Top 7 Tips to Prepare for Hiking in the Alps
by Kathryn Gritt
May 23, 2022 Pro Tips
May 23, 2022 Pro Tips
The Alps have been a favored hiking destination for centuries and at MT Sobek we have been leading trips in the region for more than 50 years. The famous mountain range stretches across 8 countries holding some of the most beautiful hikes in the world. If you enjoy snow-capped peaks, wildflowers, clinking cowbells, and charming villages, then the Alps should be on your bucket list. In order to make the most of your adventure, it is important to prepare! You want to be in your best shape so you can enjoy the breathtaking vistas. Below are 7 tips from our Adventure Coordinator and experienced Alpine hiker, Kathryn Gritt, to help you prepare for your next trip in the Alps.
The #1 best way to prepare for a hiking trip is to hike. At least one of your weekly workouts should be a hike. Eight to ten miles on hilly terrain is ideal since you’ll be hiking an average of 8-10 miles and 2,500 feet up and down each day (more on the Haute Route and Bernese Oberland tours). If you don’t have hills in your neck of the woods, you can hike up and down some stairs at a park or stadium, or work out on a stair machine. You’ll want to get your quads and knees used to the impact of hiking steep trails. Taking weekend trips out to a national or state park is also great training as the system of trails can be long and steep, and you can get some practice of back-to-back days of hiking. If hills aren’t an option for you based on where you live, see #3.
Try to give yourself at least 6 months prior to your trip to get into your best possible cardio condition. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program to determine your target heart rate during exercise. Do some cardio several times a week – walking, biking, running, swimming, etc. Start out gradually and increase your aerobic training to 4 to 5 times each week, 40 to 60 minutes at a time. Your heart will thank you on those uphills!
While hiking, carry some weight in your daypack. Your daypack should be 22-30 liters in size and have a hip belt and sternum straps. Start with your water, snacks, and the same gear you plan to wear in the Alps, which will weigh +/- 10 lbs. Gradually add weight in 2-5 lb increments as you get closer to your trip. Bags of rice work great! Make sure the weight is comfortably situated in your daypack and doesn’t stress your back or shoulders. Carrying weight builds muscle and simulates the experience of hiking at a higher altitude.
Weather in the Alps is notoriously varied, even from valley to valley, and you can get all 4 seasons in one day. Be sure to pack all of the essential layers and equipment to keep you warm, dry, and safe. Our packing list was customized specifically for your trip by our Program Directors with your best interests in mind. It’s always better to bring too much, than too little when you really need it: Rain jacket with hood and rain pants, warm hat, and waterproof gloves/mitts will be essential. Bring a fleece or down jacket [especially for our June or September departures] in case it is cold and the group is stopping for lunch/break, you want to keep your core warm.
Your hiking boots should be medium weight and waterproof with ankle protection and sturdy lug soles. Break-in your boots, daypack, trekking poles, and clothing layers before you leave for your trip, so your gear feels like hanging out with old friends.
Don’t over-train which can lead to stress fractures, pulled tendons, or worse. Take a rest every few weeks and also back off training a couple of weeks prior to departure. If it is going to be hot during your trip, consider bringing some powdered electrolytes to add to your drinking water to replenish minerals lost by sweat. It’s also a good idea to pamper your feet. Wear liner socks or use moleskin or Compeed patches if your feet are prone to sweat which can lead to hot spots and blisters. Don’t forget to clip your toenails!
The Alps aren’t known for extreme elevations among hikers, and we don’t do any mountaineering or peak summiting on our treks. Hikes on our Tour du Mont Blanc route max out at 8,000-8,300 feet, yet our travelers generally live at much lower elevations. (Maximum elevation on the Haute Route is 9,800 feet, and on Bernese Oberland is 8,900 feet.) That said, someone who normally hikes at a fast clip at sea level might find themselves unexpectedly out of breath at just 7,000 feet. Consider arriving a few days before your hike just to acclimatize in the mountain villages. Getting tired is normal so don’t feel too worried if you are out of breath more quickly than usual. You can always speak to your guides, who are expert mountaineers, about the day’s activities – the highest elevation you’re likely to reach, any symptoms you feel – while in the mountains.
We highly suggest that you invest in some hiking poles. When hiking on very steep, uneven, rocky terrain, 6-8 hours per day, multiple days in a row, both up and down, possibly in the rain or snow, trekking poles not only assist with balance but also alleviate constant pressure on your knees and other joints. If not addressed, this can cause repetitive stress injuries in a short amount of time. Save yourself the trouble, buy a new pair of poles before your trip, and practice using them before you arrive. If you do not want to pack them, it is possible to buy a pair from sporting goods stores in Chamonix or Grindelwald at the start of your trip.
Feel ready to join us on a hiking trip in the Alps? Check out our trip Trekking in the Bernese Oberland.