The French Laws regarding wild camping are similar to the UK. In a lot of areas there are designated wild camping spots. However, French custom is that in the rural/mountainous areas, do as you please while respecting others property until someone tells you different! I have wild camped loads in France. Never ever had a problem.
Carte ign randonnée - these maps have blue covers and are 1:25,000 scale.
While France tends to be very inclusive for all outdoor pursuits, be respectful when wandering about rural France. Most French farmers are also hunters and although you may be unwelcome if found and while being shot is unlikely, hunting is a way of life and what they’re hunting to make paté from, might not take kindly to you. Don’t wander about on non public access land, is my advice.
If you see a path which is not restricted by a locked gate or signs refusing access, you’re okay to walk on it. It’s really obvious to find open access land and equally obvious when you’re hiding out in someone’s wood.
‘Wild Camping’ is not really mentioned in French law.
For example Bivouacing in Parc Nationale des Pyrenees. “Permitted if at least 1hr walk from park boundaries, between 7pm and 9am. No open fires permitted”.
+1 to Darryl's post. France has far more wild areas than the UK and is, in general, much more camper friendly. In the South, however, we suffer from fires and camping may well be under a ban at times of high risk with frequent enforcement patrols.
Just to add to Darryl's comment on the Parc National des Pyrenees, the rangers advise that more than one night in the same place qualifies as camping (not allowed) rather than bivouacing (which is). The Gendarmes patrol on horseback.
Oldtimer: Does France have any "wilderness" camp grounds?
Here they are road access and no more than 5-10 cleared level tent pads with stone fire rings.
Interesting if you go at the same time every year to the same place, you meet the same people!
Private land can be and is often posted with "No Trespassing" signs*.
Otherwise, certainly polite to always ask the land owner for permission.
Always leave gates like you find them. Those sorts of things.
Here in BC, it's 2 weeks camping on crown/public land before you are supposed to move on.
However, if somebody finds your SAK in a Grizz scat, your mileage was shortened.
* One guy added second signs which said: "Don't Even Ask."
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One thing that the parks do here is to edit the maps for the tourists that they hand out each summer.
Roads and trails disappear. Other roads and trails reappear. They shift the human impact for partial recovery.
French people usually do not really have a problem, if you sleep somewhere in the nature.
You should avoid beaches and obviously private used land.
Theoretically you have to ask for land owners permission, but usually it is no problem, if you sleep somewhere during the night if you are hiking.
If the farmers should find you, they usually say "Bonjour!" If they say anything.
If you stay every where only one night it shouldn't bee a problem.
They make a difference between "bivouaqer", what usually is OK, and "Camping sauvage" what they do not like.
That means a sleeping bag in a corner or even a small tent is OK, but if somebody stays longer without permission and with a lot off stuff and perhaps a large tent, they will tell you, that this is a field, and no camping ground.
Pay attention: If you step in France on the foot of somebody, he usually will ask you to pardon him, that he has to disturb you, because he wants to continue his way, and needs his foot, where you are standing on.
And they mean what they say!
Once I was in an absolutely quiet area on a touristic camping ground, where minimum 100 places where used. At the opposite side of the small valley some young people made till 4 a.m. an incredible loud party.
They did it a second night, and a third night, nobody could sleep, nobody went there!
In the fourth night they called the police, declaring,that this guys make incredible noise every night.
That describes very well how things in France usually work: If somebody makes a little fault, nothing happens, because a fault can happen to every body.
But should they get the impression, that somebody doesn't care about the others, than they become really angry and find very effective ways to express it!
What they really don't like from the first beginning is fire in the open landscape!
I recommend to let the gas stove and pot at home, if you visit France in the summer as a hiker!
You should eat bread, cheese and dry sausages and marmelade, or what ever you can eat without heating it.
So far I am informed, the police can arrest you if they find matches or lighter in your pockets or ruck sack in the forest during the summer.
Of course not everybody who has cigarettes and lighter in the pockets gets imprisoned. But theoretically they can do it!
And if they find you in a dry forest, you have a good chance, that they will surch till they find!
Once we stopped for 3 minutes with the car in the forest in southern France in the night, and the police was immediately there and told us to leave the forest immediately! The car was standing on a public road!
They have fear about forest fires. That you should know!
The laws about knives are equal to Britain.
That means "Victorinox Compact" is the right choice! Or perhaps an Opinel No 7 Carbone, if you should fly to France with hand luggage. You can get it every where.
The locking ring is theoretically illegal.
But in the open landscape that shouldn't matter. It's a monument of French culture and everybody has one.
The level of knowledge In the forum "bushcraft.fr" is very high, by the way, they are very old school, and several articles there are fantastical good, of course written in French.
They organise meetings too.
Apropos meetings: In France exist very nice boy scout camping grounds!
And with the other normal touristic camping grounds it is like this:
They are horribly crowded, or totally empty! Nothing in between!
Every body goes in France for holydays in the same few summer weeks. Before and after the high season you usually find in one corner a Dutch couple, in the second corner a Swiss couple, in the third corner a British couple and in the fourth corner a German couple.
So you can choose, which of the other 100 to 500 places you would like.
That's like wild camping in a park.
They have 5star camping grounds which look like Disney land, and simple cheaper 3 or 2 star camping grounds.
The cheapest usually are the communal camping grounds, I absolutely prefere them.
I travelled extensively with my parents all over Europe, car and caravan, and the two countries where we got the most grief from the locals were France and UK.
Which was a pity, because there is so much to see in those countries!
At the end they/we gave up UK, and had to overnight in established campings in France. We used to do the Goteborg - Harwich ferry, but then changed to Malmo to Copenhagen, Rodby to Puttgarden.
To get back to track:
I hiked every where in France and had no problems with wild camping.
Off course it is a difference if you come with a camping trailer or if you sleep for a night behind a hedge.
Because that is the difference between bivouaquer and camping sauvage in theyr opinion.
I even sometimes slept in a corner of a sports arena. That's made for sport and youth, hiking is a sport, communal camping grounds often share showers and toilets with the sporting ground.
If the guy who cares for it came in the morning, we explained, that we are german scouts and asked for permission to use the showers.
We never got any problems. In French opinion that is a good solution if there isn't a communal camping ground. You set as a hiker yourself under surveillance on the communal ground if you sleep in a corner but visible next to the sports field. That means you accept the French system of order and choose the best existing option.
Currently I travel a lot in France, because I hang up posters in shops for classic concerts.
I usually live there nearly half the year, but changing the town and (touristic) camping ground every second day.
Even with the car I can "bivouaquer" without problems: Clean new car with german number plate, a bit hidden but visible in a corner, small tent or only the sleeping bag next to it, nothing around, absolutely clean place, totally in straight order!
That is theoretically interdicted.
But people feel sorry for you, that you didn't find a free hotel room or an open and free camping ground. They hope for you that after a long traveling day and surching for a nice place to sleep you will find one tomorrow with showers and pool and fresh baguette and coffee and croissants and nice neighbours how it should be, and they regret, that you have to sleep there in the corner in the wilderness.
Nobody ever disturbed me. They let you sleep. They are incredible friendly and absolutely polite.
But it's a difference, if you mean, it would be your right to stand your camping car next to the lake!
That isn't Sweden! Everybody would like to do it, but there isn't enough of nature to do this.
The country with the most tourists in Europe is France! And they all visit France during a few weeks in the summer! It is just crowded enough with the own population. They had to organise that everybody has his space.
In cause of this, they opened every 20 kilometres a communal camping ground, where you have to pay next to nothing for the service they offer you: Fresh water, water pipe, simple but clean showers, toilets, security, a place next to the river, beach or sports ground.
That is meant for tourists with cars, and they have to use them or the private camping grounds.
But how I wrote: If you can't organise it, they do not call the police, no, they feel sorry four your bad situation! If they would know, when you would wake up from alone, they would bring you a thermos bottle of coffee to your sleeping bag! That's for sure!
I even asked several times the police in the night, where to stay!
French camping grounds usually close the gates at 6or 8 pm. Hotels often are full in the summer.
The sherrif has to hunt wild campers! (With cars). But now there is a tired driver, who asks, what to do!
OK! The sheriff knows a solution! He knows a public parking at the end of the village, where is a nice corner under a tree with a bit of lawn. There is no danger for forest fires, if that guy smokes.
It is looking nearly like a communal camping ground, it is communal owned land, there he comes along during the night several times and can look if the guy is save and doesn't make himself any problems.
The sheriff is able to help!
And I can do for one night interdicted wild camping with sherriffs permission!