Although Lapland’s climate is subarctic, there are considerable variations between milder maritime regions and those further inland, which suffer the full brunt of the Arctic winter chill. The coastal areas of Norwegian Lapland are considerably milder and wetter than the inland plateaux of Swedish and Finnish Lapland, where, for example, January mean temperatures are commonly below –15°C, and in some areas as low as –30°C. Large parts of Lapland receive less than 500mm of precipitation per year.
During the winter months, most precipitation falls as snow, often resulting in considerable depths. In Sodankylä, for example, just inside the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, snow can lie at depths of at least 60cm from October to mid- March. The annual duration of snow cover is determined by air temperature and precipitation. Much of Lapland is covered with snow for more than 200 days per year; in the mountains of Swedish Lapland this figure rises to 220 days per year whereas the Lofoten islands have only 120 days with snow.
When to visit
Undoubtedly the most magical time to be in Lapland is winter. Snow is thick on the ground, activities are in full swing and it’s the only time you can see the northern lights. However, this is the busiest time of year for the tourist industry and accommodation is at a premium during the winter months; it always pays to book well in advance to ensure a bed for the night.
In general, the winter season starts in late November/early December, peaks at Christmas and New Year, and runs through to around Easter, though destinations such as the Icehotel in Swedish Lapland stay open for several weeks beyond the end of the peak season. It’s worth remembering that daylight is in short supply during winter and that Christmas and New Year are the darkest time of the year – the sun barely skims the horizon at the Icehotel. Snow cover helps considerably in brightening things up by reflecting the little light there is.
The snow usually melts in May (or mid-June in more mountainous areas). Spring in Lapland, though short-lived, is glorious: trees burst into leaf seemingly overnight, flowers emerge from their enforced period of winter hibernation, carpeting the plains in a mêlée of reds, yellows and blues and the birds start to return – and sing. Within a matter of weeks the short but hectic Lapland summer is in full swing, with the midnight sun adding to the attractions of this time of year. In tourist terms, summer is usually counted as mid-June to mid-August, the period when everything is open and there’s a marked spring in people’s step. After the middle of August certain museums and other services start to close down. If you’re thinking of hiking or canoeing, summer is the perfect time of year to visit Lapland, though be prepared for swarms of Scandinavia’s infamous mosquitoes (Finnish hyttynen; Norwegian and Swedish mygg) and lesser-known though arguably more painful horseflies (Finnish paarma; Norwegian klegg; Swedish broms; all useful words when at the pharmacy), which are present from the beginning of June until early August.
By August, the first frosts are generally felt somewhere in Lapland, marking the beginning of the slow return to winter. However, the frost is responsible for one of the most breathtaking spectacles of the Lapland year: the Finns call it ruska, nature’s last stand before winter, when the leaves on birch, aspen and mountain ash trees turn bright yellow or scarlet red, bathing the hillsides in an orgy of colour. It’s hard to predict the exact time this happens, though generally the sight is at its most spectacular between mid-August and mid-September. Autumn is the time to come to Lapland to enjoy nature’s fruits – this is when the region’s forests are bursting with berries, mushrooms and various herbs ripe for picking. The exact time of the first snows varies from year to year but there’s usually snow cover somewhere in Lapland by October.
Despite the restricted sale of alcohol throughout Lapland, there’s certainly no shortage of the stuff during the midsummer celebration, the most important public holiday of the year, which takes place between 21 and 23 June in Sweden and Finland. Festivities centre round the maypole, an old fertility symbol, which is erected at popular gatherings across the north of Scandinavia. There’s much dancing and drinking into the light night – and severe hangovers the next morning.
The biggest Sámi festivals in the region are the Kautokeino Easter Festival and the late August Storstämningshelgen Festival in Arvidsjaur.