The regular route into Fjällräven Polar is through social media. Hundreds of people, from all around the globe, compete for votes. They share videos and photographs; they muster up support from friends, friends of friends, family – both immediate and distant – and some even involve the press. Competition is fierce: there are just 20 spots up for grabs. 10 are chosen by popular vote. The other 10 by a team of Fjällräven judges. But this year one extra spot was reserved, as a kind of golden ticket, for the Fjällräven employee that accumulated the most nights in a tent between June 2017 and February 2018.
Now you may think that employees at a company like Fjällräven virtually live in tents. Not so. Most employees live in cities – the global head office is in Stockholm – work regular office hours and, although everyone loves spending time outdoors, what they do there varies greatly, from spending time at a lake house during the summer to trekking through Nepal or climbing Denali in Alaska. Fjällräven initiated its internal tent challenge last summer in a bid to get its employees to spend even more time outdoors, disconnecting from work and reconnecting with nature. The winner of that competition, with 70 nights spent in a tent over the entire nine month period was customer service agent, Joel Libell.
“I spend a lot of time outdoors, but this was definitely more than normal,” Joel explains. His connection to nature runs deep. He’s grown up on Sweden’s High Coast, one of the country’s most beautiful regions, full of contrasts between sea, hills and forests. And its these contrasts that Joel loves most about nature. “Nature is so big and complex, which is really cool because it means you can never get bored. You can have peace or adventure. You can relax or explore. It’s just so diverse.”
“The competition motivated me to get out more frequently. I started going out mid-week and I had the goal of continuing with at least one night per month in a tent even in autumn and winter. Once I got passed 30 nights or so, it got easier. By then I had a good routine and it started being a lot more fun. Sometimes I’d just go after dinner or after work, then go straight to the office the next morning.” Joel even spent Christmas Eve in his tent, complete with Christmas star, because there wasn’t enough room at his mum’s place.
Joel has been working for Fjällräven in Örnsköldsvik – where the company was founded – for several years. Firstly in the Fjällräven store, then with customer service. Prior to that he worked at Swedish Tourist Association huts in Jämtland, often guiding people into the surrounding nature. So he’s pretty used to enabling other people to enjoy the bounty of nature. And he applied this thinking to the tent nights competition.
“Sometimes I took colleagues along. The competition really motivated everyone. Some of these people would never go camping on their own. That first night in a tent is quite a big threshold for some people to get past. I wanted to make it easier for people. And I really enjoyed it. To be able to take people out for their first camping trip or their first snow camping experience gave me a massive boost. I got a lot of energy from it. Plus, it was really fun.”
Spending more than one week per month – including through one of the snowiest winters Sweden has had in a very long time – in a tent surely should have prepared Joel well for Polar. But there was something he wasn’t fully prepared for.
Joel often spends time in nature alone, or just with his wife. Thanks to his guiding education, he knows what he’s doing. He feels safe in the outdoors. So the prospect of spending a week in intensely close quarters with a bunch of people he didn’t know, with different backgrounds and cultures, was rather daunting because it was unknown. You never know it you’re going to “click” with your team mates. Or not. “This ended up being one of my favourite parts about Polar. The whole experience was amazing. I’ve been telling people that I’ll have a smile on my face for weeks to come.”
Like taking colleagues camping around his home town of Örnsköldsvik, showing them his favourite spots, Joel got a lot of energy from watching his fellow Polar participants experience things for the first time. “For some people it was the first time their saw snow or felt extreme cold. When they saw the northern lights they started screaming – it was like a rock concert. This really moved me. When you see somebody experience something for the first time, it’s like winning the lottery. It was the extra ‘spice’ that I totally didn’t expect and it was amazing to be part of that.”
And then of course there were the dogs. Every Polar participants always talks about the dogs. How they don’t want to leave them. “We hear it every year,” says Polar event manager Andreas Cederlund. “But we never get tired of hearing it.”
Joel was rather apprehensive about meeting his team of Alaskan huskies. He likes dogs; he calls himself a “dog person”. But a pack of howling huskies – 300 or so strong – can be intimidating even for the most impassioned dog lovers. “All that barking was a bit nerve wracking. But after four days together, looking at them constantly for eight hours, feeding them, cuddling them, well, I just wanted to take them home with me.”
In the end Joel just took home an enduring smile, some extra camping tips, a goggle tan and many memories.
So will Joel be putting those new camping tips into practice and getting back out in his tent again soon?
“Haha. Yeah I’ll definitely continue, maybe not to this extent but I want to keep up the mid-week camping if I can. I need that contrast. I work an 8-5 job, like many other people. I’m in the hamster wheel. So I need to get out sometimes. I’m lucky with where I live. Just 20 minutes from my apartment are great camping spots, with views over the town, the sea and the forest. It’s a small town in northern Sweden. Not much goes on. But I make the most of what I’ve got.”
Text: Sarah Benton
Images: Daniel Taipale (@dansmoe) & Joel Libell.