This Land Is Our Land: Places in Europe Where Access to Nature Is a Basic Human Right
In some countries, you’re welcome to roam wherever you want. On an extended bike tour, one writer experienced the ins and outs of exercising that freedom. Here’s what she learned.
Sweden is so proud of the fact that its natural lands are accessible to everyone that the Swedish tourism board famously listed the entire country on Airbnb in 2017. Gorgeous photos of river banks, forest glens, and rocky beaches beckoned users to experience the countryside for free. This was no April Fool’s joke. It was (and is—the page is still active) a way of letting travelers know that they can camp, graze, sleep, and venture pretty much anywhere in the country that catches their eye. And it’s all completely free of charge thanks to a freedom granted by the Constitution of Sweden called allemansrӓtten, or “everyman’s right.”
While Sweden’s Airbnb campaign helped introduce the idea to the world at large, allemansrätten is not a new concept. A number of other European countries, including Scotland, Norway, and Estonia, observe similar rights. In some places these rights are seen as essential and basic; in other places they’re protected by law. So the concept permits everyone, whether resident or visitor, the broad right to use public and private land. In exchange for this “freedom to roam,” the users must respect the land and landowner and follow leave no trace principles.
A few years ago, I kicked off an eight-month European cycle tour with my husband and our dog in Oslo, Norway. We gladly accepted the country’s offer to sleep in almost any spot of our choosing. As newbies to “wild camping” (camping somewhere that is not a designated camp ground) and coming from the United States where fences, no trespassing signs, and designated boundaries clearly state that “this land is my land,” the concept felt outlandish at first.
We tested the waters, literally, on our first night, when heavy rains forced us to search for covered shelter in a small village called As. Unsure of exactly how to make use of our freedom to roam, we stopped a group of runners to ask where we could sleep for the night. They directed us to a community boat house. There, we settled below a deck to stay dry and hung our wet belongings beneath the roof of the bleachers. In the building next door, community members cleaned or worked on their boats; no one seemed to think twice about the two Americans camped out nearby. It was a bit dreary with the rain and cold weather, but we didn’t feel unwelcome, and most importantly, we found shelter without worrying about hiding.
Courtesy of sweden.withairbnb.com
Sweden’s Airbnb page lists examples of landscapes around the country that are open for exploration.
The following evening, we rode to the town of Moss. The skies shone blue and we elected to set up our tent among the trees in a lovely public park alongside a river. Norwegians take advantage of all decent weather and flock to the outdoors. This idyllic park was chock-full of strolling friends and picnicking families. Camping in a busy town park—much like camping in the boathouse—felt unusual, but passersby seemed to take little notice of our gear laid out in the wooded grounds. It was as though it were a completely normal sight. By the time we crossed the border into Sweden, we had become allemansrӓtten pros, camping in spaces just like the landscapes featured in the Airbnb listing for the country.
In these notoriously expensive countries, exercising our rights to use the land saved us hundreds of dollars, but more importantly, it allowed us to forge a connection with the people and the surrounding nature. Rather than hole up in a hotel room, we exposed ourselves to conversations with locals when we asked about where to camp or eat, which usually led to deeper discussions.
A fundamental freedom The freedom to roam is most widely recognized in the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, and with modified rules in Scotland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Czech Republic, and Switzerland. Although the names and specifics vary by country, the concept is the same:
- The general public is granted nonmotorized access to certain public or private lands for responsible recreational use.
- One may travel (by foot, ski, horse, bike, or boat) through, as well as forage and sometimes fish on uncultivated lands without the landowner’s permission.
- Camping for one or two nights is permissible, provided the user does not camp within close proximity (usually 200-300 feet) of the landowner’s home or in gardens or agricultural areas.
- Users must also refrain from making too much noise.
Economic pursuits—such as hunting, logging, or selling foraged goods—and activities that may destroy the land, like fires, are usually not allowed. Use of a propane stove, however, is permissible, and we took advantage of that allowance to cook the produce we purchased from local markets each day. Finally, the user may not disturb or damage wildlife or crops and is expected to pick up all trash, leaving the area in better condition than it was found.
In essence, everyman’s right assumes that outdoor recreational activities are permitted wherever they are not explicitly implied; in most other countries, the opposite holds true.
Since each country allows different rights, it’s a good idea to look into those rights before plunking down on someone’s land—and when in doubt, ask! We often found ourselves wondering whether the picturesque waterfront campsites we eyed on private property throughout Sweden were fair game. We never set up camp until we knocked on doors or found other locals to ask. And sometimes, they would point us toward even more beautiful and secluded locations.
In these countries, the outdoors welcomes everyone, regardless of financial means, experience, or point of origin. With no fences or signs deterring passage through private property, “land of the free” takes on a whole new meaning. Anyone can climb any mountain, swim in an inviting body of water on a hot day, or pick mushrooms to cook at an evening campfire without worrying about breaking the law. Allemansrätten welcomes all to forge deeper connections to nature and the environment. In these countries, the message is that the entire world is open. So go out and enjoy it. >>Next: 10 of Europe’s Greatest Cycling Routes