How to Prepare
This section is about what to expect and 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. 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, 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, Via Valais Advanced Mountain Running Training Plan, and it may well be what's going to make the difference between cruising the Via Valais, or suffering through.
Via Valais Advanced Mountain Running Training Plan, 16-Weeks
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 Randa, that way you’d have fresh kit for the last two days, and then transfer all your bags, along with the dirty clothes, on to Zermatt for pick up (but it's only two more days, so the stink won't really change that much).
Below are photos of the gear we used on the Via Valais. 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.
Dan's Via Valais Trail Running Gear
Total pack & gear weight, not including all food & water: 3.64kg
- Osprey Duro 15 liter Pack: In our experience, when you have to carry weight, there is simply no better pack than what Osprey has designed. We reviewed these packs here.
- Dynafit Ultralight 3L rain jacket and rain pants.
- 1) Extra short sleeve shirt for rotation and to not to be overly offensive in the hut dining room and 2) one long sleeve base layer.
- Extra socks. Somehow, X-Bionic stuff doesn't stink.
- Dynafit tights.
- Long sleeve light fleece with hood (so no beanie goes).
- Dynafit Mezzalama - one of my favorite jackets of all time; light puffy on the chest with wind shell sleeves.
- Headband, Buff, and light gloves.
- BD Stance mitts - ultra, ultra light puffy gloves for when things get cold. I always debate about taking these, and am regularly happy I did.
- Dynafit's carbon Ultra Pro pole - again, maybe I'll take then, maybe I won't. I always seem to decide immediately before leaving. They can sure be nice on the uphills when the legs are cooked.
- Tech stuff: USB AC plug, Suunto watch charging cable, headphones, phone (Important Apps: FatMap with route downloaded, Rega emergency App, and MeteoSwiss), and an extra heart rate monitor strap battery.
- Sony a6500 with Zeiss 16-70 f4 lens, 5 total batteries (we have arranged a re-supply for more batteries) and 384GB worth of SD cards.
- Goal Zero Sherpa 15 battery pack for charging phone, headlamp and watch.
- Julbo Aero glasses with Zebra lens.
- Tiny wash towel.
- Swiss Francs, and lots of them. Huts cost about CHF70/night for dinner, breakfast and your overnight, it does not include drinks. Day food is separate. Carry cash, huts often don't take credit cards.
- Headlamp - after this photo was made I went and bought a Petzl Bindi to save 53 grams.
- Silk sleep sack liner - required at huts.
- Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and ear plugs (do not forget ear plugs!)
- Tape and ankle rolling wrap.
- Trail Butter - my choice for calories, reviewed here. And, if you are in Switzerland, find yourself some Mulaff Bars, they're the creation of a gourmet baker and Swiss Olympic coach.
- Starbucks Vias - because hut coffee kind of sucks.
- Sun hat
- Soft flasks for the pack chest pockets - I much prefer having water on my chest over a bladder system which is often too much water and sloshes around. In the Alps, there are a lot of water re-fill options, including huts or carrying a light filter (see Kim's gear).
- Hydration powder - we use Osmo Nutrition's Active Hydration mix. I've been using Osmo for years and know that for me it works the best. And, Peter Sagan also swears by it. I'll take it in the ziploc.
Kim's Via Valais Trail Running Gear
Total pack & gear weight, not including all food & water: 2.8kg
- Osprey's Dyna 15 liter pack - for all the same reasons as Dan. We reviewed these women's specific packs here.
- Dynafit light fleece and light puffy.
- Dynafit tights
- Headband, Buff, beanie, and light gloves.
- Spare >X< Bionic socks.
- Dynafit Ultralight rain jacket and rain pants.
- BD Stance mitts - ultra light puffy mittens. Super warm.
- T-shirt. Something I haven't been sweating in for sleeping.
- Dynafit's carbon Ultra Pro poles.
- Julbo Aero glasses with Spectron lens.
- Phone. See Dan's Tech list #11, and also Kindle reader for down time in the huts. It's always good to have a book.
- Sun hat.
- Cash. See Dan's #16 above.
- Notebook and pencil. I need to take lots of notes about the route, huts, and all the fun we have along the way.
- ALPSinsight stickers to spread around.
- Trail Butter, reviewed here. And other vegan friendly fuel.
- More Starbucks Vias - because we need coffee to run...and ditto on the suck level of instant hut coffee.
- Toiletries and more first aid: toothbrush, toothpaste, ear plugs, (someone will snore), comb (not that it will help), emergency fem hygiene products, sunblock, chapstick, KT tape, and Compeed (blister pads).
- Tiny knife.
- Rega insurance card and Alpine Club membership card.
- Goal Zero Switch 10 Core battery pack for charging phone, headlamp and watch.
- Silk sleep sack liner - required at huts.
- Hydration powder - the women's Osmo Nutrition's Active Hydration mix. Also because it makes water taste better.
- Katadyn Be Free water filter and soft flask. Pro tip: you don't want to pay for water in the huts, and we've calculated just how much this can save you here.