Czech Republic

The North American ‘Wild West’ roots of Czech tramping culture

Brno, Czech Republic – Foreigners who come to visit or live in the Czech Republic will notice that spending time with Czechs and participating in local popular activities will most likely mean spending a lot of time outdoors. Whether it be hiking, going to the mountains, camping or spending time in the garden, many Czechs will choose to enjoy their free time in the open air.

While not exclusive to Czechs only, this reflects a highly intertwined relationship between Czech culture and the great outdoors. While the Czech Republic is subjected to extremely cold weather throughout (and usually beyond as well) winter months, many Czechs will still find ways to enjoy the outdoors whether rain or shine.

Many are unfamiliar with the massive movement that took place in the 20th century between Czechs and nature. This movement, called ‘tramping’, influenced many aspects of modern Czech culture tied to enjoying outdoors activities and helps to understand why Czechs are so fond of the open air.

While the word ‘tramp’ in English today has a pretty well-known derogatory meaning, it originally refers to someone who stomps his feet when walking and is associated with hiking and other activities that involve strenuous amounts of walking. Czech tramping refers to the activity of a person, usually a working-class individual, returning to nature and living straight off the land with minimal luxuries. The roots of this movement, however, are found far beyond the Czech borders, and is inspired by the ‘Wild West’ trend from North America.

The roots of the Czech tramping culture

Many people associate the roots of tramping with the decline in the sense of community in Czech society in the early 1900’s, in then Austria-Hungary. This led many Czechs to seek their nomadic roots or take part in colonies, which presented itself in the form of many outdoor clubs focused on activities including sports, traveling and backpacking. While many followers of the tramping movement spent time relaxing outside, hiking and sports were commonplace. A distinction between tramping and modern camping is the lack of luxuries, like a tent or any electronics, and the focus on the bare minimum to get by with what they had.

Many people belonging to these clubs usually belonged to the working-class or lower middle class, most often teens and young adults. These communities can be described as highly liberal, free-thinking and peace-promoting societies. Throughout the following decades, they usually shared and practiced anti-fascist and anti-war beliefs. While recreational drugs and alcohol were commonplace in many periods during the movement, this was far from being the core focus of the movement.

The ideas from the ‘Wild West’ and cowboy culture were a fundamental inspiration to the movement. Hiking through the forests as well as living in secluded settlements away from cities and villages was an imitation of the cowboy lifestyle in the Wild West. Many participants in the movement even dressed in cowboy boots and hats carrying around pistols like genuine gunslingers.

Tramping cowboys
‘Trampers’ dressed up as cowboys. Source: Aktualne

The establishment of tramping settlements

One of the first settlements, referred to as ‘Lost hope’ (Ztracená nadějě), was established after 1918 near the Vltava River which runs north to south through Prague. Six more around that area were completed within four years, with many of them taking North American names, such as Yukon, Ontario and Santa Fe.

The Czech railway network was the main factor influencing the location where the tramping settlements were set up, as it was the most reasonable and practical way for people to get there.

Settlement map
Tramping settlements around Prague spanning from 1919 to 1930 and onward. Source: Geograficke rozhledy

The growing tramping movement was shunned by the government following the Great War continuing into the 1930’s. The people in the movement were often perceived and branded as radicals and criminals who needed to be jailed. By the time World War II had begun, many of the settlements were seized by Nazi Germany, and used for military and war efforts. The tramping movement as a whole was overall criticized and shut down by the Nazi regime, and further practice of the movement was punishable. However, the flame of Czech tramping was not fully extinguished and even though people stopped gathering in large communities, they still individually took part in the movement’s activities outdoors.

After the war, the movement and gathering in settlements were once more enjoyed by its numerous followers, but still had to face resistance from public authorities and large parts of Czech society.

Tramping in the communist era

Tramping found further relevance when the 1960’s ‘hippie movement’ began to emerge and became increasingly popular among young people. Tramping under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia was met with great disapproval as it was seen as a subversive element of the celebration of Western culture and freedoms.

The hippie movement led to the surge in tramping festivals, which usually played tramping music, similar to the American genre country but instead with Czech lyrics. This increased the popularity of the Czech tramping genre which still has relevance to this day. Porta, a popular tramp music festival, takes place in Usti nad Labem every year since 1967, and was tolerated, among others, by the communist regime as they were continuously under surveillance.

‘Rosa na kolejích’ (Dew on the tracks) by Wabi Daněk, one of the most popular Czech tramp musical artists.

Modern-day tramping: Still relevant?

After the fall of communism, the trend of tramping within the Czech Republic decreased significantly due to Czechs having access to a wider range of travel destinations. However, traditional tramping culture has found a home within many other movements, including an anti-technologic trend, as well as among people who traded their day jobs for life in the wilderness

Many museums around the Czech Republic hold exhibitions with displays and artifacts from the tramping movement. At the National Museum in Prague, an exhibit called ‘A Century of Tramping’ showcases the movement of tramping and its manifestation in “popular culture from the historical and ethnographic points of view”. The purpose is to reiterate tramping’s huge influence on Czech society and culture and impact as a reflection of one’s sense of community.

The movement has often been portrayed in modern pop culture, in many films and documentaries within the past few decades. In 2015 a film titled Amerika portrays a Canadian raised by Czech parents and her journey to discover the ‘tramping’ lifestyle that her parents told her about when she was a child.

Amerika film
Shot from the Czech film Amerika (2015) / Source: Aerofilms

Although the movement has lost many followers during the 1990’s and onward, many researchers on the topic highlight the cultural significance of tramping within today’s Czech culture. Today, there are no longer people running around dressed up as cowboys, but parts of the lifestyle have stuck and moved within other trends and within outdoor recreation activities in modern Czech Republic. The increased popularity of tramping music and similar genres as well as gathering and relaxing in a community-like setting and taking part in outdoor activities are both ever-present examples.

The question of whether the tramping movement is still as present today is a contested argument, as many who camp, hike and spend outdoor time do not necessary subscribe to nor are familiar with the tramping movement anymore. However, both sides of the argument can come to the agreement that indirect remnants of the movement are still alive and well, and continue to manifest themselves in many aspects of modern Czech culture and lifestyle.

Written by Lorna Radtke

Born in Chicago, Lorna Radtke is a student of international relations and European politics at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and previously also lived in Austria. Her desire to dive into European politics began during her secondary education years in the United States, her home country. Eager to pursue her interest in media and journalism by researching intriguing topics and writing original articles, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Enjoyed the article? Feel free to browse through Lorna’s latest articles right here!

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