Jouni Laaksonen 30.4.2018
Imagine you have been walking across forests and fells all the day. It has been raining all the way, and a couple of hours ago the rain turned to sleet. There’s two centimeters of slush on the ground now, and despite your waterproof clothing you are soaking wet from fingertips to toes.
But now you have arrived to your destination. You can glimpse the square log building ahead. You have been assured the door should be open, and there should be firewood and wood stove. But there is no one taking care of the hut and you wonder can this wilderness hut system really work?
You arrive to the hut and note that there is no one here. The door has a latch, but no lock. You leave your wet backpack out on the porch and enter the hut. You let your eyes adjust to the dim light and you start to note things: Yep, there is a wood stove. And hey, there’s plenty of chopped firewood beside it, and also tinder! You immediately place some pieces of wood in the stove, pile tinder on top of them, and light. Fire starts to crackle cheerfully and you continue your observing. There is room for maybe six or eight persons on the bed platform. You decide to take the place nearest the stove, you are so wet and cold just now. There’s a table, and a guestbook and a box of matches on it. The table and the floor are tidy, you note. And there’s a water bucket. You decide to fetch water from the stream running next to the cabin, and put a kettle on top of the wood stove.
Now it is time to change dry clothes! Soon the wood stove has warmed the hut up, and your wet clothes are hanging from the hooks near the stove. Your dinner is well on it’s way to being prepared on the wood stove.
So, there are wilderness huts (autiotupa) in Finland. Hundreds of them. Free to use, no lock in the door. How can a system like that work?
There is a simple code that makes it work very well.
A typical wilderness hut: simple log building with one room, wood stove for heating, drying and food making, woodshed in the yard, water bucket and water source (usually spring, stream, river or lake, sometimes well), lots of hooks for drying your boots and clothes, and a table. Sometimes there is also a gas cooker like here, but not nearly always. Sometimes you can find a mattress, often not. In a couple of dozens of wilderness huts there is also a sauna.
There is no maintenance man coming after you to clean and chop the firewood for the next hiker, so do you find untidy cabins with no firewood? Well, sometimes you do find, but usually not.
Now, the code: Behave in the way you would like others to behave towards you. Meaning respect other people who share the night at the hut with you, and respect the people who are coming to the hut after you have left it.
Let’s see this code more thoroughly.
- Mind other hikers
You cannot reserve a wilderness hut for yourself, but the door is open to anyone who happens to bump in. (Though there are rental and reservable huts, too, but let’s not get into that now.) You are allowed to stay one night, or if there are not many others, two nights.
Hang your backpack to the outside of the hut and only take in the equipment you need. Keep your stuff under control, meaning don’t let your equipment use all the space on the table, bed etc. Even if you are alone in the hut, don’t explode the contents of your backpack everywhere in the cabin (which happens very easily). A hiker or a group may well be arriving soon, and they are as entitled to using the hut as you are.
If you have to keep your mobile phone on, have it on the silent mode. If you arrive late, or leave early, and others are sleeping, speak softly with your comrades and avoid making noise. Normal courtesy.
If you are in a popular destination at the height of the hiking season (in August-September, or April) you may find there are more people at the hut than it would comfortably house. Now, the most important rule is: everyone keeps calm and friendly, and you will find a solution. Sometimes the solution is that those who have already rested for a couple of hours, eaten and dried their clothes, decide to leave the hut and pitch their tent outside on the yard. They make room for the newcomers who are more tired. Or sometimes the solution may be that in addition to sleeping on the bed platform, some people sleep on the floor.
But note that this only happens when both of those conditions are met. If you hike in a less popular area, you won’t meet full huts even on high season. And if you are hiking outside the high seasons, you rarely see people even in popular areas.
When you leave the hut you cannot know when the next hiker comes. She/he may come later today, or next week, or after three months. Take this into account, and:
- Chop firewood and make tinder
There is usually a firewood storage box or similar in the hut. Go to the woodshed and chop so much firewood that you fill the storage box. Or if there isn’t a box, chop and carry so much wood that the next hiker can comfortably heat the hut with the firewood you chopped, make food and rest. Only then he/she needs to go and chop more.
Also make tinder. The firewood is most usually pine, and the typical tinder is called kiehinen. Might be feather stick in English? Or, if that looks difficult, carve a load of thin slivers of dry wood, and also some finger-width sticks. Or, if the firewood provided is only birch, tear a hefty amount of birch bark out of the firewood (never from living trees!), and chop those finger-width sticks along.
Even if you leave the hut on a sunny and warm September day, the next hiker entering the hut may come in December when there’s –30°C, or in October on a day when sleet has soaked him/her totally wet and freezing. He/she really appreciates your gesture with the tinder and firewood!
Check also that there is a match box with working matches in the hut, as there usually is.
- Clean the hut
Would it be nice to enter a hut that looks like this?
Or would you rather prefer this?
There is a broom and dustpan in the hut, use them. Clean the floor, and also wipe the table clean. If there is a gas cooker, clean it, too. And remember to close the valve of the gas cooker.
You can burn the paper and cardboard rubbish of yours, and organic waste you can compost in the dry toilet. Remember that the paper cover of your snack bar, or the cardboard box around your tacos is not a tinder. You burn it, you don’t leave it to the others to burn. Plastic and metal you put back into your backpack and carry away from the wilderness.
Do not leave food in the hut. It only attracts voles.
Not this way. First, the empty tobacco box is not a tinder, it is rubbish. And secondly some of this stuff contain aluminium folio inside the paper/cardboard, and that is not burnable waste. You leave the campfire site and wood oven free of rubbish.
It may seem like a nice gesture to leave the water bucket halfway full of water when you are leaving. The next hiker does not need to fetch water as his/her first chore.
Wrong. You never leave water in the water bucket. You empty it and store it upside down. Why? Because you don’t know when the next one comes. See the pics.
The next hiker may come months later, like in this pic. Autumn has turned to winter and the water so thoughtfully left for me has frozen completely. In the worst case the plastic bucket is cracked, since water expands when freezing.
And if you leave the bucket mouth up voles may drop into it. It was not a nice welcome to find a dead vole in the water bucket I can tell you. You empty the bucket, and kettles, and place them upside down.
If there is a sauna, you naturally clean it, too. And you empty all the buckets and the hot water tank in the sauna.
Write something to the hut’s guestbook. At least tell who you are and where are you heading next. If you happen to get lost or meet an accident, this information may be important to the rescuers who are looking for you.
But also it is very nice to read the entries other hikers have filled in the months and years before you. You can tell where you came, about the weather, if you saw some animals or other interesting things, or if something funny happened…
That’s the code. Simple courtesy, nothing more.
But if you get the inspiration to do something more for the benefit of the hut you just enjoyed, go for it! You can fix a broken broom handle, or a broken axe handle. Or you can wash the windows, or tighten a loose screw in the door hinge, etc.
We spent two nights in this wilderness hut. It was late autumn and we saw no one else, so our conscience was clear about staying two nights. On our rest day my friend got an impulse to do good: he washed the windows of the hut.
As the very last thing when you are leaving the hut, if no other hikers are still staying there, close the door properly and place the hatch. Also remember to place the hatch of the dry toilet door, and woodshed door. If you forget, wind may tear the doors open, and it may snow in.
How and why has this network of wilderness huts come into being? That is a very interesting subject and I will return to it later.
* * *
Next week I think we might go for a bicycle tour. Yes, let’s see what Ahvenanmaa looks in May. Expect to see spring flowers!