"I don't understand why it hasn't occurred to anybody that in this country we have fantastic natural resources just waiting to be exploited.
Why is nobody selling silence in the same way they sell the lumber and the iron ore? Silence, starry skies, perhaps also solitariness – such things simply don't exist any more for most people." Henning Mankell, 2009
In the past 10 years, Sweden's image has undoubtedly been influenced by the literary exports of crime writers Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. The hero of Mankell's bestselling mysteries, Inspector Kurt Wallander, is now as famous for his many television incarnations across Europe as he is on the page, while Larsson's novels have become a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 40m and launching two film franchises.
There is also no doubt that this global literary success has had a knock-on effect for Sweden's appeal as a travel destination. "We get calls every week from people who have read the Larsson books," says Chris Graham, director of travel specialists Simply Sweden. "So many people have read them now and the films have been really popular back in the UK, so it's a great way to get people interested in the country."
Despite this rise in profile, north Sweden, aside from a few choice destinations such as the Ice Hotel and Tree Hotel, remains widely untouched by tourism.
As a fan of both Larsson and Mankell, I was keen to experience the real northern-Swedish winter – a lack of light and warmth for months on end which must surely help explain the ability to explore the darkest sides of humanity fuelling Swedish and Scandinavian crime fiction.
At Luleå city, the capital of Norrbotten County in Swedish Lapland and 725km north of Stockholm, a metre of recently fallen snow piled alongside the runway makes a mockery of Heathrow's winter paralysis. In summer the temperature in Luleå can reach 25C, but in mid-January it can plummet to -30C. Add to this the fact that in summer the sun barely sets, whereas at this time of year it barely rises, and it becomes clear that people here live in two different worlds. I think it is fair to say that without the winter, we wouldn't have Wallander or Lisbeth Salander.
The next day I meet my guide, the wonderfully named Love, in the early-morning gloom. Kitted out in heavy-duty snow gear, we drive from the city, and within 20 minutes I can see nothing but trees, sky and snow. Fat snow, heavy snow, feather snow, sugar snow and the slightly alarming avalanche snow. Snow upon snow upon snow. In another 40 minutes we are at the foot of Snipen mountain, surrounded by woodland, just 60km south of the Arctic Circle. I buckle up my snowshoes and follow Love, half climbing, half sliding up the mountain. Occasionally he disappears from view and I'm suddenly alone in the twilight with a feeling of utter isolation – a blank canvas of white stretching out for miles before me.
By 11.30am the sun, barely cresting the treetops, is as high as it will get and the light that manages to break through the clouds is dusky at best. Noon in winter is called "blue hour", as the sunlight filtered through the clouds takes on a cobalt tinge. Looking across the unending white vista it's easy to believe that we are the only souls for miles around. I am in the midst of wilderness and it is stunning, but also bleak. Love catches me pondering the view. "It lets the soul breathe," he says with a smile.
The following day a trip into the archipelago on an ice breaker really brings home the scale of north Sweden's frozen winters. The boat's steel hull ploughs through metre-thick ice, paving a way for cargo ships to reach the docks in Luleå. Actually stepping on to the ice, several miles out in the Baltic, is a humbling experience. The flat ice plane, a snow-covered shell stretching for mile upon mile to the far horizon, buried beneath white clouds, makes you aware for a few shivering moments just how big and empty the world can be.
From Luleå I take the train south to Hälsingland, two hours north of Stockholm. Hälsingland is said to be the inspiration for Larsson's descriptions of Hedeby, the fictitious remote island village that crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist repairs to in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Arriving at Söderhamn station, I am met by Åse Frick, who lives with her husband Lasse deep within Larsbo forest. There they run a small farm and welcome guests looking, as Åse puts it, "to escape from the rat race into the wilderness".
For the next two days I spend the daylight hours exploring the surrounding forest – following animal tracks in the snow, ice fishing through hand-drilled holes in frozen lakes and kick-sledding along forest tracks with Jösta, the farm's irrepressible collie, bounding ahead. The peace all around is total. The nearest occupied homestead is more than 7km away and the silence and isolation is only intensified by the snow, heaped a metre high around every tree trunk. In its abundance it acts as a perfect sound insulator, allowing nothing more than the occasional muffled bark of a moose to break through. After a few days in the forest you grow used to the cold, and the few precious hours of dusky light – but the unending silence is harder to process.
Such isolation could border on the oppressive were it not for the efforts of Åse. She and Lasse offer full board at their farmhouse and insist that lodgers are guests and are welcome at the family table, which boasts hearty Swedish fare, much of it foraged from the surrounding woodland. Returning from the chill and gloom to a bright, warm farmhouse and a meal of roast moose and wild mushrooms makes the connection to the land all the stronger. The evenings offer a chance to learn about the Swedish rural way of life – traditional farming practices that the Fricks have kept alive. Guests are also welcome to pitch in with the running of the farm, helping stable the horses as the midday- dusk turns to night and feeding the flock of sheep at the end of the day.
All the farmhouse's rustic bedrooms have heavy blackout blinds for coping with the summer sun, but I had no need of them. At night the darkness of the forest seeps into the house, broken only by the occasional star blinking through the treetops.
On my last morning in Larsbo, now proficient in the half-jumping gait needed to lift my snowshoes through the night's thick fall, I set out alone at daybreak for the frozen lake. The crunch on the freshly fallen snow echoed in the stillness. I found fresh animal tracks that I was sure had been left by a lynx (Åse later suggested they might have been from an Arctic fox) chasing a hare (or possibly a squirrel) through the pines. I followed the tracks into a clearing, where I promptly lost my way.
While laboriously retracing my steps I heard Lasse's call. Realising that the night's heavy snowfall would have hidden my path, he had followed on skis. With his guidance we finally found the lake, dusted over by fresh snow, a splash of dazzling white bathed in sunlight. It was bitterly cold out, but despite the biting wind we both just stood a while – Lasse lost in thought, me glum at the realisation this would be my last view of the Swedish wilds for some time.
Three-night packages to the Luleå region start from around £799 per person for two sharing with Best Served Scandinavia, including return flights with SAS and transfers (best-served.co.uk). For information on Luleå, go to swedishlapland.com and for information on travel in Sweden go to visitsweden.com. For details on remote escapes in Sweden, visit naturetravels.co.uk. Flights with SAS (flysas.co.uk) cost from £330 return including taxes
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