Bikepacking Europe

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Thus far– less than a week, really– bikepacking the GR5 route has been a rich experience.  I use the term bikepacking loosely, for at times we are amidst city bicycle traffic, overdressed for the occasion.  At times, we encircle local forests along dirt doubletrack– roads to rural homes or geometrically organized forest service roads.  And sometimes, we are riding singletrack– walking, horseback riding, or sometime even mountainbiking trails.  The promise of the GR and official European walking routes is a diverse overland experience, easing from city to country several times daily, from pavement to dirt at will.  These are not wilderness trails, exclusively.  They are not exclusively singletrack.  They are always different.  For Europeans that dream of famed bikepacking routes across the globe, such as the Colorado Trail or the Great Divide Route, do not overlook the opportunities out your front door.  Coloradans and Californians should be jealous of the routes that exist here, for several reasons.

An expansive network of local and long distance routes: With the North Sea behind us, signage now points towards Nice, over 2000km away.  This location near Bergen op Zoom is the intersection of the GR5/E2, GR11, GR12, and GR17.

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Signage, guidebooks and maps are copious.  Lael and I are following red and white blazes marking trees, signposts, electrical boxes, buildings, and fences.  Most of the time this is all we need,  Occasionally, signage is faded or damaged and we are sent looking for the route.  With the right approach, even these wild goose chases are part of the fun.  We consider it like a treasure hunt for grown-ups.  Guidebooks are available.  Local maps and guides are always available at libraries and tourist offices.  Wandelnetwerk (walking trails) on the left, fietslus (bike trails) on the right.

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While we are simply following a red and white breadcrumb trail, major junctions also have public maps.  Most often, these maps show major cycling routes or local walking trails.  Even without the GR5 route listed, we can identify nearby towns and roads should we need to navigate locally.  This map actually shows the GR routes that pass through Bergen op Zoom.

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Wet weather has cordoned the camera to a dry corner of my framebag, but the riding is great!  Well-drained singletrack and doubletrack through lush forests is countered with visits to small towns with libraries, markets and bakeries.  We awoke this morning to sandy riding along these inland dunes; this afternoon, we go searching for the Westmalle Abbey, one of only seven genuine Trappist breweries in the world.  During the day, we visit two libraries to dry off and write home.

While backpacking Europe has become expensive, as the price of hostels, lodging and rail passes have increased, bicycling or bikepacking Europe presents an affordable way to travel.  Following rural routes, we find plentiful campsites in picturesque settings.  Our major daily costs are food and wine.  As we enter Belgium we add beer and chocolate to the list.  The variety of cheese, wine, and cured meats expands as we near France, and the prices decrease.  We eat better here than anywhere else, and it doesn’t cost any more.

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And unless you like the look of pit toilets, stock tanks, and barbed wire, European bikepacking offers more exciting architecture than the popular routes in the States.  We asked directions through this area and were told to turn left at the “great white house”.  Turn left here.

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There are 11 major walking trails in Europe, designated E#.  For example, we are following the E2 route, which coincides with the GR5.

Additional resources on European routes in this Wikipedia article.  France has the greatest network of trails, with over 64,000km of walking trails.  Major routes listed here.

We have also followed some of the North Sea Cycle Route, a mostly paved route which encircles the North Sea through the UK, Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.  Finally, the EuroVelo association has developed some excellent long-distance cycle routes across Europe, mostly paved or graded surfaces.  Lael and I have ridden some of the popular EuroVelo6 in the past, and found it to be well-signed, selecting interesting routes with low-traffic volumes.  The opportunities are endless.

11 thoughts on “Bikepacking Europe

  1. great post!

    i can see that you guys are riding hardtail mtb thru the trail, would u say that’s the most appropriate bike to take on the the GR5? or would 700c bikes w/ 32mm-40mm tires work?

    also, i’m guessing that you don’t need permits to camp out on those trails in europe.

    • James,

      The ideal bike must be versatile. Thus far, the GR5 has included more than 50% pavement with no elevation. However, when the route travels off-pavement it has been sandy, muddy, and a little rough. In the future, the route will climb into the hills and the mountains, and we expect more technical riding, to the point that some of the trail will not be rideable at all. As such, a proper mountain bike would be best, with a tire in excess of 2″. Fully rigid or full-suspension, 26″ or 29″ wheels, or even a fatbike would all be good for this kind of exploration. A rigid or hardtail 29er would be my best recommendation, although 26″ wheel parts are still more common in Europe. Just shoot for a 2″ (50mm+) tire as a minimum.

      I suspect you could ride some of the route on 35-40mm tires, but you might not enjoy the unpaved sections, except for the (mostly) smooth forest roads. As well, a 35mm tire with a load can put huge stress on your wheels, especially over rough terrain.

      James, we are free camping, which means we seek our own campsites and provide for all of our needs. No permits necessary, with plenty of good options thus far. I assume some of our campsites have been illegal, technically. We typically do not cross fencelines or camp in areas where camping is expressly prohibited. Most frequently, we camp in public forests on unfenced green spaces. We have seldom paid for camping in the last 5 years.


      • In Belgium as well as France, free camping is most definitely not legal and there are very few public forests (most are private with a right of passing). Even so, in public forests it is still forbidden to camp. There are exceptions according to French law but these make finding an allowed spot very challenging. That said, I have never had any problems with free camping in Belgium nor France but do keep in mind that you are not allowed to camp and should leave immediately if the owner or police would tell you so. Basic knowledge of the language to calm the owner or law enforcer helps a lot too! If you camp well away from main roads and places with lots of passers-by and don’t set up camp for longer than one night, you should be fine though.

      • Jeroen, Free camping is not legal in these countries, as is written into law in Sweden or Scotland, but as you say, in practice, it is allowed in many places. Coming from the US, I felt more comfortable camping in rural places in Europe than back home, excluding the vast public land tracts in the west. As we were mostly following GR trails through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, I think that it would be easy for anyone to understand the nature of our needs for the night, as we often camped under a red and white badge, or a paint blaze on the tree indicating the trail. As you say, such travel is defined by “arrive in the evening and leave in the morning” policies, as a matter or practical unwritten code. As a rule, traveling and touring on dirt roads and trails almost always allows access to safe and pleasant campsites.

        Following the GR5, we did find what seemed to be a lot of public forest, especially in the Vosges Mountains of France, and the Ardennes of Belgium. The Belgian forests were more actively logged (public land, private logging contracts?), while the French forests seemed to be curated as quiet outdoor sanctuaries; many roads were closed to motor vehicles. Most nights, we camped where we were unlikely to meet anyone, but if we did, it was mostly a friendly “Bonjour” or “Bon Appetit”. The stigma that Americans have about the homeless doesn’t exist as strongly in Europe, and I’ve found that most people in Europe respect these kind of exploratory adventures. Even if they are only out walking for the afternoon, the spirit is the same.

  2. Hi.
    I had read your blog for a few months (I discovered you by Cass Gilbert’s While out riding) but I’m enjoying so much with your european adventure.
    I wait everyday for your new post. It’s very interesting that everybody dreams with the things we don’t have… I mean, here in Europe we love the widlife of your bikepacking routes there in America, without towns an people, and bears… But yes, I asume we are very lucky with the GR routes we have all over Europe. They are fantastic, and you can live an adventure just 10km away of home.
    Are you coming to Spaing?

  3. Nice! Great post, the information on trails and camping is cool, thanks! Maybe we will check out these trails also… a backpacker told us of footpaths that span all over Scotland with “bothys” along the way for free shelter and beds =)

  4. With regard to free camping in NL and Belgium, I’d say yes, Nicholas you’re correct. Mostly it’s illegal, and could land you in some tense situations. As long as it’s working for you…

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