The most popular hiking trail in Finland is probably Karhunkierros, also known as the Bear’s Trail. It takes you through the Oulanka National Park to beautiful forests and scenic views by the swirling River Oulankajoki. The difficulty level varies from easy to more challenging, but I don’t think there are any difficult parts really, even if you are an unexperienced hiker. The 82 km trail starts from Hautajärvi village in Lapland’s Salla and ends at the Rukatunturi fell in Kuusamo (of course you can hike it the other direction too!)
The legendary Bear’s Trail is kind of a must on every hiker’s bucket list. I hiked alone the Bear’s Trail in the end of June in 2020. It was my first solo hiking adventure, amazing and intensive, a life-changing experience I will remember the rest of my life.
Why hiking the Bear’s Trail?
One of the reasons I chose Bear’s Trail for my first solo hiking adventure was simply its popularity. If I would pass out under my heavy backpack someone would eventually pass by and help carrying me out of the woods. The trail is also well marked with iron poles that tell you how many kilometers you still have to go. And finally, there are several entry points as well as exit points during the journey, so that you can always quit (except if you have decided you’re not going to give up like ever).
I had searched for information on the Bear’s Trail hike reading blogs and skimming all kinds of websites. My plan was to hike the trail in four days, which means approximately 20 km per day. But the day before my adventure the forecasts seemed a bit uneasy, heavy rain starting in the evening of day three, spiced up with thunder and lightning. Around that time, I was supposed to hike the last 10 km on the top of the highest hills.
I did not want to scramble up and down the most strenuous part of the trail in bad weather, so I decided to make it in just three days.
I knew I was fit enough after three months of almost daily trail running, but I worried a bit about my knees and my feet. I had already tested my new hiking boots in advance walking around 4h with a 20kg backpack in my local forests. The boots had felt good but maybe a little snug (bells should be ringing here). Let’s just say there’s a reason why I nowadays prefer hiking canoes or trail running shoes.
From Salla Lapland to Kiutaköngäs rapids
I started my journey from Karhunkierros Visitor Centre that is located in the Arctic Circle in South Salla. It was 10:20 in the morning and I was in a good mood, energetic and calm at the same time. Maybe a few butterflies in my stomach. My backpack, a bit over 20 kg, didn’t feel heavy at all. The sun was shining, some light clouds in the sky, no wind. When I fifteen minutes later arrived at the sign that says 1km behind I was thinking ‘oh already, it was going to be so easy’!
During the first five kilometers the trail goes through dry pine forests and mires. I wanted to take some nice pics of the old greyish duckboards and cottongrass tussocks mildly bending in the wind, but there was a repairing project going on and new shiny planks were decorating the view on both sides of the old trail. Anyway, all the wetland is covered with planks so you don’t get your boots wet on the Bear’s Trail.
There are also plenty of lean-to shelters, fireplaces, dry toilets and wilderness huts along the trail. Camping is only allowed next to the huts or marked camping sites. I visited Perttumakoski shelter down by the river to have a short break. As soon as I dropped my backpack and sat down, the air was black from mosquitos (where did they come from??). The break was very short, off to the trail again.
I was getting hungry, so I thought of having lunch by one of the first attractions of the trail, the Rupakivi stone.
The majestic natural stone formation Rupakivi stands in the middle of River Savinajoki. It’s actually a miniature island, with a tiny tree growing on top of the rock. Just before I headed to the stairs that lead down to the river, a group of three young men rushed by and set up their kitchen in front of the stone. Well, I wanted to eat my first meal adoring my own company anyway, so I just enjoyed the beautiful view for a while, took some photos and continued looking for a quiet place for myself. And there it was, the Vasaoja shelter. A perfect lean-to by the river, a wooden table with benches, and a dry toilet. I boiled water with my stove, fished some well-cooked mosquitos from the water, and made a cup of shrimp soup with rye bread and butter and cheese.
I was feeling some discomfort in my hiking boots, but because of the mosquitos and horseflies (and laziness!) I didn’t take the boots off to give rest to my feet (major mistake!). So, off to the trail again.
The next stretch of the trail then goes up on the eskers and cliffs and you can see the amazingly blue river below while hiking, when the sun shines in the blue sky. The next attraction on the map was Oulanka canyon, a beautiful steep gorge. I thought about the upcoming thunder and my feet. I decided to skip the extra couple of kilometers and visit the canyon afterwards, as it’s easily accessible from the Savilampi parking area.
In the late afternoon Savilampi hut area was a tad crowded, mostly because of day hikers coming to see the canyon or just visiting the hut and grilling some sausages. There was a forest fire warning (common in the summer when it hasn’t been raining for a few days) during the whole time I was hiking, which means setting a fire in a fireplace is forbidden. With some exceptions. But I could see the smoke rising from some red embers while I was sitting on a wooden bench.
I crossed the River Oulankajoki by the hanging bridge and continued to a forest path, surrounded by the intoxicating scent of Labrador tea (one of my favorite wildflowers). It was 4:30 PM when I said bye to Lapland and arrived at Kuusamo in the Northern Ostrobothnia.
Eventually, just before Taivalköngäs, the trail went back to the esker and offered some amazing views to the swirling River Oulankajoki. I sat on a bench to have a snack break but also to check my feet as they were hurting a bit. Oh my, what a disaster: blisters all over, some already bleeding, and sneaking toe pain on top of that. Well, the damage was done. The only thing I could do was to wrap my feet with bandaids. At this point I had hiked 19 km, still 63 km to go. Lesson learned the hard way!
My original plan had been to stay the first night at Taivalköngäs, about 20 km from the Hautajärvi village’s starting point. There is a cute wilderness hut by the rapids, and you can set up a tent nearby as well (there are some great spots above the hut on the cliffs). There is also a 9km trail leading to Ristikallio (4km from Taivalköngäs to Ristikallio) passing the Puikkokämppä hut and ending at the Ristikallio parking area. Ristikallio cliff by the River Aventojoki is one of those scenic view spots on the Bear’s Trail. But thunder and feet, I skipped that too because I had to walk further. I just sat down for a moment, ate chocolate, and crossed the rapids by a hanging bridge when the day started to turn into evening.
Then it was dense dry pine forest again, beautiful golden evening sun creating magical atmosphere to the trail. If only the horseflies didn’t bully me every single minute, and if only the feet didn’t hurt so much!
The kilometers felt a bit long here. I passed by the quiet Runsulampi tenting area.
Finally, I reached the Oulanka camping site. Somehow, I had looked at the area on the map and imagined that if I manage to walk that far, I could set up my tent there. But seeing all those camper vans and reception made me realize it really is a camping site, and you need to pay for camping there. Since every other spot on the trail is free, I continued walking to find the next tenting site.
I was tired, my feet hurt like hell, and the distance to Meretoja tenting area seemed overwhelming. The Oulanka Visitor Centre was only a few hundred meters away, a quick walk along a road. When I arrived at the Centre (27 km from the starting point in Salla) it was already closed, but there was a water tap outside of the building. The water felt so cold and so fresh, and all my misery was immediately gone.
It was getting late. Kiutaköngäs rapids were quite close, and there was also a cooking shelter area on the map near the rapids. I decided to visit the rapids and then set up my tent near the cooking shelter, because I couldn’t think of walking any further. The rapids were bathing in the last rays of the evening sun. I gazed at the roaring black water and white foam, steep pink cliffs surrounding the stream. I remember thinking about the breathtaking beauty of Finnish nature, and that no photo or video can ever capture all the colors, sounds, scents and nuances of that experience, and that I was there alone at that very moment, experiencing it all. I felt deep gratitude.
I returned to the trail, ready to pitch my tent near the cooking shelter. Suddenly I saw a tenting area sign, pointing to another direction. Despite not knowing how far the site would be, I walked the stairs down (my 200m stairway to heaven) and arrived at a small cape, with a view to Kiutaköngäs. On the map there is a fireplace and a toilet symbol right after the cooking shelter area (Patoniva on Google Maps) that I had not noticed earlier. Tears of joy and relief came into my eyes. I had found a place to rest. I didn’t have to walk any longer. I had hiked the first day as planned. I made it.
I pitchecd my tent in my private paradise (I was the only one camping there!) and prepared a vegetable trekking dinner. (Note to self: if it says stir well, it means stir well!) I took some photos and got ready for sleeping. Another photographer came to the beach and we chatted for a while. He was planning to do some time-lapse photography, as the foam created beautiful figures on the surface of the water. I was too tired to even go to the toilet, so I just crawled into my sleeping bag. How wonderful it felt after all the walking!
From Kiutaköngäs rapids towards Jyrävänkoski rapids
The first night in my life alone in a tent in a forest… Well, not the best night ever. My hurting feet, the warm and bright night (hard to tell the difference between day and night in the Northern Finland in June) and skipping the toilet before sleep kept me rolling around in my half open sleeping bag. At 5 AM I gave up and visited the toilet, saw the sun already shining, and went back sleeping.
Two hours later, I woke up to some loud running sounds. I opened the tent zipper to see what had scared the shit out of me. A reindeer, happily eating bushes a few meters away. I wasn’t up for sleeping anyway!
My morning menu was oatmeal with bilberry powder, coffee, rye bread and butter. After packing all the stuff into my backpack and doing some magic with several bandaids, antiseptics, lambswool and other tricks I was on my way again. Two young men who I had passed by yesterday came down to the cape and we said hello.
The trail took me back to the esker. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and it was getting really warm because there was not a breath of wind (the favorite weather of all kinds of flying and whining and buzzing bugs). In order to remain hydrated, I tried to sip from my water bottle every time I passed by a kilometer sign. Just before noon, I arrived at the Ansakämppä hut. Steep stairs led down to the hut and to a fine sand beach where the River Oulankajoki peacefully meanders, bright-colored kayaks and canoes floating down the smooth river.
I went into the big empty hut, took off my hiking boots and just lied down on a bunk for a few minutes breathing the cool air in silence. I put on my sandals and shuffled to the beach with a water filter and empty bottles. The water was amazingly clear, and I think you could actually just drink it straight from the river, but I wanted to minimize any chances of stomach problems and used a filter. During the Bear’s Trail hike there’s no need to carry excess water as there are plenty of water sources all the way from Salla to Ruka.
I ate an energy bar and continued the journey a bit after noon, somewhat reluctantly. Next time I could stay longer at the Ansakämppä hut, swim in the river, watch the midnight campfire, and enjoy a hut night experience. I stayed on top of the high riverbank for a while, gazing at the scenic view. There is a really nice spot where you can see the Ansakämppä hut’s beach and the River Oulankajoki making a U-shaped meander and watch the canoes and kayaks.
Then the trail continues again through dry pine wood forests. A small young bird was bounding in front of me along the way, like leading me forward. I babbled to my new friend. And there it was, the sign with numbers 41 (bear) 41. Whoa, the half-way! At 1:55 PM, everything felt so great. I’m strong and I can do this, I talked to myself. My feet hurt pretty much, but I kept thinking something else than the pain and continued walking. I started singing a Finnish song “Eteen ja ylös” (‘Forward and up’) by the rap artist Elastinen. The lyrics are something like:
‘Eyes forward and corners of the mouth upward!
Bring it on! I can handle it. I won’t give up.’
And it made me smile.
Did I survive and reach Jyrävänkoski rapids and Ruka? Read what happened after the 41 km sign: Karhunkierros – 82km Bear’s Trail hike in three days 2/2
Bear’s Trail hike info
- Destination: Oulanka National Park, Lapland and Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland
- Distance: 82 km (several shorter distances available)
- Difficulty: physically demanding but quite easy
- When to go: from June to October for a summer and autumn hike
- Duration: 3-5 days
- Where to stay: camping in tent or wilderness huts for free, various camping sites and rental cottages and hotels in Ruka and Juuma
Equipment for Bear’s Trail summer hike
Good shoes: hiking boots etc.
Hiking clothes (trousers/tights + shirt + jacket + hat)
Windproof and water-resistant outerwear (jacket and pants)
Change clothes (set of long underwear, merino wool shirt, socks etc.)
Trekking poles (helpful e.g., climbing the hills)
Food & waterbottle(s) according to needs (water sources along the trail, cafes or shops in Oulanka Nature centre, in Oulanka Camping and in Juuma)
Trekking stove & gas (cooking is also possible in the huts)
Tent (the huts may be full especially during the peak season)
Sleeping bag and pad
Mosquito spray, headnet