Thursday, 23 February 2012

A hike through Western Europe: The planning

I have spent almost two months researching this trip. Preparing one of the famous existing long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail is easy in comparison: You just buy the existing map sets or guide books and off you go. Planning your own route is much more work. So how exactly do you plan such a long hiking trip?

First stage is the rough planning and of course everything starts with an idea. My idea is to hike through Western Europe. I want to start at a former East/West border and end at the "end of Western Euorpe", Cabo Finisterre (which translated means the end of the world). Other conditions are that I prefer hiking in areas where I have not hiked before. The next determining factor is how much time you have got. As a rule of thumb I know that I can hike anything between 800 - 1,000 km per months depending on the terrain. Now you go ahead and calculate the overall mileage you can do in your time frame. The result for me is that my hike will be about 5,000 km long and lead me through Germany, France and Spain.

In order to simplify the planning process and to get an overview of the hiking possibilities you need good overview maps. As I usually want to string together existing long-distance trails those trails should be marked on the overview map. For this trip the following resources have been extremely helpful:

  • Germany: Wanderbares Deutschland, a great internet resource that has an interactive map with almost all German long-distance trails on it. 
  • France: IGN map 903 France Grande Randonnee that shows all long-distance trails in France. 
  • Spain: Overview maps of the Spanish caminos like this one
With the help of those resources you will be able to create a rough route of where you want to go and now it is time to move on to the more detailled planning for which I create a gpx track for the whole route. Having all your route and possible alternatives as a gpx track is a fantastic help. It is now easy to determine overall mileage and weigh one option against the other. And of course you can use this track later during your hike! The big problem now is where to get all those gpx tracks from. For this I found the following resources helpful:

  • Germany: where you you can download gpx tracks for all popular German long-distance trails
  • France: a website that lists almost all French GR's with links to gpx downloads plus information on trail facilities
  • Spain: There are plenty of gpx tracks for the caminos on the internet and especially useful has been wikiloc and gpsies
  • Maps: If you need free GPS maps for the countries you are going to hike through have a look here.
Once you have downloaded all the different trails you want to hike and linked them together you also have a much better idea of the overall mileage and you can now look for shortcuts or detours. In my case this is the result of my research and the route I am planning to hike:

Next comes the detailled planning of logistics: Where can you buy food, fuel, maps, shoes? I determine all the towns I will be hiking through and look up what services this place has to offer and compile my own little service guide.

  • Food resupply: This is the easiest part. Go to google maps, type in the name of the place and "supermarket" or the name of a specific supermarket chain. Google will come up with all the supermarkets in the area. 
  • Fuel and shoes: This is the worst part. In Germany you have to look up outdoor or sports shops and then call them to make sure they actually stock gas canisters and the shoes you like. France and Spain are a lot easier in this respect. Campingaz which is the most wide spread gas canister type in both countries and the company has a fantastic store locator on their website. Unfortunately, their gas canisters are not compatible with my preferred stove, but there is an adapter. Also, France has an outdoor and sports shop chain called Decathlon with outlets in many French and Spanish cities - and a store locator on their website.
  • Maps: I try to buy maps as I go and therefore look up the addresses and phone numbers of book shops on the way. I also note down the ISBN number of the maps and books I need so that I can call the book shop ahead and order the stuff I need ahead of time for later store pick up.
  • Sightseeing: Along my route their are some interesting cities with lots of sightseeing opportunities. I try to find out what there is to see via guidebooks and internet research and write down opening times and entrance fees to major sights. I do not want to go 5 km out of my way to visit a place only to find out that it is closed.
I will also invest into a new smart phone so that I can do more or more detailled research on the way, but it is better to have most of the information compiled in paper - much easier for overwiew and you do not depend on batteries and cell phone coverage....

Still, there are some logistical problems left. I could not find the brand and kind of shoes I usually use in France or Spain. I will either have to mail them ahead or find alternatives in the local outdoor shops. I also will have to mail ahead maps and guidebooks that I already own and this turned out to be much more difficult than in the US. While post offices in the US along popular trails are used to hikers and their resupply packages this is not the case in Europe. Poste restante is available, but mail is restricted to letters or small parcels and will only be held for 14 days. So much for theory - whether this will actually work I will have to find out. While in Germany I can resort to hiker friends and mail stuff to them, but unfortunately I do not know anyone in France or Spain.