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Hiking in Switzerland

Wengernalp Railway - Jungfrau district, Switzerland - Hiking in Switzerland

ABOVE: The Wengernalp cogwheel railway passes near the main hiking route from Grindelwald to Wengen in the Jungfrau district of the Bernese Oberland.

Switzerland probably has more kilometers of marked hiking paths per capita than any other nation. Its 50,000 km (30,000 miles) of trails fall under three headings:

Wanderwege are found in valleys, by lakes, and between towns. They're identified by signs with yellow markings. (In some cases, yellow metal markers or paint blazes are used to help you stay on the route.) If you're in good health and wearing rubber-soled shoes, the average Wanderweg shouldn't pose any challenge.

Bergwege are higher-altitude "mountain paths" with white and red markings. Most aren't difficult, but you'll need to take it easy if you're in poor shape or have heart problems.

Alpine Routen or "alpine routes" are marked with white-and-blue signs. They tend to be rugged (often with dropoffs), and you may encounter steep sections with cables or other handholds. Unless you're an experienced mountain hiker, you shouldn't try these paths without a guide.

Signs generally show estimated walking times to route junctions, villages, or huts. It's best to regard these times as minimums, since they don't allow for resting, picnicking, or sore feet.

When to come

Well-marked paths won't do you much good if you're lost in a blizzard, so you'll need to plan your trip for the right time of year.

In general, the alpine hiking seasons runs from mid-June through mid-September. Come earlier, and you may find snow on shady paths at higher elevations; arrive later, and your hiking plans might be spoiled by an early snowstorm.

At lower elevations and on the south side of the Alps, the hiking season begins in May and continues through October. Hiking on paved paths around major Swiss cities or towns is enjoyable at any time of year unless the weather is wet and miserable (which it can be--why do you think Switzerland is so green?).

During the winter, many ski resorts keep local paths clear for walkers. The steeper paths can be icy at times--my husband once broke the wheel off our baby's stroller when he made an involuntary glissade down a St. Moritz path--but on sunny days, it's possible to to hike the plowed hiking trails in shirtsleeves or a light sweater.

hiking in switzerland swiss hiking ticino berner oberland jungfrau interlaken wengen mürren grindelwald first st. moritz st. gallen appenzell gimmelwald zermatt matterhorn leukerbad brienz thun zürich bern lucerne lausanne geneva lenk

ABOVE: A hiking trail near Lenk, Switzerland.

Where to go

It's hard to give a definitive answer to the question, "Where should I hike in Switzerland?" Still, here are a few suggestions to help you make a decision:

The Berner Oberland is one of Switzerland's most popular regions. Most hikers gravitate to the Jungfrau district around Interlaken, and with good reason: The area's resorts offer hotels and hostels in every price range, hiking distances are short, and an excellent network of cogwheel trains, funiculars, cable cars, and other lifts make it easy to reach spectacular scenery.

For more information, see our articles about Interlaken, Wengen, Gimmelwald, Mürren, Lauterbrunnen, and Grindelwald-First. If you're coming early or late in the season, or if you aren't comfortable at high altitudes, you may enjoy the hiking paths near Thun and Brienz.

The Valais (Wallis in German) tends to be drier than the Oberland, so it may be a good bet if your vacation is short and you can't afford to lose a day or two to rain. For more information with Web links, see our article on Zermatt (including the Matterhorn) and the Grande Dixence Dam.

Graubünden (and especially the Engadine district near St. Moritz) is justifiably popular for its beautiful scenery and accessible mountain trails. The Swiss National Park is worth a visit if you'd like to see ibex, chamois, and other wild animals in their natural habitat.

Eastern Switzerland is the perfect destination if you consider yourself a "walker" rather than a "hiker." Although the region has a few mountains like the S�ntis, most paths lead through green hills and valleys where miniature cows are more common than mountain goats. Distances are short and public transportation is excellent, whether you make your base in a small city like St. Gallen or (preferably) in a cozy town like Trogen or Appenzell.

Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton on the south side of the Alps, is a good place to hike in spring and fall. (See our Cardada Cable Car article.)

Finally, cities like Zürich, Geneva, Bern, Lausanne, and Lucerne offer plenty of hiking opportunities nearby--especially if you combine your hiking with local excursions by train, postal bus, or lake steamer.

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ABOVE: A farm near Lauterbrunnen, in the heart of the Jungfrau hiking region of the Bernese Oberland.

What to take

There's no need to bring a special wardrobe unless you plan to spend most of your time above the treeline, climbing mountains or hiking between Swiss Alpine Club huts.

The main things you'll need are:

Sturdy footwear
Lightweight hiking boots or Vibram-soled walking shoes are adequate for short hikes on the paths you're likely to encounter around towns and resorts. Ankle-height boots are desirable, since they provide foot support and won't fill up with gravel on unpaved trails. If you're venturing into rougher terrain, you'll need a sturdy pair of hiking boots.

(But don't bring heavy, stiff-soled mountaineering boots unless you're planning to scramble up an Alp. There's an old saying that a pound on the feet is like five pounds on the back--and in any case, rigid half-inch soles can make it difficult to get a footing on gravel or uneven terrain.)

  • Tip: Make sure your boots are broken in before you leave home. Pack some "artificial skin" and moleskin in case you get blisters. And when you're hiking, be aware that downhill walking can be very hard on the knees. (My husband once spent two days limping in pain after a morning's descent from Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen on paved trails and roads.)

Good socks
Wool, polypropylene, and special hiking blends are preferable to cotton, which tends to wrinkle and hold moisture. (Tip: Buy hiking socks and wear them when you're fitted for boots.)

A sweater (wool or synthetic)
Temperatures can drop quickly in the mountains, and a drizzly day can quickly chill you to the bone.

Gore-Tex or similar clothing is a wise investment if you plan to do extensive hiking. For occasional hiking, you can get by with a water-resistant parka or jacket. (A folding umbrella is also worth bringing if you're hiking on lowland paths.)

A hat
Think "water-resistant." An Irish tweed hat or a brimmed outdoor hat with a cord under the chin is more appropriate than a cotton baseball cap.

A knapsack
A lightweight daypack is ideal for most hiking. You can send heavier luggage ahead to the next village by train for a modest fee.

A hiking guidebook
A regular guidebook such as the Michelin Green Guide is adequate for local sightseeing, but an English-language walking guide is worth buying if hiking ranks high on your agenda. Look for these titles, some of which may be available in used editions:

Switzerland's Mountain Inns:
A Walking Vacation in a World Apart

Philip and Marcia R. Lieberman (Countryman Press)

Walking Easy in the Swiss and Austrian Alps
Chet and Carolee Lipton (Gateway)

Walking in Switzerland
Clem Lindenmayer (Lonely Planet)

Walking Switzerland - The Swiss Way:
From Vacation Apartments, Hotels, Mountain Inns, and Huts

Philip and Marcia R. Lieberman (Mountaineers Books)

What not to bring

Camping gear
Most hikers sleep in hotels, inns, hostels, or--in the high mountains--Swiss Alpine Club huts. Camping outdoors is illegal (except in official campgrounds), so you're unlikely to need your Kelty Pack and pup tent.

What to buy in Switzerland

You'll find a wide variety of topographical and hiking maps at Swiss bookstores and resort shops that cater to tourists. The orange 1:50,000 Swiss Hiking Federation maps are good, and Kummerly & Frey (the commercial map publisher) has a series of 1:60,000 maps.

Swiss maps tend to be high in quality but expensive. If you're hiking around a specific resort, you can often save money by purchasing a local hiking map from the tourist office.

In Switzerland, chocolate is considered a health food--especially if it contains milk. (Okay, I'm exaggerating, but the average Swiss hiker feels no guilt in devouring a Milka, Tobler, or Lindt & Sprüngli bar at the foot of the Jungfrau, so toss your tofu bar and join the locals.)

Swiss hiking Web site

This site may have a vintage look and layout, but it's packed with useful information.

About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden is a professional travel writer, book author, and editor who focuses on European cities and transportation.

After 4-1/2 years of covering European travel topics for, Durant and Cheryl Imboden co-founded Europe for Visitors in 2001. The site has earned "Best of the Web" honors from Forbes and The Washington Post.

For more information, see About Europe for Visitors, press clippings, and reader testimonials.