GR trailmark on tree in France

The FFRP Topo-Guides® of France

Part 1 ~ Introduction to the Best French Trail Guides

How do you find your way?

How do you keep from getting lost?

I’m often asked these questions about my long-distance walks in France and Spain. The reason I rarely lose my way, is that I use one of the many superb trail guides, called Topo-guides® (pronounced “TOH-Poh-Gheed”) that are produced by the FFRandonnée, also called the FFRP, for Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (French Long-distance Hiking Association). These excellent trail guides contain detailed maps, pathfinding instructions, lists of useful resources along the GR® routes (sentiers de grande randonnée), and a wealth of history, culture and wildlife information about the various sections of the trail.

topo-guide cover

What’s really cool about topo-guides is that with just a bit of effort, people with little fluency in French can learn to use them. There are other guides to the French trail system – in French, English, and other languages – but none of them match the consistent, concise quality of the FFRP topo-guides. Other great guidebooks, such as Miam-Miam-Dodo, are excellent companions to topo-guides, but they are not substitutes (unless they describe routes for which there are no topo-guides). The key point here is that if you’re interested in self-guided walking in France:


You can do this!

typical cultural commentary pages in topo-guide

Even if you’ve never had the chance to learn French (which you really should do, so you’ll have a more interesting adventure), you can quickly learn to grasp the gist of the guide. There are just not that many ways to say, “take the dirt road”, follow the path”, “turn right at the the trail junction”, “cross the bridge”. With even the smallest, lightest French-English-French dictionary, you will soon understand enough to get by. From there, it just keeps getting better.

Additionally, the French long-distance trails (sentiers de grande randonnée) are (mostly) very well marked, so the topo-guides are an additional, complementary navigational aid. There are some exceptionally well-marked sections of the French sentiers (pronounced Sohn-Tee-Ay) where you can walk for miles without ever looking at a map. On occasion, I’ve taken variant routes, without any guide at all, and have always linked back up with the main trail. By the way, the GRs are waymarked in both directions. However, the guides only describe the trails in one direction, generally north to south or east to west.

The first couple of dozen pages introduce the trail, how it fits in with the overall French trail system, how and where to get trail and tourist information, locations and contacts of lodgings, and a brief introduction to the regions you’ll be walking through. Following that is the guide itself. As you move through the book, you are presented with two facing pages. On the left hand page is a section of an IGN 1:25,000 scale topographical map with the trail clearly highlighted with a red line. Additionally there are numbered waypoints with arrows pointing to specific locations that are keyed to the text. On the opposite page is a detailed description of the twists and turns of the route.

Below are a pair of sample pages from topo-guide 653, which covers the final French section of the Le Puy route of the Chemin de St-Jacques-Compostelle (Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or St. James Way).

sample map from FFRP topo-guide, camino de santiago, France
Sample FFRP topo-guide map, France.

The map shows the GR route from Sauvelade (upper right, Northeast) to Navarrenx (lower left, Southwest), in the Béarn area of Gascony (where D’Artagnan came from) in southwest France. The trail is clearly marked with a red line. This is the actual page from the topo-guide I used in 2005. There are several small black circles along the route. These are my markings (made with my trusty Parker Jotter) to track my progress. Also note the three, numbered “pins” that mark specific waypoints. These are keyed to the text on the facing page.

Depending on how a route winds across the map, this page may be either vertical, as it is here, or horizontal. In either case, the topo-guide maps are always “North-up”, meaning if the the text is right-side up, the top of the map is due north, left is east, etc. This make using a compass much easier.

In the lower right is a red scale showing a one kilometer (0.6 mile) distance. On this map there is a 1 kilometer black grid overlay. Whenever possible, the FFRP uses these grids, which are helpful in estimating distances. Each map page of a topo-guide shows an area of about 7 x 10 kilometers (roughly 4 x 6 miles). They also indicate elevation. Each of the squiggly orange lines is at the same elevation, showing the contour of the land. These are drawn at 30 meter (100 foot) increments. Closely packed lines indicate steep terrain. On this section, the trail runs through rolling country, initially down, then along a ridge, then climbing for a distance before winding gently downhill to the river valley near Méritein. The final stretch to Navarrenx is flat.

Here is the adjoining page:

sample trail description from FFRP topo-guide, chemin de saint-jacques, France
Sample FFRP topo-guide trail description, Chemin de St-Jacques, France.

The current trail section (from “Point A to Point B” ) is shown in the highlighted bar. The time and distance (in this case, from Sauvelade to Navarrenx) are to the right of the bar. In most cases, the FFRP assumes about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) per hour. Your mileage and pace will vary depending on various factors. Although I often walk faster than 4 kilometers per hour (when I’m walking), I find the figures very useful for figuring total time, or “distance-made-good”, as sailors say. I frequently stop to take pictures, talk to someone, have a snack, etc. When all is said and done, a 25 mile day takes 10 hours, or so.

At the far right of the title bar is the symbol for the type of trail, in this case it is blazed with official GR® trail marks. (Some trail sections, as well as some alternate routes, are not GR trails. They might be regional GRP (yellow over red) trails, for example. If so, the icon would show that. But in this case, all you need to remember is:


“White Over Red ~ Keep Walking Ahead”


Next comes a graphical summary of the services available in each town. The symbols are all defined in the introductory pages. Here, Sauvelade has a gîte d’etape. Navarrenx has many more services, including at least one giîte, hôtel, campground, grocery store, restaurant, tourist office, and train station.

Next, in blue type, is a brief paragraph about the highlights and history of Sauvelade, the starting point.

Then comes a point to point description of the trail, with notes about directions, landmarks, topography, distances, and road surfaces. There are actually 4 waypoints on this page. The first one is Sauvelade, (number 71), which we would have reached on the previous page. This text, along with the map, compass bearings and the white over red (“keep walking ahead”) balises, provide all you need (most of the time) to find your way.

(Memo to legal eagles: these are just my opinions, and come without representation or warranty of any kind. I’m probably wrong; use at your own risk). Now, back to our regularly scheduled website.

If you’re interested in how easy it is to decode a topo-guide, see Part 2 of this tutorial. Follow along, and we’ll take a little stroll, where we point out a few things about how to use a FFRP topo-guide on a long-distance walk through France. Continue to Part 2 >>>

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