Wild camping in the Pyrenees

The GR11 trail is 522 miles long with 46,000 meters of elevation change and runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, through the beating heart of the Spanish Pyrenees. Following my Mum’s retirement 4 years ago, her and my Stepdad John hiked the full length (east to west), travelling light and wild camping their way through the mountains. Unfortunately, by the time they reached the high pass from Baños de Panticosa to Candanchú the weather wasn’t kind to them, and having sent the majority of their bad weather gear home earlier in the trip they were forced to stay low, missing out a chunk of the route. Never ones to let things go, they were keen to return the following year and hike the final piece of their GR11 puzzle – that is where we come into the story. 

For those who are unsure, ‘wild camping’ is just camping but not in an official camp site. It’s not permitted in England, so unlike our Scottish neighbours, it isn’t really something we grew up doing. Having talked about exploring more of Europe ourselves we were keen to gain more experience in the mountains, so when we heard my folks were heading back to the Pyrenees to finish the GR11, we decided to join them. As you need to be self-sufficient when wild camping, we would be carrying a week’s worth of kit on our backs, so we took the opportunity to invest in some decent gear – things like good sleeping bags, thermarests and a jetboil are all worth investing in. No one wants to be hiking with extra weight in their packs they don’t need. As we were with our trusty tour guides, we didn’t need to route plan, but we carried maps and compasses anyway in the hope of brushing up on our navigation skills during the trip. 

Rucksacks packed and anticipation running high, we eagerly set off from Liverpool airport to Bordeaux. From there we had to catch a train to Lordes where my parents were picking us up before we all headed to a camp site in Gavarnie. With an hour to spare in Bordeaux we thought we’d sample the local wine – we’d be in the mountains soon and we were on holiday after all. However, having ordered one medium and one large red wine, we had a jolly time drinking the two carafes we were presented with before embarking on the train journey – a perfect start 😊 

Camp site views in Gavarnie

We slept in a camp site in Gavarnie for one night and awoke at the break of dawn to start our hike to join the GR11 track. The morning air felt cool as we followed the track past the Cirque de Gavarnie waterfall, but as soon as we crossed over into Spain the sunshine came out to warm us up. We trundled happily down forestry tracks towards Bujaruelo where we took some time off our feet to laze by the river and enjoy our baguettes. After a full day of hiking in the heat with 12kg packs, we settled in for our first official night of wild camping when we reached a bothy at Labaza. Having drunk our 1 litre water containers dry, the first task was to locate a freshwater stream to refill. It was our first-time using water purification tablets, but you just pop one into your water bottle (usually 1 tab x 1 litre), give it a shake and wait 30 minutes before drinking – so simple. We order them from amazon these days and are a must for any wild camping trips. 

Enjoying my first day of hiking on the GR11
Our Hotel de la Pyrenees – bothy at Labaza

We were aiming to do the hike in 6 days and were averaging 10-12 miles per day – which doesn’t sound much – but once you add in elevation, sweat and the weight of your rucksack, it was more than enough! After a blissful few day’s out of civilisation, we reached the quaint town of Baños de Panticosa and stopped to enjoy a Café Latté before the real climbing began. We headed up an amazing valley with clear blue waterfalls and rivers towards a refuge at the top. With the sun beating down on us I started to feel lightheaded as we zig zagged towards the sky – note to self: remember to bring a hat – so we stopped near the refuge for a sugary snack and to take in the panoramic views, before the final push to our evening camp spot at Ibon Azul Alto (which beautifully translates to high blue lake). Now at 2400m the camp was quite cold and after a long day we all took the opportunity to settle into our cosy sleeping bags for an early night. 

Beautiful vista on the hike up from Banos de Panticosa
Cooling off in the river
Camp dinner at 2400m

Breakfast eaten and tents packed away, we were on our way at first light in the direction of Cuello de l’Infierno – the first of the high passes on our journey. The rocky terrain gradually turned looser as we approached the top with some intermittent patches of snow, you soon felt the chill when you paused for a breath. Dropping over the other side at 2721m we were greeted with a vast expanse of mountain peaks all around. It was so peaceful, and the views were certainly something we didn’t get tired of in the Pyrenees. We cautiously traversed around a very cold looking lake as we reached the highest point of our trip – Cuello de Tebarrai at 2765m. The passage to cross over here was more challenging and the initial scramble up was great fun! However, upon reaching the top we were met with quite a sheer drop, covered in scree. There were some larger rocks to balance on, so long as you were willing to let go and free fall to the next one whilst the ground moved away from under you (John may say I’m exaggerating here, but unless you’ve tackled the world’s highest summits like him, this did terrify me a little bit) – luckily, we all made it down in one piece and lived to tell the tale!

Mum & John climbing towards Cuello de l’Infierno
Cuello de Tebarrai at 2765m

After an exhilarating day we were all grateful that we had a night booked in a B&B in the small Spanish town of Sallent de Gàllego. We’d made the decision to stop here to stock up on supplies, wash some clothes and treat ourselves to a hot shower – which we were all in desperate need of! There wasn’t much in the town, but we managed to find a lovely little local restaurant in the evening to enjoy a hot meal and indulge in a Rioja or two. In the days that followed, we trekked our way through a (currently out-of-season) skiing resort at Formigal towards Candanchú. We spotted a soaring Eagle, enjoyed baking in the hot sunshine and drank from freshwater streams – I had no mobile signal, nor did I care – I had completely checked out from reality as we know it, and I was loving living in the present. We located an abandoned camp site in Candanchú to stop for the night, it was slightly eerie and had a strong ‘The Walking Dead’ vibe – for anyone who has watched that show. But, to my Mum and my glee, the old shower block plumbing still worked, and we enjoyed the luxury of running water – albeit in the dark. We were joined in the camp by a few other GR11 hikers and enjoyed a great evening cooking dinner on the picnic benches and watching the sunset. We’d pitched our tents in the centre of a walled stone circle we found, which we were very grateful for when we were also joined by a herd of cows in the early hours of the morning! All the cows and horses we came across in the mountains had big bells hung around their necks with a very distinct sound – I’m not too sure why they had them – but you could certainly hear them coming! 

Abandoned campsite in Candanchú
Fellow wild campers

After a restless night we set off on what would be our final day of hiking towards another lake called Ibon de Estanés, before leaving the GR11 track to join civilisation once again. Team morale was high as we approached the still blue water around mid-day, knowing a lazy afternoon stretched out in front of us. We dipped in the lake, sunbathed on the rocks feeling very grateful for our week in the mountains. This also marked the completion of the whole GR11 route for my parents which was a special moment we were lucky to share with them. However, after being blessed with glorious sunshine all week we could feel a storm coming, the clouds were rolling over and the wind had picked up, rattling the cow bells around the valley. We opted for an early dinner and hunkered down in our tents, passing the time reading by torch light until late evening. Unable to sleep with the howling wind we lay awake together hoping the shuddering tent didn’t take off and sail away on the water. Lightening illuminated the tent every couple of minutes as we lay listening to the thunder, until sometime in the early hours of the morning – when the weather restored some calm – we finally starting to drift off to sleep. What felt like moments later, the sound of the cow bells jolted us back awake, they had quietened down once the storm passed but something had fired them back up. Through the haze of slumber, we could hear their moaning and the sound of stamping hooves as they approached. Those who know me, know I dislike cows at the best of times, so by this point I was already sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag fearing we were about to be victims of a stampede. Nathan, trying to reassure me, was also awake but no sooner than he could tell me to lie back down we heard a horrific, loud snorting noise of something outside my parent’s tent. My first thought was that it was bear, and as it approached our tent I felt like I had been winded – this was going to be the end for us. Our tent was a two-man, with two compartments, one for sleeping and one more exposed area which we had been using to store our dirty boots and some gear during the night. Realising that our cooking knives were in the outside section of the tent, Nathan quickly unzipped the liner and managed to locate our Opinel knife, a cooking pan and a metal fork. Zipping us back in, weapons in hand, he proceeded to whisper to me that he had heard wild boar was native to this area but hadn’t wanted to worry me earlier. At this point, ‘the monster’ – now identified as a wild boar – was circling our tent as we gripped each other saying our last goodbyes. If this wasn’t dramatic enough, the boar started to push into our tent and at this point I saw the fear in Nathan’s eye’s that it’s tusks would rip the fabric and expose us, moments later Nathan’s fist flew through the air as he punched the beast on the nose! After a split second of panic, it miraculously seemed to have worked and we could sense the boar moving away! Needless to say, neither of us got a wink of sleep that night and at dawn we tentatively opened the tent grateful for a new day. My parents on the other hand, slept through the whole ordeal! Well, my Mum said she heard it, but John claimed it was the best he had slept all week…

My parents soaking it all in having just completed the whole GR11 route
Clouds rolling in around Ibon de Estanés

We were pretty relieved that it had happened on our last day of camping, rather than the first – talk about a grand finale! The mood lightened on our hike out of the mountains and we even managed to laugh about the previous nights strange turn of events. We were heading to catch the bus to Pau, where we had an Airbnb booked for our final evening and personally I was dreaming of a large glass of French wine and a warm, safe bed for the night. We approached the main road just outside of Urdos, to discover that the local buses weren’t running that day due to a tunnel closure. Spirits dropping we calculated we were just shy of 50 miles away from Pau, which obviously was not going to be achievable by foot. My Mum, the adventurous soul she is, announced our best option was to use our thumbs and hitchhike a lift. Having never thumbed a lift before we were slightly apprehensive, but agreed it would be best to split into groups of two as there would be more chance of someone being willing to take two weary travellers, rather than four. Seasoned hitchhikers my parents got their lift on first try and merrily hopped aboard their minivan, leaving us roadside whilst they drove off into distance. A few hours, two lifts and one train journey later we arrived at the apartment in Pau to join them and that long awaited chilled glass of wine. 

Upon landing back in the UK, it took us longer than anticipated to adjust back to ‘normal life’. Our adventure in the mountains had been all consuming and we’d both loved being so absorbed in the moment. It made us realise how rarely we switch off in our day-to-day lives and how at peace you can feel when you simplify life. Thanks to my parents, it also gave us so much more confidence to embark on wild camping trips of our own, fully equipped for whatever came our way – wild animals n’ all!

Grateful for our week in the mountains

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