With just under 1 week to go before we leave for Spain and the GR1 things are getting hectic with planning and preparation…actually that’s an understatement. Apart from the hike planning itself, just leaving home for 3 months demands that so many loose ends are tied up, it’s surprising how complicated things get before we can make things simple, and just walk. Most of my time at the moment is focussed on details of logistics, researching the services along the GR1, working out our food stops, preparing re-supply packages to post, ensuring our navigation methods are sorted- all the things I know I’ll appreciate later when we are on the trail. I realise that despite being excited to get started there are also some issues I am worried about, a few of which are specific to the GR1 route. This post is about these issues, why they concern me and what, if anything can be done.
Our resupply spread-sheet (left) detailing all the facilities en-route, particularly the location of larger supermarkets, campsites and camping supply shops. For re-supply off-trail I have photocopied the series of 1:100,000 scale road maps to give us a bigger picture of our location and what options we have. Our downloaded GPS map tiles only give us visibility of 800m either side of the trail.
1. Walking ‘backwards’ (i.e. against the guidebook)
Looking at the GR1 route and our start date, it makes complete sense to begin at the Mediterranean end where the spring weather will be earlier and the route elevation lower than up north in Cantabria. Also, finishing in the far west at Cape Finisterre (via the pilgrim city of Santiago) seems to us a much more worthy end to such a long walk than a relatively non-descript town on the Med coast. Unfortunately, and maybe a little illogically, the guidebook goes from the Med coast end, so it was a big decision for us to walk in the opposite direction, but one that is important for us motivationally. This does however remove a key navigational support which we might yet come to regret.
The GR1 is way-marked in both directions, but the consistency of this varies. There will inevitably be unmarked junctions and tracks which split off in all directions, and which risk wasting a lot of our time and effort. So, a major help will be our smartphone with GPS App and the Spanish 1:25,000 map tiles which I have downloaded for the whole route. There is GPS track of the GR1 that can be laid over these maps to show us where to go, and the GPS will help tell us how far off the track we are. This sounds great in theory, but I’ve never liked relying on technology, although many hikers now do. So, we’ll have to see how well this works- I’ll be practicing with the App in the Peak District next week, but still expect some problems. Our last-ditch option should the smartphone/App fail is to ‘flip’ the GR1, i.e. go to the western end and follow the guidebook the ‘right way’, but this is not as appealing as our current plan.
Although it is not in the mountains, the GR1 goes through some very remote countryside. There is a false sense of security because the trail often passes villages every day. On closer inspection though, these villages are often tiny and have no food shop (sometimes just a local bar). After putting it all onto on a spreadsheet, it turns out there are some VERY big food re-supply gaps, several of 80km+ and one of 158km (the latter about a week’s walk). Carrying a week’s worth of food is out of the question, so we are left with two options, either eat in bars along the route (too expensive to do that often and some don’t serve food anyway) or go off-trail to nearby towns.
Packing calories and nutrition into as little weight as possible. Key foods like noodles, trail mix (dried fruits, seeds, nuts, M&M’s), oats/museli, squeezy cheese and tortillas are staple for our hikers diet. These foods can be very hard to find in small Spanish village shops where food tends to be either tinned or fresh and therefore too heavy. Getting adequate protein in particular is always a challenge, and as a supplement to tinned fish and nuts, we are carrying (and will re-supply with) a whey protein powder shake (chocolate flavour) and dried soya mince.
In many cases, there are larger towns or villages 5-30km down the road which can have anything from a small food shop to a large supermarket. It’s maybe a bit weird, but I now have a Lidl app on my phone to help us locate stores within 25km of our route! My search for Lidls (heaven for hiker-friendly food) or other large supermarkets is important because small Spanish food shops usually have a terrible selection of suitable foods. It is worth going off trail for a day to find a shop to stock up on food that gives us variety and plenty of calories for the weight. The viability of this strategy will depend on local bus services, co-ordinating with the timetables (often there is only one bus out and back per day) and working around siesta. In Spain, shops close for about 3-4 hours in the afternoon, something that can be a major problem for hikers passing through. A couple of times on the GR11, when we needed to re-supply, we got into town a few minutes late and had to waste half a day’s hiking waiting for the shops to re-open!
One final extra bit of help is 3 re-supply boxes which we are pre-packing with some key food-stuffs (e.g. almonds, dried fruit, dehydrated vegetables, powdered milk and protein shake), and will arrange to be sent to 3 locations en-route (at approx 4, 7 and 9 week intervals). These boxes are not a lot, but they will top-up some hard to find items, along with a few treats from the UK which we miss. On some trails, mainly in America, the use of food re-supply boxes is very popular and local hotels and post offices are used to holding boxes for hikers. Some people supply their entire food requirements in this way, and although it takes a lot of pre-planning, it can help ensure a varied and healthier diet. Certainly we could have benefitted more from this strategy on the GR1, but there is not the set-up for this in Spain and it’s difficult to find places to reliably send packages to.
Preparing our 3 re-supply boxes. In addition to books and decent teabags(!), the content will focus on protein supplies, notably lightweight protein like whey powder shake mix, dehydrated soya protein, milk powder (a devil to find n Spain), seeds (pumpkin and sunflower) and dried fruit and veg (e.g. dehydrated carrots, apples, sweet potato).
3. Water sources
Unfortunately our guidebook, although a very valuable resource for the GR1, is aimed at walkers who stay in accommodation and eat in restaurants/bars every night. This focus means that the needs of camping-hikers are not really covered, not least of which is the availability of water; whether from village fuentes, farm taps, springs, wells or streams. This makes water planning problematic, especially as water is the heaviest thing we have to carry.
By contrast, our GR11 guidebook last year noted most water sources each day and it made planning a breeze, taking away a lot of the uncertainty. On the GR11 we knew from the guidebook whether there was water at or near our expected campsite and if not we could plan to fill-up at the last available source. Without this info on the GR1 we will probably end up carrying more water than we’d like, just to be safe. We will assume that all villages have some water we can access, so we’ll work around this. But with some villages many kilometres apart, this will force us to pass at least one village late in the day to fill-up before walking on and camping beyond somewhere. There will be other water sources en-route, but unless we know about them in advance they don’t help us plan or reduce our water weight. At least carrying a water filter and chlorine dioxide tablets we will have the flexibility to make use of any water we find.
4. Connecting Caminos
Walked east to west, the GR1 finishes rather inauspiciously at the pass of Puerto de Tarna in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains. In order to link with the Camino Primitivo at Oviedo (and thus on to Santiago de Compostela and the coast at Finisterre), we need to walk a 90km section on two lesser known Caminos, the GR105 ‘Ruta de las Peregrenaciones’ and GR102 ‘Camin Real de Sellon’. These routes are supposedly way-marked, but there is very little information out there about them. I have found and downloaded a GPX track for the GR105 but have found nearly nothing on the GR102. In fact some websites suggest the GR102 is not even fully developed yet. We have 46km to cover on he GR102, which is not too onerous, but I am uneasy about the information gap on the route and services along the way. However, even if we have trouble picking up the trail, there will be other road and tracks to link us to the GR105. I will download the IGN 1:25000 map tiles on the smartphone which will give us enough detail to be able to do this. At the moment I have too much else to think about to micro-manage this aspect of the trail, and will research more as we get closer. The main thing is to avoid long sections of road-walking and ensure we can link the GR1 with the Camino Primitivo and ultimately form a smooth coast-to-coast hike.
Not a very good photo but it shows our route across Spain (from the Med on the right to Cape Finisterre on the left), the bit marked in darker-green is the ‘connecting’ Caminos GR102 and GR105 which I am struggling to find info about.
5. Suitable and Safe camping
Wild-camping is one of the things we most love about long distance hiking- the ability to stay in beautiful and remote places and have them all to ourselves. The GR11 was great for this, up in the Pyrenees, lots of wild land and no-one around to bother us. It was when we camped lower down that we tended to get more disturbances. The GR1 also goes through a lot of remote, sparsely populated countryside and wild sierras, there will be camping aplenty I’m sure, but there are other places where it descends to lower levels where we are closer to people, towns, roads and agriculture. These sections, while short-ish, might make camping discreetly and safely, a problem. There are a few commercial campgrounds on the way, and we’ll make occasional use of them, but they are often located off-trail and are poor value. Sometimes when we are stuck we’ll just have to fork out for a pension or hostal, a poor night’s sleep camped somewhere unsuitable is a false economy.
Wild-camping does sometimes require a deep breath and bit of faith, but the rewards can be immense. Sitting in a warm house tonight with the doors closed against the night-time, the thought of camping overnight in unknown places seems a little daunting, but I know when we get back into it all will be fine. We just can’t plan our camp spots, it is a gamble every-day, sometimes it works and we find somewhere perfect, other times we leave it too late and are searching around until dusk. The trick is to know when to stop and to recognise a good spot, even though we may not have not got as far as we hoped that day.
There is one other worry lurking in my mind… animals, specifically wild boar. In daylight hours we are both a great fan of the boar. They are clever, social creatures, a key part of the ecology and we love to catch glimpses of them through the trees. But, we had some nocturnal encounters with boar outside our tent on the GR11, and by night the thought of these large, bristly, tusked- beasts just beyond the flysheet freaked me out. I would wake in the darkness and hear this deep, rumbling breath close by (no it wasn’t Barry….), and on one occasion a boar seemed displeased we were on his turf. So although it’s illogical, I find it unsettling and will probably wear ear-plugs to stay oblivious…..I’ve not heard of a boar gate-crashing a tent yet….
So those are my lingering concerns at the moment, and no amount of pre-planning will completely resolve them. The nature of long distance walking and wild camping is that so much has to be worked out as we go-along; there is an element of chance that keeps us on our toes. We can choose to shrink from this uncertainty, or embrace it for all the challenges and rewards it will bring. I know that as soon as we leave the safeness and familiarity of home and ‘get back out there’, we’ll slip into our hiking mode and take these things in our stride. From now until we go however, I’ll still be finding ways to plan for and reduce these uncertainties.