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Hiking in the Swiss Alps - how to prepare

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How to prepare for hiking

Hiking is the perfect way to observe nature and admire the landscape. The most beautiful places can often only be reached on foot. Walking in Switzerland is a delight. Trails are maintained well, and there are many signposts to easily find your way.

Still, preparation is important, especially if you are not used to mountainous areas. Be sure that you pick a suitable route and that you know about the do's and don'ts along the way.

Picking a route

  • The distance of a route doesn't tell you much about how difficult it is, or how long it takes. The difference in height is far more important. So are the type of trail (wide paved road versus a narrow rocky path) and the terrain (valley floor versus high-alpine terrain). This is why Swiss signposts display hiking times, not distances.
  • Signposts, and route details on this website too, show pure hiking time for the average hiker. Depending on your pace and the breaks you take, hikes may take (much) longer. Start in time to reach the end point well before sunset or the last ride back to a town.
  • You may not be used to walking in the mountains, or trails with a lot of difference in height. In that case you'd best start with a route below 2000 m (6500 ft). This will prevent altitude sickness. We also advise to pick a trail with a moderate ascent and/or descent. If all goes well a few times, you can try more challenging routes.
  • Avoid exposed trails if you do not feel safe or if you are not prepared for this. Avoid trails crossing glaciers and trails that are in line with dangerous glacier tongues, unless you are accompanied by a mountain guide.
  • Avoid trails covered with snow. Trails at high altitudes can be covered with so much snow that hiking is nearly impossible, even in summer. The risk of avalanches is not restricted to winter and spring. The local tourist agency or rail station can provide information about trail conditions.
  • Most summer trails in the mountains are not accessible in winter. Depending on height and location, winter spans from December to March, or from October to June. There are special, groomed snow trails instead.
  • Don't choose a high-altitude route on overcast days. You will risk missing out on the good views, and navigating is difficult in the mist.
  • Consider how to travel. Public transport is recommended. It's a safe way to travel and you'll help preserving nature. Also, you don't have to return to your starting point. If you depend on transportation down the mountain at the end point, check the timetable for the last ride.
  • Route details can be obtained from the maps on each of our hiking route pages. You can switch between street view, satellite view and topographic view (with contour lines). You can also download a kml file with coordinates to use in any program you prefer. Apart from this, there are paper hiking maps and leaflets offered by local tourist agencies. Note that parts of routes may be different from the descriptions for various reasons. For example: storms can cause damage in the mountains and routes can be changed, closed or diverted because of that.
  • Watch the short-term local weather forecasts. Avoid high-altitude hiking in case of (possibly) bad weather. There are plenty of trails in the valleys, that allow you to reach a village quickly if bad weather sets in.

Clothing and shoes for spring, summer and fall hikes

  • Wearing several layers of thin clothing is more comfortable than wearing just a rain coat or just one warm jacket. The weather in the mountains can change quickly. Layers allow you to adapt quickly.
  • Wear hiking boots, unless you plan to walk on paved or easy trails only. Regular sport shoes are not convenient and even not suitable on most trails. Hiking boots come in different categories, based on the difficulty of the terrain for which the shoes are designed. A specialized sports store can help you make the right choice.
  • Take along rainproof clothing and an additional thin (thermo) sweater.
  • Wear thick socks, preferably seamless. This can prevent you from getting blisters.
  • A pair of long trousers offers the best protection against the cold, heat, sun and insects. It also limits the chances of getting hurt by bushes or rocks.
  • Take along sunglasses, preferably a pair that offers side protection.
  • Wear a cap to protect your face from the sun. There are caps available that protect your ears and neck as well.
  • Use one or two trekking poles. They're convenient for both descending and ascending, and indispensable on difficult or snowy terrain.
  • Consider equipment with RECCO reflectors if you plan long, alpine hikes. The reflectors can help you get traced in case you get lost in the outdoors.

What else to take along

Don't forget to pack the following:

  • detailed paper map;
  • first-aid kit, including a rescue blanket to prevent fatal cooling;
  • mobile phone, even though some deserted areas may have no mobile coverage. Also have important phone numbers at hand.
  • sufficient amount of food and drinks (at least 1 liter);
  • spare food in case your journey takes longer than expected. Muesli bars are an example of convenient spare food. They can be kept for long a long time and are available in any Swiss supermarket.
  • an alarm (e.g. a whistle) to warn people in the area if you are in trouble. The emergency signal to use if you need help is 6 signals per minute followed by a 1-minute break. You should repeat this until help arrives or until you get an answer of 3 signals per minute followed by a 1-minute break. In case you don't have a whistle, you can use the flashlight of your camera, a mirror, or any other signal available.

Requirements for winter hiking

Learn all about winter and snowshoe hiking in Switzerland here. Find out which clothes to pack here.

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