Hiking in France

Be sure the check the main Hiking in Europe page for additional information and links.

I hiked in France at least six times between 2000 and 2007, for at least two months per trip. I didn't take notes, so everything here is from memory or Internet research. I will probably not be returning to France in the near future, since I am now mostly interested in hiking in Spain for the three months I spend in Europe each year. However, I did enjoy hiking in France and recommend it highly.

English is widely studied and spoken as a second language in France, but ordinary people in rural areas normally only speak French. Hiking in France without being able to speak and understand basic French will thus be frustrating.

The best aspects of hiking in France are: the well-maintained and waymarked trail system; the widespread availability of maps and guidebooks (at least for those who read French); plentiful availability of quality campgrounds; balance, at least in rural France, between land that has buildings and other improvements, land that is being farmed or used as pasture, and land that is covered with more or less natural forests. The worst aspects are: wetness in spring in most of lowland France (everywhere but the south-southeast, which has a drier Mediterranean climate); crowding in summer. Early fall is probably the best season, though campgrounds may be closed and it will be necessary to watch for hunters then.

The French hiking trail system is centrally organized by the Fédération Française de la Randonée Pédestre (FFRandonée), which is also responsible for co-ordinating way-marking and maintenance, though the actual work is done by local hiking clubs. An overview map of that trail system used to be included on the FFRandonée website, but I can't find there anymore. For many of the more popular trails, the FFRandonée has produced guidebooks, which include 1:50,000 topo strip maps, covering the trail itself plus a few kilometers on either side, a description of the trail (in French), plus a list of services available near the trail (hotels, campgrounds, stores, transportation) together with appropriate phone numbers and addresses. FFRandonée trails, both those for which guidebooks exist and those without guidebooks, are shown on all commonly available walking maps in France. These maps range in scale from 1:25,000 on up. Some walking maps are produced by the IGN, which is the official French government mapping agency, others are produced by private companies.

Au Vieux Campeur is a major outdoors equipment store chain, with main store in Paris and branch stores elsewhere. They are comparable to REI, except with higher prices and less selection. Decathlon is the name of a discount sporting goods chain, which has stores all over Europe. They are roughly comparable to the outdoor section of Walmart, except with higher prices and better selection.

Guidebooks and maps, whether those of the FFRandoneé or IGN or otherwise, are widely available in ordinary bookstores and newstands, but I wouldn't recommend counting on this, since it is always possible for the book or map you want to be out-of-stock. Rather, I would recommend buying all necessary books upon first arriving in Paris, either at the main Au Vieux Campeur store, the FFRandoneé information center, or the main IGN store. I never needed or used GPS while hiking in France, but it might be advisable for the Pyrenees High Route (Haut Route Pyreneen or HRP), which is marked by stone cairns only, instead of painted waymarks and printed signs like the other trails, and the western part of which (Basque country) is sometimes covered with very dense fog.

[Update 2013: as noted above, this webpage reflects my experiences hiking in France between 2000 and 2007, back when GPS receivers were much more expensive, heavier and less functional than now, and when GPS maps and GPX tracks were less widely available. If you currently have a quality hiking GPS, and can obtain good GPX tracks for the trail you want to follow, you might as well bring it. Loading the GPS with maps would be even better, and would allow you to mostly dispense with paper maps and guidebooks. More on GPS here.]

Trails in France typically start in towns accessible either by train or a combination of train and bus, so getting to the trailheads is usually easy. There is normally no need to buy train or bus tickets in advance. The French train system is notorious for strikes, which might cause problems with catching a return flight. Allow a few days for this contingency.

Most small towns have a municipal or private campground nearby, which is usually open at least May through September. These campgrounds can become very crowded and noisy in July and early August, but othewise they are pleasant places to spend the night. The municipal campgrounds are particularly economical (average of about 6€ for a solo hiker) while the private campgrounds are usually about twice as much. Couples sharing a tent pay somewhat less than twice the solo rate. Room with shared bath in a budget hotel in a small town of southern France is typically 30€. Personally, I prefer to stay in campgrounds in small towns and only use hotels in the larger cities. Hotels costing 30€ in larger cities are typically very rundown—sagging mattresses, filthy carpets, peeling wallpaper, jerry-rigged plumbing. To get something nicer in the larger cities, except to pay 50€. These prices are as of summer 2007. Rates are almost always per room, whether occupied by one or two people.

Wild camping is legal or tolerated in most areas of rural France, provided you practice stealth and leave-no-trace principles: camp in secluded patches of forest where you won't be seen and your tent won't damage anything; pitch your tent in the evening and strike it in the morning; don't stay more than one night in any one spot; don't leave any litter; NEVER make a fire.

Randonner Leger is a French forum about ultralight hiking. The participants in that forum will be happy to answer to questions about hiking in France, though many of them only read/write French.

Pilgrim trails

The three pilgrim trails in France that I hiked are: Namur in Belgium to St Jean Pied de Port in the southwest; Geneva to St Jean Pied de Port in the southwest; Arles to the Somport pass in the central Pyrenees. All pilgrim trails eventually connect up with the Spanish Camino de Santiago. The trail starting in Namur takes about two months to complete, the others are somewhat shorter. I prefer the French pilgrim trails to those of Spain for several reasons: less crowded, fewer stretches on asphalt, more opportunities for wild camping. In my opinion, pilgrim trails are the best starting point for foreigners wanting to try hiking in either France and Spain, regardless of previous hiking experience. An overview map of the entire network of European pilgrim's trails is available at Confraternity of Saint James, which also sells with English language guidebooks for some of the French trails. Credentials, which are required to stay in some of the refugios, can be obtained at American Pilgrims.

Pyreenees

GR10 trail runs from Atlantic to Mediterranean and takes about 6 weeks. Crowded and hot in July and early August, much nicer in late August and September. Plentiful camping possibilities. The Haut Route Pyreeneen, which runs between and at somewhat higher elevation than the GR10 in France and the GR11 in Spain, is not an officially recognized trail in the FFRandonée system, but it is well-known and there are maps and a guidebook, available at Au Vieux Campeur and elsewhere. The HRP is never crowded.

Massif Central and South France

Large network of long-distance trails, such as the Chemin de Stevenson, the Chemin des Bonhommes, the Chemin de Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, the GR7 and related trails, plus a variety of smaller trails. This is a very nice area for hiking and camping. The Massif Central is especially nice, because it is at high elevation and hence gets heavy snow in winter, which means forests are often conifers and there are few ticks due to the cold winters. Since the land is mostly rolling hills and plateaus, rather than steep mountains like in the Alps and Pyreenees, it is much easier to find secluded places to camp. Less crowded than the Pyrenees in summer, and very uncrowded in spring and fall. Lots of wild boar in the forests. Because they are hunted, they are unlikely to attack humans unless cornered (though they have been cases reported where mean old males have attacked and severely injured humans just for looking at them the wrong way—I'm quite serious about this).

Corsica

The trail which runs north to south down the center of the island is horribly overcrowded in summer. Apparently, there was a documentary which described this is as the most difficult GR trail in France (the difficulty is trivial, one steep section with chains and ladders embedded in the rock) and that description as "difficult" caused the overcrowding. The trails which run around the coast of the island, and those which cross from east to west, are typically uncrowded, even in summer. Campgrounds are not that common in Corsica and those which do exist are often crowded and unpleasant. I would never visit Corsica again in the summer due the overcrowding, but it is probably very nice in spring or fall. Lots of wild boar. The ferry service went on strike while I was in Corsica, so that is another issue to consider.