For if the Baltic states lack mountain ranges for summit collectors, and though long, dark winters are better suited to sauna sessions than open trails, the largely rural region is home to almost endless forests, primeval bogs and a rugged coastline lapped by cold Baltic waters – all best discovered at a slow pace.
Rather than elevation gain, distance is the main challenge for athletic hikers in these parts. The network of paths known as the Baltic Trails allows you to walk for weeks on end, crossing three countries in three months through national parks, rural villages and often unexpected cultural-heritage sites.
Here’s all you need to know as you prepare for this (very!) long-distance hike through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
What are the Baltic Trails?
Measuring 2141km (1330 miles), the Forest Route starts in the Lithuanian town of Lazdijai on the Polish border and ends in Tallinn’s Old Town. The route was officially inaugurated in 2021; while some of the trail infrastructure is still under development, fit walkers can complete the whole distance in 100 to 110 days. If you’re up for a truly epic challenge, the Forest Trail links up with the E11 European long-distance path, which runs all the way to the Netherlands.
The Coastal Route is shorter, measuring 1419km (882 miles) and hugging the shores of the Baltic from the Lithuanian town of Nida (on a spit that borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad) up to Tallinn. Completing the Coastal Route takes between 70 and 72 days.
What you can expect to see on the Baltic Trails
Mixed forests cover over half the surface of both Latvia and Estonia, and a third of Lithuania. These forests are typical of northern Europe, with a high density of birch and pine trees. Wetlands are another common landscape, especially along the coast. You’ll need special footwear to cross Estonia’s and Latvia’s spongy bogs – many formed in prehistoric times and considered the oldest landscapes in each country – and no shoes at all to stroll on the Curonian Spit’s sand dunes.
That slice of land marks the beginning of the Coastal Route, which runs up to Latvia, passing by Ķemeri National Park and the resort town of Jūrmala, before reaching capital Riga. In Estonia, bird-watchers will enjoy the wetlands of the little-visited Matsalu National Park, an expanse of meadows, pasture lands and reed-covered marshes south of Haapsalu. A possible detour takes you to the Estonian islands of Vormsi and Hiiumaa, before you tackle the northern coast along the Gulf of Finland toward Tallinn.
On the Forest Route, you’ll hike through the misty Dubysa River valley in Lithuania and Gauja National Park – Latvia’s largest – before entering southern Estonia. The region of Setomaa is home to the Seto minority, whose ancient language and singing culture have been preserved to this day. In the north, Estonia’s vast Lahemaa National Park boasts a set of 18th-century manor houses that once belonged to the German aristocracy; isolated fishing villages; and secretive submarine bases of the Soviet era.
You’ll likely find the built environment and the people you’ll encounter as intriguing as the natural features. The national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – while proudly distinct and divergent – have been influenced by a shared turbulent history, whose traces are still visible in the languages, architecture and customs you’ll encounter along the way. Elements of Nordic, German, Russian and Soviet cultures coexist; as you hike across the Baltic countries, you’ll cross the modernist “architecture of optimism” in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, the wooden Orthodox churches of Old Believers communities along the shore of Lake Peipus, and the medieval playground of Tallinn’s Old Town.
Preparing for the Baltic Trails
Completing either of the two Baltic Trails is a major undertaking, and preparation is essential if you plan to hike their entire distance. The Baltic Trails website includes detailed maps of each section, plus information on the type of terrain you’ll encounter and services along the way.
White-yellow-white marks denote the Forest Route, and white-blue-white signs the Coastal Route. (Other colors may appear on the long paths as they overlap with local trails inside national parks.) To make sure you're following the right itinerary, download the GPX tracks and save them to your own device. The GPS tracks for the entire Baltic Trails are also available on mobile hiking apps such as Wikiloc and Komoot – although you shouldn’t be overly reliant on your smartphone as power outlets along the way are few and far in between.
Both trails have been developed to minimize the need for wild camping, with sections of about 20–30km (12.5–19 miles) connecting villages, rural guesthouses, campgrounds and public-transport stops. Be aware that most rural guesthouses only operate during summer months, and that you should always call in advance to make sure a room is available.
Summer is when you’ll have the higher chances of optimal weather, plus long days with sun shining well beyond 10pm. Still, relying on clear Baltic skies for more than a few days in a row is a gamble, and rain and strong winds are pretty much guaranteed. The Baltic countries are scarcely populated outside of cities, so make sure to carry (more than) enough supplies with you.
It’s important to note that outside of hiking trails in national parks much of the Baltic Trails consists of gravel and asphalt roads open to (minimal) traffic, plus sidewalks in urban areas. While the Coastal Route does indeed follow the coast, the Forest Route does not run through forests in its entirety, with most of it cutting through open countryside.
If you only have a few days…
Given their length, it’s hard to imagine completing the Baltic Trails in one go. (In fact, no one appears to have done so yet.) Most hikers will choose a section of the trail that matches the time they have available. It’s possible to start from anywhere along both routes and hike in either direction.
If you have only a few days, pick one of the many national parks or nature reserves along the way and take a day or a weekend to explore. With public transport very efficient in the Baltic countries, you can easily choose a route that will finish at a bus stop or train station that will get back to your starting point.
Cycling the Baltic Trails
Since the majority of the Baltic Trails will take you along gravel, dirt and asphalt roads, many often prefer cycling over hiking. With low traffic, the coasts of Lake Peipus and the roads of Matsalu National Park are especially suited for cyclists – and the lack of particularly steep climbs allows for enjoyable cycling everywhere. While we’d recommend a mountain or gravel bike, many areas are accessible with a standard road bike without any difficulty. Finding alternative routes is straightforward in sections where cycling is not possible, such as beaches.
Unfortunately, bike-rental facilities are few and far between outside of the main cities.
Is wild camping allowed in the Baltic countries?
Following the “right to roam” principle, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do permit wild camping. When choosing where to pitch your tent, however, you should make sure that you are not on private land, which is widespread in the countryside although not always marked as such. It’s forbidden to camp on private land unless you have explicit permission from the owner.
Of the three countries, Estonia has the largest population of bears, at over 900. Latvia and Lithuania have few to no bears hanging around.