Wilderness huts, what are they?

Jouni Laaksonen 11.12.2017

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Kaikunuora wilderness hut on an island in Lake Inarijärvi.

I have managed to promise to tell more about wilderness huts in two of my three posts, so I guess that’s what I have to do now. When I was young and just starting to understand hiking will be my main hobby, and had no idea it would be my profession as well, I thought there are these open cabins, wilderness huts (autiotupa) only in Finland.

Now I naturally know that is not true. In some parts of Norway there are lots of åpen hytte, open huts, though mostly Norwegian hiking culture relies on locked huts. Also some open huts can be found in Sweden, and I’ve slept in an open hunters’ cabin in deep Russian outback, and felt the cabin had much in common with the less official wilderness huts of Finland. My friend hiked in Greenland, and another in Tasmania and both encountered wilderness huts. Without doubt there are wilderness huts of some level in many other countries, too. Are there such ones in your country?

But I firmly believe the Finnish network of wilderness huts is the most comprehensive in the world. Objections? There are over 400 open cabins free to be used by any hiker merely in Northern Finland. In Southern Finland the network is considerably less dense, but there are lots of huts there, too.

 

Finnish wilderness hut

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Aatsa wilderness hut, –25°C.

Imagine you have hiked in heavy rain, and despite your raingear you feel water is seeping into your skin, and you guess it has found a way inside your backpack, too. Or imagine it is –32°C and you have been skiing the whole day outside tracks. On occasions like these a wilderness hut feels paradise. This is just what the huts are for: to give shelter from rain, wind and cold.

What is a wilderness hut? Most often it is a simple and smallish log building far from roads and habitation. The hut may be along a hiking trail, or it may be literally in the middle of nowhere, without tiniest path leading to it. There is always a reason for the hut to be built just there, and quite often the reason is not originally hiking.

The door of the hut is always open, and whoever comes is welcome to use the cabin. Whether the hut is empty or there are other people in there. You enjoy the small comforts of the cabin, behave nicely, leave it tidy and go and enjoy another one. You cannot reserve a wilderness hut for your own use, and you may not spend more than one or two nights in one hut in a row.

Inside the hut there is a wood oven, or a fireplace, which gives warmth, lets you dry your equipment, and allows you to prepare food on. Sometimes there is a gas cooker also, but not always. There is a table and benches for eating and a wooden platform for sleeping. There is most often a bucket for fetching water, and the nearby water source – spring, stream, river or lake – is usually clean and you can drink it.

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You see a lot about wilderness huts in this pic from Kurtojoki wilderness hut: There is a wood oven, which makes the cabin warm also in winter. It is winter now, as you can see from the water bucket. Usually you hang your boots and moist clothes up, but in winter you may also use the same hooks to hang a bucket filled with snow to melt. In this hut there is a kettle belonging here, my own kettles are much blacker. There is always a brush and a dustpan, remember to use them. Sometimes there is a mattress, too, but often not. The bunks are in two levels in this hut. There is some kindling on the left from the oven, more about these kiehinen on later posts.

The size of a wilderness hut varies between 1 and 32 persons, but most often it is something between 4 to 10.

Most of Finnish wilderness huts are maintained by Metsähallitus Luontopalvelut, Forest and Park Service, that is, by state of Finland. Finnish taxpayers pay for the firewood and other hut maintenance, and I think that is an extraordinarily good way to spend my taxes. These huts, along with a smaller amount of huts maintained by different municipalities, form the official network of wilderness huts. You find information on the huts maintained by Forest and Park Service easily: Nationalparks.fi.

But there are dozens of more unofficial open huts, too. Some of the reindeer herders’ huts are open, some old huts are maintained by local volunteers and so on. It is rather easy to find information on these, too, from my book about autiotupas for example – but only in Finnish, at least so far. And if a change happens, a hut burns down, or is locked due to bad behaviour, information is slower to reach hikers in case of these unofficial ones. So, for a guest from abroad I recommend sticking to the official network.

Outside the hut there is a dry toilet and a woodshed. At a wilderness hut belonging to the official network there is firewood in the woodshed, unless you are very unlucky and it has just emptied. Next to always there is an axe, too. At an unofficial wilderness hut you gather your own firewood from nearby forest – and Leave No Trace as you pick fallen branches.

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More often there is a wood oven, like in the picture higher up. But in some older huts there is a fireplace like this. In summer there is no big difference: oven is easier, but open fire adds to the atmosphere. In winter there is a big difference. Even when it is really cold outside, a hut with a wood oven normally warms up nicely, but a hut with a fireplace does not.

So, what, an unlocked cabin far from anywhere. The maintenance men bring firewood perhaps once per year. It must be messy and uninviting hovel, huh? Well, no. Most often you come to a tidy wilderness hut with everything in order. The last hikers, they left a day or a month ago, knew how to behave. The idea is simple: leave the hut in a condition you would like to meet it. Details on this later, but believe me: mostly the system works really well.

 

The illusion of wilderness

From time to time a discussion arises here in Finland about the level of comfort in our huts. Some people would like to have similar kind of staffed or locked, well-equipped, chargeable cabins as there are in Sweden or Norway. Or even restaurant-hotel-kind of cabins like in the Alps.

There are in Finland also reservable huts (you pay in advance, get a key, and have reserved a bed for yourself), rental huts (you pay in advance, get a key, and have rented all the cabin for your party) and a few subcategories under these. But there are no staffed huts, and not much luxuries in these locked huts either. Though the gas cooker and mattresses are now the norm, and also there is a sauna in many of the rental huts.

Saunas, oh yes. You do know what a sauna is? I think I’ll write a post about the heavenly saunas later. But in a few words: sauna is a building you heat up, and you can wash yourself in there, be it summer and +22°C or winter and –35°C. When you have hiked and sweated for a week, there is not much that could be better than to wash yourself clean. There are a few dozen open saunas along hiking trails and inside larger wilderness areas or national parks.

Now, I wanted to talk about wilderness. I myself am of the opinion that the Finnish wilderness hut system suits Finland’s hiking culture and Finland’s large uninhabited areas really well.

Myself, one of the most important things I seek for when I go on a multi-day or multi-week trek, is the feeling of wilderness. The knowledge that I can walk or ski for a week without seeing roads, power lines, habitation, forestry or other human activities. Well, I will see some reindeer fences, but I can live with that.  And I like to visit wilderness huts, and somehow I don’t feel they break my illusion of wilderness. If the small cabin was substituted with a larger building complex, with luxuries, I would feel my illusion is broken.

Undoubtedly the different hut systems in different countries have developed from the tradition and conditions that suit best for each country. So, I’m definitively not trying to say the Finnish system would be in any way better than others. But it’s the Finnish way, and it suits Finland.

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Small, turf-roofed LaVu hut gives great shelter for three hikers, but blends in the landscape.

* * *

I had thought to tell here also how to behave in a wilderness hut, and about the super-interesting history of our wilderness hut system, but now I think this is already long enough for one post. So, I’ll cover these two aspects of wilderness huts later on!

(I think next post will be on 18th December. That will be a story of ski touring in harsh December weather again, but in a completely different environment than the 5th Dec story. – Edit: Change of plan: the post on 18th will be something else and only the post on 21st will be the promised ski touring.)

 

 

 

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