A journey of a thousand miles may begin, as the Taoist proverb goes, with a single step. But when it comes to walking holidays in Europe, that first step comes well before you set foot on a trail. Planning – deciding your destination and route, scheduling your departure, choosing your preferred kind of accommodation and level of support, packing the right kit, and many more factors besides – is key to ensuring that your hiking trip is safe, successful and enjoyable.

Though infrastructure may generally be more developed and options more varied in Europe than in the world’s wilder corners, that point remains true here: a little advance thinking will yield a richer, more rewarding walking experience.

Douro Valley Portugal

Portugal’s Douro Valley offers fine hiking during Autumn

Planning a walking holiday in Europe

Best times to go walking in Europe

In general, the climate in any given destination determines the optimal time to hike although the warmest, driest weather typically also coincides with peak season, so it can pay to choose dates either side of the ‘best’ time. And though the seasons are fairly consistent across the continent, at any time of year you’ll find somewhere that offers great hiking.

Snow covers most mountain trails over about 1500–2000m between late September and early to mid-June, depending on location; mountain huts/refuges tend to open only during that period, effectively defining the trekking season.

European walks in June, July & August

August is usually the busiest month, so availability of accommodation is often better and paths more peaceful in late June/early July or September. For summer, consider the Alps, the French Pyrenees, Scandinavia, the Carpathians or the mountains of the Balkans, as well as river routes such as the Moselsteig and Danausteig (Danube Trail) in Germany and Austria.

At lower levels in Mediterranean regions – much of Greece, Provence, Italy, southern Spain and Portugal, coastal Croatia and Albania – high summer is too hot for hiking. Here, spring rewards walkers with cooler conditions and wildflowers spangling meadows and trails; Spain’s Alpujarras and Mallorca are strewn with almond and orange blossom, and Catalonia is warmly enticing. Keep in mind that northern Portugal and Spain receive a lot of rain in spring and autumn; not for nothing is Galicia, through which the latter stages of the Camino de Santiago run, known as the heart of España Verde – ‘Green Spain’.

European walks in September & October

Autumn brings blazing fall foliage and, in wine-producing regions, grape-harvest festivals. The Czech Republic and Slovenia are great for hiking in September and October, while Portugal’s Douro Valley and the hills of Tuscany, both striped with vines, are treats for trekkers in autumn.

European walks in winter

For winter walking in warm sunshine, head to Madeira or the Canary Islands – the dramatic volcanic landscapes of La Gomera, La Palma and Tenerife are laced with footpaths. Alternatively, crunch through crisp snow on dedicated winter trails in Bavaria or Austria; many Alpine regions are well set-up for cold-season hiking.

Types of European walking holidays

Broadly speaking, multi-day hikes fall into three categories: fully independent, self-guided and guided. The first is self-explanatory: you do all planning, booking and navigating yourself, carrying your luggage along the trail. Clearly, this reduces costs and can be enormously satisfying for the hardier hiker. For most European hiking destinations you’ll find an abundance of information to help both pre-trip organisation and on-the-ground efforts. However, it involves forward planning and some mastery of navigation – you’ll need to be self-reliant en route.

Guided walking holidays

A guided trip, whether joining a group of like-minded strangers or booking a package for yourself or your family, is ideal for first-time trekkers, solo travellers and those venturing to more remote or challenging destinations. Accompanied by an experienced guide, with all accommodation and transport pre-booked and, usually, luggage transferred between stops, you need worry about nothing but enjoying the walk; it’s also a great way to meet new friends. Naturally, it’s significantly more expensive.

Self-guided walking holidays

An excellent in-between option is a self-guided hike. Typically, all accommodation is pre-booked, usually including breakfasts and, sometimes, dinners (less commonly lunches); luggage is transferred between overnight stops; you’ll receive maps and detailed route notes; local telephone support may be available; and transfers from/to airports or other transport hubs may also be included.

Because there’s no guide involved, costs are much lower than for guided tours, and there’s a greater degree of flexibility in terms of pace, duration and daily distances. Self-guided trips are available for many well-known long-distance trails across Europe, or shorter sections of them, most commonly less-challenging routes. For reasons of cost, safety and enjoyment, self-guided trips are best suited to couples or small groups of friends, though solo hikers also benefit.

Hotel-to-hotel vs centre-based walking

Finally, a decision for self-guided walking holidays is your preferred format, either inn-to-inn or centre-based.

Long-distance hikes usually move from one place to another each day, staying in hotels or inns, hostels or mountain huts, or even camping. Alternatively, you may choose to base yourself in one place, taking transfers to trailheads each morning then returning to the same accommodation each night, thereby avoiding the need to repack your luggage each morning.

Some tour operators offer the option to mix these approaches, staying in each base for several nights but moving between accommodation as you progress along a trail.

Spain Camino Santiago waymarker

Camino de Santiago's instantly-recognisable waymarker

Walking holiday accommodation

Camping is possible on most routes but usually unnecessary, except in particularly remote stretches of, for example, the Romanian Carpathians. Most European countries with good mountain trails have a well-developed network of simple, comfortable and cheap accommodation in dormitories with either individual beds, bunks or, in matratzenlager/dortoirs, oversized mattresses big enough to sleep several people; you’ll usually need to bring your own sleeping bag or sheet sleeper (where blankets are provided). Some offer showers and good food; others, in spots such as Bulgaria, may have no hot water and only basic squat toilets – but are usually in spectacular locations.

Private rooms may be available in such huts, particularly in France, Italy and Switzerland.

On pilgrimage trails, notably the Camino de Santiago in Spain and Portugal, basic albergues (hostels) cater exclusively to pilgrims who carry a credencial (pilgrim passport). Wherever you trek, apart from on high mountain trails (and sometimes even there), you’ll find comfortable gîtes d’étapes (walkers’ guesthouses, often in a town or village), guesthouses, B&Bs and hotels.

Prices vary enormously: a dorm bed in a refuge in Bulgaria or an albergue in Spain might cost as little as €7 or €8, though you’ll pay two or three times that much in equivalent refuges in France or mountain huts in Austria, still more in Norway and Switzerland. Half-board options are generally good value, and sometimes mandatory, in such places. B&Bs and hotels start from about three times those prices – say, £25 per double room at the cheaper end, three or four times as much in pricier destinations.

If you opt for an organised trip with a Europe walking holiday specialist, many of these details will be taken care of on your behalf. Depending on the operator and location you may have options to tailor your accommodation standard (and budget), and things like meals and baggage transfer will be arranged for you.

How much does a Europe walking holiday cost?

Prices for self-guided trips are surprisingly uniform at around £100/€110 per day – a little less for cheaper destinations such as Albania, Poland, Portugal and Spain, a little more for Switzerland, Iceland and Italy. Differences are greater between tour operators, and to an extent depend on the level of accommodation offered – obviously, dorms in mountain huts cost less, comfortable hotels more – but not as much as you might expect.

Guided tours vary more widely, because staff costs are much higher in countries such as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, and lower in Slovakia and Bulgaria, where prices for guided trips can be under £100/€110 per day.

You’ll also typically need to factor in the cost of transport to the start of the walk, local transfers, tips, insurance (covering treks to the maximum altitude on your route) and any additional food and drinks – a cold beer, glass of wine, ouzo or raki is a wonderful way to round off a day’s hiking.

How to book a Europe walking holiday

Deciding which walking destination and route is right for you comes down to several factors. Perhaps the most important aspects to consider – though oddly ignored by many people – are your interests and preferences: do you like history, food, architecture, culture, wildlife, wine? Do you enjoy walking alongside the sea or prefer trekking high above the treeline? Would you like to sleep in a remote mountain hut amid the peaks, or bed down in a characterful inn each night? Think about these, rather than the fame of a particular route, and you’ll ensure a memorable walk.

Be honest with yourself about your level of fitness and experience. Organised trips are graded by activity level, indicating the terrain, tallies of ascent/descent and distance/hours walked each day, to help you gauge whether you’ll be comfortable tackling a particular trek. Bear in mind that though you could cover three miles/5km an hour on a good path on flat terrain at low altitude, you might manage only half that pace on rocky trails in the mountains, even less if you’re carrying a heavy pack or at high altitude.

Walking holiday packing list

Footwear is the most important piece of gear on any walk, but doubly so if you’re planning a multi-day hike – it’s vital to don the right pair of boots or shoes, and wear them in well before setting out: a blister or bruise sustained on day one can ruin the whole trip. Mountain treks generally call for boots with ankle support and rugged soles (typically Vibram); leather, which needs more wearing in, is preferably to fabric in these conditions, though the latter is fine for lower-level or warm-weather walks, preferably with a Gore-Tex or similar breathable waterproof lining. Good socks are also essential: merino wool is best, for socks as well as T-shirt base layers, reducing odour and remaining comfortable and warm when wet.

If you’re carrying your own luggage between overnight stops, choose a hiking-specific rucksack with good hip and shoulder support; Osprey (ospreyeurope.com) is a recommended brand. If you’re on a supported trek that includes luggage transfers, take a soft-sided duffle bag and a 30–35L daypack. Whichever backpack you choose, ensure it takes a hydration bladder – on most trails you’ll drink at least 2L of water each day. A water filter or purification tablets is useful for filling bottles from mountain streams.

Lightweight, adjustable, packable walking poles are handy, particularly if you’re carrying a large pack or undertaking steep or extended descents; flick-lock extension systems tend to be more robust than twist-lock. Black Diamond and Leki are respected brands. A breathable waterproof jacket is essential in most destinations, particularly in mountain regions where weather can change rapidly, along with a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and a basic first-aid kit for treating blisters, cuts, sprains and stings.

Europe hiking safety tips

Aside from fitness, a key issue for self-guided trekkers is navigation. Waymarking, mapping and transport in destinations such as Switzerland are exceptional – you’d be hard pushed to get lost here – and on the really popular trails such as the Tour du Mont Blanc, you’ll set out each day alongside a legion of other hikers. That’s not the case in many other places, particularly the Balkans and Turkey, where accurate maps and signposts are thin on the ground. These regions are best tackled with a guide, or at least with detailed route notes; you may also need to allow more time to find your way.

Most health and safety risks you might encounter in Europe can largely be mitigated with a few simple precautions. Unlike in Africa or North America, you’d be fortunate rather than imperilled to encounter large predators – bears or wolves will almost certainly flee before you spot them. But watch for venomous snakes basking on trails; most won’t strike unless provoked or startled, but wearing gaiters or long trousers provides some protection in the extremely unlikely event of a bite. In some remote mountain regions such as North Macedonia and Albania, shepherds’ dogs can be aggressive and persistent – be aware of the location of dogs and their masters who can call them off.

Ticks, which thrive in many areas where sheep, cattle and deer graze, can transmit serious illnesses such as lyme disease. Check your body carefully at least once at the end of each day and remove any parasites with a dedicated tick-removal tool. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, with storms building on many summer afternoons, so check forecasts and be prepared to descend quickly if necessary; you don’t want to get caught on an exposed trail or via ferrata (climbing route) during a thunderstorm.

Read more

Several publishers produce excellent, detailed guidebooks for specific treks or regions, including maps and route notes:

Cicerone (cicerone.co.uk) produces the most comprehensive list of trekking and walking guides, covering many long-distance trails worldwide including most of the main European routes.

Trailblazer (trailblazer-guides.com) guides are expertly researched, with helpful hand-drawn maps, reducing confusion where waymarks are ambiguous. The list is particularly strong on British trails, but also features some international treks.

Sunflower (sunflowerbooks.co.uk) publishes collections of day-walks for a host of destinations, including much of Europe.

Numerous local and regional organisations provide advice and practical resources

The Austrian Alpine Club manages hundreds of mountain huts in Austria and has reciprocal arrangements with similar organisations in other European countries. The website of the UK branch (aacuk.org.uk) has plenty of information for hikers and mountaineers.

The European Ramblers Association (www.era-ewv-ferp.com) has details of the 12 ultra-long-distance E-Paths as well as routes classified as Leading Quality Trails, and describes the four dominant systems of waymarking across the continent.

The Confraternity of St James (www.csj.org.uk) provides information on the various caminos to Santiago plus other European pilgrimage trails.

The Best Walking Holidays In Europe

Paul Bloomfield

From his base in England's West Country, award-winning writer Paul hikes his local hills in the Cotswolds and Mendips. He's trekked, cycled, run and kayaked on six continents, writing about his adventures for the likes of the Telegraph, The Times, Wanderlust, Lonely Planet, BBC Wildlife and National Geographic Traveller.

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