Hiking in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast this winter (see previous posts) has reminded us that North Americans cling to a uniquely narrow definition of hiking.
In the U.S. and Canada, hikers expect to depart civilization at the trailhead and remain severed from it for the duration of their hike. Anything less than pristine wilderness, they believe, sullies the experience. In Europe, civilization is often integral to hiking. European hikers don’t expect to always leave civilization behind; they know they’ll encounter it at least occasionally. This doesn’t disappoint them; they appreciate it.
The majority of European hiking trails are historic. Outside the high Alps, many trails are on terraces held in place by ancient stone walls. Others are cobbled for long distances. European trails frequently pass, or grant views of, villages, castles, and myriad structures that are either still used or are now in ruins. Sometimes European trails briefly merge with roads, even paved roads. At higher elevations, most trails link huts or refuges, where hikers who’ve reserved ahead will have everything they need waiting for them: a hearty meal, a comfortable bed, and perhaps a hot shower.
So is hiking inferior in Europe? In our opinion, no. We love hiking here. The European definition of “hiking,” which embraces rather than spurns civilization, allows far more opportunities to hike. It can even make hiking more intriguing and rewarding. Spiderwebbing networks of trails in Europe allow you to tailor each trip to your circumstances, sometimes on the fly. Loops, in which you never retrace a step, are frequently possible. Here, trailheads disperse rather than funnel hikers.
North America and Europe are as different—geographically, historically, culturally—as they are distant. North America, with its vast tracts of wilderness, allows hikers the luxury of insisting that civilization and hiking be mutually exclusive. And many European hikers travel to North America to immerse themselves in “pure nature.” But relatively few hikers from North America reciprocate. They wince at the thought of hiking in “crowded Europe.” We believe their assumptions of Europe are inaccurate, and their view of hiking is blinkered.
We’ve devoted our lives to hiking. The wilds of North America are our natural habitat. Our home in the Canadian Rockies backs onto a mountainside frequented by grizzly bears, cougars, and elk. Yet the months we’ve hiked in Europe—ascending mule tracks through olive groves and medieval hamlets to mountaintops crowned with shrines, frequently greeting our fellow hikers en route—and the months we’ve backpacked in North America—through remote mountains and obscure canyons where we were utterly alone—have been equally joyful.