Since pack weight is all-important, you will want to carry only the books and maps you will actually use on the trail. Seriously consider cutting off unnecessary portions of maps, and removing unnecessary pages from books.
I have met young hikers who walked the entire Alpine Traverse without guides or maps, so it is possible! They said they had only made a few wrong turns. Was it a surprise that they had run out of water far from any water source? No matter, they would make it to the next source in a couple of hours. As for me, I enjoy reading maps and having a margin of safety.
Guide Books: The French Topo Guides and Paddy Dillon’s Guidebook.
It is worth noting that none of the Guide books cover anything but the official routes, and none offer much commentary on the sights on or nearby the trail. This Internet Site tries to fill that void. But this Internet Site does not give details on timings, trail routings or lodging. For that you will need a guide book.
The best book series for use on the trail are the four French Topo Guides that cover the Alpine Crossing of the GR5 – GR52. These cost about 15 Euros each (2011). You should consider using these even if you don’t speak any French, because they have good maps, and because they indicate the time for an average hiker between obvious places on the maps — usually every hour or two. If you don’t know a few French geographic terms, such as “col” (pass), ideally you should spend a couple of hours before you leave, or on the trail, studying the terms.
I have prepared a wordlist of the most common words used in navigating the GR5, which you will find here.
Perhaps take a small dictionary with you. Each Topo Guide weighs about 5 ounces. They are (as of August 2006), from north to south:
FFRP#504, “Du Léman au Mont-Blanc GR5 ”
FFRP#530, “Parc de la Vanoise GR5 GR55”
FFRP#531, “Grand Traversée des Alpes (de Modane à Larche) GR5 GR6”
FFRP#507 Tinée-Vésubie – Vallée Des Merveilles, GR 5 GR52
The FFRP Topo Guides contain excerpts from excellent IGN 1:50,000 maps that are quite sufficient to guide you (if you stick relatively close to the official GR5 – GR52 routing). (In this Site, if other maps are needed for one of my special routings, I will name them.).
The Topo Guides give an itinerary of successive landmarks, with hiking times between them, as calculated for an “average hiker”. They are supposed to be figured at 300 meters (1000 feet) per hour up, about 400 to 500 meters (1,400 to 1,650 feet) per hour going down, and about 4 km (2.4 miles) per hour on the flat. However, is some instances, a faster rate of assent or descent has obviously been used. You should review the elevation changes and double check the times when planning your trip. Remember also, that the times given in the guides do not allow for rest stops or meals.
The Topo-Guides also provide contact information for gîtes and refuges along the GR5 and GR52; and comment on the history, geology, flora, and fauna of the region traversed.
The Topoguides are theoretically available in the USA from Omni Resources http://www.omnimap.com for $24.95 each (2011). However, I would order directly from France or another source. Every item I have recently tried to order from Omni Resourses was out of stock, and I have heard of at least one other report of the same situation.
The Topoguides are available in France (at for example Au Vieux Campeur’s map store in Paris in the 5th Arrondissement, not far from Notre Dame (see ordering link under maps); or directly from the FFRP web site; or for the local region in some towns along the trail.) From time to time the numbers and names of these volumes change; you can check on the FFRP’s web site:http://www.ffrandonnee.fr/topos/topoGuidesCatalResult.aspx?t=gr&v=5) Shipping Expenses from the FFRP boutique to the US or UK are reasonable.
If you are walking the entire GR5 starting on the North Sea, other Topo-Guides for northeastern France are available: FFRP#514 “Les GR De Lorraine”, FFRP#502 “Crete Des Vosges”, FFRP#512 “La Grand Traversée du Jura”. Iam unfamiliar with the materials available for Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The book: “The GR5 Trail —The French Alps: Geneva to the Mediterranean” by Paddy Dillon
The best (and perhaps only) English alternative to the Topo Guides is the book by Paddy Dillon, “Walking the French Alps: GR5”. It is available on-line from Amazon-associated suppliers in the USA, France and Britain, and directly from Cicerone Press in the UK (though at a much higher price). The second edition was published in February 2013. It contains everything you need to know to hike the official GR5 and its official variants across the Alps.The advantages of this volume, compared to the French topoguides, other than its being in English, are two: 1) compactness: Four Topo Guides have been condensed into one volume that weighs only 13.5 ounces (385 grams); 2) a more detailed route description at certain difficult passages.
The main disadvantages of “The GR5 Trail”, in comparison to the Topoguides, are 1) that it contains no topographical maps, though the included maps give one an idea of the route; 2) that it contains less information of the local flora, fauna, and geology; and 3) that the hiking times are too rapid for steep assents, for less than completely fit hikers.
To expand on the third point above, Paddy Dillon is a professional hiker and author, as are many of his friends. His hiking times between landmarks— updated in the second edition —are without a doubt what it takes him to do the trail, as well as other habitual walkers in very good condition. But, in my experience, most hikers on the GR5 cannot climb as rapidly as he does.. Thus the hiking times are too short on days with steep assents for the average walker, and therefore the amount of time that an average walker needs to allot for a days walk is longer. On the other hand, some hikers will be able to walk on the flat at a faster pace that Mr. Dillon does.
For example on Day 1, Mr. Dillon assumes that you will climb at an average of 400 meters per hour (1,300 feet per hour) for 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), so that, including some flatter portions, your total elapsed hiking time will be 4 hours 15 minutes to the Col de Bise. Yes this would be doable if you are already in terrific shape, but not for an average hiker out on his first day. (And yes, his descent, if you are hiking south to north is the same 4 hours and 15 minutes, while young hikers with good knees will go much faster.)
So if you use this book, be sure and make allowances for your first few days of hiking!
Books available in other languages are beyond the scope of this Site.
The best maps for the GR5 and GR52 are the IGN 1:25,000 maps. If you are going to use the FFRP Topo-Guides, you will only need maps if you are deviating well away from the main GR5 – GR52 trails.These maps weigh between 1.5 and 3.7 ounces.
Purchasing the requisite IGN maps, at either 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 will set you back a pretty penny: about 0 to 11 Euros each in France or about $20 (2011) if you buy in the USA on line, and you will need 17 or 20 of either type for an Alpine crossing. The Topo Guides, which contain the essential map information, cost only 13-14 Euros each, and you will only need four. So you might only want to buy Topo Guides even if you are going to use the Collins book as your guidebook.
The following IGN maps are needed for the Alpine Crossing. The designations shown are for the 1:25,000 series; for the 1:50,000 series, drop the final two letters:
3630ET Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (if visiting Chamonix)
3532OT Massif du Beaufortin
3532ET Les Arcs/La Plagne
3534OT Les Trois Vallées
3535OT Nevache/Mont Thabor
3637OT Mont Viso
3538ET Aiguille de Chambeyron
3639OT Haut Tinée 1
3640 OT Haut Cians (if taking GR5)
3640ET Haut Tinée 2 (if taking the Balcons de Mercantour route)
3641ET Moyen Tinée (if taking the GR5)
3741OT Valee de la Vesubie (GR5 or GR52)
3741ET Valee de la Bevera et des Paillons (GR5 or GR52)
3742OT Nice/Menton (GR5 or GR52)
For the maps listed in this section, the best on-line source USA may be http://www.omnimap.com(although service recently has been poor for me and I don’t plan to use them again). You can also use http://amazon.fr and they will ship them immediately for about $25 each.
Maps are widely available in France, in stores along your hiking route. In Paris, a complete selection of the 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 maps are available in Paris at the map store of “Au Vieux Campeur”, located in the Fifth Arrondissement about 8 blocks from Notre Dame. Use this page to order these maps on line. These maps are also available from IGN, in France, their publisher (here). The site is difficult to use, and involves searching geographically for each map. Or order from http://amazon.fr
(There is now a series of 1:60,000 maps that you might want to consider, . They are published by Libris (now Didier Richardbased upon IGN maps, and entitled “Carte randonnnée et patrimoine”. Numbers said to be available are: 01 – Léman; 02 – Mont Blanc; 04 – Vanoise; 06 – Queyras; 07 – Mercantour. Map 05 Ecrins fills in a tiny portion missing between 04 and 06. The Mercantour map stops north of the Mediterranean, so you would need to purchase the last two IGN maps as well.
Advice: Given the high cost of maps it seems that it may be best to buy the FFRP topoguides even if you don’t speak a word of French, and to buy individual maps only where you are going to deviate from the official GR 5 and its variants — such as for taking my recommended routes from Briançon or through the Mercantour, and for several days of tourisim in the Chamonix valley. . I enjoy reading maps, so if it were me, I would also buy maps for the Vanoise Park (and Chamonix), just to study the fascinating landscape of this region. I would also probably buy some maps with a larger scale, say 1:100,000 or 1:200,000 to have an idea where the GR5 route fits into the countryside.
It is possible to view all the features in the IGN maps online at http://www.geoportail.gov.fr. Doing so will allow you to study possible route choices before your trip, and study where you have been afterwards. To do so, on the site, click on the box for IGN maps in the upper lefthand corner. If the maps are obscured, adjust the slider for “Photographies ariennes ” to the left. Then ttype in the name of the town of your starting point into the box for “ville”. Move the slider on the screen up to get a closer view, or down, to zoom out. You can also read the latitude and longitude of different points with precision, if you want to set up your own list of waypoints. You can print out maps by clicking the print icon and then selecting “IGN Cartes”. Some people may be tempted to take screen shots, but this probably violates the terms of service of the site. Although printing or using screenshots will be cheaper than buying map, the weight of the individual sheets of printout and the inconvenience probably justify paying for a guidebook and/or the preexisting IGN maps.
Before you depart on your walk, you may wish read personal accounts of trips. One book I suggest was published in 1986, and is available used on the Amazon site and elsewhere: “Walking Europe from Top to Bottom” by Susanna Margolis and Ginger Harmon.
Web travelogues, GPS waypoints
Other accounts may be found by searching the Web. Waypoints are completely unnecessary if you are using maps, or if you are carefult in following signs. However some individuals prefer to navigate by using a GPS.
This site in Dutch has a list of GPS waypoints from Hoek van Holland to Nice, that is for the entire GR5: Have they covered every important junction? That is for you to research if you wish to.
I don’t know of a site that provides waypoints for the Gr52 or GR 56, but you may create your own, as explained in “Online Maps” just above.