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Home » Winter in the Alps for a non-skier

Winter in the Alps for a non-skier

Photo: Looking towards Bettmeralp (VS) on the Fiescheralp-Bettmeralp winter path, 2019-February-17.

I don’t ski or snowboard, much to the surprise of many people who assume that is half the reason you would move to Switzerland.

I never learnt growing up, then I started my 20s by tearing my ACL whilst bouldering. The knee is better now, but when I have tried a ski lesson I just wasn’t able to trust myself to put force on it to turn. So summer is very much my time for hiking and biking in the mountains, but I have found ways to amuse myself when the snow comes.

Obviously you can also go to museums, sit in cafes, and take scenic train rides etc – but this page is about ideas for outdoor activities.


In general

The mountainsides belong to skiers/snowboarders for the most part in the winter, but there is still plenty to do if you can’t do (or can’t afford) those.

How much you will find to do varies by resort. The classic high mountain resorts will be mostly dedicated to skiers, whereas resorts in gentler landscapes might be almost entirely focused on other options with only a small token ski run. Either way resorts are happy to accommodate as many people (and their money) as possible so you won’t ever be unwelcome (though you might sometimes feel a bit out of place if you are the only non-skier going up on a cable car).

A big plus side is you won’t be as dependent on snow as the “serious” winter sports. Especially as the conditions can vary so much these days: there might not even be any snow. In some years I have been high up over 2000m in late December with only a few bits of ice on the grass, or the top layer of snow was already turning to slush during the afternoon in February. Often it is best to assume that there won’t be snow on the valley floor if you are below 800m.

Hiking on a snow-free Niederhorn in late December.
Madone in Ticino at the start of January

Important points

  • Bring sunscreen and sunglasses. When you are high up the sun will be strong, the air thin, and the snow will reflect all the light back at you. It is surprising how quickly you can get sunburnt in winter.
  • Bring warm clothes, but in layers. Walking uphill in the sun will get you sweating very fast, even on a mountain in February.
  • Pay attention to the signage. Some routes are only for walkers, or are only for skiers, or certain areas might be closed to allow animals to have a quiet zone.
  • Sometimes you will have to cross a ski piste. This can be a bit scary but just pick a lull and go slowly and steadily across (it will end just as badly for them if they hit you, so it is in their interest to avoid a collision too).
  • If you find yourself on a shared footpath/cross country skiing path then be very careful not to damage the tracks that are groomed into the snow. The easiest way to upset a Swiss person in winter is by ruining the tracks.
  • If you are just following the prepared paths and advertised routes you should be safe in almost any conditions (if it is bad the paths will be closed). Keep a careful eye on weather conditions (the MeteoSwiss app will send you warnings) if you plan to do anything adventurous. Should you get into trouble then call the mountain rescue service – Rega – at 1414. “Rega 1414” incidentally is a Swiss TV show about the Rega, which is all up on Youtube should you have felt that ‘The Horn’ needed more Swiss German.
Prepared winter path to the tongue of the Morteratsch glacier. Note the groomed ski tracks on the right.

What to do

Most of these should be doable just about anywhere in the mountains.

Local tourism/resort websites will change for summer/winter and list the various options (along with which are open or closed depending on the conditions). Eg: for Zermatt. The Switzerland Mobility website covers a number of winter activities in addition to the standard summer activities, but these are FAR from complete. Normally you can just turn up somewhere, see how the conditions are, and then decide what to do. Though if you don’t know the area you might have a hard time deciding what is and isn’t safe or doable outside of the official routes

You might find that there isn’t much to do in some places. Some cable cars will let you go up to admire the views and have something to eat at the summit restaurant, but then the only way out of the upper station will be to ski out or ride the cable car back down. Others will have prepared walking routes, sledging routes, or other activities. Look up the local tourism website to find out what there is (and what is open).

Enjoy the atmosphere and the views

Simply wander around the resort village and take a cable car up to admire the view and have a scenic lunch.

If you have never seen this sort of scene before you will probably be blown away, and even if you are familiar with snow and mountains it is a nice way to spend a day.

The cliff walk at Grindelwald First.

Hiking (on prepared paths)

Equipment/Cost
  • Essential gear: Reasonably waterproof shoes. You don’t need hefty boots.
  • Advisable gear: It can get steep/icy so attachable grips for your shoes and walking sticks might be helpful to stay upright.
  • Cost: Nominally it is free. However, you might need to use cable cars to get to the start/end point on some routes.

Just about every resort will offer walking routes on paths which are groomed like a ski piste. You are much more limited in the choice of routes compared summer, but you can still go on long walks high up on the mountainside with stunning views.

The prepared paths are controlled, so there is not much to worry about. They are usually in very safe areas and on gentle slopes, and if there is an avalanche risk then they will be closed off.

If it has been a few days since the last snowfall then you might be able to simply follow other paths that have been created by snow shoers, or if it has been very cold and icy then you can simply walk on top of the snow (though this might turn into a minefield of softer spots which you keep crashing through).

Some of my favourites:

I have tagged posts about this with Winter Hiking.

On the way from Grindelwald to Bort.
Prepared path up the Val Fex. The valley has no ski infrastructure.

Snow shoeing

Equipment/Cost
  • Essential gear: Snow shoes + poles, water resistant boots and trousers.
  • Advisable gear: Garters.
  • Cost: Free, just follow the path or make your own. Snow shoes can usually be rented in resort areas for around 15 CHF per day.

The off road version of winter walking.

Most resorts have official snow shoe routes where the snow is left to build up and the path is marked by a series of wooden poles with pink caps. You also have the freedom to make your own paths across the landscape. Obviously more care and knowledge is required if you make your own route to avoid dangerous areas and any forbidden zones like wildlife protection areas and avalanche risk zones.

I own a pair of snow shoes but only use them about once a year so I am not full of advice on this topic. I am too lazy to bother carrying them into the Alps and just trust that the path will have been cleared enough to get by with boots and garters.

Snow shoeing is much harder than normal hiking due to the extra effort from sinking into the snow, so don’t plan to go as far as you would on a normal hike. Also take the time to ensure that everything is well fitted and adjusted; the worst blisters I have ever had were from my feet rubbing on a high speed snow shoe hike.

If you have never gone snow showing or skiing before then you are almost certainly going to forget that you have something strapped to your feet and trip yourself onto your bum.

Snow shoe path near Bort by Grindelwald.
Snow shoeing around Fafleralp in Lötschental.

Sledging

Equipment/Cost.
  • Essential gear: A sledge, water resistant boots and trousers.
  • Advisable gear: Garters, a helmet.
  • Cost: A single ticket or day pass on a cable car (price varies or might be included in your guest card). Sledges can be rented for about 15 CHF per day.

I grew up in the English Midlands where sledging was briefly possible once or twice a year (if you were lucky) and involved a 5 second ride down a gentle hill. An alpine route is very different.

As with prepared paths just about every ski resort will almost certainly have a few routes for sledgers descending down from cable car stations (it is in fact often the exact same path the walkers are on, so watch out for them). The scope varies; some are short runs that drop you off at the next cable car station down so you can quickly do multiple runs (e.g. Hannig above Saas-Fee), others are big treks that can take half a day or more in themselves (e.g. Grindelwald First – Faulhorn – Bussalp – Grindelwald). You will almost certainly have to walk at least some of the way (and in some cases also uphill).

This is fun, but it can also be dangerous. On a long or steep slope you pick up momentum quickly and have very little in the way of steering or braking. I have experienced this and would highly recommend spending a few minutes playing around with what control you have on a gentle gradient (use the soles of your feet and body weight), and then do a slow and safe run to learn the route first if possible. Roughly 7000 people a year are injured whilst sledging with 1 person killed on average – that isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it, just be careful and don’t assume that something so seemingly innocent has to be safe. Some of the routes are frankly insane; the route from Weissenstein to Oberdorf by Solothurn is on one of the steepest roads in the country that often has a gradient of 20% or more (a descent that is unsettling enough on a mountain bike with disc brakes in the summer).

I would advise doing this early in the day. As the day warms up and more people use the route you will probably find that some parts turn to slush or start to pothole, plus it is much more enjoyable if it is quieter and you don’t need to worry about other people slamming into you.

My favourite routes:

  • Grindelwald First – Bachalpsee – Bachläger – Grindelwald.

My to do list:

  • Preda to Bergün.
Approaching Grindelwald after the run down from First-Bachalpsee-Bachläger.

Cross country skiing

Equipment/Cost
  • Essential: Skis, boots, and poles.
  • Advisable:
  • Cost: If you are following the groomed routes then you need to buy a Cross Country Pass to help cover the maintenance cost. Prices vary from a 160 CHF annual pass for the whole country, to 10 CHF for a day pass in a certain region. The equipment can be rented as a set for about 50 CHF per day.

Yeah this is skiing, but it is much less stressful and is far easier to pick up than downhill skiing (that said arranging an hour or two of instruction the first time you do it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make sure you are using a good technique).

Areas like the Obergoms and Engadin with flat but high valley floors are the Mecca of cross country skiing in Switzerland, or gentler areas like the Jura are also good locations for this (if they get enough snow).

Fat biking

Equipment/Cost
  • Essential gear: Fat bike.
  • Advisable gear: helmet.
  • Cost: Free to use the routes. Bikes can be rented for 60+ CHF per day.

Despite the amount of time that I spend cycling this is one activity that I have never done (hence why this section is so short).

It is also far less common than the other options. Some resorts like Gstaad have prepared routes that can be followed and bikes to rent.

Other ideas:

  • Ice Skating. Most resorts will have at least an artificial ice rink, but you can find skating on frozen lakes too. There are a few longer routes with prepared circuits along a path like the Skateline Albula.
  • Sleigh ride. A horse drawn sleigh ride (complete with bells) around the resort or up a side valley. These are fairly common in locations with a gentle valley floor. They might also just be a wheeled carriage if there isn’t any snow.
  • Dog sledge. This is far less common but does exist. Most websites are only in French/German so searching in English might not pull up many results.
  • Snow park. If you take a cable car up you might find there is a fun park with a little slope where you can ride things like tubes. The one at Leysin is especially impressive in scale.
  • Ice climbing. Probably somewhat above and beyond what most people will want to do. One of the most famous locations for this is the big waterfall at Engstligenalp.