Practical tips for long-distance walking
Preparing for a long-distance walk can sometimes feel overwhelming!
But there are no problems that a little preparation won’t solve. And although these lessons have been learned along the Grands Randonnées of France, they can of course be applied to long-distance walks everywhere.
Plage de Kervel, GR 34, Brittany
GR paths, GRP paths and PR paths
Walking is almost a national pastime in France and tens of thousands of kilometres of paths criss-cross the country.
No matter what your fitness level, your preferred choice of landscape or how much time you have available, there is a walk to suit you. This network of trails is overseen by the Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP), an organisation which maintains all walking paths in France.
Long distance paths, or Grand Randonnée, are referred to as GR paths and use a system of red and white blazes to mark the way.
Shorter paths, confined to one region of France, are known as Sentier de Grand Randonnée de Pays or GRP trails and use red and yellow blazes.
Local trails known as Sentier de Promenade et Randonnée or PR trails use single yellow stripes or, where there are multiple paths, multiple colours are used.
The blazes are self-explanatory depicting left turns, right turns and wrong way. And once you find the start of the trail, it’s a simple matter of looking out for the red and white blazes that keep you headed in the right direction.
Choosing a guidebook
You’ll find a range of guidebooks available for many of the most-loved walks in France, all providing various levels of detail on the route, the villages you’ll pass through and the distances between them.
My personal favourites are the TopoGuides published by the FFRP and if there is a TopoGuide published for my walk, you can be sure there will be a copy in my backpack!
Inside the TopoGuide, you’ll find the path marked on a series of topographic maps, providing a clear visual understanding of the terrain and the proximity of the path to the nearest road. Many times, this has allowed me to detour off a muddy track in heavy rain or to see where a detour might avoid…you know, that one hill too many 😉
Miam Miam Dodo guidebooks are another popular choice among walkers. Although I’m a devoted TopoGuide girl myself, what appeals to me may not appeal to you. When I walked the GR 70 Chemin de Stevenson in 2016, I carried both the TopoGuide and the Miam Miam Dodo guide and you’ll find a comparison of the two, along with some tips for reading topographic maps, here.
If there is no TopoGuide or other guidebook available for the path you are walking, the IGN map Series Bleu scale 1:25,000 will do just as well and will have your path clearly marked. These are available online, at the IGN store in Paris (8 Avenue Pastor, Saint-Mandé) and sometimes at the local tabac.
It is also possible to track your location using the GPS tracker on your mobile phone with the iPhiGéNie app (a paid subscription service which is available for both Android and Apple phones.)
How to prepare for long distance walking
The thought of walking a 750-kilometre (470-mile) walk such as the Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy can feel a little daunting!(Of course, it is not necessary to complete all 750 kilometres in one holiday. Start with a week or two and, if you enjoy it, return the following year for the next stage.)
Luckily, there are plenty of shorter options such as the Chemin de Stevenson (270 kilometres/169 miles) or Martel to Rocamadour (127 kilometres/80 miles) or a section of any length along the coast of Brittany.
So, how fit do you need to be?
I like to think that walking through France is an excuse to wander from one gourmet meal to the next while exploring every ancient chapel and abandoned château along the way.
Chapelle Saint-Roch, near Montbonnet on the GR65 Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
Broken down into a series of twenty kilometre (twelve mile) daily walks, with the occasional rest day thrown in, a long-distance walk becomes a delightful way to explore the French countryside.
Giving some thought to the things that make or break a holiday for you will go a long way towards making your long distance walk enjoyable.
So, what are the things you need to consider?
Approaching Ostabat-Asme, Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
How far will you walk each day?
This is obviously a personal decision but it’s best to be honest up front or do some training.
Finding the time to walk twenty kilometres a day until it feels easy is not feasible for most people. Start with 30 minutes of walking every day and build up gradually.
If you only have 30 minutes to spare each day, increase the intensity of your exercise—jog for a block or two, do 5 minutes of star jumps or burpies before you start walking.
I live at the bottom of a hill—walking up and down it ten times leaves me exhausted, despite adding up to less than two kilometres!
Look for ways to build exercise into the things you do every day—take the stairs, get off the bus two stops earlier (you know the drill!).
A tough day climbing up and down the gorges near Monistrol-d’Allier, Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
I am happy to walk between twenty and twenty-five kilometres (twelve to fifteen miles) each day with an occasional longer day where necessary (more than twenty-five kilometres and I’m likely to develop a few blisters and more than thirty is a struggle for me physically). I am happy to stay in a hotel, chambre d’hôte or gîte but avoid camping.
(Learned the hard way – Tips for avoiding blisters on a long-distance walk)
If you know that you will only be happy in a hotel or cannot put in the occasional thirty-kilometre (nineteen-mile) day, then your options become more limited. Perhaps a rest day will ease any stiff muscles and sore feet if a longer day cannot be avoided.
Distances between villages are given for each walk (check in the Choose a Walk section) and, of course, are included in every I Love Walking in France digital guidebook, allowing you to plan an overnight stop at any interval that suits you.
Competition for a bed in France is not as fierce as it can be along the Camino de Santiago in Spain and rising before daybreak in order to beat other walkers to a bed is not common—although even those walkers with only a loose plan, will usually set a target each morning and phone ahead to secure a bed.
Auberge de Cévennes, Chemin de Stevenson
If you prefer not to plan or book ahead, have a plan for what you will do if you arrive in town after a day’s walk and all the beds are taken. Will you be happy to catch a bus or taxi (if there is one) to the next village or would you see this as a failure to walk the entire route? Or will you stop early enough each day that walking an extra hour or two will not cause any problems?
Accommodation options in France
The most common concern I hear from those dreaming of a long-distance walk is…
“Can I do this without camping or sharing a room with a dozen snoring strangers?”
Of course you can!
Even in small villages, there is likely to be a variety of accommodation available—from hotels, chambres d’hôtes, auberges, gîtes and campgrounds.
Finding a bed in your preferred type of lodging is often easier if you are willing to book ahead but what is a chambre d’hôte, an auberge, a gîte?
Camping or a little bit of luxury?
Since I live in Australia, a walk in France will be one part of a longer holiday. I don’t want to carry my dancing shoes on the walk. Nor do I want to lug my tent through Paris, so camping under the stars—as glorious as that may be—is just not a practical option for me. Neither is staying in a gîte unless I can rent sheets and a towel for the night (so far, I have always been able to do this—and have spent many memorable nights in gîtes throughout France).
The perfect solution is to have my luggage transferred between hotels each day (yes, this does need some advance planning!).
Collonges-la-Rouge, Martel to Rocamadour
I have to be honest and say that I have stayed in a few hotel chains (not just in France) that also happen to have a restaurant onsite—but food was clearly not their core business. In small French villages, I have occasionally stayed in restaurants that also happened to have rooms available—if you get my drift. But, my goodness, what a dinner!! And, I should add, they were generally cheap, clean and with enough basic amenities to see me comfortably through the night!
If you are walking alone, staying overnight in a gîte is a wonderful way to make friends and perhaps find a walking buddy. If you prefer some privacy, single and double rooms are often available in addition to the dormitory-style accommodation.
Above Lac des Mortes, l’Échappée Jurassienne
Is it safe to do a long-distance walk alone?
As a woman in her early sixties who has walked both alone and with friends for almost ten years, my experience is yes, it is safe to walk alone in France.
I do sometimes get lonely if I’m walking on my own and for me, the presence of other walkers is reassuring—both from a safety perspective and because it offers the opportunity for a chat 🙂 But sometimes, walks like these are partially about learning how we behave outside our comfort zone and that’s all part of the journey!
There is no shortage of company on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
I can’t speak with authority on all walking paths but I can say that both the Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy and the Chemin de Stevenson have a fair amount of foot traffic. It was very rare for me not to be able to see another walker a few hundred metres ahead or behind me and I feel confident that if I were injured someone would find me within an hour or two at most.
When I walked along the coast of Brittany alone in 2015, I had heard the path was dangerous in places. To minimise any risk, I took a car and walked for miles each day—and then walked back to the car! On weekdays, I had the coast to myself, but on weekends I shared the path with hundreds of locals out for some fresh air.
A few years later, I walked the Échappée Jurassienne with friends, and encountered other walkers only twice during the fifteen-day, 270-kilometre (170-mile) walk from Dole to Saint-Claude.
I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing either the coast of Brittany or the Échappée Jurassienne alone, but that is a comment on my agility and fitness level, and not on any dangers that might be encountered along the way.
Easy walking between Écluse de Castanet and Écluse de Vic on the Midi Canal
If getting lost or being injured and unable to get help is a big concern for you, perhaps a canal is your best choice (and if it turns out you are the first person ever to get lost walking along a canal, I’d love to hear from you!). If the worst should happen and you fall and break a leg, it will only be a short time before a cyclist or a boat comes by to rescue you!
GR (Grand Randonnée) paths are well-marked wherever there is a fork or other deviation but there will not always be a blaze or marking in sight. Keep your eyes open and look out for markings in unusual places—on trees, houses, fences and kerbs.
Which long distance walks in France are suitable for cycling?
Good question!! I should let you know up front—I can’t ride a bike!
Leaving that obvious obstacle aside, I choose walking because I like it. It forces me to slow down and pay attention to my surroundings, to notice the château far away on a distant hill or to fully appreciate a cold drink or cup of coffee from a café that has seemed a long way off for a long, long time.
But perhaps you’ve chosen a walk and have fallen in love with the places you’ll visit but just don’t have the time available to walk it? No problem!
Some paths are obvious choices for long-distance cycling.
Towpaths alongside canals were cleared for horses pulling barges but today, cyclists account for most of the land traffic. Many canals offer bike rental stations and some also provide repair stations for broken chains (or whatever it is that breaks on a bike!).
Rocky, muddy path near Espeyrac, GR 65 Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
Other paths, including the Chemins de Saint-Jacques are not suitable for cycling. The tracks can be rocky, muddy after rain and a cyclist following the Pilgrims’ Trail would seem out of place.
But don’t let this put you off!
All the villages you’ll pass through on any long-distance walk in France are connected by road. Plug them into your GPS or carry a map and be on your way! Cyclists are common on the back roads of France and French drivers are exceptionally considerate. Take the usual safety precautions and there is no reason to miss any of the charm French countryside offers.
Learn more about walking (or cycling) along a canal
The best time of year for a long distance walk
Walking season in France extends from April through until October. Outside of these months, many areas will be under snow and walking under these conditions carries a set of challenges well beyond my area of expertise. Many hotels will be closed during this period also, making accommodation harder to find.
The peak period for walkers is June, July and August. Although daytime temperatures can be quite high in summer, the sunflowers will be blooming as you venture further south (and this is sufficient reason for me to endure a little heat!). Many villages host an evening market only in summer and museums and châteaux remain open throughout the day, rarely closing for lunch, which will give you much more flexibility if there is an attraction you’d like to visit. But the higher numbers of walkers make it advisable to book accommodation as early as feasible.
Sunflowers at Écluse de Sanglier, Midi Canal
August is traditionally the month when the French take their vacation—including hotel proprietors (who knows where they stay!). I don’t normally consider walking at this time but in 2018 I walked l’Échappée Jurassienne starting on the 26 August. Since these dates coincided with the last weekend of the French school holidays, we found the village of la Vieille-Loye completely booked out for our first night and had to rearrange our plans slightly.
In May and September, temperatures are much milder, the path is usually less crowded and walking is the perfect way to spend the day. But, from my experience, you are more likely to encounter rainy days in May and I now prefer to walk in June or September.
A rainy day in Pimbo on the GR 65, Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
If the weather is uncommonly wet and it rains for the whole time you are walking, will you wish you had stayed at home?
I have been blessed with perfect weather almost every day while walking in France but many clay or rocky paths become a slippery, muddy nightmare after heavy rain. Having my luggage transferred ahead forces me to keep pace with my suitcase but you may prefer to take each day as it comes and stay put for a day or two if the weather turns bad. (TopoGuide maps show the walking path and the road making it easier to find an alternative route if you prefer to stick to a solid surface—but always be aware of traffic as the verge can be quite narrow.)
Muddy track on the GR 341S
Canal towpaths, on the other hand, are often asphalt or gravel and not as affected by heavy rain. Wet-weather protection is still necessary, of course, but you are less likely to find yourself tiptoeing gingerly along a muddy track.
Always carry sturdy garbage bags to protect your belongings inside your backpack as well as wearing good weatherproof clothing.
Packing list for a long distance walk
Your packing list for a long distance walk will be completely different than if you were spending your holiday lounging around the pool at a seaside resort or being whisked from city to city on a coach tour.
Although many walkers (myself included) have their luggage transferred from hotel to hotel, many others follow a much less structured itinerary and carry everything with them each day. The trick then, is to take as little as possible!
After some trial and error, I’ve narrowed down my list to sixteen essential items plus a few optional extras and compiled them into a handy one-page printable checklist which I keep in my suitcase.
You’ll find the checklist on page 16 of your guide – 3 Steps to Finding the Perfect Long Distance Walk which you can download here 🙂
Walking safely and considerately
As with all outdoor activities, it’s important to remember the sunscreen and always take as much water as you can comfortably carry each day. Refill your water bottles whenever you get the chance—in some tiny villages, it can be surprisingly difficult to find water or even the café listed in your guidebook.
REMEMBER—if water is marked non potable, do not drink it.
Water fountain on the Chemin de Stevenson – unfortunately marked non potable
As you set out each day, remember that bakeries and grocery stores will close at lunchtime and may not reopen until as late as three in the afternoon, as well as closing for a full day each week. Quite often, all stores in a village choose the same day each week to close (usually Monday).
To avoid being caught with no food, buy supplies before you leave town each morning or carry enough trail mix to see you through. If you do happen across an open café at lunch time, you can choose whether to sacrifice your supplies and stop for a leisurely lunch or find a nice picnic spot and know that you still have a wonderful dinner to look forward to that night.
The usual rules of etiquette apply when walking in France—always take your rubbish with you and leave gates, open or shut, as you found them.
If I could give you just one tip to make your visit to France a memorable experience, it would be this—smile a lot and say bonjour Monsieur or bonjour Madame to everyone you encounter. The French are incredibly generous, friendly and helpful and will always appreciate any attempt to converse in their native language.
The Useful French Phrases section of your I Love Walking in France guidebook includes all the basics—yes, no, please, thank you and will also assist you with booking a room or a taxi, buying a train ticket, enquiring about breakfast or asking for a table at a restaurant. It also includes a list of the words I have found most useful when asking for directions or describing a walk—left, right, climb, descend, continue etc.
Approaching the Pyrénées on the final stage of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques du-Puy
There is a walking holiday to suit every timeframe and every dodgy knee
France has so many options with accommodation and thousands of kilometres of walking paths that I do believe there is a walking holiday to suit every timeframe and every dodgy knee. Give a little thought to what you want the experience to be, spend some time planning to make sure it turns out that way and I know this will rate as one of your best holidays ever!
And of course, at the end of every day, reward yourself with a delicious meal and a glass of wine—as only the French can do!
Case Study – From planning to walking the GR 70 Chemin de Stevenson.
Choosing a walk and breaking it down into manageable daily stages can be just as difficult (but almost as much fun) as doing the walk. Learn how I –
Chose this walk
Planned my itinerary
Booked my accommodation (including what to say in French)