Alps Hiking–Everything You Need to Know
Alps hiking is not just for the fit and outdoorsy.The Alps offers various trails for different levels and durations. This allows you to plan a trip that fits your own capability & liking.
WWB writer, Dee, has created an ultimate guide in Alps hiking so you can see the Alps and experience it up close and personal.
Picture from photosforyou, Pixabay
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Where is The Alps?
It is located entirely in Europe and has the most extensive mountain range covering 8 countries namely France, Switzerland, Austria, Monaco, Italy, Germany, Slovenia and Liechtenstein.
The location allows you to reach it easily from whichever part of the world you are at. Most commonly used airports would be Geneva, Zurich and Munich.
After you have decided which part of the alps you want to discover, you can start planning your first alps hiking experience already!
Why Hike The Alps?
The alps have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Imagine, walking in the Alps, through the paths of Holy Roman emperors and pilgrims, going through the trails that they went through thousands of years ago. There’s ancient Roman sites to visit and historical sites relating to World Wars to see along the trails in the alps.
If you want to tackle the French alps, you can fly to Geneva and work your way to Chamonix from there. If Swiss alps is your first choice, fly to Zurich and make it your base. If Austria is what you are interested in, you can both fly to Zurich or Munich and get to Austrian Alps by train or car. The choices vary depending on where you want to start.
Variety of trails
This depends on what kind of alps hiking you would like to do. Scenes of lakes and mountains? Or just discovering alpine villages and enjoying the forest walks nearby. Glaciers, lakes , wildflowers and mountain walks ? It is limitless.
It is one of the best supported hiking destinations in the world. The trails are all well marked making it easy to plan your routes. You can join a walking tour that can help you plan your hike or if you are feeling adventurous you can also opt for a self guided tour.
Food & Culture
Because the alps are made of 8 countries, there’s a variety of different cultures and food you can experience from one country to the other. Variety of local wines & cheeses to savor and quirky food that you can try whether you can pronounce the names or not is available at every corner and bend of the trails.
Scenery, scenery, scenery
Fresh mountain air and beautiful scenery, what is there not to look forward to. Depending on the time of your trip, you will be able to see lakes, glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lush forests.
Hiking in the alps is not just about hikes and walks,there is also the lure of cute Alpine villages, with it’s rustic cottages that looked like Heidi used to live there.
Once you have made up your mind to go for an alps hiking trip, next in mind is to figure out which hike or trail you would go for.
List of Must Do Hikes in The Alps
Each alps region has its own list of trails that you can experience; however, this list would cover the must do hikes at least in my own opinion.
Tour De Mont Blanc (also known as TMB)
Photo from Alexgan , Pixabay
The interesting part of the trail is that you are hiking in the French Alps and covering three countries, namely France, Italy and Switzerland. You get to see the highest peak in Europe which is Mont Blanc in all its majesty while discovering the local culture and learning history along your way.
The 170km trail will take about 10-11 days to complete starting at Les Houches, which is a 10-minute bus ride from Chamonix, France. If you are pressed for time, you can do the trail in 3 – 5 days taking a small portion of the trail.
However, the ideal way is to do the 10-11 days route which will get you to experience hut to hut hiking in the alps. Doing so will allow you to savour local dishes, see more wildlife and enjoy the alpine village’s scenery
The nearest airport would be Geneva, Switzerland and from the airport, you can either take a bus or a train to Les Houches.
A bus will take you about 2 hours and the train would bring you there in 2 hours and 30 minutes (due to train change in between). Try to get to Les Houches earlier during the day so that you would have ample time to go around and give yourself a rest before you start your trail the next day.
The trail is great for beginners and is known to be very popular due to well-marked trails. A particular part of the hike would need you to climb up a series of ladders, however you can also opt out , and take the alternative route which is nearby.
You need to focus on strength and endurance for this trail due to unpredictable change of weather.
Hiking in Geneva, Switzerland is also possible while you are here and I personally would recommend Mount Salève as you can hike up and see Lake Geneva, Switzerland from the top. It’s part of France which is easily accessible from Geneva in a day’s trip. Get onto the cable car when you return and then the local bus to get back to Geneva town. It’s not quite alpine hiking but a great introduction to the sport and what to expect.
Chamonix to Zermatt or The Haute Route
Known as the most magnificent hut to hut hiking trail in the Alps, this trail connects Chamonix, part of France and will stop at Zermatt in Switzerland where you would also see the Matterhorn. This trail will allow you to cover part of the French and Swiss Alps altogether.
The 180km trail takes 11-15 days depending on which variation of trail you choose & the speed you take. There are 13 trails to choose from with the shortest of it is 174km and the longest is 227km. Average walkers can complete it between 11-13 days at least.
Get a flight to Geneva, Switzerland and from there you can take a bus to Chamonix. Alternatively, you can take the train which will bring you there in 2 hours 50 minutes to 3 hours and 20 minutes depending on the connection of the trains. You would need to change trains in between the journey.
Difficulty level is from medium to high. This is for seasoned hikers and fittest mountain walkers who are well prepared .Some parts can make you feel like a walk in the park and some parts would actually challenge your climbing skills. It is considered as the most difficult trail for Alpine Trekking.
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of the terrain. Your body will take a while to acclimatize itself due to the lack of oxygen, so best to start slowly and not rush into it.
Hiking in the Swiss alps particularly at the Bernese Oberland rewards you with views of lakes, mountains and alpine meadows. Located at the Western part of Switzerland,this has to be one of the best options for swiss walking holidays because you will be rewarded to see Eiger, Jungfrau and of course the beautiful lake of Interlaken.
Most walking tour packages would recommend a 5 to 7 days duration to experience Swiss hospitality at its best. Here is also where it gets interesting. You can opt to walk for half a day or a day then travel by train to the next destination of Bernese Oberland.
The nearest airport would be Bern and from there you can take a train to Lenk which is the starting point of your trail. The fastest would be by car if you are renting one of your own which will take just about an hour.
Moderate to difficult due to the distance of the walk and cater more to experienced walkers with good walking pace.
If you would like to do the Eiger Trail which is part of Bernese Oberland, it takes only 2-3 hours of a day walk/hike.
Get the Bernese Oberland Pass which allows you to take public transport during your trip at a much lesser cost and content yourself with day walks in the Jungfrau Region. The pass allows you to commute using any means of public transport including mountain railways.
The Dolomites, Italian Alps
Located at the northern part of the Italian Alps, it has been inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2009. The Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park and other regional parks are located in the Dolomites which gives you a lot of options to tackle this part of the alps.
There’s a guided hike of 8- 10 days that will allow you to discover the best of the Dolomites. However, there are also various day hikes that you can do while you interchange between trains and trails.
The 8-10 days guided hike would cover a total of 120km of distance, bringing you from Lago Di Braies and ending at La Pissa (Val Cordevole) .
You can choose to either get a flight that brings you to Belluno or Bolzano Airport. From there, Villabassa can be reached by train within 2 hours and 30 minutes departing from Bolzano Bozen.
There are also options for those who are already in Europe, whereby you can take a bus from Venice or Zurich. It’s slower but at a cheaper cost and fun way to see Italy on your way to your point of destination.
The 8-10 day hike would require you to be used to hiking 8-10 hours with elevation in mind. However, the day hikes or trails can just be a 5-6 hours hike that is pretty easy for most levels of hikers.
The famous trail Alta Via 1 is known as a walking trail, as it is also a public footpath. You do not need special climbing equipment unless you want to do it via ferrata.
Autumn would be the best time to go because you can see the rock formation go from rosy pink to orange hues during sunrise and sunset. There’s also a festival happening early September which, if your time is right , a great way to enjoy what the locals can offer you (food, arts, music, fun !).
One trail that you should not miss is Tre Cime di Lavaredo . It’s a 9.5 km hike, about 3 to 5 hours in total and is the symbol that is being used for the UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you could not do the Alta Via 1 trail, then opt for this trail which is mostly flat . Best time to go for this particular trail is in the Summer, so you can see wildflowers in bloom.
Tre Cime Di Lavaredo,Photo by alessandroderosso, Pixabay
The Eagle Walk, Austrian Alps
The trail runs through Tirol, Austria from East to West. Innsbruck, the capital city of Tyrol is well known as the fifth largest city in Austria, which is the gateway to this trail.
The distance is 413km with 33 stages and to complete the full walk would take at least 30 days. However, a lot of hikers would usually plan to tackle a few of the stages per trip.
Make Innsbruck as your base as the capital town is beautiful and engaging to discover while you are there. Fly to Innsbruck Airport and from there, you can take a bus that brings you to Innsbruck town in 20 minutes
Depending on which stage you plan to try, it goes from moderate walks to strenuous hikes. The easiest is Stage 13 trail where you would start at Innsbruck then off to Zirwenburg and back again at Innsbruck.
The main reason why I recommend putting Innsbruck as your base is because they have free guided hikes which is a programme that starts from July to October. For more details on the dates and which trail you can head here .
What to wear hiking in Switzerland (or Alps Hiking!)
Type of Clothing – light, waterproof and thermal sweaters
It is best to pack light, thin clothing that you can wear in layers comfortably. The weather in the alps can be unpredictable even during summer so you would have to be well prepared.
Switzerland alone is well known for being colder even during the summer that makes the Swiss alps challenging.
Clothes that are waterproof/rain proof and light thermal sweaters would do very well for the hike. Uniqlo has a very good selection of thermal sweaters for you to choose from for such purpose.
Shoes & socks
Good hiking shoes are necessary and invest in good seamless, thick socks for the hike. Choosing the wrong socks and shoes may cause blisters and would not give you the memorable walk/hiking experience that you are looking for.
I’d recommend going to Decathlon that has extensive selection for such a sport or any sports shop outlet and get their advice on what brands you can invest in.
Things to bring for hiking in The Alps
Other than the proper clothing, undergarments and sunblock; get yourself a trekking pole or two to help you along the way. You would be happy to have a trekking pole to help push you at some parts of the trail.
Sunglasses & cap
Pack along your sunglasses and cap to protect you from the sun rays. It may be summer and the weather can be rainy and windy in the alps but the sun has its own power to leave its mark on you aka sunburn.
A day pack
To pack your water, light meals (sandwiches, muesli bars etc) , light weather proof jacket when you start your trail. A weather proof jacket should be able to protect you from UV sunscreens and light rain.
At least for 2 litres and you can refill at the end of the day during your stop for the night.
Mobile phone and it’s charger (and powerbank)
A helpful tool if in any emergency or just to keep in touch with your loved ones to know where you are, and how far you’ve been. It can also be perfect to store the digital version of the map of the trails you are going to.
A detailed paper map of the route or trail that you choose. Get the latest, detailed paper map of your trail for your reference during your walks. I am all for paperless and going digital but when your phone dies on you, you need to have a back up plan and this is where the paper map comes in.
Whistle & flashlight
In the event of an emergency these two can be used as signals to those nearby that someone is in need of help. Your phone can also double up as a flashlight (see why I say the powerbank is necessary ?)
Snacks like muesli bars, chocolates and water to keep you going during your trail/walks. You can refill all that during your stops along the way.
When to go walking in the alps
Best Season to Go
The best time to go is from late May to late September which is Summer time . Summer time means you have longer hours during the day to hike and the sun may very well set after 7.30 pm.
Depending on the trails that you choose, different times of the year will give you different scenery. May and June will give you the most rainfall so some trails can be windy and wet during this time.
July onwards will give you green pastures, blooming wildflowers and other than other hikers, you will very well meet cows, sheeps and goats along your trail. Late September will give you hues of autumn colours and less crowd compared to the earlier months.
This is also when all the mountain huts are open and some local villages may even hold festivals during this period. You can join in the fun and enjoy while resting before going onto your next point.
It is also a great time to enjoy the warmth of alpine villages with it’s local wine, beer, cheese and dishes.
Photo from pasja1000 , Pixabay
Alps hiking tips
- Go for brisk walking in the evenings or for some kind of exercise a couple of times per week at least 3 months before the actual trip.This would help your body to be well adjusted for the upcoming hike
- Fields are off limits, unless it is part of the trail, which you can see from nearby marks
- Stay on the tracks. Don’t wander further from it. The alps can be dangerous with unpredictable avalanches & falling stones
- Avoid getting close to cattles , they are cute and quiet (at times) but can be aggressive if they feel that you are a threat. Great photo opportunity but keep yourself at least 30 metres away
- Don’t feed wild animals and don’t get close to them even if they seem harmless. Similar to cattles, they will be aggressive if they sense your presence is a threat to them
- Chamois , a goatlike wildlife native to the alps can be spotted early in the evenings or mornings as long as they don’t know you’re nearby. They are shy creatures but amazing climbers
- Various festivals happening during the Summer so make sure when you time your hikes during summer, put an extra day or two to experience the festivals nearby.
Like any hiking trip, you need to get yourself well prepared and plan for your hike. There is a trail for everyone, even those who would like to go as a family. Your best bet when it comes to uncertainty is to book or have a guided walking tour.
A guided walking tour allows you to travel with train trips in between and have the flexibility to do day walks and put your feet up during the evening to rest and enjoy.