What follows is a summary of the common questions about backpacking in Spain that I’ve been questioned or heard about when travelling abroad or over the net. It’s meant for a wide audience. If a question/answer seems obvious to anybody, consider it will probably not be so to others.
Is there good backpacking in Spain?
There certainly is. You can head to the mountains (there are plenty of them) and have a wilderness oriented trip or you can go for the cultural experience and hike along rural areas. Or you can have both on the same trip, even on the same day!
Are there any wilderness areas?
The only wilderness is in the mountains, all the rest is populated or not far from some form of population. Even in the mountains you’re never too far from it so there’s no real wilderness.
Are there any established trails?
Plenty of them. Some are basically recreational, some others are ancient communication ways and many of them still are. Whatever the origin, there are many trails marked for recreational purposes with the higher density in the most mountainous and hiking friendly regions.
How is the weather? What about seasons?
Spain is a peninsula bordered by two different seas and in the middle of two different climatic regions so the weather is varied. It’s very temperate overall. Damp and mild in the north and northwest, atlantic facing regions, nicely warm in the east and south east mediterranean areas, a bit more extreme (heat and cold) in the inland higlands. The general weather patterns call for settled weather during summer and adjacent months due to the high pressure area installed in the middle of the Atlantic ocean just in front of Portugal. During the rest of the year, anything can happen from cold, wind and rain to mid-twenties C (70’s F) temperatures in the middle of winter. Bad weather usually comes from the north-northwest though it may ocasionally come from the south-southwest; both from low pressure areas installed over the ocean. Low pressures over central Europe bring northeast Siberian cold dry winds for mid-winter cold spells while south winds from the Sahara may warm things up considerably as pointed above. Summer is typically nice in the north and mountains and very warm, just barely bearable on the rest.
What about hiking seasons?
Snow-free hiking is possible year round. Only the highest mountains remain snow covered for the winter months, that’s aproximately above 1500 m (4500 ft) in the north and going up to 2000 m (6000 ft) or higher towards the south. Cold is not forbidding anywhere but high in the mountains. The south and southeast regions have a very mild winter. The northern coast may be extremely damp during this time.
Usually, late spring, summer and early fall are best in the north-northwest and in the highest mountains; spring and fall everywhere else with winter being a reasonable option in the south-southwest and the islands.
Is Spain a hiking friendly place?
Depends on the region. As far as infraestructures for hikers (trails, lodging…) go, there are areas with strong hiking tradition and others without. Recreational hiking is more popular in the mountainous areas and near the big cities. In general, hiking means day-hiking; multi-day backpacking is not as popular.
Which are the most popular backpacking destinations?
Definitely, the Pyrenees. They’re the backpacking mecca. In general, anywhere with mountains: the Cordillera Cantabrica along the northern coast with the Picos de Europa as the highlight; the Sistema Central, east to west across central Spain, with the Sierra de Gredos (highest and wildest) and Sierra de Guadarrama (close to the big city) as focal points; The Sierra Nevada in the southeast plus several other lesser mountain ranges. The Iberian peninsula is criss-crossed by mountains.
What’s the deal with the Pyrenees?
Impressive mountains along the isthmus joining the Iberian peninsula with western Europe. It can get bigger, it can definitely get wilder but it can’t get any more beautiful than this. Dramatic mountain scenery for a lifetime.
What about trail naming, identification and marking? Any established long distance trails?
Yes, quite a few of them. Spain has borrowed the french naming and marking system for trails where GR trails are long distance (GR stands for Gran Recorrido, originally the french Grand Randonee) and are marked with read and white paint stripes. Similarly, PR trails are short distance where PR stands for Pequeno Recorrido or the french Petit Randonee; these are usually the length of a day hike and are marked in yellow and white paint stripes. Besides this identifier, all trails have a distinctive number. The numbering is nation-wide for the GR trails, the same as in France. GR trails can extend anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred kilometers.
What about the “Camino de Santiago” or St. Jaques Pilgrim trail?
Oddly enough, the most famous trail in Spain is not part of the GR trails system. It’s an ancient pilgrim route from the middle ages when pilgrims from all over Europe were hiking all the way to Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern tip of the peninsula. It’s got a religious (catholic) background but many people nowadays hike it for other reasons different from religion. The Camino (“camino” is generic for “trail”) is not at all about wilderness as it goes through urban (though rural) areas and it’s usually crowded in the peak season. Its interest (besides religion for those involved) lies on the cultural experience, both from the multinational bunch of hikers and the local culture, with striking architecture and guaranteed history lesson along the way. There also are many novice backpackers who don’t backpack or even hike regularly and will backpack just this trail; some hikers have their equipment carried for them on vehicles. The consequence and somewhat negative side is the amount of narrow-minded, urban people with urban attitudes in this trail.
You can read further about this trail’s character right here.
How are land use regulations for hikers?
Tricky to say the least. Private land is out of the question as it’s at the owner’s expense. Private property schemes vary between different regions, there are areas where it’s the norm while in others land is mostly public. Private property is usually fenced. There may be fences too on public land but there’s usually a way through when a trail meets one. Private property is usually marked as such and in principle should not be tresspassed. The mountains are usually public land. On public land, you’re free to travel and spend the night unless otherwise stated. That said, it’s not unsual to find “Camping prohibited” signs in easily accessible spots where people might be prompted to camp but hardly ever a distinction is made between camping, bivouac or dusk to dawn overnighting. Restrictions may apply when the land is under some protection scheme. There are several of these: natural, regional and national parks, the latter being the highest protection figure. Again, travelling and spending the night is, to my understanding, allowed unless otherwise stated… which sometimes is. The regulations are obscure as there’s usually no clear definition of “camping” versus an overnight stay, with or without a tent. Some national parks do have clearer definitions of these terms and as far as I know in only one of them is strictly forbidden to stay overnight out of the established huts. As a general practical rule, I do camp, strictly dusk to dawn, wherever I travel and I try to go unnoticed to avoid problems with misunderstood regulations. There’s a general public opinion that camping is a harmful activity for the environment. That’s obviously from an urban point of view, nothing to do with traditional, good Leave No Trace backpacking practices but some authorities may overdo their protection fervour and consider you a kind of a delinquent without even considering if you’re actually doing anything harmful or not. Fires are strictly forbbiden mostly everywhere. This restiction is particularly enforced in the dry areas and during the summer months.
Is water easily available in the backcountry?
It depends on region and season. There are a few desert or desert-like areas in the southeast and northeast where finding water is difficult. The backcountry actually means the mountains and in the mountains there’s usually some water but not all moutain areas are equal.
The atlantic regions are damp, running water is usually available year round. The highest mountains have also year round water even if they go through a dry season because of the melt off. There are some limestone areas where all water filters underground so it may be difficult to find even in damp regions/seasons. In general, the more to the south, the drier the weather and the less surface water available.
Is backcountry water safe to drink?
As a general rule, where there’s no human polution, yes, it is. The human factor is usually easy to discern: where roads end and there’s no more villages or houses uphill. Cattle (sheep, cows and occasionally horses) usually graze in the high mountain meadows in summer. Water sources that go through areas with cattle may need treatment. In general, water from springs is OK to drink as it is water from clear running streams.
What kind of cartography is available?
There’s 1:25.000 and 1:50.000 series for the whole country from the IGN (Instituto Geografico Nacional, National Geograhical Institute). The topography is accurate but the trails are usually not. Most are missing, actually. Both series have the UTM grid.
There’s recreational oriented cartography for the popular hiking and mountaneering destinations. These maps focus on trails, mountaneering routes and such and their quality and accuracy vary. They’re improving with time and some are really outstanding. Most have the UTM grid as well. If I plan on difficult route finding, I may take both a recreational map, if available, for the trails and a 1:25.000 IGN map for the topography. That way, I have the best of both worlds.
How’s the standard of living in Spain?
Pretty much like the rest of western Europe. Spain is slightly less developed, less crowded than the most socially advanced and economically powerful countries in Europe.
Is Spain safe for visitors/backpackers?
It mostly is. Crime rate is not too high. The highest risk for visitors is probably pickpocketing in big cities’ tourist areas, be aware of your pockets in those places, that’s all it takes. The backcountry is safe as far as humans go. There are not many dangerous wildlife either, just the occasional poisonous snake or spider. Spiders are not a big concern while snakes may be. A few of them are poisonous and at least one has a pretty powerful venom though not necessarily lethal. As usual, they’re shy and will move away but may bite if threatened. Not a big deal anyway as there are not many casualties to snakes. Big mammals don’t abound and are not a concern. Wild boars might pose a threat if injured but they’re not supposed to be if you’re not hunting them. There are a few bears left in the northern mountains but you’d be very lucky to spot one.
What languages do people speak?
Apart from Spanish and some other local lenguages, not many. Along and near the french border some people speak French. People from their mid-20’s to mid-30’s should at least know some English, some will even speak properly. Locals appreciate every effort from visitors to speak Spanish and will usually be welcoming to any form of communication attempt. Be creative, you’ll be fine.
Is backpacking any popular in Spain?
Yes, in a way… and no. Hiking is popular but it usually means day hiking. This is considered the easy, non-technical approach to the mountains. Mountaneering is popular too, this being the first quality, technical, high level activity. Long distance backpacking is not as popular and it sometimes takes a semi-urban approach with hikers staying in a village every night. High in the mountains, long distance backpackers usually stay in mountain huts so the autonomous, self suficient long distance backpacker is a rare find.
Where can I find backpacking supplies?
Big cities have specialized shops with all the gear you could need. The choice is wider near popular hiking and mountaneering destinations. Shops are usually closed on sundays. Most of the technical gear is focused on mountaneering, not backpacking so there are things that fit and others that don’t.
Which are the stove/fuel choices? Which are the most popular?
Any good mountaneering shop should store canister, alcohol and liquid fuel stoves. Among the canister stoves, those using a screw on, Lindal valve are the most popular; typical brands for these are Markill, Primus or MSR. You can also find the various Gaz brand stoves. Liquid fuel stove popular brands are Primus and MSR. Alcohol stoves are basically Trangia. As far as popularity goes, canister stoves win. Winter conditions hardly ever require liquid fuel stoves. Anyhow, backcountry cooking is not too popular.
What about fuel availability?
Butane/propane canisters of the screw on type with Lindal valve are found in mountaneering/outdoor shops, different brands and sizes. Typical brands for these are Primus, Coleman and Markill. Sizes are small (125 gr. of fuel, medium (around 250 gr. of fuel) and big (around 450 gr. of fuel). Gaz brand canisters are not as popular but they should be found also in these shops. Alcohol fuel is usually found in supermarkets and hardware stores under the name “alcohol de quemar” (where “quemar” stands for “burn”; you get the picture). When I’ve found the specs it says it’s 100% methyl alcohol. It burns clean. Not too sure about liquid hidrocarbons as I’ve never used them. Petrol (unleaded) is obviously available in petrol stations (that is, everywhere, everytime). I read somewhere white gas is sold under the name “bencina blanca” but it didn’t say where.
Potential backcountry hazards?
Nothing special here, just the usual stuff. Wildlife: only a few snakes. Plants: nettle is common. It’s usually a low bush with green, pointed, dented, mid size to small leaves. You quickly learn to identify it on the field after a first encounter. It’s not too harmful unless you swim in it naked and it’s usually easily avoided. Some berries are edible but some others aren’t; don’t try unless you know them. Same with mushrooms, some are lethal. Hunting season is sometime in autumn and it’s relatively popular in some regions. When it’s on in public lands, there’s usually a warning sign on the relevant trailhead or trail gate (i.e. through a fence) stating the scheduled hunting date.
Is there cellular phone coverage in the backcountry?
Sometimes. Antennas are hardly ever too far away (as civilization is not either) but you’ll need to be in open country to get coverage. You usually get it on mountain tops but not in deep valleys. As soon as there are any obstacles coverage vanishes. You shouldn’t rely on it for safety.
Search And Rescue teams are available and ready in mountain areas. Helicopters are widely used conditions permitting so you should be aware of the basic signalling to call their attention. The emergency telephone number is 112. As far as I know, Search And Rescue is still free of charge even though there’s growing debate about that.
3º west is about right for the whole Iberian peninsula and mediterranean islands. In the Canary islands, maps state it’s not possible to give a figure due to instability of the magnetic field. I guess it’s because of the volcanic nature of the land.
European Map Datum (1950)
Public transport will take you almost everywhere, even deep into the mountains. However, the farther from big population centres the less choice there’ll be and the more hassle can be to get to your destination. Taxi services are usually available to cover the gaps; it’s expensive but reasonable for short distances, particularly if you share rides. Hitching is always possible though not very common but it should work. Usual hitching procedures apply. It’s mostly safe. Car rental is not too common either but definitely possible, at least in (from) the cities. It may be good value depending on circumstances.
Power and plugs
AC/DC 220 volt, the plugs have two rounded male connectors. European standards apply throughout (remember not to take the UK as European standard)
When you go abroad and don’t know the local language, it’s still very useful to learn a bit about the phonetics. That way, you can read and pronounce words that sound more or less correct. I’ll refer only to the main singularities of the Spanish language. It’s difficult to describe phonetics in written language but I still hope it makes sense.
– only five vocal sounds: “a” is like the english short “a”, like in cramp; “e” is also like the english short “e”, like in refuge (first syllable); “i” is like in “pity”; “o” is like in “lorry”; “u” like in “poor”
– the “j” sound: it’s like an aspired “h”, like in “house” but stronger sounding.
– the “g” sounds differently depending on the vocal that’s behind. Before “e” and “i” is like the “j” (strong sound); before “a”, “o” or “u” is quite like the English “g” (softer sound). Special cases are the “gue” and “gui” groups: the “u” is not pronounced and it’s there only to mean the “g” is like the English “g” (soft), unless there’s a diaeresis on the “u” (like this: “ü”; you may not see it well in your computer) in which case the “u” is pronounced as usual and the “g” is soft
– the “n” with a tilde on top (like in “España”, that is, “Spain” in spanish; you may see weird things instead of that character on your local computer) : this sound doesn’t exist in English as far as I know. It’s a nasal sound, sounds similar to a “…ni…” group within a given sillable. Pretty much like the Portuguese “nh” or the French “gn” (like in Espagne).
– the “h” is not pronounced. It’s still there for historical reasons (it had a sound some centuries ago).
– “ch” has a special pronunciation also found in English sometimes, something like in “architecture”.
– the “r” has a strong and a soft sound (“lorry” vs. “tiara”). It’s strong at the beginning of a word or when doubled (“rr”); and soft anywhere else. Quite like in English, actually.
– tildes just mean stress, they don’t have any phonetic meaning (like in French). You should stress the syllable with the tilde.
Some useful backpacking terms in Spanish
Backpack – Mochila
(Camping) Tent – Tienda (de campaña)
Sleeping bag – Saco de dormir
Sleeping pad – Colchoneta aislante
Stove – Hornillo
Fuel – Combustible
Alcohol – Alcohol (this one’s easy!)
Butane/propane – Butano/propano
(unleaded) petrol – Gasolina (sin plomo)
Kerosene – Keroseno