Hiking the GR5
France has a brilliant network of long-distance paths, called Grande Randonnée (GR). In 2016 we hiked most of the GR5. OK, so technically, “most of” is a bit optimistic, because officially the GR5 starts in the Netherlands. However, the French Alpine section is probably the busiest and most famous. It starts in St. Gingolph at Lake Geneva and then crosses the French Alps to end up in Nice on the Mediterranean.
However, we were a bit short on time, so we didn’t hike the entire route. Just before starting the GR5 we’d done a 3-day hut walk in the Vanoise with Jasper’s parents and sister, so it made sense to start in the Vanoise. We were dropped off with our packs at a campsite near Landry, on the northern side of the Vanoise. Roughly, this means we skipped the first 1/3 of the hike, missing out on the Mont Blanc region. But it meant we did reach the Mediterranean!
The GR5 was our first real long-distance hike. Before this, we had done plenty of day trips and some trips of 3-6 days. The GR5 from Landry to Nice, a hike of around 400 km, took us 20 days. We took it a bit slower at first to get used to the walk. Good thing too, because the packs were a bit on the heavy side and we had some snow in the Vanoise. The last couple of days we probably hiked 30 km a day.
The best thing about the GR5 is that it actually crosses the Alps and the scenery changes every day. You feel like you’re actually going somewhere, with a clear goal. Get to the sea! We started out in the Vanoise with marmots, glaciers and soaring mountains capped with snow.
After Modane we crossed the Col de la Vallée Étroite, ending up in a valley where they still speak Italian (we don’t, so that was fun). Around this time we also started to think that the vegetation was becoming more Mediterranean so “we must be almost there, or halfway at least!” Haha, no. We reached the Vallée Étroite on our sixth day. Briançon came next, and this was also when we got close to collapsing and thought we needed a rest day. Except we didn’t because from Briançon onwards we were basically flying (albeit with blisters and painful feet). After Briançon the GR5 enters the Queyras, another amazing mountain region. It’s not as high as the Vanoise but it’s also less tourist-y!
After the Queyras, we quickly reached the Mercantour national park which is again very different, a lot more Mediterranean (but there are still plenty of marmots). The last section didn’t have that many mountains but it was still rugged and a lot more interesting than we thought it would be. The vegetation also became more and more Mediterranean and this time it was because we were almost there!
Despite the length, the GR5 is not a difficult hike. The paths are well-maintained. Some sections are steep and there are some long climbs and descents; but nothing dramatic. Except that @#!% ridge above Briançon. That was the worst ever.
But all in all, the GR5 paths are great. It’s a walk, not a climb. If you can walk 8 hours a day with a pack and are able to cope with snow/rain/wind/heatwaves then you should be fine!
The GR5 is a summer hike but that does not mean summer temperatures all the way. We hiked in August and had mostly good weather. There was one day of snow in the Vanoise, and a bit of drizzle further on. Further south there were thunderstorms in the evenings and the heat and fierce sun were the major issues.
Guidebook, maps and signposts
We had the Cicerone guidebook “The GR5 Trail” by Paddy Dillon, which was excellent. Good descriptions of the route, including height profiles and quite decent maps. It also lists accommodation options including phone numbers of huts. The hiking times in the guidebook are reasonable although we found we usually were faster climbers. We used 3 IGN 1:100.000 maps: 151 (Grenoble, Chambéry), 158 (Gap, Briançon) and 165 (Nice, Draguignan). I normally wouldn’t use a 1:100.000 map for hiking, but this way we got an overview of our entire route in just 3 maps. In combination with the guidebook, it was sufficient.
Signposting along the route was generally excellent. When there are path intersections, they put up yellow signposts showing times to certain places and current altitude. Along the route there are also white and red paint flashes to indicate you are going in the right direction. Beware, though. The white-red is used for all GR paths. You may end up following the wrong GR for a while. Why, yes, we speak from experience. Why do you ask?
There are hundreds of mountain huts in the Alps! These are a lot fancier than the Australian and NZ ones and are more like hostels or bed&breakfasts . They’re called refuges in French (which sounds even more basic than hut if you ask me). The only thing you really need to bring is a sleeping bag liner. And earplugs. You’ll be sleeping in a dormitory with maybe 20 others. There’s always a snorer, trust me.
The refuges are usually in beautiful locations and can only be reached on foot. Some are quite fancy and have hot showers; others are a bit more basic. When we stayed in refuges we always got the demi-pension (half board) which includes a bed (blanket and pillows included), dinner and breakfast (more on that later). This cost around 45 € per person. You can also have lunch at a refuge, or cake. Or both. The prices are a bit higher than down in the valleys because it’s hard to bring supplies in. Usually you can’t pay with (credit) card so bring cash.
In villages there is often a gîte d’étape which is like a refuge but without the supply issues. So, generally they are a bit fancier (electricity, hot water, more food options, smaller dormitories). It’s also possible to camp as quite a number of the villages and towns on the GR5 have campsites. You can also pitch a tent near some of the refuges. Wild camping is usually not allowed but a bivouac (7 pm to 7 am in small tents only) can be OK. Check before you do it.
We brought a small tent and camped around 1/3 of the nights. The rest we stayed in refuges and gîtes. We really need new and warmer sleeping bags so a high altitude bivouac wasn’t really an option.
Booking accommodation is useful but don’t book too far ahead. We checked the weather forecast, then got out the maps and guidebook and called ahead to the refuges and gîtes where we planned to stay the next 2-3 nights. We only had problems once; at the Refuge du Mont Thabor which was full for the entire week.
In principle it is possible to walk the entire GR5 without cooking your own food. The refuges and gîtes all serve breakfast, lunch and dinner; and in the towns there are restaurants. However, the food options can be a bit limited especially high up in the mountains. For lunch in a refuge you can order what you want from the (small) menu but dinner is communal. You sit down at a long table with all the other hikers and eat whatever is put on the table. This was usually soup and salad, followed by some carbohydrate-rich stuff (pasta, polenta, rice) with meat. Then there was cheese (and plenty of it; it’s France after all) and dessert. You can take multiple servings so we never had any issues with there being too little food. However, it can get a little monotonous after a while, especially if you like me are a vegetarian. The carbohydrates and meat were always served separately so I never had to pick meat out of my meal. In some cases, the vegetarian option was polenta with meat but without the meat. Still, at least there was cheese. At many refuges, though, the staff actually cooked something especially for me. Usually an omelette. Sometimes I paid 1 or 2 € extra for this. See below for a full list of veggie food that I had! My advice is to tell the staff at the refuge or gîte that you are a vegetarian when you make the booking. Then they can plan ahead.
You can also stay at a refuge/gîte without eating dinner or breakfast there. Often there was a little area set aside for people who wanted to cook themselves (either to save money or because of dietary reasons). There was a small fee to use that area though (since they lose income because you don’t buy food there but you are using all the facilities). Can’t remember how much it was since we always ate in the refuges when we stayed there.
The communal dining is also very social. It’s easy to talk to people (even in French!) when you are sitting at the same table, eating the same food and very probably hiking the same route.
Vegetarian food along the GR5
(note: I’m not reviewing the taste, just the availability of vegetarian food!)
- Refuge du Col du Palet: paid 1€ extra and I got some roast vegetables
- Refuge de la Leisse: they made me an omelette, no extra fee (although there was a note on the lunch menu, where the omelette usually is, saying that the availability depended on the chickens)
- Refuge Péclet-Polset: I got a pasta dish with spinach and cheese. And it was delicious.
- Rifugio I Re Magi: slight communication error here (they were Italian), resulting in polenta with sausages without the sausages for both of us despite Jasper being an omnivore. However, he didn’t miss them because there was an antipasti starter, three types of cheese, tiramisu for dessert and half a litre of wine.
- Refuge de Maljasset: carbs, vegetables and fish and just don’t eat the fish. OK.
- Gîte de Bousieyas: probably the best food on the GR5. I got my very own special plate of vegetarian food. Delicious pasta with homemade pesto and roast tomatoes.
- Gîte de Roya: pasta with sauce and scrambled eggs.
- Refuge de Longon: there was a chickpea pancake as starter, then cheese quiche, followed by polenta with beef without the beef. Very sick of polenta at this point but the cheese was the best we had along the GR5.
- Gîte les Marmottes, St. Dalmas: Rice and omelette instead of rice and fish for main course.
Basically, you need the same gear that you take on any mountain hike. Good hiking shoes/boots. Clothes for wet/cold/warm/sunny weather. A hat (to look awesome). Sunscreen. First aid kit. Camera gear. Water and food. Camping gear if you want to camp. A sleeping bag liner (and hut shoes) if you stay in huts.
Rule 1: bring enough stuff to survive and be reasonably comfortable. Remember that it is very uncomfortable to bring too much stuff (see Exhibit A below). This picture was taken on the first day, about 2 hours after we started hiking and 1h50 min after we realised we brought too much stuff. Once we got out of the Vanoise we visited a post office and sent some gear home :)
We will make a list of our gear soon!