Swiss Alps and hiking – what you need to know before you go hiking
Switzerland and its Alps are undoubtedly a paradise for enthusiasts of hiking, trekking and any mountain trips or activities. With 48 four-thousanders and 65,000 kilometers of trails, it is a fantastic destination for the enthusiasts of mountaineering and those who prefer ordinary walks. Here you can easily find family trails, wheelchair-accessible trails, high alpine trails, routes for snowshoeing and via ferratas (klettersteig). All in various degrees of difficulty. However, before you set off to conquer the Swiss Alps, you should prepare yourself to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Trail signs in Switzerland, division and the scale of difficulty
In Switzerland, the trail markings are in two colors: red for hiking and blue for alpine routes. The main trails are very well marked – it is a white field with a red dot or bar, a yellow diamond or an arrow that says: “Wanderweg”. On every junction there’s a pole with signposts and estimated times of getting to the nearest landmarks (peaks, passes, towns, train stations, restaurants or huts). In the area densely dotted with trails, it is worth having a map with you, because you will quickly find names that will tell you nothing at all.
The green number corresponds to the classified route – with outstanding natural or historical values. The color of the trail specifies the degree of difficulty – mountain trails are red, alpine trails are blue, regular hiking trails for everyone have no color designation. Hiking trails are divided into national (7 routes), regional (63 routes) and local (308).
National routes are long stretches crossing Switzerland far and wide. For example, Via Alpina crosses 14 Alpine passes and six cantons (starting in Vaduz, ending in Montreaux) for 390km divided into 20 stages and a trifle of 23,600 m of ascents and 24,800 m of descents.
Regional routes are much shorter, they have about several dozen kilometers. They are usually divided into one to four stages and marked with two digits. For example, trail 39 along the Aletsch Glacier is 30 km long and there’s “just” 1,850 m of ascent, it’s divided into three stages.
Local routes, with three-digit markings, are routes distinguished by their natural values, views or historical significance.
All the other routes are marked on the maps, but they have no names or descriptions. You will see them marked with signposts on the way. Sometimes local maps say a few words about them, but mostly they have not been developed there. There are just so many of them.
Trails marked as “Panoramaweg” always offer spectacular views. The best are collected here: 25 routes described here.
Easy trails for everyone, suitable for a simple walk. In the field they’re marked in yellow – with a diamond or an arrow with the words “Wandern” or “Wandernweg”. They may include a canton’s coat of arms or number. On maps they’re marked with a continuous line, usually yellow or red. They run on gravel, forest and field paths. These are very safe routes, wide and perfect for family trips.
Typical trails, like those we have in the Polish Tatras or the Karkonosze, more difficult sections are secured with a rope. The routes marked on the maps with a dotted line are mountain trails. In the field, they are marked with red and white bars. They are narrower and usually run through less frequented areas. They are also more difficult: you can expect steep climbs, stone stairs and stretches where you need to raise your legs higher than above the ankle.
The Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) distinguishes two levels of difficulty: T2 and T3. The vast majority of local, regional and national trails are marked as “medium”, i.e. of medium difficulty – T2. This is because the Swiss do not lead tourists to the T3 routes (prevention is the best security measure).
On difficult T3 routes you can expect sections with ropes, chains and sometimes steep stairs. These are high exposure trails. In more frequented areas there’s usually a warning sign. Such a route is, for example, the stretch between the Schaefler Hut and Lake Seealpsee (the photos should say it all).
It is worth taking into account the time of year – in May and June there’s still snow above 1,800 m a.s.l. A T2 trail can be open, but crossing it without crampons means putting yourself in extreme danger. At this time of year it is simply worth asking the tourist information through Facebook about the conditions in the mountains, you will quickly get a precise answer.
Very demanding high mountain trails – steep, often unsecured. On the SAC difficulty scale, these are routes marked from T4 to T5. On maps and in the field they are always marked blue. If you see the signposts with the blue trail, they will contain the degree of difficulty and the estimated time of passage.
T4 is the equivalent of Polish Orla Perć in its easier sections. These are dangerous and exposed routes. T5 trails require the ability to use the ice ax, they can run through stretches of glaciers. T6, a difficult alpine trail, is a trail with climbing sections (e.g. Via alta della Verzasca). If the trails run through more difficult sections of the glacier or require climbing, climbing grades (III-V) or the grades in Alpine system (F, PD, D TD, ED) should be marked on a signpost. More information on grading and descriptions can be foundon the SAC website (in German).
On tourist maps and in guidebooks the blue trails are rarely marked, so as not to tempt tourists. They are not marked on the Switzerland Mobility maps (more information later). And as for the maps given out in tourist information, I saw blue sections marked probably only in Grindelwald
Trails adapted for the disabled
For people in wheelchairs, there are separate routes, which are paved, wide and without steep fragments. Such a trail is, for example, an 8km trail no. 893 (part of route 47) from Uetliberg to Buchenegg, with a spectacular view of Lake Zurich.
Winter trails and snowshoe trails
In winter, most mountain trails are closed due to avalanche danger. High in the mountains, however, you can hike either on snowshoes or on winter trails (very easy, groomed paths, e.g. Chäserrugg). Both are marked with pink posts and arrows. Snowshoe trails can also be walked in ordinary winter boots, although in some places such a hike will be very bothersome.
Tourist maps of Switzerland
Switzerland, next to Norway, has the best digital tourist maps I’ve encountered. The Switzerland Mobility app (App Store, Google Play) and https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/hiking-in-switzerland.html will meet 95% of your needs. It’s best to buy a subscription that will allow you to download maps and use them offline. If you do not want to spend CHF 35, you can always move your finger on the map, zoom it in and out – the app will store images in memory for some time. Switzerland Mobility maps also include marked mountain bike trails, inline skating trails, water and winter trails. For me the app is irreplaceable during every trip.
The second source of maps is the map.geo.admin.ch site, where you will find a distinction between hiking, mountain and alpine (blue) trails. Unlike Switzerland Mobility, this one is free, but also more crude and less “touristy”. Still, it offers a very wide selection of various maps. You can check where the nearest arsenal is, find ski-tour maps, maps with marked slopes above 30′, or maps with no-fly zones for drones in Switzerland.
If you go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or cycling, Outdoor Active maps will be a better option than the above two. See: https://www.outdooractive.com/en/. I also recommend their offline application. They have more routes and trails marked along with the altitude profile. However, you won’t find much content or photos here.
For adventurous people, I recommend a very good map containing the location of via ferratas and alpine (blue) routes at Hikr.org http://www.hikr.org/region2.html. Unfortunately, the website is rather user-unfriendly, although the information it provides is very useful: a difficulty description and photos. However, the routes are not marked, there are only pins.
In addition, regardless of where you are, at the cable car station, hotel or tourist information center you will get a free, more or less accurate, fold-out map of the area. And this one will be completely sufficient if you plan to follow the main routes.
Swiss trails – the rules
Switzerland is one of the cleanest countries in Europe (and in the world). There is not a single piece of paper, apple core, beer bottle or a can of cola on the trails. Why? Because no one throws litter. What you bring to the mountains, you must take back. If by chance a Swiss notices that you litter, they will reprimand you. A less friendly person will call the police giving your exact description, time, place and direction you are going. And as policemen in Switzerland are really bored with their work, they take every minor report extremely seriously. Will they wait three hours in the parking lot? Apparently yes, they will. So, just respect the nature and put that candy bar wrapping in a backpack pocket.
“Good morning” or “Grüezi” and a smile
Somehow it’s more pleasant to walk in the mountains when others smile and talk to us. And the Swiss both smile and greet everyone. The only unwritten rule is that you greet each other if a stranger who walks in front or behind you does not hear that greeting. Well… it’s hard in the crowd on Rigi Kulm to greet each and everyone alone. But if you are on the trail less cramped with shoes and cameras, then a smile at another person should not cost you much ;-) Anyway… after 5km you’ll get used to it.
Cows on the trail
Some trails go through pastures and the pastures… are the reign of cows. It is normal that you have to open the gate or squeeze between the herd occupying the trail. Cows are gentle and friendly by nature, but… I don’t recommend teasing them – they run fast and have horns. Cows are a natural, mobile element of Switzerland’s landscape.
Mountain farms, pastures and homesteads
Entering someone’s fenced field through a closed gate gives the Poles a strange feeling. Since the gate is closed, you are not allowed to enter, we think. And here it turns out that in Switzerland it is allowed… and perfectly normal. Simply, routes run through farms, pastures and homesteads. Sometimes you have to open the gate (and close it behind you). It won’t bother anyone, and the farm keeper will even smile at you and wave. Some trails run even through the backyards – that’s really weird ;-)
Safety on Swiss trails
First of all, the choice of distance and fitness requirements. It is worth checking not only the distance but also the elevation change before leaving. The old question “can you do it?” in Switzerland takes on quite serious significance. If you have not “done” a 1,000m ascent in 4 hours, it is worth considering whether it is within your limits or not. Trails described on Switzerland Mobility indicate the level of difficulty and the required physical fitness, it is worth taking those into account.
That’s right: the level of difficulty. Different people react to exposed areas differently. If your team consists of tough guys who are not afraid of a hundred-meter precipice, you can easily go on the T3 trail. But if there is a person in the group who, despite being in good physical condition, is in the high mountains for the first time and does not feel confident – let go ahead of time. The last thing you want on a difficult trail is a panic attack and getting paralyzed with fright. The problem will get especially difficult when it gets dark.
Altitude: starting from climbing four-thousanders is also not the best idea because of altitude sickness. Check first on the three thousand and acclimatize, because this height is already problematic for many people.
Blue trails: that’s where I met pensioners and families with children. Another time an elderly man with two crutches passed us on the ridge in the Alpstein. Can do. One tiny detail: the people here grow up in the mountains, they are used to them, they have military training on glaciers and climb vertical rocks when they get bored. This is a drastically non-subtle difference between that region and a vast and flat as a pancake Europe.
Region: there are places visited by tourists where no one gets injured and the trails are easy. There are also regions where, despite the large number of tourists, the scale of difficulty off the main trail is incomparably higher. It is worth considering when going to the mountains. For example, on the main road to Seealpsee in the Alpstein (3 km by beaten road to the lake) there is a warning sign. Can you wave it aside? Sure you can… But this region is extremely treacherous. When we were on the usual T2 trail in June, the avalanche of stones and snow came down right next to us.
In general, the mountains within routes T1 and T2 are safe. T3 and more difficult trails increase the risk level accordingly.
However, when something happens, you can count on help – helicopter rescue operations are commonplace in the Alps. The bill for such fun, however, will be unusually high: tens of thousands of francs. That is why it is worth buying good travel insurance covering the costs of rescue operations in the mountains. In addition, it is a good idea to take interest in the patronage of Rega, a company providing rescue operations in the Alps. The patronage is not legally binding, but Rega covers the cost of rescue operations for its patrons who pay CHF 30 a year. Not much? Maybe… but the contribution is paid by around 1/3 of the inhabitants of Switzerland. Rega in 2018.
Closure of routes due to avalanche risk or landslides will always be marked. Often, rescuers or SAC members will divert traffic and in mountain shelters you will be warned about dangerous conditions. If you go beyond the markings, don’t count on rescuers risking their necks for you with their own lives. If the conditions allow, they will even take you off the Matterhorn wall, if not… they will not bring you down until spring.
The weather in Switzerland and where to check the exact forecast
The weather app on the phone or Google works poorly in the case of mountains. Accuweather won’t be a good choice either. A trustworthy and reliable source of weather is Meteocentrale.ch and their Weather Pro app.
If this forecast says that it’s going to rain at 1 p.m. on Hoher Kasten, then you’d better take a cape or a raincoat with you. These predictions are very accurate and cover many geographical points. E.g. for the summit mentioned: http://www.meteocentrale.ch/en/europe/switzerland/weather-hoher-kasten/details/S069388/
Besides – it’s worth confronting the forecast with webcams. Berfex has a fairly decent camera base from all over Switzerland. For example, take a look at Hoher Kasten: https://www.bergfex.pl/sommer/appenzell/webcams/c12392/ and at Jungfraujoch: https://www.jungfrau.ch/en-gb/live/webcams/#webcam-jungfraujoch-top-of-europe
The webcam from Jungfraujoch is my favorite in the whole Switzerland: you immediately know if you should spend CHF 190 on a cable car trip up the mountain or not ;-)
Getting from Grindelwald to Jungfraujoch is probably the most expensive one and a half hour on the train that you can spend (apart from riding without a ticket ;-)) – a return ticket to the highest station (3,471 m a.s.l.) costs CHF 190. You can buy one-way ticket… but the descent is not a good idea. If you plan to spend this much money, then you should consider buying Halb Tax valid all over Switzerland for a year: it can reduce the prices of all tickets by up to 50%. Halb Tax costs CHF 185 (price for the first year) and if you plan a trip to Jungfraujoch connected with a tour of Switzerland it can simply pay off.
Cable car prices in Switzerland
Cable cars and gondola lifts in Switzerland are not cheap. Popular places are expensive. But not all of them will drain your wallet! Below are some cool ski lifts and cable cars and their prices:
- Pilatus: very touristy, a cable car ride up and down costs: CHF 72
- Stoos and Fronalpstock: up and down (one-day ticket): CHF 44
- Klewenalp (great place for MTB): up and down: CHF 40 (you may get a 40% discount)
- Eggishorn: up and down (the descent is very pleasant): CHF 45
- Rigi: a very touristy place (you have to walk to Rigi Kulm), up and down from Weggis to Kaltbad: CHF 53 (to Kulm – CHF 72)
- Uetliberg from Zurich HB: up and down: CHF 18
- Ebenalb: up and down from Wasserauen: CHF 31
- Hoher Kasten: up and down: CHF 42
- Triftbrücke: (you must book two weeks in advance): a price for a two-way ticket: CHF 24
- Schilthorn: up and down from Stechelberg – CHF 105
- Titlis: up and down from Engleberg – CHF 92
- Wengen from Lauterbrunnen: up and down – CHF 14 (I recommend going down)
- Kleine Scheidegg from Lauterbrunnen: return ticket – CHF 61 (I recommend going down)
- Jungfraujoch from Grindelwald: both ways (you cannot go down from the top station, so you ride both ways, you can go down from Kleine Scheidegg) – CHF 190
The prices do not include Halb Tax discount.
You can buy tickets for most cable cars via SBB.ch/en/ or traditionally – at the ticket office.
Food prices in the Swiss Alps
The higher you get, the more you pay. And you will certainly pay more for a bottle of beer in a hut which is not accessible by a cable car. More, but not much more.
- Half a liter of beer costs CHF 6-8.
- For pork chop and fries you must pay CHF 20.
- Rösti with sausage will cost around CHF 15.
- Mac and cheese with apple mousse – CHF 12. It’s a local treat that I will never understand: pasta with a smelly Appenzeller cheese, roasted onion and sweet apple mousse.
- Fondue (mainly served to tourists) – the price depends on the size of the “pot” – about CHF 40.
- Raclette, a typically Swiss dish, melted cheese on the shoulder with side dishes – about CHF 30.
- Huts and mountain farms also sell their own cheese, fresh milk and, of course, liqueurs. Here you need to spend some CHF 3-8 depending on the size of the “portion”.
- Local dishes with meat or venison will cost around CHF 25.
- Pizza or its Alsatian variety, Flammkuchen – CHF 17-24.
- A bottle of water – CHF 2, although it’s good to have your own bottle – you can fill it with water at most mountain huts and hotels.
Huts, or what Swiss Alpine Club has in the mountains
Mountain huts: small, self-contained houses standing alone in a hard to reach terrain. Most of them are over a hundred years old. Families or volunteers take care of them, spending almost the entire summer season in the mountains.
The Swiss Alpine Club is the patron of over 150 mountain huts and chalets scattered throughout the Swiss Alps. Some are located in easily accessible places, others require taking the blue trail or climbing. Depending on the altitude and availability you can expect food (or not). Huts in very remote locations have no service – they are referred to as bivouac. Just a shack to sleep in.
As the Swiss and tourists are very interested in sleeping in the mountains, places must be booked well in advance. List of huts is available here: https://www.sac-cas.ch/en/huts-and-tours/sac-route-portal/. The vast majority can be booked online. In the winter season, some huts remain open, but have no service. Information on the available winter sleeping place (shelter) is provided in the link above. You will also find there descriptions of summer and winter routes along with the degree of difficulty. If you are planning a winter trip, you should take a look, because winter routes run completely differently than summer routes, mainly due to the avalanche threat. Huts also have their websites with contact details and more detailed information, price lists, offers and history.
Fun fact: Mönchsjochhütte under Monoch, hanging on a rock (literally), at an altitude of 3,650 m a.s.l. is the highest-altitude serviced hut – it offers 120 beds and half board (dinner and breakfast). Booking is compulsory.
A touch of luxury: mountain hotels in Switzerland
Nie każdemu odpowiada spanie w dormitorium z chrapiącymi, starymi góralami. W pełni rozumiem, bo sam chrapię! Poniżej lista hoteli. Pozwolę sobie ułożyć je według ekskluzywności. Zaznaczamy, że to też nasza lista życzeń, a nie recenzje. “Tanie” hotele idą na początek:
Fronalpstock – our favorite hotel for sunrise and sunset. The most convenient place for landscape photographers who are planning to come to Switzerland with their family. You get up facing east and… all you need to do is open the window. And the sunsets are even more spectacular here. Price for a double room: 144 Euro.
More hotels with a view of Lake Luzern are in the area around Rigi.
Berggasthaus First – this is probably the best mountain hotel for large groups. It offers very tasty breakfasts and dinners and a brilliant view of Grindelwald and the north wall of Eiger. Very easily accessible – also for people with disabilities. A double room with the mountain view: 168 Euro.
More hotels in Grindelwald
3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat – the highest-altitude hotel and mountain base in the Swiss Alps, is located on the Gornergrat summit. It has the best view of the Matterhorn you could wish for. It’s best to book six months in advance! The price for a double room is “mere” 440 Euro. The view of the “Toblerone logo” included ;-)
More (cheaper) hotels in Zermatt
Camping and sleeping in a tent in the Swiss Alps
Time to get real… Camping regulations in Switzerland are heavily overregulated. Nobody knows exactly what and where you can do, because everything depends on the canton or, more fun, the municipality. Perhaps in the tourist information they will tell you something more… but… You can find information on the ban on camping here.
So, it is assumed that in the mountains you can sleep under a tent and usually no one bothers, except cows. Do not camp for more than one night, do not pitch a tent next to the hut or on a mountain farm and leave the place clean. More detailed information is available inthe SAC leaflet on camping..
Conditions for pitching a tent in the Swiss Alps at a glance:
- The tent can be pitched above the tree line, i.e. quite high – from about 1,700-2,000 m a.s.l. depending on the region.
- Ask for permission if you pitch at a farm or near a hut.
- Camping is discouraged in the upper parts of the forest.
- Camping is not allowed in: The National Park of Switzerland (the canton of Grisons), protected areas (green signs with an owl), nature reserves. You can find a map of excluded territories on the SAC website:
Car parks and parking
Switzerland is not yet ready for card payments for parking. Get ready for parking meters everywhere and you will pay CHF 5 for parking for a few hours. And above all, keep a bag of coins in your car.
Do not park in yellow spots – if they do not belong to your hotel, they are private – the Swiss are very sensitive about them and call the police immediately.
- Blue spaces – you can park for a limited time – the time is marked on the blue plate with a clock that you must have in your car. On the disk you mark the time of arrival at the parking lot. Make sure that you mark the next full hour or half an hour.
- White numbered spots are paid.
- White unnumbered spots are free.
- No line? Do not park, or you’ll end up with the ticket. Even if it’s near the forest.
Also keep in mind that some towns are “car free”. This means that you have to leave your car somewhere at a lower point, and you should enter the town by train or simply walk. Such towns are primarily: Zermatt, Wengen, Murren and Bettmeralp, and the area of Aletschgletscher, Saas Fee.
Public transport is a pride of Switzerland – you can get almost anywhere by bus: mountain passes and remote locations are surprisingly well connected (I recommend looking at sbb.ch). Sometimes it is simply cheaper to leave your car somewhere lower.
What to take on the trail
Seeing every weekend tourists wrestling with the Alps, I will say this: The Swiss may not have flip flops at home, but they definitely have two pairs of trekking shoes – for winter and summer.
- Trekking or hiking boots – depending on how long and difficult route you are taking, you have to choose the right footwear. In June, there is still snow on 3,000m, which is worth taking into account. Sneakers, trainers and other urban inventions are simply dangerous.
- A cream with a UV filter to protect against the sun and sunglasses – are a must at any time of the year.
- Clothing suitable for the weather… in the mountains. It is also worth having a thin and compact raincoat with you. A factor that is very underestimated by most tourists is the wind, which can turn 5’C into a wind chill well below zero. And it often blows in the mountains.
- Sunglasses in winter. They are also useful in summer.
- Food and a bottle of water.
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Photography Guides to Switzerland
Looking for the best photo spots and locations in Switzerland? Check our guides and maps!
We recently published our set of guides and maps for travellers, Instagrammers and photographers who look for the best spots and places in Switzerland and the Swiss Alps. Save hours on planning and researching, just pick a location and go there. All details like transportation, parking, hiking time and suggestions when, how and where to take photos are included. All in PDF format suitable for your smartphone, tablet or laptop.