Hiking the E2 trail, a.k.a. the GR5, through the Alps in France:

Blaizes (Waymarks); Gear Selection

By David May

Copyright 2004 - 2013, All rights Reserved
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Table of Contents Links:

General Information:

1. Why the GR5 and GR52?

Difficulty

Who should use this site?

Other Long Distance Alpine Hikes

About the author

2. The Entire GR5, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean (three months) (only summarily described here with a few references).

The Alpine Crossing, from Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) to either Nice or Menton on the Mediterranean. Nice is a 4 weeks walk from Lake Geneva, Menton, almost 5 weeks. I recommend the walk to Menton over the GR 52 variant, if you can possibly find the time.

Types of trekkers - "purists" and "easygoers".

Costs and Budget

3. When to Go and When to Walk

Accommodation: Types and Reservations

Planning your Route

Meeting People

4. Trail Identification and Direction Marks

Gear

5. Books, Maps, Internet sites, GPS

6. Conditioning, hiking speed, rest days

7. Shopping and Communications

8. Top sights attractions:
Lake Geneva Steamer*;
Dent d'Oche**;
Samoens*;
Chamonix area*** (a very slight detour; consider allowing three or more sunny days);
Briançon**;
Sospel*and Aspremont* ;
Nice** and Menton**.

9. GR5 access points:

Author's Route Recommendations and Tips for the demanding hiker:

10. Starting Points on the South Shore of Lake Geneva: The official St. Gingolph or Thonon-les-Bains, vis-a-vis my preferred starting point of Evian-les-Bains. Advantages and disadvantages. Getting there. Detouring to visit the Dent d'Oche**.

11. Accommodations from La Chapelle-d'Abondance to Chamonix (or Les Houches).

12. Accommodations and route, Chamonix to Briançon.

13. Accommodations and route, Briançon to Larche: My difficult but thrilling back way out of Briançon.

14. From Larche to the Vésubie Valley.

Recommended for the intrepid: Partially off-trail variation in the northern Mercantour Park to beautifully austere and isolated lakes.

Isola 2000 short-cut to the lower GR5 or GR52, possibly saving a day or more and much more interesting terrain than the official GR5 route

15. From the Vésubie Valley to the Mediterranean:

Comparison of the GR5 to Nice vis-a-vis the GR52 to Menton: Two possible endings for your walk.

The GR5.

How to handle the 2,000 meter (6,600 foot) descent from the Valley des Merveilles to Sospel on the GR52.

Don't miss the stupendous GR52 final day from Sospel to the Mediterranean at Menton.

Trail marking (blaizes or waymarks)

The GR trails (grande randonées, that is, long distance trails) throughout the Alps all use the same system of trail marking ("waymarking" in British English). A GR is marked with a white rectangle sitting above or upon a red rectangle.(Local, non-GR trails use other color combinations, or a mark of one color.) If two GRs (Grand Randonnées) cross or branch, the number of the GR will be written on each trail.

You will find the waymarks on trees, on stones, on signs, on walls—wherever there is any question as to the trail, and often just as reassurance that you are on it. I have found it difficult to get off the proper GR trail, but it can happen. If you do, backtrack to the first visible trail mark, or use a map to regain the correct route. Also, there are a a few spots here and there in the Alps where you might want the reassurance of a waymark, and there is not one. So a map or guide book —while not an absolute necessity—can be very helpful.

Upcoming turns of a GR are indicated by four perched rectangles, from top to bottom white, red, white, red. At the turn it self, an arrow will indicate the direction of the turn, and usually, should you miss the turn, the incorrect trail will initially be marked by a red "x" .

For those who are following the GR5 from Holland, in Luxembourg and in Alsace there are separate marking systems that predate the GR5. Obtain local maps or guides: In the Vosges mountains of Alsace the maps published by the Club Vosgien are best.

Obviously, where the GR trail markings diverge from the trace on your map or Topoguide, the markings take precedence. This means the GR has been rerouted. However, during the Alpine crossing, it is quite unlikely that the GR routing will have changed very much.

Gear and clolthing for Hut to Hut hiking:

Boots and socks

I have until now always recommend the use of waterproof membrane-lined light weight, somewhat stiff-soled boots and not airy low-cut, relatively fkexubke hiking shoes or running shoes. The main reason has been the possibility of cold weather and heavy rain; but also the need to cross (very rarely) wet, muddy, snowy or rock-filled terrain, and, if you are going to carry a heavy pack, the wear and tear on your feet if you use a flexible soled running-type shoe. For me, the problem with membrane lined boots has always been the heat and perspiration build up in hot weather that can quickly cause blisters. (If you don't experience sweaty feet, this would not be a problem.) Thus, personally, I felt impelled to change my hiking socks once or twice during the day, but often my decision to change them came too late and I developed a blister.

During my 2009 trip into the very rocky southern Alps with an under 20 pound pack, I used very light weight, low-cut airy, flexible hiking shoes that had unbelievable slip-resistance. It did not rain, and because my feet were cool and airy, they did not become damp from perspiration , and I did not develop a blister. I now believe that low cut trail shoes (providing the sole of the shoe is sufficiently broad) provide only slightly less stability and support than over the ankle boots . (The very heavy mountaineering boots that practically nobody wears for regular trail hiking would provide more ankle stability, of course).

Today, with today's equipment, there is no reason to be carrying a heavy pack on the GR5, and so the stiffness of heavier boots is not an issue -- unless, of course, one is going to be fitting crampons early in the season.. Many ultra-lite web sites advocate for very light shoes that will dry quickly. On the other hand, the northern Alps can be quite cold and, occasionally, continuously rainy. If it is cold, your feet are less likely to sweat. Almost all European hikers will wear over the ankle boots, and there are in recent years some very light models available. For a GR5 walk that crosses both the northern and southern Alps, One Alternative would be tocarry both types of footwear, and touse the one that best fits the conditions of the day. For a further airing of the issues, see the following site and its comments: http://www.cleverhiker.com/blog/ditch-boots.

Whatever footwear you choose, do strongly consider replacing the inner soles with a purchased pair that have good arch support and good impact absorption. (If your inner soles are old or much used, the springiness has probably gone out of them, and they should be replaced.) This impact absorption. is very important to help protect your knees on the long steep descents that you will be making, such as the descent to the Chamonix valley, or the descent from the Valley of Marvels to Sospel on the GR52.

Sun Protection

If you have a fair skin that doesn't tan well , seriously consider wearing very light long sleeve shirts and pants, rather than short sleeve shirt and shorts. This is particularly true in the southern Alps, where the humidity is reduced, and the sun intense. The alternative is gobs of a good effective suncream. Keep in mind that a couple of tubes of sunscreen can weigh one-half pound.

To protect your face from the sun, wear a hat! Also make sure that your sunglasses are dark ones. Eyestrain from too much glare can easily give you a headache.

Trekking Poles

I recommend you carry these. Trekking poles serve several purposes: 1) Stability on the very few parts of the trail that cross scree or (perhaps) snow; 2) cushioning the stress on your knees on a steep descent; and 3) conserving energy during climbs. I have read that energy expended hiking a given distance is significantly reduced when poles are used, , and is true for me personally.. Some of the greatest Alpinists of the world have used them.

Packing for the Rain:

I have never found a pack rain cover that was effective in heavy rains -- and most people in hiking shops agreee. Many people line their pack with a heavy garbage bag, but care must be taken not to damage it. In my view, the best bet to keep one's things dry is freezer-weight zipper bags (the type with a plastic slider—test them out, the slider has often come off some cheaper brands (Zip- Loc® for one. Hefty® has been better). These bags also help keep you organized. They are available in American supermarkets in quart, gallon, and 2.5 gallon sizes, but are not easily found in Europe.

What kind of backpack ?

Personally, I believe at this 2009 (&2010) writing that the traditional 6 or 7 pounnd backpack, which I used for many years, is obsolete. It carried very well for loads up to 40 or 50 pounds, but one's load today is a fraction of that.

Depending upon the weight you will carry you could purchase a 3 pound (1.5 kilo) backpack with a good wastebelt that carries nicely up to 30 pounds (such as the larger ultralight pack sold by REI (a USA cooperative). Or you could buy simple, voluminous shoulder-carried backpack weighing about 1 to 1.5 pounds (0.5 to .7 kilo) and able to carry comfortably about 15 pounds.

In my experience, a pack without a carrying waistbelt allows you much more freedom and speed, and less effort, so the "ultra-lite" approach gains doubly in making for an enjoyable outing, providing that your load is under15 pounds.

The following table provides information that may help you calculate your pack weight on the trail.

The table is based upon the assumption that you will not be carrying a tent or a sleeping bag; although it is possible to bivouack your way across the Alps (but not in the Vanoise Park!). If you are, add a minimum of 5 pounds. It also assumes that you will be staying in refuges, gites, and hotels (refer to the chapter on Accommodations). It assumes that you will not be dressing up for fancy restaurants or hiking in other than summer. If any of the the contrary is true, add the necessary weight in the second column of the listing.

Item

Weight in Pounds

Weight in Pounds

Regquired Items
shoulder pack only
belt pack
Pack Given the load you will be carrying a heavy pack is unnecessary.
1.5
3.0

Water You will probably need to carry at least 1.5 liters (quarts) of water plus containers. (Some Europeans I've met have the ability to get by on one liter, but most of us can't. Providing I pre-hydrate, I have found that without refill points, for 7 hours of hiking I need to carry 2.0 liters of water (such as in the Mercantour Park of the southern Alps).

I use 1/2 liter bottled water bottles as containers, and have never had them leak A purification system is probably superfluous unless you plan to bivouack, as in the Northern Alps there are many sources of drinkable water, and in the far Southern Alps, there may be no sources of water at all along the trail.

up to 4.4
up to 4.4
Food You will want a one or two days supply on average of food for lunch and snacks. You can restock in most villages or buy some items in refuges and gites. See the optional items below if you are planning to cook
1.0
1.0
Outerwear Jackets of conventional fleece and ultralight rain jacket including Gortex®, would weigh together 2 pounds,Any such gear will not keep you dry if you are sweatily hiking uphill, but it will keep you warm.I would avoid down filled ultralight jackets in the rainy northern Alps, in favor of fleece, which will not become unusable if drenched but go with lighter down in the southern Alps,. For the lightest pack use socks as gloves if necessary.
1.4
1.4

Clothing Be sure to bring a hat, ideally with a wide brim, and sun glasses (very dark ones if you are passing by glaciers). You will want to carry: underwear, long underwear, a pair of gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, an extra tee shirt (still the most comfortable) or synthetic short-sleeved shirt, and extra socks. If you don't use convertible pants, you will need an extra pair, either long pants or shorts. You may want to bring an extra pair of pants anyway, so you can launder the first pair, or just a swimsuit.

Extra trail items you might want to bring include fleece overpants, rain pants, gloves, a ski hat, a casual long-sleeved shirt, a handkerchief, a belt, an extra change of all clothing.

2.5
5.0
Kits Toilet articles, towel,toilet tissues, regular tissues, a tiny flashlight, a compass, matches, whistle,repair items, first aid items
1.5

2.0

Sheet and Pillowcase: Silk (cotton weighs more)
0.6
0.6
Printed Matter Topo Guides, Guide Books, Maps (consider dispensing with unneeded sections) , pen (for extra books and maps see optional items)
1.0
1.0
Miscellaneous
0.7
1.0
Subtotal of Required Items
up to 15.6
up to 19.4
Optional Items - weights are approximate
Extra Food and possibly cooking items if you are cooking your own meals
1.0 - 5.0
Umbrella Small, collapsible, for hiking in drizzle or sun shield
0.4
Dress Clothes for use in the evening in fancy restaurants.
1.0
Evening shoes Running shoes or sandals and cotton socks, "Crocks", or dress shoes
0.8 - 1.4
Camera and film, or digital camera and charger
0.4 - 3.0
Binoculars
0.5 - 1.0
Personal Contact lens solution? Cosmetics?
0.5 - 1.0
Early Season Gear Ice Ax? Crampons? Gaiters?
1.0 - 4.0
Extra Guide Books and Maps
2.0
Extra Books Reading book? French phrase book?
0,7 - 1.5
Sleeping bag, matress, bivy sac   2.0 - 4.0
     
Subtotal of Optional Items
0.0 - 24..3
TOTAL - Up to:
15.6
39.9

 

What to carry? The decision is yours!

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