Now 2016 has dawned it is high time we set out some plans for the upcoming spring and summer, and what better way to spend our time and energy than long distance hiking…again! Yes, our GR11 experience has left us more keen than ever to get back on the trail, and we have spent a lot of time over the past couple of months weighing up the options. What follows are some questions and answers that clarify our choices for hiking in 2016 and some useful FAQ’s for anybody interested in walking the trails (or part of them) themselves. With the new hiking season just around the corner we are excited about the adventures 2016 holds and hope that you will enjoy following us and our escapades on ‘wildpilgrims’.
So, what are our choices for 2016?
We have two major long distance hikes planned for this year, both of which are in Europe. We will kick-off in the early spring with a thru-hike (that is a continuous end-to-end hike) of the GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’ in Spain and follow this with a summer hike of the GR5 ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’ in France.
Where are the GR1 and GR5 and how long are they?
Both the GR1 and GR5 are long and challenging hikes. The GR1 runs from Saint Marti De Empuries on the Mediterranean Coast to Puerto de Tarno near the north coast of Spain. This is a distance of 1250km. Originally the route was planned to run all the way to Cape Finisterre on the west coast of Spain in Galicia, but was not completed as there are several other trail that serve the same purpose. We will be making use of these other routes, notably the Camino Primitivo, to extend the GR1 and walk all the way to Cape Finisterre. This will add 422km to the GR1 and result in a hike of 1672km (or 1000 miles) from east to west across Spain.
Route of the GR1. Source: Photo of Cicerone Guide GR1 by John Hayes
Camino Primitivo extension from Oviedo to Finisterre. Other camino routes also illustrated. Source: caminotravelcentre.com
The GR5 or ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’ is a 450km route which runs from Lac Leman near Geneva to the Mediterranean at Nice. There are a number of variations, including an option to finish further along the coast at Menton (which we will take). The Alpine GR5 is the ‘classic’ and most popular section of the longer GR5 route which actually starts further north at the Hook of Holland. The trail stays mostly in France (although it starts in Switzerland and dips in again briefly later), but hugs the Swiss, and latterly the Italian border for its length.
Map of the GR5 route. Source: Photo of Cicerone Guide GR5 by Paddy Dillon.
What is so good about the GR1 and GR5?
The route of the GR1 traces a huge arc across the landscapes of Spain, heading initially through the exterior ranges of the Pyrenees, notably the gorgeous limestone canyons of the Sierra de Guara, before crossing the plain of Castile and heading back into the limestone mountains of Cantabria around the Picos de Europa. The Cantabrian mountains now have a healthy population of wolves and some brown bears, so perhaps we will get to fulfill a dream of hearing wolves howl as we fall asleep! The route traverses some of the remotest countryside in Spain, and for much of the time follows ancient mule tracks between villages. Many of the areas en-route have suffered depopulation, and a particular point of interest is the many abandoned villages and ruined castles and chapels we will pass. Along with gloriously remote sierras, this route has as much to offer culturally and historically. The idea behind the GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’ was that the route would approximately trace the final line between the Moorish and Christian Kingdoms of Spain before the Reconquest.
The mighty cliffs of Riglos, one of the highlights of the GR1.
Near Oviedo, close to the north coast, we will finish the GR1 and link up with the Camino Primitivo, an ancient pilgrim route that will take us through the wild interior of Galicia. Following the lesser known Camino Primitivo will also allow us to fulfill an ambition to walk into the great city of Santiago de Compostela as pilgrims, whilst avoiding the pilgrim ‘superhighway’ on the more popular Camino Francis. From Santiago we will then walk the 60km to the coast on the Camino Finisterre, an ancient Celtic route, towards the setting sun. The GR1 is not a trek with the spectacular landscapes highlights of say, the GR11 or GR5, it is instead a longer, subtler journey which will give us time to settle into the rhythm of a truly long-distance walk. A walk of this length and time becomes a ‘way of life’ and we are curious to explore more deeply how it feels to travel and live in this way.
Our official pilgrim ‘credentials’ and Scallop shell (symbol of the pilgrim which we will wear on our packs). Our ‘credentials’ allow us to accumulate stamps from businesses (cafes, hotels etc) when we reach the Camino Primitivo and act as a proof of pilgrimage when we arrive in Santiago. They also allow us to access special pilgrim rates in hotels and bars on route.
The GR5 is perhaps more obvious as a choice in the sense that it traverses classic Alpine scenery. But the attractions do not stop with the Alps. On its way south, the GR5 also weaves its way through the Mercantour, Vanoise , Queyras and Maritime Alps to form a spectacular and diverse mountain journey. In one sense the GR5 is our GR11 ‘replacement’, it is nearly the same length and will get us up into those high and pristine places that capture our imagination and are the true reward of mountain hiking.
When will we walk the trails and how long will it take?
The GR1 + Camino extension is a lower level walk and is perfect for the springtime in Spain. The woods and orchards will be alive with birdsong and, later, flowers and the weather will hopefully be warm and dry enough to allow us to comfortably camp. We are aiming for a mid-March start from the Med and plan to move steadily north and west as the spring progresses. Based on an average distance of 20km per day and allowing for 1 rest day per week, we are aiming to complete the GR1 in 3 months (90 days) and so finish by mid-June.
By contrast the GR5 is a high mountain route, and as it common throughout the mountain ranges of Europe, hiking on this route is confined to a narrow seasonal window. Depending on the amount of snowfall and local conditions, we could start to walk as early as late June, but there is likely to still be significant snow on the passes. Wishing to minimize the risk of snow and avoid the worst of the summer crowds we plan to opt for a mid August start and walk into mid September. Although a tough mountain walk in places, we do not expect the GR5 to be as unremittingly tough (i.e. ‘up and down’) as the GR11. As such we hope to make better progress and complete the walk in 5 weeks, a time which will also allow us to enjoy the landscapes and wildlife around us.
Are we using any guidebooks?
The GR1 as a trail has existed for sometime and has been progressively way-marked along its entire length. However, Cicerone guides have recently published the first English guide to the entire route, written by long-distance hiker John Hayes. The guide is written mainly for those staying in accommodation each night rather than camping, and does lack some detail for campers, but is well produced and still a very valuable resource for planning and route checking. To make the most of better weather in the early spring we will be walking the route in the opposite direction to the guide (something which I would rather not do), but it feels more significant that we end our 1000 mile walk as pilgrims in Santiago and Cape Finisterre than in some obscure town on the Med coast.
Although the route is well marked overall, we will be using a smartphone GPS app with downloaded maps and a GPX track of the GR1 as a back-up.
Cicerone also produce a guide to the Northern Caminos. To save weight we will download this onto Kindle. Source: http://www.cicerone.co.uk
The GR5 has been firmly on hiker’s radars for many years and there are several guidebooks to choose from, although many are in French. For us, the Cicerone guide to the GR5 by experienced hiker and prolific guidebook author Paddy Dillon looks like the best option, and luckily has just been updated! The route is well way-marked but we will likely also supplement this with maps on our smartphone if the GPS app works well for us on the GR1.
Where will we stay and what shall we eat on the trails?
As with the GR11, we will be wild/free camping for the majority of both the GR1 and GR5. This is not only for budget reasons, it is a choice. Wild camping gives us a huge amount of independence and most importantly allows us to stay out and more deeply absorb our environment. Staying in hotels we would miss so much, not only the dawn and sunset, but also the opportunity to tune into the wildlife and natural cycles that we are part of. As we found on the GR11, the constant immersion in nature and the simplicity of living while long distance hiking can be quite a profound experience, and a persuasive reason for why we hike in the first place. The same will apply on the GR5, although regulations about wild camping are more restrictive in some of the national park areas. We plan to stay in a campsite or cheap hotel once a week for a proper wash and to do laundry and other chores.
Camp-life, doing laundry on the GR11.
The GR1 and GR5 passes at least one small town/ village or refuge every day, which vary in their level of facilities. In terms of food, we will resupplying from local shops where available and supplement this with snacks from cafes/bars. Often the choice of food in small rural shops for lightweight hiking is poor. However, on the GR11 we figured out a small number of regular, healthy(ish) meals that we can make with the limited ingredients and these will be our staples. Sometimes we may go ‘off trail’ for a day and travel to a bigger town nearby to stock up. We plan to be as independent as possible with our food this time as regular snacks in bars and cafes can really add up.
What equipment will we take?
We researched our hiking gear thoroughly for the GR11 in 2015, and are generally pleased with our choices. We are not gear junkies and try to be cautious with replacing any kit, only aiming to change those things that give us the biggest bang (i.e. weight saving) for our buck. We will be making some tweaks for 2016, mainly to shed further weight, which we will document in an upcoming blog. Wild-camping and self-catering, we need to carry everything to keep us safe and warm. Add in the necessity to carry several days of food, enough water (especially for long dry stretches) and fuel, and selecting gear becomes something of an art-form. You can view details of our gear our blog here: Gear List
How will we prepare?
Despite being in great shape when we finished the GR11, the winter period has put pay to some of the fitness that was so hard won. There are different schools of thought about how to train for a long distance hike and how much to train. With a good overall health it is possible ‘train’ on the trail, building up fitness steadily over the first couple of weeks. This is a good option for us as we are still generally fit, but we will still be undertaking regular training hikes in the months before we start. In particular, it is important to get used to walking with a fully loaded backpack again, and this means building up to carrying our full weight (we hope no more than 15kg).
Before the GR11 we focussed a lot on hill training and strength, but for the GR1 we need to work on our daily distance endurance. Our daily mileages for the GR11 were fairly low due to the terrain, and we are hoping to pick up the pace a little on the GR1. This will put different pressures on our bodies and feet in particular. After completing the GR1 we hope we’ll be in pretty good shape for the GR5, but we are allowing up to 6 weeks break before hiking again, and in this time will focus on keeping our fitness topped up with perhaps some added hill-work.
Obviously we are spending a lot of time pre-hike researching the routes, looking at facilities and resupply stops. When we are hiking it is always important to know what the options are in any given situation. A new feature of our hiking this year will be the use of GPS on a smartphone. We have always previously preferred the low tech combo of guidebook and maps, but walking the GR1 in the opposite direction to the guidebook demands more support to avoid time consuming errors. We will be using a phone app (Vieweranger) in combination with downloaded IGN 1:25,000 maps of the route, overlaid with GPX waymarks of the GR1. Of all things we need to be confident using this before we begin.
Why have we chosen to hike long distance again?
Quite simply, our GR11 hike along the Pyrenees was a revelation and left us thirsty for more! We learnt and experienced a lot on the GR11 but feel this was just the tip of the iceberg, there is a lot more to long distance hiking that we want to explore. Long distance hiking (or thru-hiking) is more than a simple physical activity, it is a philosophy, opening up new ideas and ways of living, of travelling and ‘being’ in the world. It is a rich and deep seam of experience that we want to mine and see where it leads and what it can teach us.
Reflecting on our experiences so far, we cannot think of a better way to make the most of our time, to live more freely, to experience more deeply, to make the most of precious health, to feel alive. Being out in nature every day, nothing is missed, we build connections to the world around us, we open beyond our narrow sphere to a wider consciousness and tap into sources of inspiration, joy and delight. There are times out hiking when there seems no better place to be, no better way to live, where nothing else is needed, when the moment is complete and sufficient in itself.
In side-stepping the current of modern life, hiking offers us a profound shift in perspective which can be liberating but at the same time destabilizing. Looking in from the edge there is much that seems pretty crazy to us. Long distance hiking allows us, for now, to inhabit an ideal, and while it is a path of uncertainty and questioning, it is also one of seeking and finding a way forward, a way that fits for us. So, while we do use guidebooks for our hiking adventures, I know that beyond putting one foot in front of the other, there can be no map or guide available for our true destination.
High camp in the afterglow of sunset (GR11)