H iking in France is the best way to learn about the country and this comprehensive guide is the perfect introduction to the subject – designed to both stimulate an interest in participating, whilst preparing you for some exhilarating walking in France. We hope it reads like a ‘Hiker’s view to discovering The Hexagon.’
Whether hiking in France along long-distance trails [sentiers de Grandes Randonnées/GRs], or shorter hiking trips as part of a longer French sojourn, there is much you can learn in this section and an abundance of vacation choices on this site. Remember – we transfer your luggage onto the next hotel whilst you just carry a day pack.
Otherwise, please read on below…
H iking in France means getting away from the crowds and off the beaten track, and we’ll show you where to go to ‘get remote’. Alternatively, if your penchant is for gentle hikes with fine cuisine, then the Mediterranean lowlands or Provence are hard to beat. We are all different: some like the challenge of moving on each day, whilst others prefer to spend a couple of nights in one location.
Whatever your preferences, plan in the knowledge that you are dealing with the in-country experts who are here to help you 7/7 and well into the evening!
- Background information on France
- Help with choosing your France hiking tour
- Good advice on hiking in France, including preparation, legal aspects, and
- Reasons why you can rely on us to look after you.
There are twenty-million self-confessed hikers in France, that’s one-third of the population. Where do they go hiking? In France, bien sûr! Okay, the French invented ‘chauvinism,’ but when it comes to hiking, France can rightfully claim to have it all: 120,000 miles (180,000 kms) of trail at your disposal, much of it maintained by volunteers, spanning the whole of the country and designed to satisfy all hiking-types. Your biggest problem is deciding which slice of the action is right for you. So not, “Shall I consider hiking tours in France?” but, “Where in France shall I go”? and “Which hikes in France shall I consider?”
Hiking in France – Background Information
Hiking in France is different – so Vive La Difference! In this section, we discuss what you can expect to experience when enjoying some walking in France on a self-guided tour. We consider customs and habits and focus in particular on French hikers, greetings and trail dangers.
French hikers tend to be very chatty and sociable. They will be intrigued by your presence and delighted you have chosen to go hiking in France. They will most likely be critical of their own country (especially if they work for the State) and expect you to politely remind them of what makes France great – and them so privileged!
French hikers generally get much closer to nature than hikers from English-speaking countries. They are prepared to bed down in communal refuges and dormitories, sometimes without sheets and normally bereft of en-suite WC or shower, and experience quite basic facilities that others would consider as ‘roughing it.’
So if you have walked with them all day, don’t assume they’ll be staying in your comfortable hotel. Moreover, when they tell you how good the place was where they spent the previous night, please place their comments in perspective: they average five or six trails ‘on the cheap’ each year compared with your one or two in comfort, it’s that simple. Were they to venture abroad to hike in your back yard, the chances are they would trade up for that special occasion.
If you meet up with French hikers at lunch-time, don’t be surprised, nor take offense, if they take a little nap after they’ve eaten. And don’t feel obliged to hang around and wait for them to wake up. The chances are they’ll catch you up later!
Hiking in France is a safe pursuit. France has its own fair share of urban social problems and unemployment is relatively high. However, trail dangers are few and far between and you have more chance of being struck by lightning than of being mugged. Accidents are quite rare and tend to be associated with alcohol, bravado or infantile behavior resulting from group dynamics. This is one of the main reasons why The Enlightened Traveller does not provide hiking tours for large groups or open-enrollment group-walking tours.
However, if you decide to do so, probably upon departure, make sure you know how many kisses are customary in your region – one, two, three or four!
One is for lovers (so that’s out!), two is most common, three for Le Midi (bar Toulouse) and four for Paris. Well, like any capital city, they claim more of the cultural capital as well!
And don’t discriminate like the French do and kiss just those whom you like. As an enlightened traveler, you are far too balanced to discriminate, so either kiss them all or none at all! Amongst hikers, it’s very rare to shake hands or kiss out on the open trail, however remote. If hikers approach you from ahead, they’ll just say ‘Bonjour,’ (or ‘hello’ if they’re British) as they pass you. Those appearing from behind are much more likely to join you for a chat, and accompany you for while, until things follow their natural course.
By the way, if you see a backpack in the middle of a trail, the chances are that someone is having a wee-wee (pee-pee in France, not Oui Oui!) in the undergrowth nearby. If you find his and hers backs on the trail, your guess is as good as ours!
Whilst there are therefore no predators that will stalk you, the only real threat to be wary of is wild boar and their numbers are certainly on the increase. However, you are much more likely to meet a dead one, killed by the local orange-capped hunting fraternity, than one that’s still alive; and they tend to be noisy creatures anyway, so their rummaging and snorting will generally alert you to their presence. Keep to the main trails, don’t go mushroom picking, and you’ll be fine.
Whilst there are therefore no predators that will stalk you, the only real threat to be wary of is wild boar and their numbers are certainly on the increase. However, you are much more likely to meet a dead one, killed by the local orange-capped hunting fraternity, than one that’s still alive; and they tend to be noisy creatures anyway, so their rummaging and snorting will generally alert you to their presence. Keep to the main trails, don’t go mushroom picking, and you’ll be fine. We have never heard of a case of a hiker being charged by a wild boar, but if you see some cubs we suggest you give them a wide berth
If you see a line of caterpillars or ‘chenilles’ snaking across the trail in joined-up fashion, please don’t touch one as they can give you a very nasty rash!
Finally here, if you are in any way concerned about safety whilst hiking in France (and you are in a foreign country, and may be walking alone) don’t hesitate to go into a cutlery or knife store and purchase a ‘bombe defense’ or pepper spray. We have thought of issuing these automatically to anyone hiking in France on their own with us, but felt this might be a bit alarmist. We thus prefer to lend them on request. We would love to hear your opinion on this issue.
Hiking in France – Communication & Language.
Communicating with your hosts
You are provided with all the information you need to have a successful hiking trip and our suppliers/your hosts have the same information in French – voila! The rest is up to you. Hoteliers are probably very busy and you are likely to be pretty tired on arrival. So whilst it generally comes down to exchanging simple niceties, if you particularly want to practise your French, and chat to both hosts and hikers at the end of the day, please ask us to place you in chambres d’hotes (guest houses) and auberges (country inns) rather than hotels when booking your accommodations. We will do our best to oblige subject to availability.
Communicating with overseas family & friends
Hiking in France with a laptop computer in your luggage is certaily not advisable. No-one responsible for luggage transfers will take any responsibilty for it. Please contact us to discuss the solutions available if you are merging together a work and a hiking trip.
Believe it or not, the provision of internet services, like any other service in French villages, is down to the Mayor. So just as s/he may refuse piped gas provision to homes for fear of explosions, access to good-quality internet connections/ADSL may not have been given the go ahead. In the Cevennes, for example, the first steps are just being taken towards its provision and they are not the highest speed connections by current standards.
Under such circumstances, we suggest you keep to SMS, or mobile text messaging, as your main means of contact with the outside world. We would also not recommend the use of any ‘heavy duty’ roaming services on your phone. Whilst, technologically-speaking, The French are as fluent as the rest, the level of telecoms competition is low and so fees can be high, so don’t go downloading and full-length feature films on your mobiles for après-bar consumption!
As for snail mail, La Poste is the butt of many a French joke, and the most successful French film of all time, Danny Boon’s “Chez les Schtis,” (released in 2008 and in the process of being re-made for the US market) piled further derision on this national institution. Unless you really have nothing better to do than queue for half a day, buy stamps where possible from newsagents (La Presse) and post your postcards using the little yellow metallic boxes on village walls, or from the airport or railway station of your choice.
That said, we are aware that steps are being taken to automate some post offices in busy towns. In these recent developments, staff stand around and point you in the direction of a machine rather than sit behind glass windows. Progress for some, but woe betide if the machines malfunction!
Communicating with The Enlightened Traveller
You might wish to explore the option of purchasing a sim card in in France just in case – or even better [and cheaper] from the UK if you are British or travelling to the UK before arriving in France.
Mobile phones may not have complete coverage in countryside locations, but signals will come and go within short distances and emergency coverage is almost universal.
Hiking in France – Food, Travel & Weather.
A B&B option is more likely to be offered where choice abounds, so you are free to choose your evening meal according to your personal budget and taste. This option may also appeal to vegans and vegetarians.
Whilst we ensure that any dietary requirements are brought to the attention of your hosts when making your reservation, it is your responsibility to remind them upon arrival because they may not have a system for remembering such matters and the onus is on you to bring it to their attention when ordering the evening meal. It is fair to say that our French hoteliers have generally improved over the last few years as far as vegetarian food options on menus is concerned – thanks in part to our efforts in bringing the issue to their attention. However, fruitarians need not apply!
ii) What you will eat
You are hiking in France and the French are generally renowned for their love of food. Your hosts will showcase local traditions [produits du terroirs] according to what is in season. If your are on a half-board tour, the evening meal in hotels follows a set menu format normally comprising a meat, fish and veggie main course, with entree and dessert. If staying in an auberge or chambres d’hotes [guest house] and taking evening meal [which then becomes ‘tables d’hotes’ in a chambres d’hotes], it is part of the convivial nature of such hiker-oriented accommodations that walkers come together to partake of the same dish around a common table, although vegetarians will enjoy a separate offering.
If included or requested, your packed lunch will normally be fulsome and nourishing. You may find it hard to put it all in your back-pack. As for breakfast, this can take the form of a light continental breakfast [mainly in towns] or a buffet with meat, cheese, yoghurts and plenty of strong coffee.
iii) When you can expect to eat it
Finally here, if you are hiking in urban contexts, evening meals are likely to be served around 20.00 hrs, whereas in country-side locations you will find locals tend to eat earlier, with meals served up at 19.30 hrs sharp.
When hiking in France, then, you thus need to aim to arrive at your accommodations before 19.00 hrs or alarm bells will start to ring. Breakfast will also generally be served a little later than in towns at, say, 08.00 hrs.
Travel & Getting around
Public transport is generally of a very high standard in France, but we do not use buses as part of our transport options. However, we positively encourage the use of local trains and support the work of local taxi and transport firms wherever we can.
It is trite and untrue to say the weather is always great in France, because it is not. When it rains, it probably pours! However, The south-eastern quadrant of The Hexagon does get better weather than the rest of the country, which is why we mainly focus on hiking in that part of southern France – with the notable exception of the Loire Valley. France’s best weather is consistently found in the garrigue or coastal plain of some fifty or so kilometers that runs in an arc around the Golfe de Lyon.
So, you don’t need to be a meteorologist to recognize that the moment you head inland, and start to climb in altitude, the greater the propensity towards increased humidity in the form of rain.
We obviously get customers who do ten days of hiking in France without feeling a single drop of rain. Whilst historically in the minority, the effects of global warming have certainly reduced precipitation levels, made the traditional rainy seasons less predictable and enhanced your chances of a rain-free trip. Nevertheless, many people will generally experience some precipitation, however short-lived, during their stay. Whether seasoned hiker or occasional hill-walker, come prepared for both wind and rain and you will not get caught out.
The wind, Le Mistral, is the hiker’s friend, as it chases away the rain clouds and provides long periods of glorious sunshine. But it does so at a cost: the wind can blow quite strongly and the wind-chill factor be quite notable. Once again, if you bring suitable clothing to combat its effects, you will be well advised and well prepared.
Finally here, make sure you bring a suitable warm pullover or fleece for those fresh early mornings and late evenings. Woe betide the t-shirt clad trekker who fails to dress accordingly once that sun goes down – even if it’s made from man-made fibres!
Hiking in France – Choosing your Tour.
When looking at options for hiking in France, there are some key questions you need to ask yourself…
1. Aims & Objectives
Hiking in France can mean very different things to different people. You may simply be looking for a chance to escape to somewhere peaceful and see some of the French countryside via short daily strolls of around 6 miles/10 kilometres. Alternatively, you may seek more challenging hiking that is capable of pushing you to your current limits.
Hiking is quite simply the best way to see France. However, it is essential to establish what kind of walking tour you want at the very beginning in order to avoid disappointment. As a responsible hiking tour operator, The Enlightened Traveller has established very high standards and expects to meet them. We also set out to exceed your expectations, not just satisfy them. However, we are unable to look into your mind and learn about you unless you share your interests with us. If your hiking tour is unsuitable for you, for whatever reasons, you will be unhappy and we, likewise, will feel disappointed; and whatever we do to try to compensate for your inappropriate choice, ultimately it will be a palliative, not a cure. So, please do your research, ask questions and seek our advice before you make your tour choice.
2. Challenge or Holiday/Vacation?
- How strenuous do you want the walking to be?
- What distances do you want to walk each day?
- What ascents/descents are you comfortable with?
- Are you [or will you be] fit enough to do this particular walk?
We would suggest you consult our Classification System here and choose according to our tripartite taxonomy: Light, Moderate or Harder [quite challenging].
Remember – you are asking your body to do something it doesn’t get asked to do that often, viz., walk on three or more consecutive days, rain, wind, shine or pain. You are likely to need some form of exercise or training in order to get up to speed; although many adopt the frame of mind that they are capable of getting fit by just doing it – something which may become more difficult to do with age.
If you are still not sure, opt for the short break rather than the full-length trip.
3. Companionship or Splendid Isolation
Ask yourself whether you want to walk alone, with family, friends or maybe even colleagues?
As an independent hiker, you quite rightly have your own agenda; which is why The Enlightened Traveller chooses not to offer ‘open-enrollment’ group tours. Instead, we opt to satisfy your individual requirements or those of the group that you lead and bring to France. And if you wish to interact casually with other hikers along the trail, ask us which trails are the best for camaraderie.
4. Location, Time available & Theme
- Where do you want to walk – city (urban), sub-urban, coast, countryside or middle-mountain?
- Are you looking for a full-length or a short, 4-night walking tour?
- What sort of themes do you like exploring?
5. Transport issues – single-centre, multi-centre or inn-to-inn.
- How do you wish to get around between hotels and walks?
- Do you want to sleep in one place, a different place each night, or somewhere between these two options?
Inn-to-inn tours generally necessitate a change of accommodation each night and walking normally fills the best part of the day. You hike between hotels on a linear route, whilst we look after your luggage transfers.
You might also like to consider our ‘multi-centre’ walks in France which offer a mix of straight-line and circular walking, meaning you do not change accommodation every day. Luggage transfers still form part of the package and the circular walks generally offer options to suit your needs on the day.
We do not offer pure ‘single centre’ tours as you do not really require our input if you just wish to hire a gite and walk around its hinterland. Moreover, if you know of one location with four or five great days’ walking around it, we would love to hear about it.”
Finally, you may also like the idea of our eco-friendly tours by rail, which are ‘circular walks’ linked together by rail travel. You can learn more about this here.
Of course, all of the above options are available as either full-length or short hiking tours.
6. What’s included and Accommodation-type.
Hiking tours arranged by The Enlightened Traveller tend to include breakfast and evening meals other than those of the day of arrival or departure. It’s a question of getting the balance right between customer choice and convenience. Our rule of thumb is as follows: if you’ve been walking all day, you are unlikely to want to explore meal options along the way or upon arrival. Inn-to-inn treks thus include both lunch and dinner. However, where walking is of a more leisurely nature, with more time to ‘look around’ and with choices on offer, we will let you decide what and where to eat according to your budget and preference.
Nevertheless, the best accommodation options in certain locations may simply lend themselves better to a bed and breakfast option. This is based on our local knowledge, of course. Details of restaurants are to be found in your tour dossier and the walking notes will tell you where you can purchase the contents of a packed lunch – although we may include one or two where it’s more convenient to do so. Your hosts can provide these on demand so long as you ask them upon arrival.
Finally here, let’s consider accommodation itself. Do you have a preference for the camaraderie or warmth of the auberge or chambres d’hotes experience, or is your ideal end of the day the glorious isolation of a hotel? The answer is likely to be dependent in large part on your French language proficiency. Please tell us your preference on your booking form so that we can seek to personalize your chosen hiking in France experience further.
You’ll also be keen to consider the insight we provide on the general accommodation scene in France here.
Hiking in France – Fitness & Physical Preparation.
You can enjoy light hiking in France providing you have no physical limitations. In fact, many unfit people regain fitness and good health through taking regular walks. However, if you intend to take your walking more seriously, and have a desire to move on to more challenging walks, it is important to increase your fitness levels gradually and to set yourself achievable targets. Over-exertion can lead to exhaustion and increases the chance of you getting injured and having to give up altogether – either before or during your hiking tour.
Busy people convince themselves that the only way to prepare the body for the rigours of hiking in France is to go on a tour there – the body adjusts and increases its fitness as you go! We consider that by building up hiking-specific power in the legs, strength in the cardio-vascular system, and endurance and stamina, the hiker in general, and the long distance hiker in particular, is more likely to meet his or her objectives with less effort and more enjoyment.
There are plenty of methods to gain physical fitness and here are just a few you might like to consider – other than flat or hill-walking itself. They are running, using an inclined treadmill, stairs with a pack, cycling, swimming. The above ‘primary exercise’ should be done, say, four times a week during the working week, to which one should add a day or two of secondary exercise at weekends. These activities should include… Planning & Research. Guide books go out of date very quickly, as even the most famous of trails undergo frequent changes. None of them include full-size Institut Géographique National/ IGN) maps, so most settle for 1/50000 scale. No hiker should rely on such inadequate maps for hiking in France, but most Offices du Tourisme will try to sell you their own ones. We would not advise you walk with anything less than maps of 1/25000 scale and we provide you with these as part of your France hiking tour with the route highlighted. Be aware that footpaths marked in red on these maps (Grande Randonnees/GRs, Grande Randonnees du Pays/GRPs or Petites Randonnees/PRs) may not have been cleared or freshly way marked for a long time, and may indeed follow a completely new route now. Paths vary enormously from clear and well sign-posted and way marked, to off-trail ‘routes’ following cairns over rough country. Beware, some of the routes marked on the maps can be very vague or indeed have disappeared or been wrongly marked on the map, making walking in France quite problematical. Stick to our up-to-date notes and you cannot go wrong! However, a compass and the wherewithal to use it will be richly rewarded. The Enlightened Traveller Company Charter.
Ten reasons why you can rely on us when hiking in France.
Planning & Research.
Guide books go out of date very quickly, as even the most famous of trails undergo frequent changes. None of them include full-size Institut Géographique National/ IGN) maps, so most settle for 1/50000 scale. No hiker should rely on such inadequate maps for hiking in France, but most Offices du Tourisme will try to sell you their own ones. We would not advise you walk with anything less than maps of 1/25000 scale and we provide you with these as part of your France hiking tour with the route highlighted.
Be aware that footpaths marked in red on these maps (Grande Randonnees/GRs, Grande Randonnees du Pays/GRPs or Petites Randonnees/PRs) may not have been cleared or freshly way marked for a long time, and may indeed follow a completely new route now. Paths vary enormously from clear and well sign-posted and way marked, to off-trail ‘routes’ following cairns over rough country. Beware, some of the routes marked on the maps can be very vague or indeed have disappeared or been wrongly marked on the map, making walking in France quite problematical. Stick to our up-to-date notes and you cannot go wrong! However, a compass and the wherewithal to use it will be richly rewarded.
The Enlightened Traveller Company Charter.
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