5 Tips for planning a Self-guided Dolomites Trekking Adventure
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Hut to hut hiking in the Dolomites is on many active travel enthusiasts' Bucket List. Several year ago, I ticked it off mine and went through the effort and research to plan it myself and complete it with my husband and two good friends. It turned out to be one of the most memorable trips any of us have done and left me yearning to go back and complete more of this fantastic, high-altitude trail. As you will discover from many of the itineraries on this site, I love planning trips and the more logistically challenging they are, the harder I work to make the experience easy and fun for the people that go with me. You can read more details here about our 7 day Dolomite Trekking & Via Ferrate travel itinerary. But for now, I simply want to get you started with some planning tips that made our trip that much more enjoyable.
1. Maps, Books, Maps, books
You cannot spend too much time crouched down on the floor with a good map of the area in front of you. If you plan to lead this trip, you really need to have an understanding of the entire area, see the trip as a whole, including terrain, options for alternate routes or detours to work around weather, injury or illness, and ways to get down off the mountain if needed. If maps are not your forte, make sure to invite someone who has some good navigation skills and see if they will help you plan the route. I also recommend spending time reading route descriptions from several books, so you can get a better idea of terrain and distance that will match your groups ability. See more details, including recommended maps & books here on the Trekking the Dolomites – a 7 day travel itinerary.
2. CAI – Discounts and Insurance
The Italian Alpine club is a climbing and mountaineering club that operates many of the refugios, maintains the paths of the AV1 and 2 and is dedicated to protecting the Alpine environment. Anyone can become a member, which will give you discounts for your overnight stays at the refugios, as well as discounts on food purchased there. When I did this trip, I was able to download a form online (in Italian) and figured out how to get a card mailed to me before my trip. I simply had to submit a passport style photo, pay the fee, plus the cost to ship it, which took several weeks. However, I believe they stopped doing this, as I can no longer find the form download link online. But there is a local CAI office in Cortina. Click here for location. You will need to make an appointment ahead of time, but you can do this online on their site (Just have Google translate the page). So plan it for the day you arrive in Cortina, show up, bring a small photo with you in case they still require this, fill out the form, pay the membership & you will have your membership card for your trek. You can check out fees ahead of time online. It may be worth it to call everyone in your group ‘family’ so you can get a group discount.
While you are at the CAI office, ask about getting some temporary insurance. No one wants to think about injury or illness while trekking. But twisting an ankle is a realistic possibility and getting chopper evacuated off the mountain could be an expensive lesson. If you plan your route well, there are options for getting down to a nearby town via gondola or cable car in case of emergency. But if you are planning a longer, more remote trip, then it may be worth buying some insurance.
3. Pack Light. Pack Smart
It may be August and summer in Italy when you take your trip. But in high-altitude environments, this means it often only reaches 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, can be windy and come afternoon, it's quite common to experience rain and thunderstorms. Since the refugios supply you with a pillow and blanket with your bed, you only need to bring a sleep sheet, or bag liner with you. If you don’t have one, you can make your own by folding a twin sheet in half and sewing one side and the bottom. You also won’t need to pack much food or water, except what you need on the trail between huts. You will most likely pass 1-3 refugios on your route and can easily stop to purchase food and water ( bring local currency and your CAI card for discounts). So this means that overall, you can pack light. But you still need to plan for colder, wetter weather by bringing rain gear, a lightweight fleece, beanie, etc. See below, for a basic packing list to get you started. Trekking poles may be of some benefit to those who are familiar using them. We used one pair between two people and it worked out well. The terrain on our route was mostly a combination of flatter alpine terrain or very rocky up or downhill terrain that really required hands to be free for balance and scrambling. But having a pair, or one, can help you move faster when you are tired and especially on uphill hikes.
4. Fitness Helps
You don’t have to be an uber athlete to hike in the Dolomites but it does require some physical stamina. Not only can some days be quite long (7-9 hours depending on terrain and selected refugio destination), but the terrain itself does require some agility and physicality at times to maneuver down ladders, boulders and/or steep cabled pathways. So if you are a gym rat, add some hiking or running to your routine. And occasionally do it with a loaded pack, so you can get used to the weight and see if what you want to take on the trail, actually fits in your pack.
5. Safety considerations
As I mentioned earlier, illness or injury is not something we love to think about happening. But good planning helps alleviate unnecessary stress if it does.
First aid kit- have one on you that includes a space blanket, wrap or support for any ankle twists, as well as the typical bandages and ointments.
Know where your ‘outs’ are. Where does your route come close to a gondola or cable car that could get you down to a nearby town or village in an emergency? Where in the village is a clinic or hospital located? Is there a bus station nearby? Most of these questions can be answered with a little online research these days.
Cell service. It’s worth paying for an international daily plan and carrying a solar charger or a mobile charging ‘brick’ . You may not have coverage in remote places. But most refugios have some way to radio or contact a safety organization as needed.
Carry the phone number to the destination refugio with you in case you get lost or have a medical emergency.
Know a few phrases in either Italian or German or bring a phrase book or translator phone app with you. Most refugio staff speak either of those two languages and may know some english. But remember, you are guests in their country. So making an effort to speak the language will get you far more hospitable interaction with the locals.
NOTE - if you'd prefer to have someone assist you with your trek planning or refugio booking, a company such as
Dolomites Treks would be a great place to begin
NOTE - If you'd prefer to have a knowledgable local guide help you on your trek, Explore-Share is a good resource for finding a guide. Or Discovery Dolomites or Dolomite Mountains are two experienced companies that would love to assist you:
Q: Can I really do this? I am not super-fit, but I love the concept.
A: Yes! The route above covers terrain in 7 to 8 hours a day if you walk slowly and take a lot of pictures. But I won’t lie, if you are a couch potato, you will not enjoy this. Whether, you hike, bike or run for exercise, ramp it up if you want to do this trip. That way you won’t be exhausted at the end of each day, will tolerate the altitude better (~8000’), and won’t stress over any sections that you have to work a bit at.
Q: What about the Via Ferrata? I don’t have any climbing experience and I am slightly fearful of heights.
A: The Via Ferrate you will encounter on this route (~ 3 sections) are like assisted walk-ways or short bouldering type climbs. They consist of either a iron cable you clip into (you will have to carry a light-weight harness with you) as you walk along a path that has an exposed side, or a ladder type descent of maybe 50 yards to get down a face. It will be visually daunting in some areas but don’t panic. Just face the ladder or the wall and have a more confident person in your group help you through it. Now for those who try some of the easier Via Ferrata en route and want more, read here about the day-long, more challenging route we did at Ivana dibona.
Q: What if I am a slower hiker than the rest of my group? Or what if I want to run the trail instead of just hike it?
A: There are many parts of the trail that are run-able, but many that are narrow, or with high exposure and not suitable for running. If you are planning this as a group trip, you may not want to get too far separated for directional purposes. It's a good idea to have route maps and a travel buddy with you at all times. In addition, any Via Ferrata or areas on the trail that require guidance, extra safety or words of encouragement I am sure will be greatly appreciated. So it's possible to have mixed abilities or fitness levels on the same trip. But if pairs get stretched out over a mile or so, don't make a major turn or leave the slower pair alone. Envision a sort of yo-yo affect with no drawn out sections of more than a ½ mile or so. Now if your group has some hyper-active Jack Russell types (you know who they are), 12-15K a day may seem easy. Providing some extra mileage options that branch off your destination refugio is one option. In other words, once your entire group gets to where you are going, the speedsters can burn off some more energy by adding some extra running or hiking miles by around the refugios. And there are plenty. Another option is to run out & back to the slower pairs in the group if you want move more quickly & get extra miles. But don’t get lost.
Q: How we will do food on the trail?
A: The beauty of the Alta Via 1 is that there are refugios everywhere and most serve dinner at 7pm, with wine & beer available. We will need to bring snack food with you on the trail. But will be able to purchase lunches & water at any refugio that you pass en route.
Q: Will we have showers or toilets?
A: Yes. The refugios that are listed on this itinerary have both. You may have to pay a small amount to use the shower and be limited in time, but they do exist.
Q: What kind of gear will I need for this trip?
A: The following is a basic list to get your started.
Trail running shoes or flexible hikers. You will not need heavy leather hiking boots in my opinion. You will be carrying light-weight, small packs with overnight clothes, water & snacks only. You will need something that has a good tread and that is flexible enough to let you climb a little if needed.
Light-weight backpack like this or smaller.
Wind-breaker jacket, beanie, gloves (early mornings and high altitude can lead to chilly temps)
Lightweight liner bag or travel sheet. You will not need sleeping bags for the refugios and will provide blankets, but they do require a travel sheet. If you don’t own one, you can make one by folding a sheet in half and sewing 2 sides.
Sandals for the refugios. Trail shoes or boots are not allowed inside
Trekking poles. You can probably get away with 1 pair between you and your travel partner.
Light-weight wicking shirt (arm warmers are an easy way to make it long-sleeve when its chilly)
Light-weight zip-off shorts/pants (this is my recommend for the hike)
Extra socks and underwear. I recommend planning to hike the 3-4 days you are up there, in the same shirt & pants. Just change socks, underwear and maybe bring something extra to sleep in / hang out in the refugio in. No one will care. You will all pretty much smell the same.
Light-weight fleece and maybe tights – for hanging out in at night
Hat, buff, sunscreen
Lightweight harness, carabiner and tether **** if you don’t have one or don’t want to travel with one, there are many gear shops in Cortina that will rent them (called Via Ferrate kits) –so don’t sweat this.
Cash (in local currency) for purchases
Headlamp & first aid kit
CAI card. The Italian Alpine Club card gets you discounts on food & lodging at many refugios. You have to apply for it several months before your trip but if you are on a budget, it will save you money.