A group of 7 young volunteers and an 8.000 km expedition.
In the last 3 years we hiked the entire Sentiero Italia (world’s longest trek) in order to promote this incredible heritage with an original format based on real time storytelling, professional documentation of the whole trail and… active participation: as in the Forrest Gump movie, we invited the public to walk with us, giving life to a collective, grassroot experience which helped turn the spotlight on the Sentiero Italia.
Va’ Sentiero is an experimental grassroot project born with the aim of revamping the Sentiero Italia, world’s longest trek. Like a spine, the trail runs along the mountains of Italy from the Alps to the Apennines, embracing the whole Boot. It is a door to the most secret side of our country.
Created between the ‘80s and ‘90s, the trail was soon abandoned: until a few years ago it was pretty unknown and there was no updated information available, despite it having the potential to absorb an important part of the growing demand for slow tourism and thus constitute an asset for the sustainability of internal areas and local communities.
In 2016, as a group of friends who shared a deep passion for the mountain, we accidentally discovered the Sentiero Italia. Astonished by the fact that such a treasure was totally unknown, we started a project with the aim of relaunching it with an inclusive approach and promoting the culture of slow travel in a world that runs too fast.
Thus we created an expedition based on a simple philosophy: walk, discover, share. We left our jobs and in 2019, after building a team of 8 people and raising the funds needed, we set out on a journey from north to south Italy.
In September 2021 we completed the Sentiero Italia, after hiking 7850 km and crossing a mosaic of environments, seasons, cultures, and giving life to a unique collective experience.
While walking the entire path, we interacted with the territories, organized public events along the way, involved local communities and narrated this adventure through our social networks and media partners. At the same time, we documented the whole trail in order to create a free online guide, available in English too, because we want to contribute to the sustainability of inland areas.
Last but not least, anyone could join our journey (as it happens in the movie Forrest Gump) and become part of the expedition: in the end, over 3000 people from over 10 different nationalities have
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context
We wanted to promote the Sentiero Italia as a tool to discover the environmental heritage of our mountains in a sustainable way, by spreading the hiking culture especially among young people who are new to the mountains. At the same time, our goal was to document and communicate the extraordinary biodiversity of the Italian mountains as a common good we have to understand in order to appreciate, and thus protect.
Indeed, we always promoted a conscious approach also among people who joined some stages of our expedition. We did it by involving local communities: associations, institutions, passionate people who constantly shared their knowledge of the territory with us, making all the participants aware of the preciousness, fragility and peculiarities of the mountains.
We have valued this approach in our communication as well, by sharing our “uncommon field research” through our social networks, media partnerships and various editorial projects (book, documentary, tv series). We have witnessed the effects of global climate change across the highlands: from the retreat of alpine glaciers and the absence of water in alpine streams to the Xylella bacteria that poisons olive trees in Puglia, as well as the fires that destroy the forests in the Southern regions.
Furthermore, we have constantly promoted local sustainability: on one hand, relying on local accommodations we converted our participants into customers; on the other, we always promoted these facilities in our storytelling and in our online guide. The same we did with the small local productions and virtuous companies we met along the way.
Finally, we offset the only CO2 emissions generated by the Va' Sentiero project (produced by the van that followed the expedition downstream, acting as a mobile office and support for guest hikers) by participating in the Lifegate Zero Impact program.
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context
Through the expedition on the Sentiero Italia we wanted to attract mainly a young urban audience, less accustomed to mountain themes, and distinguish our project from the old predominant narrative. We have tried to make the most of the potential of our project, as a collective journey to discover a hidden treasure.
In order to do that, we developed a format which could be interesting and exciting for the people we were inviting. First of all we set an adventurous yet inclusive mood. Secondly we planned many experiences to make the journey special: encounters with the locals, concerts and shows, seminars, astronomical observations, unforgettable food tastings…
We took advantage of the potential of social media: our community (which today has over 70,000 followers across FB, IG, YT) was born out of the first crowdfunding campaign we did in order to start the expedition. Therefore it has always been very engaged with our mission, appreciating our communication freshness and the quality of our contents.
The project has received a lot of attention from the press (e.g. National Geographic, Outside Magazine, national news, tv and radio) and we have established collaborations with exceptional partners such as the Italian Touring Club or La Repubblica to disseminate our material (texts, photos and videos, podcast) and reach a wider public.
In 2021, in collaboration with Sky channel LaEffe, we produced a documentary series on the expedition; last December we participated in a TedX event with a talk about living in the mountains.
After the first part of the expedition we self produced a photobook and a documentary to narrate the territories we crossed, depicting the beauty as well as the fragility of mountains.
Most importantly, we have created a user-friendly and multilingual website, with beautiful aesthetic and visual materials (interactive maps, videos, photos and articles) in order to engage users and inspire them to follow our steps and start the
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context
Our goal was to relaunch the Sentiero Italia as a common good which is the community’s duty to take care of. Our format led to the involvement of many people: those who walked with us, those who welcomed us, those who followed and supported our project from a distance. It was an unprecedented collective experience.
In 2018 we started involving the audience by launching a crowdfunding campaign and a public call to recruit new volunteers (most of the team members joined this way). The campaign was a huge success and the audience grew fast, demonstrating the interest towards the initiative. Many people offered to give us free advice on specific issues (management, communication, public relations) helping the project to evolve.
Then we converted the virtual engagement into participation: taking inspiration from the Forrest Gump movie, we invited everyone to walk with us for free and be an active part of the initiative. Although the pandemic has largely limited aggregation we have seen great participation: over 3,000 people from over 10 different nationalities joined us and many returned several times. Most of them had no mountain experience, demonstrating the growing interest in slow tourism and the need of youth to reconnect with nature. We guided the hikers day by day, providing all possible support and creating strong personal bonds. They often helped us to collect the documentation and organize the logistics.
Along the way, we have organized over 100 public events in collaboration with local and national organizations. In order to attract different audiences, the events were of various nature: astronomical observations, concerts, presentations, video projections...
Locally we have involved many realities (associations, administrations, individuals) who have always welcomed us and supported our research by sharing their knowledge. We have also created networks with realities that, often penalized by parochialism, have united for the com
Please highlight how this approach can be exemplary
The Va’ Sentiero expedition has been an original experience which successfully combined different elements to achieve its purpose.
We were able to mobilize an increasingly large audience and communicate the existence of an unknown treasure (the Sentiero Italia), inviting people to be an active part of something much bigger than a trip.
People were influenced by our passion and this transformed the journey into a symbol of cooperation on the field, giving the local communities a powerful message of redemption and creating a common sense of belonging.
For the first time a grassroot project like ours combined public engagement and widespread communication on such a large scale, making the most of the technology and potential of new media and documentation on the field, resulting in the digitization of a large informative archive dedicated to the country’s highlands (which is unique in size, variety and topicality), available to anyone for free.
Our platform represents for foreign tourists an open window to our most unknown mountains, as well as a huge resource for the local communities which will be positively affected by the slow tourism our project is generating. This is an impactful contribution to the protection of environmental biodiversity and the enhancement of local vocations and economies.
During the three years of expedition we have helped to reduce the gap between cities and mountains, bringing a multitude of citizens to interact with socio-cultural contexts very different from urban ones and inviting foreign walkers to discover a less known side of Italy.
At the same time, it emerged that mountain communities themselves are often not aware of the heritage they are guardians of. Sharing our perspective as outsiders has stimulated them to work on their potential: many locals took inspiration from our experience, giving life to new ones.
We documented the whole route (with gpx tracks, technical and cultural description, logistical info) and the territories (through articles, food and wine reviews, interviews), dedicating hours of smart working every day after hiking. We then published all the documentation in a free guide on the Sentiero Italia inside our website, translated in English, too. We also shared all our technical reports with the sections of the Italian Alpine Club to facilitate the maintenance of the trail.
2) Public participation
Attracted by the originality of the experience, thousands of people walked with us. Most of them were young people between 18 and 35 years old (including many university and high school students), often without any previous hiking experience: they all fell in love with the mountain. Strong bonds were born within the groups of participants, who have come together through physical effort and sharing, overcoming every cultural barrier.
Taking advantage of social media, in 3 years we have created a large community that has engaged with the expedition, discovering the environmental and cultural wealth of the highlands. Our community is growing and is very close-knit: it represents a perfect base for developing our message, day after day.
4) …The Sentiero Italia relives!
Our project underlined the urgency of starting the enhancement work of the Sentiero Italia. Through our expedition the route is becoming known again; moreover, thanks to the Italian Alpine Club’s restoration works, the path becomes practicable again after years of neglect.
Consequently, it begins to be frequented again (as evidenced by the requests for information we receive every day) and local actors look at it with interest as a tool for the territories’ resilience and sustainability.
Times are ripe for the giant trail to wake up from his long sleep!
Please also explain the benefits that derived from their involvement.
We made the discovery of the Sentiero Italia an open and shared process. We have been able to involve very different social actors, from private companies to small local associations, from banking foundations to agricultural producers.
Before starting the expedition, we spent two years (2017-2018) to build a solid network with the actors of civil society who have embraced our goals, as evidenced by the many patronages and partnerships.
Due to the social nature of the project we raised the first funds through a public crowdfunding campaign, from which we raised a total of over 95,000 euros. Then we applied for funding to foundations involved in the protection of the cultural and naturalistic heritage of the highlands. At the same time, we have obtained sponsorships from several private companies aligned with our values. Beyond the economic benefit, fundraising has been a virtuous modeling process, thanks to the engagement of many actors: many times we were offered valuable advice from professionals based on their skills.
During the expedition the involvement of hundreds of local realities (associations, institutions, parishes...) was fundamental for our logistics. Thanks to them we have always been able to find accommodation (for us and for all those who have walked with us) and to organize activities that allowed us to deeply engage with the territories. People walking with us had a primary role too, taking an active part in our field research and documentation.
At the same time, we created our website thanks to a young design studio from Milan (150up) that decided to gift us with its work: its high-quality contribution was priceless.
Last but not least, our virtual community of over 70,000 users significantly contributes in providing feedback on trends, opinions and needs related to the mountains and slow travel. Their reports are fundamental to keep the website information about the trail’s maintenance updated.
We aligned our goals with those of the Agenda 2030, in particular:
- 8. decent work and economic growth
- 13. climate Action
To sustain the growth of inland areas it is necessary to change their narrative: no longer suburbs but laboratories for sustainable development that slow tourism can trigger. We aim to create an alternative to mass tourism: promoting the Sentiero Italia means promoting conscious tourism in vulnerable areas that need to be activated. Slow tourism respects human dignity and generates economic, social and environmental value, prompting the communities to invest into accessibility and to preserve their cultural and natural heritage as the asset on which tourism depends.
Through our storytelling we’ve spread the perception of the mountain as a fundamental dimension for primary resources (water, air) seriously threatened by climate change: it is essential to acknowledge this in order to protect mountains. From this point of view our expedition was a big environmental education activity, an open-air school.
On the other hand, the experience has shown us that the perception of a heritage becomes real and produces actions of enhancement only by following an interactive process: it is not possible to protect a territory without communicating it and making the communities within it aware and involved in the process of protection.
We also worked on reducing the sense of isolation of inland areas where populations are often depressed, without prospects and scarcely proactive. By promoting the mountains among an urban audience we fostered dialogue between potential users and local beneficiaries and this action activates communities, building a sense of belonging.
During the expedition we’ve created work tables with actors (administrations, associations, individuals) of contiguous territories, long divided by mistrust and parochialism but united by our project: together we discussed problems and solutions, giving rise to unthinkable collaborations.
Va’ Sentiero was to all intents and purposes a field experiment. It has given life to something never attempted before: an inclusive expedition which involved thousands of people in a creative and impactful way, making the participants themselves ambassadors of inland areas and thus creating a replicable model. With the exception of the film Forrest Gump, there has never been such an experience! At the same time, no one had ever documented such a vast territory so thoroughly, and made the information collected available to the international public.
Our website wants to represent an innovative look to the mountains, combining aesthetics and functionality. Speaking of communication, using the trail as a tool to document mountains’ condition, our expedition used a fresh tone of voice to talk about the environment without falling into the easy spectacularization of our initiative.
The team also applied an original approach in working methodology: smart working for the entire expedition and exploiting new technologies to achieve the set objectives has demonstrated it is possible to efficiently work remotely in the mountains.
Furthermore, the voluntary nature of the project: we decided to start and conclude the expedition as volunteers to protect our message and inspire the public to pursue their own ideals in a selfless way.
Due to its results, beside many prestigious organizations (e.g. the WWF), the project received the High Patronage of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of the Environment. The former minister Sergio Costa publicly praised us: “After a journey that has already involved thousands of people for thousands of kilometers, I express admiration and satisfaction for this enterprise which does not stop there, but continues (...) involving and spreading the value of environmental awareness".
The innovative format of Va’ Sentiero has also become a case study for many university theses and we are being invited to numerous events.
Please provide clear documentation, communication of methodology and principles in this context.
According to a Ministry for Territorial Cohesion’s study, Italian inland areas cover 60% of the country and 20% of the national population. Since the postwar period these territories have undergone a progressive marginalization: the resident population has evidently decreased as well as the level of employment and services. These problems have had repercussions on the environment, from hydrogeological instability to the increasing fires caused by the forests’ lack of maintenance.
On the other hand, slow tourism is growing rapidly and long paths are becoming more and more populated: the Camino de Santiago has gone from 50,000 pilgrims in 2000 to 347,000 in 2019; in the same year the Via Francigena was traveled by over 50,000 people, about 20% more than in 2016. The Coronavirus pandemic underlined this sentiment, as evidenced by the significant influx of people in the mountains in the 2020-’21 summers.
This makes our format (walk, discover, share) a strong narrative device which is applicable in all those territories that need to be rediscovered and promoted.
The methodology will remain the same of the Sentiero Italia:
- preliminary study of the territory
- creation of a network (associations, institutions, foundations, sponsors)
- audience engagement (socials and media partnerships)
- field activity: inclusive expedition, real time storytelling, events, documentation...
- publication of materials for the promotion of local slow tourism
- monitoring of the generated impact
Our experience and documentation are also useful to national actors (Ministries of Tourism and Environment, NGOs…) for the implementation of mountains’ policies, and to local actors (institutions, parks and sections of the Italian Alpine Club) to monitor the state of health of their territories.
Finally, in the future we wish to export the Va’ Sentiero format abroad, in those territories with similar characteristics such as the Balkans, crossed by another great trail: the Via Dinarica.