Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dolomite logistics

If you are considering a hiking trip in Europe, the first thing to do is to realize that “wilderness” is a very different concept in a land that has been fairly densely inhabited for so long.  You cannot expect to go days without seeing anyone, but even when we hiked the Stubaital in August a few years ago, we never felt like the trails were crowded.  In the Dolomites in late September, we definitely were alone for long stretches, and since we were  hiking in the opposite direction from most people, when we did pass people, generally we saw them very briefly.   

Details worth considering: we hiked “backwards” and that worked out well, and I would recommend it if you are hiking when we did, in late September, since the southern huts close earlier than the Northern ones.  We met a few people towards the end of our trip hiking in the more normal direction, and they were doing some difficult planning to get places to stay each night; luckily they were willing to do slightly longer days than we were. It does mean that we climbed more and descended less overall, but there are plenty of ups and downs in both directions, so I wouldn’t obsess over that.  It was pretty easy to figure out about the bus from our hotel in Prags to the closest train station, and from the train station in Belluno to the trailhead; you don’t need to buy bus or train tickets in advance, but we bought our bus tickets the night before in Belluno, which made the morning a bit easier. Be careful with buying train tickets in the Northern parts of the Dolomites.  The trains up there are run by the Austrian train service, not the Italian one, so buying tickets up there will not be valid on most trains down in Italy proper, which are run by Trenitalia.  We made that mistake.  It ended up being rather expensive.   We had no difficulties with our train from Venice to Belluno, though, that was quite easy and was a pretty ride, too.

I made reservations for each of the Rifugios; none were full in the time of year we were hiking, so we didn’t need to, but it gives peace of mind (and allows you to verify that they are indeed open).  In the Stubaital in August, we had not done this, and at times were in overflow space, although never on the floor, as can theoretically happen.  I made all the reservations by e-mail or on the websites.  Some of the huts reply within a day, others took longer, but I didn’t need to call any of them. We used the Cicerone book to plan our route, and the three Tabacco maps listed in the book.  I followed Clara and Patrick’s bike touring lead, and cut most of the maps down before we left because they were huge and there was about half the map on each map that was far enough from the trail to be useless.  The signs are really pretty good, so you don’t need to be an expert map reader, but do keep an eye on where you are, because sometimes a bunch of trails come together, and can be confusing.

I would recommend carrying about 90% of what you will want/need for lunches and snacks; stopping in the huts that we stopped in, you’d have an option of lunch at a dairy or hut 3-4 times during the trip, but sometimes the timing was less than ideal, and some of the dairies were closed for us, hiking at the tail end of the season.  Plus, self-catering saves a bit of money (which you can then use for strudel).  I somewhat overpacked, but this meant that we could share with our friends.  Also, I am a firm believer that within reason, it is better to have too much food than too little, and food and water were the bulk of our pack weight.  There is a grocery store in Belluno, but we took stuff with us from Marburg, and so if you are spending time in a bigger city before the hike, I’d provision there, or take a few things with you.  It is easy to get cheese and sausage, but bread/crackers were apparently harder to find, so I would purchase something like wasa crackers or grocery store bread, dried fruit and trail mix/nuts before getting to the mountains.  Sasha and I brought 2 things of trail mix, 2 bags of dried fruit, 2 salamis/packages of salami sticks (we had a bit more than we needed, so shared some), a reusable squeeze tube filled with nutella, 2 blocks of cheese and a bag of baby bel cheeses (that was too much; we had most of a block of gouda left, even after some sharing), a package of wasa crackers, a small package of multigrain bread (sliced and store-bought, finished by day 2) and a package of tyrolean hard breads (which we also were able to share a fair bit of), which were tasty but broke into very small pieces. Two bags of gummy bears and assorted bars of chocolate rounded out our food supply; we brought extra there, intending to share.  I think we had apples the first day, and we did buy food some days and had strudel afternoon snacks instead of more of our food, so if you don't like strudel, you might have less left over than we did.  Our friends brought water purification tablets, which we used a couple days, since the huts had non-potable water (the huts are on mountain tops and the water sits in big cisterns).  We each carried between 2 and 3 liters of water a day, and went through it at varied rates (you know if you drink a lot or a little relative to others).   

In terms of stuff, we brought: gloves and winter hat and sun hat, 1-2 polypro long sleeves, 2 t-shirts, fleece jacket, rain gear (jacket and pants), tights, convertable pants (synthetic), 3 pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of running shorts, and I brought a lightweight wind jacket/vest. I also brought a soft lightweight skirt that I wore for sleeping and that I wanted for Venice.  I have mid-height hiking boots and feel comfortable with those (there was a fair bit of mud, so personally, unless you are running, I’d go with waterproof boots and not trail runners) and sandals to wear in the huts in the evenings (the huts have a bunch if you forget yours, but I prefer using my own; bring ones that can get wet to keep your feet off the shower floors if you can, bring sandals you can wear with socks since it can be cold). For sleeping, we have coolmax sleeping bag liners, and brought normal pillow cases.  You can also get lightweight sleep sacks with an integrated pillowcase.  We also brought pack towels and I use a bandana as a wash-cloth. Aside from the usual toiletries (get biodegradeable if you can; who knows where the wastewater goes) we brought plenty of sunscreen, and we brought a tube of laundry soap for sink washing socks/ stinky hiking shirts and did so every couple days.  I am not super minimalist, but I like being able to wear something less smelly in the evening, and since you don’t have to bring cookwear, fuel, tents, etc. I feel like everything I brought was worth it. Except maybe that extra cheese.

While I wouldn’t probably do that exact trail again (because I like variety), I had a great trip and I would very gladly go back to the Dolomites and hike one of the other Alta Via trails.  Except that I got guidebooks for Greece and the Greek Islands for Christmas, and they look amazing, so I think that may be our next destination of note. 

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