As the Lockdown Eases, Get to Know the German Art of “Fitness Walking”

We could all use a weekend volksmarch

Family walking on a trail
Walk a 10K, reward yourself with a beer — what's not to love about a volksmarch?
Alberto Casseta/Unsplash

In a recent essay for Outside Online, writer Martin Fritz Huber recalls growing up in the central German state of Hesse, a region known for its Brothers Grimm forests (42 percent of the state is covered in trees) and participating in a weekend tradition called volksmarsch. The tradition — which has the simple anglicization of “volksmarch,” and translates to “people’s march” — is an organized, yet decidedly non-competitive walking event, usually done over a route of 10 kilometers. Families show up to walk 6.2 miles; at the end, kids get a trinket and adults get a beer.

These walks occur frequently throughout Germany, but also in Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, which together formed a governing body called the International Federation of Popular Sports in the late 1960s. The organization (known commonly as the IVV) also hosts biking, swimming and skiing events, but walking is its most popular — go figure — with 7,500 events each year and over 10 million participants. During a volksmarch, the focus is not on the finish line, but the sights and meanderings encountered along the route — it’s a collision of fitness, sightseeing and history that has typified far longer European walking routes, from Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago, to Liechtenstein’s newly-commissioned national thru-hike.

America has its own extensive involvement in volksmarches, believe it or not. There is an American Volkssport Association, which calls itself “America’s Walking Club.” It boasts a grassroots network of 200 active clubs across the country and hosts over 2,500 events each year. You can search through their full range of offerings here. Many events have been canceled or postponed this year, for obvious reasons — the 35th Annual Springs Volksmarch was actually scheduled for this weekend, in South Dakota — but if intrigued and eager to get the hell out of your house, we’d encourage you to bookmark this page and keep tabs on when events will be back up and running.

You could (and should!) set out on walks by yourself or with family, especially as parks small and large continue to open up over the next few months. Look for a 10K route (though many American organizations do 5Ks, too) and don’t worry about speed — though finishing in under three hours is encouraged. That said, it will only serve as practice. Your first official volksmarch, by definition, will have to wait for an event, with a club or organization. The beer will taste all the better for it.

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