Lapland is an undiscovered oasis of wintertime outdoor pursuits that will get you out into wilds above the Arctic Circle.
In a land where snow can cover the ground for up to 7 months of the year, the Finnish Laplanders have figured out many ways to make the most of a cold situation. As the largest and least densely populated region of Finland, there’s plenty of room to pursue whatever snowy activity takes your fancy—but keep in mind that sunlight is minimal during the winter months, going all the way down to only 1.5 hours in December. So, no one will judge you for having a jet-lag-induced lie-in to 10 a.m. before heading out into the unique wintery Lappish landscape.
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Overnight Snow Train Across the Arctic Tundra and Forests
Board this overnight train (with a ready-to-reach toothbrush) in the evening at the bustling Helsinki train station, and wake up the next morning to a seemingly endless stretch of snow-covered pine trees on the way to Finland’s northernmost train station, Kolari. Go for the modern double-deck sleeping car with two comfortable bunk beds complete with linens, a sink, and window looking out onto the Dr. Seuss-like landscape.
Cross-Country Ski Everywhere
With 1 in 5 Finns calling themselves active skiers, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that Finland is almost always represented on the Olympic podium in cross-country skiing. This country is built for it; not only does Lappish weather produce consistent, dry snow, but there are flat, groomed ski trails everywhere, such as along the sides of the roads, through the woods and parks, and even directly to the supermarkets and shopping centers. Despite the low population, there’s still a good chance that on any given day, you’ll see someone on skis. Rent your own pair at ski resorts, outdoor tour companies, sport shops or even hotels.
Snowshoeing Without a Trail
Snowshoeing in Lapland is a great option for those who don’t want to fuss over too much equipment, or worry about lack of experience on skis: simply strap these lightweight aluminum “shoes” over your own snow boots and go. Head to Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park, 394 square miles of protected land that spreads out across Lapland, and piggyback on the massive network of well-maintained ski trails. If you’d like to go “off road,” hook up with a local snow safari company and let one of their seasoned guides take you out into the wilderness. Breaking new snow and forging a different path along lakes and into the woods is exhilarating (plus, the guide will likely have a mid-tour snack of cookies and hot loganberry juice).
Reindeer Sleigh Ride Through the Forest
The history of the Lappish and the indigenous Sámi people with reindeer is long and intimate: in Lapland, there is roughly one reindeer for every human. While you’ll spot these semi-domestic beasts wandering out in the woods, every reindeer in Lapland is actually owned by a specific herder. Reindeer sleds have long been used as a mode of transporting people and goods across this Arctic land, so riding in one feels like being a part of local history. These gentle beasts are quite shy and it takes years of training them to pull the cart, so be sure to respect the driver’s rules. Focus on the soft quiet of slipping through the woods, tucked snugly into a wooden sleigh wrapped with blankets, with nothing but the sound of the reindeer’s bridle bells and the gentle “poof” of their hoofs hitting snow.
Sauna and Snow Rolling Is a National Pastime
There are 5.5 million people in Finland and there are an estimated two million saunas, so when we say the Finns take their saunas seriously, we mean it. While the first written record of Finns and their saunas wasn’t until 1112, there’s no reason to believe the act of sitting in a wooden room heated up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, beating oneself with a silver birch branch and then rolling around into a snow bank didn’t start long before that. It would be extremely rare to find a guest house or hotel in Lapland without one (or two or three), but be sure to ask so you too can join in on this national pastime. Take one once the sun has set and double up the enjoyment by stargazing through some of the world’s least-polluted skies while cooling off outside.
Snowmobiling Without Another Soul in Sight
Snowmobiles are a huge asset to the people living in Lapland—come winter, they allow reindeer herders to cover more ground, people can equip wildness cabins with greater ease, and, let’s be honest, they’re super fun to take out for a spin on through the forest trails and frozen lakes at top speeds (while the speed limit is about 37 mph, it goes up to 50 mph on the ice). There are plenty of snowmobiling safari tours on offer in most towns, where you can do everything from an afternoon of trail riding and ice fishing to a full week’s worth of outback trekking and ice camping.
Gaze at the Northern Lights
No one can guarantee a Northern Lights sighting, but if you’re going to see them, Lapland is one of the best places to be. September and March provide the highest odds of an Aurora Borealis show, though anytime in between is also sighting season. Make sure it’s a clear, starry night and move away from any ambient light such as building windows or streetlights—by a lake or up a hill make excellent viewing posts. Also download the My Aurora app for up-to-minute reports on the solar winds in your specific area, as well as predictions on when the best time to set your alarm is. Your eyes may be blurry at 2 a.m., but it’s well worth battling the grogginess and chilly air to see those flashing waves of neon green cover the night sky above the Arctic Circle.
Visit a Hotel Made of Ice
Nearly 125 miles above the Arctic Circle stands a surprising structure that seems to defy the guidelines of architectural engineering—the Lapland Hotels SnowVillage is a sprawling, gleaming compound built from 44 million pounds of snow and 772,000 pounds of natural ice. Each year the team of designers and builders choose a theme and build out hotel rooms, a restaurant, bar, wedding chapel and dozens of ice and snow sculptures for overnight guests and day-pass visitors. In 2018 and 2019, the hotel’s theme was Game of Thrones, where the rooms were named and set around characters (e.g. room 302 was called “The Night King” and features its fearsome snow-sculped face above the bed). The pièce de résistance though was the life-sized red-leaved “weirwood” tree at the center of the hotel. The theme for 2020 is fiercely guarded, but you can be sure it’s going to be something equally topical and epic.
Drive the Arctic Ocean Highway
Opening in 1931, the Arctic Ocean Highway, which stretches from Lapland’s capital Rovaniemi to the port of Liinakhamari, was the world’s first highway to reach the Arctic Ocean. Built over 16th-century tracks that were used to connect Lapland to the Finnmark county of Norway, nowadays it’s part of Finnish National Road 4, which begins down in Helsinki. During the winter this track of well-maintained road is hard-packed with snow and takes you through some of the most remote parts of the world. Driving really gives you the sense of space and openness that can only be experienced this far above the Arctic Circle. Rent your own 4×4, look at bus routes, or connect with a private tour company to take you along this wild strip of road to the north coast of Finland.
Snow Biking Offers a Unique Perspective
Another easy way to get outdoors and take in the bizarre and beautiful Lappish landscape is from the back of a fat-tire bike. Their large inner tube tires are designed to hug snowy paths and icy trails making them ideal modes of transport on Lapland’s roads and network of ski trails. No need to learn a new sport here—just get on and peddle. Lots of safaris, gear stores, or tour companies have rentals but also make sure to ask about hiring a sled attachment. These little additions make picking up and pulling home holiday supplies (berry juice, licorice chocolate, and reindeer jerky) at the grocery or liquor store that much easier.