Jouni Laaksonen 27.8.2018
When I first time heard there is an annual Finnish Championships competition on wilderness skills (Erävaelluksen SM-kilpailut), I was not interested. In my opinion hiking was, and still is, a hobby where you can walk leisurely in the woods or fells, without hurry or stress. And competition is quite the opposite to that!
However, after all I ended up participating in the competition in 1998. And… well, since then I’ve participated 18 times. There is something weirdly addicting in this form of competition!
The structure of the competition is this:
From Thursday to Sunday the competitors, in two person teams, navigate (without gps or alike) cross-country from one checkpoint to next. The competitors carry everything they need during that time, including food, shelter, sleeping gear etc.
Many of the competitors adopt ultralightweight attitude. You can squeeze all you need for four days into a surprisingly small rucksack.
The pattern has been that every other year the competition is held in Southern Finland, meaning forested terrain. Every other year it has been held in Northern Finland, often in fell area, like this one in Urho Kekkonen NPational Park.
The walking distance in the open class can be for example like Thursday 25 km, Friday and Saturday 35-40 km, Sunday 20-25 km, if you choose to go via every voluntary checkpoint. The route via only obligatory checkpoints is a bit shorter. Also the route for veterans, women and young ones is shorter.
One more checkpoint found. Then we make a task, and plan our route to the next checkpoint…
In most of the obligatory checkpoints there are tasks. Sometimes there’s a form to be filled: questions about first aid in wilderness conditions, measuring coordinates, answering to questions about this or that wilderness lore. Or there is a path along which there are a dozen or two dozen plants to be identified, or mushroom, or bird eggs or feathers, or insects…
Sometimes there is a practical task, like carve a new handle for a broken ax handle, or light a campfire that burns a horizontal string in one meter height as quickly as possible, or build your own wood burning stove, or give first aid to a child that has this or that injury, or orientate as quickly as possible a course of half a dozen checkpoints positioned challengingly, catch a fish, collect half a kilo edible mushrooms…
Examples of tasks in category Wilderness skills: 1. Ax handle is broken: Detach the broken handle and carve and attach a new handle. 2. Carve a traditional tool for reindeer gathering, kiela. 3. Cross the river without getting wet. I have never built a raft out of my tarp, sleeping pad, rucksack and other equipment on my normal hikes, but still I think it’s good to practice also this skill at the competition almost yearly. 4. This is a rakovalkea, a traditional way to make a campfire that gives warmth for all night. You are not allowed to make such a fire nowadays, for it consumes a lot of thick deadwood. But one year the competition organizers had felled pines from their own forest, left them to dry for several years, and then we competitors got to try our hand in building rakovalkea. These kinds of tasks are the best ones.
The tasks are from four different categories:
1. Wilderness skills
2. Nature and nature protection
3. First aid
The distances are long, and you cannot reach the goal unless you are rather fit and know well how to navigate with map and compass. And you have to know how to take care of your body, especially feet, in heavy exertion.
Choice of footwear is one of the more important ones. Do you like light off-track running shoes, or orienteering shoes? Or do you want support for your ankle and choose hiking boots? How do you keep your feet dry? Or do you let them get wet, but you have a way to keep your feet from getting blisters? Maybe more on this on some other post. If you fail badly, you probably have to drop out of the competition.
You have to know the basics of hiking very well. Regardless the weather you have to be able to sleep soundly, keep your equipment dry, eat and drink enough. All the normal stuff, but under heavy exertion, and often with lots of competition tasks to do in the campsite.
However, that is only the minimum requirement to reach the goal. To win you have to succeed in the dozens of tasks as well as possible. You have to be quite an expert in all of those four categories.
Why is the competition held? One big reason is to keep up the tradition, to pass wilderness skills from one generation to next.
For an individual who participates, this is an important reason, too. When you prepare for the competition, you rehearse important skills, and every year you face new tasks/questions you can learn from.
For myself that, and trying to be succesful, were important reasons in my youth. In recent years more important has been quality time with a good friend of mine (my teammate, that is), meeting other outdoor people, other friends. And it is good to check your own physical boundaries now and then.
Also the competition kind of sucks you in. You are completely out of reach for four days, and your thoughts do not wander to work or family related affairs, you only concentrate on walking and navigating as fast as possible, to stay in timetable. And you try to solve the tasks the best way you can.
Another noteworthy angle is that the competition has been for decades kind of a test laboratory and catalyst for ultralightweight hiking in Finland. You don’t want to carry more than 8 to 10 kg on your back when you are walking marathon distances per day.
One more thing these competitions have thought Finnish hikers: In the competition if you don’t camouflage your campfire site properly, you will get less points for your camp. Everyone quickly learns how not to leave a trace of their small, but obligatory campfire.
It must be only men’s sports this one, eh? No. There are plenty of women enjoying this kind of a long weekend, too. As the task to catch fish and prepare food out of it is almost done, smile is broad. 🙂
Is there a similar kind of a competition in your country? I’d be very interested to hear.