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Introduction to Hiking in Switzerland

Pauline Kenny

In my opinion, there is no better place for hiking or walking than Switzerland. (Or for buying cow bells.) They only problem is that the hiking season is short, July through September. In the mountain towns the hiking ranges from easy walks to difficult climbs and is made easier by the mountain rides to the hiking areas. For example, in Grindelwald, you can take a bus up a mountain, spend several hours walking across the mountain (stopping for lunch in a restaurant that is accessible only by walking or by gondola), then take a gondola or bus back to the town. Vacation rentals in these mountain towns are plentiful, inexpensive and easy to book when you are there or before you go.

Kandersteg, cow bells hanging on a mountain restaurant. 10/00

When to Go

The best time for hiking is July. This is the warmest month (it doesn't get that hot in the mountains) and the wildflowers are in bloom. Usually there is not much rain in July. The winter starts early and ends late in the mountain towns. We have been hiking in mid-August and had snow. But August is also a good month for hiking. September is also good weather, but by October it can get very cold. We were in Kandersteg the first two weeks of October in 2000. We had some sunny warm days and some cold days when the valley filled with fog. We even had a light snow in town. We have also had snow in Davos in late August.

Where to Go

For your first hiking trip to Switzerland, I would recommend Grindelwald or Zermatt. Both are spectacular locations and popular tourist destinations. Grindelwald is in a big valley at the base of the Eiger. It has great hiking and there are many other towns close by (by train, bus or driving). Zermatt is located at the base of the Matterhorn. Zermatt is more isolated, at the end of a long valley with no other towns close by. But it is a great town and there is good hiking. You do not need a car for either of these locations.

There are many great towns for hiking. Go to the Trip Planning section to read my description of the different mountain towns in Switzerland.

How to Find the Good Hikes

Some regions have great information for their hiking trails, some don't. The tourist office in Grindelwald sells a good booklet and map which is all you need for hiking in the region. But, the tourist office in Engelberg provided just a few tourist pamphlets with bad descriptions of the hikes. We bought a detailed map (1:25,000) to help us decide which areas had the best hikes.

If you do not have good descriptions of the hikes, use the available materials to determine which areas have access by gondola, chairlift, bus or train. For example, in Engelberg it is obvious where the hiking areas are; at the top of the three main gondolas. Take the mountain ride to the hiking area and study the signs. Usually there will be several hikes to choose from of various lengths. A good map and the hiking signs are all you need for hiking in Switzerland. The trails are well signed and each sign tellls you where the hike goes to and how long it will take.

What to Take when Hiking

Pauline on a trail in Grindelwald, September 2002, with her hiking poles.

We always take a good sized day pack each holding a rain jacket (gortex), a warm vest (polartec), a sports bar (in case we get lost, so we won't starve), a small first aid kit and compass, a long sleeved t-shirt. Also a water container each and a detailed map of the area. We wear short sleeved t-shirts, jeans and hiking boots. You feel stupid carrying such a large pack, but frequently you use everything in it.

It is important to have a good day pack. We got ours in Switzerland and they have good back support and a waist band. You will be carrying it all day long and a good pack will be easier on your back. Good hiking boots are also important.

On our trip in August 2002, a member of the Slow Travel Message Board (Jonathan from Stroud) convinced us to get walking poles, and they made a big difference. We got two poles each and used them like you use ski poles. They fold up to stuff in your backpack for the flat areas, where you don't need them. Going downhill, they take the weight off your knees and you don't slip. Going uphill, you take part of the climb with your arms and lean into the poles. They make the uphill easier.

Trotti

Steve on a Trotti at Eggli, September 2003.

Trottis are new to the mountain towns of Switzerland but they are becoming very popular (at least in Gstaad, where we saw then in 2003). Trottis are big scooters that you ride downhill. There is no seat, so you ride standing. The handlebars have breaks and there is a place to put both your feet as your roar downhill. It takes a few minutes to get used to them, but once you figure out how to handle them, they are really fun.

Most hiking areas have a paved road from the valley up to the middle station (mountain rides usually go up a mountain to the top station, but stop in the middle). At these middle stations, and sometimes at the top station, you can rent Trottis. They give you a helmet and point you to the road. Follow the signs as you roar down the road to the valley below. You return them at the bottom of the mountain ride. In Gstaad in 2003, we paid 15 CHF ($12) each to ride a Trotti.

Resources

Go to the Tourist Office website for the area you are going to. They will have hiking information. Also visit the Tourist Office when you get there, to pick up hiking booklets and maps.

See our Trip Planning: Guidebooks section for a list of recommended hiking books.

www.gruxa.ch: Great personal web site with hiking information for central Switzerland near Zug and Lake Lucerne.

www.myswissalps.com: Swiss travel guide including hiking routes, day trips and resorts in the Alps. Also travel tips, maps, pictures, downloads, brochures, links and general information about Switzerland.

Slow Travel Switzerland - Trip Planning - Mountain Towns

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