Walking is a national pastime in France. After a big Sunday lunch, families often go on late afternoon strolls together around their neighborhoods or along part of one of the hiking paths that vein the country.
Many of these paths pinball through residential areas and skirt private property, a fact that has complicated almost every hike I’ve attempted here. This is how things usually go: after a trial-and-error search to find the trail, I follow an insanely inconsistent signage system in circles and end up in the middle of someone’s farm or backyard, or realize I’m following the unfamiliar blazes of what is clearly a different, unknown trail, or, once, walk onto some kind of bizarre military shooting range full of tanks and guys in camo.
If you are a pretty low-key hiker like me (as in, no real gear, no fancy GPS, no retractable trekking poles) here are a few tips that might help you avoid a similar fate:
1) Buy a map and maybe even a trail guide. You’ll know what to expect so that you can either a) avoid getting lost or b) realize you’re lost a good half hour before you would have.
Cheapskate alternative: While you have good phone service, research the route and pull up Google Maps images of the area. Take screenshots to create a makeshift guide for yourself.
2) Assuming there’s a camera on your phone, take pictures of each decision you make after you realize you may be lost. This gives you some breadcrumbs so you can backtrack when you’re really up merde creek.
3) Yellow signs, though perhaps more invasive than blazes, tend to be more precise in their orientation. They confirm your blaze guesswork, especially when multiple routes run along the same trail and you’re dealing with inconsistent representation of each. Plus, they include distances.
4) Look for town halls and churches, which sometimes display trail maps or directions to trail heads.
5) This states the obvious, but pay attention. I tend to relax and drift away on mental waves of distraction while hiking, and before I know it I’m ankle deep in mud and surrounded by cows with no trail in sight. Blazes are small and often partially worn away or covered by ivy or branches or dirt; they can be easy to miss.
6) Don’t be that person who asks for directions in desperate English. Even just a French word or two can help get your potential savior on the same page. Useful words: balise (blaze, marker); perdu(e) (lost); sommet (summit); où est (where is); je cherche (I’m looking for); s’il vous plaît (please); merci (thank you); sentier (trail).
7) Try to get a sense for your pace in comparison to signed estimates like those that sometimes appear on the yellow signs above. I find that I sometimes hike at more than twice the speed of the available recommendation. Knowing when you’ve taken too long or too short a time to achieve the next stage of a hike is obviously handy information when you’re standing in cow sh*t.
8) Do your research so that you can use natural landmarks. If you know that the hike ends just after a river crossing, and you happen to end up lost near what appears to be the same river, improvise your own trail and cling to the only clue you have: that you and the river have to end up in the same place. The same goes for roads, slopes, and, if you can see them, the orientation of surrounding hills, mountains, and towns. Just think logically and use all of your available information to match the minimum amount of pre-hike research you should have done with your unfamiliar surroundings.
Despite your best intentions, you will surely still spend some time lost in France. Don’t get so frustrated looking for a lost trail that you let an unplanned detour ruin your experience. Look around – France is such a lovely place to be lost.