Nothing in life is risk-free. That goes for Alpine hiking, too. But despite what you might think, hiking in the Alps can be a very safe activity. Considering the health benefits of hiking, it may be safer than sitting on your couch all day (and it’s more fun).
We offer two itineraries in the high Alps: three levels of the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc, and a self-guided tour of the Walker's Haute Route. In this post, we will discuss five safety concerns in depth: hikers, the trail, weather, injury, and wildlife. Of course, there are other concerns for hikers on the trail, like dehydration, exhaustion and ill-preparedness, but these five are the most common. With a little bit of preparation, and a little bit of common sense, you’re more likely than not to come away from your trek happy and healthy.
Crime in the high Alps, especially among hikers, is almost unheard of. If you’re worried about any of your gear going missing, it’s far more likely to happen in big cities than in mountain towns and refugios. (On the mountain, missing gear is more likely due to second-rate baggage transfer companies dropping your stuff off at the wrong accommodation.)
While you were keeping an eye on that suspicious-looking hiker, you should have been looking out for suspicious spots on the trail. The fact is that simply being on the trail is much more dangerous than the people you share the trail with. Unfortunately, there are stories every year of people who have been injured or, sadly, died while hiking in the Alps, often because they slipped and fell off the trail. Most trails are well marked and you should stay on them at all times. Slips and falls are much more likely when you leave the trail, or when snow and ice cover the trail. This is a real concern for those hiking early or late in the season. Having the right gear, like microspikes, good hiking boots and poles, will help prevent slips and falls in icy conditions.
Hiking trails in the Alps range from wide, well-trodden and gently sloping paths to rocky, steep and metal-aid assisted. It’s important to know the trail difficulty before setting out and to be adequately experienced to tackle it. Have you scrambled over loose rock and boulders before? If not, you probably don’t want to make your first scrambling experience as a solo hiker on a multi-day through hike. Also, are you comfortable with exposure, i.e. steep drop-offs next to the trail? To have a good hike, match your experience and comfort level to the hike you would like to complete. If you don’t, you may end up worried and miserable the whole time, or alternatively, skipping large sections of the trail because you are uncomfortable.
Stories of hikers dying in the Alps often have one common detail: the hiker was out solo. Solo hikers are at the greatest danger on the trail because there is no one around to call for help, should there be a need. If you do choose to hike solo, you should include scheduled check-in points with loved ones who can raise the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Some locations in the alps are remote and without wifi or cell signal, so make sure you schedule your check-ins for days that you will have access to communication. Finding a hiking buddy on the trail can also help to mitigate risk. Making friends on a trek is easy, and having a hiking buddy can make your experience in the Alps safer and more fun.
Rockfalls and landslides also present a danger to hikers, and you should be cautious whenever you find fresh, loose rock on the trail; this may be a sign that there was a recent rockfall above the trail, and that there may be another. This is a known occurrence on stage 12 of the Walker’s Haute Route, where hikers begin the Europaweg, Fenetre d’Arpette and Col de Riedmatten. On a related note, you should be careful not to kick or push rocks off the downhill side of a trail. You never know if there is a person below you on the mountain, and you run the risk of seriously injuring them with falling rocks. Similarly, be aware of who is above you on the trail, especially if they are inexperienced. Giving a wide berth to hikers in front of you can lessen the chance that dislodged rocks find their way to you.
Of course, booking with an experienced tour operator is one of the best ways of staying safe in the mountains. Any competent operator should have extensive knowledge on the trek area, how to prepare for the trek, any potential hazards and rescue options, and will have local contacts ready to provide emergency aid. Find the right operator for you and take advantage of their expertise.
Injuries are often related to conditions on the trail, but can happen anywhere; you can sprain your ankle getting out of bed the wrong way. One of the best ways to avoid getting injured while on the trail, or while doing any sort of prolonged physical activity, is to make sure you’re physically fit. Good muscle tone will help prevent the ankle, knee, and back injuries that would halt an otherwise perfectly good trek. Strong aerobic fitness will help prevent exhaustion, which often leads to injuries while hiking. We always recommend you train for at least a couple of months before attempting a long-distance trek.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that we age, and more unfortunate that we get frailer as we age. For senior hikers, it is doubly important to work on physical conditioning before a strenuous hiking trip. All other possible dangers in the Alps affect all age groups equally, but physical injury is especially dangerous for older hikers. Even a 35-year-old doesn’t bounce back after an injury like an 18-year-old does. The older you get, the more important it is that you are fit for your trek. Another best practice is to use hiking poles to reduce the strain on your knees.
Normally, you will be completely ignored by wildlife, or it will run away before you can get close. Ibex may have scary-looking horns, but we have never seen any reports of ibex attacking hikers in the Alps. Ibex are often habituated to humans and will not pay you much mind. In any case, please do not feed the wildlife.
Cows, on the other hand, can be dangerous, but only rarely. Farmers in the region let their cattle roam the high meadows in the summer, and on your hike you will probably come across a herd or two of bell-wearing cows clanking around the Alps. Cows are usually peaceful, but mothers with their calves are naturally protective and may attack those who get too close. It’s best to not approach cows on the trail; they may, however, approach you, as they are curious animals. TheLocal.ch has some more instructions on protecting yourself from potential cow aggression.
STAYING SAFE ON YOUR TREK
We hope that this post has helped assuage some of your possible worries and left you feeling more confident about exploring the Alps. If you have any other questions about staying safe on your Alpine trek, we’d be happy to answer them. You can reach us by email anytime, or call 1-414-377-3555 for a free consultation. We look forward to hearing from you.