Wednesday 17 October 2018

Camping on the GR5 Trail through the French Alps

Camp opposite the Pointe de la Selle

When I set out on the GR5 I intended to camp as often as possible. I knew that you can stay in accommodation every night as there are many mountain refuges and settlements along the way but camping in wild places is a major part of long walks for me and I had no intention of not doing so. As it was after the second week of September most of the refuges and even hotels in towns were closed. An autumn walk on the GR5 requires camping.

First day, first camp. Below the Col de Bise

The walk took me thirty-two days, two of them rest ones. I ended up camping on twenty-one nights, eighteen of them on wild sites, one on an open commercial campground, and two on closed campgrounds that might as well have been wild sites. Ten nights were spent in hotels and guest houses.

En route to the Col de Chesery

Finding camp sites wasn't quite as easy as it is in some areas and I quickly learnt I had to think about the terrain and water sources. Much of the GR5 is on steep slopes with few places to camp. Water sources are sometimes many hours walking apart, especially in the southern half of the walk. I found it was better to stop early if I found a good site as pushing on could mean walking well into the night and crossing high cols in darkness, which I did a couple of times. I also soon started to fill up my water bottles late in the afternoon and carry water the last hour or two so I could use sites far from any water.

Clearing skis at a camp by the Ruiseau d'Anterne after a night of thunderstorms and heavy rain

Mostly, once away from villages and farms there were no restrictions on camping, as far as I could tell. Exceptions were in the two national parks, the Vanoise and the Mercantour. In the first camping is forbidden except next to some refuges, which weren't on my route. I camped just outside the park on two nights and spent a third in a guest house. In the Mercantour National Park camping was forbidden but bivoacing was permitted between the hours of 7pm and 9am. As I'd already learnt a bivouac in the French Alps means using a shelter in which you can't stand up - so backpacking tents and tarps are fine.

Camp en route to the Col de Brevent

Whenever possible I chose sites with spacious views. Sometimes though stormy weather made it more sensible to head down and camp deep in the forests. These sites were also enjoyable - I love trees - and the quietest of them all. Partly because there were no cows. Most of the uplands crossed by the GR5 are used for grazing cattle and sheep. I saw many hundreds of both. Often the animals wore bells, which could be heard jangling from far away. A few times I used ear plugs to reduce the noise. Sometimes I woke to find cows all round my camp. Another result of all these animals was that I often camped on ground liberally covered with cow and sheep dung. By the end of the trip my groundsheet stank, something I've never experienced before.

The GR5 was a great walk that I really enjoyed and I had many splendid camps. The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar, a well-used shelter that had been on two previous multi-week walks and many shorter ones, was ideal, giving masses of room and resisting wind and rain. Here are some more of my camps.
En route to the Refuge les Barmettes

Below the Col de la Vallee Etroite
Opposite the Pointe de la Selle

A frosty morning below the Col des Fourches
En route to the Col de Crousette

Below the Col des Deux Caires
My last camp on the GR5, above Utelle


  1. Sounds like you had a great trek. The pictures of your pitches look great. Thanks for the helpful tips. I am heading off early July 2023 carrying everything on my back and plan to do some wild camping so reading your blog was a great start. Cheers.

  2. Where did you camp in the Vanoise national Park? Are you allowed to camp next to closed refuges?

    1. I didn't camp in the Vanoise National Park as it wasn't allowed except at some refuges that weren't on my route. I'm afraid I don't know if camping by them is allowed when they are closed.