A Summer Alpine Walking FAQ

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I’ve spoken with many, many people about walking hut-to-hut in the Alps during the summer. Some are not really “walkers” at all and some are quite enthusiastic walkers in the UK but have no idea of the existence of the Alpine huts and Gîtes d’Etape.

There’s a huge amount of information around in books, online and even on this site under labels such as Haute Route and GR5.

But the sheer volume of information is also rather off-putting – people want an overview to get them going.

So here’s a run-down in FAQ style that tries to cover the questions that everyone seems to start with. Well, they’re what I get asked anyhow!

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Where?

So many places! Start with a Cicerone Guide. I love the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) and it was my introduction to summer Alpine walking. But there are many others.

I wouldn’t start with the Walker’s Haute Route. Not because it’s harder than the TMB (though it certainly is) but more because it’s such a gorgeous, spectacular route that you should probably build up to it.

Buy a map (simplest to get a waterproofed one from Aqua 3) and a compass.

Edit: 21 March 2011; Cicerone have published a book by Kev Reynolds that looks to be an excellent source of inspiration: Guide to trekking in the European Alps

walkers-haute-route-07-176-smallWhen?

June is probably too early unless you have snow experience and the willingness and ability to carry and use an axe and crampons.

July is also rather prone to snow on a lot of the high passes and can be very hot. Also it’s when the crowds really start to emerge.

Most of France appears to head to the Alps for August. So probably not then unless, like us, your route is so long that you have to start in August to complete before the huts close.

The first fortnight of September has always been my favourite. The weather is milder and often dryer than August (less sun to power thunder storms). However, time your finish carefully or book the accommodation in advance since almost all the huts close on the 15th of September every year regardless of the prevailing weather or what day of the week the 15th happens to be.

The guide book will also give you a good idea of conditions for the route you’re thinking of.

walkers-haute-route-07-225-smallHow do I get there?

Guide books will help here but in essence the train links are apparently very good (several people I know have used trains to get the Alps from the UK but I never have) and of course there’s obviously the cheap flight carriers. Though if going from the UK check BA – they’re often cheaper than Easy Jet for the same routes.

Living in Brighton, we tend to fly from Gatwick to Geneva. Then transfer using someone like Cham Express to Chamonix or in the winter Go Massif to Samoëns (and then we stay in my brother’s place – what a great brother!).

Do I need special insurance?

Well despite this being non-technical, just walking, most insurance policies really only expect you to be lying on a beach. But the BMC does very, very good value policies.

Don’t forget to sort out a European Health Insurance card if you’re from Europe.

How long?

As long as your time and budget allow!walkers-haute-route-07-52-small

First book out several weekends in your calendar, well in advance, to do some hill walking leading up to the walk. If you don’t book them they’ll get eaten by the inevitable BBQs and birthdays and you’ll not enjoy the Alpine walk so much.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you can knock off a 20K day in the Peak, a 14K day on the TMB is a complete doddle. Look at the height gain. That’s what will make it hard.

I’ve met several spaced-out looking, hill-walking Brits who scurried off to bed immediately after wolfing down their dessert after telling me how much harder the days are than the guide book seemed to indicate. They see the figures and try to knock out 1.5 or even 2 days of guide book walking in 1 day.

To me that’s no way to enjoy the walk and rather missing the point. I’d rather keep up a good pace through a 14k day but with plenty of photo-breaks and stops for multiple nibbles of cheese and sausage as well as chatting to other walkers and the locals (okay LB chats to them as she speaks, well, several languages).

But isn’t it hard?

Well it’s not very hard, it’s only walking. Albeit with some rather big hills. It does depend on your route though. Take a look at what Kev Reynolds says. He’s written lots of Alpine guide books including the TMB.

mini-tmb-sep-2008-64-smallHow much?

Typically huts and gîtes charge €30 to €38 for: A three course evening meal, a bed in a dorm (or sometimes your own room) and a simple breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and hot chocolate or coffee.

Considering some of the huts you may stay in are accessible only by foot, pack-mule or helicopter that’s not bad value!

And the food is simple but delicious. You never leave the table hungry, meals generally being three courses with second helpings available.

But I’m veggie/food intolerant!

Last year we walked the Haute Route and stayed in huts and gîtes all the way. Two of the party had pretty severe restrictions on what they could eat. No wheat or dairy (and in LB’s case no spud!).mini-tmb-sep-2008-66-small

No dairy? In the Alps?

I’m quite sure that LB knowing how to say “Pardon, mon amie est allergique au lait et au blé” (I’m sorry but my friend is allergic to dairy and wheat”) helped a lot in comprehension, but all the guardians were absolutely fantastic about it.

And the meals sometimes looked even tastier than what everyone else had. Only once was it very basic but that was in a high-altitude hut where they fell over themselves to try to get something together.

But don’t I need to be able to use a map and compass?

Well, I personally do think you should be able to – it’s really not hard to get the basics.

But, I’ve met several people who were simply following the trails and using the guide book descriptions.

I wouldn’t advise it, these are “proper” mountains we’re talking about. But it can be done.walkers-haute-route-07-73-small

But hey – if you’re walking about in the UK hills for a few weekends before you go – great chance to practice!

There are plenty of books but one that I know is very straightforward to follow is Land Navigation by Wally Keay

And if that’s too much bother – you can download a very simple intro to navigation from the OS site.

walkers-haute-route-07-6-smallWhere do I sleep?

In a bed, on a mattress with a pillow and a duvet or blankets.

But you must bring a sleeping bag liner to sleep in. The lightest is silk. Silk can be very expensive but Jag Bag of New Zealand are very good value and are sold in the UK by Terre Vista Trails.

I also put a fleece over the pillow since my head inevitably finds its way out of the liner.

Do I need special walking kit?

Well, even speaking as a complete kit obsessive… not very special. You probably can’t go in the clothes you might wear to work, but equally you don’t need the latest super-technical kit.

However there are two things that are absolutely essential: Comfortable footwear and comfortable waterproofs (jacket and trousers).walkers-haute-route-07-44-small

Well, okay everything needs to be comfortable but with the feet it’s essential.

The other thing that’s essential is:

Don’t take too much!

Hut-to-hut summer Alpine walking is essentially a series of day walks strung together.

If you take too much you’ll be more tired at the end of the day and won’t want to sit talking quietly to the other people in the hut after dinner as the sun paints master-pieces with the peaks all around you.

But instead you’ll be in bed with sore calves, knees and quads wondering how to drag yourself through the next day.

Take as little as you can get away with. And that means very little.

What boots do I need?

You do not need walking “boots”!

Approach Shoes” are far more suitable.walkers-haute-route-07-176-small

They’re the “all terrain trainers” that are now fashionable pub apparel. Though just because it looks like an approach shoe it doesn’t mean it’s suitable for walking in.

Go to a specialist walking shop but don’t be put off by some idiot sales person who insists that you need “proper boots for proper walking”. It’s simply bunk.

In fact, if you’re in the UK, make one of your walking weekends the Peak District and go to Outside Hathersage. Try some Inov8s – superb kit.

Don’t expect to be wearing the same pair in ten years time like you would with boots. But do expect to be enjoying your walking far more.

When I first did the TMB in 2002 I was surprised to see that in a huge rack of boots in a hut, mine were the only approach shoes.

Last year, the story was more like 4/10 were approach shoes. The tide is turning.

There’s a huge amount of info on this but suffice it to say that the lighter your footwear the less knackered you’ll be by the end of the day.

walkers-haute-route-07-35-smallWill I need waterproofs?

It’s unlikely even in a southern European summer that it will remain dry all the time. Heck it’s the mountains, it could rain all the time!

But that being said you’d hope to be carrying the waterproofs not wearing them so the lighter the better.

eVent based jackets are the way I’d go (probably…) but GoreTex Paclite is well respected. I’d look at Montane. Especially the Atomic Pants. They’re not eVent but they’re dead light.

Ultimately remember the weight – less than 400 grams for the jacket. Less than 350 grams ideally.

That being said, if this is all new to you, you’ll be so amazed at just being there that a cheaper, heavier, sweatier waterproof won’t make much difference to your enjoyment!

It’s walking so I need gaiters right?

Nope. They can help but I would never suggest you need to carry those full length things for this.

All you’re ever likely to need is a short pair like the Integral Designs eVent Shortie Gaiter.

They’re very helpful for me since waterproof trousers aren’t really long enough so they can bridge the gap to my footwear!

In fact they’re the only gaiters I ever wear, even in winter with crampons.

ulrika-mini-tmb-sep-2008-27-smallDo I need a hat?

A wide brimmed hat can be almost literally life saving in the Southern European summer sun. Remember that UV light increases with altitude too.

I used to hate hats – I now love a couple, my wide brimmed Tilley Hat for summer, and the astonishing warmth to weight ratio and non-head-itching comfort of the Extremities Power Dry Beanie (not to be confused with the much thicker and bulkier Power Stretch Beanie).

Between the two – take the wide brimmed hat. But again, I’ve got away without one.

Edit: 09 May 2009: I should have said – sunglasses and lots of sunblock are also in order. Souther European summer sun can be very, very strong!

Do need lots of special clothes?

Not really and only one set.

Yes one. Not one to wear and one spare set. If you pack too much you’ll simply have less fun because your pack will be heavier.

No pyjamas either! A spare t-shirt is all you need even if you’re female (but perhaps a pair of silk bottoms if you’re bashful).

Synthetic tops are good. Never, ever cotton – it sucks heat when wet, making it positively dangerous at times.

However I’ve replaced all my synthetics with Merino wool-based kit. It’s magical stuff.ulrika-mini-tmb-sep-2008-32-small

Synthetics will get eye-wateringly smelly in a couple of days (not great for you – awful for everyone else!). But even thin Merino will resist getting pongy for days. With a bit of a wash in a sink now and then you can smell pretty fresh even after a fortnight. Thicker Merino garments (for winter) will resist almost all odour for a couple of weeks or more.

I carry two very, very light Icebreaker T-shirts (I know; two! But it’s the only doubling-up of non-underwear I do).

Also one pair of lightweight synthetic trousers. I’m a fan of convertibles that allow the legs to be unzipped. Meaning you don’t have a pair of shorts to lug about when it’s not warm enough to wear them.

Do I need special mountain underwear?

Sort of…

Socks – go for Smartwool and they won’t let you down. There are others of course but personally I’d always go for Merino based socks regardless.

Socks are very important as they’re what connects you to your shoes for every step. Get them right – you don’t think about them. Get them wrong…

Two pairs max. Wear one wash one.

Undies – yep – Merino! As I say no whiff. Icebreaker aren’t cheap but they’re superbly made.

And of course; two pairs. Just two. Wear one wash one.

walkers-haute-route-07-124-smallDoesn’t it get cold?

It certainly can do. It may fall below freezing at night even in high summer but you’ll be in a hut. And during the day it can turn very cold if the weather turns. Also snow will fall in every month at even the altitudes you will be walking.

The ideal kit for rest-stops is a good down jacket. Great for sitting outside the hut at night. Even better if you get stuck out somewhere. However you must keep down dry or it simply won’t insulate.

In the past I’ve used a couple of thick fleeces and been fine.

With a thin pair of synthetic gloves most people can cope with most of the summer weather in the Alps easily. I get cold hands and they usually suffice to stop my fingers becoming useless sausages.

If you really feel the cold, consider a thin, long sleeved thermal base layer (merino wool is ideal!). They can make a huge difference.

All being well, most of the time it’s the heat that will concern you.

Is that all I need?

Not quite, there are other bits and bobs.mini-tmb-sep-2008-65-small

A light but comfortable pack. 45 litres should do it. Remember you’ll need room for some lunch! Edit Oct 2009: I’d highly reccommend the GoLite sacks. The Pinnacle was excellent for seven weeks on the GR5!

A thick polythene bag (a “builder’s rubble sack” is fine) to keep your kit dry inside the pack.

A water bottle or two. Enough for a couple of litres – rinsed out plastic bottles that have held fizzy drink are strongest. Tonic Water seems to give no after-taste to get rid of but use Bicarbonate of Soda to soak any others.

A torch. Preferably the type that goes on your head (mainly for shared rooms at night!).

A knife to open the cheese and cured sausage for lunch. Edit Oct 2009: A number 7 Opinel is very easily bought it France and is just about impossible to beat for weight!

A camera (and waterproof bag) so that you can make people jealous after they’ve been to Bognor on their holidays.

In fact, I have a whole list if you want to get into it. (It links to almost all the other Haute Route postings). It may be slightly out of date. I was using silk boxers at the time for instance. But overall it’s still close to what I take.

But my cat needs milking / goldfish needs shaving / hamster needs painting / dog needs polishing!

The inevitable domestic demands can certainly get in the way of walking in some of the most spectacular scenery you’ll ever see in your life.

But it’ll be there next year eh? ;)

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22 Replies to “A Summer Alpine Walking FAQ”

  1. That was a very informative write up Dave and thanks. I have yet to walk in the mountains abroad. Information like that will be very handy when I get a chance to do it.

  2. It’s just struck me that there’s lots of people out there that would probably love this kind of walking if only they had an idea of where to start!

    Hope you do find it useful when you get out there yourself Martin!

  3. Great FAQ Dave! It hopefully eases the fears of some people being packed up like for an unsupported backpacking trip into Himalaya when they do a hut to hut tour in the mountains.

  4. Thanks Roman! Coming from you that means a lot (since you’ve some experience of the Alps I think!)

    And yes – that’s something I wish I could have pointed out more strongly. But sometimes people need to carry the weight before they realise :)

  5. I will definitely be refering to this before heading to Europe (some years in the future). In Japan I know about the huts and tent sites and I am aware that there are lots of huts in Europe but I tend to wing it a lot and this post will surely help me prepare mentally. At least I will wing it with a little more advanced preparation.

  6. I’m sure you’ll have no bother Peter. But I always like reading basic things on subjects I know well because it’s surprising what little gaps they can fill in!

  7. Such a great series of posts on Alpine walking, the TMB and the HR, the GR5 and the GR20. We met a runner doing the GR5 clocking 40-60km a day. That was intense stuff. I agree that the TMB is a fairly reasonable walk and we felt, after a day or so, that we could easily have done more each day and that was with an injury in the group too. As I said in another comment – I am looking to do something similar to the HR next year but more likely something I cook up myself after some research. I’m going to enhance my winter skills too and maybe ascend Mont Blanc some time next year as well. All of your posts will be very helpful in researching all of that so thank you very much for the time and effort. Much appreciated.

  8. Thanks Maz that’s very nice of you to say.

    40-60KM a day? Wow. Well that’s one way to see it I suppose. But seems rather a waste to me in a way. On the other hand, if running is their thing… not a bad place to be doing it!

    The trouble with cooking up a route I think (never done it) is that the well known trails already solve the problems that you may find you end up re-solving (where to break the days reasonably whilst keeping the route high/interesting and giving escape routes for bad weather). But hey – I’m sure it’s doable!

    If you fancy something “meatier” – we’ve been wondering about The Pyrenean Haute Route

  9. The Classic Haute Route – different, higher and more technical than the Walkers Haute Route we are probably going to end up choosing to be guided which will give us a chance to learn at the same time. We’re also doing the an Winter Mountaineering Course in the Cairngorms to get ready for it and to enable us to put some time in munro bagging in the winter.

  10. Hey – very nice ideas.

    Yeah – Winter Skills courses are well worth doing. Great fun and could even save your life.

    As for being guided – also a good idea I reckon. I bumped into a guide in the Moiry refuge on the Walker’s HR as it happens. Really nice guy, very down to earth. We got on really well. Luckily managed to remember to dig a card out from him: Ric Potter (and even more luckily I noted that down when I came home three years ago – FreeMind is great).

    I’ve never dealt with him as a client, but I’ve not always found guides that happen to be sat at your table in the refuge so personable – so that’s a start! And he certainly has a great set of credentials according to his site.

  11. I hiked up to the Cabane de Moiry whilst in the Alps in July – it was a quick up and down rather than anything major and Mrs M was in the ‘Van down by the Lac. Fantastic stuff – did a post on that too. I really enjoyed it – first time in trail running shoes on proper terrain and it’s not that easy either. I loved it though.

  12. Ah yes – just read that post. Great pics again.

    And yes – trail runners are fine for all that kind of terrain. We used the Roclites (295 for me and 268 for LB) for the whole GR20 (plus some side peaks) and they are fine – could be used for a return trip in fact! I don’t want to walk in anything else except the FiveFingers :)

  13. I saw Hendrik Morkel’s review of the Five Fingers on Hiking in Finland. I remain unconvinced but will to try anything! I think this summer will see me more in Terroc 330’s although I’ve just bought a pair of Scarpa Manta boots for the winter (along with G12 crampons and some other choice kit – I’m giving Páramo a run this winter).

  14. really helpful info. Have done a bit of walking in the highlands, but am heading of for my first solo alpine holiday this august. Really helped me get my head around what I need to take, and, more importantly,
    don’t need.

    1. Thanks Mary! Really glad it helped you – hope you have a great first trip!

      Perhaps with highlands walking experience you may survive what I would expect to be an unusually damp August in the Alps this year…

  15. Hi, wow this is perfectly concise and helpful knowledge which can be hard to come by!
    I am trying to plan a breief (few days) walk to start with in the alps. I’ll be coming from northern Italy (Turin most likely), and looking for an easy (as easy as the alps can be!) walk between huts/gites- can anyone recommend something?

    I’m just worried as I used to walk quite frequently in the lakes, york moors and peaks, but recently have become unfit…

    Anyway, any input would be very much appreciated!!

    Thanks and happy walking to all :)

    1. Sorry Harry but this is an old blog posting so I doubt anyone will be seeing your comment any time soon! You might want search the forum over at http://www.outdoorsmagic.com/ and make a posting if you turn nothing up. There are people on there with a huge range of knowledge and it’s very friendly!

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