Stepping out into nature involves a natural progression. To paraphrase Cam Honan, explorer and author of beautiful new coffee-table book The Hidden Tracks: Wanderlust off the Beaten Path, one steps into nature first as a stranger, then becomes a guest, and finally, family. Honan’s point is that what can at first seem daunting and immensely foreign soon becomes comfortable and familiar, given enough investment, blisters, and love.
To help you get to that point where the unknown becomes an exciting new playground, Honan has collected some of his favourite off-grid excursions from around the world. We’re not just talking about Lake District loops known only to secretive locals, but proper adventures taking in many countries that might not have been top of your ‘to-do’ list, but certainly will be now.
To mark Honan’s book, here the author shares some of his insights, recommendations and advice on some of the most challenging hikes in Europe.
1. Europe’s last great wilderness
Duration: 5-7 days
The remote location of Sarek National Park, combined with its rugged and trail-less terrain makes it an off-the-beaten-path trail perfect for experienced climbers, cross-country skiers, and hikers. Located in Swedish Lapland, this pristine landscape boasts more than 100 glaciers, six of the country’s highest peaks and an array of wildlife including bears, lynx and moose. With no tourist infrastructure and almost no paths, Sarek is to Sweden what Alaska is to America – a raw, untamed land where dreams of outdoor adventures await.
The best route begins in Akkastugorna in the east and finishes at the Saltoluokta lodge in the west. Both trailheads are accessible via short boat rides from Ritsem and Kebnats respectively. In the space of 109km the route passes through alpine tundra and glaciated valleys offering spectacular views of surrounding snow peaks. During the hike trekkers will pass freezing rivers, trudge their way through soggy terrain and traverse open plains which for millennia have served as migratory paths for herds of reindeer in search of foraging grounds.
Due to the unpredictable nature of meteorological conditions in Sarek, there are no guarantees as to how many of these beautiful features will be visible at any one time. And it goes without saying that the park is not a place you want to be without good backcountry skills, the right attire and quality rain gear. To the unprepared Sarek can be very unforgiving – not for nothing is it known as Europe’s 'last great wilderness'.
2. The mysterious Accursed Mountains
Where? Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo
Duration: 9 - 12 days
Up until recently, the Balkans’ Accursed Mountains was one of the most dangerous regions in the world. However, over the past couple of decades the area has undergone a remarkable transformation and what was once a no-go zone is now an inviting place for hikers looking to experience long-hidden treasures.
The Peaks of the Balklands trail is a 192km loop passing through the beautiful and rugged borderlands of Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Developed by local and international development groups, the trail’s goal is to foster a sense of cross-border unity, assist in protecting local flora and fauna, and help locals create a sustainable form of eco-friendly income.
The routes link ancient mountain villages via unpaved forestry roads and are well-marked and easy to follow with a number of possible starting points, including Theth (Albania), Plav (Montenegro) and Allages (Kosovo).
You’ll be following in the footsteps of shepherds and traders, taking in lush green valleys, flower-laden alpine meadows and scenic mountain passes. But what's really of interest are the hundreds of thousands of abandoned bunkers and pillboxes guarding lonely mountain passes – a remnant of a more turbulent past.
Given the remote nature of certain sections of the trail, it is generally recommended to hire a guide, or at least know a little of the local languages to help you converse with local villagers in-between seeing off complementary glasses of the local firewater, rakija.
3. Hidden valleys and ancient stone towers
Duration: 4 days
Svaneti is a high and remote mountain region in northwestern Georgia. Part of the Caucasus range that extends between the Black and Caspian Seas, it is home to the Svans, a fiercely independent people famous for their singing, and their blood feuds. These days, though, you’re far more likely to see more of the former.
Until the early part of this century Svaneti had remained largely isolated from the outside world, but in recent years more and more visitors have flocked to the area, drawn by its singular culture, history, and some of the most pristine mountain landscapes in Eurasia.
The trek between Mestia and Ushguli encapsulates all of the varied elements that make the region unique, including craggy peaks, alpine meadows, and picturesque valleys. Most notably, these valleys house ancient villages renowned for their ‘koshki’, a collection of over 200 World Heritage-listed stone towers dating back to between the 9th and 13th centuries and built for defence against invaders.
Arguably the best part of the trek is staying at the local rough and ready guesthouses. While there might not be any wi-fi, there will be plentiful khachapuri – a local cheese filled bread served mixed with eggs, meat, and potatoes – a vital part of Georgian culinary tradition.
4. Slovenia’s rite of passage
Distance: 33 km
Duration: 2-3 days
Level: Moderate to challenging
At 2,864m, Mount Triglav is Slovenia’s highest mountain and permanent national symbol. So much so that it’s even depicted on the country’s flag. Climbing it, then, is a rite of passage in the country, and should be for you too. Of the multiple routes that lead to its summit the most scenic is via the legendary Seven Lakes Valley, a place known for its karst topography, chamois folklore, and of course, picture-perfect lakes. Dotted with mountain huts and myriad trail options, the area is made to be explored on foot.
The Southern Triglav Horseshoe trail is located on the southern side of the mountain and ascends via the Seven Lakes Valley before descending via Voje Valley. In terms of difficulty, it can be done by a fit hiker with a reasonable amount of experience and a good head for heights.
To begin with, the trail will climb through peaceful beech forest before becoming steeper and more challenging (hard hats are a suggested recommendation). Thankfully, there is overnight accommodation available on the mountain, at 2,151m providing hearty food, red wine and more often than not, an international cast of diners.
The next morning sees a 2-3 hour push to the summit along via ferrata, which is where the head for heights comes in handy.
5. Traverse Scotland’s misty isle
Duration: 7 days
Level: Moderate to challenging
Skye is an island steeped in legend and natural beauty. Mythical tales of fairies and giants are woven together with stories of dramatic mountain and coastal landscapes. The Skye Trail spans the length of the island from Broadford in the south to Rubha Hunish in the north.
Most hikers take seven days to complete the trail and although it can be done in either direction, it is recommended to head northward, ending with a climb up Trotternish Ridge before arriving in Rubha Hunish. It pays, however, to be aware that the island is renowned for its inclement weather and Skye itself comes from the Norse word for ‘Isle of Cloud’.
Whatever the weather, the trail is certainly a challenge. It is unmarked, untamed, and often remote. As such, it’s best suited to fit and experienced ramblers. The route itself takes in rugged coasts, exposed mountain ridges, storied glens and deserted villages – a highland tour de force from start to finish.
Find out how Red Bull helps to preserve nature and protect the environment with every can.