Practical stuff

If you're thinking of going walking in Alpine countries, here's some practical detail to help get you started.

Accommodation

Mountain huts provide a simple place for walkers to stay and great company. They are generally staffed from about mid-June to mid-September, and can offer you simple but filling meals and somewhere to sleep in dormitories. To be sure of a space, you should phone ahead to book a place. Most huts are run by the countries Alpine club, though some are also run by locals or smaller hut organisations. Membership of the British Mountaineering Council often entitles you to discounted accommodation.

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Airmail and Parcel post

France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria have generally reliable postal services. The French post sometimes strikes, which means that things can take weeks, but still eventually arrive.Top

Airports

Low cost airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet have greatly reduced the cost of getting to and from the Alps. Return fares of 50 are readily available to Verona, Milan, Turin, Trieste, Salzburg, Graz, Ljubljana, Friedrichshafen, Geneva, Basel, Grenoble and Nice. If you feel that air travel carries too high a carbon cost, high speed trains have brought the Alps within 7 hours of London.Top

Currency

All countries in the Alpine arc use the euro, except Switzerland which has the Swiss Franc. For money while you are in the Alps, your options are Travellers cheques, hard currency, a Visa debit or credit card or a well-known Charge card (Amex, Diners etc). In practice, always have at least two sources of money and keep them in different places, and then if you lose some, you haven't lost all of it. Cash dispensers are quite widespread, and many now either let you choose in what language to withdraw money, or automatically talk to you in the language of your card issuer (withdrawing money in a foreign currency is a definite test of fluency!)

Be aware that Credit card companies charge interest on cash advances, and check with your bank to find out if any charges apply for Debit card withdrawals overseas. If you are walking somewhere out of the way, or traversing say from hut to hut, it makes sense to carry cash, as hut managers will not accept payment by card. Expect the larger denominations of Euros (100 euros and up) to be viewed with suspicion and possibly refused. Some banks can keep strange opening hours.Top

Fuel availability

Meths is readily available, as are gas cartridges, though there are several different types of cartridge connectors, and not all types are available everywhere.

Common stove fuels and their names are listed here Top

General trip advice

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (F & CO) has excellent general advice about travelling abroad.Top

Insurance

None of the Alpine countries have free mountain rescue, and the cost of extracting you from the mountains and subsequent medical treatment can be very high. Fortunately, there are several excellent insurance companies catering to hikers, e.g. the BMC and Snowcard.

The Club Alpin Francais and the Austrian Alpine Club both offer good value rescue and medical insurance, as does the French outdoor shop Au Vieux Campeur.

If you normally reside in the UK, carry a European Health Insurance card (EHIC).

The EHIC can be used to cover any necessary medical treatment due to either an accident or illness within all the Alpine countries including Switzerland. The card entitles the holder to state-provided medical treatment within the country they are visiting and the service provided will be the same as received by a person covered by the country's 'insured' medical scheme. This may not cover all of the services you would expect within the UK and you may have to make a contribution towards the care you receive. An EHIC does not cover you for all medical costs - you still need insurance.Top

Language

Plenty of people have visited the Alps and got by with miming and gesturing - it can be great fun! But if you want to chat with people then it's time to get out some language tapes. In my experience, French and Italians don't speak much English (there's no reason why they should after all....) In the Tyrol, Italian and German are both spoken. Germans and Austrians (German-speaking) quite often manage some English, as do Slovenians - Slovenian sounds beautiful and it's not hard to pick up a few sentences. The majority of Swiss speak Swiss German, which is sufficiently different (sounds, constructs and words) to confuse you at first, 20% of Swiss speak French, which is close to normal French, and a small number speak Italian and Romansch.

There are some good (and some frankly wacky) podcasts on the Internet to help you learn the basics of a language, and if you want to brush up intermediate language skills, there are plenty of foreign language Internet radio stations to listen to.Top

Mobiles

As in the UK, Mobile phones are widespread, and coverage is often good. You should not rely on coverage in the mountains though. Voice calls with the UK are generally expensive - texts are a sensible way of remaining in touch at reasonable cost. If you plan to spend a while in any one country, or you want to use your mobile to book the next hut, then consider unlocking your phone and buying a pay as you go SIM card locally. With modern phones, it is feasible to take good quality pictures and movies with your phone as you go. You can even send pictures home from your phone though charges are high.Top

Poste Restante

It is possible to send items 'poste restante' to await your arrival. This is a tempting option much used when walking long trails in the USA. One could for example send forward a 'bounce box' with hard to find or heavy items - camera chargers, maps, spare clothes or favourite items of food like Marmite! In my experience and others, this doesn't work very well in the Alps. Things can be held up for no obvious reason, and hanging about waiting isn't fun. Moreover some Post offices won't keep your things for long before helpfully returning them to the UK. Top

Things that can go wrong

It's possible (though unlikely) that something serious could happen when you are out walking, resulting in someone else having to pick up the pieces.

Examples include: your being injured by a fall or an avalanche, your succumbing to a heart attack or perhaps having your backpack (passport and money) stolen. You might become separated from your backpack, so it will help your rescuers if you carry details of important stuff on your person, for example, if you fall, and lose consciousness, someone will then be able to identify you and start arranging insurance and letting your next of kin know.

I suggest you print and laminate a small card to hang around your neck - Army dog tag style, with at least your name, nationality, passport number, date of birth, phone number for next of kin, insurance contact number, policy number, blood type and any medical conditions/regular medication.

It's useful to give someone at home a copy of all this, plus your insurance policy, your will, and details of your bank cards and other accounts in case you need to call for money.

If you have a mobile, consider removing any password on it and using obvious names in the directory - 'husband', 'mother' etc, so that a rescuer can set about contacting people easily. Top

T'internet

Broadband Internet is frequently available in larger towns. Most of the Alpine countries have recognised the power of the Internet to unite communities, reduce isolation and offer opportunities and information to small communities. Do not expect little villages to have Internet cafes, but many towns will. You can then check emails, burn CDs, print things off and so on. I haven't seen VoIP (for example Skype) in use anywhere yet, but this might be an economic way to chat with the the folks back home, and seems bound to catch on.Top

Ticks

Ticks are prevalent in some European countries, just as they are in the UK. Whereas in the UK a tick bite carries an outside risk of giving Lyme disease, in Europe there is a slight risk you could contract Tick-borne Encephalitis (TBE). A vaccine is available, but you need to start the treatment at least 6 months before your trip. Take some tick tweezers in any case so you can remove ticks properly.Top

Trains

French, Swiss, German and Austrian train services are excellent - comfortable and reliable. Italian trains can be rather basic and are less reliable. The cost of train travel in France, Germany, Austria and Italy is a pleasant surprise after the UK. Train travel in Switzerland is quite expensive.Top

Vaccinations

If you are thinking of walking in the Alps, it would be best to ask your GP about vaccinations. Broadly, you should probably check you are up to date with your primary courses and boosters, including tetanus and maybe Hepatitis A. Rabies is found in Europe, but it's highly unlikely you will encounter a rabid animal, so your GP may suggest that you get treatment only if you are bitten, rather than getting vaccinated. I'm not a doctor, so please ask your GP.Top

Weather and Seasons

The main walking season in the Alps is early July until early September. It is often possible to walk in June, though you should expect some snow on the ground - possibly widespread snow cover depending on the Winter and how early and warm Spring was. Walkers in May should expect widespread snow, which may be impassable (deep!) in places without snowshoes.

September is often a fine month, though the days are cooler and shorter, and many huts close from mid September. October is a lot colder, and there is often some snow, occasionally heavy. Snow in October may settle. Walkers in November may have to cope with Winter conditions - though the weather may remain fine and cool.Top