What I learned and some information that might help you to prepare your own hike on the red Via Alpina.
First of all, this is only what I experienced. I am not an expert, but I found it very helpful, to talk to people, who have done what I was planning to do (back in April 2020). It gave me a lot of knowledge, before I even started. I like to be prepared – so if you like it too, this might be useful. Also, the Via Alpina seems to get more and more popular (PCT hikers can still not hike the PCT, that’s why I guess) and I could not find much information on the internet, that is why I decided to post this Via Alpina preparation guide. Hope it helps 🙂
Intro: I hiked the red Via Alpina solo with my tent in summer 2020. Due to the lockdown and the closed borders, I started in west Switzerland and walked to Trieste. From Trieste I went back to west Switzerland and hiked to Monaco. I started on 31st May and reached Monaco on 1st of October 2020.
PS: Don’t forget to prepare for the hike mentally. The hike was much harder mentally than physically (for me).
PREPARATION GUIDE FOR THE RED VIA ALPINA
Drop further questions in the comment-section, so I can answer them.
Start: Where should I start the Via Alpina and when?
I originally wanted to start in Monaco, in early May – depending on the snow. Reason: I wanted to ascend in the “green/dry” and “sled” down in the snow behind the passes. But everything turned out differently. Because of Corona we were “locked in”. I started due to the still closed borders in my home country Switzerland. More precisely, on May 31, 2020 in Vernayaz, Valais. Today I would probably start in mid-May in Trieste – would make more sense due to snow / height of the trails. Slovenia seems easier or the original route is more easily bypassable if there is still too much snow (just walk along the Soca River) than in France through the Mercantour, which I found challenging (but beautiful) due to the very steep passes.
Snow question: What about the snow, do I need crampons, ice axes, microspikes?
Depends on the past winter. In 2020 I was lucky, in 2021 it had much more snow. In June 2020, there was a lot of snow in Switzerland – but I could not start anywere else (closed borders). I had to traverse many snowfields, some steep, some icy early in the morning. I had soft shoes and poles. There is no need for an ice axe in my opinion. I didn’t have crampons either, but I had a micro spike with me at the beginning. Then I crashed in the rain on a steep snowfield (big shock and it hurt!) and after that I had the second micro-spike sent to me. In the end I sent them home in August. Even if it is extra weight – I recommend it. You can always send it home. A fall sucks, because you hurt yourself so easily… so better prevent, to keep walking safely… 🙂
How to plan the Via Alpina (organizational stuff about the route planning):
I am an over planner. I like to know what to expect, so I feel prepared. My approach was as follows:
– Bought a map from Marmota Maps (Link: The Alps) and traced the entire route from the Via Alpina page onto the big map. This way you get a feel of the route and where you are passing. Also it is great fun. When I started hiking I gave the map to my mom who traced the line, the route I have already walked. When things didn’t go well, she sent me a picture of the map and that always motivated me, to see how much I had already done.
– I wrote down all the questions about the Via Alpina and met a Via Alpina hiker and asked him many questions – but this blogpost should cover that point.
– I bought a GPS. With an emergency button – the Garmin In Reach. It was very expensive and an overkill, I wouldn’t do it again. Through the official Via Alpina site I downloaded the GPS tracks to my new GPS. To use it you also have to buy the map of each land you are passing – they are expensive too. I was able to borrow them (it is on small sim cards). Finally, I navigated myself with Komoot (app). The Via Alpina routes are on there (Link Komoot). Most of the time they show more hours than it actually takes.
– I have created my own Excel list. I got the data from the Via Alpina website. Hours, kilometers, altitude, etc. Then I read all the comments for each stage, to see if there was anything important there, e.g. “this supermarket has ben closed for at least 10 years” = means no resupply option. Or “this pass is dangerous because of the bad trail service”.. I looked that I mark a resupply possibility every 7 days and also a hotel/hostel/camping for laundry, shower, battery recharge and Wifi. For the resupply opportunities on my list, I also added the opening hours. Especially stores in small towns are often closed.
– I downloaded the data of the Via Alpina website as a hiking guide as a PDF. All this data and my Excel list, I saved on my phone. And I had my Excel list printed, which was helpful when rescheduling on the trail.
– I optimized my Gear and weighed it. Everything about Gear can be found here (Excel list download).
In spring 2021 a girl called Marina Wolf who hiked the Via Alpina in 2019 with a friend, published a really useful guide. I wish I had it when I started. She said I can link to her e-book on my blog, so here it is:
How well is the Via Alpina signposted & do you meet many other people?
The red Via Alpina is rarely marked. Sometimes you see a Via Alpina stage plaque, depending on the country, it varies. Therefore, you have to know yourself which signposts to follow and which towns to head for. The GPS route, which can be downloaded from the official Via Alpina website, helps me a lot. In 4 months I met two other Via Alpina hikers (two guys – one from Switzerland, an other one from Germany who did it in three summers). Otherwise, you meet day tourists, or hikers who are on the road for one or more weeks on other long-distance trails such as the Alpe Adria Trail or make the crossing of the Alps from Salzburg to Trieste. But you can find a forum on the Facebook group “Via Alpina Community”, where we hikers can exchange ideas.
How is it with a visa – do you actually have to cross an official border in the countries?
No. As a Swiss, it’s quite easy and you just walk across the border on the hiking trail. Identity card & passport copy is of course included.
Are there many via ferrata sections (the fear of heights question)?
No real via ferratas, but sections with steel cables, chains and ladders (eg from Godey to Gsteig) there were about 3-4 in 4 months. But they are always explained in the comments on the Via Alpina page. Also someone asked me if the Via Alpina is doable with a dog. I think so, but it will certainly not be easy. Otherwise just walk another route, if a sketchy part of the Via Alpina would be ahead.
The water question: How much water per day to carry and what about water filter and Katadyn Micropur tablets?
I carried far too much water at the beginning. Over 4 liters. My backpack was super heavy. Then I realized I never need that much (I am a camel :D). Not even for cooking. After that, I carried around about 2L. A small pet bottle (because light) and a 2 Liter bag (from Platypus*). I also didn’t use the water filter for 4 weeks. After that I sent it home by mail. The Katadyn micropur (in case my water was ever contaminated – bad source), I kept. They were super light. Never needed them in the end. The Alps have so much water. Don’t worry about the water problem! It is no problem at all. 😉
*Platypus self-standing, slips well into backpack (silicone bags are less practical, do not slip).
Emergency shelters and campground search:
Emergency shelters / winter rooms: Because of Covid, some cabins were closed when I hiked the Via Alpina. Or I was too early (June) or too late (end of September) when they were closed. If the weather became really bad, I was happy to switch to huts (or anything else like hotels, hostels & campsites). But most of the huts also have winter rooms. These are usually open (during covid they were closed sometimes, to not spread the virus). However, often moldy and damp. I don’t like old stinky winter rooms , unless it was unacceptable (when the ground because of heavy rain no longer absorbed water and my tent was soaked from below, for example). I am also a member of the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) and have a membership card. This has given me mostly discounted rates not only in Switzerland but also in the other countries.
Another tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself. I originally wanted to spend only one night a week not sleeping in the tent, hardly allowed myself any break days. But it’s not a race and you should enjoy something so crazy special like the Via Alpina. After a few thunderstorms in the tent and a lightning strike directly next my camp, I threw this idea overboard and when I got uncomfortable, I went to a shelter (no matter the cost). It’s like wellness when you can eat and sleep (or sometimes even shower) in a hut.
The campground search: I always found something, but it wasn’t always great and no romantic views. I don’t like forest camping at all (is also actually almost always prohibited – only allowed above the tree line) – for me it is scary (so much noise during the night – wear ear plugs!). Important: Hide, don’t camp on the trail or right next to it. Look that it is not under a rock where stones could come down and also not pitch your tent next to old, sick trees. Not exposed to the wind and not on uncomfortable roots, bog or farm meadows and certainly not where there are cows.
I have been asked this question by many Swiss: What is the difference between the Swiss Via Alpina and the red Via Alpina route?
The red Via Alpina takes you through all 8 alpine countries – the whole point – and goes along the main ridge of the alps from Monaco to Trieste (sea to sea). That’s a total of 2600 kilometers and the route is considered one of the most demanding long-distance trails in Europe. The Swiss Via Alpina is the green route and is from Montreux to Vaduz and has a completely different routing than if you cross Switzerland on the red route. The green route is more northerly than the red and you could walk the green route on the red Via Alpina while crossing Switzerland to shorten (it says so on the website). Johanna, a friend of mine, did the green Via Alpina this summer and was a bit disappointed as the route was often on forest roads. Means, however, that it is super suitable for beginners and you can run in 2-3 weeks through the whole of Switzerland. The red Via Alpina has a few challenging sections in Switzerland (but mostly secured with chains or steel ladders), where you really should not be afraid of heights. Also, my Switzerland crossing took 5 weeks! But I loved it and despite the many meters of altitude it was awesome!
Green Via Alpina: beginners, not yet so much “long-distance hiking experience”.
Red Via Alpina: For more experienced hikers without fear of heights.
How far you get per day:
Depends. I am 160cm, moderately fit. Per day it was 25 kilometers at the beginning and at the second part I took it easy, there it was only 15-18 kilometers per day (didn’t want to arrive at all haha..). I walked for exactly 100 days. Break days subtracted. Per hour I made 400-600hm, depending on the condition. Per day approx. 1200 altitude meters.
How have you been mentally? How do you manage to keep going everyday?
The mood depends a lot on the weather. If the weather is good and the stage is cool, then everything is a piece of cake, even if there’s a lot of altitude to master. And if it’s raining and lightning, then everything just sucks and you don’t know exactly what to do (where to sleep, reschedule for safety, etc.). Otherwise, I am an ambitious person and can push it through, when it gets tough. If I have a goal that I pursue with all my heart, then little will be able to dissuade me. And I would describe myself as a strong and an independent personality. You have to be able to manage well on your own. These are good qualities for a long-distance hike. Christine Thürmer (the most hiked woman in the world) says, that women who start alone have the best chance to reach their destination.
PS: But I often had visitors on my tour – friends who hiked with me. At least 6 of them.
Do you always have a daily goal or do you decide spontaneously where your sleeping place will be?
I always have a stage planned and walk at least to it. Most of the time I walk a little bit further to get away from the alp or the hut. The stages of the Via Alpina are always oriented to accommodation. So, for example, from hut to hut and then I walk 1h longer to a place that appears flat enough (for the tent) on the map.
How heavy is your backpack?
Maximum 13 kilograms if I carry 2kg of water and 3kg of food. Otherwise, the backpack weight is about 11 kilograms, because I usually carry only 1.5 liters of water, unless it is a region with a lack of sources (never really happend). My baseweight is between 6-7 kilos (tent, mat, sleeping bag, backpack, cooking stuff, clothes etc.). For more, check equipment.
What kind of food do you carry?
Pretty boring selection: Nuts, dried fruit, crisp bread (Darvida), noodle soup & pasta, baby smoothies, bars and sugus (fruity sweets).
How much food do you carry, how long are you without food options (store)?
Usually I have food with me for about 5-7 days, that’s about 3kg. But I often eat in huts and restaurants along the way. Usually you have a shopping possibility every week and otherwise you have to descend (into a valley) to get supplies.
How much money does such a project require?
Since it is a “once-a-lifestime” project for me, I was not saving money at all. I book a great hotel when I feel like it and eat where and when I want in huts (so I save weight of food in my backpack). I think finally I come about 6000.- francs including hotels, train costs, food and so on. But this is only an estimated sum. I never added it up. Every franc was worth it.
What about the loneliness on the Via Alpina?
I didn’t think so at the beginning, but it was probably my biggest personal challenge. When things don’t go well, it’s hard when you know you have an apartment, your boyfriend and family, a cat and a job waiting for you at home. It would be so easy to travel home in bad moments. I’m not really lonely, but sometimes I get homesick (always have been). And otherwise you’re not alone for long, that rarely happens. Often you meet other tourists & hikers and if I have not talked to anyone for a long time, then I chat just someone 😀
What do you do about blisters and how do you treat them if they have already popped?
My tip: Try to do everything against getting blisters. I get blisters very quickly and often and choosing the right shoes for the right terrain and weather is already a very big step. For example, you don’t always need waterproof shoes. Because when it’s hot that you have hardly any ventilation and if then still friction arises (especially when running steep uphill on the heels) then come the blisters. The right socks are also very important. Other tips: Blister pen from Compeed, nylon socks under the hiking socks, ventilate your feet over lunch and dry the socks or change, Compeed blister plaster, possibly tape it – but not do too much, can only lead to further weak points. If the blisters are open then put wound healing cream on it and let it dry after. Otherwise I ignore blisters as long as possible and rather take a break while hiking (the drying part) so that it does not come that far.
Do you have a recommendation for a 1 tent?
Depends on what you need it for and where. My criteria: Lightweight, freestanding, comfortable (2 wall tent and can sit loosely inside – so no tunnel tent). Therefore, I am very satisfied with the Hubba NX. Otherwise, I think the 1-er from Big Agnes would also be something for me. A tarp or a Z-Packs tent (both much lighter), for me is too little comfort on such a long trip.
Your choice of shoes? Is it true that hard shoes are not suitable for long tours?
My first tour I had done with my crampon resistant mountain boot, because I had to expect snow fields. Then when it got very hot, I got a lot of blisters because of the poor ventilation and if you have to walk on asphalt, then you almost go crazy because of the hard flat sole. In the evening I had then always foot sole burning. Then I walked on another tour (Jura Crest Trail) – everything in the On Cloudventure Trailrunner. For the Via Alpina I tried it with the Cloudrock, because it is light and soft like a trail runner but is cut higher. I have already 2x torn the ligaments and therefore did not want to provoke it. The Cloudrock is great for me! I never have foot burns and rarely blisters. Only in the icy snow fields I reached my shoes limits. Therefore, I still had mini-spikes with me in June.
Advantages Cloudrock: Lightweight, soft, well cushioned, nice roll off possible (foot becomes stronger as a result), dries faster again and it looks pretty 🙂 .
Note: Keep in mind that long distance hiking will make your feet bigger. I had also ignored it, and the second shoe was then a bit tight for me. Therefore, my third pair was one size bigger and that was perfect.
Info about my equipment:
On wildmountainheart.ch you can find under equipment my whole equipment as a PDF in an Excel list with weight information.
Further questions I had answered after I have hiked half of the Via Alpina on my blog. For example, which were the most beautiful sections (to the re-hike). These answers can be found here:
Although also German, but with Google translator it works great.
If you can dream it, you can do it. I wish you all the best for your crazy adventure!