Hiking in Switzerland is a phenomenal experience. With 65,000 km of well maintained and marked trails, hiking is one of the favourite past times of the Swiss and visitors alike. With easy access via public transportation, a hike in the countryside or the Alps is within reach.
Understanding the Swiss Trail System
If you are new to Switzerland, not a seasoned hiker or just visiting, it is important to understand how to read trail makers. Understanding the Swiss trail system is not only important for getting around easily, but it is also a matter of safety.
We will start with the large signs that appear all over the country. At first glance, these signs can appear to be overwhelming, but once you understand what the names and icons mean, you will be able to start hiking with more confidence.
Elevation and Distances
The center white section tells you your current position and elevation. It’s important to note that the white middle section may not appear on all trail markers. Each town name or waypoint indicates the destination, often along with the estimated time it will take to reach that location from your current position without stopping. For example, 'Zermatt 2 h 15 min' means Zermatt can be reached on foot in roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. Always allow extra time to reach the destination when hiking with children. We recommend doubling that number whenever hiking with children.
Icons and Logos
Next to the names on the trail markers icons may appear. You may see an icon for a bus, gondola, or train. On occasion, the icon on the trail marker may be for a viewpoint, picnic spot, tourist information center or a restaurant. When, for example, a bus icon appears, that means a bus stop will be available at that location.
Some trail markers may not include names. However, they may display a route logo or color codes. Such markers may indicate regional, local highlighted routes or theme trails.
Where to Find Them
Intermediate trail markers should be visible at regular intervals (30 - 70 m), at branches of the trail, or if the trail changes direction. If there is no opportunity to veer off trail, the markers may appear less frequently, up to 500 - 700 m apart.
Trail markers may appear on trees, rocks, buildings, garbage cans, poles, fences, or other objects along the trail. Look for trail markers as you hike to ensure you are on the right path.
Yellow Trail Markers
Yellow trail markers may appear in the following ways: as diamonds (sometimes with the cantonal emblem), on sign posts, or as arrows and appear all over the country including forests, by some lakes, near rivers, meadows, etc. Of all the hiking trails in Switzerland, yellow trail markers are:
the easiest to navigate.
the trails are typically on wide paths, though that is not universal.
it is important to note that the yellow routes may not always be even.
areas that may pose risk are often secured or have hand railings.
of the hiking trails in Switzerland, the yellow require the least amount of skill and equipment and are often, though not always, the most family-friendly.
this is not to say that the yellow hiking paths do not pose danger.
Mountain Trails: White-Red-White
White-red-white trails may appear in the following ways: painted as stripes on rocks, in the form of a diamond, arrows, on the yellow trail signs with the white-red-white colors appearing on the tip of the sign, and may be posted/painted on rocks, poles, nailed into trees or painted on the ground. Keep your eyes open for the white-red-white trail markers, which indicate you are on the correct route.
The white-red-white trails require more:
experience, fitness and knowledge from the hiker.
these trails are located in the mountains and may be steep, narrow in some areas and may include sharp drops or edges.
some areas that are difficult to navigate may have handholds or chains for additional stability.
individuals using the white-red-white trails must be comfortable with their hiking skills and must be aware of potential rock falls and/or avalanches.
Alpine Trails: White-Blue-White – Not Safe for Families!
Alpine trails are marked with paint, in the form of arrows, stripes (white-blue-white), or appear all in blue on the trail signs. Whenever you see the blue markers, please know these trails are not family-friendly!
Alpine trails require:
special skills and equipment (ice axes, ropes, crampons, and perhaps even a compass).
when you hike on these trails, having solid hiking and mountaineering experience is a must! Individuals must be extremely physically fit, not fearful of heights and must be able to navigate difficult terrain.
when hiking on white-blue-white trails it is imperative those entering such environments are aware of all the potentials risks.
often, these trails take individuals up to higher elevations requiring them to hike over snow fields and/or glaciers.
In closing, having the information you need to plan a day or a weekend hiking, will help you hike safely and enjoyably. In addition, as parents, you will feel more comfortable hiking with your children when you know the basics skills necessary for hiking in the Swiss Alps.
Some Final Tips for a Successful Hike
Finally, when hiking in the Swiss Alps, please always do the following:
wear proper hiking boots, with good tread! That includes your children as well.
never attempt to hike in poor weather conditions! Check the MeteoSchweiz app for the latest forecast information.
always carry the supplies you may need for every member of the group including water, food, maps, layers for warmth/ rain gear, your telephone, a wallet, and a first aid kit.
be prepared for the hike you will be participating in by knowing the route, the physical demands and take breaks when necessary.
you are always responsible for the safety of your children. It may be advantageous to carry a harness should the trail contain sharp drops or precarious sections to ensure the safety of your children.
Have fun and enjoy exploring Switzerland’s gorgeous hiking trails!
* For more details about the information provided in this article, please visit www.freshairkids.com. Some of the contents of this article were derived from our book Fresh Air Kids Switzerland - Hike to Huts.
Melinda Taylor Schoutens
Melinda is an American who lives in Basel. She loves exploring the Alps with her husband, two children and anyone else who is up for an adventure. She writes, reads, listens to podcasts, hikes and enjoys sweating at her local gym. She’s passionate about sharing her love of nature with others and has a dream of having a little chalet in the Swiss Alps!