7 Best Free Treks in the World

Hiking is one of the simplest ways to enjoy the great outdoors. With a little planning and preparation, all that's left to do is lace up your boots, strap on your backpack, fill up your water bottle, and step out into a world of stunning scenery.

But unfortunately, many of the most famous trails in the world are expensive to walk due to costly entrance fees or a requirement to book a guided tour. A good example of this is the Inca Trail in Peru, where independent travel is not allowed. A four-day guided trek costs anywhere from $560 to $1,600 per person. But don't despair, it is still possible to explore some of the best locations on the planet without paying a cent. (See also: 20 Hiking Hacks to Take to the Trail)

1. The West Highland Way, Scotland

Scotland is a fantastic place to find free hiking adventures because it is legal to camp on almost any unenclosed land, and very few trails charge a fee for access. The West Highland Way is a 96-mile route that runs through the picturesque Highlands, starting just north of Glasgow and finishing near Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain.

"The Way," as it's referred to locally, is commonly completed over seven days, but can be done in more or less time. The panoramic views of Loch Leven, rolling green hills, and plentiful birds and wildlife along the way have made this Scotland's most popular hike, with around 80,000 people walking part of it each year.

2. Kungsleden (The King's Trail), Sweden

This well marked, 270-mile path is located in the north of Sweden and is popular with both walkers in the summer and cross-country skiers in winter. The trail is broken down into smaller sections that are more manageable than the full route, the most popular starting in Abisko and winding past Kebnekaise, Sweden's tallest mountain.

The route is dotted with mountain huts that you can stay in for $50-$60 a night (with discounts if you join the Swedish Tourist Association for $35 a year). They provide a social meeting place for the thousands of walkers along the trail every year.

But to keep this trek cheap, it's best to have your own gear and wild camp for free. As a free camper, you can still use the facilities (like the toilets and garbage disposal) near the huts. If you camp within the hut area, you will have to pay, so just camp farther away and you're fine.

During summer, the north of Sweden has nearly 24 hours of daylight. The long days and bright sunshine make Kungsleden a magical experience at this time, with the surrounding wilderness taking on an eerily peaceful quality. (See also: 5 Natural Wonders You Can See For Free)

3. El Camino de Santiago, Spain

As one of the oldest and most significant pilgrimages in the world, the Camino de Santiago is far more than just a hike. This network of routes through Europe has been walked for more than 1,000 years by people destined for the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are supposedly entombed. The most popular of these trails is the 500-mile Camino Frances, which begins in France and runs through northern Spain.

These days it's not just religious devotees who make the journey, but also history lovers and those simply in search of an interesting trek. The growing popularity of this adventure in recent years may be mostly due to the Hollywood movie, The Way, which does an excellent job of showcasing the area's spectacular scenery.

Many people opt to walk a smaller portion of the camino, and in order to get a "compostela" (pilgrim certificate), you only have to walk the last 62 miles of the route. The most popular sections take in many quaint villages, pretty churches, and mountain vistas. (See also: Best Hiking Backpacks)

4. Larapinta Trail, Australia

The 138 miles of the Larapinta Trail offer a spectacular trek that passes through the heart of central Australia. It's home to a number of sacred Aboriginal sites as well as swimming holes, mountain views, deep gorges, and sheltered creeks. The sunrises and sunsets across this incredible landscape are breathtaking, filling the skies with improbable shades of pink and purple. While there are no trail fees, you may need to pay a few dollars to camp in some areas.

Though the full trail begins in Alice Springs and finishes at Mount Sonder, it is divided into 12 shorter sections, ranging from relatively easy to arduous. Depending on the amount of time and energy you have, you may want to tackle just a section or two. Winter (April to August) is the best time to go, as summer temperatures can top 100°F, which in a landscape as arid as this can be life threatening. (See also: The 5 Best Hydration Packs)

5. Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming, U.S.

The Cirque of Towers lies in Wyoming's Wind River Range, which boasts some of the most rugged and remote landscapes in the continental U.S. The Cirque is a circular valley surrounded by granite mountains that are popular with rock climbers. Green and beige meadows are dotted with colorful wildflowers, overshadowed by the imposing, gray, lunar-like peaks.

There are many different routes to choose from around the Cirque, but the most popular one starts and finishes at the Big Sandy Trailhead. Depending on the path you take, it can be completed in a few days. There are no fees or permits needed to hike or camp here, which makes it even more popular among trekking enthusiasts looking to escape to the wilderness for a few days.

6. Sunshine Coast Trail, Canada

This 110-mile walk through British Columbia is the longest and the only free hut-to-hut hike in Canada. There are more than a dozen huts along the route that are designed to be shared on a first-come, first-serve basis, but camping is also popular.

While there are some jaw-dropping views out over the islands that dot the coastline, most of the trail is inland, featuring old-growth forests, creeks, lakes, and mountains. You'll have the opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife, including bears, elk, wolves, and cougars. When you hit the vast Pacific Ocean, you may also spot dolphins, whales, sea lions, and otters. (See also: 5 Countries Every Outdoor Adventurer Can Afford to Visit)

7. Grand Traverse in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan

Spectacular natural scenery may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan, but it's a country packed with attractive landscapes. Daisetsuzan National Park is one of the country's most popular trekking locations, and its nearly 900 square miles offer plenty to explore. The "Grand Traverse" is the most popular and impressive trail, linking two active volcanoes found at the north and south ends of the park.

Grab a free map from the park ranger's office and work your way along the magical 34-mile hike, which is possible to complete in five to seven days. There are huts on the route, two of which charge a fee but the rest are free, and you can also camp — just watch out for the brown bears. Picturesque, snow capped mountains, plentiful wildlife, and green virgin forests are just some of the highlights to expect.

7 Best Free Treks in the World

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