The Walker’s Haute Route (WHR) promises to be an unforgettable adventure for anyone willing to tackle the challenge. This spectacular hike begins at majestic Mont Blanc and ends at the iconic Matterhorn, but what lies between the two peaks is the best part. The Walker’s Haute Route winds its way through some of the most stunning scenery, quaint villages, and rugged trails that the Alps have to offer.
While the rewards are undoubtedly worth it, completing a Haute Route trek is no small feat. In addition to the very real physical challenges that exist, this hike requires a good deal of planning and logistics to ensure a smooth, successful, and enjoyable experience. No need to stress through-we’ve got you covered.
In this post we’ll share our most valuable advice for those hiking the Haute Route. These are the things we wished we knew before completing our own trek, as well as the brilliant insider tips we picked up from other hikers we met along the way. This post will help you to make sure you’ve thought of everything before setting off on your own Haute Route adventure. And if you’re looking for more in depth content, don’t forget to check out our Camping Guide, Trip Report, and more!
1. Be Flexible
The Walker’s Haute Route traverses rugged paths and high mountain passes, which are challenging enough in good weather, but can quickly become dangerous in adverse conditions. At higher elevations, storms can roll in quickly, and can be especially hazardous when you’re in highly exposed areas.
Additionally, large patches of snow can remain on the trail well into the summer hiking season. While some of these snowy sections are easy to cross, others can be very difficult, slow, and potentially unsafe to try to negotiate without the proper gear and experience. In particular, the sections between Cabane du Mont Fort and Arolla tend to present the biggest issues with late-season snow.
Finally, there are some sketchy sections of the trek that require extreme caution, such as the approach to Pas des Chevres (which has loose rocks and requires scrambling).
So why are we telling you all of this? Because if there’s only one rule you follow on the Haute Route it should be this: give the mountains the respect they deserve. The Haute Route is unique in the sense that there are virtually endless route options, variants, and detours available. In situations where the weather forecast is ominous, the trail conditions are sketchy, or your gut is telling you that something is out of your league, you have options. Use them!
It’s not the end of the world if you have to detour or adjust your plans to stay safe. In our opinion, it doesn’t make you an less of a badass hiker. In fact, it illustrates your experience and wisdom when it comes to trekking. Be open to whatever unique challenges the trail throws at you, after all that’s part of the journey!
2. Get in shape
With a route that traverses more than 180km and over 12,000m of elevation gain, it’s imperative that you are physically prepared for the Haute Route. Sure, every year there are more than a few untrained couch potatoes that manage to slog their way through this trek, but we are absolutely certain that you will have an immensely better experience if you are in good trekking shape. Nobody wants to approach each and every mountain pass with a sense of dread and exhaustion.
We recommend following a regimen of cardio and strength exercises at least twice a week in the months leading up to your trip. Additionally, do as much hiking with a weighted pack as possible ahead of time.It’s a good idea routinely do strength training exercises to build leg and core muscles in order to protect against injuries and give you more stability on steep trails. Ideally, you should be able to comfortably complete hikes of 20km with 1,000m of elevation gain on consecutive days.
3. Think ahead when it comes to logistics
Even though we encourage you to be flexible throughout your Haute Route adventure, it’s still a good idea to do some advance planning. There are several logistical issues you’ll need to consider when preparing for your journey, including getting to and from the trail, luggage storage and transfer, detours, rest days, and money.
The point-to-point nature of the Haute Route means that you’ll finish your trek somewhere different from where you started (unless you’re crazy enough to do the whole thing again in reverse!) Most hikers will end in Zermatt, and many will need to make their way back to Geneva to catch a flight home. Although Zermatt is a car-free town, it is well connected by transit links. The easiest way to get from Zermatt to Geneva is by train. We recommend booking your onward travel in advance to ensure you get a seat and to score the best prices. Furthermore, if you have extra luggage that you don’t want to carry while hiking, you’ll need to decide if you want to store it in Chamonix or have it sent ahead to Zermatt. If you need to detour from the trail, we strongly suggest downloading the SBB and Postbus apps, which are great tools for helping you figure out how to get from point A to point B.
Be sure to check out this in-depth logistics article, where we cover everything you need to know to have a smooth and stress-free trek.
4. Pack light
Carrying an unnecessarily bulky/heavy pack is a surefire way to make your Walker’s Haute Route trek abundantly less fun. The more weight you haul on your back, the greater effort you’ll need to exert on an already arduous trek. Additionally, there are some technical and exposed sections of the hike that require surefootedness and a compact center of gravity, neither of which is aided by a large backpack throwing off your balance. In all honesty, you don’t need to carry that much for this trek.
Many hikers choose to stay in huts, but even those camping will only need to bring food supplies to last a couple of days. Think about it this way: you can either wear slightly dirty shirts and cruise up those mountain passes comfortably, or you can opt for clean shirts and slow schlepping. For more about what to pack (and what to leave behind), be sure to check out our comprehensive Walker’s Haute Route Packing List.
5. Make new friends
One of the best parts about long-distance hiking is the people you meet along the way. Since many hikers stop at the same places each night, you’ll end up seeing familiar faces and forming meaningful connections. The mountain huts simply ooze with camaraderie, and you’ll undoubtedly enjoy some incredibly memorable meals with awesome people from all over the world who share your love of the mountains. Even if you opt to stay in a tent, the campgrounds are wonderful places to share a drink and a chat with your fellow trekkers. However you do it, make sure to strike up conversations with as many hikers as you can along the way. Connecting with others will significantly enrich your experience and make it so much more meaningful.
6. Have a food strategy
While it’s true that with the abundance of services along the way you’re unlikely to starve on the Haute Route, it is still paramount that you approach your fueling with a bit of foresight. Switzerland is expensive, and if you are forced to rely on purchasing all of your meals at the mountain huts and restaurants you pass along the way, you’re going to end up spending a king’s ransom. If you’re aware of that reality and factor it into your budget, that’s great, but if you’re caught unprepared you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
So how do you avoid paying 30 CHF for a plate of pasta every time you need to eat? We recommend stocking up on provisions in the towns you pass through along the route, packing your camp stove, and self-catering most meals. This will ensure you’re getting healthy fuel and plenty of snacks throughout the day, and it will save you a lot of money. But there’s a catch. Grocery stores are nonexistent in many of the smaller hamlets, so you’ll need to do a little research to figure out your next refueling stop and carry enough food to last you until that point.
Additionally, keep in mind that many shops close for a midday lunch break and nearly everything is closed on Sundays. With a little upfront planning, you can eat well and have plenty of room in your budget for little splurges, like a homemade blueberry tart or post-hike beer (or both!)
7. Bring a map
In all honesty, we didn’t use our paper map at all during our Haute Route trek. Instead, we used our smartphone as a GPS device, which allowed us to see our exact location on the route, as well as topographic information and all of our campsites. On the whole, the Walker’s Haute Route is very well marked and pretty straightforward to follow. That being said, there are numerous variants and trail junctions that make it surprisingly easy to wander off course.
A good map can save you hours of frustration and, more importantly, save your life in an emergency. Even though we relied primarily on a digital map, we still strongly encourage everyone to carry a paper map. You never know when your battery could die, your phone could fall into in a puddle, or any number of undesirable flukes could occur. We recommend bringing the following two Swiss Topo maps: Swiss Topo #5003 Mont Blanc-Grand Combin and Swiss Topo #5006 Matterhorn – Mischabel. Both can be purchased here.
8. Consider taking a rest day
If you’ve got the time, we highly recommend adding a rest day into your itinerary. Rest days are wonderful for a number of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, they give your body a chance to recover from a succession of physically demanding days on the trail. This can be a game-changer when it comes to preventing injuries and/or burnout. Additionally, rest days can be a great opportunity to spend time in one of the many charming villages along the route. When you’re hiking all day, there can be limited time to actually explore and immerse yourself in the places you pass through, but a rest day gives you the chance to slow down and absorb all of the delightful culture and history that these places have to offer. We enjoyed spending a day off in Les Haudères (which you can read more about in our trip report), but Le Châble, Arolla, and Zinal would also make great options.
9. Take care of your knees
We’ve completed a lot of tough hikes, but the Haute Route takes the cake for toughest on our knees. Expect very long, very steep descents on nearly every stage of the trek. These can be brutal on your joints, particularly knees and hips. By the end of our trip, our bodies were feeling pretty battered. Fortunately, we took a few preventive measures that kept us feeling strong enough to finish with smiles on our faces.
One of the most important things you can do to minimize the effects of 1,000+ meters of daily descent is to make your pack as light as possible. This can be a little tricky when you’re camping, but every ounce you can shave off really does make a difference. Our trekking poles were also invaluable when it came to keeping us stable on steep, loose sections and taking some of the impact off of our joints. We can’t say enough about how helpful it is to use trekking poles!
Finally, if you’ve got knee issues, there’s no shame in using the cable car when the opportunity presents itself. There are several stages where hikers have the option to ride down and avoid a long slog. This can be a great way to minimize the impacts of tough trekking.
10. Leave no trace
The environment in the Alps is incredibly beautiful and even more fragile. Many thousands of people recreate in this region each year, and even small things can add up to have major impacts. It doesn’t take much time spent on the Haute Route to see the negative effects of human activity, from rapidly diminishing glaciers to braided and eroding trails, to litter left behind by careless walkers.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Your choices can make a real difference in keeping the Alps healthy and protected for future generations. Stay on marked trails, minimize wild camping, carry out all of your trash, and respect the flora and fauna. Taking these simple measures will help you enjoy and appreciate the stunning beauty of the Haute Route so much more.
Heed these ten little nuggets of wisdom and you are well on your way to a successful Walker’s Haute Route adventure. While there will certainly be plenty of surprises throughout your journey, even a small amount of intentional preparation will go a long way to ensure your trek is smoother and more enjoyable. Is there anything you think should be included on this list? Let us know in the comments below. Wishing you an unforgettable Haute Route experience!
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Want more? Be sure to check out all of our great Haute Route posts:
- Walker’s Haute Route Packing List: Be sure you’ve got everything you need!
- Walker’s Haute Route Logistics: Don’t forget the small details!
- Haute Route Trip Report: Know what to expect on the trail!
- How Much it Cost Us to Hike the Haute Route-Make it work for your budget!
- Haute Route Photo Gallery: Get inspired!
- How to Train for the Haute Route: Get in trail-ready shape!