The dusty wind swirled through my hair as we bounced along a gravel road. We were heading deep into the countryside in southern Norway for our annual hiking trip. The mid-June air was warm and welcoming as we finally parked the car on a riverbank. Mosquitos greeted us with open arms and a thirst for blood, which we would be amply reminded of in the coming days. We were ready to take advantage of the Norwegian concept of Allemannsretten, the freedom to roam.
The legal precedent of Freedom to Roam, in Norwegian referred to as Allemannsretten, was enacted by the Norwegian Outdoors Recreations Act in 1957. The law is based on the idea that everyone will have respect for the natural world they choose to enter, and that all visitors are expected to respect farmers, landowners and other users, as well as protect the environment. Similar ideas and laws exist throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but the custom is fairly averse to American traditions.
Several hours of hiking later, we arrived at our camp beside the lake. The landscape had shifted from deep pine forests to an open mountain covered in birch trees. We had set up camp at the edge of Hardangervidda, the great tundra covering the highlands of southern Norway, in an area where the land is partially privately-owned. We could see for miles and miles over the highland landscape. Nearby rivers and fishing lakes provided crystal-clear mountain water, cold enough to give us a few seconds of brain-freeze with every sip. It was a perfect spot for camping, at least for the maximum five days that it’s legal to camp in one place according to the laws of Allemannsretten.
The percentage of private land ownership is higher in Norway than in any other European country; almost 85 percent of land is privately owned. The monetary value of the land still belongs to the landowner, but they have no power of controlling or denying others the right to walk or camp on their land.
The concept of Allemannsretten, literally translated to “Every Man’s Right”, is a legal right that allows every man and woman to hike and stay wherever they like in the Norwegian wilderness, even when the land is not publicly owned. In other words, Norwegian nature is available to everyone, with no need to get a landowner’s permission to set out for a hike. Allemannsretten applies to hiking and camping in untamed nature.
Systems of economic exploitation that may produce value to the owner, such as logging, agricultural practices, hunting, and fishing do not fall under the same protection, and the rights to these activities must be procured through licenses. Only oceanic fishing can be done without obtaining official permission (including the brackish waters of Norway’s many, many fjords).
In the morning, we woke up early to catch a view of the sunrise and set out on a five-hour march into the wilderness of the plateau. It appeared we were alone. The solitude had a calming effect as I listened to the silence; I climbed into a little amateur, desolate, and windblown tree-hut to have a snack. As I leaned back against one of the timbers holding up the hut and scanned the area for wild animals, suddenly, I spotted a wild reindeer, one of the rarest animals at Hardangervidda, standing right in front of me. My heart beat at double speed. The grey, massive, beautiful animal had me enraptured as it crawled along the plains.
In recent years, certain downsides of Allemannsretten have become more apparent. During the summer holidays, the Norwegian wilderness is filled with often uninformed and unprepared foreign tourists. With Allemannsretten, no one has the jurisdiction to deny people from enjoying the nature, and so the number of tourists requiring rescue operations has grown dramatically in recent years. Rescuing underdressed tourists in flip flops and t-shirts has become such a big expense that the government ministers are actively researching and seeking a solution. The addition of guides in 2017 along the path to Trolltunga, one of the country’s most popular attractions, has shown promising success. Nevertheless, the freedom to go hiking whenever, wherever still stands as a paramount privilege, one that is central to the Norwegian lifestyle.
Back by the lake, we prepared dinner on the fire for the evening. We devoured a hearty meal of fresh trout smoked over oak logs with a dash of lemon, salt and pepper, with freshly-picked blueberries for dessert. As we were tucking into our sleeping bags at 2 am, the sunset threw a mixture of oranges and purples over the summer sky.
Want to learn more about concepts like Allemannsretten? Check out our Scandinavian language glossary.