The Right to Roam
Scandinavia has many social advantages that we hear about in America – the right to education and the right to health care access are a few examples. But there’s another set of rights that they have, and I find them fascinating. Some of these Nordic countries, Finland included, have what is called the constitutional “Right to Roam,” or “Jokamiehenoikeus” in Finnish. “Everyman’s Right.” The translation of this Right makes many people – in America, at least - uncomfortable. So what is this Right? We don’t have it in our own constitution. I first discovered Jokamiehenoikeus while on a backpacking trip in Finland. I had an open-ended itinerary and decided to purchase a bicycle and exercise my “Right to Roam” as a visitor. I rode the bike from Oulu to Pori along the Gulf of Bothnia, a distance of 499 kilometers (or 310 miles). The trip took roughly 16 days. Along the way, I followed the rules of the Right: I could pitch a tent to camp on and explore any public OR private land, with few exceptions. To be clear, there are rules and laws surrounding this concept. Just because the idea of trespassing doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean there aren’t other laws of conduct. For example, you may not harm the environment or others, disturb property owners or break any laws. The camping laws vary by country, but in Finland you cannot build a fire without express permission of the property owners, and you have essentially two nights maximum at each location you decide to camp in for free. Leave gates as you found them once you’ve passed through, don’t leave garbage behind, etc. You are basically supposed to stay out of the way and not be obnoxious. (Setting up your tent at least 150 meters from a residence, for example). Unlimited foraging of wild plants is completely legal, at your own risk. (I took advantage of this, having a lovely wild raspberry breakfast one morning in the woods). You must be on foot or have non-motorized wheels, and camp outside city limits. (They have helpful signs showing you when you've crossed into and out of city limits). In such countries, you may own your land, but there are still public access rights.
Gasp! So, they let people who choose to be homeless actually camp in their front yards?! Pretty much. What about liability? What about it? If both parties follow the law, there’s no issue. Besides, the law tends to side with the landowner anyway. What about the crime, drugs and violence that surrounds homelessness?! Well, it’s worth noting that there are no actual “homeless” people in Finland, due to their “housing first” policy. But you also don't HAVE to take the housing. It’s actually pretty inspiring – if the social norms don’t fit you, then you have the right to opt out. There is no crime or stigma against being homeless. Anyone who chooses a nomadic lifestyle has the right to throw their backpack on and go!
My first night out I spotted a rickety, 3-walled barn near the highway. After bringing the bike inside and setting up my bright yellow tent in the corner, I tentatively (no pun intended!) watched the residence on the property, some 200 meters away. The driveway ran right past the old barn where I was cowering, but no one was home yet. I tried to sleep, scared to death even though I knew it was completely legal. In my American mind, I was about to get screamed at and possibly assaulted for trespassing. I heard a vehicle turn into the driveway and scrambled out of my tent. The owners of the home barely glanced my way before parking and heading into their house. My tent was fully visible but I didn’t hear a peep from them, other than their car leaving for work in the morning. After that I took confidence in my camping practices, even camping inside a sauna on a school’s playground during a storm and packing up to leave as the children came to school the next morning. No one even blinked. The mere mention of the Right to Roam seems to frighten Americans even more than the phrase “free healthcare.” We live in a country where you have to be defensive and distant in regards to others. We are required to be clannish and reject “outsiders” to hoard what we have. It’s the culture. We build walls; not all of them wood, metal or brick.
Scandinavian culture is simply different. I saw some amazing things in Finland. There are public playgrounds for adults in the parks and on the beaches, and on children’s playgrounds, too! So instead of adults glued to their phones, parked on a bench while their kids play on a public playground, there is workout equipment that faces the kids’ equipment. They can work out on the same kinds of equipment you see at the gym and keep an eye on their kids. No fees.
There was an amazing adult jungle gym on a beach near Vaasa. It was a public ropes course with a trampoline in the center. Things like that would be vandalized in America.
Biking the coast was made easy because they had a private bike highway parallel to the vehicle highway, with its own sign system and exits. You rarely, if ever, had to share a road with cars. The bike road was about one car width and had the occasional bench and overpass. This made it very safe and absolutely fun for pedestrians wanting to cross the entire country. All taxpayer funded, and beautifully maintained. Pedestrian fatalities are low and commuting by bicycle is extremely common. In my first few days on the bike road, I noticed bicycles left on the ground alongside the lane here and there, for no apparent reason. I marveled at the good shape all of these bikes were in, as well as at the lack of locks. They were certainly nicer than my € 600 P.O.S.! One afternoon I saw a child get off a school bus, pick up one of these “abandoned” bikes and ride home. It clicked! All these bikes littering the grass belonged to people – people who felt confident enough to leave their bike unattended at the side of the road all day with no fear of vandalism or theft. In fact, Finland’s overall crime level, per capita, is extremely low. Why does this work? Well, in America it’s “dog eat dog.” In Nordic countries the dog pack works together for the benefit of the hunt. It’s a cultural mind set - a social structure around the good of the community (which is why they take care of their children, pregnant and nursing mothers, their old and their sick). Having that much confidence in maintaining blind trust in strangers is a testament to why having said strangers camp in your front yard would not be a big deal. We could really use some of that community respect, trust and care in our own culture. We are so used to taking advantage of others and likewise treating others with mistrust and (and lawsuits!) in our country, and it’s really too bad. We’re missing out.