Travel topics > Activities > Outdoor life > Right to access in the Nordic countries
| Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden|
Vikings and the Old Norse • History • Sami culture • Winter • Right to access • Boating • Hiking • Cuisine • Music • Nordic Noir
The right to access in Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden allows people – foreigners as well as locals – to hike and camp more or less freely in the woods and in the mountains, regardless of land ownership. Although the Nordic countries are not cheap destinations overall, outdoor life does not need to cost much (and even those mostly visiting cities can sometimes avoid paying for accommodation). In Denmark, with a higher population density, you do not have the same rights, see Primitive camping in Denmark for some details.
With camping equipment (suited for the season) you can avoiding expenses for indoor accommodation, or even campsites, most nights – enjoying breathtaking sceneries, eating wild berries, swimming in lakes you have for yourselves, and listening to sounds of birds and the wind (or to the deep silence of Nordic nature).
Obviously this right is not a free for all: there are rules and limitations that you should keep in mind, to make life easier for everybody and preserve the landscapes (and these rights) for the next generation. For organized events or commercial activity the rules may be somewhat stricter than for individual hikers. The right to access may of course be limited in national parks and the like.
The right to access or "Every Man's Right" has traditions from the time when it was of fundamental importance for countryside people not owning land, and the commons important also for landowning farmers. In the early 20th century recreation outdoors was realized to be important for city dwellers, and the right became commonly understood to apply also for strangers.
Although the right to access has a long tradition, it is not well defined. It is mostly based on tradition, on the "what is not forbidden is allowed" principle, and the lack of a right for landowners to restrict these freedoms. In the last decades formalizing the right has been discussed, but often new explicit law has been found problematic and status quo sufficient.
In Norway there is the "outdoors law", Friluftsloven, defining the right to access in some detail. In Sweden the right is recognized by the law, but not defined. In Finland some of the freedoms are recognized in the law, but the concept is not defined.
As the right to access is based on allowing what is not forbidden, it does not give permission to break any laws or regulations. It also does not allow harming nature, causing damage or disturbing people.
Walking and passing
In these countries, you have the right to walk or ski across uncultivated lands. That means you can walk if there aren't any farmlands and you are not crossing people's yards and gardens. For farmland, you may cross fields using existing paths and when they are covered with snow (and risk no damage). In Iceland all cultivated or enclosed areas are exempted and always require landowner's permission (using roads through them is allowed, though). Also in Norway the rights are severely restricted in enclosed pastures near the farms – go for the wilderness instead.
If there are fences, you should look for gates and follow paths, also if there is no apparent farmland (there might be animals, such as sheep or cattle in the area, so always close any gates you open). Also, if there are newly planted trees in an area, you cannot walk through. Other than that, you can pretty much go wherever you like, except areas specifically protected (nature reserves, military areas etc.).
- See also: Boating on the Baltic Sea
If using a boat, you should be careful about not disturbing nesting birds, and birds with offspring, in spring and summer. There are often crows and gulls around, waiting for an opportunity to get eggs and chicks. Keep your distance to swimming bird flocks with young and do not land on islets with nesting birds.
You are not allowed to use private jetties without permission, and you should leave a reasonable distance to cottages and the like. In Finland, new cottages usually have to be built 50 m from the shore, which means they are out of sight until you approach land. In popular areas you may have to make many tries before you find a suitable natural harbour not occupied by cottages (cottages are often marked on new charts, but not all of them). In Norway, motor vessels are generally forbidden on lakes and rivers.
Camping and picnicking
Camping is allowed for at least one night in Sweden, one or two nights in Iceland, in Norway two nights in normal countryside and as long as you wish in the wilderness, in Finland "temporarily", which means at least one night and at least two nights if you behave, probably more in the wilderness. You should not camp near houses, huts or farmlands, where "near" means 150 metres in Norway and in all countries far enough that you do not inconvenience anyone and particularly not those in the nearest house. As long as you keep out of the way there should be no problems. In Norway the landowner has the right to tell visitors to leave if visitors cause damage to the land or in other ways are clearly inconsiderate. In Åland you should ask the landowner if possible, but otherwise staying one day and night should be OK. Obviously at areas specifically designated for camping, such as paid campsites, you will camp near others.
While "out of the way" might sound harsh, there really is no reason to camp close to anybody who might be bothered by your presence; much of the time there will be kilometres of forest or open space behind anybody's dwelling. Do keep reasonable distance and if in doubt, more is better, as people in the Nordic countries really value personal space.
When in the more densely populated areas, there may be houses and fields everywhere by your route (if you follow roads). But if you take a local road, you will pretty much instantly find routes into the woods (in Iceland you won't find woods, just find a road out of the built-up area). A map will help, as some of the roads only lead to houses, more of them in some spots than in others, and some of the woods are too small.
This mostly works also near cities, although you need to avoid the suburbs. There are usually many suitable woods in reach by local buses.
For picnicking the same principles apply, but having a picnick where people see you is not a problem. Just keep off anything that can be perceived as a backyard wood to one or a few families.
In many areas the water of springs, streams and lakes can be used even for drinking, though boiling it to get rid of possible biological contaminants can do no harm. Using private wells requires permission, even when they are far from a house (but if you ask for water in a countryside house, they will with few exceptions be happy to help you).
Campfires are allowed in some circumstances, but rules differ between the countries.
The general rule is not to cut down any trees and not to risk wildfire, i.e. do not harm the natural environment or economical values. Build the campfire in such a way that it cannot spread and do not make open fire when wildfires are likely (in practice or according to official warnings, in Finland broadcast with most weather forecasts). Keep enough water on hand to extinguish the fire if it gets out of hand or when you are done. When you leave, make sure the remnants are cool, below as well as above the surface. Do not make the fire on smooth cliffs, which will crack, or peat, which is hard to extinguish reliably and can smolder below the surface invisibly for days only to cause a major wildfire later. Leave no trace, unless there is an established fireplace, which you could mend as needed.
In Finland you always need landowner permission, but that permission is granted to the public in large areas of state owned land in the north. In Iceland fire is permitted outside protected areas where there is no risk for wildfire or other damage (but firewood is scarce). In Norway they are forbidden in the summer (generally 15 April to 15 September, subject to decisions by local authorities), unless the fire is totally safe, such as at built campfire places in suitable conditions. In Sweden campfires are allowed as long as you are careful enough and there is no local (permanent or temporary) prohibition. Make sure you recognize conditions where wildfires can be lit by a spark or fire easily gets out of control.
Note that being allowed to make a fire does not mean you can chop trees for firewood. Also leave aesthetically or ecologically valuable dead logs alone. Use twigs on the ground and similar instead.
In national parks, recreational areas and similar, there are often campfire sites with firewood provided for free (or included in fees for accommodation). If the fireplace is by an open wilderness hut or the like, do not take the firewood from indoors (other than possibly a little to get the fire going), but from the woodshed. If there is little wood in the shed, do not use it, but find the place from which to replenish or give up, leaving the wood for emergencies. If only some of the wood is chopped, make more instead of what you use.
In any case, do not make excessively big campfires, but use firewood sparingly.
Living off the land
- See also: Foraging
It is generally OK to pick wild mushrooms and berries, unless they grow in apparently cultivated areas. In Iceland berry picking is restricted to what you eat immediately, in Denmark to "reasonable", non-commercial picking. Wild nuts can be picked in Norway if you eat them on the spot, in Finland you can freely pick nuts from the ground.
If you plan to pick mushrooms, a good mushroom guidebook comes highly recommended. They can be rather expensive, but are well worth their price – there are really nasty mushrooms, even lethal, and e.g. the European destroying angel resembles young field mushrooms (this example being a danger Asian mushroom pickers are not accustomed to). There are also poisonous berries, but few that cannot easily be distinguished from the edible ones.
Note that picking cloudberry, a yellow raspberry-looking Arctic delicacy, is strictly regulated in northern Norway. Picking and eating some berries is always allowed, though. Also in Finnish Lapland, commercial cloudberry picking may be restricted. Otherwise you are free to pick wild berries and sell them on the market to get some pocket money (no taxes involved, but check the procedures and fees for getting a spot at the market, selling outside a local grocery store may also be an option).
Hunting always requires licences and permission.
As a general principle, rod fishing is allowed in the ocean (including the Baltic Sea), but prohibited, or very restricted, in freshwater. In Finland there is no difference between the sea and fresh water: there fishing with rod without reel and without artificial bait is included in the right to access in the sea and in most fresh waters, with salmon rivers being the main exception. In Norway using living bait or fish as bait is prohibited when using the right to fish in the ocean. In Sweden the biggest lakes are treated like the sea.
There are minimum sizes and other regulations, varying by country and sometimes locally. Check these separately.
The right to access does not include net-fishing or other large-scale equipment. Nets and traps are still often used also in recreational fishing. Most landowners in the countryside own a share of the waters, so if you have a local host you may be able to join such a fishing expedition. You may need to pay a national fee also for this.
A fishing permit for local freshwaters (and general lure and reel fishing in Finland) can usually be purchased easily. Ask e.g. at the tourist agency, or in Finland, any local R-Kioski, which sells the permits.
Leave no trace
No matter where you go and what you do, you are still required to leave no trace of your visit. This means you shouldn't leave any trash behind, and make sure your camp site is tidy and will recover quickly. Do not cut down any trees or break off any branches. Keep those rules in mind to ensure both the nature you enjoy and the right to access can be sustained for generations to come.
The right to access does not cover motorized vehicles. You can use most private roads, but you must not drive in the terrain (if going to use a snowmobile, check the specific rules for the area). This is especially important in Iceland, with its fragile nature. If you find a suitable place to park your car or motorbike, you can still camp like if hiking.
If you use a camping van, you should mostly use paid campsites, especially in Norway. Parking lots and rest areas are a scarce resource in the mountains and some other areas, so keeping them occupied for longer than necessary is not popular (although you will probably not hear any comments). In Northern Finland, on the other hand, population is sparse and tourists not many enough for this to be a problem, so staying the night at a rest area or leaving your van for a hike in a wilderness area is OK there.
You will sometimes see "ei läpikulkua" and "no camping" signs. The right to access is mainly about the landowners lack of right to forbid passing through and camping on their lands, so these signs may be illegal, and may certainly be questioned by the locals. But – the signs clearly show that somebody is being inconvenienced by these actions (such signs are often found along popular tourist routes and near the grounds of big events), so you may want to comply. Usually you can just go a few hundred metres farther, make sure you're out of the way and the problem is solved.
Although the signs usually have no legal bearing in themselves, sometimes they are found in places where camping without permission is indeed forbidden, such as just behind somebody's garden. In other cases many previous visitors have caused problems by e.g. being loud, making illegal campfires and leaving garbage. Although you would not, people in the nearby houses cannot know beforehand.
A related issue concerns areas around some cabins in popular hiking regions in Norway, such as Jotunheimen. Of the many who choose to camp on their own on their hikes, some have still used outhouses of paid accommodation sites – many enough to irritate those maintaining the facilities. Because of that, camping up to two kilometres from these cottages has been forbidden.
The limitations are probably illegal, and many Norwegians would love to be taken to court over it. But as with the "no camping" signs, you may have some sympathy with those not wanting you to camp there, and you probably do not want to go to a Norwegian court.
To comply, you have two options: either do not camp near these cabins (there is indeed enough ground to choose from elsewhere), or pay for camping by them. For other Norwegian cabins, the standard 150 m is enough, but paying and using the facilities is of course a good option also for these.
Note that in Finland, camping by infrastructure, such as open wilderness huts, lean-to shelters and campfire sites, is indeed the recommended way (and free), to spare grounds elsewhere. Here you only have to avoid private or rented cottages and those reservation huts that are not combined with an open wilderness hut. Still, keep some distance (perhaps half a stone's throw), to let also other people use the facilities without thinking they would disturb you.