As the corona-crisis forces the world to be on hold and stay at home, I try (hard) to make the best of it. So I decided to go back hiking where my passion for that actually started: the Rennsteig. This is a ridge walk as well as a historical boundary path in the Thuringian Forest and Franconian Forest in Central Germany. That trail runs for about 170 km from Hörschel (close to Eisenach) all the way to Blankenstein. On its way it’s mostly at heights of 500 to 970 m and it also crosses Thuringias highest mountain, Großer Beerberg, at 982 m. The trail itself has a long history and was mentioned the first time back in 1330, however, as a hiking trail it was described and mapped first in 1832.
As I grew up in a village in the vicinity of the Rennsteig, I hiked and biked it a couple of times on its entire length as well as on day hikes and sections. I also ran sections of it in the well-known trail running event „GutsMuths-Rennsteiglauf“. Recently, as I am stranded with my parents in Germany, I am out there quite a bit, as it helps me to stay sane during those darker days in the pandemic. So, you can say that I know that trail quite a bit.
After some stressful months I decided to challenge myself and hike the roundabout 170 km of the Rennsteig within 4 days. I needed to get away from everything and get rid of frustration and all the uncertainty.
Wild camping is not allowed in Germany, but along the Rennsteig you can find small shelters every 5 to 10 kms, so I packed my sleeping bag and mat and also, just in case, my tent. With that and with enough food for a mere 5 days I set out to hike it from the end to the beginning, against the traditional direction. Corona apparently inspired many people to hike because I met about 50 hikers and cyclist on the very first day. Most of them were friendly, but worlds apart from being as talkative as I know other hikers. In Germany people have a very different hiking approach and attitude.
And something else I realised: The Rennsteig is very much male dominated. It’s not only that all the displays along the way praise men for what they did for the trail in former times, but also the majority of hikers are men. Sometimes I met hiking couples, but the frequently asked question by women basically was whether I am scared to hike out here all by myself. I got that slight underlying feeling that hiking in Germany is seen as a mens world and women only come along.
So, confessedly, it was almost fun for me to crush peoples perception of hiking women by sharing my way of hiking: Wearing trail runners instead of heavy hiking boots, hiking more than 40 kms a day, with a backpack smaller than most of the ones of hikers I met, but with which I am independent from any infrastructure, and, last but not least – hiking all by myself. But still, sexism and low respect towards us hiking women exist. I met a group of male hikers under a roof in the rain, that, after I asked them whether they please could remove their packs from the bench so that I could have a seat, laughed and pointed to a seat on the bench not covered from the rain. I remained silent, pushed away a pack, took a seat (under the roof, of course) and instead listened to their showing-off and pretentious talks. After quite some time they started asking me about my where from’s-where to’s and suddenly they started to treat me with respect. Or, a bunch of elderly guys watching me stretching my feet and asking me – without having had a conversation with me before – whether my ‚little feet are aching‘.
But I also had super nice meet-ups: Stefanie spontaneously met me on trail and brought cake and bread, the next evening my mom and my aunt accompanied me for a couple of kilometres and they brought chocolate and even a small bottle of sparking wine.
As the trail runs along the ridges of the Thuringian Forest, you mostly walk through spruce forests. But that is not the primary forest of the area. Basically most of the major forests in Germany are a mono culture of spruce, fir or pine plantations. Forests therefore are mainly for forestry and only secondly for recreation. You can see that when formerly narrow rugged hiking trails disappear and make room for wide forestry roads or even tarmac roads. With all my hiking I did the last couple of years in areas with unspoiled nature, my perspective on middle European forests changed and I have to admit that I am not enjoying it not that much anymore. I rather started to see the realities of forestry, the results of climate change and a not respectful treatment of our forests. Dying trees are a result of droughts and bark beetle infestation, that in turn are a consequence of climate change. Also, heavy machinery for harvesting wood are compressing the soil, destroy the ground and existing hiking trails. Even sign posts were just plowed over. The more people are out in nature, the more used tissues and garbage I spot alongside the Rennsteig. As well as leave-no-trace-principles need more attention, people also need to raise their awareness that electrical MTBs don’t belong on a hiking trail, especially if there is a tarmac cycling path running parallel to the Rennsteg. I’d really wish for a more sustainable and more respectful contact between people, forestry and nature.
But certainly all in all I can highly recommend hiking the Rennsteig. It is easy to access by train and busses; as you come through many villages along the way it is easy to resupply in supermarkets or even to enjoy a traditional Thuringian dish of dumplings, roast and red cabbage. Also, every 20 kms or so you can find a so-called ‚Rennsteighaus‘, that is a service facility where hikers can shower, use the toilet and fill up their water bottles. Unfortunately, though, only one remains open during the pandemic. Overnight you could stay in shelters or in one of many guesthouses and hotels along the way that are open and wait for guests. Fun fact: you definitely have to try hard to get lost as the Rennsteig is very well marked with a white R, that is referred to as „Mareile“. The Rennsteig is indeed a trail that brings you to the heights of the Thuringian Forest, challenges you with quite a bit of uphill and downhill, boasts nice views over the countryside, leads through little towns and villages with typical slate facades of the area and also offers insight into the cultural and history of the area.