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How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails. However, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking every year, and some die. Here is what you need to know to be safe.

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps
(Photo by Colton Miller on Unsplash)

The Swiss mountains are one of the country’s most notable and most visited sites. There are activities to enjoy during all seasons and hiking the Swiss Alps is something that people of all ages enjoy in the winter or summer months.

However, mountain rescuers are called every year to help people in emergencies. Last year, there were 1,525 cases of hikers in distress – a number higher than in any other type of sport. In 2021, there were only 500 emergency calls from skiers and 342 made by mountain bikers.

READ ALSO: Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands

Bruno Hasler, who is responsible for mountain emergency statistics at the Swiss Alpine Club SAC, says that many people overestimate themselves and that is dangerous. “The hikers need to be better informed. The authorities must inform people as well as possible about the dangers of mountain hiking”, he told public broadcaster SRF.

What are the main recommendations when hiking?

The first recommendation is to make a realistic self-assessment. Mountain hiking is an endurance sport and people planning on doing a trek should avoid time pressure and choose their trails and times well.

In that sense, it is essential to make careful route planning and evaluate the length, altitude, difficulty and current conditions (including weather forecast) of the trek. Thunderstorms, snow, wind and cold significantly increase the risk of accidents.

Don’t forget to plan alternative routes and keep emergency rescue numbers on hand (REGA 1414 and the european emergency number 112).

READ ALSO : Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

Take practical equipment for your hiking conditions and the proper footwear too. In a backpack, take as little as possible but as much as necessary, aiming to keep it light but full of valuable things such as sun protection, a first aid kit, rescue blanket, water and a mobile phone.

The most common cause of accidents is falling because of slipping or tripping, so be sure to walk on marked paths (reducing the risk of getting lost) and keep a sure foot and safe pace.

Don’t forget to take regular breaks not only for eating and drinking (necessary to maintain performance and concentration) but also to enjoy the landscape.

Be responsible for the children in the group, treks that require long-lasting concentration are not suitable for children and in passages with risk of falling, and one adult can only look after one child, according to the Swiss Alpine Club. Small groups are the best for hiking because they ensure mutual assistance and flexibility at the same time.

Rega on a rescue mission in the Swiss Alps. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The PACE checklist

The so-called PACE checklist helps hikers keep track of the most important things. PACE means plan, assess, consider, and evaluate, Swiss Alpine Club SAC says.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Plan your route and duration and give yourself extra time and alternatives. Inform someone else about your trip. Assess if the hike is suitable for you, and do not undertake challenging trips yourself. Consider if you have what you need for the walk, like sturdy hiking shoes, protection against harsh weather and food and water supplies.

Finally, evaluate while hiking. See if you are too tired, keep eating, drinking and resting regularly and pay attention to the time you need and any changes in the weather. Do not leave the marked trail and turn back in time if necessary.

What to do in case of an accident?

If there are accidents during your hike, you should first provide life-saving help to anyone seriously injured and then call emergency services. Do not leave the wounded alone and do not put yourself at risk.

Mark the accident area clearly and give signals. The international emergency call sign consists of giving a sign (such as a flashing light or waving a cloth) six times a minute and then repeating it after one minute.

READ ALSO: Rega: What you need to know about Switzerland’s air rescue service

For helicopters, holding both your arms up (making a V shape) signals that you need help, while keeping one arm up and another down (forming a diagonal line with your arms) means you do not need help.

If you see animals, keep your distance and do not disturb them. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

What do I do if I see animals on my hike?

It’s common to find animals while hiking in the Swiss alps, especially cows in the pastures. A cow will protect their calves, so keep your distance. Do not touch the animals, and keep dogs on a leash.

Slowly and carefully move around at a distance and continue your trek.

You may occasionally find herds that dogs protect. It’s possible to inform yourself online in advance to find out where these herds are and avoid them. Still, remember that packs and their guardian dogs should be disturbed as little as possible. So stay calm and keep your distance – avoid any brisk movements.

If you are hiking with your dog, put it on a leash and slowly and calmly detour around the livestock.

If a guard dog barks and runs in your direction, try to stay calm and give the dog time to assess the situation. Stay far from the herd, don’t run or make sudden movements. You can use a stick to keep the dog at a distance by stretching them out, but don’t raise it or wave it around.

Once the dogs have accepted your presence and stopped barking, continue at a slow pace on your way.

Don’t forget: the Swiss rescue number is 1414 or you can also reach them using the European emergency number 112.

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COMPARE: What is the best season to visit Switzerland?

To visit or not to visit Switzerland isn’t the question to ask, but when you should see the country. Writer Lily Töngi-Andrews brings the highlights and how to best enjoy each month.

COMPARE: What is the best season to visit Switzerland?

Every season in this landlocked country has different activities, colours and charm; Switzerland is picturesque all year round. The postcards are accurate and show that the seasons may change how the landscape looks, but what doesn’t change is the enjoyment and experiences that can be encountered all year round.

Warm sunny summer or cold, snowy winter, fresh, colourful spring or cooler golden autumn – the allure is tangible. Now it is up to you to choose what season or temperature you prefer or wish to experience.

Here are the highlights of each season:

Autumn – September to November

  • The leaves, the leaves, the colour of the leaves. Dappled with yellows, reds and oranges, the mountainsides, forests, cities and villages turn their colours to golden hues. View this foliage map to find the most colourful.
  • The weather is cooling, the trees are stunning and the summer crowds have started to dissipate or have already left. But, perhaps best of all: things get cheaper.
  • Wine season has begun as grapes are harvested and the numerous vineyard walks are both educational and tasty. With the recent hot summer, a good harvest and excellent wine are expected this year in the six wine regions of Switzerland.
  • Swiss parks are ready to be discovered and Autumn is a wonderful time to go hiking on the many trails that crisscross the country.
  • Witness a famous Alpabzug (Alpine descent), when cows that have been in the mountains for the summer pastures are brought home to their barns in the valleys for winter.
  • Oktoberfests also take place in Switzerland and the top ones can be found in Zürich, Lucerne, Winterthur, Baden, Züri-Wiesn and Wädenswil.

READ ALSO: Do Swiss cows really get airlifted down from the Alps after summer?

Mountains are in Switzerland’s DNA. Image by Jörg Vieli from Pixabay

Winter – December to February

  • Sparkling days and shimmering nights can be expected wherever it snows. It can also snow in the cities and towns, which adds a fairy-tale appeal. 
  • Not only can you partake in the traditional skiing and snowboarding, but there are also myriad other activities for the coldest season of the year: snowshoe hiking, winter walking, nighttime tobogganing, sledding, dogsledding and cross-country skiing. Check out where you can go here.
  • There are christmas markets galore and it is almost impossible to name the best: Basel, Zürich, and Bern are at the top of a neverending array.
  • Winter rail journeys include the Bernina and Glacier Express and the magical Grand Train Tour of Switzerland – all the superlatives in the dictionary cannot do justice to these trips.
  • Ice-skate on natural ice rinks as the lakes freeze over – well-known ones are Davos, Katzensee outside of Zürich and Lac de Joux in Jura.
  • Raclette, Fondue, Marroni (chestnuts) and Glühwein (mulled wine) are on the streets and in the restaurants to eat and drink until your heart is content.
  • Thermal baths are ready to keep you warmed on wintry days. Suggestions: Mineralbad & Spa Rigi Kaltbad, Dampfbad Basel, Panorama Resort & Spa.
  • Wander the streets of cities and villages decorated all wondrous and Christmassy. Montreux, Basel, Zurich and Bern are particularly beautiful and there are also magical light festivals.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Spring brings warmer temperatures to Switzerland (Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash)

Spring – March to May

  • Wildflowers are blooming the colours of the rainbow in the lush valleys and mountains. Spring has sprung and the cows are heading up the mountains.
  • Ski & snowboard tourists have left and the summer crowd haven’t arrived. Therefore, accommodation and travel are cheaper as the resorts are often closed.
  • Hiking is worthwhile with lower temperatures and trails are clear of snow up to 2000m. However, the peaks are still snow-capped and enchanting – Mount Rigi Panorama Trail, Berggasthaus Aescher – cliff restaurant or walk part of the Swiss Path and see where the Swiss Confederation began.
  • As the snow melt,s waterfalls are plentiful and the vision and sound of icy water gushing down the mountains are impressive. However, beware of flash flooding. Check out Waterfalls in Switzerland.
  • Mountain biking is perfect for spring weather and you won’t believe how many trails and tracks there are for enduro, all mountain, tour and e-mountain biking for beginners to advanced riders in every canton.
  • City and village tours and lake and river walks at this temperate time are just right, not too cold and not too hot. Check out Ballenberg if you want to see traditional Swiss life all in one place.
  • Eleven hours of daylight, mountain areas are still cold with chilly nights but be warned: there can be lots of rain.

READ ALSO: How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Enjoy lakes and river during Switzerland’s hot summers (Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash)

Summer – June to August

  • Summer is high season and has the most crowds, travel is expensive and resorts are open and full, so make sure you book well in advance.
  • Summer also means an abundance of outdoor festivals. They are everywhere: in the cities, in the mountains and by the lakeshores. There is an electic choice including music and art, food and drink, cultural and historical and film.
  • For the adventurous, cable cars are open so you can get to the top of the mountains for hiking, paragliding, bunjee jumping, rope parks and toboggan runs.
  • If it is hot, and it can get hot hot, it’s another reason to escape to the mountains as there is still snow in some areas all year round, but it can get crowded. Summer snow can be found at Titlis, Jungfraujoch, Zermatt/Matterhorn and Saas Fee.
  • On the lakes are pedalos, SUPs (stand-up paddleboards) and innumerable cruises, including paddle-steamers, sailing and panoramic sightseeing.
  • Around the lakes, there are options for skating, picnics, restaurants and Badis/Lidos (outdoor pools that can also be found near rivers). Or just wander around and look up at the postcard scenery.
  • Escape the heat and visit world-renowned museums and art galleries. Some of the most visited are FIFA Museum, Technorama, Transport Museum of Switzerland, Kunsthaus Zürich and Paul Klee Center, just to start with. Switzerland has a vast choice, with over 900 art galleries and museums.
  • Fifteen hours of sunlight to enjoy as much as possible in a day.

READ ALSO: The five most beautiful Swiss villages to discover by boat

Personal factors will play a role in choosing a time of year to visit: travelling with children in school holidays, crowds or no crowds, adventure or culture, active or chilled, hot or cold, sun or snow, a preference of colour – the choices are neverending.

What isn’t a problem is that there is always something to do, and many activities can be mixed and matched all year round. So, in the end, every season is viable and worth a visit.

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