Tips for Hiking the Alps: 9 Lessons I Learned Above 9,000 Feet
I hiked in the Alps for 10 days, and you should, too. Come along and I’ll teach you the nine things everyone should know before setting out on a mountain adventure through Switzerland, Italy, and France.
by Kevin McGraw
One of my favorite things about travel is discovery—going to faraway places, exploring cultures unlike my own, and opening my mind to new experiences. Each and every time I get out of my comfort zone, I discover something new. My most recent travels took me on a slightly different kind of trip than I’m used to. One that required more heavy breathing and less museum hopping. You guessed it, I went hiking in the Alps with EF Ultimate Break. And I’d do it all again tomorrow.
My learnings and takeaways from this adventure are unique to this type of trip. I’ll start by saying, I am not a hiking expert. Truthfully, I wouldn’t even consider myself a hiker (more on that later). But I left this experience with a toolkit full of helpful tips and tricks that anyone considering hiking the Alps should know. This ain’t your neighborhood nature trail, people. This is the freaking Alps.
1. Water. Drink it.
Starting off with an obvious, but oh-so-important one. It’s easy to underestimate how much water you’ll need on a hike. A few days before my trip, I bought a two-liter water reservoir for my backpack on a whim. Talk about a gamechanger. It was easy to fill up at the hotel before a hike, and even easier to drink from whenever I got thirsty throughout the day. You certainly don’t need a backpack reservoir—just make sure to pack a couple of water bottles for the day. And any chance you have to fill up during the hike, DO IT. Staying hydrated is good everyday advice, and even more important when you’re hiking in the Alps at 10,000 feet.
2. Pack snacks. And by snacks, I mean chocolate.
Just like water, snacks are a must for any day in the Alps. And for me, hiking in Switzerland meant my snacks were always chocolate. Many of our hikes were full-day affairs, which meant we’d stop by a local supermarket in the morning to grab a picnic lunch to take with us. During these stops, my fellow travelers always knew they could find me perusing the chocolate aisle, looking for a new brand to try. FWIW: you can’t go wrong with Lindt, but my favorite chocolate was definitely Cailler.
Not a chocolate person? I don’t understand, but I’ll try not to hold it against you. Fruit, trail mix, protein bars—whatever snacks you’re into, pack 'em. Hiking burns lots of calories, and you’re gonna need to replenish.
Oh, and quick side(chocolate)bar: for me, the most memorable hike was our climb to Hornlihutte, base camp for the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. You may recognize this famous pyramid-shaped peak from the packaging of popular Swiss chocolate brand, Toblerone.
3. Fact: hiking cures jet lag.
Would you believe me if I said I never once felt jetlagged during my trip? I got about 20 minutes of sleep on my overnight flight to Switzerland, crossing over six time zones. I’ve traveled to Europe before, and the day after the arrival day is typically when the jet lag hits—intense sleepiness that even strong espresso can’t cure. Well, you know what does cure the sleepiness? Hiking, apparently. It’s a known fact that being outside in the sun helps your body adjust, but whoever comes up with these facts (scientists?) should add that hiking outside in the sun is the only foolproof way to avoid jet lag. I suppose exerting your body for five to eight hours doesn’t really give it a chance to feel tired…or something like that. Oh, and coffee helps, too.
4. Slow and steady.
Need I remind you of the tortoise and the hare? One consistent piece of advice we got from our local hiking guides was this: it’s better to go slow and steady with a few breaks than go all out with lots of breaks. Not only is it easier on your body, but going slowly allows you to actually enjoy the hike. Because, spoiler alert: the views in the Alps are magnificent.
But let me be clear, just because you’re hiking slowly, doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be out of breath. We were hiking uphill at high elevations, which is no joke. Some days I felt better than other days, but I always enjoyed the breaks to catch my breath—and eat some chocolate.
5. Stop and look around
When you’re in the zone, it’s easy to forget where you’re hiking. Yes, it’s important to watch where you’re going. But chances are, the ground is less interesting than the surrounding mountain views. Give your legs the occasional break and take a moment to remember where you are. And take another moment to get some photos to remember where you’ve been. Photos will never truly capture the beauty you get with your own two eyes, but you’ll still appreciate them for the memories.
As I write this, I’m reminded of one of my favorite “stop and look around” moments. During our first full day in France, we hiked in Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve. It was a foggy, rainy day (our only one of the trip), but it turned out to be a favorite for many. Due to the fog, there wasn’t always much to see—we felt like we were hiking through clouds. But every so often, the fog would clear and the sky would open up, revealing breathtaking views of the towering Alps. Stopping to look around became the best part of the day.
6. Hiking boots > running shoes
Full disclosure: I’m not a big hiker. Or, at least I wasn’t before this trip. I’d join friends for casual Saturday hikes, typically wearing my running shoes (noob!). So, leading up to my departure, I went back and forth on whether I should invest in some actual hiking boots. In the end, I opted for the boots, and I am so glad I did. My supported ankles, blister-free toes, and I didn’t know what we were missing. Plus, they’re waterproof, which meant I was safe from the rain and I could walk through puddles like a boss. Get the boots, you’ll be happy.
7. Do not, I repeat, do not forget sunscreen.
Full disclosure, part two: I am pale. I’ve been covering myself in SPF 50 for as long as I can remember. I know this about myself and am usually very good at staying on top of it. But for some reason, on our first full day, in the beautiful Lavaux Vineyards, I missed a few spots. My neck and my arms were less than thrilled. You might think you don’t need it—you’re not at the beach, after all. But let me tell you, that mountain sun is strong. The atmosphere is thinner at higher altitudes, which means the sun’s rays don’t have to try as hard to burn your skin. Be smart, wear sunscreen. Then wear some more.
8. It's important to reward yourself.
Hiking up a mountain is no easy task. Sometimes, it’s downright grueling. So when you reach the top and go to the little overpriced café that’s serving overpriced beer and you look at your watch and see it’s only 11am but remember you just climbed a mountain—you have the beer! Sure, you still have to hike back down, but that sounds like a problem for future-you. Live in the moment, be proud, you’re freaking awesome.
How you choose to reward yourself is entirely up to you. Maybe it’s with a scoop of gelato once you finish the hike. Or hey, maybe it’s with the first full night’s sleep you’ve gotten in weeks. All I’m saying is, accomplishments deserve acknowledgement. Especially in the Alps.
9. You don’t have to be a hiker. But maybe don’t wing it.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am not a hiker. But, I’m a runner and I exercise regularly. So, while I didn’t hit the trails for months leading up to this trip, I felt good on all of our hikes. Is this trip is for everybody? No. It’s physically demanding, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re a hiking fanatic, awesome—you’ll be ready. If you’re relatively sedentary and feeling ambitious, also awesome—just take a few months before you head out to build up your endurance through walking, running, hiking, or whatever feels right. The bottom line is, if you’re interested, go for it. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare. You’ll be more confident leading up to the trip, and you’ll be in less pain waking up the day after an 8-hour out-and-back hike.
I could go on and on about my Hike Europe: The Alps trip, but this feels like a good stopping point. Plus, I’m confident I’ve given you enough to ensure you have a great time getting sweaty two miles above sea level with a bunch of new friends. If you remember these nine things, you’ll be ready to go. Like, actually ready to go—no planning necessary, thanks to EF Ultimate Break. EF Ultimate Break handles your whole itinerary, hires local hiking guides, and makes sure you get from point A to point B. Yes, even when point B is at 12,600 feet.
Hike Europe: The Alps
12 days. 3 countries. 4 cities.
When you think of Europe, it's probably old churches and busy shopping streets. This trip is none of that. Instead, hike through vineyards, by glaciers, and up some of the most famous mountains in Switzerland, Italy, and France. You might even see a cow or two. Because this trip is all about the great outdoors. Where the air is cleaner, the sounds are calming, and you can eat endless amounts of Swiss chocolate to counteract all the calories you’re going to burn.
by Kevin McGraw
Kevin is a copywriter at EF Ultimate Break. He loves drinking chocolate milk, looking at photos of his parents’ dog, and, for some reason, running for hours at a time. His favorite place in the world is Mürren, Switzerland.