Uncharted Trails: Finding My Own Way on a 2,061 km Solo Thru-Hike on the Atlantic Coast
European thru-hiking might not be as renowned or well-known as it is in the US, but this multicultural continent boasts an astonishing array of stunning landscapes and captivating hikes. With 47 countries to explore, the possibilities for trekking through breathtaking mountain ranges, vast forests, hidden lakes, and mesmerizing coastal areas are boundless. The contrast and diversity Europe offers are enormous, and I was determined to uncover as much of it as I could on a thru-hike of my own.
My journey began with researching long-distance trails, but among the thousands in Europe, I couldn’t find one that truly aligned with my vision of a long and fulfilling three-month walking journey before my work obligations resumed. So I decided to forge my own path.
Time For My First Thru-Hike
I’ve logged plenty of miles as a solo traveler. When I was 18, I embarked on a journey to a remote South Pacific island to work on a farm. My adventure continued with some work and travel in the captivating landscapes of New Zealand and Southeast Asia, followed by uncounted camping trips around Europe. But the whole solo travel bug started with my very first trip to the bustling streets of New York City – a journey that sparked a long-lasting love for the absolute freedom of solo exploration.
Growing up near the mountains, I’ve gone on countless day hikes, sometimes with friends and family, and other times just on my own. But one thing I had never tackled was a longer thru-hike. Such an endeavor had been a dream of mine for ages, and I practically devoured every thru-hiking documentary out there. All the long-distance hiking stories inspired me so much. I was fascinated by the incredible capabilities of our bodies and the fact that people are able to walk across countries. So, I decided to give this challenge a try.
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The Ocean Is Calling
Nevertheless, my love of the ocean inspired me to explore the coastal regions, and luckily, Europe boasts numerous hikeable coastal areas. I’d never done any hiking along the seashore before, so I had no idea what it would be like to live in this environment long-term.
Armed with only my backpack and an adventurous spirit, I booked a train to French Basque Country and set off without a predetermined destination. Little did I know that this would lead me on a remarkable 2,061 km journey over the course of 77 days. 25 lbs of oats, 173 protein bars, and two pairs of shoes later, I eventually reached Faro, Portugal.
Unraveling the Journey: My Final Route
For the next 77 days, I navigated through an eclectic mix of well-marked hiking trails and my own custom routes. My journey started near Bayonne, France and during the first few days, I made my way over the Spanish border to San Sebastián. From there, I traversed a mix of the Camino del Norte, the E9 trail, and various GR Routes.
A delightful encounter with another solo hiker, who like me, carried a tent, led us to walk together for about 10 days. I eventually covered around 400 km of the Camino, drawn by the comfort of a small trail family and the simplicity of navigation.
Passing through major Spanish cities like Bilbao and Gijon, I continued my journey until I reached the famous pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela after 29 days of hiking, covering about 900km. From there on, things became a bit more complex.
Making my own way
The next part of my journey required more planning and navigation. I followed smaller, local hiking paths towards Porto, veered off on a 300 km detour through the Portuguese countryside, and took two zero days around Lisbon.
Hiking further south, I embarked on a scenic and very remote 70 km stretch of beach bliss, which, unbeknownst to me, turned into an impromptu military obstacle course during an epic shooting practice. Talk about timing! It wasn’t exactly the highlight of my journey, but hey, I can now brag about surviving a beachfront boot camp — definitely a story to spice up any gathering!
Yearning for a break from relying on AllTrails and other hiking apps for navigation, I headed south along the captivating Fishermen’s Trail leading to Lagos in Southern Portugal. The spectacular beaches and rugged cliffs made this segment one of my favorite parts of my thru-hike. From there on, I only had a 100km walk following the Algarve coastline eastward from Lagos before concluding my hike in Faro.
Hiking Solo: Worth the uncertainty
Although I hadn’t extensively researched existing trails through France, Spain, and Portugal before embarking on this adventure, I found comfort in the fact that the areas were generally safe, water was usually nothing to worry about, and therefore required minimal pre-planning. Moreover, navigating was usually quite easy as I could always keep the ocean to my right, ensuring I was heading in the correct direction.
At times, I faced uncertainty and questioned my decisions. Especially because I had no other hikers around me to figure out what was best together. Still, the beauty of not overplanning and solo hiking was the flexibility to adjust the trail according to my preferences and the specific moments I encountered. I kicked back on those zero days and casually strolled a solid 60 kilometers whenever I fancied it.
Though each day brought its own unique experiences, I gradually established a daily routine during my solo hiking adventure. I usually woke up at 5am, tossed my stuff back into my backpack, and whenever possible, relished my morning oats on the beach. Sometimes, I would take refreshing morning swims or simply sit outside my tent, immersing myself in the captivating sounds of the ocean.
Finding My Rhythm
I preferred to cover most of my hiking distance in the morning, as temperatures often soared to a scorching 100°F later in the day, particularly towards the end of my journey. I typically had a rough plan for each day’s hike, which provided a sense of security when navigating unmarked trails alone. The evening before, I would diligently research potential water sources and suitable camping spots.
Wild camping legality in Portugal, Spain, and France existed in a somewhat murky area. Consequently, I exercised caution, selecting remote locations where I wouldn’t disturb anyone and of course, avoiding protected areas. However, when I couldn’t find a suitable spot to pitch my tent, I sought out farms or, when near villages, knocked on locals’ doors to request permission to set up camp — an incredibly enriching experience.
After a month of sleeping beneath the open skies, my tent had become a portable haven. Its slender walls provided a comforting sanctuary wherever I set it up. Nestling into my sleeping bag at night, I’d drift off to the soothing lullaby of ocean waves, making it feel like a home away from home.
European Trail Angels
Particularly in the Portuguese countryside, it was uncommon for me to encounter fellow hikers or even other tourists. Consequently, the locals showed keen interest in my activities as I walked through their villages. One time a local villager hopped on a bike and cruised alongside me for about 10 kilometers. It turned out that he had never seen a tourist in his village before and was eager to learn all about my journey.
The folks in those parts were just awesome — so friendly and welcoming. They would let me camp in their fields or gardens, and they would often invite me for dinner. They probably didn’t realize it, but they were like trail angels, and I was lucky to experience this sweet European trail magic every day.
READ NEXT — 11 Long Trails to Hike in Europe
Challenges: Unveiling the Trail’s Realities
When planning a thru-hike like this, it’s essential to acknowledge that it won’t always involve traversing small dirt paths through stunning landscapes. You might sometimes find yourself walking along the hard shoulder of a three-lane highway, or through industrial areas for hours. Although navigation is generally easy, there will be moments of navigating difficulties, leading you to walk for hours longer than expected under the burning heat.
You might encounter challenges in your resupplies or stage planning, as you’re not following a well-known trail, and the information from fellow hikers or hiking guides may not always be reliable. Rain-soaked gear, mosquitoes, and roasting temperatures tested my resilience, but I pushed onward, relishing the freedom and flexibility of my unplanned adventure. Nevertheless, these hardships come with a sense of liberation and simplicity. You break free from adhering to routes and plans set by others that might not suit your preferences.
I often get asked whether I’m afraid when hiking across countries alone as a young female. To be honest, I can’t deny that it can be a bit scary. Hiking in the dark, encountering wild dogs, passing through sketchy small towns, and doing river crossings alone have all given me moments of fear. However, I’ve learned how to cope with these fears and come to accept them. I’ve realized that it’s okay to feel scared at times, and I’ve started to view it as a temporary emotion. In a strange way, these experiences have actually made me more confident in the end.
Ultimately, my journey was about freedom — the freedom to take on challenges, soak in the beauty of unexpected moments, and bask in the liberation that every new day brings.
My Tips for a Self-Planned European Thru-Hike
Before embarking, I knew some French, but Portuguese and Spanish were foreign languages to me. Not many locals in northern Spain spoke English. Yet, the experience turned out to be unexpectedly heartwarming. I quickly picked up some basic Spanish words, thanks to the patience and friendliness of the Spanish people I encountered.
It was a fun, fast learning curve that made the journey all the more memorable. I would say there’s no need to learn a whole new language for your European thru-hike, but it’s always nice and respectful to know at least a handful of basics when interacting with locals.
Thanks to the open borders within the EU, all I needed was a passport, making the journey between countries wonderfully hassle-free. Acquiring phone data for navigation through hiking apps was a breeze since you can seamlessly use your mobile data across the entire EU.
Initially, I had no idea where my hiking adventures would lead, so I didn’t send any resupply boxes. However, as it turned out, they were unnecessary anyway. Along the way, I found small shops approximately every third day. My longest section between resupplies was just seven days, which occurred shortly after Lisbon. So, I had more than enough options to stock up on supplies for that week.
I filtered my water in parts of Portugal but most of the time there were well-maintained municipal sources. So if you stick to official hiking routes, there’s no need to bring a water filter.
I strongly recommend using multiple navigation tools while self-planning your routes. During my journey, I primarily relied on hiking apps such as AllTrails, Komoot, and Wikiloc. However, it’s important to note that no single app proved to be flawless, and I encountered situations where I found myself dangerously close to a 300-foot cliff or on busy highways. Therefore, it was always reassuring to have additional navigation options to check for alternative routes.
Furthermore, I sometimes simply followed the coastline and kept the ocean to my right to ensure I was heading in the right direction and only carried a physical hiking map for my detour into the Portuguese countryside.
Gear for the climate
Considering that there is not typically extreme weather during the time of year that I hiked, I opted for a 20°F down sleeping bag. During the early May nights, which were cold and rainy, I was grateful to have chosen a three-season sleeping bag. As I headed towards South Portugal, I could unzip it and use it as a blanket, which worked perfectly. My sleeping setup included a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad and a lightweight, though not ultralight, tent on the more budget-friendly side.
While I aimed for a relatively lightweight setup, it wasn’t ultralight. However, since I usually carried only a few days’ worth of food, I was comfortable with a base weight of 16 lbs.
My favorite piece of gear was undoubtedly my large Decathlon Rain Poncho. It may have made me look somewhat silly, but it kept me dry during rainy days in northern Spain and doubled as a handy picnic blanket for the beach or in front of my tent.
The largest portion of my expenses was dedicated to my gear and transportation to and from the route. However, once I hit the trail, my daily expenses were remarkably low. I typically allocated between $5 and $10 for food each day, and I often found free campsites or paid no more than $10 for campground fees. Even when I treated myself to dining out, particularly in the cost-friendly region of northern Spain, I could enjoy a generous dinner with beverages for as little as $8.
Including gear, I had an expense of $1.20 per mile. However, I only stayed six nights at hostels and didn’t go out for dinner much. The most expensive part was definitely the Algarve region in Portugal. Since it’s quite a touristy area, it was hard to find remote camp spots, and the campsites and hostels were quite expensive. On the contrary, the cheapest region was the Basque Country in Spain, where you can get bread with guacamole, tomato, orange juice, and a coffee for only $4.
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When will I stop hiking?
I greatly enjoyed the simple life of each day — a refreshing morning swim, hidden beaches, breathtaking lagoons, and the spontaneous zero days when I encountered fascinating people and places.
Though I wondered when I would stop hiking, the answer seemed unimportant. This journey was about more than just a destination; it was about embracing the freedom to explore, discover, and find myself in every step I took.
And so, 2,061 kilometers, 77 days, 173 protein bars, 25 lbs of oats, and two pairs of shoes later, my thru-hike through Western Europe reached its conclusion in Faro, Portugal. My heart was filled with gratitude for the adventure and the beauty I had experienced on my solo journey.
Just the Start
As I soaked in the good vibes from my adventure, I felt like this was just the start. Europe’s trails have shown me a glimpse of the endless beauty hiding around every bend, and I’m itching to kick off my next solo thru-hiking escapade. I realized that real exploration wasn’t about reaching the trail’s end. It was about the countless possibilities that opened up with every step into the unknown.
If you are a hiker at heart, seeking to embark on an unforgettable journey through some of the most breathtaking landscapes on the planet, then thru-hiking in Europe is an experience you simply cannot miss. So lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and get ready to discover the magic of thru-hiking in Europe — an adventure that’s sure to be both fulfilling and mind-blowing.
I’m Lea, a 23-year-old designer living in Amsterdam. I’m a lover of the great outdoors – whether it’s hiking through rugged terrain, indulging in outdoor sports, or just staring at mountains and the sea for hours – my heart is always drawn to nature. In May 2023, I set forth on an audacious journey, a self-planned solo thru-hike across the captivating landscapes of Europe.
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