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Hiking in Switzerland

Switzerland has a fantastic network of well signed trails that cover the whole country, it is easy to get just about everywhere by public transport, and every area is worth a visit.

If you want some quick route ideas then see the list of hikes I have written up, or the list of my favourite hikes at the end of this post.


Resources

There are two main resources for hiking information and planning:

Route ideas

Finding a route isn’t a problem. Generally there is too much choice if anything and you drown in information.

  • Switzerland Mobility mentioned above has a number of specially signed routes. Browse by scale on the main page, or select routes highlighted in green on the map.
  • MySwitzerland the official tourist website has plenty of suggestions and themes for the whole country.
  • Local tourist websites and offices offer plenty of ideas to cover all difficulties (for example in Zermatt). Maps for resorts are often presented in a panoramic format (for example).
  • There are a number of official obstacle free routes for the less abled. Additionally routes aimed at families in resorts are also likely to be short and barrier free.
  • You can just turn up anywhere and figure out something good to do with a few minutes of looking at where the signs point to and what you can see on a map.

Crowd sourced websites:

  • Gelbzeiten.ch photos of signs around the country. A bit redundant now that Swiss Topo lets you calculate routes for free, but it might still provide a good source of ideas for where to go from a starting point.
  • The usual websites like Hikr, Komoot, Alltrails etc have plenty of suggestions.

Blogs:

If you search “Best hikes in Switzerland” then you will find an endless list of travel blogs offering up the same few suggestions like Grindelwald to Bachalpsee, or the 5 Lakes Hike above Zermatt. These are fine, but if you want some more ideas then the sites below are much more extensive and creative:

There are endless books too, but given how much information there is for free online you don’t need to buy a book.

Weather/conditions

  • The main go to for weather forecasts is MeteoSwiss which has all the information you need. The MeteoSwiss app allows you to set locations of interest (towns and mountain peaks) and will send notifications for hazards (heavy rain, avalanche etc) in that area. Search.ch also provides a forecast, snow info, and webcams. Some people swear by the Landi app as the best for forecasts (especially rain).
  • There are webcams all over the country, especially around tourist resorts. You can usually find cams at tourist area websites (eg for the Jungfrau region). In addition websites like Roundshot, and Bergfex, and Webcam4insiders have a vast range of locations and you can jump back in time to see the recent conditions if there is currently cloud in the way.

Other

  • Maps.me is free to download for offline use, has generally good coverage of the footpath system, and is especially useful for marking/finding addresses/businesses. It doesn’t have much topographic information and has some big gaps of missing paths in some areas so I would suggest having using the SwissTopo website for going out and about in the countryside. I wouldn’t use it for advanced routes. The directions feature sometimes gives good advice and sometimes decides that a perfectly good bit of path can’t be used and that you should take a 3 hour detour.

Switzerland Mobility and SwissTopo

These are the resources I use the most. I tend to use SwissTopo for a cleaner and quicker view of the map, and the Plus version of Switzerland Mobility for more detailed route planning.

Both can

  • Show the full hiking network and local/regional/national routes on a very detailed topological map which anyone can view for free.
  • Show blocked paths and suggested diversions (requires adding extra visible layers in SwissTopo). These are due to damage to the path or an unsafe situation due to something like an unstable hillside or cows being freaked out by wolves. This is NOT updated based on snow cover, you will have to use webcams and judgement of the route to decide on that.
  • Show public transport stops with information on the next bus/train or have a built in timetable to calculate connections.

Switzerland Mobility

Hiking network, closures, and diversions shown on the Switzerland Mobility website.
Route planning for free in the SwissTopo app.

SwissTopo

  • This is an almost unknown but very useful resource. I have waxed lyrical about both the website and app before.
  • The website is a cleaner and faster way of checking the hiking network than Switzerland Mobility. It shows all the routes at all levels of zoom unlike the Mobility website which only shows the whole network when zoomed in.
  • The website is also an endless source of information. There are layers for everything from geology to military bases. It even has every version of the map covering the whole country going back to 1864. You could spend days playing around with it.
  • The SwissTopo mobile app is 100% free, shows the hiking network, enables route planning, and allows you to download as much of the map as you want for offline use (about 16 GB for the whole country). With internet access it allows you to plot routes with the distance/height/time data calculated. Basically the perfect tool for visitors. The reason I don’t use it all the time is that I find it much clunkier and slower than the Swiss Mobility Plus (but you can’t knock the price).

What to expect

The good

  • Just about everywhere has something beautiful to enjoy. Not just the photogenic famous spots in the Alps, but the whole range, and the Jura mountains, and the easily overlooked flat-land.
  • Nowhere in the world is this accessible and suitable for hiking. The whole country is wonderfully open for hikers and set up to make it easy and carefree to get out and about. Paths are everywhere and transport links are fantastic. There are very few parts of the country that cannot be reached by public transport. You can easily catch a train/bus/boat/cable-car, get off and hike over a mountain pass, then jump onto another transport-line on the other side.
  • If you don’t want to worry about planning you can just base yourself somewhere like Interlaken or St Moritz and have endless options of day hikes to choose from with very little or no planning. Or you can go for a multi-stage route between villages or huts (and usually just do one or two sections and hop on or off where you like with public transport).
  • Mostly it is very safe (bearing in mind it is partially high mountains and glaciers, always something to treat with respect).
Looking at the Aletsch Glacier from Bettmerhorn.
In the Emmental around Schangnau.

The bad

  • There is always some sign of humanity. You can really reduce the bits of civilisation to almost nothing, and I love the mix of nature and people myself. But if you want to feel like the only person in a vast stretch of wilderness then go elsewhere. Infrastructure can be quite ugly with communication towers and pylons etc just stuck around – especially so in ski resorts where chair lifts and snow cannons look very out of place in summer.
  • Some routes are always busy (anywhere around Kleine Scheidegg, the Gemmi pass, or anywhere really famous with cable cars up), but the old rule of “every extra little bit of effort to get somewhere reduces the number of people who get that far” is in effect as ever. Mostly there are so many options that even when you start out with many other people they will quickly spread out into other paths.
  • It is Switzerland so depending on what you do you might need to sell a few organs on the black-market to afford it. Though it can be reasonable if you are careful.

The Ugly


The basics

  • The hiking network extends pretty much everywhere. You are not limited to signed footpaths, just about any path/road is fair game and it is very rare to find one that is private or blocked off.
  • There is no permit or payment required. Just get out and walk where you like. There are a few places where you can pay to pass through a gorge (e.g. the Aareschlucht or Twannbachschlucht) but these are not official footpaths.
  • In addition to the basic network there are numbered routes varying in scale from a small 5km local loop to a multi-week through-hike which crosses the entire country. These are signed with their number along the route so are very easy to follow.
  • The trails are generally really well thought out and do their best to keep you away from busy roads. Though this can sometimes get a bit absurd if they lead you off a quiet back-road and just shove you along a parallel route 3m away.

Types of path

Paths are divided into three types of route depending on the difficulty. There is a good overview with more details here, in short:

  • Hiking Trail. Usually in lower/gentler locations, a smoother path with protection if needed. Signed as pure yellow, shown in yellow on the maps.
  • Mountain Trail. Mountain terrain that might have steep and unprotected sections. Signed with red/white stripes, shown in red on the maps
  • Alpine Trail. Very likely to be steep, loose, poorly marked, exposed, and might cross glaciers. Signed with blue/white stripes, shown in blue on the maps.

However this doesn’t work so well in reality. I have gone into more detail in another post, but in short:

  • There is a wide spectrum of landscapes, surface quality, and risk exposure, but only 3 types to group them in. The Alpine ranking is reserved for the most challenging/hazardous routes (and should be considered carefully before heading out). So this means almost everything has to be divided into either Hiking or Mountain Trails. With such a wide scope it ends up being a bit meaningless and you will find many Hiking Trails which are more challenging and exposed than some Mountain Trails and vice versa.
  • It is even more meaningless given that each region decides how they want to use the trail markings. For example Graubünden assigns almost everything as a Mountain Trail (even if it is in a town centre or is a gentle paved road), whereas in Valais they reserve the Mountain Trail designation for harder paths (so you get rough Hiking Trails going up above the treeline to 2500m).
  • Ultimately there isn’t any method of know exactly how suitable a path is without walking it yourself, but checking the route on a map will give you the best idea of what to expect.

Signage

  • Sign posts at junctions will point you towards where you want to go (you really find them everywhere). Generally you don’t need to think much; just follow the signs.
  • Signs give times to the destination rather than distance. Opinion varies on how reasonable the timing is, it is meant to be an average pace without breaks being taken into account. At any rate it should be consistent once you have calibrated the timing to your own pace.
  • Sometimes a destination that is a significant point in the area (eg: a pass, peak, city) will be marked 5+ hours in advance, or if you are following a specific route like a local tourism theme route or one of the national/regional routes then you will get a numbered or special sign to follow, otherwise it is best to be aware of which series of places you are passing through to follow the short distance markers and make life as easy as possible (most good hike guides will outline these if you need to worry about it).
  • Painted marks on rocks/trees show you the way at junctions (and sometimes tell you straight on, even if every other option is a sheer cliff face). I have been lost once (and that was just because I followed a faded bit of paint onto a path that had since been re-routed).
Signposts next to Engelberg station.
Signpost surrounded by glaciers at 3200m above Zermatt.

Safety

There are enough mountain safety guides out there on Google that I am not going to add anything better in terms of general advice.

It is hard to give a general statement when a path might be anything from a paved road in the middle of a city to a high and lonely glacier crossing. Normally it is safe and easy to head out almost anywhere with well marked paths – so long as you keep an eye on the weather, bring suitable gear, don’t take shortcuts down vertical cliff faces or head off over a glacier in flip-flops then you should be fine. Obviously you need to take more care when going up to 3000m on a lonely mountain than a gentle walk between villages in a valley.

There is always a risk. Each year there are over a 1000 cases of hikers requiring aid, with 40-60 fatalities. Falling is the most common cause, so be careful on steep/exposed routes and especially so in wet conditions.

  • The Rega is the mountain rescue service (phone: 1414). You can also download the Rega app to your phone which you can allow to automatically send your location should you need to call for help from an unknown spot. For 30CHF per person a year you can become a Rega patron, this supports the mountain rescue service and means that (funds allowing) they will reduce/waive the rescue fees if you need help. 30CHF could save you a hell of a lot a money.
  • Switzerland has something of a “do what you like and it is your own stupid fault if you get hurt” culture. Paths will be blocked if there is a high avalanche risk or if the route is severely damaged or liable to collapse, but mostly you are left to determine what is OK for yourself.
  • I wouldn’t rely on it, but between farmers and other hikers you are rarely far from other people in the case of an emergency.
  • Do not underestimate the sun at any time of year, especially at higher altitudes where the air is thin and there is little shelter.
  • Network coverage varies a bit by provider, but thanks to the many towers it is generally quite good. You might have no network in deep and/or remote valleys.

Wildlife

  • There isn’t much to worry about from animals. Cows are the biggest danger, especially mother cows with calves. In some mountain regions you will find herd protection dogs which should be secured behind fences, but can still scare the life out of you if you were not expecting an angry wall of barks. There are a small number of wolf packs in the mountains and the very occasional bear sighting, but there is basically zero risk from them. There are venomous snakes, but again you very rarely see them (I have come across 5 snakes in 7 years).
  • The biggest wildlife concern is from disease carrying ticks. The danger is mostly in the lower areas (mostly below 1000m, but can be up to 1500m), but with increasing temperatures they might be moving to higher altitudes too.

Military

There is zero chance you will endangered by this, but it is interesting to know.


Logistics

Getting about

Public Transport

  • You can generally get pretty much anywhere you could want to go with reasonable connections by public transport.
  • Oevexplorer.ch shows you how far you can get by public transport within a given time frame from any city/village in the country.
  • The main limitation with public transport is there are some smaller side valleys with no connections (where there might only be a few farmhouses), or high passes where there might only be a few buses per day. Generally these are lesser known or less popular and are unlikely to be something that visitors are dead set on hiking.

Cable cars

Food/water

  • When high up I drink the water directly from mountain streams all the time and have not suffered any problems yet, just make sure there are no animals grazing up-stream.
  • Lower down fountains are common everywhere (cities, villages, farms). Unless otherwise stated the water is suitable for drinking. This is very useful but don’t depend on it alone; some areas have signs inviting you to drink the water from every fountain, but others are all labelled as not being suitable for drinking. Many of these will also be turned off over winter.
  • Being that you are never that far from a town or village it is rarely much of an issue to acquire supplies. Opening hours are a bit complex and vary by canton. Shops close relatively early compared to other countries; between 6:30pm and 8pm (other than station/petrol station shops which are an exception and are open to 10pm daily). On Saturdays shops will usually close a bit earlier, and on Sunday they are not open at all. The exception to this is tourist areas where shops might be allowed to open on Sundays during the summer/winter seasons. It is also common for smaller/independent shops to close on a Sunday and Monday in quieter areas. Basically check the opening areas for where you will be ahead of time so you are prepared.
  • Restaurants/cafes/huts are everywhere. Sometimes these are farmhouses that have a few tables, in more touristy places there will be proper dedicated restaurants, and really high up you can get some basic food at the mountaineering huts.
  • You can often buy home made cheese, meat, and drinks/snacks from farms. Usually cash is the main method (it is always worth having 20 CHF in small notes/change), but mobile payment with TWINT is very common even in remote areas.
Self-service cheese fridge at a farm near Grindelwald.
Self-service bar in Garus.

Accommodation

  • Accommodation is fairly easy to come by and easy to hike between each day (Official routes will end each stage at a source of accommodation or at least by a transport stop). The YHA has a number of branches in cities and rural spots, though 30CHF would be cheap for a dorm room. Guesthouses and hotels are all over the place but getting a single room as cheap as 50CHF is not easy, expect to pay 70+ in most places. There are campsites all over the country too (not that even that is an especially cheap option at maybe 10CHF per person and 10CHF for the tent itself). High up there are the SAC huts too which allow for days or weeks of staying high up and for what they offer are quite reasonable.
  • I have not tried wild camping myself. It seems to be a bit of a confusing and blurry area and (as with everything in Switzerland) possibly varies with the Kanton. Based on accounts I have read it sounds like it is fairly easy to stealth camp in many quieter places, though try and ask the landowner’s permission if possible. And of course should you leave no mess.

When to go

  • Conditions can be very different across the country at any single moment: The Italian lakes at 200m are going to be a world away from a glacier at 4000m. I have written a whole post about this that might help, I also have a post showing how the landscape looks (or might look) in each month.
  • The weather is impossible to guarantee at any time of year. There is no such thing as a dry season – expect precipitation on any day of the year. Some months have more or less rain on average, but the reality can vary. Sometimes a weather system will bring a month of clear sunny conditions, or a month of cold rain. Meaning you might have a dry heatwave in May, or nothing but cold rain in August with fresh snow down to 2000m or lower.
  • There will always be something you can do, but certain routes will be blocked by snow for part of the year. What will and won’t be accessible due to snow outside of the summer is really hard to predict. Some winters have been warm and dry with hardly any snow in December, others have seen heavy snowfall from September to May.
  • Off season in October-November and April-May (varies depending on height) means some touristy places are partly shut-down for a few months and some cable cars either don’t run, or run a more limited timetable.
  • Many travel blogs have started saying that April-June is the best time to come for hikers: this is strange advice given that April is still ski season and conditions are very variable in May and June. You can go for some very nice hikes then with beautiful backdrops, but between snow blocking higher routes and many services being shut down in that period you will be much more limited than in summer or autumn.
  • Hiking signs might be taken down in winter sports areas from late autumn until early spring. 

Spring

Spring can be a wonderful time so long as you don’t need to go over 2000m. The peaks are still snowy, the valleys are green and filled with wild-flowers, and the air is still clear and free of the summer haze. This is a statistically rainy period and the weather can be very variable, but there are usually a few days of utter perfection, though finding them is pure luck.

Lauterbrunnen in late May.
Niederhorn in early June.

Summer

High summer is obviously attractive, especially when the high passes open up. But this is also the busy peak period, and there is a heat haze which often limits the views somewhat. As the summer goes on the meadows are cut and the flowers dwindle, and everything from mountaintop to meadow starts to look very dry.

.Brienzer Rothorn in August
Val Russein in July.

Autumn

September/October is statistically a drier period than May-August and the weather can be glorious with golden mountains and bright blue skies. Snow will start to appear higher up in September, this probably won’t start blocking routes until October but it is impossible to predict.

  • There is a current/forecasted tree turning map that is updated during the autumn.
  • ‘Summer’ season will start to end in October as many cable cars and services shut down until the winter ski season.
  • Temperature inversion will start to cause the lower areas to be covered in fog (usually below 800m, some areas are much worse than others), whilst high up is sunny with incredibly clear views.
Golden larches and the first snow in the Engadin in October.
Clear views and fog seen from Napf in October.

Winter

  • The mountains will be covered in snow and dominated by skiing. It is unlikely that the lower lying areas (below 800m) will have snow cover for long, and the really low areas (below 500m) will be unlikely to have snow for more than a few days over winter.
  • There are options for getting out in the snow by foot (I have written about what to do in winter for non-skiers). Prepared paths around resort areas allow you to carry on hiking in the mountains, many starting/ending at cable car stations high up. No equipment required, however walking sticks or slip on rubber grips might be useful as the paths can be steep at times and/or turn icy.
  • If there hasn’t been much snowfall for a few days then you can generally just turn up somewhere and find some well trodden paths in the snow without even needing to worry about garters.
  • Snowshoe/sledging equipment can usually be rented in resorts.
  • Switzerland Mobility has a winter version covering these options, however the listings are VERY incomplete. Check local resort websites for complete lists of routes.
Prepared path above Riederalp in February.
Hiking on Niederhorn in late December.

Misc

  • There are quite a few themed walks if you have a favourite historical figure who was in the area. Mark Twain has two (Rigi and Zermatt). JRR Tolkien oddly doesn’t have one, but did cover a big chunk of the country one summer as a teenager.
  • Passes can be ruined if there is a popular road (Furka, Gotthard, Susten, etc:). The constant roar of motorbikes isn’t much fun. Though there are plenty of passes with quiet or no roads at all. Likewise routes that are on ski-runs are obviously going to have bits of building site and infrastructure (dead chair lifts and snow cannons sat around). Though how bad it is varies a bit.

My favourite hikes

By no means an exhaustive choice from the whole country, there are still lots of corners that I want to get to. A list of the hikes that I have written up can be found at the link to the right.

All of the following are accessible by public transport

  • Up the Val Verzasca. Lavertezzo – Sonogo (14km, +640m, -260m). My favourite region of Switzerland. Steep, forested mountsides leading up to sheer rock faces and with waterfalls coming down everywhere. This place is more Rivendell than Lauterbrunnen. The Rustico stone villages are far more beautiful to me than the more famous wooden alpine huts too. The valley walk is wonderful, heading up high and into the side valleys is also amazing too. The side valleys of the adjacent Val Maggia are also wonderful.
  • Above then along the Aletsch Glacier. Eggishorn – Märjelen – Bettmeralp (14.8km, +520m, -1460m). The giant Aletsch glacier is possibly the single best sight in the country. I highly recommend taking the cable car to Eggishorn to properly admire the whole thing from above, descending from there down to Märjelensee, then along the side of the glacier before taking a cooling dip in the lake at Bettmeralp.
  • Aletsch Panoramaweg, Stage 1. Riederalp – Belalp. (10km, +760m, -720m). Into and up a valley through the rugged Aletschwald, over a suspension bridge.
  • Vier-Seen-Wanderung (Four lakes hike). Trübsee (Engelberg) – Jochpass – Melchsee-Frutt (15km, +760m, -640m)
  • Up to the Morteratsch Glacier. Morteratsch – Morteratsch Glacier – Morteratsch (6km, +150m, -150m). The whole Bernina line region is a paradise for jumping on and off trains.
  • Around Säntis. I am going to suggest two routes here. Route 1: Wasserauen – Seealpsee – Meglisalp – Säntis (11.1km, +1660m, -51m). Route 2: Säntis – Altenalp – Gasthaus Aescher – Ebenalp (9km, +450m, -1328m).
  • Edelweissweg (Zermatt). Zermatt – Trift – Zmutt – Zermatt (18.5km, +1300m, -1300m). Climb up the beautiful Trift-gorge, then cross the Höhbalmen meadow before looping back down via the tiny village of Zmutt. After the gore there are almost constant views of the Matterhorn. Being on the side of the valley with no mountain transport it is also fairly quiet. You can drop down at Höhbalmen and cut out the last big segment of the hike if you want to shorten it somewhat (10km, +1090m, -1090m).
  • Pushing along the ridge above Gornergrat. Gornergrat – Stockhorn – Zermatt (17.2km, +547m, -2030m). You can also just take the train back down to reduce most of the height loss.
  • Flims Wasserweg. (14km, +460m, -1200m).
  • Grosse Scheidegg to Rosenlaui. Grosse Scheidegg – Scheidegg Oberläge – Hornseewli – Im obersten Breitenboden – Grindelfeld – Rosenlaui (14km, +500m, -1100m)
  • Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. (4.6km, +43m, -207m). Short but stunning views, easy to combine with a longer hike (eg down to Wengen) or activities in the area in the same day. This is also doable in winter with the path being prepared like a piste for easy walking.
  • Grenchenberg – Hasenmatt – Weissenstein (11km, +520m, -580m).
  • Niederhorn. A fantastic vantage point with various options of where to go (see the link).
  • Lavaux Vineyards. Lutry – St-Saphorin (11km, +420m, -440m). An easy walk (you are never as much as 200m above Lake Geneva), but with constantly stunning views and lots of beautiful little villages. Do it Lutry to St-Saphorin to have the Alps as the backdrop the whole way. Lutry itself is worth a diversion to see the old town and harbour before starting the walk. As a south facing terrace above a lake, with lots of stone/paving it will get and store lots of heat.
  • Rebenweg (vine path). Biel – La Neuveville (15km, +400m, -400m).
  • Napf. Romoos – Napf – Fankhausen (13.7km, +824m, -792m)..
  • Over the Fuorcla Surlej into Roseg. Murtèl – Fuorcla Surlej – Hotel Roseg – Pontresina (14km, +170m, -1100m).
  • Juf to Bivio. Juf – Stallerberg – Flüeseen – Stallerberg – Bivio (10.3km, +612m, – 969m). Starting in the highest year round village in Switzerland, then over a lonely pass.
  • Gorge de l’Areuse. Noiraigue – Boudry (Littorail). 12km, +156m, -440m.
  • Val Minger and Val Plavana. Scuol, Val Mingèr – Alp Plavna – Tarasp (16.4km, +730m, -977m). Through a section of the national park, down an almost empty valley, and end up by the impressive Tarasp castle.
  • The Mark Twain path up Rigi. Weggis – Rigi Kulm. (10km, +1400m, -80m). I highly recommend the detour to the Rotstock.