The Beginner’s Guide to Hiking the Alps
You may be an experienced outdoors person but you might have never been to the Alps. Maybe you’re a beginner to hiking altogether? Whatever the case may be, I wanted to write up this post and a whole bunch of others to offer my views why hiking in the Alps is probably a really good idea.
I’ll cover the basics here. The Alps are a part of the world that is in many ways unique and where you can enjoy yourself in so many ways in addition to the excellent hiking:
- There are endless possibilities for doing everything you can do in the mountains at every level of difficulty possible.
- The infrastructure is superior to most mountain ranges in the world. There is always a mountain hut or a hotel in a valley nearby – unless you really want to go someplace remote.
- The Alps are a culinary wonderland. You will find excellent, unique dishes and local wines in all of the areas. You will alsofind wonderful variety between the Alpine countries and the local areas within.
- The Alps are really easy to reach. Check out the 5 Best Airports to Reach the Alps.
- There is a lot of history present in the mountains, for example World War sites in the Dolomites.
About the Alps
The Alps are the largest and highest mountain chain in Europe, covering about 1200 kilometers (750 miles) from end to end. They start from the south of France in the Maritime Alps and sort of curve around the French Italian border to the north of Italy, and then all the way to Slovenia. In the north they extend to Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, both in the south of Germany.
In the heart of the mountains lies Switzerland, probably the country most associated with the Alpine pastures and cheese. East of Switzerland lies Austria, one of my favorite places (Check out my Comprehensive Write-up of Hiking in Austria).
And, of course, let’s not forget Lichtenstein between Austria and Switzerland, and Monaco between France and the Mediterranean Sea.
The main Alpine countries, therefore, are Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany. With all due respect, I won’t count Lichtenstein or Monaco as major Alpine countries because they are just so tiny. From the hiking perspective Slovenia is, in my opinion, also borderline major for now but from what I hear they are making a really big effort to increase Alpine tourism there and the things I hear are good. I’ve never been but will for sure.
The Alps are also the highest mountains in Europe, Mont Blanc at the French Italian border being the highest peak, towering at 4810 meters (15781 ft). Overall there are 128 peaks over 4000 meters (13123 ft) (List in Wikipedia here). The peak count for mountains over 3000, according to Wikipedia is 537.
The Alps are home to roughly 14 million people and are a massive tourist attraction with 120 million visitors per year. This, and the fact that the Alps have been traveled for thousands of years, means that infrastructure is very well developed. One might argue that in some places too developed, but remote locations and wilderness can be found. Walking on your own two feet, of course, is the best way to reach the remote places.
There’s a very extensive article and a lot of good information on the Alps in Wikipedia, here’s the main article to get you started.
Why go Hiking in the Alps?
Yes, there are a lot of really awesome places in the world to go. I know this will be a simplification but there are several points why I think the Alps positively differ from a lot of other mountain ranges you can hike. I’m not even going to try to do a head to head comparison of different mountains because they all have their charms, but will list some things why for me the Alps are especially appealing:
- They are very easy to reach from anywhere. Even though the area is huge, the Alps are set right in the middle of Europe. Several International airports are nearby and getting to them is generally affordable and getting from the airport to where you want to go is also easy.
- There’s an endless variety of trails to suit every taste and ability. Want to walk in the woods? Sure! Want to go on a month long trek across countries? Absolutely! Want to go on glaciers or climb above 4000 meters? Yep. Want to explore unique Alpine towns and do day hikes here and there, and plan as you go – Perfect!
- The infrastructure is excellent. It really shows that the Alps are in the old world since people have been roaming in these mountains for literally thousands of years. Tourism, as we know it today, has been developed in the Alps since 1800’s and is now the primary source of income in many areas. You will find accommodation of every level and for every taste, and you’ll find that getting to places is very easy.
- The Alps span 8 countries, which means a very large variety of languages, local dialects, cultures and food. You can find subtle and not so subtle differences from one valley to the next, not to mention one country to the next.
- If you’re into history, there’s plenty to be found in the Alps. Want to visit ancient roman sites? Plenty there. Want to meet Ötzi the Iceman, from about 3300 BCE – head on to Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol (Italy). Interested in the World Wars? You can plan weeks of hiking and climbing to visit the historical sites.
- No permits needed. Once you’re in the European Union, nobody is going to stop you when you cross over from one country to the next. Don’t lose your Passport, though – just in case!
- No need to necessarily plan every detail in advance if you only want to do day hikes. This is not to say you don’t need to plan, you do and you should. Just saying that due to the excellent infrastructure, you can easily change you’re plans if you want to. We often just plan the first few days and then go wherever we feel like.
The Alps Sound Great. Any Downsides?
As far as I’m concerned – and this is from the point of view of me – there are no downsides. I love the mental and physical challenge of a long trek for days on in the mountains. I love the occasional Via Ferrata. I love hurting everywhere after a few days on the trail. Then again, I also love proper meals and a hot shower every now and then. After a long day or two, a cold beer you didn’t have to carry over the mountain is about as good as it gets.
That said, if you’re used to getting into real wilderness, want to carry your own food or possibly catch it yourself and sleep in a hammock under the stars, the Alps may not be the perfect choice for you unless you want a different kind of trip. In fact, to my understanding, generally in the Alps you’re not allowed to camp outside of designated camping areas, and you’re not allowed to hunt or catch anything. And you also are supposed to stay on the existing paths not to cause further erosion.
Even though it’s not generally crowded in most places, the number of people there throughout the year do push the limits and erosion is a real problem. Staying on existing tracks, leaving things alone and bringing down whatever you take up helps. Please respect it.
I occasionally go into the wild but for that, going to Lapland in Finland or Sweden does the trick. That’s a whole different experience: hiking among the reindeer, watching out for wolves and bears and carrying everything you need. Obviously there’s a lot opportunity in the U.S., Canada and other places for this type of experience, too. Well, maybe the reindeer thing is kind of Nordic.
Getting to the Alps
The Alps are easily reachable from anywhere in the world. There are several international airports practically next to the mountains… To mention a few: Munich, Geneva, Milan, Venice, Salzburg & Innsbruck. Check out my review of the Munich airport and why I think it’s a very good option for reaching Austria and South Tyrol.
Once you’re on the ground, you will notice that public transportation is generally very good. From most airports you will have access to the mountains by train, bus or shared taxi/shuttle service. If you want to make your own way, rental cars are readily available, the roads are excellent and driving in the mountains with a decent car is fun in itself!
When in the Alpine town of your choice, you will continue to find that most places (at least the more touristy ones) have very good local public transportation and you’ll be able to get to many trailheads even further away without a car. In addition to this, if you base yourself in a town where there is skiing in the winter, some of the lifts will be open in the summer so you can save yourself the strenuous climb to get up. Sometimes this makes the difference of if, or not, you’re going to be able to do a long hike during day light.
Like mentioned above, in the Alps one typically hikes in the fashion of eating at mountains huts, restaurants or hotels so you don’t need to carry food, except for emergencies. Since you’re most likely to also spend your nights under man made shelter, you won’t need to carry tents and things, not even a sleeping bag (get a silk liner instead, you’ll need it if staying at mountains huts). You don’t need bear canisters. Sometimes you see people in the Alps going on multi-day hikes with only a day pack.
So I’ve established that it’s certainly possible to hike light. That’s all great and makes your hike easier with less things to carry but let’s not get carried away. The Alps are a very formidable range of mountains. If you’re experienced enough to go out to places where there are no huts, you will know that you need food and equipment. If not, you still need to plan for emergencies and changes in weather.
Hiking in the Alps can be Dangerous!
A lot of people die every year in avalanches and other accidents – or just being careless. Certainly most deaths occur during the winter in off piste skiing accidents, but in the summer climbers do fall and hiking sometimes is synonymous to climbing. Bad things are prone to happen when people go out without proper gear and proper experience.
The fact is that in the mountains (any mountain!) things, namely weather conditions, can change very quickly and what seems like a nice, sunny morning down in the valley can end up being a snow storm up on the mountain. Check out this story on the Sella Group as an example.
This means that even if you plan to only go on easy day hikes you still do need to be prepared with proper gear. You should always have proper shoes, layered clothing with a water proof outer layer and something warm. You should have emergency food like nuts, chocolate or dried meat just in case. And you should always carry enough water in a bottle that doesn’t break.
Be prepared for the sun. There’s often a cool breeze and you may not notice getting burned. I burned my forehead once and didn’t even notice it until I literally had blisters. I would not have, if I had worn any kind of a hat but I didn’t. I paid and learned.
I Recommend Paper Maps
Get maps beforehand. I can’t emphasize this enough. When you’re out there, Google doesn’t do you much good in most places because the trails are not on it. If you have a cool hiking app and GPS positioning (I like them, don’t get me wrong!) your battery will die eventually and you want to save that for a possible emergency anyway.
In the worst case you’ll just simply drop your phone and it will break or disappear between rocks. Get a map, and get it beforehand to be able to plan your route. If you don’t know how, learn to read it, too.
The Gohikealps Packing Guide
Please check out the Gohikealps Ultimate Packing Guide, it covers everything you need to know about what to bring to the Alps.
When to Go Hiking in the Alps
The season in the high mountains is relatively short. Most of the huts in the high mountains open in late June and close in late September. August is the main holiday month in Europe and that’s when there are going to be the most people. If you’re driving, there’s bound to be a lot of traffic on summer weekends.
You can go earlier but chances are in the high areas you’ll encounter snow on the paths. If you stay low, this will probably not be a problem. In the autumn the days get shorter and you need to take that into account when planning how many kilometers or miles you’re able to cover in a day.
If you want to be sure and avoid the worst crowds, I would go in late June or early July. Then again, of you go in the fall, there are lots of places which are not a high up which can be more than perfect even very late in the season. As an example, check out the Meraner Höhenweg here.
I love hiking in the Alps and I love skiing in the Alps. I even love golfing in the Alps but that’s another story. If you’ve been, you might share my view. If you’ve never been, I urge you to go and see for yourself.
From the U.S. the Alps might seem far away but in the day of modern flight they’re really not. A direct flight from New York to Munich is normally about 8 hours. A flight from New York to San Francisco is more than 6. That’s not a huge difference. Yes, there’s all kinds of things to consider with international travel but if you make the trip, I doubt you will regret it.
See you there!
Here’s useful Gohikealps advice about hiking in the Alps:
- The Ultimate Gohikealps Packing Guide for the Alps
- What you need to Know Staying in Mountain Huts
- Where is the Best Hiking in Austria?
- 5 Best Airports to Reach the Alps