An Adventure Traveler's Guide to Belgium

Mountainbike trail in the Belgian Ardennes | © soozed / Flickr
Mountainbike trail in the Belgian Ardennes | © soozed / Flickr
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
30 January 2017

For a country with a timed reputation, Belgium sure knows how to get your adrenaline pumping. Besides mountain biking and mountaineering their way through the forested Ardennes, Belgians are quite into heavy-duty hikes and high-energy obstacle courses. Here’s a look at the activities the avid adventure traveler will be pleasantly surprised to find.

All over Belgium

The Spartacus survival runs

We doubt the Spartans incorporated giant slip and slides and smoke machines into their training routine, yet this series of Belgian obstacle courses does require a certain Spartan will. The new Spartacus Run in the gorgeous Enghien Park, the Neptunus Run at the coast, Genk’s Battle of Thor and the classic Spartacus Run in Boom are just half of the killer tracks being organized all over the country no matter what the season. Face painting, monumental settings and a combo of nature and manmade hurdles are all part of the pumped-up package Belgians have come to enjoy in boisterous groups of friends.

Province of Antwerp

The grueling Dodentocht or ‘March of the Dead’

Extreme hikers are well aware of Belgium’s ‘March of the Dead’, a brutal 100-kilometer (62-mile) trail designed to be walked in one straight night and day. Every year over 10,000 brave souls from over twenty different countries embark around dusk to go the distance in under 24 hours. More than 30 percent won’t reach the finish, but the organization likes to stress that ‘participating is still more important than winning’, and a lot of the walkers and a small number of devoted marathon runners do so for charity. Along the way hikers are heartened by free beers at the breweries they pass – this is Belgium after all. The trademark jovial atmosphere is what has made this unique event so popular since its conception in 1970: all walkers root each other on and a big feast is given when the last people stumble over the finish line.

2017 edition: Friday, August 11th

A sign indicating the last kilometer of the March of the Dead | © DirkVE / Wikimedia Commons

Flanders’ Finest for amateurs

The Saturday before the world’s greatest cyclists take on the Monument race called De Ronde, the Tour of Flanders, or, tellingly, Flanders’ Finest, thousands of amateurs climb on their steel stags for the notorious trail. Riders can either try to rival the full 254 kilometres (220 miles) the pros will be attacking the day after, or opt for a less intense tour of either 134 or 75 kilometres (83 or 47 miles), both of which still tackle the intense cobbled hills of Oudenaarde. Couple that with a visit to the Tour of Flanders Center that celebrates the legendary race’s greatest moments and you’ve got yourself a weekend trip any cycling geek would go nuts for.

The pro peloton tackling the iconic Oude Kwaremont hill | © youkeys / Flickr

The Ardennes

Railbike or langlauf the High Fens

A high plateau covering part of the Belgian Ardennes and part of the German Eifel region, the wild High Fens (also known as Hautes Fagnes or Hoge Venen) are a nature lover’s dream. An alternative way to explore the rugged moors besides following the winding walking trail is to take the Railbike. In fall, when barren trees and low-hanging mists turn the landscape almost mythical, the two-hour peddle over a railway is especially popular with young adventurous families who aren’t looking for overkill. On snowy winter days the High Fens are langlauf territory extraordinaire.

The High Fens | © Tobias Steinhoff / Flickr

Cave-dwelling at Han-sur-Lesse

Getting to the wondrous Caves of Han with its stalactites, stalagmites and otherworldly feel is an adventure onto its own. The only way of reaching its subterranean galeries, shaped by the River Lesse over centuries and millennia, is via an old tram carriage. Once underground the spacious atriums and wall fossils can’t help but make you reflect on nature’s awesome power – and the Ardennes have lots more where that came from.

Detail of the Han-sur-Lesse Caves l | © Leopolde de Castro / Flickr

Rock climbing and abseiling in Cy

Show us a steep Ardennes rock face and we’ll show you a human dot either moving up or down it. Rock climbing and abseiling are lively activities practiced by locals and visitors across the elevated region. Nothing like leaning over the edge backwards in a 180-degree angle to get the blood pumping. Casually hopping down a 9 to 45-meter (30 to 148-ft) cliff might feel unnatural and slightly insane at first, the sense of unbridled freedom that comes with the experience is more than worth conquering those initial jitters.

Abseiling | public domain / Pixabay

Off-road mountain biking

If a face and body caked in mud and the thrill of a rough ride sound appealing, Ardennes’ forest trackways, creeks and hilly terrain won’t disappoint. Off-road mountain biking in Belgium’s greenest lung is all about getting down and dirty, with difficulty in tours ranging from expert technical skills to no experience required. There’s even a downhill-only tour for those who’d rather work on their steering than their calves.

Ardennes trail | © Brackeleer / Flickr

The Seaside

Barefoot at nature reserve Het Zwin

This international bird airport and nature reserve forms a unique biotope for a whole different kind of hiking or biking experience. What used to be the waterway connecting wealthy medieval Bruges to the North Atlantic are now stretched-out mudflats, salt marshes and grassy plains. The park, which straddles the Belgian-Dutch border, provides a temporary home for trekking birds and even a pack of wild horses. Its ‘barefoot walk’ across different undergrounds is a sensational, slightly ticklish way to get closer to nature.

One of many storks at Het Zwin | © Paul Hermans / Wikimedia Commons

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