Advice from 35,000 Miles on the Trail
For the past six months we’ve been hiking in Europe: primarily the French Alps, but also the Italian and Swiss Alps, and now the mountains along Spain’s Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. All our hikes on this sojourn have been dayhikes. We’ve camped every night in our campervan.
We’ve now travelled in Europe (always with a focus on hiking) by nearly every means possible. We’ve backpacked hut-to-hut. We’ve backpacked carrying a tent, stove, food, etc. and wild camped (free camped). Between backpack trips, we’ve travelled via trains and buses. We’ve hitchhiked extensively. Even on our current trip, hitchhiking has enabled us to complete long, one-way dayhikes. We’ve also rented cars in Europe and, between dayhikes, pitched our tent in village and city campgrounds, or stealth camped free of charge in all kinds of settings. Other times, we’ve rented apartments for several weeks, used rental cars to access mountain trailheads, and returned each night to our village base. Occasionally we’ve stayed in hotels, but largely avoiding hotels has helped us afford longer journeys.
So, which approach do we prefer and recommend?
It’s a question we’ve often pondered and discussed. Now that a couple readers have asked for our advice on the matter, it’s time we commit to an answer.
We’ve enjoyed it all. Each approach has distinct pros and cons, of course. Which one will best suit you depends on your budget and personal preferences. But during all our previous European hiking journeys, we envied the hikers and climbers we saw camping in vans at trailheads. Now that we’ve done it, we can say with certainty that—for us—traveling and living in a campervan is the optimal way to hike Europe.
First, a clarification. What we call a “campervan” in North America goes by different names in Europe. The British call what we’re now driving and living in a “motorhome.” The French call it a “camping car.” The Spanish call it an “auto caravana.” In North America, our vehicle would be considered either a small motorhome or a large campervan. In this blog post, we’ll continue calling it a “campervan,” because (1) it’s possible to travel and live here nearly as comfortably as we have in a slightly smaller vehicle that’s definitely a campervan, not a motorhome, and (2) because many motorhomes in Europe are notably larger than our vehicle and would certainly be considered motorhomes, not campervans, in North America.
We prefer the campervan for many reasons. We’ll elaborate on them presently. Topping our list, however, is a personal bias unrelated to campervans that makes a campervan viable for us: In Europe, we prefer dayhiking to backpacking (either hut-to-hut or self-supported).
That’s heresy, we know. The European mountain hut system is a venerable one. Long distance, hut-to-hut hiking is a life-list dream for many North American hikers. And many European hikers are hut-to-hut devotees. Slashing your burden by eliminating a tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment, and carrying little food, enables truly ultralight hiking: relaxed and comfortable. Having delicious meals cooked for you and served to you is a luxurious indulgence. Still, we’d rather dayhike.
Staying at huts costs about 20 to 30 Euros per person. Eating at huts costs about 15 Euros per person just for dinner. At those prices, we couldn’t afford to hike in Europe for long.
Huts are crowded and noisy. Often you’ll have a stranger sleeping within nudging distance of you, perhaps two strangers: one on each side. Often you’ll sleep (or lie awake) with perhaps 20 to 60 other hikers in one room. Some will snore or cough. Some will retire late or rise early. Some will be noisy because they’re either clumsy, unable to sleep (tossing and turning), or just inconsiderate. Some will get up to pee in the middle of the night. Your sleep will almost always be compromised at a hut.
Huts can drain the energy you need for athletic hiking. Having to socialize with strangers at the dinner table every night, particularly people whose language you struggle to speak, can be stimulating and rewarding but also severely draining. Forgoing all but the barest stitch of privacy can prevent you from fully relaxing. And if you’re also not enjoying deep, uninterrupted sleep, your strength and endurance will wane, preventing you from fully enjoying each day on the trail.
Huts can also compromise your nutrition, further sapping your energy. Though eating meals at huts can be a marvelous luxury, it requires that you relinquish control over what and how much you eat. Some huts serve delicious, generous meals, others don’t. Europeans’ concept of breakfast is less hearty than that of most North Americans, so you’ll leave some huts in the morning with less than a full tank. No hut we’ve heard of includes a PowerBar, or any kind of sports-nutrition supplement, in the packed lunches they provide for hikers. If you have special dietary requirements, such as a need to avoid gluten, hut fare will not suit you.
We’re becoming increasingly aware that what we eat before, during, and after a hike profoundly affects our physical capability, our attitudes, and ultimately our level of fulfillment. We know precisely what we need to eat and how much. For example, we consume huge servings—literally platefuls—of fresh vegetables before and after hiking. Huts cannot be expected to serve the quantity of fresh veggies we think is a healthy-hiker requirement. While on the trail, we favour dried fruit (apricots, figs, goji berries, Turkish mulberries) and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), but we also rely on sports nutrition (especially PowerBars, PowerBar Energy Blasts, Honey Singer Protein Bars, Isostar Cereal Bars, and Isostar Sport Drink). Huts cannot be expected to cater to hikers who fuel themselves as if they were competitive athletes.
Yet another disadvantage of hut-to-hut hiking is that huts require reservations, typically well in advance. That means you relinquish flexibility and spontaneity. When you finally begin hiking to the first hut you booked, you could be heading into a week of rain. We much prefer to choose each day’s hiking destination according to the latest weather forecast.
Occasionally, while hiking trail A, we’ll see an intriguing peak or col that requires us to hike trail D, which we hadn’t planned on doing. Or, while hiking trail J, we’ll overlook the area probed by trail M, which was on our agenda, but now we can see it’s much less compelling than we’d imagined. Dayhikers can always, easily adjust their plans. Hut-to-hutsters are locked in.
Hut-to-hut hiking is almost never the continuous, blissful, peaky-horizon-always-in-view, alpine cruise that most hikers imagine it will be. Most days on most hut-to-hut routes entail long, grinding ascents, and long, pounding descents. Usually there’s a col, and sometimes a couple cols, between huts. Often there are long stretches between huts where the trail remains in forest. This is where dayhiking offers a significant advantage, because mountain trailheads in Europe are located at much higher elevations than are mountain trailheads in North America. Many are well above treeline, yet accessible via paved roads. So dayhikers who study their topo maps and choose their trails carefully are likely to spend more of each day striding above treeline than are hut-to-hut backpackers. Which is to say, dayhiking can be both easier and more scenic.
Hut-to-hut hiking is a revered tradition and immensely popular. It tends to keep you immersed in a crowd. Not only when you’re at the huts, but also while you’re on the trail. This past summer, we dayhiked several stages of established, hut-to-hut routes. Those were always the days we encountered the most hikers. On the stages we hiked of the Tour de Mont Blanc, for example, other hikers were constantly in view. On most of our dayhikes, we did not follow established hut-to-hut routes, and we were often alone.
Most stages of the popular hut-to-hut routes sacrifice interest for efficiency. So in addition to denying you optimal scenery, the trails themselves are sometimes boring. Following the easiest, most direct routes, long stretches of many hut-to-hut trails are broad, eroded pathways. They don’t engage you. You simply plod them. But many European trails are more compelling than North American trails because they forge more daring lines. Dayhikers who opt for these surprising, challenging routes will find them thrilling. With the exception of some of the high-level variants on some hut-to-hut routes, hut-to-hutsters often find themselves in a mundane, heavily-trod rut.
Dayhiking in the Alps, by the way, isn’t necessarily the round-trip, out-and-back, same-scenery-twice experience it tends to be in North America. There are far more trails in the Alps than you’ll find in any North American mountain range. Imagine a spiderweb dropped over the mountains. Each thread linked to the others. That’s the Alps: a web of trails, ensuring loop hikes are often possible. Constantly forging into new terrain makes dayhiking much more appealing.
Finally, hiking hut-to-hut—depending on your beliefs regarding safe mountain travel—might not be the carefree, ultralight saunter you’ve imagined. Should you really set off on a multi-day hike through mountains you’ve no experience in, without carrying a shelter, sleeping gear, extra clothing, and food that might enable you to survive an emergency bivouac? What if the weather suddenly turns violent and visibility plummets while you’re between huts? What if you make a navigational error that, come nightfall, leaves you well shy of the hut you’d intended to reach? What if an incapacitating injury befalls you or a companion? What if all of the above happen? That’s why, when hiking hut-to-hut, our packs have been far from weightless. We were always prepared to survive a night out if our plans unspooled into drama.
In summary, we’ve enjoyed hut-to-hut hiking, but for all the reasons explained above, we much prefer dayhiking. Dayhiking makes a campervan viable for hiking-focused European travel. And a campervan is… ooh la la… the way to travel, for the following reasons:
• Renting a campervan is, admittedly, not the cheapest way to go. But if you add up the cost of staying in huts, eating in huts, plus the cost of accommodation (probably hotels) and transportation (even public transportation) when travelling between trails, you’ll realize that travelling via campervan is surprisingly cost-competitive.
• It’s possible to camp free-of-charge every night in a campervan. Free-camping in a campervan is especially easy in France, where campervans are—by and large—welcomed or at least accepted. And free camping in France is by no means a hardship. It’s an advantage. This past summer, we camped 140 nights free of charge in our campervan, and all but a few times our “campsites” were excellent. We tucked into forests. We pulled off atop alpine passes. We overlooked picturesque villages. Often we were next to or within earshot of a stream. Many times we had superb views of the surrounding mountains. Almost always we enjoyed more tranquillity and privacy than we would have had we paid to stay in a campground, where incessantly chatting campers, screaming kids, and barking dogs are a frequent annoyance. While free camping, we never trespassed, violated regulations, or—to the best of our knowledge—annoyed anyone. Finding a place to comfortably camp free in a campervan sometimes requires a little creativity, courage or determination. But it also makes the journey more interesting and fun. And free-camping is what makes renting a campervan affordable, because the rental fee covers both transportation and accommodation.
• Throughout France, you’ll find “aire de services” specifically for campervans. At an aire de service you can, usually free-of-charge, responsibly empty your grey- and black-water tanks. You can also refill your fresh-water tank. Many aire de services allow campervans to stay overnight—free of charge. Aire de services are so common in France that, clearly, the nation has made a concerted effort to accommodate campervan travellers. As a result, campervan life is relatively easy in France, and campervan travellers feel welcome.
• A European hiking journey via campervan allows for very efficient travel. At trailheads where you have several hiking options, you can simply stay, camping free each evening after you return from dayhiking. No need to repeatedly drive back and forth between down-valley accommodation and high-elevation trailheads. Camping free at trailheads saves time, gas money, and allows for more relaxation.
• You can stock a campervan with enough groceries to last a week. That allows you to shop less frequently, at larger supermarkets offering lower prices and more choices. That means you save time and money, and eat what you want, as much as you want, whenever you want. That ensures that each day you set out on a dayhike, you can pack the precise trail foods you prefer. And it ensures that every morning before you hike, and every evening when you return from a hike, your breakfasts and dinners are ample, nutritious and delicious. There’s a particular brand and flavour of tea that you love? You can carry a dozen boxes of it in your campervan. You find a boulangerie that makes the best bread you’ve ever tasted? Buy a couple loaves—one for today, one for tomorrow. And, of course, campervans have refrigerators, so you can stock up on your favourite fresh foods and always enjoy an ice-cold, post-hike beer.
• Speaking of refrigerators, campervan fridges have freezers, which provide a key benefit specific to dayhiking: therapeutic ice packs. Each time we returned to our campervan from a long, demanding dayhike, we would apply ice packs to our knees and ankles to help reduce inflammation. This, plus occasional massage, helped keep us on the trail six days a week. Hut guardians are, to say the least, unaccustomed to having trekkers show up and ask for ice packs.
• A campervan can be a mobile gear closet. No need to severely limit your hiking gear. Campervans have enough storage space that you can bring a variety of clothing and gear, which you can choose from depending on the terrain and weather you anticipate encountering on each dayhike. That means you don’t always have to pack your heavier, Gore-Tex Pro Shell. If it’s a shatterproof, sunny day, you can keep your pack weight minimal by instead carrying your ultralight Gore-Tex PacLite shell. Most hikers travelling in Europe have just one pair of hiking boots. With a campervan, you can carry heavier boots for rougher terrain, a lighter pair of boots for easier trails, a pair of walking shoes for urban hiking, a pair of sandals for kicking back at the campsite, plus a pair of down booties for inside the campervan at night. Most hikers travelling in Europe have to wash their few items of clothes frequently. With a campervan, you can carry enough changes of hiking clothes that finding a laundromat becomes necessary only about once every couple weeks. This past summer, we always had precisely the gear we needed. This allowed us to keep our pack weight minimal and hike as comfortably as possible. It also ensured we never had to do laundry on a day when the weather was optimal for hiking. We could choose to do laundry only on those days when the weather was poor or we wanted or needed a rest.
• A campervan is a reasonably comfortable home in foul weather. Unlike a tent, a campervan has a heater, plus enough room that you can stand up, move around, lounge, do yoga. Unlike in a tent, you can hang your damp hiking clothes in a campervan, so they’re dry by morning even if it rains all night. And because a campervan has abundant storage, it can be a mobile library, containing all the guidebooks and maps you need. When you elect not to hike on a rainy day, you can make optimal use of your time by spreading out your maps, perusing several books at a time, and planning your hikes.
• Your bed in a campervan is your bed. A different bed in a different hotel every night (unless you’re staying at expensive hotels) leaves you vulnerable to a poor night’s rest: an uncomfortable mattress, a room that’s too hot, too cold, too stuffy, a room in a noisy location, etc. With a campervan, you’re almost always in control of the physical and audio atmosphere in which you sleep. That makes it the most consistently homey accommodation possible for a traveller.
There are, however, some drawbacks to European campervan travel you should be aware of:
• Many roads in Europe are narrow. Much narrower than North American drivers are accustomed to. This makes it a challenge to pilot a campervan. You must be a skilled, confident driver. You must always be vigilantly alert behind the wheel. You must drive slower than you might prefer. And you need a co-pilot always on duty as shotgun (a second pair of eyes attentive for potential trouble), navigator (constantly glancing up at directional signage and down at a road map), and ground crew (exiting the van to direct the pilot, and perhaps coordinate traffic, whenever it’s necessary to back up the rig).
• The only access to a few European trailheads is via one-lane roads. Even if you’re driving a small car, some of these roads pose difficulties should you encounter another car traveling in the opposite direction. In a campervan? Fuhgedaboutit. That’s when we’ve parked our campervan and hitchhiked. Compared to North Americans, Europeans are less fearful, more at ease about picking up hitchhikers. Europeans who are themselves hikers will reflexively stop for anyone geared-up to hike and obviously en route to a trailhead. Our hitchhiking attempts never failed, even when several rides were necessary. And hitching always enhanced our day. A lively, cultural exchange ensued every time we climbed into someone’s car.
• With all your hiking gear and valuables (laptops, portable hard drives, passports, etc.) in your campervan, you have more at risk when you leave the van parked at a trailhead than you would if you’d left all your gear and valuables locked in a hotel room and parked a relatively empty car at the same trailhead. We don’t know anyone who’s parked more vehicles at more trailheads in both Europe and North America than we have, however, and we’ve never been broken into on either continent. Our sense is that trailhead theft is less common in Europe than it is in North America, perhaps because trailheads in Europe tend to be busier: too public for easy thievery. Still, we remain vigilant. We always go out of our way to leave our campervan parked where it will be in view of people coming and going. And we always take the extra time necessary to disguise and hide our valuables within the campervan. Campervans have excellent hidey holes that would be difficult for a thief to find.
• In most of Switzerland, free-camping in a campervan is verboten. In Spain and Italy, it’s possible to camp free, but it’s less safe to leave an unattended campervan parked at trailheads. Outside France, we’re less enthusiastic about hiking-focused travel via campervan. Bear in mind, we have not travelled via campervan beyond France, Switzerland, Spain and Italy. If hiking is the focus of your journey, however, you’ll find much of the world’s best hiking in the Alps. And the French Alps, as we can attest, are ideal for campervan travel and free camping.
So, how to come by a campervan in France? Don’t try to buy one. (We explain why not in our post titled “U-Turn,” July 12, 2012). Rent one from the same people we did: France Motorhome Hire (www.francemotorhomehire.com). They’re located in Montargis, just south of Paris. Their email address is <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Their international phone number is +33 238 97 00 33. They are Hannah and Phill Spurge. Starting with their response to our initial email enquiry, continuing through what is now our sixth month on the road with one of their rentals, they have been unfailingly honest, fair, creative, flexible, helpful, responsive and enjoyable. We emphatically recommend them.
Our campervan journey through the French Alps has enriched us beyond measure. If you’re a hiker, you’ll likely feel the same. Start planning now.