About the trail: the quick and dirty facts
Ok. So you heard of the GR20 and wonder if you can do it yourself. Here are a few things you have to take into account.
The trail (conceived by Michel Fabrikant back in 1970) is long (even if you walk half of it) and tough. Don’t underestimate it! You need to be fit, well trained but most of all you must be highly motivated. This is not a fancy fashionable walk that everybody is doing and so would you! You need to be mentally prepared for its hardness. Because the propeller will be in your head more than in your legs! But you also need to be very well informed about what to expect. Why? Because most of the complaints and sarcasm I heard and read about the GR20 come from uninformed or misinformed individuals who have had a very harsh impact with the trail’s reality (google up “My holiday hell” for one). This is the GR20: get wise and adjust to it or just forget it. So please bear with me if I’ll be blunt and straightforward. Only if you know what to expect you’ll be fine on the toughest, long distance best hike in Europe.
On many occasions you will read/hear the word: basic. This diplomatic definition means one thing: you need to be prepared to rough it up. Period.
The path is basic: i.e. there actually is no real path underfoot for 98% of the time (northern section mostly). So much that on many occasions if you don’t see the next waymark or cairn you won’t know where to go. Seriously. In addition to that forget the flat path you’re probably used to; most of the time you’ll walk on rugged and tormented terrain, rocks, stones galore, granite slabs … you get the idea. Get used to it. The majority of hikers walking the GR20 consider this to be the toughest part. Here is what someone on another site wrote about: “The underfoot conditions were so bad that we spent most of the time concentrating on our feet”. The southern section, in this respect is way better.
The huts are basic. If we leave out the minor exceptions of the decent buildings at Haut Asco and Castel de Verghio, the huts are small rudimentary (some of them) bergerie-style buildings with small suffocating dormitories where – if you have chosen to sleep there – in dubious hygienic conditions (clicky) you will be crammed with other “smart” hikers who wanted to go light and will share with them the smell, the noise, the heat and will be invited to participate in the international late hour snoring contest. This …. until the bed bugs wake up and will start to entertain you with their nightly activities. I’m not kidding! They are a recurring issue (no matter the regular disinfestations) and a royal P.I.T.A ; so if you stubbornly still want to sleep in a hut, it’s best if you build yourself a Midge Net Sleeping Bag or … you’ll be trying your luck ….
My advice instead is to bring your own tent (a good free standing tent – because many pitches are very rocky – capable to withstand heavy rains and that does not flood). Being independent is invaluable and it is more in tune with the original spirit of this trail (but also tent pitches can be a pain, many of them being on rocky or slanted terrain). Or you may want to compromise and see if you manage to book in advance the park tents (permanently pitched next to the huts) that the Park has been providing now (barely water resistant, mind you!). But then you’ll be somewhat tied to your date of reservation, something difficult to stick to if you’re nailed in one place because of foul weather. In any case either if you’re sleeping in the huts or in the Park tents be aware you’ll be in “competition” not only with self-organized individuals but, more and more with commercial organizations that will make reservations in large numbers. So it’s best for you to make your own reservations as soon as possible.
The toilets and showers are very basic with two minor exceptions. Lately the Park authorities are beginning to understand that humans and animals are of a different kind. So in 2 – so far (2011) – very limited cases the toilets and showers’ blocks have been rebuilt. You’ll find such basic but decent facilities at Ortu d’U Piobbu and Carrozzu. Besides these 2 exceptions (at the moment I’m not aware of others), toilets and showers facilities are – to be diplomatic – third world type and in many cases you’ll realize that the word basic is a sorry excuse to sheer couldn’t-care-less attitude: hard to accept, but, like I said, take it or leave it. So, at least for the toilets business, be prepared to go out in the woods behind some private bush. Oh, by the way, don’t expect to always find the showers hot, of course! Again it makes exception the Gite d’Etape at Castel de Verghio which has good showers and toilets (but that’s a privately owned facility next to a Hotel and a tarmac road).
The food. The food is fine at almost every refuge. True it is pricey and there is not much choice. But that’s understandable given the fact that food supplies are carried daily on muleback. (So, please don’t complain because you paid 6 euros for a Pietra!). My advice is to eat at the huts as much as possible (although I heard some complain about scanty portions) in order to spare on the weight of your own food supplies (I recommend dried up rations for emergencies). We also preferred to cook our own breakfast, so we carried some essential supplies (stove, teabags, coffee, chocolate spread, jam etc.) and we always bought some bread at every hut. Ultimately it’s your choice about what to do about the food. Most of the huts have also on sale a large selection of food supplies for trekkers (canned stuff, dried up meals etc.). You may also use the stove facilities provided by the park (outside the huts and at the trekkers’ disposal) and cook your own food there. But you have to take into account you’ll have to stand in line waiting for your turn while hunger will be eating you inside out. Good luck with that.
The water. Here we go again. Water is scarce all along the trail. I’m talking about proper water springs. On the contrary you’ll find plenty of surface water (streams, rivers); of course not at the very high altitudes. Obviously the most likely place where you will refill your tank/canteen/whatever is near the refuges. In fact there is always a water source there (with hot weather take no less than 3 liters). But here is the thing: is this water safe? 100% safe? At my own expenses I realized that such water is not always safe (see my first video). This is because, in many cases, water is not sourced from a proper spring but conveniently from a nearby stream (through hoses and pipes). And everybody knows that in the presence of (wild) animals – which is often the case – the water may be easily polluted. Ultimately it’s just a matter of luck! Obviously all problems could be averted with an evident sign stating the origin of such water. But no, you won’t find any of that. So my advice is: always ask where the water is sourced from (this applies to tap water as well) and, in case of doubt, always treat the water to stay on the safe side.
The weather. Nothing much to say here. DO NOT start your day if the weather forecast is against you. Don’t be such a smart@$$! Besides, it doesn’t make any sense!! (I know what you’re thinking: I’m here, my days are limited … that dude is leaving … you know what? I’m going anyway …). Wrong! You have to plan your vacation to allow more days just for this (do NOT walk the GR20 on a tight schedule! You’ll end up making the wrong choices). Thunderstorms can be wild and dangerous on the crests, the rocks become slippery. Low visibility can get you off-course, people have died already because of lightning strikes and some places become deadly pits (like the Spasimata slabs for instance, that get inundated by avalanches of water flooding in from the side of the mountain). Why do you want to make it harder than it is already?
About lightning strikes here is a forum post from corsica.forhikers.com:
We were hiking on the 1st of Sept second stage to Carrozzu, and were surprised by a thunderstorm up in the mountains at about 11:30 AM. I know the wisdom about leaving early, but 11:30AM! We decided to sit it out. At about 12:00 we decided to move spots, as we were walking lightning struck about 50 metres away into a cliff outcrop. I consider myself born again …
Are these the memories you want to bring back home??? The GR20 is merciless! Just wait for another day or, walk only those low-level routes that are deemed to be safe, and you’ll be ok (always ask the gardien at the refuge).
The Cirque de la Solitude: do I really have to worry about it? Yes and no. Yes if you’re thinking of crossing it with bad weather because it may become dangerous (for the reasons above). But if the weather is fine and the terrain is dry, you only have to follow the waymarks and watch your steps. Of course you have to have done some minimal scrambling in your life and not just start here. But if you don’t suffer from vertigo the logical route will magically appear from under your feet and you’re going to be ok. With this I don’t mean to underestimate it. The point is you’ll hear very different opinions about the Cirque. Ultimately the difficulty or the easiness of it very much depend on people’s personal experience and attitude (doh!)
Do I need any special gear? No gear is needed along the GR20. Only make sure you have fairly new (high collar) boots. It surely would be a shame if your faithful but old boots should decide to leave you right in the middle of the Cirque, wouldn’t it? Besides that, take along some minimal equipment you would normally use in your hikes on the mountains. But don’t forget to also take something waterproof and warm. It is summer but the weather on the mountains may always change rapidly. Oh, also walking sticks (with removable rubber ferrules for the granite slabs) can be really helpful!
What if I go during wintertime? Now THAT is a real challenge! Almost the entire route will be covered in snow and so will be waymarks and cairns (a gps unit becomes mandatory). All refuges will be open, unstaffed and probably buried in snow. Ice axe and crampons are a must for the highest areas. You have to carry your own food start to finish as there are no resupply points along the way. The only available water will be probably from thawing the snow or from occasional non-frozen streams. The weather will be highly unstable. But kudos to you if you manage to pull that off!
So when it’s the best period to go? Hard to say. The weather is always unpredictable. Maybe late June-early July might be a good choice (the window of opportunity goes June thru September, and it’s also when the huts are staffed). But, of course I don’t have any crystal ball :) Personally I’ve been blessed by excellent (but very hot) weather in both 2010 and 2011. I’ve been lucky in that way.
North-South or South-North? There are pros and cons for both, and different points of view. Some say that by going South-North the body has the time to gradually adjust to the difficulty of the trail and in this way is more capable of enduring the hardness of the northern section (in addition the sun will always be on your back, which is a plus). Others instead believe that it is best to face the hardness of the northern part immediately when the body is still full of energy (and therefore prefer to go North-South). Both theories have a point and everything is subjective. If you instead are thinking of walking one section only, the direction of travel is not that important. Traditionally hikers walk North-South, so, if you decide to swim against the tide you’ll know what to do.
I don’t have 15 days for this trek and I also want to go to the beach. I heard the GR20 can also be done in 7 days. Is that true? Yes. If you are willing/able to
walk march/run on rugged terrain, ascents and descents at an average of roughly 28 Km/day from dawn to dusk! (Or you’re one of those skyrunners). The Legionnaires of the French Foreign Legion stationed in Corsica usually rush it in 7 days. You may want to tag along!! (Who knows, you might get a medal for that! j/k :)). Seriously, I strongly advice you against it. It’s surely a “muscular” challenge that doesn’t have much sense (unless you wish to prove yourself something). Like someone said: “You quickly reach a point where you start tripping over things that aren’t actually there!” I know a couple of friends who have done it in 7 days. They ended it in an almost dazed condition, sore knees, had lost weight, with only a fuzzy recollection of the places (doh!) and were badly looking forward to finishing it. But if that’s what you’re looking for … yes … it may be done in 7 days. And good luck with that!
Alright, alright. So, having to choose, which one is better? The GR20 north or the GR20 south? The million dollar question! They are both very beautiful. To simplify one might say the northern part is more alpine and rugged with steep ascents and descents, while the southern section is relatively easier with long stretches on the crests and longer stages but also a fairly good number of ascents and descents as well. In my videos you can get a fairly good idea of the places. Take a peek. They are there for this as well.
So what’s this thing with the reservations? A total mess, although it does make sense. Basically it’s an awkward attempt to control the constant increase of hikers that grows every year. Everybody is requested to book at http://www.parc-corse.org/vad/. The system works with those staying in the refuges or in the park tents – since they are forced to book, but it doesn’t work with those camping out with their own tent. Because when you carry your own tent you don’t want to feel compelled by a schedule. As a consequence it’s getting harder (not yet impossible) to find good tent pitches in some locations if you don’t get reasonably early.
What if I decide to camp out in the wild? Officially it’s illegal, but nobody seems to be there to enforce it. So if done with discretion and with the “leave no trace” rule, it does have its fascination.
Do I have to worry about wild animals? Generally speaking, no. Although you’ll see many wild boars in various places they usually mind their own business. However at times we have had reports of foxes’ nightly incursions (Castel de Verghio and Manganu) at the expenses of unlucky hikers who left smelly food in their tent antichamber. Read this thread and also Audrius’ scary report (halfway down the page).
Are a map or a gps unit necessary? With good weather and therefore visibility they are totally useless. The trail is well marked. But if you happen to walk in a persistent thick cloud … well a gps unit might come in handy. On the Internet it’s easy to find gps tracks of this trail. For example on this page, but the tracks are not updated to the latest Usciolu-Matalza variant. *** As for the map a very good topo map can be viewed and also printed from the French GeoPortail (but the system is a little cumbersome). Here is an example. However, the site www.le-gr20.fr has made them all available for download. Finally, as pointed out by hiker Kees Gort in a post below, an excellent opensource vector topomap for Garmin devices (with tracks, waypoints, points of interest and everything) can be downloaded here
Is there cellphone coverage? On the mountains cellphone coverage can be very random and sporadic. However in some conditions it is possible to place phone calls. The rule of thumb is to reach a high position possibly in direct line of sight with the villages below (and their phone towers) and turn the phone on. It is a waste of battery having the phone constantly on for the reasons above. If on the contrary you are deep in a valley, chances are you’ll have no coverage. And since we are talking about cellphones it’s always a good idea to have the Mountain Rescue (PGHM) number handy: +33 4 95 61 13 95. Who knows … one day you might rightfully brag about having saved somebody’s life!!
I’m a dog lover. Can I take my pet with me on the GR20? If you’re a real dog lover you don’t take your dog on this trail. The GR20 terrain is VERY stressing for your beloved animal (especially if you’re going to walk all of it). Paws get easily worn out by granite and I heard a report of a dog whose paws were bleeding from the excessive consumption. Furthermore the Cirque can be a tough challenge for your pet to pass. Finally dogs are not admitted in the huts (although some people don’t seem to care about it).
Can I walk the GR20 alone? Yes you can. Some people prefer to do it on their own. If you’re in the mood for a solitude trek or maybe your friends are couch potatoes, you can perfectly do this trail by yourself.
Ok. Being fit and motivated is key, got it. What kind of training would you recommend? Find rugged terrain around your place (if possible), ascents and descents and walk at least 10 km per day with a 14 kg backpack. Add some easy scrambling. Rinse and repeat :)
Is it too much to ask for a kit list? GR20 British veteran Giles Campbell (who walked the trail in Sept. 2012) has kindly compiled a detailed GR20 kit list that you could use for guidance. Thank you Giles!
Aside from the horrific stories above, is there something nice about this trail? :P Yes. it’s all in my videos. Go watch them …. again ;) and fall in love with this island (now that I put you in the right perspective). And if you like photo galleries, GR20 hiker Tarjei Næss Skrede has an excellent one here.
The last piece of advice I feel I should give you is to buy Paddy Dillon’s guidebook: GR20 CORSICA – The high level route – Cicerone Press. It is a useful reading for anybody seriously contemplating to walk this trail (although, quite frankly, it’s a given fact that the reading of a guidebook is not that necessary to do the GR20). For a start you may want to check out the site: http://corsica.forhikers.com/gr20 …… Oh, almost forgot … steer clear of those toxic processionary caterpillars and their nests who have lately become a plague!!
If you are a regular hiker/backpacker: please don’t turn it into a competition! The reward is in the walk itself, not on who gets to the next gite d’étape first! So take your time and enjoy this unique trek!!! If you are a skyrunner ….. whatever …..
***WARNING*** Starting from the late summer 2011 the too long stage Usciolu-Asinau has been split into 2 sections. The new official stop will be the Refuge Matalza (or the Bergeries A Basetta or the Bergeries d’I Croci). The path has been waymarked to reflect this change but the old route has been preserved (actually restored in July 2012) giving hikers the option to choose whether to split the stage in two or not . Because of this, when buying your guidebook you want to make sure you have the latest print.
If you’ve recently walked the GR20 I’d like to hear your thoughts about it … especially if you had any issues of some sort or you simply have some news or changes regarding the trail that could be useful for the readers. (Please do NOT write, if you mostly intend to brag about how good you were in doing in 6 days!!! We’re not interested.) Thank you