Duncan’s Guide to Hiking in France
For years I have driven around France and literally hundreds of times I saw clusters of cars parked by the side of a road near a pole with small yellow signs on it. “What were they doing?”
France is honeycombed with trails for hikers (randonneurs.) Some are famous trails in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but even near my favourite town of Nyons, there are 30-40 trails within a short drive of our hotel. Since our first time trying a single trail behind our hotel six years ago, we now return to spend at least a week and up to 15 days hiking in the area. Why?
It’s a wonderful workout, and we get to have dessert every night with dinner! The view of the French countryside from the trails is very different from a car, or even an after dinner walk down a local lane. Our sense of French vineyards, lavender fields, geography and “feel” for the land is so much sharper today. Finally, we have busy jobs meeting thousands of people per year, so a chance to walk for 3-6 hours and meet only a handful of fellow hikers (and a brief “Bonjour” is the extent of any conversations) is perfect quiet couple’s vacation for us.
People used to hiking in Canada may be daunted by some scary experiences in the Rockies (“Did you know that if you fall into a crevasse you will die of hypothermia before we can rescue you?” etc.) Those hikes can be intimidating, so let’s talk about how you can get started hiking in France.
Trails and Trailheads
The first thing you need is a Carte de Randonée from IGN. They are for sale in any local Maison de la Presse or tobacconist, and most hypermarchés. Or you can buy them online!
If you are even mediocre at reading a map, these are dead easy to use. You find your peak (Cougoir, in this case) and locate the trailhead starting at the Vieux Village of Teyssières. Google Maps says that is about 24 km from Nyons, and gives you all the roads. That will take you at least 40 minutes if you aren’t insane. These roads are one lane wide, twisty, and if you can make 40 km/h you are a better driver than I am. Please be careful – lots of trucks, cars, and cyclists.
Park your car at the pole with the little yellow signs (there is always room) and head up the trail. Trails in France are BRILLIANTLY marked compared to Canada or the USA. They use a code of blazes (white, red and yellow paint) on trees and rocks to indicate the correct trail, wrong trails, even the direction of curve up ahead. Follow the horizontal yellow over red markings (for this trail) and avoid the yellow crossed with red (like an ‘X’) and you will be fine. The trails tend to be wide and well maintained.
Which leads to the great part! You need running shoes, not hiking boots. No snow, no streams, no swamps. Pair of shorts, t-shirt, hiking socks (blisters are the enemy) and a hat if your hairline resembles mine. Lots of sunscreen. We use two packs: a CamelBak filled with ice cubes and water back at the hotel, and a bigger backpack for fleeces, extra water and a tarp. We carry a liter of water per hour for the two of us, unless it is unusually hot. Always bring a fleece: clouds can cover the mountain summit at any time, and the temperature can go from 28C to 13C in 30 minutes or less. If you don’t need to wear the fleeces, they make excellent pillows for lunch-time naps. No bug repellent: is it too dry for mosquitoes. No bear spray: there are no bears! There are poisonous vipers in France, but I have never seen one.
Finally, if you are skittish about heights, most of these trails are hundreds of years old, and were used by kids and seniors to get to market. You will almost never have to scramble, to put your hands down for support, or walk along a sheer cliff edge (unless you want to.)
We make our wraps in the hotel in the morning, and they keep cool in the CamelBak. We time our hike so that we are at or near the summit between noon and 2 pm (depending on how much we pigged out the night before!) We find a spot with a nice view, and facing south-ish with a gentle 5-10 degree slope. We lay down our trusty ten year old blue tarpaulin (6’ x 8’; $10 at Canadian Tire) flat, stick our backpacks by our heads as pillows, and eat lunch, with a 30 minute snooze in the sun for after. We have NEVER had a better lunch in France than these picnics on mountaintops.
Exertion, time, and steepness
Most people know Barbara and I are fairly fit. And we have done some crazy long hikes at brutal paces. But we don’t do that every day, or we would get injured. Cougoir is a rest day kind of hike – we get our legs moving, but it is not a huge exertion. The trailhead is at 650 m altitude, and the summit is 1221 m. According to the signposts, it is 7.5 km each way. There are two longish flat bits (maybe 1.5 km) so you can see that the vertical of just under 600 m is accomplished over 6 km, or about a 10% grade. That isn’t flat, but as a comparison the Grouse Grind is 31%.
Most healthy adults walk about 4-6 km per hour on the flat. Adding 600 meters or nearly 2000 feet of vertical will slow down most people, but I would be surprised if anyone reading this took more than 2.5 hours on the way up, and 2 hours down. Without pushing ourselves, Barbara and I got up and down in 3h40m, and that was with 40 minutes up top for lunch and sunbathing.