How to Prepare
For Europeans experienced in moving through the Alps, and especially the Valais, they know what’s coming… vertical, and lots of it.
Americans visiting the Alps for the first time tend to greatly underestimate just how much vertical there is and how to manage it. We’ve seen strong American runners get shut down on the unrelenting 1600 meter climbs. For those not used to the Alps, there seems to be a wall around 600 meters. In the Alps, 600 meters is just the warm-up.
So, how to prepare for this?
- Pack light: Your pack weight is going to play a huge role in your experience. Go light! Extra weight is going to take its toll if you are really trying to run. That cozy extra fleece you'd love to take along for the huts is going to something you loathe on the trail each day. Leave it behind and embrace living simply.
- With all the food available at the huts, eating and drinking enough is not a problem in the Alps. But, do plan accordingly each day, have a refueling strategy, and stay hydrated for those big climbs.
- Pay Attention: Take care of yourself when you aren’t running, stretch at the huts, eat what works for you to prevent cramping, get sleep, tune into what your body is telling you with any aches and pains.
- Train: Ideally, you spend a lot of time in similar mountain terrain. Time spent going up, up, up, and just as importantly, down, down, down. But we know this is not an option everyone has out their door. Our friends at Uphill Athlete have created a 16-week, Advanced Mountain Running Training Plan for running the Via Valais, and it may well be what's going to make the difference between cruising or suffering through.
No single stage is very hard on the Via Valais, but nine of them in a row takes a toll on the body. We were ready for a break by the time we reached Zermatt…
Managing your preparation and effort is as important as understanding the route and logistics. A nine-day trail running tour is a big package, consider all the pieces well for the best overall experience.
What to Pack
The beauty of the Alps’ hut system is that you don’t have to carry much for long, multi-day tours. Savvy European hikers will use 20-30 liter packs for week-long tours. But that’s for hiking, where it's okay to carry a bit extra. For running tours, you’ll appreciate the lightest possible pack. Part of staying light is accepting the fact that you won't be in a fresh shirt and socks every day. Your choice of gear is critical to maintain the ability to keep running and not have to switch to hiking due to too much weight or a bouncing pack.
Let’s look at how best to make this work.
On the Via Valais, you’re overnight schedule looks like this:
- Night 1: Cab. d’Essertze
- Night 2: Cab. d’Aiguille Rouge
- Night 3: Cab. de Becs de Bosson
- Night 4: Cab.de Moiry (shower)
- Night 5: Zinal, hotel in town (shower & wellness)
- Night 6: Turtmann Hut
- Night 7: Randa, hotel in town (shower & wellness)
- Night 8: Mountain Lodge Seewijnu (shower)
- Night 9: Zermatt! Hotel in town (party time!)
The huts are very comfortable, offer the ability to wash up, and have great food and drinks. Going to dinner in your tights is pretty standard evening wear.
Having a fresh pair of ultra-light pants for each evening is possible, it’s just up to you if you want to carry a hut outfit. When you look at what gear Dan chose below, you can replace his camera weight with that clean outfit and still have about the same pack weight and size.
You can use the Swiss train system (SBB) to send bags by train for holding at stations. Using this system, there is the option of having bags transferred to Zinal, that way you’d have fresh kit about midway through, and then transfer all your bags, along with the dirty clothes, on to Zermatt for pick up. Visit the Luggage Section of the SBB site for details, planning, and costs.
Below are photos of the gear we used. Consider it your packing list and lesson on what to carry for trail running tours in the Alps. You can see the original story about our packing, and get some additional hut tips, here. Or, see what other trail runners are saying on our Via Valais Community page. In Switzerland, the top trail running shop, in fact the top mountain sport shop, is Bächli Bergsport. The closest Bächli shop to the start of the Via Valais is in Conthey, between Sion and Martigny. Treat yourself to a day of shopping and see how much pack weight you can save.
His Via Valais Trail Running Gear
Total pack & gear weight, not including all food & water: 3.35kg
- Black Diamond Distance 15 liter packs are the choice for multi-day running. 15 liters may not seem like much for up to a week of running, but that's the point, You need a limiter or you won't be doing much running. These packs get the job done. We reviewed the Distance packs here.
- La Sportiva Jackal. You'll want a shoe for long days out, day in and day out. We like something that combines comfort and cushion with a bit of performance. Sportiva nailed it with the Jackal.
- Sun hat
- Two T-shirts for rotating use as running shirt and hut/hotel dining room dress shirt. One synthetic and one lightweight Merino wool (sink management).
- Long sleeve shirt. Again, we go with wool as we'll be using it for a week. The Black Diamond Solution Merino is ideal.
- Ultralight overpants to keep your legs warm in case of weather, and to not look like a starving runner too much in the hotel dining room. Patagonia's HEK pants are the choice.
- Lightweight tights (optional based on the forecast). It's summer so you probably don't have to go too thick.
- Running shorts
- Lightweight synthetic vest. This is optional based on the forecast as well, you may want to go without, or go warmer with a full puffy. Patagonia's Nano Air Hybrid vest is perfect.
- Black Diamond Deploy wind shirt. Is there a lighter, more functional piece of gear? We don't think so.
- Black Diamond Stance Mitts go where we go in the mountains. They're ultra, ultra light puffy gloves for when things get cold.
- Rain Jacket. The Black Diamond Fineline Stretch Rain Shell is a super light waterproof jacket that lets you continue moving quickly without bulk or movement restriction.
- Lightweight fleece gloves
- Socks. Two pair of your favorite, and proven, socks. We like Drymax .
- Headband or beanie if temps are low
- Carbon poles. Black Diamond's Carbon Z Poles are simply unrivaled.
- Two soft flasks - one dedicated for plain water, one for drink mixes
- Sun glasses. Julbo Shield's include high quality photochromic lenses and side shields to protect the eyes for long days out.
- Camera. The Sony RX100 is pro quality in a tiny, lightweight package.
- Chapstick/sun screen
- Toiletries: toothbrush & toothpaste
- Extra Sony RX100 battery
- Dental floss and ear plugs (do not forget ear plugs!)
- Phone with important apps: FatMap with route downloaded, Rega emergency App, and MeteoSwiss)
- Water filter. The MSR Trail Shot is ideal for two or more people so you can quickly filter water for each person. Also, by filtering you avoid having to buy water at huts, saving you money, and reducing the need for plastic water bottles transported by helicopter.
- Headlamp. You probably won't need it as hotels serve a dinner you won't want to miss at about 6:30. And, there's no real rush in the morning. So, go light. The Black Diamond Flare does the trick.
- Tiny knife
- Tape - for toes, ankles, cuts, etc...
- Charging cables - phone, watch and camera
- Swiss Francs, and lots of them. You can use credit cards for your overnights, but day food at huts might require cash.
- Wallet. Including ID, credit card & insurance info
- CLIF Bars & Shot Bloks - as many as you are willing to carry for the first four days until you get to Bergün and the first store.
- Trail Butter - my choice for calories, reviewed here
- Emergency coffee. Always carry your own favorite quick brew in case your hotel greets you with a Nescafe.
- NOT SHOWN : Silk Liner for the huts
Her Via Valais Trail Running Gear
Total pack & gear weight, not including all food & water: 3.25kg
- Black Diamond Distance 15 liter pack
- La Sportiva Kaptiva with Superfeet Run Pain Relief insole
- Two Long sleeve shirts rotating running and hut/hotel dining room dress shirt -one synthetic and one Black Diamond Rhythm Nuyarn Wool
- Patagonia HEK pants - could be for running or town appropriate
- Lightweight tights
- Running shorts
- Black Diamond Distance wind shirt
- Black Diamond Stance Mitts - always handy in emergency cold
- Rain Jacket - Black Diamond Fineline Stretch Rain Shell
- Lightweight gloves
- Socks - I always go Drymax
- Black Diamond's Carbon Z Poles
- Two soft flasks
- Julbo sunglasses
- Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, Squirrels Nut Butter, & vitamins
- Phone with important apps: FatMap with route downloaded, Rega emergency App, and MeteoSwiss
- MSR Trail Shot water filter
- Tiny knife
- Blister Pads - hope to not need them
- Charging cables for phone and watch
- Wallet with cash, credit cards, and ID
- Nuts - I like to have some extra
- CLIF Shot Bloks - as many as you are willing to carry for the first four days until you get to Bergün and the first store.
- Trail Butter - Key high octane fuel and always yummy
- Hydration mix
- Emergency coffee so you don't ever end up drinking Nescafe
- NOT SHOWN : Silk Liner for the huts