Hiking the Grande Traversata Delle Alpi (Barefoot?!)
As for many, the rise of Covid-19 turned my travel plans upside down. I was meant to dive into the vast beauty of South America open-end, but suddenly, I found myself back home in Bavaria. This change of plans gave rise to a new passion: Long-distance backpacking. And finally, the Grande Traversata delle Alpi.
I had walked long distances before, but never across very high mountains. My experience with wild camping alone was exactly zero. And carrying food for days, hiking completely self-sustainable? Oh my.
But somehow I fell into the thru-hiking YouTube rabbit hole, assembled my gear, and after a little practice trail in Germany, I set my eyes on a bigger goal: the Grande Traversata delle Alpi.
What is the Grande Traversata delle Alpi?
The Grande Traversata delle Alpi (GTA) is a 1.000 km-long alpine trail of challenging up and downs. It leads all the way from the Swiss-Italian border down to the Mediterranean Sea. Ona previous hike, I had met another hiker who swooned over the beautiful landscapes and empty trails of the GTA. I was hooked. I was also scared sh*tless.
So, in Mid-August 2020, barely after the first wave of Corona had faded, I set out to Italy to begin my solo hike of the Grande Traversata delle Alpi. Not knowing whether it would be a thru-hike or not, I intended to simply go as far as my feet would carry me and as long as the weather allows.
Oh, and speaking of feet. My newfound enthusiasm for barefoot walking led me to challenge myself to walk as much of the GTA as I could barefoot – and the rest of it in minimalist shoes. If you do go nuts, you gotta do it right.
In this blog post, I will be sharing my solo hiking experience on the GTA, how the barefoot thing went, what my favorite places were and what most challenged me.
And, as a photographer must, I also carried my camera to be able to share the beauty of the Italian Alps, wild camping, and backpacking in photos.
→ If you want any practical info on the GTA, let me know in the comments down below, since this blog post is mostly personal.
Starting the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
I made my way to Switzerland by train. After Couchsurfing in Airolo, hitchhiking brought me all the way up to the starting point of the GTA. I didn’t understand too much of what the young Italian speakers in the car were saying, but my few weeks of Italian practice at home were enough to explain my undertaking. They dropped me off at the Nufenen Pass, wishing me good luck.
The sun was shining and all of a sudden, I was surrounded by lush meadows, mountains as far as I could look and a mountain stream quietly trickling by my side. I instantly took my shoes off and walked my first barefoot steps on the Grande Traversata delle Alpi. What a joyous moment.
The first day, I did not want to overdo it. First, I needed to get used to the weight of my backpack and strain on my body. Already beforehand I had looked for possible wild camping spots and bivouacs not too far from the starting point.
As I climbed higher little by little, it was not just the hiking that took my breath away. It was the landscape. I walked past turquoise mountain lakes, surrounded by the greenest, softest meadows you can imagine, full of little wildflowers. In the back, the remains of a majestic glacier throned silently.
At nearly 2.500 meters of altitude, I found a bivouac that provided me shelter to take a break. By now, the sky was covered in dark clouds and I knew it wouldn’t be too long until a thunderstorm would be here.
Two day hikers stopped for a chat. As they learned about my plans, they gave me an apple and some juice they did not need anymore for their way down. The kindness of strangers. I would encounter it many times more on this trail.
The rain set in and I checked the weather forecast. Heavy thunderstorms later. I decided to spend the night in the bivouac, just in case.
I only had one problem: No more water. But walking onward might have been dangerous, too, and I had wanted to take it easy. So I left my backpack in the bivouac and took a little one-hour walk back to the previous lake to get some water I could filter.
I slept badly, the night was cold, but I was grateful for the shelter the simple, clean bivouac had provided. In the morning, I left my entry in the book to register hikers. Destino, it said in Italian. I smiled and put down ‘Ventimiglia’ – 1.000km away. Would I make it there? I would at least try.
Alpine weather on the GTA – a challenge in itself
After a rough night, I continued my way tired, still marveling at the landscapes of the Grande Traversata delle Alpi. In the afternoon, I reached a long and lonely valley, approaching the next mountain pass. The next thunderstorm also approached.
There was nowhere I could seek shelter. Whether I went forward or backward, there was no way to escape the thunderstorm. And it hit me heavily. I climbed towards the pass among a million rocks. The temperatures dropped, the view got worse.
For a minute, I tried to seek shelter under a large rock – but it did not protect me enough and I knew if I stopped moving for too long, I would be more likely to freeze to death here than make it out of this thunderstorm.
Weather in the alps
When hiking the GTA, be aware that the weather in the mountains can change very quickly. In the summer season, especially July and August, thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening are common. Be prepared, know what to do in case of a thunderstorm in the mountains, and stay safe while camping.
I fought my way forward and up. Ironically, as soon as I reached the top of the pass, the lightning and rain stopped. Minutes later, the sun was back out. Relieved, I started drying my stuff.
Between thunderstorms and sunshine: The ever-changing weather in the Italian alps.
It would become a daily ritual on the GTA to spread my clothing, tent, and sleeping bag wide around me to dry. Something was always wet, whether from rain, sweat, or condensation water my tent would collect overnight. Luckily, there were usually just enough sunny moments to dry everything before the next night.
In the beginning, I struggled. (Okay, actually, I struggled till the very end. But it did get easier.)
Everything hurt. My feet, my legs, my back. My mind complained incessantly. But also, I was incredibly happy. I was out there alone in the wild, with everything I needed on my back. I experienced pure and raw moments of freedom. The mountains slowly taught me about my real physical and inner strength, but also reminded me how fragile we are when fully exposed to nature.
Hiking with cows, wild camping with cows, everything cows
The first days were shaped by physical exhaustion, fleeing from thunderstorms and other misadventures. Like one night, when I set up my tent far away from the cows that grazed lower down in the valley. As I was about to go to bed, the entire cow herd suddenly found its way there and surrounded my tent.
Bells ringing, wet cow snouts sniffing curiously into the apsides of my tent. I was slightly freaked out but tried to calm myself down thinking they would go away soon. They didn’t. And even if they didn’t decide to fall or stomp onto my tent at night, with the noise of the bells I would not sleep a single minute.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cows. I think the way they shape the alpine landscape is wonderful and I love hiking past them during the daytime (as long as they don’t chase me, also happened on few occasions). But one place where I don’t want them to be is definitely my tent.
So, exasperated, I got back into my hiking clothes and started packing up everything I had set up so carefully. I tried to pack up my tent as quickly and unsuspiciously as possible, while dozens of glowing cow eyes stared at me in the dark. My main worry was not to scare them, I knew that could go wrong.
My heart pounding, I had finally collected all my belongings and made my way through and away from the herd. With only a little headlamp, it was hard to see the trail. The night had changed the landscape. Completely unexpectedly, I found myself on a night hike, very much hoping I would find a new camp spot rather sooner than later.
It is strange, not being able to see in which surroundings you put up your tent. I could only hope it would be alright. And luckily, I found a flat spot after half an hour of hiking uphill and was not disturbed again for the rest of the (short) night.
Finally: A perfect day on the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
When hiking, everything becomes intensified. The lows sometimes get to you fully, but the way you experience the positive is equally amplified. So, the moment when I completely fell in love with this adventure, was when I finally had one of those rare perfect days.
I was hiking through the most beautiful grassy hills, views of snowy 4000ers guiding my way. The thunderstorm that was said to be here in the afternoon did not come, so I found myself sitting happily in front of a Swiss gas station, eating all the chocolate yogurt I could. Pure bliss.
The next few kilometers were only road walking (uphill, on top of it all), so I decided to give hitchhiking a try. The very first car stopped.
With this lucky advance, I could start hiking up yet another mountain before the dark. As I hiked hour after hour, I got worried I would not find a place to stay and wondered whether I should have stayed in the valley after all.
But then I reached a pristine mountain lake. With a perfect camp spot next to it, a bonfire place already prepared, blueberries growing all the way around. And most importantly: No cows.
Joyful, I jumped into the ice-cold water and swam for a moment. My first shower after 5 or 6 days of hiking. Maybe you can imagine how freaking great that felt.
In the evening, I managed to get a little fire going – the only one I would have on the GTA since in most places making fire is not allowed nor a smart idea. But here it was perfectly fine.
I stared into the flames and munched away on fresh blueberries until the dark came—a peaceful moment by myself.
And, to finish off this pretty perfect day of simple joys, the expected thunderstorm only came after I had enjoyed my day and evening outside. As soon as I closed my tent door and crawled into my sleeping bag, it started thundering and pouring down. What great timing.
Sometimes, everything simply goes right.
The Grande Traversata delle Alpi in pictures
I think pictures describe better than words what the GTA is like. Unfortunately, I lost my full-size files of all my photography taken on the hike due to a hard drive error (yes, I cried). Did I carry my heavy camera gear for nothing, then? Not completely since, luckily, I still had smaller copies of the photos on my phone.
I hope you enjoy this visual walk-through of the beautiful Italian alps. Click on the photos to view them in large.
Anyone out there? Meeting other solo hikers on the GTA.
The Grande Traversata is, apart from Italian day hikers, mostly populated by Germans. Most people I met who also hiked the GTA only did sections of it, usually a week or maximum two, staying each night in a mountain hut (rifugio) or other accommodation (posto tappa) along the way.
In fact, I was pretty much the only one out there wild camping on the Grande Traversata delle Alpi. I met two guys, who carried 22+ kilo gear and may have been defeated by their expedition-heavy-backpacks since I did not see them again.
But I spent a couple of wonderful days with a young Italian I met along the way. Valerio was only out on a day hike but spontaneously decided to get his camping gear and join me for a couple of days on the GTA.
I was happy about his company after the first lonely days (even though I never felt lonely). But it was great to share this experience with someone, especially as the section to come was even more remote and lonely than the one before.
On some days, the only people we met were some illegal blueberry pickers. And later on, especially as September started and the main season came to its end, I spent some days without seeing any other hikers at all.
When it comes to ultralight thru-hikers, I only met one of their kind on the GTA. Dutch thru-hiker Will was taking on the Sentiero Italia and by the time I met him, he had already hiked about 2.000km through the Italian alps.
It was the greatest pleasure to finally meet someone who had fallen into the same thru-hiking rabbit hole as I had. But apart from all the gear talk, the best part was definitely to meet someone who understood my by now fully developed hiker hunger.
After about two weeks of hiking, I could have literally eaten non-stop. My body burnt through high-calorie food as if it was nothing. Lucky to be hiking in the country of Pizza, Pasta, and Polenta! The carbs were desperately needed.
I need a zero-day: Taking a break in beautiful Biella.
I hiked for 15 days straight until my body requested the long-overdue break. How did I notice? When I decided to rather walk 10 km on a road instead of hiking yet another 2500m high mountain pass. I was so done.
Biella is a gem of a town and the only place near the trail where I found an affordable hostel. Thanks to strange corona rules, I actually got my own private room – for the price of a regular dorm bed.
Now I could finally rest my feet.
And eat more chocolate, gelato, and pizza. (A week later, when I took another break in Turino, I went even more nuts. I had officially become an infinite food-swallowing hiking machine, no longer knowing what human levels of hunger feel like.)
However, my feet were not recovering at all. Even after two days, the soles of my feet were in extreme pain – I was simply not used to the weight of my backpack.
Barefoot hiking in the alps – time for a reality check.
Before I started trekking barefoot in the alps, I had only walked barefoot for about half a year. Which is enough time to get used to the day-to-day stresses and strains, but walking with a 12 to 15kg backpack is different.
In theory, barefoot hiking the GTA is perfectly possible, I believe. The trails are ideal for going barefoot since no slippery boulder fields have to be crossed where one would need ankle/foot protection, nor are there any annoying gravel roads, and only very few road sections.
The majority of the GTA trail is just pure barefoot heaven. Natural trails, grassy bits, sandy bits, big stones to step on. For someone more experienced with barefoot hiking absolutely enjoyable.
I, however, had to change my plans after three weeks of barefoot hiking. I decided to get minimalist shoes with a slightly thicker sole since the weight of my backpack put too much pressure on my barefoot-beginner feet. Unfortunately, those had some weird arch support that gave me back pain. After my month on the GTA, I ended up using shoes with more cushioning (I hiked from Bologna to Rome afterward).
If you’re looking to cross the alps barefoot, I recommend hiking only with minimal gear. The lighter you go, the less strain you put on your feet. Especially if you do not need camping gear, it should be feasible. And practice, of course. The more used your feet are to hiking barefoot (and with a backpack), there better you will handle the challenge.
In the end, I probably hiked about 40% of the time barefoot, 60% in my minimalist shoes. Towards the end, pure barefoot time got less and less – my feet were tired, and so was I. In the end, it was more important for me to continue the trail than torturing myself just to make it all barefoot. So, shoes back on, and on we go!
Other challenges on the GTA
I fell deeply in love with the Grande Traversata delle Alpi and the wild mountains of the Piemont region.
But the hike was also a constant challenge. Physical, mental. Any kind of extended hike will challenge you, but with the extreme altitude differences (typically we’re talking at least 1.500m up and down every single day, depending on how far you hike) the Grande Traversata is definitely one of its kind.
And some days simple misfortunes changed my ways, like when I accidentally left my stove behind resting at a mountain hut. It forced me to turn around and repeat a challenging 2-hour ridge walk. Luckily, I did get my stove back, but I had to choose a completely different route since now a thunderstorm was about to break loose. (Never walk on ridges when there is danger of lightning.)
Another time I was forced to camp at above 2000m just after a hailstorm. Since the temperatures were so low, the hail stayed on the ground. It was not only very challenging to walk on in my barefoot shoes but also terrible to sleep on. Since everything was covered in hailstones, I basically slept on a block of ice. This one definitely wins the award for the most uncomfortable night on the GTA.
All those challenges, however, made me grow so much as a person. I had to learn how to control my mind, trust my body, overcome the fear of sleeping outside alone, keep calm in threatening moments and keep going even when I thought I couldn’t anymore. When you spend so much time alone in nature, you enter a very authentic conversation with your true self. It is challenging and beautiful to be this honest with yourself.
Highlights of the Northern part of the Grande Traversata delle Alpi
But ey, back to the positives. The GTA is full of so much beauty. I ‘only’ hiked the Northern half from Airolo to Susa, about 500km, until I was exhausted and the temperatures too low to still camp outside in higher altitudes. I really struggled to leave the GTA behind, since the idea of a possible thru-hike still lingered on my mind. But ambition is such a joy killer and the GTA deserves to be enjoyed.
So, after having been sick and returning in terrible weather once again, I finally gave myself permission to move on to new adventures.
I spent an entire month hiking through those gorgeous mountains and I am so grateful for all the natural wonders I saw.
Some places I particularly enjoyed were:
- the first days from Airolo to Crampiolo – 5 days without supermarkets and towns, just pure nature, until you arrive at little mountain paradise village Crampiolo
- the way past Alpe Maccagno – the two herdsmen, despite being sparing with words, allowed me to camp near their stone hut, showed me how to make cheese over the fire and shared red wine and pasta with me, all surrounded by such great natural beauty
- the Gran Paradiso national park – I expected this area to be crowded because of its ‘big name’ but the trails I took there were actually some of the most empty ones. I was alone with cows and gorgeous sunsets.
- the Laghi Verdi – I struggled with this section of the GTA since it was even steeper than the rest, but those crystal clear mountain lakes captured my heart. I did not manage to take a photo that successfully showed how magical they really are, but I truly enjoyed walking past there.
All of the Grande Traversata is wonderfully remote. The often abandoned stone houses make you feel as if walking through the past and the gentle tourism sparked by the GTA is supporting the last traditional mountain refuges of the Piemont.
So, would I recommend the Grande Traversata delle Alpi?
Hiking the Northern half of the Grande Traversata delle Alpi was one of my greatest adventures to date. It challenged me to the bone, it brought me a million magic moments.
I slept in the strangest places and met the kindest strangers. My strength grew day by day, but it was nevertheless the most exhausting thing I had ever done. Would I do it again? Despite all the struggle, a million times yes. I learned so much, I conquered so many fears, I grew so much stronger.
After a month, I felt it was time to leave – in the end, there was no GTA thru-hike for me. My journey led me to the Via degli Dei and Via Francigena. More hiking through the holy pizza lands, only further down south and in warmer temperatures – which allowed me to extend the hiking season all the way into October and enjoy my journey again.
Certainly, I will have to return one day to walk the Southern half from Susa to the Ventimiglia.
So if you’re looking for a very special alpine crossing away from the crowds, I can wholeheartedly recommend the GTA. To this day, I still receive occasional messages on my social media from other female solo hikers, saying I inspired them to hike the Grande Traversata delle Alpi. I am so grateful for that because I want to see a world where we all pursue our wildest dreams.
So to anyone still thinking about it, be courageous and don’t hesitate to go. I am here rooting for you 🙂
To share everything I have experienced would break the limits of this blog, but I hope my experiences could give you a little insight into the magical world of the GTA. One thing is for sure, you will experience so much more than you would ever expect.