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Buck30 - Other Trail Journal - 2023

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Brian (Buck-30)
Begins: May 10, 2023
Direction: Westbound

Daily Summary
Date: Mon, Oct 30th, 2023
Start: USA
End: USA
Daily Distance: 0
Trip Distance: 2,224.0

Journal Stats
Entry Visits: 717
Journal Visits: 9,846
Guestbook Views: 113
Guestbook Entrys: 6

TEAR Summary and Planning Information

Here is my big TEAR summary and planning entry. Keep in mind that so far we have only hiked Sections 1 (Kom-Emine), 2 (The Gap), 3 (Via Dinarica) and 5 (Central Massif). We have NOT yet hiked the Alps or Pyrenees which are the 2 large sections that are very different than what we've hiked so far. We plan to hike the Alps and Pyrenees in 2025. Also keep in mind that we are American and have hiked a lot of miles. Especially, the "American" part, Europe can drive a hiker crazy!

Overall I thought the TEAR was an excellent adventure. I've hiked better trails (which is a bit unfair to say as I've hiked a lot), but the TEAR hiking so far was solid and of course we have the amazing Alps and Pyrenees still to hike. And then I just thought the overall experience of walking across the Balkans was fantastic. It was really an amazing way to see and experience a region. I'd give the overall experience an "A" for sure.

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Getting to start:

We went the Sofia/Sunny Beach way which entails flying into Sofia which is a huge city and nice to spend a couple days sightseeing. There's a train and a bus all the way to Burgas (Google maps has it). The train is a bit longer (6.5 hours vs about 5.5 on the bus), but we took the train for more comfort. It's like an old communist block train with compartments of 6-8 seats with the 2 rows facing each other. Go first class for a few extra dollars for the much bigger seats (25 Lev). From Burgas there is a 45 minute bus ride to Sunny Beach. Google maps has it. There are some obvious bus lanes at the Burgas station and Sunny Beach is noted in English in one of the lanes. You buy your ticket on board for 8 Lev.

From Sunny Beach there is a short bus (the #8) that takes you about 10k to the start of the mapped TEAR alternate start (which is then a 10k walk to TEAR km 3 and then 3 more Ks to the Cape!) It's unclear if it runs in the winter but we saw signs noting it started running the summer schedule on 4/26/23 this year. Sunny Beach is a very expensive and crowded summer beach town but in April and early May it's still off-season and lodging was cheap and many places were still closed down or just opening up. We were told by our hotel and read on the internet that taxis in Sunny Beach are famous for ripping off tourists. Take the bus if you can, it was 5 Lev.

(https://diesbus.com/index.php/bg/

avtobusni-linii)

This takes you to a fancy resort village area called Elenite. There are multiple large gates that were open for us but it was slightly concerning if this would be like a gated community or for guests only or something. We took a few paved roads/walking paths through the resort area to the dirt road you want. This is the main dirt road that starts the connector to the TEAR.

The other option is coming into Varna which 2 other hikers did this year and Ben did in 2022. I don't really know this option other than it also has about a 10k walk to the start (although it sounds like the bus could drop you off closer if it chooses). Varna is a very famous beach town so that might be a good option too.

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Section Summaries

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Section 1: Kom-Emine:

The KE is a solid trail. I didn't think it was spectacular, but it was mostly very enjoyable and a cool way to walk across just about the entirety of Bulgaria. Outside of the Central Balkans National Park, it's mostly dirt road that isn't really driven except by maybe a local rancher or logger. There's not a lot of actual singletrack trail outside of the Central Balkans and what there is, isn't maintained so it's probably in very poor shape and you'd rather be on a dirt road anyway. The trail is a mix of forest walking and green hills with good views and alpine in the Central Balkans. But mostly forest I'd say. The trail apparently used to be quite popular in Communist times, but doesn't seem to get much love nowadays even though a lot of people do hike it in the summer months.

Most people hike the KE in July/August and there are big groups that leave together and go really fast and only stay in huts, motels, etc. No tents. It seems to be a thing to do the KE in like 10 days. People will think you are crazy for starting in May, it's just not when anyone else is out there. We had a really bad weather year with unrelenting rain which is a bit unusual. If you start in late April or early May you will almost definitely have snow issues in the Central Balkans National Park. Check out Dylan (Instagram ) and Ben's (blog) trip to see where they encountered issues and alternates around and places that are harder to avoid going around. We purposely started later as we didn't plan to hike the TEAR in 1 year so we had that option. We had less snow issues (especially due to our mini flip) but the rain was brutal and almost impossible to hike through a week in the Central Balkans in that kind of weather. It's pure alpine for a long time. I guess the point is that you probably will have some issues on the KE in May. Probably snow, some rain but probably not as bad as we had.

The GPS track is only marginally accurate. It's actually very confusing as to what the official KE route really is. There doesn't seem to be a good GPS track out there and the trail over the years gets overgrown and basically abandoned at times and rerouted onto dirt roads I believe. The KE is marked with red/white stripes but so are also all other trails and frequently there would be 2-3 trails all going similar directions marked the same way and even labeled the KE on maps. We didn't know what was official/better. We generally followed the TEAR gps track which usually worked out but a couple times just basically disappeared into a XC bushwhack. I feel like these big group fast packers must have like inside knowledge and share GPS tracks or maybe the businesses that organize these groups have better info we don't have. It was fine to follow the KE, just confusing at times. Definitely don't trust that just because something is labeled on a map that it exists!

Camping was easy on the KE. Just avoid villages, obvious grazing areas and you are required to use huts in Central Balkans National Park. There's plenty of resupply along the way. Your carry will be long in the Central Balkans National Park unless you choose to take a side trail way way down into the valley for a town. Pretty much all the TEAR hikers have done that at least for 1 town/resupply in that area.

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Section 2: The Gap

I'll just say it, I didn't really love the Gap. I thought I would, I've done plenty of roadwalking in America but for some reason the Gap just wore me out (probably mostly due to the camping, see below). Heather didn't dislike it as much as me. The Gap write-up on the TEAR website I personally feel like is overly positive about "The path mostly follows high elevation forest roads and will often feel similar to the Kom-Emine, minus the blazes and huts". This was not really my experience, but maybe you'll like it more than me. I'd have to look back at my detail journal, but I feel like the first 1/3 was pretty good. I remember quieter dirt roads in green hills and pretty enjoyable. But I don't remember much too good from the last 2/3. I think it hit me when we walked around the Sharr Mountains. There is an amazing alternate over the mountains, but it's a crazy amount of elevation and I was dealing with a stomach bug, there was just zero chance I had the energy so we took the official route with is just a long roadwalk around. Most TEAR hikers will have to take this anyway as the mountains are covered in snow early on when a TEAR hiker is here. So far most hikers have made it up about halfway and then bailed, still does avoid a good amount of the valley roadwalk which was just loud and busy and finally tired me out of all the roadwalks which had a lot more to come.

Dylan surely did the best he could routing though the Gap. I just was over it by the end. Camping is very difficult. Most of the land is used for grazing, logging, villages and it's hard to find a spot that is flat and hidden. Very hard. We had multiple bad experiences, you can read my journal for the details. Overall people just have no idea what you are doing and you look very odd in a tent. They are curious and will come over if they see you. Or their sheep dogs will come over and bark forever and be scary until the sheep move on or the herder gets there to call them off. Not being able to hide in forest while camping drove me absolutely nuts, maybe it won't bother others as much I suspect.

Resupply is easy the entire way. Plenty of groceries, small stores and motels.

*

Section 3: Via Dinarica:

The Via Dinarica is a solid trail, but tough at times and not really complete. We generally found the route to either be easy when on roads much of the times and very hard when on trails. Most of the trails are rugged and barely maintained, if ever. We didn't get the sense that anyone was doing much of anything for the Via Dinarica, the association seems to barely even exist anymore. Overall the route is quite scenic. The limestone mountains are truly gorgeous. Each country is a bit different. Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia I thought were the most beautiful with Bosnia being the most difficult. Croatia was hit or miss with way too much road walking and abandoned trail, but then also nice National Parks with trail that was sometimes very good and sometimes very hard. Slovenia is pretty boring on all dirt roads in forest until the end.

The GPS track is pretty terrible. It's close enough to keep you on route, but it's a terrible rendition, I don't know who thought this was a decent track and why they can't get something better (the TEAR uses the official Via Dinarica gps track). The trails on the basemaps are actually more accurate than the GPS track. The GPS track frequently makes a straight line and the basemap will show all the switchbacks. Also, occasionally the GPS track is just flat out wrong and you'll follow the markers on a route in a slightly different direction and eventually rejoin the GPS track. Trying to follow the GPS track at times like this when you see markers the other way will only cause you problems. Follow the markers when necessary!

Albania: Albania is short, but tough! We decided not to set up border crossings in advance with the suggested travel company and I think it was a mistake.

https://www.zbulo.org/services/border-crossing-permits-

peaks-of-the-balkans-via-dinarica/

We took the alternate mapped for the TEAR and the first half was quite challenging (a couple VERY steep climbs) and quite beautiful. At the road to Gusinje we walked 6k backtracking on the official TEAR to then go to town. Then leaving Gusinje we stayed on the alternate which is just so-so, it seems like most TEAR hikers have taken this part of the alternate as it seems easier. In hindsight I would have taken the official TEAR to start and used the travel company to book my first crossing from Albania to Montenegro through the mountains. Even if I was off plan a day or 2 I can't imagine it would matter. Then in Gusinje I would just continue on the TEAR alternate and not book the 2nd border crossing. Less planning that way. I think this is the best compromise.

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Montenegro: We really liked Montenegro. It was a lot of walking in the green hills/mountains. Challenging but not too hard and very beautiful. The last couple days towards the Bosnia border were very difficult (basically the section from Zablijac, Montenegro to Kalinovik, Bosnia was brutal).

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Bosnia: Bosnia is very hard! Hardest of the entire Via Dinarica. The 2 main sections (Zablijac to Kalinovik and Kalinovik to Jablanica) are very hard. Big climbs, steep descents and some poor trail. But it's also a very scenic and beautiful country.

*

Croatia: Croatia is a mixed bag. There is a lot of low elevation road walking to start which is pretty poor hiking. Then from Gracac to Senj through the Velebit for 200k is spectacular hiking on mostly trail and then the rest of Croatia is a mix of quiet roads and overgrown/abandoned trail that you will mostly walk around on roads so pretty disappointing. Overall I thought Croatia was disappointing given that it's an EU country and I guess I expected it to either have more trail or at least if there was trail for it to not be abandoned.

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Slovenia: The new Via Dinarica route does a crazy amount of loops for a ton of K's and doesn't look that great, I see a lot of roadwalking and Villages and it's mostly just forest. I think it was rerouted so that in the future this is the area where they will build trail, but I doubt that's happening in my lifetime. We took mostly the old route that the TEAR track still has and even that we shortcutted and just walked as straight across as possible. It's all mundane forest and dirt roads, there's not a lot of reason to spend extra time in Slovenia on the VD in my opinion.

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Section 5: Central Massif

This section was surprisingly nice. Especially if you need a break between the Alps and Pyrenees. It's easier, but still the lower mountains with up and down every day. I'd say an average day of 30k had about 3,000' of uphill. You mostly follow GR routes which are mostly old roads and tracks. There was some pavement, but usually very quiet walking. You pass through a lot of cool villages too. There's farmland and grazing land. You walk through a bunch of National and Regional parks, but it's hard to tell, these seem more like National Forests in America but even less protected than that. Most of these parks seemed to still be comprised of villages, farmland and grazing land. The eastern side of this section is higher and the western side is lower and a bit more farmland/busy. Overall we enjoyed walking this section, it wasn't amazing, but still very nice.

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Schengen Area/Speed

If you have a EU passport this doesn't really apply to you. You can stay as long as you want in the Schengen area and the other non-Schengen countries you pass through quickly without a need for a visa. You just need to decide if you can hike 6250k (3,875 miles) within one season. One season is about mid/late April through October and into November as much as you can. About 7 months or about 19 miles a day. Doable, but a solid speed, there is a LOT of elevation on the TEAR overall.

Pretty much all other Passports only allow you to stay in the Schengen area for 90 days within a 180 day period. This causes a huge problem on the TEAR. Bulgaria through Bosnia are non-Schengen and are about 1700k. Croatia to the Ocean are all Schengen and are about 4,500. So if you start in Bulgaria, you can hike the 1700k as fast or as slow as you want. But as soon as you cross into Croatia you have 90 days to cover 4,500k. This is completely unrealistic for anyone except the absolute fastest hikers I know and even they would barely make it. They would also see nothing else in Western Europe except the trail. This is an average of 30 miles a day, including days off.

You have a few options, none of which are good:

(1) you could cut off about 1000k at the end and finish on the ocean at Hendaye. We plan to do this even though we are doing the TEAR in 2 seasons and have the time. The miles across Spain look mediocre to me and I refuse to spend a couple weeks finishing on a Camino. I just think at this point I could better spend my time in say Scotland or Iceland or just somewhere else hiking. I'll have seen a ton of Europe already and these miles just don't seem that good to me. Just my 2 cents. If you choose to cut the 1000k then you have to cover 3,500k in 90 days. Slightly more doable if you are very fast, but honestly this is still too fast for almost everyone. This is an average of 24 miles a day, including days off and no sightseeing.

(2) You could do it in 2 seasons like we are. This is the easiest option although maybe not realistic for everyone.

(3) You could try a little double Schengen entry where you start early (like April 1) in Spain or the Massif Central section and cover as many miles as you can. Then you go to Bulgaria like normal around May 1. The only issue is you now have to stay out of the Schengen area for 90 days before you reenter. And you only have 1700k to cover from Bulgaria through Bosnia which is very slow (12 mile per day average although then Balkans are very cheap and there are lots of cities to visit and sightsee like we did). Then as soon as you cross into Croatia you still have a lot of miles to cover in your final 90 days. This would work, but seems unlikely that someone who can hike really fast will also want to hike really slow for 90 days.

For example, if you were able to hike the Massif Central section of 628k in April and later finish in Hendaye thereby cutting the final 1000k you'd then only have to average about 20 miles a day for 90 days. Fairly doable for many hikers. This is my best option if you really want to hike the TEAR in 1 season, but can't cover miles insanely fast. Definitely a bit of a pain though with the flip, slow Balkans and then maybe you don't want to shortcut the end. Sorry, you can't have it all!

(4) You can Google/Reddit all kinds of ideas about how to stay in Schengen longer, but the reality is that it's just not probable that anything will work. This France thing mentioned on the TEAR website we've read about and Reddit (and the Nomadic Matt link) people say that almost no one in France actually knows about this. Good luck pulling that off (Update, see #5 below!)

(5) Starting in 2025 there is this new ETIAS system where US (and many other countries) citizens will have to apply before going to Europe. It's not actually a visa, it's more like a security precheck before you arrive and kind a formality as long as you don't have criminal history, etc issues. The upside to this is that it might actually make #4 more realistic to use. #4 and the TEAR website mentions these bilateral agreements where technically you could stay 90 days in Schengen and then go to France or Spain for up to an additional 90 days (even though these are Schengen countries). You are then required to leave from France and fly direct to a non-schengen country. The issue has always been (per the internet) that no one at French border control actually knows about this bilateral agreement even though it's a super old law. So it's possible you'd stay for 90 days in Schengen and say 45 more days in France and French border control would say you overstayed Schengen. This ETIAS thing apparently will more solidify these bilateral agreements. Therefore, as a TEAR hiker you could possibly use "Spain" as your final country, spend 90 days in Schengen (Croatia through France) and then when you get to the Pyrenees you could hike the Spain GR 11 side* and then all of Spain for like 1000k, this would really, really help you complete the TEAR in 1 year. You would then possibly have stayed like 5 months in Schengen (3 months Croatia - France and 2 more months in Spain), but it would be totally legal.

This hasn't been solidified yet so check the news when you need it!

https://www.etiasvisa.com/etias-requirements/

americans

*Technically I don't know how they would known whether you were on the Spain or France side as you go back and forth so you could still hike the HRP, just don't have any evidence that you spent further time in France after 90 days in Schengen.

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Maps, GPS and Navigation:

There are no paper maps to carry. There are only a couple useful guidebooks. There is an English version of the Kom-Emine guidebook, but there's nowhere to buy it that will ship to America. We had it shipped to a friend in Germany that Heather visited before we started. There is a guidebook for the Via Dinarica in Bosnia. It's fine, not necessary, but Heather liked it. The other is the Via Alpina website has an option where you select what sections you are hiking and then it generates a free PDF guidebook for you. We didn't use any other guidebooks. I assume some of the other western European trails have guidebooks, but it didn't seem necessary.

We exclusively used the GPS track on our phones (and Garmin Fenix 6 watches) for navigation. The GPS track was from the TEAR website (which really for each section is just pulled from the various trails official websites so Dylan didn't actually record these tracks). In each trail Section above I discuss the accuracy of the GPS track. We got these nice country maps for our GPS apps from this website:

https://www.openandromaps.org/en/

downloads/europe

These maps were really high quality and loaded easily into the apps we used (Locus and Backcountry Navigator).

We used this site for map packs that loaded onto our Garmin Fenix 6 watches. These maps were just ok, but good enough and the main point of the watches was more to have a track on them to check easily while walking.

https://www.freizeitkarte-osm.de/garmin/

en/regions.html

Overall we didn't really have a hard time with navigation. Each Section above has a bit more discussion about that. We were really never lost and only occasionally very confused as the GPS track sometimes is just totally off from the markers.

The Kom-Emine (Section 1) and Via Dinarica (Section 3) are surprisingly well marked, even when the trail is terrible. They use red/white dots and stripes. The only problem is they use these markings and colors for all trails so seeing them doesn't mean you are on the correct trail! Especially on the Kom-Emine as discussed above. I was surprised by how good some sections of the Via Dinarica were marked even when the trail was terrible or XC (cross-country) although Croatia is barely marked at all at times. Section 2 is the Gap and since it's mostly not a trail there are no markers. But occasionally it does follow some sort of route and would be marked. Section 5 is marked ok. There are a ton of other trails around and lots of junctions so it's pretty easy to miss a turn, but overall it's fine.

Lastly, Torsten took a ton of waypoints and sent them to Dylan so I would hope these will be included for 2024. I also sent mine to Dylon, but I was behind Torsten so I had less. We've added a lot more water waypoints especially. And due to Torsten you now know where every bench and picnic table is on the TEAR!

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Other Hikers:

To date the only significant TEAR hikers are:

Dylon, the creator in 2019. He has an Instagram page with daily entries, but they have very minimal description.

Ben, a young very strong hiker from the UK in 2022 (https://benhikes.eu). There are daily blog entries, but the description is very minimal.

Matus and Ana from Slovakia in 2022.

(https://www.instagram.com/p/

ClT_hMbrzwD/?

igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==)

Then in 2023:

There was us who hiked Sections 1, 2, 3 and 5. We plan to come back in 2025 for the Alps (Section 4) and Pyrenees (Section 6) to finish the TEAR.

Torsten hiked exactly the same as us, I'm not clear what his plans for coming back are. He has a nice daily Instagram post that has helpful daily descriptions.

https://instagram.com/torstenishiking?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==

A young couple from the UK also did a very large chunk of the TEAR.

That's it for now, but the TEAR seems to be fairly well known and I bet will slowly start to see more hikers.

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Wildlife:

We saw almost no wildlife in the Balkans. Lots of birds was the only highlight. The Cuckoo bird was everywhere! Otherwise we literally saw nothing. Not even the invasive wild boars we heard about. I guess we saw a few deer and some snakes. Oh, and we did see a few Chamois. We had a grizzly bear visit our camp in Croatia once. Very poor showing overall.

In France we had a few wild hogs come in the night, but never had a big issue.

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Weather:

I don't know a ton about this, I only know what we did and what we read from the couple past hikers. The first main concern is Bulgaria and snow/poor weather. Read my discussion in Bulgaria above about this. We just had a really unlucky year and if it was a normal year and I wasn't trying to do the TEAR in 1 year I'd probably start around May 1 again. Maybe a week later. If you are trying to do the TEAR in 1 year then you'll want to start mid-April or so and you'll probably have some snow issues.

Really the final issue then is getting through the Alps and Pyrenees before the snow and cold weather comes. I don't know a ton about this, I'm sure you can Google this and read a lot.

One other thing to mention is that the summer is hot on the Via Dinarica. Even fast hikers like Dylan and Ben caught a lot of heat in Croatia. We got it even earlier in Bosnia and then continued on through Croatia.

The only other thing to mention would be thunderstorms. It can be challenging to camp in the forest on many sections. There's a lot of alpine on the Via Dinarica, Alps and Pyrenees. And storms are not super uncommon. Not a great combination.

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Gear/Things to Bring

Make sure your gear is dialed in. In the Balkans you will find it virtually impossible to purchase high quality lightweight gear. Even the biggest outdoor shops in Sofia (Decathlon) or Sarajevo (Intersport) are mostly clothing stores with limited heavy gear. I got very lucky at K2 in Sofia replacing my Neoair. And in Sarajevo I was able to get Leki poles when mine snapped. But if you want a backpack or tent or any technical lightweight piece of gear you won't find it.

The other big issue are shoes. There are lots of stores selling shoes in the bigger cities and even high quality shoes, but you'll have to do your own research if you want to get your specific shoe. Altras, Hokas, etc. are available if you check online and maybe have shipped to store or get lucky in store. We brought an extra pair of shoes and dropped them with a hiker who lived in Sofia on our way to the start of the trail. We started with half worn shoes so when we got back to Sofia after 500k we picked up brand new shoes. These lasted 1200 miles to Ljubljana where we made a contact with someone from the Alpine club and we were able to order shoes to her on Amazon. We ordered from Amazon US and paid about $ 25 Global Shipping which was worth it to get our exact shoes which aren't available in Europe. These shoes lasted us to the end of our 6 months. If you wear special socks you are unlikely to find them anywhere, although random socks are very common to be able to purchase.

France would be much easier to get shoes. We even saw Amazon package lockers in certain towns.

Pretty much all toiletries are replaceable in stores. Saline solution is at the pharmacy. Ibuprofen is only at pharmacies and sold in small quantities and expensive, bring a lot from America if you use it a lot

Zip locks are virtually non-existent, this actually became a big deal! We found a tiny selection of ziplocks in the DM in Sarajevo (DM is a large chain of CVS type stores, just without the pharmacy/any medications). They had like 1 brand and 3 sizes and the bags were thinner than in America. Grocery stores do not have ziplocks.

Crystal Light type drink mixes are not sold over here. The best (and really only) lightweight alternative in the Balkans are the flavored vitamin pills they sell in tubes in grocery stores. They weren't as good but they were cheap. You could get like an Orange multivitamin or magnesium or calcium. I didn't care about the vitamins, I wanted some flavor! We didn't even have these in France and found nothing lightweight to flavor our water.

If you have something that is lightweight and really important to you and also has a tendency to break (like our wireless earbuds) consider bringing a duplicate.

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Cell Phone Plans

There are a lot of options, but I only really know what we did. Heather used this site to compare all the options:

https://prepaid-data-sim card.fandom.com/wiki/

Prepaid_SIM_with_data

Overall there was a ton of cell reception along the entire trail. Even in the Balkans and even in very rural areas.

Non-EU Countries: Bulgaria and Croatia are in the EU, see the EU Country discussion. For the other Balkan countries (Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia) we used Google Fi which you can only do from America. It's not a perfect solution, but it worked well for us. Google Fi basically has free roaming in all the countries, it's an amazing deal. Except it's not meant to be used for long term international travel. It's meant to be used in America and then you go on vacation and use it for 2 weeks. Heather read a lot about people's experiences on Reddit. The gist is that you need to sign up about 2 months in advance and use it in the US. It's $ 50 a month in the US. Use as much data as you can. Then when you go to Europe they won't immediately cut you off. If you sign up in the US right before your trip, they will most likely immediately cut you off in Europe. If you signed up 2 months before the trip then it's likely they will give you 2 months international before they cut you off. And they always give you 30 days notice. We got like 6 weeks until we got a notice of 30 days so in total about 2.5 months which was enough for all these countries. Worked perfect really. Not ideal, but getting a SIM card in each country is a pain and I know other hikers had problems particularly in Serbia (anything decent, apparently they come in 7 day increments or something - Ben seemed to have success when he took a bus to a larger town and got a SIM from Serbia that worked in all Balkans except Kosovo) or having whatever plan they had work in Kosovo. I guess as E-SIM become more common it might be easier although the Google Fi was great, but it's a bit tenuous.

EU Countries: Heather did a ton of research and since she was meeting a friend who lived in Germany before the TEAR she had German plan SIM cards mailed to him for Lebara and Lyca. We got like 19 GB of data a month for $ 20. Very cheap, but these were plans from Germany, you couldn't land in Sofia and get these. These covered all the EU countries (except Switzerland which isn't EU of course). They both seemed fine, we both usually had service and neither seemed better than the other. However, after a while I got a notice from Lebara saying that according to EU regulations they would start charging me about €2 per Gig as I wasn't using my data more than 50% in Germany, the country where we bought the plan. Apparently it's at the discretion of the company if they want to enforce this regulation. This is in addition to the $ 20 cost of the plan. Lyca didn't enforce this with Heather. At this point we only had one country left so I got a new plan/SIM in France. Lyca in France was amazingly cheap. I bought a SIM for €10 and got a 40 gig data plan for €10 a month.

Technically Google Fi would work in all these countries too, but you'll get cut off as mentioned above and we wanted to use the Google Fi for all the Balkan countries where we would have had to get a SIM for each country. Since you can (possibly) just get 1 SIM/plan for all the EU countries this was a great deal.

I would suggest a phone with an E-SIM to make this all easier!

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Water:

We didn't treat our water the entire way and had no problems (we don't ever treat our water so take this with a grain of salt).

The majority of your water in the Balkans will come from "fountains" which are super common. It's basically a piped spring, but they have these fancy concrete fountains that it's piped into. Sometimes it just flows, other times there are faucets. We also drank from plenty of creeks and occasionally lakes. But it was surprising how much water we got from these piped fountains. I'm lazy about carrying water so occasionally I might have drank from a poorer source, but not very often.

It Croatia there are times where you will get water from deep wells. Some of these have buckets, some do not. There are some longer water carries in Croatia so being able to access some of the wells without buckets is nice. We had some very thin rope, 20' will do and then attached it ,to the bottom half of a 2L bottle of soda. Add a heavy rock to the bottle and then drop it to the water, pick it up about a foot and then drop it fast to dunk it under. The rock's weight will help with the dunking. Worked awesome and weighed very little to carry.

In France it's a mix, lots of village faucets and plenty of natural springs and creeks too. There weren't a lot of big water carries in the Central Massif section.

Lastly, the OSM mapsets have little icons of drinking cups showing faucets or rain drops for non-developed water. We found these to only be somewhat accurate (especially the raindrops are not reliable), but it is more information.

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Fuel:

I used an alcohol stove. In Bulgaria it's sold in hardware stores and is denatured alcohol (called Spirt) and should be colored purple or light blue (or other colors) which are additives to show that it's been poisoned and not to drink! I got one brand called Decater in Sofia that burned incredibly slow, something was different about it (even though it translated to denatured alcohol), but the other time I bought a different brand in Anton, it burned very hot and fast.

In Kosovo it is sold in pharmacies and is ethyl alcohol of about 95%. Make sure to get 90% or higher or it won't burn clean or hot enough I believe. I didn't buy fuel between Bulgaria and Kosovo, but I suspect Serbia and Macedonia are probably more similar to Kosovo and in the Pharmacy.

In Montenegro and Bosnia you can only get 70% ethyl in the Pharmacies. Possibly you can get denatured or 90% ethyl in hardware stores but I never had a chance to find one to check. I tried 70% and my pot would immediately put the flame out when set on the stove. I even set the pot a few inches above on the windscreen and it still put the flame out. What worked was I still had some 96% left and a small splash of that in mostly 70% actually worked, the flame didn't go out and it boiled ramen no problem. Not ideal, but I had no choice for a while.

[We read in Montenegro that legally only 70% can be sold in Pharmacies. In Bosnia it seemed the same as I checked many and they only had 70%. And then miraculously I found 96% at a pharmacy in Sarajevo [43.8559955, 18.4109053]].

In Croatia it's apparently available at hardware stores, but I never actually checked. A Croatian hiking acquaintance did check in his town and found it in a hardware store.

In France it's super easy, it's in most grocery stores and sold as 1 liter called Alcool a Bruler 90°.

For the Via Dinarica apparently it's very common to find canisters in grocery and other stores but they are the non-threaded type (as in you connect the canister and unless you have a special adapter it can't be removed).

If you are trying to find threaded gas canisters throughout the Balkans you are probably going to be going to the big cities and spending a lot of time searching around the towns crappy outdoor shops looking for a canister. Dylan tries to mention where you might find a canister and Torsten left a few new waypoints for this as well I believe.

If I had to do it again I'm not sure what I'd do. I struggled when I couldn't easily get 90% alcohol after Kosovo and until almost Croatia. If I hadn't had leftover 90% that I could add to 70% I wouldn't have been able to cook. To be safe, I'd carry a lightweight canister stove that took threaded and non-threaded canisters. They seem to make these per Google.

*

Dogs:

So many dogs in the Balkans! I've got 3 main types. Village dogs, dogs that follow you and sheep dogs. None of these were surprisingly a danger. There are lots of stray dogs in the Villages, seems like people just tolerate them. Occasionally one would bark at us but usually they didn't do anything, sometimes they'd just lay there as we walked by. The only real problem was when they would occasionally follow us. Sometimes they would follow us for hours. We were lucky that somehow the timing was such that they never made it to camp with us which would have been a bigger pain. They were kinda fun to walk with except when road walking as they'd get in the way of cars or people and people would think it was our dog and give us dirty looks.

The sheep dogs are a different story. They seem to be all kinds of breeds and sometimes there would be upwards of 8 at a time. The most famous one is the Starra Planina sheep dog which can be quite scary looking. Surprisingly we never had a big issue. The dogs seemed well trained not to attack humans near their flocks. I wouldn't get too close and we were careful not to walk through the middle of a flock. The dogs would bark like crazy but they never ran at us really close. Also, usually there is a human with them. They seem to take the sheep and cattle out all day with the dogs and bring them home at night. So frequently there was a herder to easily call off the dogs. Really the biggest issue was camping. If you happened to camp somewhere a flock came grazing by, then the dogs would find your tents and just stand 20' away and bark like crazy until the herder came. This was super annoying and stressful when we were considering where we should camp. In America I know a fair number of hikers who have been bitten by sheep dogs so I thought over here the dogs were actually a lot better.

It seemed liked there were less dogs in Bosnia and Croatia.

Dogs are not an issue in France. Everyone has one and they rarely use leashes, but it's not like the Balkans. There are rarely herds of sheep with dogs.

*

Dangers:

Nothing really too crazy to mention. I don't think the people in the Balkan's are particularly dangerous, but there was at times in the back of my mind that I was walking through very rural and poor areas and I was this rich American. It's probably not a fair sentiment, but it made me a tiny bit nervous when camping that maybe someone would want to take advantage of that. And we did have that one really bad experience while camping in Serbia and another in Macedonia. So my shitty thoughts aren't completely irrational.

The sheep dogs worked out fine for us, but you never know.

Lightening is the only other thing that comes to mind. There's a lot of alpine at times, plenty of storms and lightening can always be really dangerous.

*

Permits:

Basically none. There's very occasionally an entry fee to a National Park you walk into, typically GPS waypointed. Camping is the biggest restriction as I've discussed above in the Section summaries.

*

Bugs:

We had lots of bugs in the core summer months. Mosquitoes, many types of flies. Nothing ever bothered me while walking, but I would have tons of them outside my tent some nights. The bugs are really attracted to Heather and she got bites during the day at times. She carries a tarp and set up her bug netting many nights. Certainly not even close to how bad I've hiked in bugs before, but they were around for a few months.

*

Food/Resupply:

On the one hand, resupply is fine in the Balkans. On the other hand, it's terribly disappointing. Even the biggest grocery stores were super disappointing compared to America. But you'll get by just fine. For breakfast we bought these 7 Day packaged croissants basically for everyday. In America we would carry pop tarts or I carry big muffins or other wrapped pastries, these don't exist over here. For lunch we just ate a lot of chips, cookies, chocolate. Terrible. Dinners for me cooking we basically pasta with butter or Ramen. I also found powdered pasta sauce which was actually really good. Heather doesn't cook and did tortillas, summer sausage/packaged meats and cheeses. Probably the best combination would be to do this for lunch and cook for dinner. There really isn't Mac and Cheese, Knorrs sides or mashed potatoes and things you'd typically cook for dinner in America. Heather pretty much always found a different assortment of meat and cheeses.

The worst are the snacks. They have rows and rows of shitty cookies, crackers and other snacks. I rarely found anything I liked. They do a terrible job compared to America's junk food! Most of the items are light and airy and barely have calories. Packages are small and pathetic. Milka is the big chocolate and cookie company. Their cookie packages are so tiny, you'll buy a package and find that it has 9 cookies in it. Chips are also sold in tiny packages. If you find an 8 ounce bag that's as big as it gets! There are some American products over here. Oreos are very common as well as Doritos. There's usually a section of American candy bars limited to Twix, Mars and Kit Kat. Sometimes we'd see Reese's. If I had a dollar for every cookie or cracker I tried that turned out to be dry and tasteless, I'd be rich.

My advice is to figure out breakfast, lunch and dinner like we did and then just keep trying different things until you find what works for you.

I found that the size of the store barely mattered. A small grocery wasn't really that much worse than a large one. The selection was slightly less, but rarely did I go to a large grocery and think, wow, I have so many more options now.

One thing to keep in mind is that most things are closed on Sunday. Sometimes basically everything in a town will be closed, including the grocery store. It's more likely a restaurant will be open than a grocery on a Sunday, but you also never know. Google Maps is wildly inaccurate, do not trust it for anything you really need to know the hours or location for. Hours are wildly inaccurate and tons of businesses don't actually exist where marked. I was always skeptical/careful if a business didn't have any pictures or reviews, generally it meant that it didn't exist.

In France the grocery stores were much better. Much bigger and a much better selection. Even good cookies! Ranging from the small "express" stores to large American sized supermarkets. Watch the store hours. Many, many businesses close from like 12:30-4 everyday. Most groceries do not close mid day but some are closed on Sunday. The tiny/fancy groceries do close mid day and on Sunday too.

As for town food, I'll give my best take, but I think a more adventurous eater would find and enjoy a lot more than I did. Basically pizza is super common. It's cheap and everywhere. I lived on pizza. My other favorite were doners and gyros which were all over Bulgaria and then only occasionally in all the other Balkan countries. These were tasty and cheap. Beyond that, grilled meats are the thing in the Balkan's. A menu will just have a long list of meats. Side dishes don't seem to be a big thing. We mostly avoided this, I'm sure I could have eaten something, but I usually just ended up ordering a pizza. kebabs were the one exception which I occasionally enjoyed (not on a stick, instead it's like 10 little sausages with some sides and fresh bread). French fries are common. Free ketchup is not. But then they'll put ketchup on your pizza if you aren't careful! Breakfast is what I hated the most, Heather loved it. It's a European breakfast, nothing like America. You get a plate of sliced meats, cheeses, tomato, cucumber, tiny hot dogs and maybe an egg. So gross! I would eat the entire bread basket while Heather ate both hers breakfast and my breakfast included with the hotel stay. Bakeries are super common and I also lived on these. I could probably go on forever, but this is the gist. I'm sure everyone will have a different opinion and find different things they like. I'm not a particularly good or adventurous eater.

Service at restaurants is pretty terrible as everyone says about Europe. Half the time I'd have to get up to order or pay. I never understood what people wanted from us. At least we didn't have to tip.

We struggled to eat out in France. Restaurants in France are pretty expensive and there isn't a lot of fast food like in the Balkans. Plus most places are closed mid day, it's so frustrating! I did eat at a lot of Boulangeries (Bakeries) which have a lot of cheap and delicious breads and pastries. They also tend to have nice sandwiches.

*

Lodging:

Lodging is super cheap in the Balkans, similar to America or slightly lower in Croatia and extremely expensive in the Alps. Apparently prices have gone up a lot in the last few years and we still found lodging to be cheap in the Balkans, at least compared to America. I'd say the average price we paid in the Balkans was $ 40. Your best friend will be Booking.com. This is the primary site where everything is listed, if it's listed. If you can, use this for a long time before the trip and reach "Genius 3" level which is good for a lifetime. It legit gets you 20% discounts on a lot of properties on the site, we saved a decent amount of money as Heather got this level. The quality of the lodging was low, but not terrible. I feel like trail towns in America the quality is very low as well. Most of our places were actually quite nice rooms, cleaner than in America trail town dumps frankly. But the amenities were low. Poor beds and pillows, crazy showers, low hot water, no soap sometimes, things like that. But we never really had a big problem and most places we stayed in I would stay again for $ 40. There are a lot of apartments on Booking which helps really expand the number of options. Apartments can be a bit of a pain as you normally have to coordinate with the person to check in, but otherwise it gave us a lot more options in the larger towns we visited and maybe will even have a washing machine! By the end of the trip a hotel seemed so disappointing compares to a nice big apartment for the same price or even lower.

Croatia used to be cheap but has gotten a lot more expensive in the last few years. Lodging if we were careful wasn't too bad. Expect more like $ 70-80 a night, but try to plan ahead, Croatia is popular now and things get booked up.

We had a very hot summer and our #1 priority was air conditioning which if we paid attention was actually fairly common. Some of these town stops I would have died without air conditioning so focus on that!

France was cheaper than we expected for lodging. Around $ 60-$ 80 we usually were able to find. Lots of places on Booking. The amenities weren't really much better than the Balkans and air conditioning is pretty uncommon.

*

Money:

The Balkans are a mostly cash culture. The only place guaranteed to take a credit card are major grocery stores. Small grocery stores are sometimes yes, sometimes no. Lodging and restaurants are the same way, sometimes yes sometimes no. A lot of places we booked on Booking were actually cash only. The nice thing about that is that you would book a place "non-refundable" but they don't take a credit card so it can't be enforced. I think it's to encourage you to make sure you don't cancel, but if you have a chance of plans the property really can't enforce it. Places are also obsessed with exact change. If I handed them a bill they would always ask me for a coin or something. It could get annoying.

We got Schwab ATM cards before Europe as they reimburse unlimited ATM fees and we needed it! The ATM fees were insane. We had $ 5-$ 8 per ATM withdrawal. These cards also have no other fees. I used a Capital One credit card that also has no fees. Occasionally I would check the conversion Schwab and Capital One used and was impressed it was basically exactly what the current rate was, no difference/small scams being pulled in the translation. We never had a problem using our cards, nothing was cancelled, etc. We each brought 2 ATM and 2 credit cards just in case. Also, at the ATM's always decline the option to use the ATM local currency conversion. This is a scam. You want your bank to do the conversion at a good rate, the ATM rate will rip you off by like 10%.

The only country you cross into where getting money might be an issue is Bosnia. The first town you hit is Kalinovik and the ATM there is gone. Apparently you can exchange money at the PO for a small 1% fee and also we've heard that most or all of the places will take Euro's if you have them. Euro's in Bosnia seemed pretty common if you needed to use them. The only other mention would be Albania. You are barely in the country and if you didn't want to get money (I remember the ATM fee was like $ 8!) the grocery store in town takes a credit card. We got a little bit of money as there are a few places on the trail ahead where you could buy a meal or soda, but you don't have to do that.

We did our best to get rid of our money by the end of each country. There's not a ton of options, but occasionally the border crossing will have a small shop which will exchange your money. You won't get a good rate, but if you don't have a lot to exchange you'll buy a couple sodas and get like $ 10 back in the new currency and we were happy enough with that. I didn't care if I lost $ 5 in the transaction.

Croatia is more like Western Europe and credit cards were accepted almost everywhere.

France we barely ever spent any cash and everywhere takes credit cards.

*

Language:

Oddly this wasn't a big issue. In the Balkans people prided themselves on knowing English and we found a surprising number of people who spoke some English. Usually the younger folks. I think when you come from poorer countries, knowing English gives you a leg up. This is in contrast to France where people seemed to know less English, but it didn't really matter. With Google translate, miming, a few words from their language or just using key words in English that most people know we got by just fine. It would be helpful to learn the Cyrillic alphabet at a minimum for Bulgaria, sometimes in Serbia and Macedonia too. This way you can at least sound out words and read where a bus or train is actually taking you! I was very surprised by how well we got by knowing basically nothing, but English and just trying our best. Of course, we didn't actually speak to locals very much and do homestays with families, this would require a better hold on the language.

*

Overall Spending

This can be a pretty cheap trip, at least for the Balkans. We spent 4 months in the Balkans and 2 months in France.

The Balkans are very cheap. Even after a few years of inflation we thought it was cheap, I guess that's compared to America of course. Hotels/apartments were $ 40-$ 50 a night and food was very cheap including eating out. It was nice, I basically never paid attention to the price of food it seemed so reasonable to me. Unlike in America where you might think about eating out for this or that meal, we didn't do that here.

France was more like America prices, but we didn't seem to spend that much more. Lodging was more like $ 80 or so. There is little to no fast food/counter service so we ended up barely eating out. Food is almost all sit down dining and quite pricey so we basically just avoided it. We stayed in a lot of apartments and were able to cook a little and I ate a ton of bread and pastries from the Boulangerie's! I think what we spent more on lodging in France we saved by not eating out a lot. Grocery prices didn't seem that expensive if you pay attention to what you are buying. By France I was in a groove of what I would eat and what was cheap. I definitely spent less on groceries in France than in America even though overall I don't think French groceries are actually cheaper. There just wasn't expensive stuff to buy that I wanted.

Over the 6 months I spent about $ 1k per month. This included a ton of lodging due to our whole Schengen thing and just waiting out bad weather and also wanting to explore and sightsee a bit more than a normal thru hike (this $ 1k includes only my half of lodging as I was splitting it with Heather - if you are alone lodging will be more of course). Amazingly we spent about 1/3 of our nights in a hotel/apartment. That's by far (by far!!) the most lodging I've ever stayed in. But then I spent less on eating out that I would in America and less on groceries too. So if you stayed in way less lodging than us then you'd spend a lot less. This 1k per month average includes all of our spending except our flights to and from Europe (we used frequent flier miles) and the gear we brought over. I spent a bit on gear in Europe for new poles, t-shirt and shoes, but it only added up to about $ 250. I'd say $ 1k per month is quite a good deal for what we did.

Keep in mind that we haven't hiked the Alps or Pyrenees yet. The Pyrenees shouldn't be any more expensive than the Massif Central really, but the Alps will be a lot more expensive unless you really clamp down on costs. You will need to select your zero day lodging very carefully, dining out will be much more expensive and if you stay in a lot of huts that will add cost and especially if you decide to eat in a lot of huts.

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Trans-European Alpine Route (TEAR)

The Trans-European Alpine Route (TEAR) crosses mainland Europe by traversing 6 major mountains systems. It passes through 16 countries, 16+ national parks, and is roughly 6250km long.

 

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