Wild Camping in the French Alps
The mountains surrounding Morzine, Samoens and Morillon offer some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Enormous cascading waterfalls, vast open expanses and imposing mountain peaks are all within walking distance of our fabulous mountain towns. There is also Mont Blanc at a gigantic 4810m looming in the background that can be seen from most mountain summits in the area on a clear day. There is no better way to experience these wonders of nature than to be out in the wild taking in the glorious alpine sunrises and sunsets. Wild camping allows you to do this and we absolutely love it! Wild camping is essentially camping outside of campsites and is all about getting away from the bustling alpine towns and taking yourself away into the mountain wilderness to spend time truly alone with the world. If this sounds like fun then keep on reading!
We have lots of guests who like to spend 2 weeks in the mountains during their holidays in the French Alps. We highly recommend spending 1 week exploring the mountains either wild camping or in the excellent Refuge network across the Alps. Refuges are essentially basic high altitude mountain chalets where you can rent a room or bed in a dormitory for the night. Some of the larger and more established Refuges have an on-site chef to prepare meals and some even have hot running water. A real luxury if you have been wild camping for a few days! The second week can then be spent relaxing in the comfort of one of our catered or self-catered chalets. You might have had a week of cooking for yourself with a portable gas burner so a 4 course meal with wine cooked by your chalet chef will be a welcome change. If you can only take week off then don’t worry. Spend 3 nights in the wild and then 4 nights in a chalet. We do short stays!
Pitching camp with Mont Blanc in the distance and the Giffre Valley below
What are the wild camping rules in France?
Wild camping is permitted anywhere in France subject to the permission of the landowner or tenant of the land, and subject to some general limitations. The wild camping rules in the French Alps are different to the UK. In Scotland, because of the Land Reform Act of 2003 you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land. There are exceptions to this in particularly touristy areas such as Lock Lomond which are subject to local wild camping bylaws. In England and Wales it is generally illegal to wild camp although similarly to France it is possible with the permission the landowner. The main national restrictions in France stipulate that you can’t camp on the coast, in protected areas of national importance, and on the perimetre of classified historical monuments. Wild camping is a bit of a grey area in France but it is generally tolerated with occasional doses of enthusiasm as long as you leave no trace and you do not stay around your campsite after 9am the following morning. We advise that you plan in advance where you want to camp for the evening and speak to the landowner if required. For a full breakdown of the law please click here.
In search of Alpenglow – spot the tent!
A perfect evening
What camping equipment do I need?
Being prepared and having the right gear is super important for wild camping. There is nothing worse than realising that you forgot your sunscreen on a 2 day hike when you know it is going to be 30 degrees celcius the next day at 2500m altitude. We strongly recommend that you use the below checklist and tick everything off as you pack your rucksack. In terms of rucksack size it really depends on how long you are going for and what level of comfort you want. Obviously if you just fancy a single overnight stay with a 1km hike from your car then you will need much less kit than a 5 day high altitude trek where you cover 25km per day. As a general rule we recommend having a minimum of a 50L rucksack if you are going for 2 nights or more.
To begin with it is important that you pack the Ten Essentials:
- Navigation – there are a huge number of excellent GPS navigation systems and Apps out there. For Tasty Ski’s self-guided walking holidays we use the Komoot App which can store offline maps on your phone along with directions so it doesn’t suck up your phone battery or 4G signal. If you use a GPS navigation system we strongly recommend that you bring a portable battery bank so that you have plenty of battery juice for whatever system you use. We also suggest always bringing a proper map and compass in addition. If your GPS system breaks then a map is good to fall back on.
- Headlamp – essential for late evening arrivals at camp and night time toilet breaks. Make sure you also have spare batteries.
- Sun protection – sunglasses, protective headware (baseball caps, sun visors etc) and sunscreen. As we have already noted the sun’s rays are particularly strong in the mountains. If you are doing anything at high altitude or early in the summer season (May – early June) then you might see some snow which reflect the sun’s rays even more.
- First aid kit – include foot care for blisters and insect repellent (particularly if you are pitching up near water).
- Knife – plus a gear repair kit
- Fire – waterproof matches are a great idea along with a lighter. We suggest 2 different options to be on the safe side.
- Shelter – typically a tent but if you like to travel super light weight then options like bivouacs are a good idea. If you are buying a tent remember that the essential trade off is weight of tent versus stability of tent. Purchasing a 1kg light weight tent means that it will fit easily in your rucksack and allow you to cover more distance with a lighter pack but it might not hold up very well near the top of a mountain if it is windy.
- Food and Fuel – make sure you pack beyond your minimum expectation. You should consider the weight of your rucksack. Dehydrated meals that just require water are extremely light but are not always the most delicious! Gas is probably the most popular option for fuel but there are plenty of options out there. Do not make an open fire as it is potentially dangerous and will leave a mark on the ground. Remember to leave no trace!
- Water – again you need to have more than your minimum expectation. It is also a good idea to have both a water purifier and filter which will allow you to drink from mountain rivers and lakes. Generally the water in the French Alps is extremely clean however you never know when a herd of Ibex or Chamois might be hiding around the corner upstream.
- Clothes – make sure you have a full set of waterproofs and clothes that are lightweight and ideally breathable.
Once you have nailed the Ten Essentials for Wild Camping in the French Alps then the items you take next are really about required personal comfort levels against how much weight you want in your pack. We recommend purchasing a ‘buff’ which is a light weight scarf which can double up as a warm hat and even be used as a heat proof towel to handle a hot stove. You don’t strictly need a camping mat but we definitely recommend taking one for that extra bit of comfort and a good’s night sleep. It is even possible to bring super light weight chairs that can be disassembled in less than a minute and be packed up very small. Most tents have a clip at the top in the centre inside which is a good place to hang a small LED lamp which you can use when it gets dark but you still want a fully lit tent.
When is the best time to go wild camping in the French Alps?
Unless you are a hardcore experienced wild camper then we suggest avoiding winter time to miss the snow. Not only will it be extremely cold but wild camping in the winter in the French Alps brings a whole new level of kit requirements – think crampons and ice axes. Generally most of the snow has disappeared from 2000m and below by the beginning of June. However be sure to check in advance about conditions at higher altitude. Along with the normal channels (local tourist office, Bureau des Guides etc), if you are an instagrammer then you can search through hastags (#lacdanterne #tetedebostan etc) and see what the up to date conditions are like in various spots. However don’t treat this as 100% accurate – people might be posting last July’s conditions and putting them on Instagram the following March. Snow should then be expected at 2000m around mid-October. If you want to avoid busy walking routes and trails then try to go outside of school holidays. Weekends are also busier than week days.
So we hope you have got you a little bit excited about exploring the beauty of the French Alps in Spring, Summer and Autumn. Wild camping is a huge amount of fun and a great way to see this stunning part of the world. It is also amazing exercise as you can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time when most of the time it doesn’t feel like exercise and then all of a sudden you have burnt 3000 calories in a day! Just remember to respect the rules of wild camping in the French Alps and make sure you gain any required permission before you pitch your tent. Leave no trace of your stay, remove any of your litter off the mountain, and make sure you are packed up before 9am each day. When you return off the hill come and put your feet up at one of our chalets and enjoy a little bit of luxury. You will have earned it!