp for cosy evenings at the campsite or hut.
5. Choose the Right Backpacking Stove
Hiking the Bear’s Trail you’ll probably want to bring a backpacking stove. In theory, you could go without one and use the campfire sites for cooking. But in practice, this might be difficult with the autumn weather.
There are lots of different options to choose from when it comes backpacking stoves. Investing in a small, isobutane canister stove can be smart. The equipment needed for it is lighter to carry than the liquids you need for an alcohol stove and it can also be a bit more efficient getting water boiling.
6. Don’t Forget Entertainment
During autumn, when it gets dark early, the nights can feel quite long. After setting up camp, eating and doing the washing up there’s still probably a few hours before you fall asleep.
A good idea is to pack some sort of entertainment for the evenings – light of course. Maybe a little journal to write in, a deck of cards, headphones so you can listen to some music or a crossword puzzle to finish?
I loved studying my printed map of Oulanka National Park and the trail during the evenings in the hut. It was so rewarding looking back at how far we’d walked that day. I also brought articles about the trail with me and in the evenings read about what sights we’d see along the trail during the next day.
7. Invest in a Good Sleeping Pad
As many fellow hikers we met along the way said: the first time hiking Karhunkierros is always a learning experience. One of the biggest mistakes I made was bringing a cheap, foam sleeping pad.
It might have been fine for me ten years ago, but apparently not now in my thirties. I tossed and turned the whole nights and would constantly wake up to find my leg or shoulder asleep. Meanwhile most fellow hikers had inflatable, almost mattress-like sleeping pads, that looked like heaven after a long day walking.
Of course this depends a bit on how you like to sleep. If you sleep on your back you might be fine with a foam pad. But if, like me, you sleep on your side: invest in a more high-quality sleeping pad. After all, rest and recovery is an integral part of a successful hiking experience.
8. Have Lunch at Oulanka Visitor Center
As previously stated – time was of the essence and wasting precious daylight time unpacking cooking equipment, cooking and eating just wasn’t possible. So lunch usually consisted just of snack bars and such washed down with instant coffee.
However, on our second day of hiking we had a wonderful lunch at Oulanka Visitor Centre. The visitor centre has a small restaurant serving local cuisine. When we visited, they served a delicious reindeer soup.
Although this was our longest stop during the whole hike (around 30 minutes in total) it was totally worth it. The visitor centre was warm and cosy and the food was great and nutritious. The added bonus is you get the opportunity to use a toilet and wash your hands in a proper sink. And don’t forget to fill up your water bottle here!
There’s a small shop as well, selling Bear’s Trail souvenirs.
9. You Might Be Slower Than You Expect
Some parts of the trail are easy and you can maintain a good pace. However, there are some more challenging parts of the trail that can be tough. This is especially true during autumn.
I’d assumed beforehand that covering around 5 kilometres an hour would be easy. Turns out 3 kilometres was more realistic. It sounds ridiculously slow, especially considering we almost exclusively took only short 5-10 min breaks during the day. But the reality was that hiking these trails this time of year wasn’t always easy.
Heavy rains and autumn leaves can make the trail both muddy and slippery. Storms can tear down enormous trees and leave them covering the trail. Trying to get past these obstacles wasn’t always a simple task. The duckboards covering the wettest parts of the trail get extremely slippery during autumn and some of them were in bad shape, which meant walking extra carefully.
In other words, don’t be too optimistic when planning how much you’ll be able to hike per day.
10. Dress and Pack Smartly
During autumn the weather can be unpredictable. There might be heavy down pour, nice sunny days or even snow (the first snow usually falls in October). And as it can potentially get really cold you have to be prepared.
This adds a little extra pressure to the packing process. You want to limit the amount of stuff you have to carry around, but don’t want to leave something important behind.
As it rained every single day of our hike at least for me, bringing a jacket that kept me dry was super important. Softshell pants, a good base layer and a fleece sweater or such might be good options to wear during hiking. Select a pair of good, sturdy hiking shoes for the autumn trails (you don’t want to slip and sprain your ankle!).
My heels are literally my Achilles heel during hiking. I always get really bad blisters that sometimes make continuing hiking impossible. This time I tried compression socks and they really seemed to help. They also kept my feet dry and warm.
Once you get to the campsite you’ll probably want something warm and dry to change into. I especially enjoyed having woollen socks for the night.
Extra Pair of Footwear?
After spending the whole day in your hiking boots nothing feels as good as taking them off. Having a pair of other shoes to switch into once you’re done hiking can really help your feet recover.
I had a pair of ultra light tennis shoes, but a pair of Crocs-style slippers might also have been a good option. They’d have been easy to hang off the side of my backpack as well. For the summer season flip-flops would be the most space-saving option.
11. Snacks Suitable for the Autumn Season
You’d think that what season it is wouldn’t have any impact on what snacks to bring, but I just had to include this tip. Chocolate is probably the worst alternative!
Before heading out on the trail I saw so many people recommending chocolate as a hiking snack. And why not? It’s packed with energy, delicious and easy to bring with you.
However, cold temperatures mean the chocolate is rock hard. This is super inconvenient if you’re looking for a snack that’s quick and easy to just have while walking. We found the chocolate we brought was so difficult to eat in the cold temperatures, in the end we didn’t eat much of it.
My favourite chocolate substitute on the trail was a bag of tiny Pågen cinnamon rolls. Small enough to be easy and quick to eat and tasty to eat cold or quickly heated by the campfire. These were also easy to share with fellow hikers we met on the trail (nothing breaks the ice between strangers like sharing snacks in the middle of the wilderness).
12. Remember: Wilderness Huts are not for Large Groups
Especially during the autumn and winter season, staying in one of the wilderness huts might be the most appealing option.
Staying at one of the many wilderness huts in Oulanka National Park is completely free of charge and they get cosy and warm once you get a fire going in the stove. It’s also a good way to meet fellow hikers, especially if you’re hiking solo.
However, the wilderness huts are not for large groups like different travel agencies or companies arranging organised excursions. Unfortunately, there are operators who don’t follow this rule. For example, this might mean that you suddenly have a group of ten hikers with their tour guide squeezing in to a tiny wilderness hut. Or that the hut is already full once you get there.
It’s a shame some travel enterprises take advantage of the huts, but as long as this is the reality, it’s good to keep it in mind and be prepared (bringing a tent might for instance be wise).
More information on the wilderness huts here.
13. Feeling Overwhelmed? Split Your Hike Into Shorter Sections
Last but not least, remember there’s always the option of splitting the hike into shorter sections.
Depending on if you start at Salla or Ristikallio, the trail is 82 or 71 kilometres long in total. This might mean 3-4 nights in the wilderness.
But one of the great things about hiking Karhunkierros, is that in addition to the official starting points, there are plenty of other alternatives. You don’t have to complete the whole thing during one hiking trip.
For example, we met a few hikers who hiked only from Ristikallio to Oulanka Visitor Centre and stayed the night at Taivalköngäs wilderness hut (a total of around 20 km). Another alternative could be hiking from Oulanka Visitor Centre to Juuma (around 30 km).