Walking Tours Are a Great Way to See The World, at Your Own Pace

Hikers take on the legendary Camino de Santiago trail in Lugo, Spain. It began as a pilgrimage 1,100 years ago.

If your idea of a vacation is wandering through picturesque villages, picnicking in national parks, taking breaks in vineyards, and bedding down for the night in medieval castles or rainforest thatched huts, then a walking tour may be for you.

Walking tours originated as an offshoot of “volksporting,” a network of European and North American exercise groups dating back to the 1960s. “Volkswalking” refers to taking leisurely, but organized, walks through scenic or historic areas. Walking tours developed from this into one-week (or longer) tour-operated trips, taking in the history of a region while providing excellent scenery and exercise.

Walking vacationers average six to 15 miles of mild to moderate walking per day. Almost every tour operator has a support van, which helps people in need of assistance, and carries your baggage to the next hotel stop. Trip prices range from $700 to $5,000, and may not include airfare. But many trips do include breakfast and dinner, with some offering picnic lunches at midday stops. And depending on where you venture, accomodations vary widely, from English bed and breakfasts and Scottish monasteries to Kenyan tented safari camps and modern hotels.

While many operators travel to Europe, the U.S. has been gaining popularity as a frequent destination for groups like Country Walkers and Walking Tours, Inc. They offer a melange of domestic trips, from majestic Southwestern canyons to New England's fall foliage to the blossoming landscapes of Dixie.

National parks in Canada and the U.S. are also much-frequented domestic stops, but Europe is still the overwhelming vacationer's choice. European operators, including Butterfield and Robinson, Camino Tours, European Walking Tours, and Progressive Travel, offer everything from self-guided and “classic” walking tours (featuring local guides, naturalists, art historians or biologists) to luxurious accomodations, gourmet meals and lavish trip options like balloon rides and vineyard tours.

While walking tours don't claim to exclusively promote ecotourism, they do encourage the appreciation of everything native—food, art, history, religion, and of course, the land and its resources. Camino Tours, exclusively dedicated to walking ventures in Spain, takes its walkers through the majestic meadows and valleys of Andalusia and the Pyrenees, as well as the legendary Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage that dates back 1,100 years. Vicki Ward of Camino Tours says, “Walking tours are appropriate for all ages, for all types of people. They're a way to interact with the environment and culture of a place without being in a car. You experience a country first-hand this way.”

And for the really exotic walking tour, many are “trekking” in locales like Nepal, India, Patagonia and Bali. Nepal has seen an explosion of trekkers in recent years: The Ecotourism Society estimates that since 1980, trekking has increased 255 percent. According to Steve Conlon of Above the Clouds Trekking, walking tours and trekking are different entities: “We consider a trek to be a hiking trip of multiple days which goes out fully supported [food, equipment, bedding] and is usually accomodated in tents. Walking trips are generally hotel or lodge-based, where meals are served.” Trekking, in particular, has taken its toll: Nepal and Patagonia are inundated with littered oxygen cannisters, packers' refuse, and many a footprint. So many in fact, that mountain paths have completely eroded from the number of travelers, stimulating several companies to conduct trekker education programs.

Walking tours do go through some natural areas, but most tend to keep to trails, bike paths or town roads. Janine Robertson of Progressive Travels says, “We try to encourage an appreciation of nature—like our guides pointing out local wildflowers indigenous to the area.” She adds, “Walking tours encourage minimal impact,” because walkers take notice of their beautiful surroundings, and appreciate them enough to stay on paths and not litter.

Another important tip to keep in mind is choosing a tour for your appropriate fitness level. Most operators grade their trips according to the physical level of difficulty. So if you haven't exercised in a while, choosing the 15-mile-a-day uphill climb in the Swiss Alps may not be a good idea.

And remember, walking tours aren't the best place to break in that new pair of shoes.