Backpacking The Pyrenees Mountains
This Cathar Trail is an ancient pathway located in France, beginning at the Mediterranean Coast and traversing its way alongside the Pyrenees Mountains range.
The route stretches 175km from the town of Port-la-Nouvelle, within the department of Pyrénées-Orientales, and it finishes at Foix, in Ariège.
In January 2020, I had the idea to walk this path.
I was joined by Pierre Bigot and we both walked this path together back in February 2020, and we completed the journey within 2-3 weeks.
I created a short documentary about our journey, because I want to share my experience and what I had learned.
What you are about to read is from when Pierre and myself (Josef von Nuding) decided to sit down for an interview, and have an open discussion reflecting on our journey together.
This story aims to share our honest experience on what to expect, what we brought with us, and a final conclusion on what we learned about ourselves.
Please keep an open mind for a few phrases lost in translation because we are in France, and you will also find plenty of extracts referring back to our original documentary.
C'est parti! (Let us begin!)
On the first day, we walked 30km to the township of Foix and stayed with close friends of ours in Foix (Sarah le Guen and her partner William).
Several times we found ourselves deviating off the official path, either taking shortcuts through the natural environment or walking via local footpaths not marked on the map. We also tried to avoid industrial towns and simply go to places that we wanted to visit.
The English name for the Cathar trail is simply “the Cathar trail” but it can be called by two other names, in french its “le Sentier Cathar” or its hiking (randonnée in french) code name is the “GR 367”
The trail's total length is 175km, but we hiked 215km, adding 40km to the trip.
We did the Cathar Trail in two stages because the first part was too cold and windy in February, and we had a week of bad weather predicted so we decided to wait for the storms to pass.
Another reason for backpacking in two stages is that Pierre’s feet needed to recover from the first week of hiking because his old shoes were giving him blisters and tendonitis pains on his Achilles heel. He used a different pair of trainers drastically improving his experience.
One week later we were dropped off where we left off in the town of Quillian.
We were better prepared on what to pack in our bags, surprisingly we did the trip even faster than I was expecting walking a daily average of 25km a day.
Our Challenges Are Only Games
“ You can make life a little bit more interesting when you've got some basic survival that you have to overcome. For example, we're gonna run out of food and we need food or water and personally, I really like that aspect of basic survival. In a way, it’s a game. “
“ For the first week of our trip, the weather was a bit difficult, we tried to find shelter away from strong winds and heavy rain. It was fun but challenging at the same time but for basic survival as a game that’s what makes it so much more interesting, in a way its a puzzle and how do you get yourself out of this situation, oh okay what tools do I have where do I need to go? ”
“ The simplicity for me is that we have a goal. Going from point A to point B and well we picked to start from our home village and we wanted to go to the coast. “
“ We also had a lot of fun while we were hiking and I really enjoyed the aspect of just being silly, joyful and just seeing what life throws at us really. “
We carried with us a tent, a sleeping bag, two pairs of clothes, food and water. The basic essentials are all you need in one bag, I often ask myself do I really need a car, bike, house, laptop and TV etc…
I can fit all that I require to be happy in one bag.
For food and water, we went to large supermarkets (Carrefour or LIDL) for the weeks worth of supplies and for smaller items we visited local convenience shops, known in French as, Epicerie, (very important to note that the time when places are open or closed can be very different compared to in America or if you’re from the UK, many places close for lunch and are not open 7 days a week). Water is easy to find in the winter and spring season, and many small villages we passed by have local drinking water.
Our motivation or goals were simple, we just wanted to walk and heading for the coast and there are only so many kilometres you can cover in a day before you need to take a rest, so when you sleep, wake up the next morning, pack up early, head out and the cycle continues till you get to your goal.
Who Are We?
I'm Josef the writer of this article, I’m 21 years old and originally from Great Britain.
“We humans are used to society as a comfy life but we forgot that we can just go and be simple with nature, the river, the mountains, just to eat simple food and I think it's very healthy for the brain.”
|Josef von Nuding|
Landscapes, Weather and Climate
Personally, I don't want to walk on a busy highway all the time. What's the fun in that?
With all the noise you experience on a road, the contrast is when you go on a trail, it's so quiet, beautiful and this special Cathar trail has plenty of history to it on the plus side
We had hundreds of fantastic views with castles on top of the mountains, we could see this sea off in the far distance, and even when heading for the coastline we had the Pyrenees Mountains not far away in the distance.
I made sure that we had enough sunshine to do the trip so we weren't walking in the rain all the time because that definitely would have changed the dynamic of what we carried with us.
As we walked from the department of Ariege to the Eastern Pyrenees (Pyrénées Orientales in french), it's a completely different landscape.
By car, it's only a couple hours drive and you are in a completely different climate.
For example, in the departments of Aude and Pyrénées Orientales, they’re both dry, rocky, arid and Mediterranean in terms of climate, with plenty of vibrant evergreen pine forests and many rows vineyards nearby the sea.
In the Ariege it's a different story especially in spring and summer when it rains, a lot more often.
Ariege is far more humid creating gorgeous green lush temperate rainforests.
The mountain's north-facing sides get less sunshine. Which in turn creates a barrier against clouds, preventing them from reaching the Spanish southern Pyrenees mountains.
When it comes to the temperature it can vary quite widely, depending on the season you would want to visit.
We did our journey in the winter season between February and March, where the temperature at night can drop below 0 degrees Celsius (freezing point), especially in the high mountains. But during the day if you have plenty of sunshine and you can easily get 25 degrees Celsius.
Isolation From Society
We also didn't find anyone on the trail because of the time of year we went.
It was beautiful to be completely isolated from people and the news, we didn't have great network coverage on our phones which drastically reduced our time on the internet.
“ I don't know why I had this sort of tendon issue and it was pretty hard to do this hike so I tried to do it any way but it was definitely a painful challenge. I think we made good progress anyway even with that but it was a strong experience for me. “
“ We were doing 25km each day on average and with a heavy backpack it's a challenge but definitely a worthwhile experience, I would say everyone can do it but you have to be determined to do it from the beginning to the end and keep that in mind. ”
“ Another aspect that is maybe tough and would require a bit more improvement in was the equipment we used because especially the weight of the bag is something very important if you want to do it in a specific time. “
“ You have a lighter backpack it's easier for example compared to a heavy bag ”
The Preparation and Navigation
From Pierre's perspective here what he had to say about planning.“ I didn't prepare anything and I was free. In this time period, it was a good time to hike, my backpack was about 9-10 kg. “
“ Josef prepared more of the plan, trails, road and roots we were gonna take. I simply just packed everything into my bag and decided to go with this guy! “
When it comes to the navigation for our trip I used mapping services such as Google My Maps, Ride with GPS, Open Street Maps and OsmAnd Navigation on my smartphone.
I created the route on the computer then downloaded special files onto my phone (KML and GPX files) and we used my phone completely for GPS navigation which was very accurate for following the trails we desired and the local trails are fairly well marked in yellow stripes in France and GR trails (Grand Randonnée) are marked in Red and White stripes.
I would say there was only an instance of around 10 times that we lost our way.
Backpacking Gear List
We packed only the essential to keep our bags fairly lightweight.
I have full reviews about the gear we used on this website list by brand or visit the One Good Road YouTube channel for full individual reviews.
The cost of all the gear we packed was around $500 or €450 and I packed in mind for the spring season temperatures.
The total weight of our bags without food and water was 8kg or 17.5lbs.
Food and water added 2-3kg to our packs for a total weight of 10-11kg or 22-25lbs.
My trusty 4-year-old one-man tent from R.E.I has served me well over the years I can't recommend it enough, it's lightweight and very spacious we even used it for as a two-person tent, which I will admit was pushing the limits of the tent but it's very spacious for one person.
The sleeping bag is also from the sportswear company R.E.I which was just warm enough for -1 degrees Celsius but it's definitely better with an air mattress and sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.
I slept on a lightweight foam yoga mat which I do not recommend sleeping on, I highly recommend buying an air mattress I got one after this trip from Decathlon called the Forclaz Trek 700 which I have full video reviews of, over on YouTube
For clothes, I had one set of clothes for the night and another set for the day.
My hiking boots we're an old second-hand pair of boots from Hi-Tec, I found them in Oregon at a local thrift store. I like hiking boots, and I find them far stronger, sturdy, and longer-lasting than trainers.
My hiking poles we're way more useful than I thought they would be, when we're carrying a lot of weight it can help distribute heavy loads, especially on steep descents.
The bag’s weight ranged between 8-16 kg, its important to note that the weight of your bag can change a lot throughout the week.
My Pack List
Clothes (2kg in total)
Hitec hiking boots for $11 (500g)
Quechua/Forclaz trekking poles x2 (450g)
Quechua zip-off long pants/short
Quechua fleece jacket
Merino wool socks x1
Buff and Baseball Cap
Lightweight ski gloves
Merino wool socks x1
Ski socks x1
Patagonia down jacket ($50)
Quechua T-Shirt x2
Merino wool long sleeve
Sawyer Squeeze water filter
Mini can opener
Dove soap + Tupperware
Backpacks (I swapped backpacks, for the 2nd week).
Quechua NH500 30L (950g)
Osprey Variant 52L (1.6kg)
Lumix GX850 (4K Camera)
10,000 mAh Battery bank (450g)
Micro USB + USB-C Cygnett cable
Cygolite light (460 Lumens)
Samsung S8 Smartphone
EU Adapter plug (1A)
Food and Water (2-3kg total on average)
Canned Food (Baked Beans or Mixed Vegetables)
Standard Water Bottle (1L or 2L)
REI Passenger 1 (1.4kg)
REI Flash down sleeping bag (1.5kG)
Sea to Summit sleeping bag in-liner (850g)
Foam Pad (20g)
“ It's something special to hike together compared to hiking or walking alone, they are very different experiences. “
“ On the one hand, you have infinite thoughts running through your mind with some repeating themselves over and over again. But you have time to spend quieting your mind or simply listening to it “
“ On the other hand, travelling as a team brings new challenges to the table but you learn to face these challenges together and not just alone. As the saying goes two heads and better than one. “
“ We both had a dream to walk a few days from a point to another point and just to do it and it was a simple idea that slowly became true. I like this a lot. “
“ I think we both had rather blank minds and that's a good point about hiking because we just forget society things and you just go through this simplicity of walking and adapt ourselves to the day whatever happens and it's very nice because everything becomes more intense when you act like that. “
“ Just hearing the birds or going through a river and enjoying the cool air or the sun warming the skin. Brings with it a true sense of tranquillity and peace to your state of being. ”
“ If we had a coffee in a bar it was something very special in these quiet villages after walking days without a cafe shop. “
“ When your dreams become real, which I've experienced before many times because of the various travels that I've done. When you set an intent on a big idea, for example I had a dream in the back of my mind to do a trip across the continent of Australia with my bicycle several years ago. I was rather inspired reading others blog posts and hearing stories about doing such a trip, I didn't even know where to begin so then I started researching and I was like eh maybe I should make this a shorter trip but decided to take the trip day by day to remove the pressure of arriving at a destination? I even went to a whole area of Australia that I found quite intimidating, but when you start small and you keep your expectations low that's what can allow for your expectation to be even more beyond what you were
expecting it's quite simple but when you take this approach it allows your dreams to become even more momentous if or when you fulfil them. “
Practising each day to learn a new skill is best achieved by starting with something simple like 10-30 minutes a day then after many days, months or even years later, those ten minutes can turn into hours each day, and they can become habits over many days of practice, study or training. It takes time to learn or accomplish anything in life.
I believe it’s about having the patience to arrive at your dreams and remembering to simply enjoy the journey along the way.
" We were so driven head towards this tiny little cliff called at Leucate (Cape des Feres) and to arrive at the beach we've been thinking about the sea for like two or three weeks, seeing it off in the distance for several days, after weeks of planning and so in the last few hours, we were just, marching towards it no other goal than getting to the beach. "
It was incredibly windy when we arrived at the cape but we had completed our journey.
We booked a local BnB and we had a relaxing night after four nights of sleeping on the ground. It was a contrast reflecting on the simplicity of sleeping on the ground and then appreciating the comfort of a bed.
I feel this quote from Pierre makes for a fantastic summary of why we wanted to walk this Cathar trail.
“ I feel as if I rediscovered the freedom aspect of my life that I felt when I was a young boy. As you said the society is forcing us to be in a certain mode that when sometimes we want something else, so it's good to be out of the routine and structure of society and to create our own directions or path on how to behave, what we want to do. Even if we want our life to be just simple it allows us to be more human, it’s about finding the fun in life because as I said when you are in this society structure mode you have to work you have to take care of your family to do this and this and this but, if you put everything of that kind of stuff out of your mind and you just be yourself you may find more fun in life. ”
Thank you for reading this story and I wanted to credit the people who helped make this trip possible.
Pierre Bigot, Josef von Nuding, Louis De Keyser, John von Nuding, Elaine von Nuding, Sarah le Guen, Marie Meneboo.
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