Wild camping in France – especially by bike – can not only get you away from it all, it can also save you money, too. John Traynor, author of Lightweight Camping, has this advice for anyone thinking about free camping in France.
Finding a little piece of solitude in France isn't usually hard.
Photo: Alastair McDermott
** See also our Reader Q&A on wild camping in the Pyrenees during the Tour de France. **
Wild camping? For most of us, 'remote' is probably a more accurate word and 'free' the most likely. Whtever you call it and wherever you end up, it's important to be non-intrusive; the key words to bear in mind are consideration, responsibility and being environmentally friendly.
Asking for help in a local shop, bar or the mayor's office is a sound idea, but so is seeking out a quiet spot and being discreet. Despite appearances to the contrary in many areas, all land is owned by somebody or is publicly-owned and the rural bush telegraph can be faster than the worldwide web.
There are, quite rightly, restrictions on uncontrolled camping in national parks, regional parks and other environmentally sensitive areas.
Travelling by bike puts you on the side of the angels, but doesn't guarantee a welcome. If you've picked an apparently reasonable spot to camp and somebody tells you to move on, it's best to do so rather than become embroiled in an argument. Happily, there are huge stretches of countryside in France that appear virtually uninhabited (they're not!), so finding a discreet pitch is rarely difficult.
If you're not confident about finding a 'wild' pitch, then consider searching out a simple site; 'camping à la ferme', for instance, means camping on a small farm site with basic facilities. Alternatively, 'camping municipal' often feels wild-ish, particularly in deeply rural areas off the beaten tourist trail.
The self-explanatory Massif Central embraces a huge and varied area that would take a lifetime to explore thoroughly; mountains, hills, valleys and rivers all offer snug places to shelter with the Auvergne and the Cévennes being personal favourites. Throw in the Ardennes, Jura, Alps and Pyrenees and you'll never be short of wild places.
Whether with a local leaning on a wall, in a square, at La Poste or the Mairie, the simple words, "Pouvez-vous m'aidez?" can open up new dimensions in pedalling through France. A garden, field, wood or riverside may offer an overnight resting place to be treasured. Then again, there are times and places where a quiet night is welcome away from it all and shared only with your companion(s). If you choose to pick your own pitch, be considerate and follow these simple guidelines.
Tips for free camping in France
• Avoid travelling in a large group and use just one or two small tents; aim to stay no more than one or two nights in one place.
• Respect restrictions on camping.
• Move on if you feel you might be disturbing birds or wildlife.
• Camp high or remote far away from towns and villages as well as away from and out of sight of houses; avoid camping in fields with crops or grazing livestock.
• Camp discreetly using a tent that blends into the landscape.
• Never dig drainage channels or remove stones from walls for any purpose. Where rocks have been used to secure tent pegs, they should be replaced where they came from.
• Avoid lighting a fire even if other people have left signs of burning.
• Make your loo site at least 30m from any water or 50m from paths, having dug a 15cm deep hole with a trowel, and bury the results. See our article on answering the call of nature while cycling.
John Traynor started his pedalling with days exploring the Cotswolds. He's since cycled, trekked, paddled and backpacked in Europe, Iceland, Morocco, Turkey, South Africa and Nepal. John is the author of Lightweight Camping, published by Cicerone. He recently moved back to the UK after several years living in the Auvergne. John writes for Freewheeling France on a range of topics, mostly related to cycle camping. You can read more of his work at Outdoor Review and Outdoor i. He blogs at Canny Camping and Tweets @jtopenair
Where to buy camping equipment for cycling
In France, Decathlon stores sell a basic range of sleeping bags, gas canisters, tents etc. You can buy instore or online.
Camping Worldis one of the UK's largest camping retailers. Their prices are usually very competitive and they offer free UK delivery, as well as delivery worldwide for a surcharge.