After two amazing hiking trips in the Italian Dolomite Mountains, I want to share some thoughts, tips and ideas for planning a hike in the Dolomites, one of Europe’s best hiking destinations.
Hiking in the Dolomites
So why go hiking in the Dolomite mountains of Italy? This area has been on the Unesco World Heritage Site list since 2009, due to its geomorphologic significance and because it is absolutely gorgeous.
As John Murray wrote in 1840:
“They are unlike any other mountains, and are to be seen nowhere else among the Alps. They arrest the attention by the singularity and picturesqueness of their forms, by their sharp peaks or horns, sometimes rising up in pinnacles and obelisks, at others extending in serrated ridges, toothed like the jaw of an alligator.”
They are also called the Monti Pallidi – the Pale Mountains – and its all because of the unique dolomitic limestone, or calcium magnesium carbonate if you’re that way inclined. They are famed for the phenomena of “en rosadica”, where the rock goes an orangey-pink colour in the light of the setting sun.
According to legend, the rock is covered in white gossamer woven from the rays of the moon, so that its soft shine would comfort a princess bride pining for the landscape of her homeland.
This area is prime hiking country, whether you want to do day walks or tackle longer, multi-day treks. There is a network of well-marked trails and rifugios, or mountain huts where you can stay, and it is famous for its ‘Alta Via’ or high routes. All this makes it perfect for hiking alone as a woman, which I love to do.
The Alta Via routes of the Dolomites
Alta Via 1 and 2 are very popular, while Alta Via 3 through 6 are little known and even less walked. The great thing about them is how they allow hikers to explore the wilder ranges of the Dolomites, crossing valleys and passing traditional villages and hamlets. The Alta Via routes vary in length and difficulty. Some of them include sections of Via Ferrata.
You can read more about my experience hiking the Alta Via 4 in this post.
Via Ferrata in the Dolomite Mountains
Via Ferrata (iron way in Italian) is essentially an aided climbing route, where steel cables (and sometimes ladders and bridges) are fixed to the mountainside. You wear a rock climbing harness and use a special via ferrata lanyard to attach yourself to the cable, making it safe for non-climbers to tackle alpine routes that would otherwise require special skills. Via ferrata add an element of extra excitement to many hiking routes. They often require some strength and definitely a head for heights.
The Dolomites are famous for their ‘Via Ferrata’ routes and although this increasingly popular sport can now be found in many parts of the world, this is where it all started. In the First World War these mountains formed a frontline in a bitter military campaign between Italian and Austrian armies. The soldiers built paths and fixed ways in the mountains to aid the movement of troops and for survival in a warzone that saw more fatalities from cold and avalanche than bullets.
Planning an Alta Via hike
Start with a guidebook or two. Cicerone publishes a guide to Trekking in the Dolomites that describes Alta Via 1 and 2 in detail, as well as an outline of Alta Via routes 3-6. Also useful are Cicerone guides Via Ferratas in the Italian Dolomites (Vols 1 & 2) and Walking in the Dolomites. A perusal of these guidebooks will help you plan a route with the best hikes in the Dolomites, particularly if you want to be more flexible in your hiking rather than sticking to an Alta Via route. This may be necessary if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Combine one or two of these guidebooks with the appropriate Dolomites map or maps from the Tabacco 1:25,000 carta topografica per escursionisti series. The Dolomites is a particularly well mapped area and you will probably need more than one sheet. I got mine at Stanfords in London and you can order them online.
Rifugios of the Italian Dolomites
My top recommendation for where to stay in the Dolomites is to make use of the network of rifugios. Half board at the rifugios in the Dolomites costs 50 euros and the standard of food and (dormitory) accommodation is excellent. It is also possible to pay 20 Euros for a bed only and then order a cheaper/smaller meal and bring your own breakfast. But it’s pretty tempting to take the half-board option!
I stayed at a variety of rifugios and enjoyed meeting the guardians and refuelling on the excellent food after a day of hiking.
In the high season (July and August) you need to reserve a bed at least a few days in advance. I hiked in the last week of June and found it very quiet so I probably didn’t need to reserve (although I did for peace of mind).
Although I was hiking a particular route (the Alta Via 4), it would be very easy to plan your own hiking week in the Dolomites, walking from rifugio to rifugio.
Packing for hiking in the Dolomites
The rule for packing for a long-distance hiking trip is keep it light. Your loaded rucksack should weigh no more than 10kg, preferably less. I wish I had been more ruthless in my packing and I definitely didn’t need the large extra screwgate carabiner recommended by the BMC! Pack thin, warm layers and good waterproofs as you need to be prepared for any kind of weather in the mountains. You can download my Via Ferrata Dolomites Gear Packing Check List here.
Happy trip planning and I hope you enjoy your time hiking in the Dolomites as much as I did!
By Natasha von Geldern
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