Alpine Hiking, Euro-Style: A First-Timer's Guide

If you plan on hiking the European Alps, get ready for some differences across the pond.
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If you plan on hiking the European Alps, get ready for some differences across the pond.

Prepare to be stunned. In a mere 800 miles, the Alps span seven countries, dozens of cultures, arguably the most varied and spectacular landscape on Earth, and a mountain hiking tradition centuries old.

Camping versus huts: A primary adjustment for American backpackers is the hut-based Alpine culture. Europeans like their huts and mountain hotels because no matter how many weeks they spend on the trail, every walk is a dayhike. Say good-bye to aching shoulders, because huts provide your roof, bed, blankets, and meals. You'll pay $10 to $20 per night for the bunk and blankets, and $10 to $15 for dinner (prices here are in U.S. currency). Plus additional costs for breakfast and a packed lunch, if you want them made for you. Bring a sheet sewn to resemble a sleeping bag (what the French call a "sac ? viande," or "meat sack") if you want something between you and the well-used blankets. You'll need earplugs to sleep, since climbers may be rousing at literally every hour of the night. Some huts require advance reservations mid-July through August.

Nevertheless, some Europeans do the "exotic" thing and camp out in the mountains; often they'll eat dinner at the huts. You can sleep out almost everywhere (in some areas it's forbidden in order to preserve the environment) by following the protocol of discretion. Stay clear of hay meadows, don't taint the water, camp away from trails, and, most important, pitch your tent shortly before dusk and take it down shortly after dawn. Or do as I did-bring a bivouac sack instead of a tent.

Guides: Any of the mass-market tourist guides to Europe (Lonely Planet, for example) will get you into a rental car or onto a train headed toward the mountain town of your choice. The most helpful hiking guides are published by The Mountaineers Books (1001 SW Klickitat Way, Seattle, WA 98134; 800-553-4453; www.mountaineers.org) and Britain-based Cicerone Press (www.ciceroneguides.com or www.adventuroustraveler.com, P.O. Box 64769, 245 S. Champlaine St., Burlington, VT 05451; 800-282-3963). Another option: Buy a local map once you're there and you'll find plenty of overnight trips almost anywhere. My guidebook selections:

Walking in the Alps, by Kev Reynolds (1998; Cicerone Press; $49.95). By far the most comprehensive resource on the entire range, this guide is worth every penny if you want to explore. All of the hikes I outlined can be done with this book alone, although Cicerone Press publishes a huge selection of region-specific guidebooks ($15 to $20 per book) that include multiday and even multiweek outings.

Walking the Alpine Parks of France and Northwest Italy, by Marcia Lieberman (1994; The Mountaineers Books; $14.95). This guide has the how-to-hike-in-Europe introduction Americans need. Most of the 110 hikes included are day excursions, but many can be linked into multiday outings.

Walking Switzerland the Swiss Way, by Marcia Lieberman (1997; The Mountaineers Books; $16.95). Has a great introduction. This guide describes 102 dayhikes, many of which can be linked via huts.

100 Hikes in the Alps, by Vicky Spring and Harvey Edwards (1992; The Mountaineers Books; $14.95). This guide provides less introduction and fewer regional specifics than the above two books, but covers dayhikes in most of the range.

Stove fuel: White gas is widely available, but the Primus-style screw-on canisters are the easiest to find. The burners for these canisters are also more acceptable to some airlines, although even after you have gotten approval over the phone from an airline agent, airlines can refuse to transport used stoves.

Language: It doesn't take long to learn a few basic niceties and numbers. Relax, have fun, and language won't be a barrier.