Summer is an elusive season in Norway. In this Scandinavian country, perched at the same latitudes as Alaska, Greenland and Siberia, snow and ice stubbornly cling to the wilderness well into May and then reappear with a jolt in the early fall.
But summer -- when it finally does arrive -- opens a window into this country's love affair with its natural surroundings, as Norwegians of all social strata bound into the outdoors the moment the snow begins its retreat.
Exploring nature may be Norway's unofficial national pastime. Even in the darkness of winter, Norwegians brave subzero temperatures to ski in the mountains and on the many cross-country trails. The nation's open air, or allemansretten, act, passed in 1957, guarantees public access to wilderness areas even on private land, and an impassioned tradition of nature walking has blossomed against one of Europe's most stunning natural backdrops.
In fact, this country of 4.5 million is a champion of wilderness walking in a way unknown to most Americans. More than 200,000 Norwegians are members of the country's national outdoor club, the Den Norske Turistforening (the Norwegian Mountain Touring Association), which maintains hiking trails and an expansive network of mountain cabins open to members and tourists alike.
In contrast, the 129-year-old Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest conservation and recreation organization in the United States, counts about 90,000 members
Norwegians, as I discovered during a four-day hiking expedition to the wind-swept Hardangervidda National Park a few summers ago, embrace the outdoors with an almost reverential fervor.
During a trek with a hiking companion, Tim Goldsmid, I met Norwegian hikers of all shapes -- from a family with a pair of blond-haired children in tow, to an older couple sharing sips of tea out of a thermos on a rocky outcrop along the trail.
While we were on vacation thousands of miles from home, many Norwegians often escape for a one- or two-day wilderness trip.
"Hiking is a very special tradition here, because so many people live close to nature in Norway," said Anne Marie Hjelle, the director of the touring association, known as DNT. "Starting in kindergarten, children spend time in parks and the forest. Nature is all around us here, and it's something Norwegians feel very special about."
But while Norwegians fan out into the national parks in the summer, the country escapes much of the tourist crush that deluges Europe's more populous mountain regions. The well-traveled destinations in the Alps bubble over with vacationers ogling the snow-crowned peaks. Norway offers the perfect antidote: a remote and ragged landscape carved by majestic fjords into peaks and valleys that remain largely out of the path of the tourist stampede.
Hiking is the best avenue to explore Norway's national parks, many of which get scant numbers of visitors. The DNT's network of designated hiking trails form a web of routes crisscrossing the wilderness. Official trails are marked by the DNT's signature symbol: a T formed by a splotch of firetruck-red paint dotting rocks and trees every 100 feet or so along the serpentine routes.
Founded in 1868, the DNT, whose Oslo headquarters are staffed by friendly people who know English, organizes hiking excursions with certified guides.
Largest national park
Perhaps the most distinctive hiking in all of Norway is found in the south-central part of the country, in the Hardangervidda National Park, the nation's largest, about 100 miles west of Oslo. It is a desolate lunarlike landscape of moors and highlands, with boulder-strewn fields, glacier-fed rivers, snow-flanked peaks and shimmering pools.
Our days in Hardangervidda often began sunny, yet by midmorning, metallic-gray cloud bands would roll in from the west, casting a monochrome glow. The national park makes up one-third of the Hardanger plateau, a 3,860-square-mile wilderness (four-fifths the size of Connecticut) that is home to thousands of wild reindeer.
A good reason to invest in a $68 annual membership in DNT is to qualify for discounts on its 400 mountain cabins, which are sprinkled throughout national parks and wilderness areas. The cabins, known as turisthytter, vary from rustic mountain refuges with grass-covered roofs to grand timber-sided lodges sleeping up to 200.
The huts provide a hot dinner and breakfast and a room to hikers at modest rates (starting at $45 a night), a boon in a country where prices for both food and lodging remain some of the highest in all of Europe.
Tent-leery hikers can forget roughing it. Europeans eschew the ascetic version of camping practiced in the United States -- where purists consider freeze-dried meals and nylon tents an extravagance -- instead favoring to import the comforts of home into the backcountry. Hut-to-hut hiking in Norway is no exception.