Jan 26, 2006 at 4:25 pm #1217626
@aivanovLocale: Paris, FRANCE / Geneva, SWITZERLAND
This post is an archive of posts in the G-Spot forum that initiated this thread about backpacking in Europe
Posted by inaki diaz de etura (inaki – M)
On 01/26/2006 06:51:50 MST
I think the key difference between America and Europe is that western Eu has no real wilderness. As far as sleeping out goes, this means you have to do it high in the mountains or else you’ll be hearing the vehicles in the next road or the tv set from the last house in the upper section of the next village. When hiking in North America, I’ve always felt it was no problem to find a sheltered spot down in the valley of whatever route for that bad weather spell. In Europe I usually find myself having to camp in exposed locations if I want to be any far from civilization.
I also think (limited experience still talking here) it takes time and an adaptation process to get used to face harsh weather in a tarp. I’m still at it. I think your mind needs you go through it to actually believe it no matter how much you read about it and Europe makes this process so much difficult as there’s usually a way out. When the weather gets ugly and you have the option to sleep in a hut or even get to a village without even compromising your trip it’s difficult to say no. You need to be highly motivated. In a real wilderness, many hours or even days away from civilization you have no other option so you see it as a natural thing to do. It’s entirely psychological but it makes a difference in that learning process, or that’s what I think at least.
Posted by Anatoly IVANOV
On 01/26/2006 09:48:31 MST
Inaki is absolutely right about backpacking in Europe. The infrastructure here is so dense my main problem is to find a place to sleep that is not on someone’s private lawn. Sometimes you can’t, so you ask: “Excuse me, can I sleep on your lawn?”
Even high in the Alps, you can’t walk more than 5km before seeing a restaurant and a hut. With a handy jeep taxi for tired hikers. Argh…
Even with a Vapor Trail / Virga sized pack, people look at me like at a crazy man. Most take an apple, a bottle of water and a fleece in an Eastpak. Sleeping out is considered extreme!
The solution is to know hidden valleys and trails as high as possible and as far as possible from civilization. And even then, I prefer my bivy to hide away.
Posted by inaki diaz de etura (inaki – M)
On 01/26/2006 11:05:40 MST
I can relate to what you feel about that certain difficulty to apply others’ experiences when those are from a different environment. It’s a pity UL is not so much talked about in Europe but it’s clear why: people don’t actually need to be self dependent in the mountains. UL actually means going without (and using the infraestructures). Why bother with a tent and stove when you can spend the night under a roof and a stuffed table… most people don’t see why. Most people focus on climbing peaks or highly technical stuff, not many care for the simple joy of spending the night on your own in a beautiful spot. It’s just the way things are in Europe.
Still, there are people who enjoy the closer relation to nature the self-dependance brings. And from there to UL thinking is just a matter of time (and finding the right resources). In France, you may know these people: http://www.randonner-leger.org. Not at BPL level but they talk UL language for sure.
Posted by Frank Ramos (frprovis – M)
On 01/26/2006 12:45:58 MST
I do most of my hiking in Europe and have for some years now, even though I live in the United States. The reason is that I really like the idea of camping wild but eating at nice restaurants and being able to buy gourmet grocery food every few days, and that just isn’t possible on the American long-distance trails. A tarp is perfectly possible in the Alps, even in windy conditions, provided you pitch it close to the ground. Ray Jardine speaks of using tarps on the exposed continental divide in the United States during gale conditions, which is about as severe a test as can be imagined. I should note there that the Colorado Rockies have Alpine type weather, with ferocious thunderstorms and snow possible at any time of year, whereas the Sierras, which is what many people think of as typical American mountains, have exceptionally mild weather during the summer.
The problem with tents in the Alps and Pyrenees is that you usually need a sizeable spot of flat ground in order to pitch them properly, and often there just aren’t that many such places. So everyone ends up crowded together in the same place. With a tarp or bivy, you just need a tiny piece of ground big enough for a single person to lie on and the rest of the ground underneath the tarp can be very uneven. This allows you to camp away from the crowds. Not that I’m completely unsociable, but I do like a bit of privacy at night.
Small tarps with a catenary cut pitched close to the ground will reduce wind-flapping significantly. There’s an article here on BLT about this issue. I used the Cat 2 tarp from owareusa.com last year together with a homemade bivy, and this year I’ll be using the Cat 1.5 to cut wind profile still further. One thing I strongly recommend is to use silicone seam sealer to strongly reinforce the seams and tieouts of any tarp made of silnylon. For example, with the oware cat tarps, remove some of the stitching that holds the tieout fabric reinforcements in place, then smear seam sealer between the two pieces of fabric, then press them together, then redo the stitching after the sealer has dried. This adds a little weight, but it really gives you a lot more confidence about using the tarp in strong wind conditions. Also, be sure to pitch the tarp low when the wind is strong. Be sure to use titanium stakes since alpine ground is notoriously difficult for pounding stakes into the ground. And bring some spares. I once bent one of the heavy, 15 gram supposedly unbendable titanium stakes during a fit of frustration. Also, put heavy rocks on top of the stakes to keep them from blowing away.
The big reason I bring a tarp rather than just a bivy is that I don’t always camp in the mountains. Often the trails meander between villages and mountains and I stay in campgrounds in the villages. Sleeping in just a bivy sack in a campground is likely to make you feel very silly. I added some doors to my cat tarp to give some added privacy in campgrounds.
The other reason I bring a tarp rather than just a bivy is that I only spend a portion of my time in the mountains. The rest of the time is spent hiking around the lowlands, alternating between hotels, campgrounds and wild camping. Even thought it is true that Europe is heavily developed, there are still plentiful places for wild camping, in my experience. Europe is similar to Pennsylvania or other Northeast states in this respect. What’s more, there is a long tradition in Europe of alternating villages, cultivated fields, pastures and small wooded areas. These wooded areas were used as the local wood supply for the neighboring villages. Technically it is illegal to camp in these wooded areas, but no one objects to a solo backpacker bivouacing in them, as long as you don’t make a fire and otherwise follow leave-no-trace principles. The pastures are another possibility, though not so stealthy (but watch out for bulls!). Still, it is unlikely that anyone will object to a solo backpacker bivouacing in pastures. A bivy could also be used in these wooded areas and pastures, but has the usual disadvantages of bivys in such circumstances (claustrophia, condensation) without any real advantages.
In the past I used a modified OR bivy, but now I just using a bug-bivy and rely on my tarp to keep the rain out. I also use all synthetic gear just in case everything goes wrong and I get soaked. A typical example of things going wrong is having a massive rain storm that leaves several inches of water where I am camped, even though the ground is sloped and will drain in an hour or so, and then discovering that my bivy floor has a hole that is letting in huge amounts of water, and then having the temperature drop down below freezing. With synethetic gear, I’ll merely be very cold and have to spend some time the next day drying things out. With down, a situation like this could be much more serious.
Posted by Craig Shelley (craig_shelley – M)
On 01/26/2006 16:27:29 MST
Your backpacking in Europe is very interesting to me. Are there any resources (books, web sites, etc.) that you could suggest for others interested in do this? Most of the obvious stuff on backpacking in Europe is the typical travel by train, hostel, keeping costs low. I like the idea of true hiking/backpacking mixed with visiting small villages every few days. Could you suggest some of the places you have gone?
Craig ShelleyJan 26, 2006 at 5:33 pm #1349399
I think it all depends where you hike/ camp in Europe when looking for more “civilized” walking or more wild walking. France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Czech, Slovakia, and most of the lower western European countries are pretty crowded and the trails are highly developed, with lots of mountain huts, restaurants, food stores available within a day’s walk, but if you go up north, to Norway or Sweden or Finland (and I’m not including Russia and the other eastern European countries) you’ve got some really huge wild areas with lots of solo walking available away from crowds. Lappland is one of the last true wildernesses in Europe. The Kungsleden (King’s Way) in Sweden has lots of great long-distance walking.
One of the great things about northern European countries is “allmansrecht” or All Person’s Right, basically an ancient agreement that all lands are public, even private land, and that anyone has the right to walk through any land and, with some respect and judgement on the part of the walker, to camp anywhere. I think Britain has recently adopted this philosophy, too, though I doubt many people will agree with it. When my wife and I bicycled the length of both Sweden and Norway in 1995 we never had trouble finding a place to camp… people were always friendly about letting us pitch our tent in discreet locations.
Japan is very similar to Europe in terms of areas to backpack and style of backpacking, though I think more people go camping here in the mountains than in Europe. When I see pictures of those long, gradually rising grades of many American mountain trails I feel quite a lot of envy, because I have never walked horizontally for more than two hours here in Japan (except Oze Marsh, which is nothing but flat, and boring, too). The slopes are extremely steep everywhere and the only really wild places are above treeline, and very exposed. All available camp spaces are either small or crowded, especially because nearly all areas away from established campsites are off limits to camping, due to high use and erosion.
I think in general Europeans take much better care of their mountains, and the hut systems do a lot to help minimize the impact of so many people on the landscapes. Last year when I researched hiking the Tatras in Slovakia the information made a point of reminding people that camping was prohibited in order to protect the land (which I think is mostly true, but, like Japan, I think there is a profit motivation there, too).
American-style, far-from-the-madding-crowd backpacking is unusual in the world. Not the norm at all. Most places people cannot afford to put aside so much uninhabited land. Both styles of backpacking have their attractions and detractions. I try to find time for both.Jan 26, 2006 at 5:36 pm #1349400
Here is one account of doing ultralight backpacking in Europe. Though it’s off season, it gives you a taste of what it might be like.Jan 26, 2006 at 11:48 pm #1349405
I’ve been hiking in the mountains in Wales, northern England, Scottish Highlands, northern Italy and Sweden. I may be able to have some answers about those areas if your’re going there.
On this UK-based forum one can find answers to a lot of questions on hiking in western Europe in general and in the UK in particular: http://www.outdoorsmagic.com/forum/forum.asp?sp=&v=7
Although I’ve never backpacked/hiked in northern America, I have the feeling that ultralight backpacking is more common there than here in Europe.
/MoeJan 27, 2006 at 6:42 am #1349413
Inaki Diaz de EturaBPL Member
@inaki-1Locale: Iberia highlands
I’m aware there’s real wilderness up north. I was referring mainly central-south-western Europe, I’m not that sure about the mountains in eastern Europe as wilderness areas, they’re definitely less developed recreationally than the Alps or Pyrenees but civilization is probably never too far either. Scandinavia is definitely a different matter. I actually have a trip there put on hold, it’s a very attractive place.
I have quite strong opinions on the hut systems. It’s got its dark side. It eases access to the mountains and that is good in the sense more people get to know the place, learn to care for it, etc… the usual stuff. But it also brings to the mountains people who shouldn’t probably be there. Obviously it’s not up to me, or anyone, to decide who should and who shouldn’t be there but I mean those urban people with urban attitudes they’re not ready to part with. They bring those attitudes to the mountains and that’s harmful. They visit the mountains because now it’s easy and for them it’s like going to Disneyland. They expect services and they demand them and that’s the perfect excuse for those who only see in the mountains some profit to be made. I may be drifting from focus here but I’d just like to point hut systems are a tricky subject. They gather people, they should be used to educate and raise awareness, if anything. Where I live, it’s rather the other way around these days.
That said, I also like that Euro style backpacking where you can stay in a stuffed hut or a village at the end of the day, have great food and maybe meet some like-minded ones (or not). I do it occasionally and it’s great but I still find much more rewarding to be on my own. It’s a different thing, it’s good to try both.
May I plug my website here… it’s got little content in English yet but this info may be of interest for those asking about euro non-urban backpacking. Rather local though. About the only trip info I’ve got in English but this is actually UL along the Pyrenees with some good (or so I think) background in this areaJan 27, 2006 at 6:58 am #1349414
I’m a french administrator on http://www.randonner-leger.org/forum/
(a MUL in french: Marcheur Ultra Léger= Ultra Light Hiker)
If you are looking for a good place to hike in the Alps, i directly say “Département des Hautes Alpes” in France.
It’s a great pleace without too much tourism industries.
In the Queyras (part of Hautes Alpes), you’ll found a paradise: beautiful landscapes, alpin french traditions, wonderful bivouacs…
And it’s about 3hours from the Mediteranean Coast ;)
A good source for yours trips are “topo guides” from the FFRP (French Hicking Fédération)http://www.ffrandonnee.fr/topoGuidesCatalResult.aspx?i2=topoGuidesCatal&t=col&v=grJan 27, 2006 at 10:35 am #1349421
@kdesignLocale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Merde! Pierre has spilled the beans on a little known secret—-the Alps are not just about hut to hut or village to village ( although that syle has it’s own rewards, and I indulge in that, too.). There are some fabulous multi-day self-contained journeys where you will want a tarp or tent and be away from the more popular circuits. And not just in the Queyras.
There are many delightful mtn. ranges to explore throughout Europe— I think fondly of the Picos de Europa and other parts of the Cordillera Cantabrica of N. Spain, the Pyrenees,of course, the Abruzzi and other parts of the Apennines of Italy. All have areas which allow for some degree of relative solitude and backpacking possibilities as N.Americans know and practice it. There are, alas, also superb areas where all camping is prohibited and you have to use the official overnight infrastructure ( whether huts or hostels).
Not to mention the British Isles ( ok, ok, not really Europa),Scandinavia, the mtns. behind the Dalmatian coast, really cool mtn. areas in Bulgaria ( the latter 2 by repute but they’re on my list for the future) and points East.Jan 27, 2006 at 10:44 am #1349422
Ah, that’s right! The Picos de Europa. I’d forgotten to mention them. When I first went up to northern Spain I hadn’t realized they were there and first seeing them I was amazed. Absolutely stunning. Didn’t want to come back down to the every day world. That gondola at Fuente De made many passengers’ faces turn white from the height! And so many friendly people. On the way down the mountains after three days walking we were greeted by a farmer pulling a hay wagon with a tractor. He offered us a ride back into town, and we slept in the hay under the afternoon sun, dreaming we were in the television show “The Saint”, “The Golden Journey” episode…Jan 27, 2006 at 5:30 pm #1349450
Regarding recommendations about backpacking and camping in Europe, I would suggest the following:
1) If you can read simple French, then I can highly recommend the FFRP guides. Their website is http://www.ffrandonnee.fr. The FFRP guides contain both topographical maps (1:50,000) and written trail descriptions, plus information about facilities in the villages, plus some culturel information. The guides are reasonably lightweight and are printed on paper that doesn’t dissolve upon exposure to moisture. What’s more, these guides are available all over france. Even tiny village grocery stores will have guides for the neighboring trails (though of course Murphy’s law says the guide you really want will be out of stock when you get there). There is a map of all the FFRP trails that have guides here. These guides are in French only, so you will have to read French to make full use of them. It is not essential to speak French, though it certainly helps.
Some of the French trails are in the mountains (GR5 in the Alps, GR10 in the Pyrenees) but many are in the lowlands, and thus walkable almost any time of year. I dislike autumn because of the hunters (though French hunters are usually well-behaved), though it is certainly the nice season from a weather point of view. Be prepared for lots of rain in spring time.
France is my favorite country for walking, and it is not really that expensive, contrary to what you hear sometimes. In 2004, for example, I usually paid no more than 30 euro (about $38 at 1.25 $/euro) for a single room, and no more than 10 euro (about $13) for a campground, and nothing when I wild-camped. (To get under 30 euro/night in Paris, you’ll probably have to speak fluent French.) Assuming I alternated between these hotels, campgrounds and wild camping, my average lodging would be $17/night. I try to eat at restaurants once a day if possible, and otherwise eat cold food from the grocery store, so that my total costs are under $40/day.
2) If you read Spanish, then there are some good guides to the Spanish side trails in the Pyrenees. I forget the publisher, but you can find them at the big bookstores in Madrid (Libréria Desnivel or Tienda Verde).
Incidentally, neither the French or Spanish Pyrenees are very crowded, other than a few hotspots. They are sort of like Yosemite park in that respect. Yosemite Valley itself is a madhouse, but much of Yosemite park away from the trails is almost empty of humans. Whether in Europe or the United States, most people are not willing to climb several thousand feet with a backpack, just to get away from the crowds near the established trails and huts. If you are willing to do climb high to find a camp, then you can easily have a whole upper valley to yourself in the Pyrenees. In both the Spanish and French Pyrenees, wild camping IS permitted, except in a few specially protected wilderness areas, which together comprise only a small portion of the Pyrenees. And like in said before, wild camping in the lowlands is technical prohibited, but no one cares about hikers or bikers who pitch their tent in a cow pasture or communal forest at dusk and strike it at dawn and DON’T MAKE A FIRE (bivouacing, the French call this). The camping prohibitions are mainly intended for car campers and boy scount types who think camping=campfires.
BTW no one has mentioned the biggest problem with mountain huts. Namely, snoring. This is why I absolutely refuse to sleep in huts anymore. In the Pyrenees, I have sometimes found primitive huts with no other people (and hence no problem with snoring). Alas, these primitive huts tend to have mice. I’d rather be outdoors in the fresh air.
Another possibility in Spain is the Pilgrim’s trails that lead to Santiago de Compostela. These are lowland trails where you are expected to stay in refuges in villages each night, though you can also stay in hotels. The primary pilgrim’s trail is the Camino Frances in the north. This area is heavily developed so that it is totally impractical to do any camping along this trail. But I camped out along the Camino which goes from Madrid to Sahagun, and also the camino which goes from Seville to Santiago, via Zamora and Ourense. By camping, I mean putting down my bivy and sleeping on a tiny patch of empty ground by the side of a farm road, without even bothering to pitch my tarp. Anything to avoid those snorers in the refuges… There are guides to these caminos at http://www.csj.org.uk. Because these are lowland trails, you can do them any time of year. If you want to meet lots of other people, these pilgrim’s trails are the way to go. There are also pilgrim’s trails in France and even German and farther east. (The other pilgrim’s trail eventually merge with the Spanish trails.)
One other thing about camping in Europe the way I do. Since I spend much of my time in civilization (restaurants frequently, hotels occasionally) it is very important to keep clean. I always take a daily shower using a 1.5 liter water bottle. The secret is to use only a little soap on the underarms, between the legs and other areas that need soap. There is no need for soap to get rid of dust and salt from the lower legs. Practice this technique at home so you know it like the back of your hand BEFORE you go hiking. Try to be able to finish the bathing in 2 minutes, so you can do it quickly in the bushes by the side of a road while no one is looking. Don’t bother with drying off. Just put your clothes back on and burn the water off with body heat. I recommend using liquid soap in a 125ml nalgene bottle. This allows you to dip your finger into the soap and just remove a tiny amount, which reduces the water requirements for rinsing. I wear sandals so my feet don’t stink, otherwise you might need soap there. (Yes, I wear sandals in the mountains. Actually, when the going gets really tough, such as a sloped hardpan surface with tiny pebbles, I go barefoot, since barefeet give excellent traction against dry rock.) Also, I wear pure supplex nylon shirt and pants as my base layer (and usually my only layer). Pure supplex is stink-resistant and is easy to clean. If your supplex shirt has that wicking polyester mesh at the shoulders, cut it out. Polyester is a stink-magnet. I avoid tight-fitting base layers of any sort because all such tight-fitting clothing tends to stink. If you absolutely must have a tight-fitting base layer, use merino wool. I made my own supplex shirt and pants to reduce weight by removing pockets and shrinking hems. A clean spare shirt to use for restaurants would also be a good idea. I try to take my daily soap shower in the mid-morning, before going to a restaurant for lunch and while there is sun to dry me out. Then I take a water only rinse before going to bed, to get the salt and dust off my body. I am always careful to carry an extra 1.5L of water for bathing purposes. This adds weight, but is offset by the fact that I don’t carry a stove and seldom carry much food.
3) If you read German, there are many nice trails in the Swiss and Austrian Alps. For a great long-distance trail in the Austrian Alps, visit http://www.arnoweg.com. You can order the guidebook from http://www.amazon.de using your US credit card, though shipping will run about $20.
4) For those who don’t read any foreign languages, Scotland might be the best choice. There was a recent article by Chris Townsend about hiking there here on BLT. I’ve never hiked in Britain myself.Feb 1, 2006 at 1:19 pm #1349681
@jndavisLocale: Isle of Man
At places like Lonely Lake or Doughboy Bay, a significant part of the experience derives from realising that the nearest house or shop is a long, hard walk away. Days, for me. Even in the Scottish Highlands, we have nothing like that in Britain. However, despite claims to the contrary, we do have culture. It took years for me to realise that backpacking in the south of England could be as enjoyable as solo backpacking over the Munros in Scotland. And I did see lightweight packs. Several Hampshire-based backpackers kept packweights down by taking no food. Most of their eating was carried out in pubs. One even carries thin, plastic gardening galoshes for the pubs that banned muddy boots. It certainly wasn’t wilderness backpacking, but it was fun.
Every trip to France is an adventure. Because of my unfamiliarity with the language and culture, I don’t know how my journey will end. I love the uncertainty.
I agree with most of the comments about the Alps and the Pyrenees. In Switzerland, we rarely got higher than the Lager Line. Climb a peak, descend a few metres. Buy a beer. That wasn’t the experience I sought from travel so I haven’t been back. The Pyrenees are much more my cup of tea. Even in the Pyrenees, however, crowds are growing, largely because of a dramatic increase in personal wealth in Spain. Who would begrudge the Spanish the time and money to enjoy their own mountains? I certainly don’t, so instead of seeking wilderness I try to enjoy the mixture of mountains and culture.
It’s a mixture which can make for great articles. Occasionally I read kayaking magazines – not often because the writing is usually dreadful. Where the reading is at its best, the author is invariably describing the culture around the river. (Sea kayaking is largely exempt from this slagging off.)Sep 15, 2006 at 4:42 pm #1363073
Nicholas CouisBPL Member
Frank, I do almost the same sort of trips.I travel for about a year R.T.W. and would like to lighten up and make my pack more compact.The main problems are travelling through Asia carrying all my camping gear etc as i then go to Europe from there.
Can you post your gear list etc as i will be going to the USA later this year and will be buying new gear for my trip.
What size bag do you carry and do you also do trips to Asia/India/LatinAmerica as well.Thanks for your reply.Sep 15, 2006 at 9:27 pm #1363078
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