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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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TOURISM

What to know when visiting France’s lavender fields this summer

Known affectionately as 'blue gold,' France’s lavender fields are a popular tourist attraction every year. Here is what you need to know about visiting them:

What to know when visiting France's lavender fields this summer

Lavender is the “soul of Provence,” the French region where the fields can be found. Like wine, lavender was brought to France around 2,000 years ago by the Romans. The flower is the emblem of ‘Haute Provence’ regional identity, though the fields stretch from just outside of Nice almost all the way up to Valence, and they are not fully exclusive to France.

Even the washerwomen, those whose job it was to clean clothes and linen, were referred to as les lavandières in France. 

The flowers, which can be found mainly in two species in Provence, have several uses – as oils for cooking and bathing, as a perfume for soaps, and even as an antiseptic for healing wounds and scars.

The lavender essential oil that comes from Provence is even an AOP (L’Appellation d’origine protégée) in France. 

When is the best time to see the fields?

Typically, the lavender flowers from around mid-June to early-to-mid August. However, depending on the weather, especially if there is a drought or hotter temperatures, the lavender might flower sooner than normal, which is likely the case for this year.

This is unfortunately also a side effect of climate change, which might be pushing up the lavender flowering season.

Where should I go?

The Valensole plateau is perhaps the most famous place to go for lavender fields. Speckled with several small Provencal towns, the area is beautiful, with a mountainous backdrop in the distance. If you go here, you might also be able to see the sunflower fields too.

Sault is perhaps a bit less known, partially because due to its altitude, the lavender typically flowers a bit later.

It is still a great place to go see the fields, and every year the town hosts a Lavender Festival in August. Walking (or cycling) between the villages (Aurel, Saint-Trinit and Saint-Christol) is very manageable.

This is not too far from the Sénanque Abbey, a medieval 12th century abbey which is surrounded by lavender fields. You might notice some small stone houses called bories in the fields, which were historically used for field workers.

Luberon Valley is another location that comes highly recommended. In the area, there is a regional national park, home to rosé wines, castles (chateaux) and charming villages, like Gordes, a stunning hilltop village.

Here you can also find the Musée de la Lavande, if you are looking to learn more about harvesting, producing and distilling lavender, its industry, and some interesting regional history.

How to get there?

You can take a TGV train to Aix-en-Provence or Avignon, or rent a car. With a car, you can also enjoy the several scenic routes that allow you to see the fields from the roads.

What else is there to do while in the region?

The area is also known for its rosé wine, so you could take the opportunity to go visit some vineyards or spend some time wine-tasting. 

In the summer months, the south of France can get quite warm. If you are looking to go swimming or enjoy the water, the Gorges du Verdon are not too far away. Though a bit of a tourist hotspot, the canyon is a beautiful and a wonderful place for paddling along in a canoe.

If you’re a fan of hiking, you can always go for a (light) hike along the Ochre Trail near Roussillon. Here, there are two marked paths that will take you through sunset-colored red and yellow cliffs in an old quarry.

Words of Wisdom

Unless you have been given express permission, do not pick the lavender, as this is the farmer’s livelihood. You can always buy a bouquet from nearby souvenir shops for your photo shoots! 

Also, stick to the paths that exist to avoid trampling any crops, and of course do not litter in the fields. 

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