Ask Me: Advice on a Hut Trek in the Swiss Alps
My husband is in love with backpacking and takes trips around the U.S. every year, but since this will be his fortieth birthday, he has chosen the Pennine Alps hut hike in Switzerland that you wrote about in Backpacker. I would really appreciate your thoughts on several questions that I have.
If you thought you would only get one trip to Switzerland, would you recommend the hike from St. Luc to Zermatt? Or would the longer hike from Mount Blanc to Zermatt, the Swiss Haute Route, be better? We want to be independent and enjoy the hike ourselves.
We were planning on going early to mid-September. I’m a bit sad that we won’t be able to see the wildflowers, but we cannot go before mid-August. Does it matter what days you do the hike? I would like to fly in on an off day, like Tuesday, and didn’t know if the trains and buses ran every day, or if weekends were different. Would we need to get train tickets beforehand? Is Switzerland easily traveled, being an English speaker only?
I was thinking that we would fly into Geneva. The train seemed pretty pricey. Could we rent a car to St. Luc?
The websites for the huts do not have an English translation. If we call the numbers, will there be someone who could speak English? I was going to get the huts booked and then arrange flights.
Would it be worth it to fly home from Milan and spend two days there before returning home?
I would appreciate any thoughts you have to share. Would have loved to read more about the details of your Swiss trip. Your family backpacking trips look amazing. I am looking forward to my children being old enough to go backpacking with us in the future.
Trekking in the Swiss Alps sounds like a nice way to celebrate turning 40! I’ll try to answer your questions.
You could make all the arrangements yourself; it just requires some time and organization.
The Walkers Haute Route, aka Swiss Haute Route, from Mount Blanc to Zermatt is a classic and very popular trek. The last two days of my trek from St. Luc to Zermatt follows the same route. Note that I took the high route to Zermatt, on the Europaweg, or Europa Trail (lead photo at top and all photos in this article). That is much more scenic than staying down in the valley bottom (which is easier, of course).
Which would I choose? Honestly, both are remarkably beautiful treks. St. Luc to Zermatt is shorter and does not include the Mount Blanc area, which you might not want to pass up, especially if this is a trip you’re not likely to repeat again for some years. Friends of mine did the Walkers Haute Route and really enjoyed it quite a lot. Still, the St. Luc to Zermatt trek is much less busy and goes through basically the same area of the Swiss Alps; it’s magnificent. If you want a less busy trek and don’t mind missing Mount Blanc, I’m sure you’ll find it unforgettable. I did the latter because I was looking for a trek a little more off the beaten track, and yet incredibly scenic.
My first trek in Switzerland (with my wife) was in the very popular Bernese Alps in mid-September, just before many of the mountain huts closed for the season. It was cool but mostly nice, late-summer weather, and there were far fewer people on the trails and in the huts. We didn’t need hut reservations (though you still might on the Walkers Haute Route). As you may know, August is holiday month for most Europeans and the trails and huts are very busy. It’s not the best time to try to do any trek. In September, you could encounter new snow, but not likely enough to force you off the trail. And if so, there’s usually a village not too far away that you can head into for a hotel room.
The best alternative is in July, when you will see wildflowers. But start after the snow has mostly melted out, which varies from year to year, but is usually by mid-July; hut keepers could give you some idea now when trails are likely to be mostly snow-free.
The Swiss train and bus system is excellent and reliable and reaches even the tiniest villages. You can get on a train shortly after arriving at any German or Swiss airport and probably get to your starting point the same day, maybe even start hiking that afternoon. Midweek travel dates for lower airfares make sense, and you’ll probably have no trouble getting public transportation to wherever you want to go. The train and bus schedules are easy to find online. You could rent a car, of course. I’ve never done that on either of my two treks in Switzerland because the public transportation is so good, though it is pricey. The trouble with renting a car is that you’re probably not going to hike a loop back to your car, so you’d need some way retrieve it; and of course, you’re paying for a car that you will leave parked somewhere for days. I don’t know whether you’d save money renting a car, but it’s not necessarily more convenient.
We rarely encountered any language barrier, except in the first hut we stayed in above St. Luc, in the French-speaking region of the Swiss Alps; and even there, we were able to communicate well enough to get by. Most people who have to deal with tourists and trekkers speak English well, but that doesn’t include all hut keepers. All you can do is try to call or email them, they may have someone who can communicate well enough in English.
I haven’t spent time in Milan, but you could easily get a train there if you wanted to visit. It’s a central rail hub.
I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have other questions. Good luck, you’re planning a wonderful adventure. And thanks for following The Big Outside.
Thank you so much for your advice and knowledge. It has been so helpful.
My husband wonders if there are certain things that we may need on the trail, like an emergency beacon or satellite phone? Normally he would backpack and have all his gear like small cook stove, tent, etc. Since we are going to the hut, I am guessing we don’t need all those typical camping things? Are there certain things you would recommend to bring on a hike like this? Matt has hiked several famous trails here in the U.S. Is there a trail you would compare the Pennine Alps trip to? What is the level of difficulty on this Alps trail? I will have to be training and working up to this hike as I am not the hiker in the family.
One of the wonderful aspects of a hut trek in the Alps is the confluence of civilization, a sort of wildness, and incredible mountain scenery. When hiking in the Alps, you regularly pass through essentially three “levels” on the land, and they are very tied to elevation:
1. The forested valleys are inhabited and developed, with services available and excellent public transportation;
2. The middle heights on the mountains, where there are often open meadows, flowers, and greenery, but not many trees, and there may be domestic sheep, goats, or cows grazing and the occasional building, like a mountain hut or a private cabin;
3. And the higher elevations, where trails often pass below stunning glaciers and jagged, rocky, sheer peaks.
Given that character, it’s very different from hiking in a U.S. wilderness or national park. Trails in the Alps, especially the more popular ones but including most that I’ve seen, are generally well built and well marked, like most U.S. national park trails. Trails in the Alps can get steep and strenuous when you’re going from a valley bottom up onto a high trail on a ridge top, but there are often cable cars or funiculars where you can buy a one-ride ticket to the top, or a train you can ride down to the village in the valley from the heights. You’re not often more than two to three hours from the next hut or village or road crossing where you might find a hotel or pub or be able to catch a bus to the next village. You can buy trail food at one hut or village for that day’s hike to the next hut or village; you don’t have to carry multiple days’ worth of food. I’ve never considered carrying a beacon or sat phone there, though a lightweight, compact first-aid kit is always a good idea. You don’t need camping gear.
The hut system and proximity to civilization allows you to hike with a very light pack; you’ll see experienced European trekkers walking from hut to hut with impressively small daypacks. Usually, besides your clothes, a day’s trail food and water, some personal items (camera, book), and a map, the only other key item you need is a sleeping bag liner or similar travel sheet for the huts (which usually provide a sleeping pad, blankets, and a pillow).
By the way, if you have not yet seen it, you may want to read my story about trekking hut-to-hut with my family in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park. It was fabulous.
I cannot thank you enough for your insight, experience and wisdom that you have shared. I really appreciate the time you have taken to answer my questions. I will read about your hut to hut in Norway this week.
Thank you again,
In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I receive a high volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.
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