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Are hiking difficulty levels in Switzerland reliable?

    Wanderweg sign Engelberg

    Photo: Hiking network signs by Engelberg station.

    Visitors are understandably going to be cautious about what is safe, and even experienced hikers in the Alps want to know what to expect on an unknown route. So the paths on the Swiss hiking network are split into three levels.

    In theory this is great, but the problem is that they are too simplified with lots of overlap and inconsistencies. I mentioned this in my main hiking overview page, but this is a bit of a deeper dive.

    I am not making this post to say it is unsafe and scare anyone away from going out hiking, but rather to say check how it looks on the map and don’t blindly trust the signs.

    Types of path level

    The Swiss hiking network is split into three types of path which are marked on signposts and the hiking maps:

    • Footpath (yellow). This covers the T1 Hiking grade. Expect the path to be gentle, clearly marked, and with little to no hazards.
    • Mountain (red/white). This covers the T2 Mountain hiking / T3 Challenging mountain hiking grades. Expect that the path might be,rough, steep, and not always clearly marked, with some hazards like falling.
    • Alpine (blue/white). This covers the T4 Alpine hiking / T5 Challenging Alpine walking / T6 difficult alpine hiking grades. Expect poor to no marking with various hazards and difficulties.

    Often you will see the over-simplified explanation that yellow means even and easy, red will be a bit challenging, and blue is dangerous (there are more detailed breakdowns of the grades on websites like this).

    If you look at the map of the country with the hiking paths on using a website like SwissTopo then there is a very clear overall distribution. The Alps are mostly red mountain paths, with the gentler Swiss Plateau and Jura being composed almost entirely of yellow footpaths.

    Hiking paths
    The distribution of each path type across the country. Spotting the Alps isn’t hard.

    That would seem to make sense, but I think there are some problems with this system…

    There are effectively only two ratings

    Of the three, Alpine are by far the rarest being reserved for the steepest and most challenging sections. These are worth paying attention to. Some Alpine paths go across glaciers, some go up lonely steep and scree covered mountainsides where the path is only a very vague suggestion, but then I have walked some which were not at all steep or challenging. Other than the glacier crossings you usually don’t need to worry about any special mountaineering gear (serious mountaineering routes are simply not listed).

    So this means that pretty much everything is either a footpath or a mountain path.

    A paved road alongside the lake in the centre of Lucerne can clearly be classed as a footpath, and a steep rocky climb in the Alpstein as a mountain path, but there is a big spectrum of path difficulties, condition, and exposure in between.

    This means that the system isn’t all that reliable. I have hiked on numerous footpaths that were steep, exposed and rocky, and I have hiked on mountain paths that were flat and gentle paved roads.

    Designation is very region dependent

    Not only are the choices for ranking the paths limited, but how they are assigned also varies significantly depending on which region is in charge.

    The biggest difference I have seen is comparing cantons Valais and Graubünden.

    Graubünden seems to take the mentality that ‘it is in the mountains, therefore it is a mountain path’. Meaning almost everything is a red mountain path:

    In Valais they take a more measured approach. A path has to be high and exposed to earn mountain path status. But that means a footpath might be wide and flat, or it might be a steep single trail climbing up to the treeline.

    In the Jura mountains almost everything is a footpath (there are so few mountain paths, about 22 sections in total, that I have been working to collect them all). This mostly makes sense given that the Jura are much lower in elevation and a gentler landscape for the most part. However, there are a number of steep mountainsides with narrow and rocky paths. Not to mention the limestone which is liable to be very slippery when wet.

    Swiss hiking grades map St Maria
    Everything red in Graubünden.
    Swiss hiking grades map Zermatt
    A mix in Valais.
    Swiss hiking grades map Weissenstein
    Everything yellow in the Jura.

    What would I suggest instead?

    I have taken to just treating the footpath and mountain path designations as the same (but will give Alpine paths careful consideration).

    The only way to know for sure is to do it yourself, but there are a few other ways to get an idea:

    • Look at the map. This is probably the most reliable method. A footpath going up a steep cliff face is easy to differentiate from a smooth road. Though something marked as an unpaved road could be anything from smooth gravel to a barely coherent rocky mess.
    • Find a review. Not always possible, and especially limited in English beyond the popular hikes. Probably the most reliable options here are the route/segment descriptions on Hikr, and Komoot. Switzerland Mobility sometimes includes details of hazards on the numbered routes, but it is very limited (I walked through one such section and didn’t realise it was meant to be any worse than the rest of the route).
    • Find photos/videos. Switzerland Mobility has photos along most of the numbered routes. This will give you an idea, but steepness and the condition of the path rarely come across properly on camera.

    Adding sub-levels to the ratings might help improve this, but that would probably start to make things too complicated.

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