Guest Post by Jason Miller
While often overlooked in favour of their French and Swiss neighbours to the north, the Italian Alps deserve their place on the ‘must see’ list for lovers of the world’s most wild and wonderful places. Many would-be visitors to the Italian Alps, however, don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for.
For starters, the term ‘Alps’ refers to a range that stretches over 450 km from east to west. Secondly, English-language guidebooks for the area are far fewer and often less detailed than those covering the Swiss and French Alps. Actually, the Italian Alps are replete with as much variety as Italy has types of pasta! For this reason, getting the pre-trip lowdown on what you’ll find there inevitably leaves a few blanks and unanswered questions.
To answer those questions, below I have compiled a list of tips that will help you make the most of your time in one of our planet’s most scenic, unique and downright fascinating travel destinations.
1. Acclimatization – Staying Healthy When Heading to the Heights
The Italian Alps are big mountains. As such, climbers, hikers and sightseers are as susceptible to altitude sickness there as they are in any other high mountain range. The Alps may have better infrastructure for taking care of stricken tourists than elsewhere in the world, but that doesn’t mean you should take your preparation lightly.
When you arrive (or, even better, before you arrive), spend a few days acclimatizing by gradually increasing your max altitude. Many visitors fall foul of over-eagerness and jump on a cable car or climb above 3,000m or even 4,000m in the first few days, only to be rushed back down again in a hurry when their health takes a turn for the worse.
For a few useful tips on acclimatisation, check out this article from UK Climbing.
2. Complacency Kills – Don’t Underestimate the ‘Tourist Routes’
Many of the popular hiking and mountaineering routes are unhelpfully labeled ‘tourist routes’ on outdoor websites and in many guides. Don’t be fooled. The first ascent of the Italian Route on Monte Bianco may have been achieved by a future pope (we kid you not!), but since that ascent hundreds have died trying to replicate his feat. This is not a route for tourists! The term should be taken as a marker of the route’s popularity, not its level of difficulty.
3. Rifugi (Tip 1) – Book in Advance
The Italian Alps are blessed with a very practical and well-maintained network of mountains huts called ‘rifugi’ (singular: ‘rifugio’). In the summer months, however, these tend to fill up weeks in advance. Be sure to plan your hiking routes well before you leave and call to make bookings at rifugi on your route.
4. Rifugi (Tip 2) – What to Bring?
Staying in a rifugio can be a very memorable experience. Besides the camaraderie and novelty of enjoying a high-altitude sleepover, they tend to be situated in the most scenic spots you’re ever likely to find. They can, however, pose a few problems for the unprepared. Most rifugi offer bunk or dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, meaning you’ll be sharing a room (or even a bed!) with complete strangers. To ensure you get a good night’s sleep, bring an eye mask and a good pair of earplugs to save yourself from the snorers. Also, many rifugi require that you use a sleeping bag liner, so be sure to add one of these to your pre-trip packing list.
5. Wild Camping – Making the Most of the Grey Area
Officially, wild camping in Italy is illegal. In the Alps, however, it is a generally accepted rule that wild camping is permitted as long as you are above 2,000m, not disturbing any livestock and don’t start a fire. If you wish to camp near a rifugio, it’s best to ask the owner before pitching up. As always, leave no trace behind you when you head back to the trails.
6. Respect – Walking Lightly in One of World’s Largest, Open-Air Cemeteries
The Italian Alps were host to one of the most horrific conflicts our planet has ever known. During WWI, over a million Italians and Austro-Hungarians died in what became known as the ‘White War’ on account of the fact that many of its battles were fought up on the snowy peaks and glaciers of the Dolomites and Eastern Alps. The fallen are commemorated throughout the Alps by shrines, crosses, plaques and memorial stones. When passing these memorials, it’s best to show respect and consideration, bearing in mind that the descendants of many of those who fell in these battles today live in the same area.
7. Staying Safe – Water Purification
The Italian Alps are home to most of the common waterborne party-poopers you’ll find elsewhere in the world: Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and several other viruses, bacteria and protozoa. Reliable water sources are often far apart and so quenching your thirst occasionally requires scooping a bottle-full from wild sources. To avoid wasting days of your trip in the bathroom or hospital, be sure to bring a reliable water purification system such as tablets, a UV pen or filter bottle.
8. The Via Ferrata – Gear Up and Go Carefully
The Italian Alps’ via ferrata routes are a great way to enjoy the thrill of high-altitude rock climbing and mountaineering without the associated risk of either activity. They aren’t, however, without their dangers. Before you tackle a via ferrata, it’s wise to take a few lessons and purchase the appropriate kit from a knowledgeable vendor. Also worth noting is that via ferrata routes tend to be popular, meaning there’s a good chance there will be other hikers ahead of you on the route. Just in case they are less careful than they should be, keep your helmet on at all times to protect you from any stones or rocks they might knock down the route.
9. (Literally) Haute Cuisine – Indulge in the Local Delicacies
We’ve all heard of spaghetti bolognese, cannoli, pizza and lasagne. Not so many of us are familiar with sciatt (fried cheese balls), pizzocheri (buckwheat pasta with cheese and potatoes), casunziei (ravioli stuffed with spinach or pumpkin) and tris di canederli (a type of dumpling filled with cured ham and served in a delicious broth). The Italian Alps abound in gastronomical treasures that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Given that you burn off more calories at altitude than at sea level, there’s no better time to enjoy them!
10. Walking Through History – Take the Time to Take in a Detour
Wherever you go in the Italian Alps, you are sure to find a few ski-lifts, cable cars and unsightly modern buildings around the more popular tourist destinations. Away from the larger towns, however, life here is still lived – to a large extent – just as it was decades and even centuries ago. When you see the locals carrying wicker baskets of grapes on their backs, knitting on their porch or playing a game of cards over a glass of grappa in a stone-built tavern, you’ll know what we mean! To see all of this first-hand, all you need to do is visit the places not mentioned in your guidebook…simple!
To delve further into the Alps’ fascinating past, we’d highly recommend spending a day or two exploring their wealth of historical sites and landmarks, whether it’s the Bronze Age rock carvings in Val Camonica, the WWI tunnels at Lagazuoi and Monte Paterno or the Messner Museum of Mountaineering in Bolzano.
Whether you’re a climber, mountaineer, snowboarder, base-jumper, photographer or just a lover of lounging in beautiful mountainous landscapes and taking in a bit of history and culture, the Italian Alps have a host of delights to discover. As a long-term lover of this region, I am very familiar with how tricky it can be visiting first time around and would really hate for that trickiness to spoil or detract from the pleasure of anyone’s trip in the slightest. I hope the above tips will help you dodge the potential pitfalls and make the most of your time in bella Italia’s beautiful Alps!
About the Writer
Jason Miller packed his bags and flew across the Atlantic, from the US to the Italian Alps, in pursuit of freedom. His goal is to inspire people to participate in outdoors pursuits. For more information and inspiration visit SkilledAdventurer.com and follow Jason on Twitter, and Facebook.
Photos courtesy of Depositphotos
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