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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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TRAVEL NEWS

‘We will be ready’ vows France, amid fears of UK border chaos

Transport bosses have raised fears of long queues in British ports when the EU's new EES system comes into effect next year, but French border officials insist they will be ready to implement the new extra checks.

'We will be ready' vows France, amid fears of UK border chaos

The EU’s new EES system comes into effect in 2023 and many people – including the boss of the Port of Dover and the former UK ambassador to France – have raised concerns that the extra checks will lead to travel chaos on the UK-France border, and see a repeat of the long queues experienced last summer.

Port of Dover CEO Doug Bannister told The Local that he feared “tailbacks out of the port and throughout Kent” because the new system could take up to 10 minutes to process a car with four passengers, as opposed to 90 seconds currently.

EXPLAINED What the EES system means for travel to France in 2023

But French border control have insisted that they will be ready, replying to questions from the European Commission with “Oui, La France sera prête” (yes, France will be ready).

French officials said they had already undertaken extension preparation and would begin test runs of the new system in French border posts at the end of this year.

document shared recently by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties, shows how countries are preparing. 

“France has prepared very actively and will be on schedule for an EES implementation in compliance with the EU regulation,” French authorities say.

“The French authorities have carried out numerous studies and analyses, in cooperation with infrastructure managers, to map passenger flows at each border crossing post… and evaluate the EES impact on waiting times,” the document says. 

However, despite the preparation, the French admit that long waits at the border remain a worry, adding: “the prospect of the impact of EES on waiting times at the borders worries infrastructure managers. The fact remains that fluidity remains a concern, and that exchanges are continuing with each border post manager to make progress on this point.”

The EES system is due to come into effect in May 2023 and will be applied at all EU external borders – find full details on how it works HERE.

However there has been particular concern about the France-UK border due to three things; the high volume of traffic (in total over 60 million passengers cross the border each year); the fact that many travel by car on ferries and the Eurotunnel (while the EES system seems more designed with foot passengers in mind); and the Le Touquet agreement which means that French border control agents work in the British ports of Dover and Folkestone and at London St Pancras station.

EES is essentially a more thorough passport checking process with passengers required to provide biometric information including fingerprints and facial scans – border checks will therefore take longer per passenger, and this could have a big effect at busy crossing points like Dover.

The UK’s former ambassador to France, Lord Ricketts, told The Local: “I think the EES, in particular, will be massively disruptive at the Channel ports.”

The EU consultation documents also revealed more details of how EES will work on a practical level for car passengers – those travelling by ferry or Eurotunnel to France – with border agents set to use computer tablets to gather biometric information like fingerprints so that passengers don’t have to get out of their cars.

READ ALSO France to use iPads to check biometric data of passengers from UK

Doug Bannister added that Dover agents were “awaiting an invitation” to France to see how the new systems will work. 

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