Hiking is the most popular sport in Switzerland.
According to a study by our federal administration, the average Swiss undertakes 20 hikes a year and 80% of the population regularly use the trails to go hiking, jogging, walking or for other activities.
We just love our hikes...
- It’s what we do when the weather is nice.
- When the weather promises to be nice but then decides otherwise.
- When it’s the weekend.
- When it’s the holidays.
- When we don’t know what else to do.
- When we need some fresh air.
- And especially when the government tells us to stay inside because of the Corona pandemic and to only leave the house to get some exercise.
We hike as if our lives depend on it. But can you blame us? After all, it’s what gets you in front of these views...
Plus, hiking is free. So it fits in perfectly with my concept of teaching you to visit Switzerland on a budget.
Now, I’d be bragging if I told you I know everything about hiking in Switzerland. I don’t think anybody does. But with a little help from some serious hikers (thank you mum and Gabriela), I managed to put together a guide that’ll set you up nicely for your hikes.
So strap on those boots and off we go.
1. Swiss hiking trails 101 – a quick introduction
The Swiss hiking trail network is enormous. Combine all of our trails and you’re presented with an overwhelming total of over 65.000 km (40.400 miles) of hiking opportunities.
That’s more than one and a half times the world’s circumference.
It’s safe to say you can spend several years hiking your feet off in this little country, if that’s what your heart desires.
Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll along a paved footpath or a head spinning climb up a ladder, consisting only of some pieces of metal jammed into a rock, you’ll find your match.
Don’t worry if your fitness level can’t handle a steep, 7-hour hike in the Alps. The different levels of hiking trails, which I’ll talk about further down, cover every corner of the country.
Flat to steep.
2. How to read the signposts
Roughly 50.000 signposts inform you about the category of the path you’re on, which direction you need to follow and sometimes how far away from your destination you are.
To understand how to read these helpful signposts, take a look at the following image.
- Current location and altitude in metres above sea level
- Possible destinations (The one at the top of the list is the closest one.)
- Estimated hiking time to destination (breaks not included)
- Category explaining the level of difficulty
- Divider indicating a fork in the road further on
- Symbols indicating points of interest such as public transport, viewpoints, barbecues or restaurants
3. The three (+1) levels of hiking trails
3.1 Hiking trails
While hiking trails often run along wide paths, they can also be narrow and uneven. You’ll find them in the flat and hilly parts of Switzerland, where they’re more walking than hiking trails, as well as in the Alps.
Potentially dangerous sections offer railings for you to hold on to. If you keep your eyes open and pay attention to where you’re going, you shouldn’t be in too much danger on a hiking trail.
Wearing sturdy shoes is still essential. Unless you’re down in the lowlands and are walking on a paved road.
Hiking trails are indicated by plain, yellow signposts. Ideally not pointing up at the sky...
3.2 Mountain trails
Mountain trails lead through partly challenging terrain. They’re mostly steep, narrow and exposed and you’ll recognise them by their white-red-white marks on rocks, signposts, trees or poles.
If a section is exceptionally tricky, there’s usually a rope or a chain installed for you to hold on.
You should only follow a mountain trail if you’re in good physical condition, not afraid of heights and have been on hikes before. Also, you need to be aware of the dangers you might potentially encounter up in the Alps, such as rockfall, danger of slipping and falling or rapid weather change. We’ll talk more about those dangers further down.
Of course, sturdy trekking or hiking boots are a must on mountain trails.
3.3 Alpine trails
Alpine trails are only for very experienced mountaineers. They lead across snowfields, glaciers and often involve short climbing sections.
You can’t count on any handrails or other little helpers here so you must be in excellent physical condition and know what you’re doing. You’ll also need to be very well equipped with some fancy gear such as a compass, a rope, an ice axe and sometimes even crampons.
If you're unexperienced but still keen on tackling one of those white-blue-white trails, check with the local tourism office about hiring a guide and the according equipment for the day.
3.4 Winter trails
Switzerland gets its fair share of snow in the mountains. This is where the winter trails, nicely marked in pink, come in handy.
They’re only signposted during winter and don’t require any crazy gear or an extraordinary level of fitness. Just wear good shoes to minimise your risk of slipping.
4. What to bring on your hike
What you pack depends on the duration and the difficulty level of your undertaking. But here’s a generally applicable list that the organisation behind the Swiss hiking trail network recommends you take with you:
- sturdy shoes
- a decent daypack
- a water bottle with at least 1.5 litres
- a picnic and some snacks (if you’re not planning on eating at a mountain restaurant)
- some cash
- sun, wind and cold protection
- first aid kit
- a map (on paper or your phone)
- your phone with emergency numbers
- a Swiss army knife (this one's a given in Switzerland)
- a thermal blanket (can be bought at every outdoor shop and saves lives if you have to wait for rescue in case of an emergency)
5. How to pick your hike
This is a tricky one.
How are you supposed to make your pick when you’ve got 65.000 kilometres of trails to choose from? Luckily, several helpful websites can make your planning process a lot easier.
This fantastic website lets you browse 386 national, regional and local routes. Their app always tells you where you are and whether or not you’re still on track. In case the signposts don’t do the job...
Browse their website by location or by category to plan your trip. They offer a detailed description of each hike.
Find the perfect itinerary
for your trip to Switzerland...
Unfortunately, this website is only in German, French and Italian. But if you speak one of the three languages, it's the ultimate resource for your hike in Switzerland. It’s where I got most of the information for this guide from.
The official Swiss tourism board also has a thing or two to say about hiking in Switzerland. Their website is super helpful and also provides you with inspiration, information and wonderful images.
If you know which area you’ll be visiting, always check with the local tourism board as well. They usually offer highly detailed information and are a reliable source to turn to.
6. Getting to the starting point
If you’re not within walking distance to your accommodation, which you usually aren’t, you’ve got three options.
Hire a car, use public transport or catch a cable car.
Hiring a car is always an option but like I mention in this post, the Swiss public transport system takes you to almost every corner of the country. Check Google Maps for any public transport stations (train or Postauto buses) near your starting point and look for your connection on the SBB app or website.
Sometimes, it pays off to buy a ticket and jump on a cable car as well. That way, you can gain plenty of altitude while saving your energy for the hike awaiting you. But that entirely depends on the hike you’re planning and you’ve got total freedom to make the best choice for yourself.
7. The dangers you need to be aware of
Yes, we need to have that talk.
Sadly, accidents and hazards in the mountains account for over one hundred annual deaths and up to 30.000 injured. Coming prepared is crucial. I don’t want to scare you but I also don’t want you to be one of them.
Now, what are the dangers you might encounter during your hike?
The weather in the mountains can be unpredictable and rain, wind, fog or even thunderstorms can bring your hike to a sudden halt. Make sure you check the forecast and know how to react to sudden weather changes. Read this article for advice on what to do if you get caught up in a thunderstorm.
If you see a massive black cloud rolling in, seek shelter or turn around. Don’t walk toward it if you can help it.
This one speaks for itself. Watch where you’re going and you’ll be fine. Seems obvious but it’s important to be aware of the dangers that come with a fall in rocky terrain.
Make sure you stay on the marked trails and a big chunk of that risk is already eliminated.
Special tip from Gabriela: Temperatures can drop daramatically in the Alps. While you're moving around, this shouldn't be too big a problem. But if you need to wait for rescue in case of an accident, it's essential to have a thermal blanket and enough clothes to keep you warm.
Dehydration and exhaustion:
Chances are you’re going to sweat. A lot.
Get plenty of fluid in your system and drink even if you don’t feel thirsty. Also, take an occasional break and check if your body’s telling you to take it down a notch. You sometimes don't notice how worn out you are until you sit down to catch your breath.
Special tip from my mum: If you need to urinate every now and again, it means your body is still hydrated. 🙂
Thanks for that, mum.
You’re probably laughing right now, but yes, cows can be a danger.
Especially if you unintentionally end up between a mother and her calf. As a general rule of thumb, whenever you have to cross a field with cows in it, keep your distance.
Don’t approach them, don’t chase them and don’t try to touch them. Just walk by and leave them in peace. Most of the time, they don’t care too much about you anyway.
Switzerland isn’t exactly the country where you run into something that’s out to eat you. But we still get the occasional wolf or bear roaming the Alps.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter one of the two, stand still and keep talking to let them know you’re there. Whatever you do, do NOT approach them. You’d think this is common sense but people do silly things sometimes. Approaching a wild animal is never a good idea.
By the way, if you do see a wolf or a bear, they already know you’re there and the fact that you’re still alive means they’re just not that into you.
Take advantage of that situation by putting as much distance between you and them as you can. Without running and screaming. Even if your instincts tell you to do both! At least that’s what they did to me in Canada when I practically bumped into a grizzly up in the mountains. 🙂
These dogs take their job serious and it’s best not to get in their way. Unfortunately, certain hiking trails lead through fields that are guarded by dogs. But as long as you’re not trying to snitch a sheep or piss off the dog, you should be fine.
If you’d like to know whether or not your hike leads through guard-dog-territory, check this interactive map to be sure.
8. What to do in an emergency
In case something bad happens, don’t try to be a hero and handle it all by yourself. Know when to call for help. It’s available.
Call 1414, the emergency number for the REGA, the Swiss air rescue service.
If you’d like to play it safe, download the Ueppa! App on your phone. It makes it significantly easier for the rescue team to locate and help you. Even if you don’t have cell reception.
9. Recommended hikes
Let’s not finish up on dangers and emergencies, shall we? Your main problem won’t be hungry bears or blazing thunderstorms, but deciding on where to go.
After all, 65.000 km is a lot of trails to choose from.
This is why we – meaning my mum, Gabriela and I – have put together some recommendations for you. I won’t describe these hikes in detail but I’m linking them to a page that provides you with further information.
- Mountain lakes of the Alpstein
- Five-lakes trail in Zermatt
- Hike across the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world
- Five-lakes trail Pizol
- Rhine Gorge – the Swiss Grand Canyon
- Chamanna Cluouzza with an overnight stay – Swiss National Park
- Jungfrau region – Schynige Platte
- hiking around Mount Rigi
- hiking around Mount Pilatus
- Kandersteg to Oeschinensee
- Solothurn to Weissenstein and beyond
- Toggenburger Höhenweg
- easy walks around where I grew up
This list is a mere fraction of what’s possible and if you have any further recommendations for us, please feel free to share them in the comments below.
And until then, tie up those boots and hike yourself silly. You’ve certainly chosen the right place to do so. 🙂