With its brooding mountains, Black Sea coast, thick forests and wide rivers, Ukraine boasts some commendably wild environments for outdoor activities, from hiking the Carpathians to birdspotting in the Danube Delta, skiing in Bukovel and cycling through the sunflower fields.
Pulling on boots and donning a backpack is probably the most popular outdoor activity in Ukraine among locals and tourists alike. Crimea offers excellent walks but with the peninsula firmly off limits, Ukraine's slice of the Carpathian Mountains is where most of the action takes place these days. The Carpathian National Nature Park (CNNP) provides a (virtually) unspoilt backdrop to many an outing – walks can be anything from linear hikes lasting several days to there-and-back day walks from a base such as Rakhiv or Yaremche. Hiking in the Carpathians is usually best done in the company of locals and there is no shortage of guides and tours, official and unofficial, in the area.
If you do strike out on your own, a word of warning: hiking 'trails' criss-cross the Carpathians, but may not be as well-marked as you are used to. Maps show trails clearly, but marking can sometimes be badly executed or missing altogether. However, the trail to Ukraine's highest peak, Mt Hoverla (2061m), is well marked, as is the continuing journey along the Chornohora Ridge.
There are few risks involved when hiking in the Carpathians but you should be aware of a few issues. Bears do live in these parts but most stay well away from anywhere hikers may wander. A greater risk than bears is the weather – most walkers who get into any kind of difficulty do so when the weather changes – make sure you have warm clothes and emergency food. Very occasionally you may come across areas fenced off for the enjoyment of some government honcho or businessman – these are often patrolled by quite unpleasant security guards with dogs.
Two decades ago the only bikes you might have see in Ukraine were rickety old Soviet-era bone-shakers ridden by grandmas on their way to market. Times have certainly changed and now two-wheelers are the latest craze, especially mountain bikes. Some hire centres have even appeared, most notably in Yaremche and Kyiv, and a lot of hotels and guesthouses in the Carpathians have bikes you can borrow. The mountainous southwest is obviously the best place to get into the saddle, but maps showing cycling trails are rare. For this reason you may be better off joining a tour if you want to really get off-road. Away from the mountains Ukraine is pretty flat, which lends itself to idle peddling. Roads away from towns are usually pretty quiet.
Urban cycling here is only for the hardened cyclist – locking handlebars with Ukraine's deranged drivers is not our idea of fun. However, some cycle paths are appearing – Kyiv is adding them and Lviv has a few, although they are often blocked by pedestrians, parked cars and even kiosks. Always wear a helmet and don't expect drivers to know you are there.
A project called Bikeland was started around a decade ago, the aim of which was to mark trails and generally assist cyclists in enjoying the country. This may be revived in coming years.
Skiing in Ukraine is all about one resort, the glitzy, professionally run Bukovel, to the southwest of Yaremche in the Carpathian Mountains. It's by far the country's biggest and best with 60km of trails and lots of other activities such as skating, snow-tubing, dog-sled trips and jeep tours. There's a full hire service so no need to drag your gear to Ukraine; prices are reasonable, but the place gets packed out in ski season, which runs from December to March.
Away from Bukovel's smooth facilities, Ukraine has another 120km of ski slopes, almost all in the Carpathians. There are several slopes around Slavske, the resort at Makovytsya; Mizhhirya has seen improvement and there's some good skiing at Krasiya. For more information on Ukraine's lesser-known slopes and lifts, see www.skiresort.info.
Flat as a млинець (pancake), Ukraine abounds with lakes and rivers where locals cool off in the hot summers. Locals know where it's safe to swim, so do as they do. Sometimes they even take the plunge through a hole in the ice at Epiphany. Boats can sometimes be hired (in Myrhorod and Ternopil, for instance). Otherwise the main water sports hotspots are along the Black Sea coast, most notably in Odesa although Crimea has a much better location. The peninsula also has the best beaches but with these offline for the forseeable future, Odesa is the place to head for a tan.
Wildlife- & Bird-watching
The Danube Delta in the country's far southwest and the weird-and-wonderful safari at Askaniya Nova provide the best opportunities for those looking to spot Ukraine's rarer species. The Carpathians are also teeming with wildlife and one beautiful sight you are certain to notice from bus windows isUkraine's stork population that builds its huge nests atop telegraph poles.
The following outfits will get you active in Ukraine:
Active Ukraine (www.activeukraine.com) West-based agency specialising in hiking and cycling, mainly in the Carpathians.
JC Travel (www.enjoy-ukraine.com) Kyiv-based agency that can organise any outdoor activity you can think up just about anywhere in the country.
Aero-Kiev (www.aero-kiev.com) Paragliding outfit based in Kyiv.
Outdoor Ukraine (www.outdoorukraine.com) Arranges hiking tours in Ukraine’s outdoor hot spots.
Velokosiv (www.velokosiv.if.ua) Bike trips into the Carpathian Mountains.
Green Ukraine (www.green-ukraine.com) Superb, professionally run outfit offering a range of Carpathian tours.
Karpaty Travel (www.karpaty-travel.com.ua) Agency organising all kinds of outdoor adventures and tours in the Carpathians.
Gutsulandia (www.gutsulandia.com) Agency running extreme outdoor activities in the Carpathians.