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When on holiday, I want to get as far as possible from civilisation — the furthest I've come is seeing only a single cairn during a full day. In Scandinavia, hiking and camping is permitted unless explicitly forbidden (the right to roam or allemansrätten in Swedish). In most of western Europe hiking is allowed, camping by default is not (but may be tolerated under circumstances). From browsing the web, I have the impression that it's yet different in e.g. the U.S., and that there exists such a thing as a "wilderness permit".

In the U.S., is there anything like the Scandinavian right to roam (e.g. the right to hike and camp anywhere away from habitation)? Am I by default allowed to go and camp where I want unless otherwise stated, or am I by default forbidden to go and camp unless otherwise stated? Where can I find a clear overview and what exactly are those permits about? Are those something to worry about in practice, or are they just a bureaucratic formality?

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How do you apply the "away from habitation" ? is 1km from the nearest habitation ? –  Amine Aug 1 '12 at 13:51
    
I like to be at least a full day hiking away from the nearest place reachable by car or public transport. –  gerrit Aug 1 '12 at 14:29
    
Ok but what does the Swedish law states about the right to roam distance wise ? –  Amine Aug 1 '12 at 15:09
    
Nothing explicit. The right to roam is in not even explicitly written in law, but it has some other legal status (IANAL). If you're close to habitation or cultivated land you should ask permission from the owner, otherwise you're free to go and camp, regardless of ownership. –  gerrit Aug 2 '12 at 7:42
    
In Scotland, the law of Trespass doesn't exactly exist, so aside from a few specifics, you can hike and camp overnight in most of the countryside. –  Rory Alsop Aug 3 '12 at 22:44
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2 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Short Answer: In the US, laws regulating land use are detailed and varied, even on Public Lands. Check with the local land agency before "roaming."

Long Answer:

Loosely you can divide open space in the US into two main categories: Private and Public.

Private Land: The laws governing private land vary by state. In Texas, for example, a landowner is well within his rights to shoot trespassers that he "reasonably feels" are threatening him, or his property. (Known as the Castle Law - as in a Man's Home is His Castle).

Property lines becomes hazy with regards to river right-of ways (canoeing / kayaking) with some areas defining public right-of-way as the waterline, others as the flood-line. In general, as long as you stay in your boat, you should be able to pass through private land, but you might not be allowed to fish from their banks.

Public Land: The rules concerning public land vary between agencies. State Parks, State Forests, National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Land, National Wildlife Refuges, National Grasslands... etc.

Even Within each of these, there will be differences in what you are allowed to do. Wilderness, Primitive, Roadless are some of the different sub-sections you might find within a single National Forest, or National Park or BLM Land. Most regulations regard the usage of vehicles (where you can and can't drive) and camping. But some rules apply to hiking as well.

The most restrictive are usually National Parks and Monuments - which often have permit systems for overnight hiking, and designated camping areas.

National Forests vary widely on whether you need a permit or not, especially concerning Wilderness areas, which might limit usage / group size to protect the resource. These might also include where you can camp (distance from bodies of water) whether you can have camp fires, etc... or even whether you need a permit. These regulations vary by National Forest.

Generally, however, on non-Wilderness, National Forest or BLM land, you are free to travel on any established, marked road, and camp in any established dispersed camping area (ie, one already barren and obviously been used for camping).

Limits on how long you are allowed to stay exist (usually 14 days).

Conclusion: The US has an awesome system of public lands (quite possibly the country's most redeeming property). However, the right to roam (or the regulation against) varies widely. Check with the local Public Land's office when you arrive in an area to determine what is or is not allowed. (And why... Surprisingly, most of the rules are in place to help protect the resource from over-use, not to ruin your trip.)

As for whether these rules are a "bureaucratic formality": No. Ignoring the regulations are a tickit-able misdemeanor that carries the same weight as a traffic violation, punishable by fines and jail time. In reality, most carry a modest fine, but failure to pay can result in your arrest.

And, as is the case with all laws in the US - Ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating it.

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I understand that the rules are in place to help protect the resource from over-use — just a bit surprised that areas are so popular that this becomes an issue. AFAIK not a single national park in Europe has a permit system for anything (camping is either allowed or (usually) not allowed at all). Apart from winter-sports, I don't think Europe really has any mass-tourism into natural areas. Can get busy on trails in the alps, but mass-tourism, not really... –  gerrit Aug 2 '12 at 21:20
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@gerrit It's not necessarily that they are "so popular" but often an attempt to keep good opportunities for solitude. I've been in vast tracts of Wilderness that are limited to ~10 people per day -- so you run a very good chance of not seeing another soul on your trip. That's good management. –  LBell Sep 23 '12 at 5:37
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Unless it is in a national park/forest or private property you should be able to go where you want. I have never been bothered as long as I was in a public area. They require wilderness permits in national parks to protect the wilderness and know if someone might be in trouble. If you don't show up on time they can send S&R in after you. If you are driving along I-80 in Nevada and decide you want to go to the top of "that mountain over there", unless it is one of the "controlled" areas, you are good to go.

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National Forest and National Parks are not the same. Most National Forest is open, but most National Parks require permits. In addition State Parks require a permit in most cases. –  Russell Steen Jul 31 '12 at 23:28
    
yep, when I went to go change something I erased more than I wanted and missed it when I re-typed it. Thanks for the catch, edited. –  BillyNair Aug 1 '12 at 3:23
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Most permit systems exist to limit usage, not to track you. Search and Rescue should never be expected - regardless of whether you have a permit or not. –  LBell Aug 2 '12 at 14:38
    
I guess you are right, don't count on S&R, that is just one of the reasons why I was told to get a wilderness pass in Yosemite. Maybe to search for your remains... –  BillyNair Aug 2 '12 at 21:51
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