Backpacking in Europe - our top tips
If you have been following my backpacking walks in Camping, and have been inspired to actually get out there and hit a few of the trails, you might just be arriving at the point where you feel adventurous enough to try something a little further afield. So why not indulge in a spot of Euro-hiking? And while the budget airlines can whisk you to within spitting distance of most of the likely places to go backpacking, the greener alternatives for travelling can be quite attractive, and add a bit more to the adventure as well.
The ferry ports along the south and east coast of England open up large chunks of Europe to you, and the trains ‘on the other side’ are all pretty good. Of course you can do the whole thing by train using Eurostar and other high speed trains, as I did recently, travelling from Norwich to Geneva in around 15 hours. It was a long day, admittedly, but I had nowhere near the stress and aggravation that would have been guaranteed had I flown.
If mountains are your thing then it is a fair bet that at some point you are going to be drawn to the Alps. Of course, it is a large chunk of mountains that spans several countries, but you will find that getting to any of the prime areas in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria is pretty straightforward.
It is a different style of backpacking, though. The classic route that takes you through three countries is the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, as it is affectionately known. You can do it in around seven to 10 days, taking in some of the most spectacular mountain scenery, hiking over several high passes while enjoying some incredible views.
Higher up in the mountains, you have less opportunity to go off the beaten track, so expect the more popular trails to be busy. You will also find mountain huts, which vary from small and quite basic refuges to ones more akin to hotels. Whether or not you choose to stay in them, you can always get something to eat or drink, and you will probably be able to camp outside – indeed, when the accommodation is full, it will be your only option.
Obviously it depends on which part of the Alps you go to as to how you get there, but if you do not fancy flying, you can travel to many of the popular spots by rail or overnight coach.
Stretching from the Basque country in the west to the Mediterranean in the east, the Pyrenees form a natural border between France and Spain, with the tiny little principality of Andorra nestling in between. If you had the time, you could walk from one sea to another, but most tend to head for the spectacular central section between Lescun and Andorra. There are some relatively easy summits to bag here if you fancy a scramble, but you might also just choose to flit from one side of the border to another, soaking up the contrasts between the French and Spanish mountain villages. Take a Eurostar to Paris and overnight train to Luchon for a more interesting (and greener) journey.
Quick and easy to get to via ferries from several English ports, and it is easy walking once you get there. It is not overly wild, and most definitely not mountainous, but there is some very pleasant canalside and heathland walking to be had, and the campsites are first rate. The camping and walking culture is similar to our own so this land is ideal for beginners and family backpackers wanting to take things easily.
Lots of wild walking on offer, in places where you might not see another soul for days. The Wicklow mountains are just such a location, and easily accessible from Dublin. But if you fancy an established long-distance route, try the Kerry Way, which combines lush green countryside with rocky mountains and spectacular coastline. Budget air connections from various airports and ferries from Liverpool or Holyhead to Dublin.
Norway, Sweden and Denmark are all accessible by ferry, and each offers a different experience. Norway is all about its mountains and fjords. Sweden has mountains, too, as well as wild moorland, lakes and forests. Low-lying Denmark is a lot smaller, but still has plenty of natural beauty to take in, and good campsites. Finland is a bit further away, but it has similar terrain to Sweden and a very strong outdoors culture, so there are plenty of waymarked trails through the wilderness. The more northerly latitudes of Scandinavia get 24 hour daylight during the summer, so don’t be surprised if you see people on the trail at 11 o’clock at night. Must be something in the vodka…
The Carpathians wind along the borders of Poland, Slovakia and the Ukraine before diving into Romania, but the jewel in the crown is a small massif on the Polish/Slovak border called the Tatra, or Tatry. The hiking here is pretty well developed, with good trails and a string of mountain huts
If you want to be really adventurous, why not try the Balkan mountains? Bulgaria has hundreds of miles of hiking trails through high mountains, lush meadows and forests, and getting there is really easy with cheap flights available to Sofia.
Described as the mountain in the sea, Corsica has a rugged mountainous interior, and one of the most spectacular long-distance trails, the GR20. Definitely not one for beginners, it’s tough and demanding, but the rewards make it well worth the effort.
OK, geographically it is Africa, but politically it is Europe, and the weather does not get any more balmy than here. El Teide, the volcano that dominates the island, is the main attraction, but there is plenty more besides. Tenerife is a big package holiday destination, so there are cheap flights available from several regional airports as well as the main ones. Don’t just stop at Tenerife. The other Canaries are pretty good, too.PRACTICALITIES
Chances are your total backpacking kit will not be too close to the weight limit for checked in baggage if you are flying. If you backpack with someone else, it does make things easier, as you will be able to carry some more food. But even so, bank on having to buy some when you arrive at your destination.
Once upon a time, if you were looking at using nothing more than rail and a ferry to get to your walking destination, you would probably be OK carrying fuel for your stove in your rucksack. But these days, tighter security checks mean you cannot rely on that, so make the same assumptions that you would for travelling by air – in other words, whatever stove you use, you need to be able to get fuel for it when you arrive. It is also worth learning the name of the fuel you are using in the language of your destination.
What used to be the form E111 is now the European Health Insurance Card, and while it is worth getting to guarantee reciprocal rights to medical treatment in fellow EU countries, it is no substitute for travel insurance.
See more backpacking articles each month in Clive's regular column in Camping magazine.