Guest Blogger: Ophélie is originally from France but moved to Belgium from McLean, Virginia five years ago. She and her husband have found that kids didn’t have to stop them from doing what they love. Instead, they shared their passion for travel and the outdoors with their young son and daughter. Ophélie can be found on Instragram and Facebook.
A hike in the Vosges in France with a donkey may not be a typical family vacation, but it was an absolutely amazing adventure that we encourage others to consider. A decade ago (time flies), my now-husband and I went for a hiking trip in the Vosges mountains in eastern France. We loved the relaxing feeling of peace and freedom inherent to this region. Unlike the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Vosges are low mountains that culminate at 1,424 meters (4,672 feet) and are still exempt of any mass tourism. The mountains are characterized by the rounded shape of their peaks, called the ballons, which give them their peculiar softness. An immense forest covers 60% of the mountains and features mostly conifers. Yet, this quiet mountain offers a variety of landscapes, including lakes, wet and high altitude meadows, deep valleys, waterfalls, cliffs and rocks. The Vosges are the perfect place for a breath of fresh air and a paradise for outdoor and nature lovers.
This summer we decided to hike in Vosges again and share this experience with our two children, who are 6 and 7 years old! To make the experience even more exciting and memorable, we decided to rent a donkey! More and more farms in France offer donkey-renting options. After some online research, we chose La Ferme Prés en Bulles, a few miles away from the city of Gerardmer. They offer many alternatives from half-day rentals to all-included tours with nights in country inns and half-board. Because we wanted to completely unplug from every-day life, we chose the bivouac, a temporary / wild camping option, that gave us three days of total freedom! Our trip included hiking, backpacking and wild camping through the Vosges forest as a family, with kids, dog and donkey (not talking about my husband this time)! It was a first for us, and we LOVED it! Here is our experience.
Planning the Trip: an Adventure by Itself
As always, packing is exciting! We involved the kids very much so that they were part of the whole adventure. We weighed everything to not overload our brave donkey! With only two small tents, four sleeping bags, camping stove, headlights, a small toiletry and safety kit, a map, limited clothing, food and water for 3 days – no toys or cosmetics, we were ready to go. It was both a fun and interesting experience for the kids to decide what were the essentials!
D-day: Meeting our Donkey
Hidden along the small, meandering roads of the Vosges mountains, we found the farm where we met Marie and Deil, the donkey owners. They introduced us to our donkey, Brimbelle (which means “blueberry” in the Vosgian dialect). For 30 minutes, the donkey-owners taught us how to take care of Brimbelle. They showed us how to gently curry-comb, brush, clean out the donkey’s hooves and how to place the packsaddle! They helped prepare the itinerary on the map and indicated the narrow trail sections that cannot be used. We saddled up Brimbelle, loaded the bags and were on our way!
Hiking with Brimbelle was an awesome experience! We hiked about 10 kilometers (6 miles) each day, so 30 kilometers (18 miles) in total across forest, fields and villages. Donkeys are awesome travel companions, and Brimbell added a new dimension to the hiking adventure by motivating our children to hike along. Steady and gentle animals, donkeys bring a very relaxing and secure feeling. Our 6 year old daughter, who is usually super active, spent hours walking calmly alongside Brimbelle and cuddling her in the evening. Even our very energetic 1 year old Australian shepherd, Perle, seemed to be calmed by the presence of Brimbelle. Donkeys must have some magical soothing powers!
Wild camping in Vosges
The bivouac option offered us a lot of flexibility, so we did not plan in advance where we were going to spend the nights. We adjusted to everyone’s tiredness and began to look for a place to camp mid-afternoon, so we would have time to rest and play before the sun went down. We took time to look for a nice spot, so that each evening we could enjoy the sunset over the pine forest or the valley! We also looked each time for a place near a water source so that we could easily get water for Brimbelle and Perle. I loved to see how the kids felt responsible for the animals, taking care of them, bringing them water and always looking for the best spot of green grass for Brimbelle to graze!
Wild camping with kids is an amazing experience for so many reasons. Being in the forest at night with no one else for miles around is exhilarating. Experiencing the total silence except from the wind and wildlife is priceless. Inevitably, it is a bit harder work than campsite camping. You have to walk in, plan more, pack enough food, and find a good spot – all the while staying safe, but it is a great family challenge. We made special memories that will last for a lifetime.
Good to Know
The law about wild camping in France is quite confusing (Article R111-33 and R111-34). However, in most French national and regional parks, free camping is tolerated from sunset to sunrise or from 19h to 9h (7 pm until 9 am) in a small tent in which you cannot stand. Fires are forbidden, but the use of camping stone is sometimes tolerated. Regulations are subject to change or interpretation depending on the region, the season, and the local habits. Make sure to check before going or ask the donkey-owners. They are amazing resources!
Hiking with a donkey in numbers:
- Donkeys can carry nearly 30-40 kilograms (65-90 pounds). They can carry small children of 3-6 years old if needed.
- Donkeys walk steadily at a pace of 3 to 4 kilometers/hour (1.8 to 2.4 miles/hour)
- Donkeys reasonably walk up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) per day
- A 1/25,000 map of the area is a necessity, whether you buy one beforehand or purchase one from the donkey-owners.
Renting a donkey costs 38€ ($44) per day. Prices may of course vary depending on the owners and the hiking region. Renting a donkey is becoming a popular added value of any family hike everywhere in France, with almost 300 professional donkey-owners registered. If you love animals and nature, that is an amazing way to discover the French countryside, slowly and peacefully! Either you choose the all-included option with nights in country inns, or the wild version with bivouac in the tent; travelling with a donkey is a truly unique family adventure, that your children are unlikely to forget!
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