What do you wear when exploring a Swedish forest – hiking boots or ballerina shoes?

The typical Swedish outdoor-person dresses up in hiking boots, some kind of Gore-Tex clothing and is probably has a backpack. That’s pretty much the way I used to dress for work as a nature guide at a visitor center in a protected forest area where I guide and help our visitors to enjoy and learn about Swedish nature.

Working as a nature guide means constantly evolving as a human being. New perspectives and horizons open up when meeting visitors from all kinds of backgrounds.  I’ll tell you about such an encounter that changed how I see of my role as a nature guide and what to wear when exploring a Swedish forest.

I had been asked to guide a group of young women from Somalia, aged 15-20. They were refugees and lived in one of the larger towns not far from where I work. Their teachers wanted them to learn about the forest and to feel safe being there, so I had planned to take them on a short hike and to play some outdoor games in the forest. One beautiful day in May, I found myself face to face with twenty young women, totally different from myself, at least visually. They wore long skirts, hijabs, ballerina shoes and were clutching handbags. I remember thinking that they looked like lost exotic birds. Clouds of doubt began to appear above my head. Was this really a good idea? Long skirts and ballerina shoes? But, despite my doubts, into the forest we went.  For two and a half hours these young Somali women followed me with great enthusiasm. They pulled up their skirts and climbed, jumped, crawled and played their way through the forest. We looked at birds and plants, drank coffee in the sun and my doubts were proven utterly wrong.

New perspectives opened up for me that day and these young women taught me two important things. First, you can actually explore a Swedish forest perfectly well wearing a long skirt and ballerina shoes. Secondly, what signals do I, as a nature guide, send out when wearing my outdoor clothing? That nature is accessible to everyone? I don’t think so. For me it has become more and more important to show that everyone can explore Swedish nature regardless of your background, or what you wear. I also think it’s an issue of equality. Hiking boots and Gore-Tex clothes are expensive; not everyone can afford to buy them, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to enjoy nature. So, nowadays I wear jeans and sneakers when sharing and exploring the forest with our visitors.

Of course in really bad weather or on a long wilderness trek, hiking boots and outdoor clothing are probably best. But then again, there is always someone to prove you wrong. A friend of mine walked from Kebnekaise mountain station to the town of Nikkaluokta. That’s a 19-kilometre trek in alpine countryside in the northernmost part of Sweden. Guess what she was wearing on her feet? A pair of ballerina shoes… That’s quite a story in itself, but I’ll tell you some other time.

To cite this article:
Pokela, Å. (2016) ‘Introducing wild Sweden – in boots or ballerinas?’. In Interpret Europe Newsletter 1-2016, 9-10

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