Long ago, walkers and climbers went their separate ways and the first marked trails appeared. Today, hikers have access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hiking trails and a few rules to observe. A quiet stroll through silent woods is a wonderfully joyous experience. The rhythmic motion of walking soothes the body and calms the mind, freeing it from everyday concerns. And as you walk, you begin to focus on what matters, your imagination runs wild and you enjoy the combined effects of exercise and a sense of well-being.

1. What is Hiking?

Hiking equipment

Walkers versus climbers Hiking emerged as a result of a division in the late 19th century. This split pitted walkers, called "excursionists" against climbers, called "mountaineers.". The excursionists saw walking as an activity for the people with the sole aim of being able to enjoy the beauty of nature while keeping fit. Mountaineers, on the other hand, wanted to climb the most challenging peaks which they believed were "reserved" exclusively for the upper classes.  

The first marked trails
These excursionists and fresh-air enthusiasts joined together to form organisations such as "Les Jarrets d'Acier" and the "Club Vosgien," championing the notion of hiking for all, citing improved public health and social and moral benefits. The first paths were marked out with the aim of organizing group walking activities.  

The father of hiking trails In 1934, Jean Loiseau, an architect-archivist from the Banque de France in Paris, set up the "Compagnons Voyageurs" (a travel, camping and hiking organization) and established the first paths across the country. In 1947, the GR or long-distance hiking trails were created and colour coded with red and white markings. But the word "hiking" didn't appear until 1946.  

Different types of hiking Routes marked in yellow, with the words "Promenade et Randonnée" PR® (Walks and Hikes) can be covered in a day; they are less demanding and require little in the way of equipment. This type of walk is suitable for a wide range of people and is a great way of exploring local heritage. Footpaths marked in red and white, bearing the words "Grande Randonnée" GR® (Long-distance trail) take several days, and sometimes several weeks, to walk. These particular trails criss-cross entire regions, traversing several departments. To undertake this type of hike, you need to be in good physical condition and equipped with the necessary supplies to be self-sufficient, away from the hustle bustle of normal, everyday life.  

The walking craze Today, hiking is one of France's most popular activities. There are approximately 16 million walkers in France, 5.5 million of whom go hiking on a regular basis. Membership of the French Hiking Federation exceeded 240,000 in 2017 and since 2011 its numbers have increased by 3% every year. There are 180,000 km of marked trails, 3,500 clubs and 20,000 volunteers including 7,000 maintenance volunteers. There is no shortage of facilities or resources.

2. The Rules of Hiking    

Hiking jacket

Keep an eye on the weather, study your route, avoid hiking alone and check out the level of your fellow hikers before setting off to enjoy the delights of the countryside.

Once you hit the trails, there are a few general rules that you will need to observe:

  • Come on, be a sport!    
  • Think about other hikers, don't disturb the tranquillity of the area, accept that your voice doesn't always complement the sounds of nature      
  • Learn to recognize and protect the local plant and wildlife
  • Which doesn't mean you have to caress all the flowers you come across or proclaim your undying love to each tree      
  • Don't drop anything or leave any rubbish; and the good news is you can take your excrement with you too!      
  • Find out about the rules in national parks and nature reserves.

3. Hiking: What are the Benefits?  

Hiking pants

Clear thinking, observant and attentive to detail, a lack of ego (abandoned in the city!) and a sense of almost barefoot freedom... they may often have achy, weary legs, but hikers have many positive qualities. And that's not surprising. Outdoor life is an opportunity for mental and physical rejuvenation. Using your feet is good for your head. Stress takes a back seat and the brain starts working at full capacity, apparently unlocking creativity.

The body isn't forgotten either: muscles become stronger, bones becomes sturdier while the immune system is rejuvenated. Worth noting: there are some great routes if you're looking for a challenge.

4. Is Hiking for You?

Hiking gear

In the early 20th century, hiking became an extremely popular activity with widespread appeal. Since then, the philosophy has remained the same. Anyone can do it, everyone can afford it.

Whether it's a short, recreational walk or a long-distance mountain trek, hikers take to the trails to gently explore the countryside or challenge themselves on steeper, more demanding paths. It's all a matter of personal preference.  

5. Equipment Needed for Hiking   

Hiking equipment

For a 1 day hike a 20-30 Litre backpack will suffice. You can use it to store food, a drinking bottle (or water bladder), knife, ID, mobile phone, torch, first aid kit and survival blanket so you're prepared for the unexpected. Ah yes, an adventure is just that.

Make sure you take hiking shoes that you've tried out and broken in. Wear comfortable socks and lightweight trousers, with optional zip-off legs  very useful when the weather changes.

Cover up with a breathable T-shirt, insulating fleece and jacket that offers protection from the wind and rain.

One last thing: don't forget your hiking map or GPS. This will help prevent the acute psychological distress you experience when you discover you're lost; not to mention the torrent of tears and cold fury directed at others in the party, who are inevitably to blame, before you finally announce "That's it, we're done for" although you're just a short distance from a village that you've somehow failed to spot. It will stop you getting lost. Please send us your comments and tell us about your hiking experiences via the comments section!

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