Early January 2020 I made an 8 day trip to Ylläsjärvi in Finnish Lapland. See more here!
I booked the trip as a package holiday through TUI Netherlands. I don’t normally book package deals but for Finland it was a lot cheaper and more convenient. It was an amazing trip full of things I’d never done before!
The package included the flight, transfer, private hotel room and 2 meals a day (but a few outdoor lunches as well), free sauna, 6 excursions, the free use of winter suit and boots and gloves. Prices fluctuate a lot. When I booked it was €1320 p/p for people who share a double room; for me it was €1520 with the single supplement (private hotel room with bathroom), plus €60 for checked luggage. So less than €200 per day for all those things included. I thought it was a very good price. (A reindeer ride alone would cost €142 if you were to book that separately.)
Other people had paid hundreds more for the exact same trip! So it helps to time your booking well and perhaps use an incognito browser.
More daylight than expected
The hours between official sunrise and sunset were about 2 hours and 15 minutes (prolonging during the week). But “civil twilight” turned out to be around 6 to 6.5 hours per day: enough light to find your way. On clear days the sunrise gave at least an hour of pink and orange, and so did sunset! And during the night if there were no clouds the moon was like a lamp.
Trip report and photos
I arrived on Sunday just after noon and had a free day and explored the area around the hotel, and the sauna.
On Monday I had another free day (excursion in the evening). In the daytime I did a 10 kilometer walk with fellow solo traveler Sonja, who had approached me during breakfast. That evening Sonja and I and two other travelers had the “forest ski” excursion in the hunt for northern lights. Forest skis help you ski in deep soft snow that a pedestrian would sink away in. It took some practice! But was really fun and exciting to be outside and active in the dark. We only saw vague smears of northern lights above us.
On Tuesday I had the snowshoe walk in the forest with a group of about 16 people. I loved it! I only fell once, but at least I made it an entertaining fall for others: full-on nose-first into the deep snow because I stepped on my own snowshoe. 🙂
On Wednesday I did a snowmobile safari with a group of about 16 people. We drove through winter wonderland and learned to manage the snowmobile. It snowed so vision was terribly bad. It’s fun but also scary to go really fast like some people did. In the end both Sonja and I rode on the back and other people drove.
In the evening I spotted some vague northern lights again. Another group was outside at a different time and saw more northern lights.
On Thursday we visited Snow Village with a large group. It has the Snow Hotel in it, and is completely built from scratch every year, and different in theme and layout every year. We got lunch of reindeer stew, mashed potatoes, berries and pickle in the Ice Restaurant. In the evening a bunch of people and I went on another northern lights hunt but saw none.
On Friday I did a reindeer sledge ride. It was such a nice way to see some nature, without the noise of snowmobiles! And the reindeer are cute, half-domesticated / half-wild animals.
In the evening Sonja and I did another snowshoe hike which we paid extra for. We had both liked it so much the first time and it also gave another chance to hunt for aurora. We saw some vague smears! And really enjoyed the magical forest by moonlight, and the fun stories from the two Finnish guides. Another lady managed to fall about 30 times, she must have had terrible balance in the soft snow.
On Saturday I did a husky sledge ride with a group of about 16 people. We drove to the husky farm on snowmobiles. The huskies and the sledge ride were really fun too! The dogs are very keen to run and they run quite fast. It was very cold and windy that day.
On Sunday I flew back home.
Apart from these excursions, throughout the week I also went to the hotel’s sauna 5 or 6 times, did various walks in daylight and in the dark, went on northern light hunts, hung out with the other people in my hotel, read books and watched series.
In the end I never saw northern lights in the spectacular way they can be. All the more reason to head back north some day!
All in all it was a fantastic trip and I have changed my mind about package trips.
For readers who are interested in going on a similar trip I have listed some practical advice.
I had expected only 2 hours and 15 minutes of grey daylight and super long nights in early January. That’s what the sunrise and sunset times were anyway. But as it turned out, there was long twilight before sunrise and after sunset, giving a total of 6.5 hours of daylight, often in beautiful pink and orange. If you want to know the daylight hours for your location and dates, go to this website, enter your location, click on the month, and look up the hours for “civil twilight”, which are the hours you can see plenty and take photos.
In our case we had a rather full moon which functioned as a bright lamp during the night.
Aurora borealis / northern lights
Download the free app “My aurora forecast” which also gives alerts. The map tells you in color schemes where the most active aurora are taking place at that time. The other buttons take you to info about cloud coverage (blocking the view to aurora), chances of seeing aurora and some technical info. They say the KP or KPI values go from 1 to 5, so 2 is a pretty low chance, but people have still spotted northern lights despite such low values! The app is definitely not always right! Talk to the locals, and just go outside on clear nights. It’s always a matter of luck as well.
What to wear / bring
Before I went I asked multiple friends what to wear and what to bring. I had never been to a place where the average temperature is -14° Celsius (7° Fahrenheit) but where it can also get -40° C (-40° F).
My trip included the free local use of a winter overall, gloves, boots and a balaclava. Those are great for the excursions where you sit still a lot, like riding a snowmobile, husky sledge or reindeer sledge. You wear thermal underwear and maybe a sweater under them, and ski socks.
Reserve at least 20 minutes for putting on all those layers and checking that you did not forget anything!
For doing a walk in snow shoes, the overall is often too hot and not very practical, for example in my suit the crotch was between my knees, not practical for walking on hilly terrain and the suit only has 2 pockets.
I recommend you bring this:
- Waterproof ski jacket with hood.
- Waterproof padded ski pants with pockets which are comfortable enough to be active in, such as walking up hills.
- Soft-shell water resistant, windproof pants / hiking trousers for days when it’s not super cold and you have a sporty activity. A fellow traveler even wore these (with thermal underwear) during a long walk in -14° Celsius (7° Fahrenheit) and she was not cold. I was happier in padded ski pants. So it depends on your preferences and heat/cold regulation of your own body.
- Long thermal underwear for your legs as well as your upper body. Preferably made of merino wool! Merino wool gives more warmth when it’s cool but is also comfortable when you’re hot, doesn’t get smelly or clammy. Polyester thermals also work but give less warmth and comfort. It’s nice to have at least 2 sets with you.
- A few pairs of knee-length ski socks, with enough wool in them.
- A pair of silk knee-length socks to wear underneath the ski socks. Adds comfort and 5 degrees extra warmth.
- Your own balaclava.
- A buff scarf with fleece.
- A thick warm scarf.
- One or two warm hats. I used a combination of a warm fleece-lined woolen hat, a thin headband that covered my ears, and my balaclava. During sporty activities or walks I often swapped a few times as I went because I warmed up or cooled down.
- Your own waterproof, warm mittens. Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves with 5 fingers. It’s nice if you can attach the mittens to your wrist with an elastic band or to your coat. You could even opt for mittens with built-in (electric) heating system.
- Thin gloves with fingertips that can handle a touchscreen, for taking pictures or checking your aurora app 😉 .
- (Personally I even used a third pair of mittens with a flap that can expose my fingertips, and sometimes wore those thin gloves underneath those.)
- Ski goggles can come in handy on very cold and windy/ fast activities such as riding a snowmobile or dog sledge. The local guides also used them.
- Extra top layers, for example a thin ski pullover that covers your neck, thin lamb wool sweater, or whatever you find comfortable. Cotton is not great, it doesn’t give much warmth, gets clammy easily and will then make you even colder. I wore such layers on top of the thermal underwear and under the ski clothes / winter suit.
- A set of clothes to wear indoors in your accommodation. In our hotel some people wore ‘normal’ clothes like jeans, blouses, sweaters; other simply walked around in thermal underwear, track pants, bathing slippers or house shoes.
- Heat packs for your hands and feet. If you don’t know what they are, google it. There are various types.
- Optionally: a bathrobe and flip-flops for the sauna. My hotel charged €30 extra for the use of a bathrobe. A hammam towel can also come in handy if you don’t want to use the accommodation’s towels in the sauna.
- Good skin cream to help your face and hands recover from the cold.
- A powerbank to recharge your phone en route.
- A headlamp which can come in handy for finding your footing during northern lights hunts.
- And of course all the other items you like to bring with you on a trip, such as toiletries, underwear, e-reader/books etcetera.
If you keep your smartphone in a jacket pocket it will get cold and the batteries will die faster, or it might even stop working until you warm it up. I wore it on a cord around my neck on top of my thermal layer and underneath the next layer, so almost on my skin. Some guides carried it in a woolen sock.
My photo camera managed well in the cold, but whenever I went inside a cafe or the hotel it would fog over. If you have expensive gear you may want to look up more info about keeping it safe and functioning in cold weather.
You can read and compare my suggestions with another traveler’s good advice.
These are some comments on things you might like to know beforehand about activities such as riding a snowmobile, dog sledge or reindeer sledge. I can only tell you about the activities I did.
Riding a snowmobile
How a snowmobile works is pretty easy, the guide will explain it to you. You ride them in pairs, one is the driver and the other person sits on the back.
As it turned out, there are basically two types of people.
- People who soon get the hang of it and who love speed, for example going 70 or 80 kilometer per hour (km/h) on frozen lakes and also quite fast over bumpy, curvy forest roads. The snowmobile’s skis ‘want to’ stay in the tracks already in front of them so the looser you handle the steering rod, the better it works.
- People who have trouble handling the snowmobile, who find the speed scary, who have trouble seeing the track when it snows (I accidentally ‘parked’ the snowmobile in the deep soft snow), or who find it much too bumpy and uncomfortable when going faster than 40 km/h. I’m don’t mind admitting that I was part of this second group.
We often ended up splitting the group in two parts in order to keep everyone happy.
When it snows, the flakes will stick to the windscreen and to your helmet’s visor, impairing vision by at least half.
I was really happy that I had brought a pair of ski goggles! The guides also wore them. This way I could keep the helmet’s visor up as a little ‘roof’ to keep some snow off my goggles and I saw a lot more.
The driver has some more warmth from feet screens and a windscreen. On the back you’re likely to get very cold unless you wear the full-on winter suit, winter boots, ski socks and silk socks, thermal underwear and extra sweater(s), waterproof mittens.
At one point both the other solo traveler and I did not want to be drivers anymore and we found other travelers who wanted to drive (fast) and we sat on the backs. The last ride was super fast, long and really bumpy, all the hard blows started getting to my spine and neck and I felt it in my back for 2 days afterwards. I think you can compare it to how bumpy water scootering can be.
Walking on snow shoes
One of my favorite activities was walking on snow shoes. I even booked an extra walk after dark because I liked it so much.
There are some walking / cycling trails of flattened snow, and wider walking / cycling lanes alongside roads. You can walk on those with normal boots. But if you try to walk or stand in the deep, soft snow beside those trails with your normal boots, you will almost certainly sink in and fall. And it’s hard to get up because you can’t push yourself up against anything. Every traveler I met had their own embarrassing story about trying to step off the path to make way for someone, or to go take a photo of something… and then falling into the deep snow. 🙂
Snow shoes help you walk on soft, deep snow even off-trail. And it’s great fun to do so! The only thing is you have to walk a bit ‘wider’ and you must not step on your own shoe. Most people find it very easy and get used to it fast. But a few people kept falling.
I did a second snowshoe walk after dark to hunt for aurora. Being able to walk in the forest helps you get away from light pollution.
Skiing on “forest skis”
Forest skis are another way of going where there are no trails. They are specially designed for skiing outside the cross-country skiing tracks (loipes), so in soft, deep untouched snow. They are slightly wider and shorter than cross-country skis, but not as wide as (downhill) skis. You can strap them to your normal walking boots.
For most people these forest skis were a lot harder to master than snow shoes . It took me about 20 minutes and many near-falls before I finally got the hang of it. All the others in the group fell a few times and then it’s really hard to get up out of the soft snow with nothing to push yourself up against, and those skis still attached to your feet. At one point we spent about 10 minutes trying to pull one fellow traveler out of the snow!
Unlike walking on snow shoes, on the forest skis you really need to keep your weight in the middle and sort of always keep it on both skis, even the one you’re sliding forward. It also helps to make short slides instead of wanting to go fast with long slides.
You can either try to stay in the guide’s tracks or try to create your own, which is easier up to a certain point. But diverging snowmobile tracks might also make it hard (sort of like tram lanes a bike wheels).
Riding a reindeer sledge
Info will follow…
Riding a husky dog sledge
Info will follow…