Today we’ve got a language post from the archives about the word “Allemannsretten.” Enjoy!

For all the similarities between Norwegian and American culture, I am perpetually fascinated by the differences, sometimes small and sometimes gaping, that I occasionally stumble across. One of the most interesting to me is the Norwegian concept of allemannsretten (ALL-eh-mahns-ret-en). Literally meaning “everyman’s right,” allemannsretten is also called “the freedom to roam” in English. Simply defined, allemannsretten makes it legal in most cases for people to walk through any piece of undeveloped private property without first obtaining the owner’s permission. You can even camp on someone else’s private property for one night, provided that you’re polite and stay at least 150 meters away from any buildings. In the US, we call this trespassing – I’ve been told that in some states it’s actually legal to shoot people for it – but in Norway (and a few other countries in Northern Europe) it’s a common law tradition that’s been around for a very long time.

Allemannsretten is not unlimited. Norwegian law makes a clear distinction between cultivated land (innmark) and uncultivated land (utmark). The law defines cultivated land as “farmyards, plots around houses and cabins, tilled fields, hay meadows, cultivated pasture, young plantations and similar areas where public access would unduly hinder the owner or user.” Pretty much anything else is considered to be uncultivated land. Cultivated land can be crossed on foot when the ground is frozen or covered with snow, although not during the period between April 30th and October 14th. What’s most interesting to me is that the law explicitly states that travelers making use of allemannsretten have to behave themselves. All users are expected to leave the area in the same condition they found it, and property owners have the right to eject campers, hikers or sunbathers who are being annoying or causing damage. You can read the entire law, in English, here.

While not exclusive to Norway, I first explored the concept during my first visit to the country several years ago. I was on the island of Stord, in Western Norway, traveling with relatives to visit some ancestral farms. This was mid-May, so between the jet lag, the excitement of being in Norway, and the near-constant sunlight, I was finding it very difficult to sleep. One night, long after my relatives had gone to bed, I decided to make the most of my insomnia by walking from downtown Leirvik, where we were staying, into the hills outside of town. There’s a network of well-traveled trails there, and I soon I found myself enjoying a pleasant stroll through the silent forest, alone in the stillness of the seemingly eternal Nordic twilight. I walked what I considered to be a moderate distance, probably just a few kilometers, when I came to a map. There I saw that my only reasonable options for getting back to the hotel were to backtrack or to cut through the woods, bushwhacking off of one trail to get to another. I never backtrack if I don’t absolutely have to (lots of my stories start this way) so off I plunged into the brush, remembering what I had read in my guidebook about allemannsretten.

This plan worked…moderately well. I could not have known that the backwoods of Stord are an excellent environment for a particularly thorny variety of holly, which covers the forest floor like rows of razor wire. (I could not have known, that is, unless I’d been paying more attention, as the holly bow is used as the sole motif of the community logo, which was in evidence all over town.) As I plowed through the undergrowth, the vicious little shrubs slashed my bare arms and legs, even drawing blood, but, being stubborn, and more or less surrounded but the stuff, there was nothing to do but keep going through it. Eventually I came to a particularly vast stand of holly, and decided to go around it, even though I could see this would take me close to the edge of the forest near some houses. I knew that at the forest edge I was still protected by allemannsretten, but given the late hour, I was very eager to avoid attracting attention to myself, so I decided I had better run until I was clear of the houses. Alas, I looked over my shoulder at the wrong moment, tripped, and landed face first in a huge holly bush. As I painfully extracted myself from its prickly embrace, I looked up and saw that I was in full view of the owner of a small house who, by happenstance, was clearly wide awake and working on some sort of carpentry project (evidently I was not the only one having trouble sleeping). The midnight carpenter looked up and regarded me, now covered in mud, lacerated and deeply embarrassed, with a look of weary disdain. Much to my relief, he simply shook his head and went back to work. Allemannsretten may obligate property owners to tolerate hikers, but it doesn’t force them to save anyone from their own stupidity. A valuable lesson.