Preparing For Long Distance Trail Hiking In Europe
Europe has a lot more to offer than sightseeing and long afternoons drinking coffee. It holds some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, with accessible trail routes and a friendly walking culture that brings it all together. If you want to see the true splendour of Europe, there’s no better way than to take a long-distance hike.
The first question is, what trail should you hike on? Only you can decide this, but what I can do is introduce you to a variety of Europe’s finest routes.
Europe is nicely linked up with ‘GR’ paths, and with them you can walk pretty much anywhere on the continent without too many road sections. My personal favourite is the GR10, which traverses the Pyrenees mountain range on the French side from coast to coast. The route takes you over high mountain passes, down into lush green valleys, and through tiny villages where you can pick up local produce for lunch. You could also try the GR11 on the Spanish side of the range. Both are relatively accessible mountain hikes that take around 6-8 weeks to thru-hike.
If you want to get even higher, Tour Du Mont Blanc is for you. The world-famous hike takes you around the base of Europe’s most massive massif, giving you spectacular Alpine views without the mountaineering. The route also passes through France, Switzerland and Italy, giving you the opportunity to sample three cultural flavours in just 10 days or so of hiking.
If mountain hiking isn’t really your idea of a nice walk, the Camino de Santiago is a completely different kind of experience. This ancient pilgrimage route sees thousands of visitors take the trek every year, some for spiritual reasons and others because they fancy a walk. The main route is crowded and can be flat and boring, so take the Northern Route along the coast if you want to avoid the crowds.
If none of the above ideas have resonated with you, there are many more options, from the wet moorlands of the Pennine Way to the paradises of the GR20 in Corsica. Whatever you choose, you need to prepare properly and accordingly.
Your backpack should be packed with all of the essential items that you need for the route that you are taking. For a popular route like the Camino de Santiago, it’s totally possible to stay in hostels and leave your camping and cooking gear at home. For quieter and more isolated routes, you will need to plan accommodations in advance or carry your own tent to sleep in.
Your style will also determine your pack weight – from wild camping with all of the cooking gear to hiking with a service that can transfer your packs and drop off food. If you plan to travel into towns and spend time in cities along the way, you may also need different clothes. You won’t be able to turn up for a poker tournament in Monte Carlo wearing your hiking gear! You will need to conform to the dress codes of any casinos, bars or clubs that you enter, and that means extra weight.
If you are camping out, your tent should be tested first to make sure it will hold up while on the walk. Try to stay out in it during a storm at home. This might not sound pleasant, but you need to be sure that you can stay dry while you sleep. Test your waterproof clothing in the same way. You should also break in your boots and make sure they are comfortable enough to trek in for long distances. Go on an 8-hour walk and see how your feet feel.
For some people, fitness might be a concern, especially if this is your first long distance trail hike. The Tour du Mont Blanc has daily ascents and descents of 1500-5000ft, and any long-distance routes are generally physically demanding. If you are in doubt, aim to build up your fitness levels before you set out. Remember that you will also be carrying a heavy pack. Go for hikes with a pack of a similar weight, and try to replicate the conditions of your hike as much as possible, such as temperature, altitude and terrain.
The best time to hike in Europe is usually the early or late summer months. This way you can avoid the midsummer heat, which can make walking uncomfortable, yet still catch some nice weather on the way. Hiking in ranges such as the Pyrenees is best in summer, as the air is cool enough to balance the heat of the sun. Mont Blanc trail walkers should also aim for midsummer, for the least amount of snow and ice. Avoid places like Greece or Croatia in midsummer, as they will be too hot.
Have an awesome hike!