In Scotland and the Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden it may take the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times.
Many tropical countries such as Madagascar have historic policies of open access to forest or wilderness areas. This practice in the rainforests of eastern Madagascar and in the Madagascar dry deciduous forests has led to considerable destruction of habitat, much of which is effectively irreversible.
In the United States hiking access to true wilderness areas is encouraged, but the property owner controls access to private lands, with exceptions for beach access and other easement rights that can be negotiated between government entities and owners to allow access to lands of unusual merit.
Today these rights underpin opportunities for outdoor recreation in several of the Nordic countries, providing the opportunity to hike across or camp on another's land (e.g. in Sweden for one or two nights, or "temporarily"), boating on somebody else's waters, and to pick wildflowers, mushrooms and berries. However — with the rights come responsibilities; that is, an obligation neither to harm, disturb, litter, nor to damage wildlife or crops.
Access rights are most often for travel on foot. Rights to fish, hunt or take any other product are usually constrained by other customs or laws. Building a fire is often prohibited (though in Finland fires are sometimes allowed on state owned land and in Sweden fires are allowed with proper safety precautions). Making noise is discouraged. In some countries, putting up a tent in the forest for one night is allowed, but not the use of a caravan. Access does not extend to built up or developed land (such as houses, gardens) and does not include commercial exploitation of the land. For example, workers picking berries is legal only with the landowner's permit.
The notable exception is Denmark, where it is generally not allowed to walk in privately owned forests, more similar to the rest of Europe.
The right is restricted. They may not disturb other people or damage property, disturb breeding birds (or their nests or young), or disturb reindeer or game animals. They may not cut down or damage living trees, or collect wood, moss or lichen on other people’s property, nor may they light open fires on other people’s property (except in an emergency). They cannot disturb the privacy of people’s homes, by camping too near to them or making too much noise, and neither can they leave litter, drive motor vehicles off road without the landowner’s permission, or fish or hunt without the relevant permits.In the municipality of Ahvenanmaa one is not allowed to camp even for one night without the landowner's permit.
The right is a positive right in the respect that only the government is allowed to restrict it. However, the exact definition remains uncodified and based on the principle of nulla poena sine lege (what is not illegal cannot be punished for).
In later years the right has come under pressure particularly around the Oslo Fjord and in popular areas of Southern Norway. These areas are popular sites for holiday homes and many owners of coastal land want to restrict public access to their property. As a general rule, building and partitioning of property is prohibited in the 100m zone closest to the sea, but local authorities in many areas have made liberal use of their ability to grant exemptions from this rule. Even though a land owner has been permitted to build closer to the shore he can not restrict people from walking along the shore. Fences and other barriers to prevent public access are not permitted (but yet sometimes erected).
Hunting rights belong to the landowner, and thus hunting is not included in the right of free access. In freshwater areas such as rivers and lakes, the fishing rights belong to the landowner. Regardless of who owns the land, fresh water fishing activities may only be conducted with the permission of the landowner or by those in possession of a fishing licence. In salt water areas there is free access to sports fishing using boats or from the shoreline. All fishing is subject to legislation to among other things protect biological diversity, and this legislation stipulates rules regarding the use of gear, seasons, bag or size limits and more.
The Allemansrätt gives a person the right to access, walk, cycle, ride, ski, and camp on any land - with the exception of private gardens, the immediate vicinity of a dwelling house and land under cultivation, and with restrictions for nature reserves and other protected areas. It also gives the right to pick wildflowers, mushrooms and berries provided one knows they are not legally protected, as well as the right to visit beaches, to swim in any lake and put an unpowered boat on any water. Exception if the beach belongs to a private garden. Permission to build a private house is usually not given so close to the beach that this right is obstructed. Private bridges are not free to use for boats or bathing.
Fishing remains essentially private - apart from on the biggest five lakes and the coast of the Baltic Sea, the Sound, Kattegat and Skagerrak - and access to land by means of motor vehicles can be limited or restricted. At certain times of the year, and with certain restrictions, both fires and dogs are also permitted.
It is not free to drive a car on a private road, or to camp in a caravan on such roads, or on private parking places. This means in reality that caravan camping is best done on camping places (or rest areas along roads, even though it is not recommended).
The Ramblers' Association works to improve the rights of walkers in the United Kingdom and has been a driving force behind the recent legislation improving the public's access to the wilderness.
The rights confirmed in the Scottish legislation are greater than the limited rights of access, which were not present in English law previously, granted in England and Wales with the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
Traditionally the public could walk on established public footpaths and land owners could charge a fee if people wanted to gain access to any other areas.
Angling interests successfully lobbied for the exclusion of rivers in England and Wales from CROW, leaving other river users such as swimmers and canoeists with restricted access to less than 2% of navigable water. The British Canoe Union is running the Rivers Access Campaign, to highlight the level of restrictions the public face in gaining access to inland waterways in England and Wales.
The new rights were introduced region by region through England and Wales, with completion in 2005. Maps showing accessible areas have been produced.
The right to roam in Austria, particularly in forests and mountainous areas, is called Wegefreiheit. Since 1975 the right to roam in forests is guaranteed by Federal law. In particular, walking, running, hiking, and resting in most forest areas is automatically allowed to the public, however, horse riding, bike riding, and camping is not, and may only be practised with the land owner's permission. A large proportion of the forest area in Austria is owned by government bodies such as the Österreichische Bundesforste, however the same restrictions still apply. In some circumstances forests may be closed to the public for environmental reasons. The situation in mountainous areas is less clear, and differs from state to state. Some states, such as Carinthia, Styria, and Salzburg guarantee a right to roam in mountainous areas (usually defined as above the tree line), for all recreational activities. In other states, such as Tyrol, Lower Austria, and Burgenland, no explicit right to roam exists and land owners reserve the right to deny access. In practice, however, such restrictions are rarely enforced, since mountain tourism is an important industry in Austria.
Article 13 of the Constitution of Belarus guarantees that all forest and farm land is publicly owned. 40% of the country's territory is covered by forest, approximately the same amount is devoted to agriculture.
According to the Forest Code (Article 42) "citizens have the right to freely stay in the forest and collect wild fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, other food, forest resources and medicinal plants to meet their own needs." Citizens also have the right to camp in the forest and to start campfires.
The 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity (subscribed to by 189 countries) expressed some caution about the potential effect of unlimited access, especially in tropical forests, where slash and burn practices undermine biodiversity. For this reason, broad public access rights are challenged in some countries' resulting Biodiversity Action Plans.
Critics of a general right of public access sometimes assert that it threatens the management practices of property owners who have created and preserve many environmentally important qualities. It has also been argued that newly created access rights should lead to some form of financial compensation for private landowners.