European wildlife watchers should keep their eyes peeled for summer sightings of a strange new breed of hiker recognizable by its Gore-Tex plumage and titanium hiking polls.
Sleep in a tent? No thanks!
Just because the hiking fashionistas who will crowd Europe's favorite hiking trails this summer own 400 euro ($620) goose down sleeping bags doesn't mean they have any intention of using them.
Forget about bunking down on the hard floor of a primitive mountain hut. After a few hours of fresh air, the hiking increasingly opting to end the day with a five-course meal and a featherbed.
Taking it easy
Trailside luxuries await
Hiking has become the new Mallorca for many young, affluent Europeans who see it as a way to leave behind the hectic workaday world and relax. As summer kicks into full gear, they will fan out across the continent in search of the perfect ratio of river crossings to lattes.
But this does not mean that Europe's new hiking elite are elite hikers. This group leans more toward "hiking lite," says Professor Heinz-Dieter Quack of the European Tourism Institute in Trier, Germany, near the Luxembourg border. This "new" brand of hikers favors treks that are no longer than 15 kilometers (9 miles).
They are "conscious of prestige and quality and do not desire any physical challenges," Quack told DPA news agency. "Rather, people in this group are interested in experiencing nature, calmness and seclusion."
It's important to look good
It used to be that hiking vacations were cheap alternatives to flying somewhere. Those days are over, said Sven Buechler of Germany's hiking association.
"Today two weeks on Mallorca can be much cheaper than spending the same amount of time at home," he told DPA.
There is a widening gap between what Quack defines as "old" and "new" hikers. The old school hikers are more modest. They see hiking as an "easy competitive sport in which sociability counts," Quack said.
Give them a moderately well-signed trail with a simple hut at the end of it and this group is happy.
This new class of hikers is willing to pay top euro for what used to be a budget pastime and expects all the frills, such as yoga classes, wellness studios and organic dinners.
They "make the same demands on their hiking holiday as they do when they take a beach holiday on the Canaries," Quack said.
Finding a spiritual focus
Hiking has gotten a makeover
Spending a week in nature is no longer about looking at trees and flowers, rather it's about allowing your soul to "dangle," said Susanne Leder, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the new must-haves in tourism.
These modern hikers want to achieve a psychological counterpoint to a hectic work schedule. To that end, many hikers want to relax in a hotel, possibly taking advantage of wellness program.
"The requirements have changed immensely," said Leder, who works in the hiking region of Muellerthal in Luxembourg. "Far different people than before are taking hiking trips today. They are younger, they are more educated and they spend more money."
Boots in the dining room
Many high-end hotels in popular hiking destinations such as Germany's Eifel Mountains or Black Forest are positioning themselves to capture this new market. They're adding wellness options, hanging bridges and barefoot paths, said Leder.
Offerings in the future will cover the range from "yoga courses to personal coaching," Leder predicted.
Is roughing it part of the hiking experience?
Some hotels in places like Austria's Kaernten region are working to attract this new type of hiker, said Andreas Kleinwaechter, the national park's marketing director. The hotels are unworried about a sudden invasion of stinky outdoors types.
"Hikers do not disrupt the atmosphere of four-star hotels," he told DPA. "They don't wear their hiking boots into the dining room."
But the Alps is also one of the last refuges in Europe for old-school hikers for whom roughing it is one of the great pleasures of taking to the trail.
"Along most of the paths through the high mountains, there are and always have been only huts to sleep in," said Kleinwaechter. "There's no four-star hotel there, and you can't have a car bring your luggage up. That's actually what makes it special."