Hello readers and apologies for the delay in this post, which I promised ages ago but never got round to. No matter, it is still relevant and it is good to see a building awareness among hikers about the GR1 ‘Sendero Historico’. Thanks also to the people who have given encouragement and commented on the blog, your feedback and questions are always welcome. The GR1 seems almost unreal to us now- our ridiculously vivid sock tan lines are fading, as is our fitness and, for various reasons, the past two months back in the UK have not been that inspiring. (The main exception to this was time in Scotland, and especially 10 days on the glorious Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, some pictures on Istagram here). Adapting from the intense focus, simple satisfactions and feel-good energy of the hiking-life continues to be hard, it is still my favorite way to be in the world, and one for which there is not easy replacement. Barry too is also feeling a bit ‘homesick’ for the trail. The prospect of the Northern European winter closing in around us has however, been a good incentive to consider our winter options….more on this soon as our ideas evolve.
This blog is intended as a summary of our personal thoughts and opinions on the practical aspects of our GR1 trip from the perspective of wild-camping and self-catering along the route. It is certainly not definitive and anyone thinking of hiking the GR1 must be prepared to do their own thorough research and use their own judgement, but it gives an overview of our experience that might be useful. To keep it simple, I have used a question and answer format to phrase the key issues. Directly below I have also set out some of our key trip stats which might be of interest.
GR1 + Camino Primitivo & Finisterre Trip Statistics
Total distance hiked: 1000 miles / 1600km
Total days on the trail (including zero mile/ rest days): 81
Total walking days: 68
Average daily mileage (excluding zero/rest days): 15 miles/day or 24km/day
Number of nights in various accommodation: 51 (wild camping), 6 (official campsites), 11 (pilgrim alberge) 13 (hotel/hostel- including a 4 day break in Rodellar).
We walked the route from East (Mediterranean) to West (Atlantic), the opposite way to the new Cicerone GR1 guidebook, how did that work out?
In short, it worked very well. We wanted to make the most of the spring period for hiking (March to June) when the higher mountain routes are too inhospitable. The GR1 is mostly lower level, topping out at about 1500m, so it seemed a good option to mostly avoid snowfall. That said, the route is highest in the west in the Picos Regional Park, and this does get late snow, hence our decision to start in the east at the Mediterranean. Spring comes earlier to the Med coast and it was warmer and drier also, so our late March start enabled us to walk with the unfolding spring season, enjoying birdsong and the emerging wildflowers. Indeed we stayed on the cusp of the unfolding season for much of the route west to Navarra, although it did get colder and harsher as we ascended into the inland Sierras of the Garroxta, Cadi and Guara. Indeed on several nights the temperatures went down to freezing and the wind was cold, but during midday the sun was warm and we had almost no rain. By contrast, for the first month of our walk at least, the weather reports from the western end of the GR1 were dire, it seemed to rain constantly and we had reports that another pair of GR1 section hikers had encountered quite a bit of snow in the Picos. So, although it was a risk going against the guidebook, we felt it was a good decision for the time of year, in 2016 at least!
How good was the way-marking? Did we need a guidebook?
In deciding to walk against the direction of the guidebook we had to accept the loss of its directions as a support to route-finding. I contacted GR1 guidebook author John Hayes and he was very helpful in building my confidence that the route could be done east to west without too much problem. The GR1 is marked in both directions, but way-marking is extremely variable throughout the route, from excellent in Catalonia and parts Aragon to almost non-existent in Navarra. The way-marking seems to depend on the degree to which each region has ‘bought into’ the concept of the trail and is prepared to finance it, and also how close the trail is to high-use tourist areas. In the Sierra de Guara and around Riglos for example, the GR1 largely coincides with the ‘Hoya de Huesca’ route which is very well signed. In some regions, like Navarra, way-marking had obviously been installed in the distant past, but had never been maintained, so wooden posts had been knocked over and paint-marks on rocks etc had been badly bleached by the sun. Sometimes we also wondered if the people doing the waymarking had any clue about hiking. Often markers would be painted on really obvious bits of trail, but would disappear at junctions and other uncertain bits…..i.e. exactly where we needed them! The waymarking also had a habit of disappearing on entry/exit from towns and on sections of road-walking.
Our essential aid to navigation was the use of the ViewRanger App on our smartphone and the downloaded 1:25,000 IGN basemaps and GR1 GPX track (by John Hayes). This was, without doubt, crucial for us on many occasions, and over the whole route saved us a great deal of lost time, worry and frustration. There were so many instances when, without the GPS, it would have been nearly impossible to know where to go, especially when we had to bush-wack our way through the undergrowth in parts of Aragon or when the trail totally dried up in Navarra. Indeed, I would argue that, even had we been following the direction of the guidebook, the GPS would have been an essential back-up. Adding to the value of the GPS and GPX track, was the fact that the downloaded IGN basemaps did not always show the roads and tracks that the GR1 was following, making it hard to even guess the right route.
I was skeptical about going so ‘high-tech’ for navigation initially, preferring paper maps and books, but I grew to appreciate the accuracy and convenience of the GPS and the way it allowed us to find alternate routes if we needed. It was amazing to be able to track our progress in real time, to know how far we’d walked and how close to nearest town we were, it was like having another dimension of vision. I had been worried too about reliance on such fallible technology, but with a bit of care the phone (Motorolo Moto G) and App never let us down once. John’s GPX track was excellent, but there have been some minor tweaks to the route since he walked it
Although we could not really use it for directions, the guidebook was an excellent aid to planning and route visualization, especially the way it cuts the route down into distinctive sections and daily stages. We often based our weekly hiking and re-supply loosely around these sections/stages and found our moderate pace to largely co-inside with the daily pace of the guidebook author. Obviously, because we were wild camping, we had more flexibility than him to stop before the final accommodation of the day or go beyond it. On some difficult sections, I did read the day’s route through from the ‘opposite end’ which helped me to anticipate the terrain and other obstacles.
What was the trail surface like?
When it was good it was very, very good, when it was bad, it was horrid! Underfoot the GR1 was generally kind, with lots of gravel tracks and smooth tread which allowed comfortable and enjoyable walking. I liked these sections because it was possible to hike without constant attention to our feet, in contrast to the Pyrenean GR11 where we had to keep our eyes down most of the time! There was some road walking also, although not excessive, and we did choose to road-walk some sections to save time between food re-supply and cut out some illogical meandering. In the higher sierras and gorges the trail became narrower, steeper and rockier, needing much more care (especially on loose material), but it was these more challenging sections that really got us up into the wilder and scenically beautiful terrain.
On a few occasions however, especially in Aragon and Navarra, the trail disappeared into thick scrub, waist-high wheat, bramble thickets or ploughed fields. We often emerged from these excursions in ill humour after getting scratched, soaked, caked in mud and having our kit snagged and torn. Often there was no warning of this, we would be cruising along happily on a fine track and the GR1 would suddenly veer of and go AWOL. The GPS was helpful in finding a way out of a mess on some such occasions. In small doses however, these little ‘challenges’ could be fun! There were some unpredictable obstacles too, mainly dogs and cattle (and my fear of them….!) which necessitated some interesting diversions over an assault course of fences and ditches.
How easy was it for us to wild camp?
Pretty easy throughout. We are experienced wild campers and are used to scouting-out inventive campsites when necessary, but in general the landscapes of the GR1 were so remote and unpopulated that it was rarely a problem. We always tried to camp on unfenced or abandoned land and were only spotted and approached by farmers on two occasions, but both were friendly and happy for us to stay. The first two nights in from the Mediterranean coast were slightly tricky because there were more people around, and later-on the plains of Navarra needed a keen eye to spot a good place, but even in open landscapes, nobody seemed at all bothered about our presence. Sometimes we did end up sleeping in the porches of churches or chapels like old-time pilgrims, but we were always respectful and left no trace of our stay.
We always tried to hide away unseen if possible, just for an added sense of security, but we did not feel insecure wild-camping along the GR1 (we were always more cautious on the edges of bigger towns and cities and always camped out of sight of busy roads). Overall, wild-camping on the GR1 was a pleasure and a great freedom, it was a brilliant way to immerse ourselves in the deep rural landscapes of Spain and was an essential ingredient in our hike. The only real disturbance we had was wild boar snuffling around after dark and a loud shout of ‘go boar’ usually did the trick!
How easy was food resupply?
We largely self-catered on the GR1, carrying our own food and cooking on our gas stove.There are some pretty big gaps between food shops on the GR1, notably in the Sierra de Guara and in the Picos (in excess of 150km in one instance). The amenities tables in the back of the Cicerone guidebook were useful in helping to plot these food re-supply gaps, but the info provided on shops and supplies for hikers is not exhaustive (as the author did not camp/cook). We supplemented the guidebook info with our own internet research on the towns and villages, particularly looking for larger stores (such as Lidl) which might lay just a few kilometers off route. Access to the occasional, bigger store was important because the local village shops were often poorly stocked for hiker-friendly food. I dread to think of the number of nights we had tuna, olive oil and couscous!
Getting the variety of food and the right nutrition was a challenge on the GR1, but luckily there were small bars or cafes most days, so we could supplement our diet with a salad or a protein-rich ‘platos combinados’. We also arranged to have a couple of re-supply boxes sent to us from the UK to pre-arranged hotel locations on the GR1, and this was a good way to stock-up on hard to find ‘necessities’ such as milk powder and decent trail mix. All this considered however, the distances between shops did require some fairly big food carries, although I am always over-cautious and take too much, because when Barry gets hungry he also gets grumpy….and uncooperative…
How did we find fresh water?
The GR1 traversed lonely, but still lived-in landcapes, with villages, farms, cultivation and cattle, and as such we were always very cautious about water. We took our Saywer Mini filter and chlorine dioxide tablets with us, and probably could have used some natural water sources, but we preferred to use village fuentes (water fountains) whenever possible. On a number of occasions we passed crystal clear looking streams, only to find raw sewage from a village being discharged directly into it a bit further up! After that we really didn’t trust any stream water, but still occasionally gathered (and treated) water from rainwater puddles and natural springs.
Most villages had fuentes and we tried to time each days’ hike so that we passed a village late in the afternoon, refilled, and walked-on further to dry camp that evening. When distances between villages were great, and in dry limestone landscapes, we did have some big-ish water carries (up to 3-4kg each). We essentially used the village fuentes as ‘stepping stones’ and based each day around where and when we’d hit the next source. Many fuentes were treated, but others were not potable and there were generally signs indicating this. We were always cautious and if in doubt, filtered or treated the water.
What about gas for our stove?
This is a problem in Spain at the best of times, not only finding gas but also canisters with a compatible connection for the stove. In our case we we have an MSR Pocket Rocket which takes the screw-thread type canisters, but we also carried an Edelrid cartridge adapter which allowed us to use the ‘Easy-clic’ canisters. The ‘Easy-clic’ seem more available in Spain generally. The GR1 goes a long way from tourist centres and outdoor shops, so we carried a large-size canister with us which, based on our GR11 trip, we hoped would last about 3-4 weeks. To save gas we always used a windshield, kept the burner on low and used a pot-cozy to complete the cooking once the food had boiled.
There was a weight penalty in carrying this large canister, but it meant we didn’t have to worry about running out or coming off trail to look for gas. Not being able to bring a canister from the UK (travel regulations), we purchased a canister in Figueres on the Med coast before we began and then another subsequently in Rodellar (off route) and Vitoria Gastiez (off route). There were a few more sources en-route but we based our supply on larger towns which have outdoor shops, Decathlon superstores or Repsol gas shops. Ferrateria (Ironmongers) in mid-sized towns were often a good bet also.
Were there many other hikers?
Given that the GR1 traverses the lower sierras and plains of Spain and is a ‘major’ cross country route, it was surprisingly lonely. In 2.5 months on the trail, we saw a total of 4 other people walking the GR1 specifically. None of these were walking it all, two were walking the section through Catalonia and another couple were on a day-walk. We heard of another couple walking the route from west to east but never met them. There were a few sections where the GR1 coincided with popular walking/tourist areas, like the Mallos de Riglos, where we saw many day hikers, but in general we saw nobody day-to-day, just the odd farmer or car passing on a remote road. Even in the gorgeous Picos Regional Park, apart from the old village folk out for an evening walk, we saw no hikers, just a handful of mountain-bikers. The locals in town/villages en-route also seemed largely unaware of the trail’s existence also. If you want company and hiker chat, the GR1 is not the best choice, but as a couple we had each other, and got used to our solitude and the sense of freedom that the lonely landscapes provided.
Sitting chatting with Simon, the only other long distance hiker and camper we met on the GR1. Simon was walking the GR1 through Catalonia and it was great to compare notes and gear (!)….he had a very smart ultralight Z-Packs rucksack.
Were there any things we found a problem?
Apart from sections where the trail disappeared into the scrub, the only other main issue we encountered was dogs. There is definitely a culture of fierce guard dogs in Spain and every farmhouse seemed to have at least one, and sometimes a whole pack. Within the first week of walking in Catalonia we were starting to get nervous when approaching farms because it was difficult to predict what lay in wait. Most dogs were chained or behind fences, but they would go mad on our approach and run to the end of their leads or jump at the fences barking. Sometimes they were loose or the fences had holes and, when present, the owners seemed unable and/or reluctant to control their dogs.
We are dog owners and are moderately confident in dealing with them, but the dog encounters on the GR1 could be quite intimidating and I think that, for anyone who is scared of dogs, it would be quite stressful at times. Part of the problem I think is the loneliness of the trail and the fact that the dogs are just not used to seeing walkers. When we left Catalonia, dogs seemed less of a problem in Aragon, but as soon as we got into Navarra and the Basque country it all started up again. In Cantabria the dogs were sometimes completely loose and we had to run a gauntlet through some villages. Although we never got bitten, we did have to take evasive action on occasion and felt that dog encounters did impinge on our enjoyment of the GR1 sometimes.
Were there any sections we particularly enjoyed? If we had two weeks to hike, what sections would we choose?
For us, the GR1 was more than the sum of its parts, so the subtler sections added to the enjoyment of the whole and the sense of traversing Spain’s landscapes- this continuity is one of the attractions for us of an end-to-end thru-hike. Even sections which we had low expectations for, such as the plains of Navarra, turned out to have their own charm. The plains for example were a welcome relief from the steep trail and forests of the sierras- we loved the wide landscapes, changing skies and different birdlife.
Having said that, there were two stand-out sections that, with only limited time, we would choose to focus on. The first is the section between Graus and Murillo de Gallego, which includes the spectacular Sierra de Guara y Canones Natural park and crosses the lonely landscapes of Aragon with its abandoned villages. The second section covers the stunning limestone sierras around the Picos Regional Park, with their abundant wildflowers, butterflies and scenes of old farming life. These two stunning and satisfying sections are well suited to a 1 or 2 week hike, and I intend to write a follow-up blog to highlight them further.
Were there any sections we disliked?
Apart from a few uninspiring days here and there, which are to be expected on such a long walk, there were not really any sustained sections of the GR1 that we disliked. If it was not always spectacular, it was pleasant walking, and could usually show us something interesting every day. Some sections involved walking through plantation forests, which were rather uniform and devoid of wildlife, so this could be a bit boring. Also, early on in Catalonia, we walked past some intensive pig farms which were horrible (especially for the pigs) and also stunk, so aside from dogs, this was the most acutely unpleasant aspect of the trail, although only in a few specific areas.
The landscape of the Camino Primitivo (which we linked on to at the end) were noticeably less attractive, and within days of being on the Primitvo we were missing the GR1. It was amazing to think how, by comparison, the GR1 had maintained such a high quality over such distance. I think the change with joining the Caminos was that they brought us into much closer contact with the 21st Century. When we descended from Puerto de Tarno (the end of the GR1) to the city of Oviedo (where we joined the Camino Primitivo), we left the old Spain of the GR1 behind and, apart from a short section in rural Galicia, never really found it again. I remember thinking how much pilgrims on the Camino were missing (in terms of landscape and natural beauty) compared to what else trails like the GR1 and Spain had to offer.
What was the best thing about the GR1?
Well, this is a very personal preference, and I think reading our GR1 blogs will give a good overview of the ups and downs of the journey and our feelings on completion. But to put it simply, the great pleasure of the GR1 for us was the way it took us deep into the rural and lost landscapes of Spain, far from tourism and the 21st century. Although not typically ‘wild’ in the way the Pyrenees are for example, the GR1 often seemed very far from anywhere and we felt as though we were the first people to walk through those places in a very long time, adding to a genuine sense of discovery. Not only did the GR1 show us Spain from the grassroots up, over its miles we felt the seasons weather our skin and we absorbed the contours of the land into our bones. It is difficult to separate the pleasure of the GR1 from our love of long distance walking, what we saw and the way we saw it are inextricably linked. The GR1 took us physically into an older Spain, a different time zone, the walking slowed our minds and opened our perceptions, it was a seductive way to live and travel, and one from which we are struggling to recover!
I hope this has been a useful insight for anyone interested walking the GR1 in whole or part. There is also a wealth of information on John Hayes blog here. I plan a few follow-up blogs focusing on specific aspects of the GR1 trail and we hope to shortly have some further hiking plans also…..the GR48 ‘Sendero de Sierra Morena’…..maybe…..
Dawn breaks in deepest Galicia, the best time of day on the trail was the hour after sunrise.