Answer the call of Lapland's wilderness, but be wary

Finnish Tourist Bureau

The most northerly part of Finland - Finnish Lapland boasts a beautiful, unspoiled landscape. There is a saying that if you offer a finger to Lapland it will take your whole hand and then captivate all of you. This lure of the northern wilds is sometimes known as Lapland fever, and for some it is virtually incurable. Many who have experienced the magnetism of Lapland yearn to go back here.

But, as in any other vast, remote region, the inexperienced traveller needs to take some precautions. The beauty of Lapland's primeval nature is hard to resist, but it can create a false sense of security. Travelling through the northern wilderness calls for an awareness of potential danger which can be avoided with common sense and appropriate preparation.

The summer days in Lapland are light and relatively warm, but do remember some basic facts; the warm days are often followed by cold nights when the temperature can fall close to zero Celcius, sometimes even lower. So, if you are thinking of hiking in Lapland in the summer be sure to take enough warm clothes. Wool is often the best choice of material, for the simple reason that this is a natural product and it keeps your body temperature balanced, providing protection against cold and heat.

Although standard hiking boots are, in principle, suitable for Lapland, they are not always ideal. This is because hiking routes in Lapland take in marshland, rivers and water courses. Thus, fully waterproofed boots, preferably rubber, are the recommended choice of footwear. The boots need to be big enough to take two pairs of woollen socks. And, it's a good idea to wear a pair of silk socks under the woollen ones to prevent chafing.

On the treeless fells you will need windproof outer clothing. For protection against the wind the good old anorak continues to be an excellent garment. It is always windy on the fell and sudden storms are not uncommon. The morning may start bright and sunny, but by the afternoon heavy cloud, usually coming in from the sea, from the north or west, may cover the high ground, reducing visibility to almost zero. This is a very dangerous situation because clouds or thick fog quickly cause people to lose their sense of direction and start going round in circles.

Always remember that even in July sudden snowstorms can take you by surprise in the fells of Lapland and they pose a real danger. Hypothermia is a risk even in summer and a tired hiker in strange surroundings can easily panic.

If you are caught in bad weather while out hiking, check your location immediately and, if possible, stay where you are until the weather clears. It makes sense to take a tent with you even on short journeys.

As a rule hiking routes are well marked in Lapland. So, if you follow the markers and take a map, walking through an uninhabited wilderness is not a problem. However, when visibility is poor the markers are of no use and trying to find the next one could take you far off your planned route and put you in serious danger of getting lost.

You should not trust the many unmarked tracks you may find in the wilderness. Some do lead somewhere, but most of them go nowhere. They are made by reindeer and will lead you astray. There are also old roads in the wilderness but they, too, can be deceptive because some of them date back from the time of the Second World War and do not lead to human habitation. It is important to remember that if a route is not clearly marked do not follow it, however tempting it might appear. There are too many examples of people getting lost after following an unmarked track or road.

You should always be prepared for a journey to take longer than planned. So, carry at least two extra days' food with you. Fortunately, you can safely drink the water in all the streams and lakes of Lapland.

Winter is obviously the time for cross-country and downhill skiing. Careful skiers stay close to the ski resort where the danger of getting lost is minimal, but should not be entirely ruled out. A sudden heavy snowstorm can wipe out visibility in an instant and then it is sheer madness to continue skiing. But a snowstorm does not begin without some warning, so when you notice the first signs of one of one look for shelter.

When skiing out in the fells you must always be aware of the danger of storms. You should never leave for long trips poorly equipped. You should at least have a change of clothing and enough food with you. Rule number one is never to leave the marked trail, although with a storm beginning it might be impossible to follow that rule to the letter. The snow covers the trail quickly, the signposts get buried under the snow and cannot be seen. The only things to do are stay where you are, keep warm and wait for the weather to improve.

It is particularly important to inform the place where you are staying of your planned route and the time you're going to spend on the fells, so that if something goes wrong a search patrol can be sent to find you. If losing your way is dangerous in summer, it is even more dangerous in winter.

When you set off into the wilds in winter you must always make sure that you are heading for somewhere safe along a prepared, marked path. If you want to ski among the fells be prepared for surprises by having the right clothes and equipment with you: warm, windproof clothing, enough food for a couple of extra days and possibly a tent.

A good way to protect yourself during a storm is to build a snow shelter, but this requires some skill and experience of conditions in Lapland.

There are numerous wilderness cabins in Lapland where hikers and skiers can spend the night free of charge. They all have a supply of firewood for quickly heating up the stove inside. Before setting out on a trip find out where the nearest of these cabins is located.

The spring fellsides tempt the skier to try long, fast descents but here too there are hidden hazards. Even though the snow appears to be even the wind blows away loose snow, leaving rocks and stones covered by only a thin layer of snow. If skis suddenly strike or run over a rock the consequences can be unpredictable. Therefore, you must always make sure you know where you are skiing. If you want to ski downhill fast, familiarise yourself with the descent beforehand and avoid excessive speed.

There are many rivers in Lapland which are covered by a sheet of ice in winter. But remember that flowing water can erode even the thickest ice on the underside and beneath the blanket of white the snow on the river there may be a treacherously thin layer of ice. Falling into freezing water in cold weather is one of the worst accidents that can happen. First of all, it is difficult to get back onto the ice when you are wearing skis and, secondly, body temperature falls rapidly, creating an extremely dangerous situation. Beware of crossing unfamiliar water courses, including wide stretches of frozen lake, because there are places where the ice is not thick enough to be safe.

Never go into the fells alone because there is always the risk of an accident, when the help of a companion will be worth its weight in gold. Whether in summer or winter, newcomers to the wilderness should stay with a sizeable group and only set off in twos or threes when their wilderness skills have developed sufficiently. To repeat: never go alone.

Despite all the foregoing warnings, Lapland is no more dangerous than anywhere else as long as one observes these basic, common-sense rules: wear suitable clothing, carry enough food and remember the possibility of accidents and sudden changes in the weather.

If everything is properly prepared Lapland offers excitement and enjoyment that no visitor will easily forget.