Michal Kovacs and Lubos Candik met on the Slovak National Uprising Heroes Trail and joined forces. Photo by Ludmila Kolesarova.

Slovakia’s longest trail turns even introverted hikers into social creatures. Encounters with strangers make this test of physical and mental strength easier. From Dennik N.

One day before setting off at the Dukla mountain pass in eastern Slovakia, actor Samuel Borsik worried about whether he would be able to cope with the task at hand – hiking alone in the wilderness on the Slovak National Uprising Heroes Trail. But then a theology student and a medical student joined him, and they hiked together his first three days. This happened more than once during his 27-day trek. “Originally I wanted to shoot a film about a journey of an individual,” he says with a smile. “Now I can see it’s going to be a film about relationships on the trail.”

Some hikers form a community via social networks, sharing experiences, advice, and sometimes messages about surprises along the trail (“I left a can of beer and a box of cookies for you under the bench”). Some say that although they set off on their journey as introverts, along the way they enjoyed the busiest and most pleasant social contacts of the year.

The 760-kilometer Slovak National Uprising (SNP) Heroes Trail starts in Slovakia’s northeast at Dukla pass, on the border with Poland, and ends at Devin Castle in the southwest. Part of the E8 European long-distance path, it crosses locations that played an important role during the Slovak National Uprising, one of the largest partisan operations in Europe during World War II. Another notable stop is Bradlo hill, the resting place of 20th-century Czechoslovak statesman M. R. Stefanik.

The trail goes through mostly mountainous regions, including national parks. It also includes scenic cities such as Bardejov, Trencin, and Bratislava, the Slovak capital. A through-hike takes an average of 28 days. No official data are kept on how many hikers complete it each year – perhaps only dozens. Most are thought to either complete only part of the route or divide it into segments.

A trail buddy also can help with the physical challenges. “We came across each other a couple of times,” hiker Michael Kovacs says of his newfound companion, Lubos Candik. “On the fourth day we decided to try to hike together.” They are at the Certovica pass in the Low Tatra mountains. They set off separately from Dukla 11 days ago and have spent seven days together on the trail.

This is Candik’s second attempt at the SNP trail. “The first time, I started out way too fast, doing 40 kilometers a day,” he says. “My tendons swelled up, and that was the end. Forget your ideas about what the trail is going to be like. It’s your body that decides.”

Kovacs smiles. “I’m glad I met him,” he says. “I was going too fast, and he helped tame that.” Kovacs says he tends to push through the pain, showing me his blisters. The two say they plan to stay in touch even after the hike ends.

Tereza Drtilova and Veronika Borcinova completed the SNP Heroes Trail in 23 days. Photo courtesy of Veronika Borcinova.

Veronika Borcinova and Tereza Drtilova already had gone on several multi-day hikes together, so it didn’t surprise them that they had no conflicts during the 23 days they spent hiking the trail side by side. “We know when to stay quiet and when to cheer each other on,” Borcinova explains. Since they carried tents with them and didn’t have to rely on shelters, they only spent three nights in the company of other hikers.

Elena Balejova decided to hit the trail once she had the time to do it after she retired. She took four rest days during her 35-day trek. She spent the nights alone in her tent. Except for the days when she was joined by a friend or her daughter, she hiked mostly on her own.

“The mountains have been part of my life since my youth,” she says. “I hike and do ski mountaineering. I’m not afraid of being alone. I’m a visitor in the outdoors. I don’t do it any harm, and I like to believe that nothing will do me any harm either.” Sometimes she helped someone along the trail; sometimes she chatted with a fellow hiker. After returning to Bratislava, she went for a beer with a young woman hiker she met at the Andrejcova shelter in the Low Tatras, Slovakia’s longest mountain range.

“Most hikers on the trail were much younger than me; I felt like their mom,” she says. “I didn’t mind that.” Balejova took on the SNP trail a year after hiking the Pyrenees with a friend three years her senior, and less than a year after undergoing leg surgery. She doesn’t consider mature people hiking long trails to be an anomaly.

Borsik finished the trail with Stanislava Farkasova. They had met in a shelter three days prior to arriving at Devin Castle. Farkasova also was hiking on her own. As she wrote on the SNP trail website, “My aim was to walk, spend time with myself, and figure out who I am when I’m not with anyone. Honestly, I didn’t really believe I would make it all the way to Devin. I hiked for 29 days, and in the end I spent a total of eight days and just four nights on my own.”

Borsik says hikers meet on the trail or at places where they want to spend the night. “Then they hike together for a period of time. Stamina, tempo, or blisters are typically what separates them eventually. They share food, they help each other.”

The pandemic prompted more people to hike the trail than usual this summer, and the trail also received exposure from a mobile phone company ad, Borcinova says.

Kovacs says he enjoyed social contacts on the trail, even though he sees himself as an introvert. “In my normal life, I don’t really know many people who are like me. … People here don’t discuss materialistic things that divide them. A love of nature brings them together.”

For most people, hiking the SNP trail is the fulfillment of a long-held dream. Lubos Piestansky, who is about to become a first-time father, split the hike into three parts. He can’t get enough days off work to cover the route in one go. This time, he was spending 10 days on the trail. “I arrived at the cabin early. For three hours I’ve just been sitting here. I have my mobile phone switched off, and I’m feeling good.”

On the Certovica pass I meet Patrik Rajcan with a group of ridge hikers. He had also set off on the trail alone. Even though he originally wanted to use the hike to think about his work and business plans, he soon realized that the only things he would be thinking about were water, food, and sleep.

Piestansky says he also realized another thing: “It’s interesting that all you need for life suddenly fits into a backpack.”

Ludmila Kolesarova is a project manager and journalist at Dennik N in Bratislava.

Reprinted with permission from Dennik N. Translated by Matus Nemeth and edited for clarity and concision.