Updated 23rd Jan 2019
So you are interested in hiking the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt but want to camp, instead of staying huts, hotels or B&Bs each night? To date, only about 5% of Haute Route Hiking customers have/or plan to camp along the trail. I suspect that part of the reason is because camping is not necessary, so hikers choose to remove some weight from their pack and look forward to experiencing the hospitality offered by mountain huts and alpine villages. But for the true campers at heart, I believe a previous lack of firm guidance on where it is permitted (and possible) to wild camp on the Haute Route, has been a deterrent to completing this legendary trail. I’d like to change that.
This post is going to share information on the various camping options, provide some cost estimates for your trip and share other useful tips to help you prepare for camping the Haute Route.
Where can you camp on the Haute Route?
There are 4 camping options on the Haute Route;
Campgrounds with amenities
Campgrounds without showers
Unguarded cabanes without showers
In order to camp along the entire Haute Route, you’ll need to use a combination of these options. I’ll run through each of them to show you what I mean.
Not possible on the French section of the trail. From Chamonix to Le Tour you are below the forest line, then you climb up to Col de Balme through a private ski area. There are in-expensive campgrounds with amenities in Chamonix and Le Tour so plan to use these.
From Col de Balme, the trail enters the canton of Valais in Swtizerland, where the remaining (and majority) of the Haute Route hike is located. The Swiss Alpine Club have produced the best guidance on wild camping for the country. They explain that Switzerland does not have a uniformed legal situation for camping/bivouacking given each canton and municipality can supplement national law with local restrictions. This results in their guidance not being definitive, but rather a good starting point to conduct further research on whether there are permitted areas along the trail. There are four main parts from their guidance which you should focus on;
1. Wild camping is expressly forbidden in certain protected areas
The guidance identifies the following protected areas across Switzerland;
Swiss National Parks
Swiss Game/Wildlife Parks
Designated Wildlife areas
They recommend using the following map from Swiss Topo which allows you to apply filters for each of the protected areas.
2. Restrictions may apply in some cantons or municipalities
As mentioned above, the Haute Route is located within the canton of Valais and therefore your search of further restrictions only needs to focus here. Thankfully, the Valais department of forests, rivers and landscapes has a website which lists all their local rulings on additional protected areas for both the canton and their local municipalities.
3. Camp above the forest line, in alpine meadows or in rocky terrain
The Haute Route crosses 11 mountain passes between Chamonix and Zermatt. The trail therefore follows a familiar pattern most days of climbing up above the forest line and over a pass, then descending into a valley below the forest line, before repeating. The forest line varies throughout the trail which makes it difficult to identify exactly where you’ll rise above it without prior experience. From my experience on the Haute Route, the treeline is located between 1,800m (5,900ft) and 2,200m (7,200ft) depending where you are on the trail.
4. Request permission from farmers or hut management team (or other private land owners)
Unsurprisingly, camping on private land requires permission. There are sections of trail where you’ll rise above the forest line but still be within private land and therefore unable to camp unless you’ve managed to track down the owner and ask for permission. These include ski areas (for example the 4 Vallées above Verbier), farmland where livestock are feeding/breading and alpine huts which are either located in the above restricted areas or do not allow camping nearby. While ski areas and cabanes can be identified using Google or other online maps, farmland will be difficult to spot without prior knowledge of the area. If you’re trying to create a plan yourself, I’d suggest planning to camp at least one hour beyond the forest line to ensure you’ve cleared any pasture areas.
The final part you need to factor in is whether there is actually a flat piece of ground to set up camp. Due to camping only being permitted above the forest line, some of the areas are located on sections of trail with an average gradient of over 30%. If you don’t have experience on the trial, using a map program with contour lines will help identify where terrain looks too steep for planning to camp.
So there are the steps you should follow to determine where wild camping is permitted (and possible) on the Haute Route. If this all seems like a bit much and you want to be confident in your plan, I can provide you with an itinerary that includes all the permitted wild camping spots on the Haute Route.
Campgrounds with amenities
There are a number of paid commercial campgrounds located in villages along the Haute Route. The cost for 1 adult is between 15-25 CHFs per night and they offer toilets and showers. Some have a store and laundary room too. No reservations are needed. These campgrounds are;
Les Rocailles (near Champex Lac): Toilets, hot showers, laundry
Arolla (The Highest Campsite in Europe at 1,950m): Wifi, bathrooms, hot showers, laundry, supermarket
Molignon (near Les Hauderes): Toilets, hot showers, cafe, restaurant terrace, laundry
Tzoucdana (near Zinal): Dorm and restaurant onsite too
Zermatt: Toilets, hot showers, wifi
Campground without amenities
There is one campground ground on the trail at an approx cost 3 CHF which has toilets but no shower or other facilities. No reservations needed.
Mountain Huts without food/showers
These are huts you can stay in which have a dorm room, kitchen and toilet. They are both located within one of the protected areas so are a common place for campers to spend a night.
Refuge La Barma: 18 CHFs per adult, per night
Since 1965, the gymnastics society has volunteered to manage this former alpine pasture belonging to Grande-Dixence SA. The main building is open to everyone, all year long. It contains the kitchen and a dormitory of 15 places. The cabin is guarded every weekend from late June to mid-September with gymnastic club volunteers. At these times, an additional dormitory of 24 places is opened and they can sell you drinks and turn the gas stove on for you (rather than needing to fire up the wood stove when it’s unguarded), but everyone is responsible for their own food.
Cabane des Ecoulaies: 20 CHFs per adult, per night
A property of the Ski-Club Les Pyramids who primarily use it for back country and ski touring in the winter. It is open during the summer months and has a guardian on the weekends. There are 25 places in the dorm and it has a toilet, cooking utensils and gas stove when guarded (otherwise need to use the wood fired stove).
I’m clarifying whether camping inside the grounds is permitted and if so, whether there is a fee. I’ll update the blog once I hear back from the caretakers.
Turning it into an ITINERARY
As you can see, there are not very many camping options available throughout the Haute Route. If you’d like to camp all the way, you’ll need to use a combination of all 4 options above to complete the trail. If you’d like amenities (shower) every night, you’ll need to include some nights in mountain huts/hotels/B&Bs where commercial campgrounds aren’t located. I’ve created itineraries for both of these camping preferences that you can check out here.
Estimated Cost of Camping the Haute Route
Using the same methodology from my blog post on how much is costs to hike the Haute Route, I’ve estimated the costs for camping. I am going to assume you’ve read that blog post so will just identify which inputs from the cost table (and any adjustments) I’ve used in the estimate for itinerary 1, then only what’s different in itinerary 2 and 3.
As mentioned on the blog posts, my estimates include everything you need to complete the trail from Geneva airport and back again. They do not include;
Flights to Geneva/Europe: Depends on where your coming from and what class you fly :)
New hiking gear: I provide a gear list in the booking portal to help you do an inventory check
Travel Insurance: Based on location, age and coverage/excess preferences
Lets take a look
Itinerary 1: Speedy 10 day - Camping All Nights (Under 700 CHF pp)
The following inputs have been used to arrive at the estimated amounts
Accommodation: Combination of free nights (wild camping) and campground fees. The two person accommodation rate is not double because I’ve assumed you’re staying in the same tent. Because there is nearly always a per tent and per adult charge, use double the accommodation rate for one hiker if you and your hiking partner are sleeping in separate tents.
Food: A generous amount estimated with the assumption that meals will primarily be bought from supermarket/bakery (10 CHF snacks, 5 CHF breakfast, 10 CHF lunch, 10 CHF dinner)
Airport Transfers to Chamonix: National bus company + local bus ticket on arrival in Chamonix
Haute Route Hiking Products: The itinerary, mobile map, wild camping areas, booking portal
Celebratory end of hike meal in Zermatt: Could be under-estimated…depends how you want to party!
Transport from Zermatt to Geneva Airport: Catching public transport (train) all the way
Baggage Transfers: Not Required
Swiss Alpine Rescue Membership: Assume required
Number of nights in hiking itinerary: 10
Night in Chamonix & Extra Nights in Zermatt: 1 night in Chamonix only
Here are the results;
Itinerary 2: Speedy 11 day - camping most nights
Compared to itinerary 1, these are the different inputs used for this estimate
Accommodation: Combination of campground fees and mountain huts (no free wild camping)
Food: Accommodation estimates for mountain huts include half board so the dinner/breakfast cost for these nights have been removed. This brings the average food cost per day down.
Airport Transfers to Chamonix: Shared minbus tranfer (rather than national bus company)
Baggage Transfers: Up to a 30kg bag per person sent from Chamonix to Zermatt
Number of nights in hiking itinerary: 11 nights on the trail (instead of 10)
Night in Chamonix & Extra Nights in Zermatt: 1 extra night in Zermatt
Here are the results;
Itinerary 3: Speedy 12 day - camping most nights
Compared to itinerary 2, these are the different inputs used for this estimate;
Accommodation: Extra night in mountain hut with limited facilities which is similar price to site in a campground
Food: Same number of nights in mountain huts where dinner breakfast is included, however, one extra night to spread the benefit over.
Number of nights in hiking itinerary: 12 nights on the trail (instead of 11)
Here are the results;
Hope these estimates help you determine how much you’ll need to camp the Haute Route. If you’re still trying to decide whether to camp or stay in huts/hotels and B&Bs the whole way, I’d recommend reading my blog post on estimating the cost for this type of trip too.
Other Camping Tips
Weather and conditions
If you plan on hiking between June and September, the trail should be “mostly” snow free. However, you need to be prepared for snow at any time of the year, even the middle of summer! The Haute Route stays just under 3,000m (9,840ft) at the highest point but on most days you’ll be crossing passes above 2,700m (8,850ft) where the high alpine weather can change quickly. If you are hiking before mid July, I recommend taking crampons. As a guide, if you are hiking before mid-June then I also recommend carrying an ice axe for the mountain passes (or being prepared to go around). These dates will slide earlier or later depending on how big the winter has been and quickly the snow is melting each season.
Nights in the high alpine sections of the trail can be as cold as -5C/23F between June and September - I would recommend preparing for -10C/14F with thermals, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag.
Camping Supplies on the trail
Starting your hike in Chamonix is very fortunate as its one of Europe’s adventure destinations. Therefore, you can buy stove fuel, freeze-dried meals and items for your first aid kit, directly in Chamonix. Here are the sports stores to visit on arrival;
There is no other locations with freeze dried meals on the trail, however, there are supermarkets and convince stores where you can pick up fresh fruit/veg, instant rice, pasta, etc.
The Arolla campground has gas for camping stoves, however, I would contact them to check if it is type/fitting your cooking unit requires before planning to restock here.
How difficult is it to find water?
There are lots of places to fill up on water along the trail. Most villages have water fountains free for public consumption. Outside of villages, you are never far from glacier fed streams or rivers, however, you should be aware that some run-offs are filled with erosion. I recommend taking a 2 litre bladder and keeping it topped up at every opportunity unless you have planned the next fill-up point which you can do using all the water locations on our mobile map.
How long will it take to hike the Haute Route?
It depends on how heavy your backpack is and how this will affect your speed. The Haute Route is not one single trail that leads hikers between Chamonix and Zermatt, rather a network of trails offering ten main route variations with a total distance ranging from 160km (~100 miles) to 207km (~128 miles). You also have to climb 11 mountain passes with up to 24,000m (~79,000 feet) of total elevation change! Typically it takes hikers between 9 and 14 days. You can read in much more detail in my other blog post “How long does it typically take to hike the Walker's Haute Route”
Need some help working out your plan?
I’ve recently launched 3 new itinerary and map packages specifically for campers:
10 Day “speedy” itinerary for camping all nights along the trail
11 Day “speedy” itinerary for camping most nights along the trail (other nights in mountain huts/dorms)
12 Day “steady” itinerary for camping most nights along the trail (other nights in mountain huts/dorms)
Each of these packages include the location of all the wild camping areas on the Haute Route trail, including pictures, conditions and whether I recommend them.
If none of these meet your needs, I can create a custom itinerary and route for you. Just did one for a hiker wanting to wild camp but also have a night in Hotel Weisshorn - talk about seeing the absolute best of what the trail has to offer!
I’d like to thank @naspacer for sharing details of his 2017 bivouacking Haute Route trip with me. The photos in this blog are from his trip - yes, he woke up to snow in summer :)