Discover the few countries on Earth where you can freely trek across private land, and learn the rights and responsibilities that this entails.

More often than not, across the world the notion of walking on privately owned lands is usually known by one name: Trespassing. In these parts, the joy of just seeing where one’s footsteps lead are reserved for parklands alone.

There are some countries where this isn’t the case, however, where so-called Right to Roam laws grant individuals the right to legally access, explore and enjoy uncultivated land such as mountains, forests, and moorlands, without needing permission from landowners.

But while the details vary from country to country, this privilege carries an important duty to preserve and protect. Roamers must tread lightly and be mindful of their impact on delicate ecosystems.

Below is a guide of countries with Right to Roam laws and links for additional information. As you’ll see, there are just a handful of them. So, it’s up to all visitors to ensure that these laws are not abused and are strictly observed. Roamers are entrusted with the stewardship of the land, ensuring that their exploration leaves behind no lasting harm, but rather, a legacy of respect for the wild places they traverse. Hopefully, in time, the Right to Roam can then begin to spread to more countries.

 

Sweden (Photo: Melanie Haas)

The Nordics: Right to Roam’s Mecca

In no other region of the world will you find greater right-of-access than in the Nordic countries. And with landscapes dominated by volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, forests and lakes, there is plenty to experience.

Norway: Freedom to Roam’s Gold Standard

Perhaps the greatest access rights are found in Norway’s allemansretten (literally translated as ‘everyone’s right’), codified in the Outdoor Recreation Act of 1957. This allows anybody to access uncultivated land and waters, at any time of the year, whether it be by foot, boat, horseback, bicycle or skis. Cultivated land can also be crossed during the winter months when the ground is frozen or covered in snow. Berries and mushrooms can be freely picked, and saltwater fishing for personal consumption does not require a license. Camping is also permitted for up to two nights on private property, while keeping 150 meters distance away from any houses. Whether just out for the day or on a larger trek, it’s important to observe the country-wide fire ban between April 15 and September 15 each year.

Sweden’s “unwritten” Right to Roam

Sweden’s right to access, or allemansrätten, is essentially the same as in Norway. But while access is granted in the constitution, the specifics of what it includes remains unspecified, making it more of an “unwritten law.” In any case, it is firmly established and elevated in the cultural norms, meaning both Swedes and visitors alike enjoy access to all uncultivated land and waters.

A liberal interpretation of Public Access in Finland

Finland’s jokamiehenoikeus is similarly not codified, but instead derives from a principle that states ‘what is not illegal cannot be punished.’ In other words, as there are no laws against non-intrusive access to private property, it is allowed.

Iceland’s outdoor access rights (with one exception)

Iceland’s almenningssátt is similarly enshrined in its Nature Conservation Act, which stipulates that everyone has the right to travel across and enjoy the country so long as they do not damage or spoil the natural ecosystems. Camping with no more than three tents is allowed on private, uncultivated property for one night, and berry and mushroom picking on private land requires the landowner’s permission. Importantly, use of lakes and rivers requires permission from rights holders.

Minimal roaming rights in Denmark

The exception is Denmark. While beaches, dunes and publicly owned forests are open to all, most of the country is privately owned agricultural land with no recognized right to access. Crossing uncultivated, private land is permitted during daylight hours, however, while keeping a distance of 150 meters from buildings. Wild camping is also permitted in specified areas.

 

 

The Baltics: Right to Roam, but with a catch

Right to Roam laws are also found on the other side of the Baltic Sea from the Nordic countries. Estonia’s Igaüheõigus (‘Everyone’s Right’), Latvia’s Dabas atvērtā visiem (‘Nature Open to Everyone’), and Lithuania’s Laisvė be apribojimų, permit roamers to access uncultivated land by foot, bicycle, skis, boats and horseback. Foragers can also pick berries and mushrooms, and camping is allowed for up to one night.

But there’s just one caveat to all of the above: Unless the owner forbids it. In other words, and unlike the Nordics, the Right to Roam is conditional in the Baltic countries. This means that if roamers pass signs or fences indicating that these rights are restricted, they must first obtain the landowner’s permission.

 

 

Germany, Austria and Switzerland: More regulated Public Access

Germany, Austria and Switzerland are all home to rich cultural landscapes, forests and mountains, and a thriving outdoor recreation community. Access to these spaces is therefore encouraged, albeit in a more limited form than in the Nordic countries.

In Germany, for example, the right to roam is known as betretungsrecht (‘right of entry’) and, depending on the activity, is protected under the Federal Nature Conservation Act (§49), the Federal Forest Act and the Federal Water Management Act. This grants everyone access to uncultivated land, forests and waters – but notably does not include camping, cycling or horseriding. These are all subject to state-specific laws and municipal bylaws.

Austria’s wegefreiheit (‘freedom of way’) has been stipulated in federal law since 1975. It technically grants the public access – by foot – to private uncultivated land. But in practice, this varies greatly from state to state, with landowners in several popular areas like Tyrol denying access.

Similarly, Switzerland’s Betretungsrecht or Droit de passage is guaranteed by the Swiss Civil Code, but typically only applies to hiking on established trails through private property, and does not allow for unrestricted access or camping.

The rest of the world: No trespassing

While there is a limited version in New Zealand that relates to camping, the right to access private property is virtually non-existent outside of Europe. Unfortunately to would-be trekkers, this is also true in the Western Hemisphere, for instance the U.S.

One country worth naming, however, is Canada. While access to private land is still restricted in Canada, access to the 89% of this vast country that is public – or “crown” – land is legally secured by what’s known as “Access to Crown Land.” How this looks may differ from province to province (and territory), but generally all crown lands are open for recreational purposes, based on the leave no trace principle. Camping is generally permitted – in some provinces for up to 21 days, after which one must move camps by at least 100 meters. Here, it is the camper’s responsibility to ensure the land is not in fact private, and to also identify and respect First Nations claims. Some additional restrictions may apply to non-residents.

 

Lead image: Kayak paddling outside of Gothenburg, Sweden (Photo: Henrik Trygg)

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jonathan.eidse@norragency.com
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