France is a great country to walk in, with different regions offering different types of walking. If you plan in advance, you can have a very enjoyable vacation.
First Things First: Plan Your Route
Decide which part of France you want to explore and walk through as a start. Then look at the main walking routes that go through that area. On the long routes, it's best to pick a small section to start with. If you like the region, you can plan to come back to continue the route on another vacation.
The Pilgrim Routes especially are full of people who go back each year to walk the whole route through France and on to Santiago da Compostela in north west Spain, the main pilgrimage destination in Europe.
- Main Pilgrim Routes from France to Spain: There are five main trails setting off from all over France and taking in stunning scenery.
The following websites have useful information on walking in France:
- Féderation Francaise de la Randonée (French Federation of Walking Paths, or "FFRP") is the organization concerned with long-distance footpaths. There's a lot of information on its site, though unfortunately it is only in French. However, it does publish very good guides: the topoguides des sentiers de grande randonnée are well worth buying. They also have e-guides on their website.
- About-France.com has good information in English.
- GR - Long Distance Footpaths has maps, descriptions, and lodging suggestions in English.
- Traildino claims to be the world's largest hiking database. It has very useful information and is in English. They describe many of the walking routes in detail.
A special map is available on a scale of 1:100000: France, sentiers de grande randonnée, published by the Institut Géographique National (IGN). You can buy it at most good travel bookshops or buy it directly from FFRP.
Yellow Michelin maps of scale 1:200000 mark the most important long-distance paths, but for the walk itself, maps at a scale of 1:50000 or 1:25000 are needed. All the 1:25.000 maps are marked up with the coordinates you will need to establish your position with a GPS.
All tourist offices have good maps and books describing the local routes; get them before you set out.
Sentiers de Grande Randonée – Long-distance walking paths, shortened to "GR" followed by a number (e.g. GR65). These are long trails, some connecting to paths throughout Europe. They often go border to border. They are marked on trees, posts, crosses, and rocks with a short red band above a white band. There are around 40,000 miles of them in France.
Chemins de Petite Randonée – "PR" followed by a number (e.g. PR6). These are small local paths that may or may not connect to a GR path. They will go from village to village or to historic sites. PR routes are marked with a yellow band above a white band.
Grandes Randonées du Pays – "GRP" routes are circular paths. GRP routes are marked with two parallel flashes, one yellow and one red.
You'll find every kind of accommodation on the routes, from the simplest to the most luxurious. You’ll most likely stay somewhere in the middle of this range. There are bed and breakfast (chambres d'hôtes), walker's hostels (gites d'étape), and hotels. Refuges are mainly in the national parks and the mountains and will be signposted.
You should book your accommodation in advance, particularly during the summer months. Otherwise, you risk arriving in a small town at the end of the day and finding no accommodation or just hostels (shared dormitory and very basic though usually clean and relatively comfortable).
- Bed and breakfasts (chambres d'hôtes) cover the whole range of prices and accommodation. They are great for meeting fellow travelers. Some owners and guests speak English, and many will try very hard to speak a little, but you might find it difficult if you don’t speak any French.
- Book at gites d'étape and refuges.
- For hotels particularly, try the Logis de France.
You will find local tourist boards very helpful, and you can book in advance by email.
More on Accommodation
There are general guides to lodging in France, and check out the family-owned, independent Logis Hotels, which is always a good bet
- Check the weather before you set out each day. Meteo France will give you detailed forecasts.
- Summer can get very hot, so take suitable clothing with you. A good hat and sunscreen are advisable. France has always had a good reputation for sports, so if you're missing sunscreen or clothing, you're bound to find it, either in a big supermarket like the ubiquitous Decathlon or, better still, in a small specialized shop. Assistants will take time and trouble to make sure you have what you want, and they may be able to advise you on local routes and tips!
- Depending on walking location, the weather might change at any time, so be prepared for all climate changes and especially sudden, heavy rain. Take a waterproof hat and a good rain shell. You should have warm clothes in your rucksack in case it’s cold and wet. It can also snow in the high altitudes of the Alps and the Pyrenees in the summer.
What to Take
- What to pack will depend on whether you are walking alone, in remote areas, or in an accompanied group; however, this is general advice, and it’s worth following in case you get separated from a group. France is a huge country, and some of it is quite wild.
- Pack a compass, GPS, a mobile, and a whistle for attracting attention.
- Take quick energy-reviving foods like energy bars and chocolate. Also take water with you.
- Have spare socks ready and anything you might need, like a blister kit, plasters, and insect repellant.
Enjoy your walks!