So how tough is Europe’s toughest trek? Short answer: pretty tough. And what about the GR20 makes it hard? Short answer: lots of things. Medium answer: the physical challenges, the sheer length of the trek, the weather conditions, and the technical nature of the trail (Keep reading for the long answer).
What’s in this post?
- The GR20 in numbers
- Hardest sections of the GR20
- Does it matter which direction I hike the GR20?
- Physical challenges of the GR20
- Distance/duration challenges of the GR20
- Weather challenges of the GR20
- Technical challenges of the GR20
The GR20 in numbers:
Total distance: 182 kilometers (113 miles)
Total elevation gain: 10,500 meters (34,500 feet- that’s about the same as climbing to the top of Mt. Everest from base camp three times!)
Average Daily distance*: 11.3 kilometers (7 miles)
Average daily elevation gain*: 655 meters (2,150 feet)
*Averages are based on a traditional 16-day itinerary
Hardest Sections of the GR20
On long treks, sometimes the toughest times come when we’re least expecting them: the “easy day” that feels endless, the downhill cruise that crushes our knees, or that chilly morning that we can’t summon up the willpower to unzip our sleeping bag. Those moments will undoubtedly occur on your GR20 adventure, adding a little spice and character-building to the experience (how’s that for a positive spin?) That being said, in addition to the parts that are personally challenging, there are sections of the GR20 that are universally tough for everyone.
It’s important to get physically and mentally prepared for these sections, but you shouldn’t be too intimidated. The purpose of sharing this information is certainly not to scare you, but to give you an idea of what to expect so you can approach your trek feeling prepped and confident. We’ve listed these in order by stage (not toughness), assuming you’re hiking in the traditional north-south direction.
The ridge walk between Bocca Piccaia and Bocca Carozzu (Stage 2): This is the first of many long, slow, and undulating ridge walks and arguably one of the hardest. Be prepared for lots of scrambling.
The Spatismata Slabs (Stage 3): Perhaps the most infamous of the entire trek, the so-called “Slabs of Doom” have the reputation for being sketchy and vertigo-inducing. These large, steep rock slabs are fitted with cables in many places. If you’re heading uphill, they actually aren’t too scary, but downhill hikers have reported feeling uncomfortable with the steep grade. The slabs can be extremely slippery and dangerous when wet.
Ascent to Pointe des Eboulis (Stage 4): Pointe des Eboulis is the highest point on the entire GR20 trek, and getting to it is no small feat. The ascent is long, very steep, and requires some pretty technical scrambling on the final push to the top. Additionally, in our opinion Stage 4 is the toughest stage overall, so your effort on the ascent is compounded by the other challenging aspects of the day.
Ascent to Bocca a e Porte and ridgewalk to Bocca Muzzella (Stage 7): These sections are very characteristic of the GR20 Nord. Expect a very steep and strenuous climb followed by a long, slow ridge walk with lots of scrambling.
Descent into Vizzavona (Stage 9): If you don’t think hiking downhill can be hard, think again. Stage 9 entails nearly 5,000 feet of elevation loss, much of that on steep and stony paths. It’s a physical and mental grind, but the small luxuries waiting in Vizzavona make it all worthwhile.
Monte Renosu high-level variante (Stage 11): This optional alternate route is pretty straightforward on the initial ascent to the summit of Monte Renosu, but the following section requires some pretty technical scrambling and good navigation skills (the route is not well-marked).
Stage 12: Those who claim that the southern half of the GR20 is easy fail to take this stage into account. If you didn’t make it to Refuge de Prati on the previous day, you have a big ascent to start the day. Then there is a long, slow ridge walk in the middle, followed by yet another challenging climb and a final, maddeningly rocky descent.
Does it matter which direction I hike the GR20?
The traditional GR20 route starts in Calenzana in the north, passes through the midpoint in Vizzavona, and finishes in Conca in the south. However, it is possible to hike in either direction. The northern half of the GR20 has a reputation for being the toughest, while the southern half is a bit gentler. Some trekkers prefer to start in the south to get accustomed to the trail before tackling the tougher sections in the north. Others would rather start in the north in order to put the biggest days behind them early and do so with fresh legs.
So in terms of difficulty, one way isn’t significantly more or less challenging than the other. It is totally a matter of personal preference, although we hiked from north to south and would definitely recommend it. We benefited from the confidence boost that came with conquering the most challenging sections early on, and we felt the ascents and descents were more manageable in this direction. While slightly less people hike in the northbound direction, you probably won’t notice a significant difference in crowds since hikers headed both ways stay at the same refuges.
Physical Challenges of the GR20
The GR20 does not require advanced mountaineering experience, but its challenges certainly should not be taken lightly. It is a very strenuous endeavor, with a staggering 34,500 feet or 10,500 meters of elevation change. When averaged out over the 16 stages, hikers have over 2,150 feet or 655 meters of elevation change to tackle per day. Many trekkers will complete the GR20 in fewer days, meaning they’ll have an even greater challenge! You’ll be carrying all of your necessities on your back and much of the hike requires walking on steep, loose, and rocky terrain, all of which add to the toll on your body.
One other consideration involves the health of your knees and overall leg strength. There are very long, steep descents on nearly every stage of the GR20, and these can create problems and irritate chronic injuries for those with sensitive knees, backs, and hips.
Distance/Duration Challenges of the GR20
With a few exceptions (say, relaxing on a beach), it is difficult to get up and do the same activity all day every day for two weeks straight. Whether you complete the GR20 in twelve days or sixteen, that is a long time to be out there. Not only can the repeated long days on the trail wear you down physically, but they can also impact you mentally. Don’t despair- although the GR20’s length presents a major challenge, it is also one of the best parts. There is a beautiful and gratifying simplicity in the routines of life on the GR20, a simplicity you’ll likely yearn for long after your adventure ends.
Weather Challenges of the GR20
No matter what time of year you choose to trek the GR20, weather conditions are more than likely to add to the challenge of your experience. The vast majority of hikers complete their trek in the summer months, which certainly has advantages (such as snow-free trails and stocked refuges). However, the heat can be absolutely brutal. Much of the trail is very exposed, meaning you’ll be laboring under the very strong Corsican sun. This increases your risk of dehydration and heatstroke and will totally sap your energy.
Additionally, the afternoon thunderstorms in July and August are nothing to take lightly. Lightning is especially dangerous when you’re on a high ridgeline or exposed peak. Fortunately, if you’re willing to get an early start, you can avoid the worst of the heat and get off the most exposed parts of the trail before the storms roll in.
Regardless of whether you choose to trek in May, July, or September, you will encounter weather elements that add to the challenge of the trek, be it gale-force winds, frigid mornings, glaring sun, or torrential storms. Get on the trail at sunrise, use good judgment, give the mountains the respect they deserve, and you’ll be just fine.
Technical Challenges of the GR20
In addition to the basic physical challenges, there are also many sections of the GR20 that are technically difficult. This reality really begins to sink in when you look at the time estimates for some stages of the trek. For example, the time estimate for completing Stage 3 is 5.5 hours, and yet the distance covered is just 3.75 miles. How is it possible that it could take such a long time to go such a short distance? you might ask. Welcome to the GR20.
The GR20 is a very technical hike, but it is still a hike. There are no points where you’ll need to use ropes or climbing implements, but there are a few things that make it technical. First and foremost, many stages require quite a bit of scrambling. Think of scrambling as slightly less vertical rock climbing. It’s not like you’ll need to shimmy straight up a sheer rock wall, but you’ll need to use your hands and really lean into the rock to get up or down certain sections. Additionally, there are cables and chains fixed to the rock to help you navigate some areas. These can seem intimidating, but they’re actually not so bad. Finally, the trail conditions add to the overall technicality of the GR20. Much of the rock can become slippery and treacherous if wet, and other sections of trail are quite loose and stony.
Many stages of the GR20 (particularly on the GR20 Nord) follow a similar pattern: long steep ascent, undulating ridge walk with lots of scrambling, long steep descent. Despite the fact that the ascents can be tiring and the descents knee-crunching, they are relatively straightforward. The ridge walks, however, can be very slow and arduous, due to the amount of scrambling involved. If you keep your mental game strong, you will discover that scrambling is actually really FUN and one of the most unique and wonderful parts of the GR20 experience!
The bottom line…
If you approach it with a solid fitness base and some trekking experience, you should be well suited for the GR20. There’s no need to be too intimidated by this trek, but it’s a very good idea to train ahead of time, be realistic about your abilities and expectations, and use good judgment in the mountains.
Check out all of our great GR20 resources:
- The Ultimate Guide to the GR20: Everything you need to plan your trip!
- GR20 Packing List: Make sure you’ve got everything you need!
- How Much it Cost Us to Hike the GR20: Budget with confidence!
- Trip Report: The GR20 Nord-An honest account of our experiences on the notorious northern half of the GR20.
- Trip Report: The GR20 Sud-Know what to expect on the southern section of your trek.
- GR20 Logistics: Don’t forget the small details!
- How to Train for the GR20: Get in shape for your adventure!
- 10 Essentials for the GR20: The very best advice!