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DISCOVER FRANCE

EXPLAINED: The rules and options for camping in France

From luxury campsites with a pool and a spa to pitching your tent at the side of the road - here's what you need to know about camping in France.

EXPLAINED: The rules and options for camping in France
Photo: Nicholas Selman / Unsplash

Camping is hugely popular in France, both for French people and tourists – there are more than 7,000 registered campsites with facilities with space for 872,647 individuals or groups at any one time.

But there are many different ways to take a camping holiday.

Campsites

The most common form of camping, these welcome every form of holidaymaker.

Despite the name, many of them aren’t really ‘camping’ at all – instead offering chalets, cottages or static caravans for families to stay in, with facilities including a swimming pool, spa, bar, restaurant or entertainment centre.

There are plenty of more basic sites when you can simply arrive and pitch your tent however – campsites have a star rating (1 to 5) which lets you know what facilities they have, and of course the price reflects this.  

They can get very busy, especially in the summer, so it’s wise to book ahead.

But if you want to get back to nature, or are simply looking for a cheaper holiday, there are alternatives to campsites.

Wild camping

The notion of wild camping – le camping sauvage – in which you make camp, or park your caravan or motorhome for a night or two somewhere that isn’t a campsite does exist in France but, well, it’s complicated.

‘Wild camping’ is not allowed, for example, in the following places:

  • sea shores or beaches;
  • on or within 500m of sites registered for historic, artistic, scientific, legendary or picturesque character – such as such as woods, forests or nature reserves – or close to classified historic monuments (be aware: this includes sites in the process of being registered);
  • on public roads or paths;
  • within 200m of water points for consumption.

Meanwhile local authorities or those in charge of designated natural sites, such as national or regional parks, have specific rules for their land.

There are 11 national parks and well over 50 regional ones, so it’s a good idea to check the rules before you camp. A local tourist information office or mairie is the best place to start.

Elsewhere, wild camping is allowed, as long as you have permission from the landowner or tenant, and other general limitations – including a blanket ban on fires, especially in the summer. The rules are here, in Article R111-33 of France’s town and country planning law.

Penalties for ignoring the rules include a fine of up to €1,500 – but the amount may be adjusted upwards in cases that also involve excessive noise, campfires, littering and / or environmental damage.

Motorhomes

Many French towns and large villages have dedicated areas for motorhomes to stay for a short period away from campsites, and some provide electricity or water points. 

Access to these areas is often limited to a few days per vehicle. Meanwhile, you can park at the side of a quiet road outside towns, as long as you don’t block the carriageway, but you may get a visit from a police officer wondering what’s going on.

Beyond these minor differences, the same general rules apply for motorhomes as for wild camping, if you decide to spend a night in your motorhome outside a campsite. And don’t empty your chemical toilet at the roadside. Obviously. 

Does France have a ‘right to roam’?

Like wild camping, the notion of a right to roam in France is very much open to interpretation – usually by the landowner.

Unlike some Nordic countries, there is no specific law guaranteeing public right of way over private land in France. There are paths the public can use that cross private land – but these can be closed at whim by the landowner. 

There are, however, many tracks weaving their way through forests, which make up 30 percent of France’s land area, and country lanes that are publicly accessible. Maps for local and regional walks can be found in tourist information offices or at town and village mairies.

Publicly accessible footpaths in France are usually marked. Here are the three most common forms:

  • National routes – Grandes Randonnées (GR) – are marked with two parallel horizontal flashes, one white and one red;
  • Regionally monitored paths – Grandes Randonnées du Pays (GRP) – are marked with two parallel horizontal flashes, one yellow and one red;
  • PR local footpaths are marked with a single yellow flash.

These markers are painted on fixtures such as trees so they can be followed easily. The Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (FFRP) also publishes nearly 200 guidebooks to walking in different parts of France. Also check out the numerous greenways (Voies vertes) that criss-cross the country.

While walking on these, you should of course be respectful of the countryside – don’t leave litter, close gates behind you and keep dogs on a lead if there is livestock in the fields that you are passing through.

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For members

DRIVING

When – and where – to avoid driving on France’s roads this summer

Summer in France means busy roads especially on certain days throughout July and August. Here's a guide of when you might want to avoid driving and which roads you should try to steer clear of on those days.

When - and where - to avoid driving on France's roads this summer

In France, the summer holidays are nigh – schools break up for the grandes vacances on Thursday, July 7th – which means the roads will get busy in the days and weeks to come as people escape to the seaside by the carload.

And with flight cancellations, strikes and other disruptions expected at French and European airports this summer — not to mention soaring air fares — many are opting to drive to their holiday destinations despite the cost of petrol.

READ ALSO Planes, trains and roads: France’s timetable for 2022 summer strikes

Each year, France’s roads watchdog Bison Futé publishes a road traffic calendar, which lists the times of the year when travel can be particularly bad. Unsurprisingly, the summer holidays are among the heaviest travel periods, as French and foreign holidaymakers head for the sun.

It operates four levels of travel status, which are colour-coded.

Image: Bison Futé

The standard days, with ‘normal’ traffic are in coded green, meaning that circulation is running as expected. There may be a few jams on certain stretches, notably around cities, but nothing out of the ordinary. Higher traffic days are in orange.  Days with very high traffic volumes are listed in red, while extremely traffic volumes are listed in black. 

On ‘black travel’ days, Bison Futé has calculated that the combined length of all traffic jams on France’s roads could stretch a total of more than 1,000km – or the length of the country from north to south.

We’ll issue regular travel updates, like this one, throughout the summer. But for July and August, the roads monitor forecasts five black travel days, on July 9th, 23rd, and 30th, and August 6th and 13th – all Saturdays.

Only one of those days – July 30th – is graded ‘black’ for the whole of the country. That day is the notorious “chassé croisé” when traditional July holidaymakers head home, and the first of the August breakers set off on their holidays.

READ ALSO Juilletistes vs Aoûtiens: Do France’s two summer holiday tribes still exist?

Image: Bison Futé

The other ‘black days’ are for certain areas, identified by number according to the geographical area where traffic will be heaviest. The areas correspond to the numbers shown on the following graphic.

Image: Bison Futé

The busiest routes of the summer are those that lead to the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean – notably the southwest of the country, though Brittany and Normandy are also always popular. Bison Futé even highlights the direction of travel in which traffic will be heaviest – using Départs to describe travel away from main cities, such as Paris, to popular resorts, and Retours for travel away from resorts and back to the cities.

So, on July 30th, the heaviest traffic will be heading to holiday resorts, hence the black ‘extremely difficult’ code. Travel back to the cities in comparison will be classed as ‘red’ – merely ‘very difficult’.

Any route will get busy as it passes large towns or major cities, and at the toll booth entry and exit points of France’s motorways.

READ ALSO Driving in France: What is télépéage and how does it work?

Delaying your departure outside peak periods is frequently the best solution, and Bison Futé offers daily updates on the travel situation on arterial routes across France, including travel times to avoid.

These are consistently difficult stretches of French roads in the summer, but it depends on which way the traffic is heading – whether people are leaving the big cities or returning to them after holiday.

  • The A7 particularly between Vienne and Valence and the Fourvière tunnel in Lyon
  • The A7-A8 between Salon de Provence and Saint-Maximin – where two busy motorways collide
  • The A10 around Tours from Paris to Bordeaux, and the Bordeaux ringroad
  • The A9 between Nîmes and Montpellier, and between Narbonne and Perpignan
  • The A50-A55 around Marseille
  • The A8 heading to Monaco from Nice. The La Turbie toll area is a recurring nightmare for motorists
  • The A10-A71 link between Orléans and Vierzon
  • The A13-A84 between Rouen and Caen
  • The A6 and A10 motorways leading in and out of Paris  

Avoid these routes if you can, especially at peak travel times, for a holiday roadtrip that’s less fraught. For example, instead of braving the A10 around Tours, perhaps consider taking the A71, A20 and A89 to bypass the area altogether.

And the most obvious plan to escape the worst of the traffic – don’t travel on a weekend if you don’t need to.

READ ALSO ‘Something always goes wrong’: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

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