How to Plan an Amazing Dolomites Hiking Vacation in Italy
Looking for hiking vacation that’s also packed with also cultural experiences, not to mention plenty of delicious pasta, wine, and grappa? An Italian Dolomites hiking trip might be the perfect thing to scratch your itch.
I just returned from a two-week hut-to-hut Dolomites hiking vacation. (To view the complete itinerary, including trail directions and booking info, check out this blog post.)
Having climbed over 10,000 feet in elevation through spectacular mountain scenery, I was surprised to hop on the scale and find I’d actually gained a pound or two!
It must have been all of those four course dinners served in cozy mountain rifugios (huts). Or maybe it was the wine on tap (yes, that’s a thing in Italy).
Whatever it was, I can’t wait to do it again.
And if you want to plan your own Dolomites hiking vacation, here’s everything you need to know to explore this beautiful region on foot.
Happy planning, and may the strudel be with you.
What Are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites, also known as the Pale Mountains, are a range in northeast Italy. They’re often considered part of the Alps, though they have a unique geology that sets them apart. Surprisingly, this beautiful area remains one of the least-visited parts of Italy.
What is the meaning of the name “Dolomites?”
Dolomite is a carbonate rock similar to limestone that’s abundant in these mountains. It’s relatively soft and erodes in dramatic towers, cliffs, and pinnacles, giving the landscape a distinctly rugged look. In fact, the Dolomites are home to some of the tallest cliffs on earth.
How tall are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites boast 21 3,000-meter peaks (that’s 9,900 ft. for you ‘Muricans). Despite these relatively low elevations, the Dolomites tend to be cool all year round, and the highest peak, Marmolada (10,968 ft.), is actually glaciated.
What activities can I enjoy here?
The Dolomites offer endless opportunities for day hiking, hut trekking, rock climbing, camping, mountaineering, mountain biking, and skiing. In fact, the resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo hosted the 1956 Olympic Games. The region has produced some standout athletes, including Reinhold Messner, who made the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen.
Language and Culture
The Dolomites region was previously part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was annexed by Italy after WWI. Over half the population speaks German as a first language. Some also speak Ladin, a local language. In some areas, you will see street signs in three languages: Italian, Ladin, and German.
The food and architecture of the region reflect its rich heritage. Expect to find plenty of pasta and ravioli alongside bratwurst and strudel. (There’s even strudel gelato.)
When to Go
The Dolomites can be visited in all seasons. Note that many rifugios, chairlifts, buses, and restaurants operate seasonally, with many non-ski services closing up shop in September and October.
Winter is actually a “high” season due to the popularity of nordic and downhill skiing in the area.
Spring is the time to see wildflowers. Hiking, trekking, and mountaineering options may be limited, as some of the high paths will be covered in snow, and many rifugios (mountain huts) will still be closed.
Most hikers and mountaineers visit in the summer months between June and September. By July, the snow is melted, and most of the trails should be passable. However, this is also the busiest time for visitors, with August being especially crowded.
Things calm down considerably in September, when summer holidays end and the kids start back to school. Early September is my favorite time to visit the Dolomites.
While the Dolomites aren’t particularly high in elevation, they are fairly far north and colder than you might expect. Unpredictable mountain weather can strike at any time. (When I visited in 2018, a snowstorm hit on August 24!) Hikers should therefore prepare for winter conditions, even in summer.
Choosing Your Route
One easy way to plan your hiking vacation is to take a self-guided trip. On our last visit, our leader hired FUNActive Tours to book our lodging and ground transportation. (To view the complete itinerary, including trail directions and booking info, check out this blog post.)
FUNActive also shuttled our luggage between most of our huts using cars, ATVs, ski lifts, and whatever else was available. (There was one hut they skipped because there was no road access, but we met our bags at the next stop.)
They offer several self-guided hiking tours you can choose from. In our case, our leader had been to the Dolomites 16 times, so she worked with them to design a custom itinerary that combined parts of Alta Vias 1, 3, and 4.
It’s certainly not necessary to work with a tour company, and planning your own trip can save you some money. Here are some tips for a DIY vacation.
Dolomites Hiking Trails
The Dolomites’ extensive trail system is (usually) well-marked and easy to follow.Local trails are generally numbered. You may also see signage for Alta Vias, bike paths, and European long-distance trails.
When planning your trip, you’ll want to pick up a good trail map. I highly recommend the Dolomites hiking maps of Freytag Berndt, which clearly show trails, roads, rifugios, via ferratas, and landmarks. Tabacco is another company that makes great maps and guidebooks of the Dolomites region.
Camping is prohibited in most of the Dolomites backcountry (though you’ll find campgrounds in many towns). Instead, backpackers stay in rifugios, or mountain huts. For more info on booking a rifugio, see the lodging section below.
You can also stop by a rifugio any time for meals, snacks, or booze. Please note that you can’t bring your own food into the dining areas and patios.
Via Ferratas and Mountaineering Routes
On the Tabacco Dolomites hiking maps, regular trails (no exposure) are marked with dashed lines, via ferratas are marked with crosses, and dotted lines represent mountaineering routes.
Via ferratas (crossed lines) are routes protected by cables. They range from regular trails with a steep drop on one side to vertical rock climbing routes. You may also encounter ladders or narrow bridges in these sections.
Even easy via ferratas can be intimidating to hikers who are afraid of heights. Before venturing into this sort of territory, consult a guidebook or online trail description to find out what you’re getting into!
Mountaineering routes (dotted lines) are generally very steep and rugged. You may need to scramble Class 3 or 4 terrain, rock climb, or cross dangerous snow fields. Again, be sure to get a good description so you understand the challenges and the gear required.
There are six major alta vias, or long distance hiking paths, through the Dolomites. The most popular, Alta Via 1, stretches 90 miles from Lago di Braies to the town of Belluno. It passes through some of the tallest mountains in the Dolomites, crosses the World War I battlefields, and stops at some iconic rifugios like Lagazoui. All of the hiking is done on established trails, and no technical skills are required.
Some Alta Vias require via ferrata gear, scrambling, and technical mountaineering skills.
Many ski lifts run during the summer hiking season. They’re a great way to give your legs a break and catch some awesome views. If you plan to incorporate a chairlift into your hiking itinerary, double check the operating hours, dates, and prices online. One useful website is Dolomiti Superski.
Accommodations options in the Dolomites include:
Rifugio Booking Tips
Note that very few parts of the Dolomites allow backcountry camping. Long-distance hikers generally spend the night in rifugios (mountain huts) when crossing remote areas.
Accommodations vary greatly among rifugios. Some are like hotels with private rooms and baths. Others offer only dorm beds and shared baths. Most provide blankets and pillows but require guests to bring a sleep sack (see the gear section for more info).
If you want to book rifugio accommodation ahead of time, you’ll need to do so with each hut individually. Most huts have a webpage with a booking form. In some cases, you’ll need to call or email to make your reservation.
A growing number of rifugios (and most Dolomites hotels and guesthouses) can now be booked through TripAdvisor.
Do I really need to book my rifugios ahead of time?
It’s also possible to walk into most rifugios and book a bed without a reservation. This approach allows you some freedom to change your route.
Of course, there’s always the chance that all the beds will be full. While the rifugio won’t turn you away, this means you might end up sleeping on the kitchen floor or some other uncomfortable place.
If you don’t want to book your rifugios ahead of time, choose less traveled routes, start hiking early, and plan your trip outside the high season.
Clothing and Gear
It you’re new to hut-to-hut trekking, especially in Europe, here are some gear items to consider:
- Sleep sacks are mandatory at rifugios owned by the Italian Alpine Club. Even where they’re not required, they’re a nice way to keep everything hygienic. I highly recommend the Blue Water sleep sack I carried on my last trip. It’s comfy, reasonably priced, and comes with a lifetime warranty. It’s also a bit oversized and even fits over a sleeping bag.
- Since most rifugios don’t have laundry facilities, it’s best to bring quick-drying clothes and hand wash them as needed. One massive lifesaver for me was bringing two pairs of ExOfficio Give-n-Go panties. They’re super lightweight and fast drying, so every night I’d wash one pair in the shower and put on the other pair. That’s how I made it through two weeks of trekking on just two pairs of underwear! For more tips and an in-depth ExOfficio review, check out my travel underwear blog post.
- If you’re having your luggage transferred between rifugios, bring a lightweight duffle bag for the gear you won’t need during the day. Since the bags may also ride ski lifts, ATVs, and other open-air transportation, it’s a good idea to bring a trash bag to keep your clothes, electronics, and sleep sack dry.
- Some huts offer dorm accommodation only. So bring some pajamas that you are happy to wear in front of mixed company and strangers.
- Be sure to bring a quick-drying travel towel. The microfiber ones are super soft and lightweight.
Getting Around the Dolomites
Like most of Italy, the Dolomites has an excellent public transportation system. When I visited as an independent traveler, I had no problem getting to towns and trailheads on local buses.
That being said, if you’re interested in renting a car or camper van, check out this excellent post on driving in Italy by Amber and Eric from “With Husband in Tow.”
Some useful resources for independent travelers:
Buses are a cheap, convenient way to get around the Dolomites region — and the only way to reach some of the smaller towns and trailheads.
Cortina Express is a private coach service that connects Cortina d’Ampezzo with Venice, Milan, Innsbruck (Austria), and a few of the larger Dolomites towns. Some routes require an advance reservation, which you can easily make on the website.
There’s no national public bus system in Italy, and the Dolomites area is served by several regional bus companies. I recommend using bus company websites to research routes before you arrive. Sudtirol Mobil Integrated Transport has a useful website with information in English, plus a map of its entire transport network.
Italy has an excellent train system that connects most major cities and stops in many small towns. Use the TrenItalia website to research routes, purchase tickets, and download them to your smartphone.
Some useful numbers to memorize:
- 112 — Europe’s universal emergency number, similar to 911 in the U.S.
- 113 — Italy’s universal police number, may be faster than 112
- 118 — Italy’s universal ambulance and medical emergency number, also sometimes faster than 112
Italy is home to an excellent mountain rescue service. To summon mountain rescue in an emergency, dial 118.
If you require rescue in Italy, you will need to pay for the service. This can be expensive, since a helicopter alone costs about €100 per minute. Some tips on protecting yourself financially:
- Carry travel insurance that covers medical evacuation. Check the exclusions carefully. Some policies won’t cover injuries incurred during mountaineering, via ferrata, rock climbing, etc. For more information on adventure travel insurance, see the section below.
- Consider supplemental rescue insurance in addition to your travel coverage. Two affordable options include the Austrian Alpine Club (worldwide coverage) and Dolomiti Emergency (cheaper, Europe only). Both follow a yearly membership model.
Italian pharmacies can assist with minor illnesses and injuries. Ambulance personnel can also help you locate hospitals and private doctors.
I’m always surprised how many people head overseas without travel insurance! Experts estimate that about 15 percent of travelers experience medical problems abroad. You should also consider the impact of flight delays, lost baggage, or the need to leave your trip early due to a family emergency back home.
Many U.S. health insurance policies (including standard Medicare) don’t cover you overseas. Others policies are very restrictive about what they cover, and any coverage is generally at higher out-of-network rates. It’s important to find out the specifics of your policy before you head out.
Travel insurance can also help with medical costs that aren’t covered by your regular insurance (and in some cases act as your primary insurance). It also protects you against losses due to trip delays or interruptions.
When choosing a travel policy for your Dolomites hiking vacation, make sure that it covers any adventure travel activities you plan to engage in like mountaineering, rock climbing, or via ferrata.
For my adventure travel insurance, I use a company called World Nomads. Their policies are affordable, flexible, and easy to purchase. Their “explorer” plans cover adventure sports like mountaineering, rock climbing, rappelling, and via ferrata (see a full list of covered activities here).
For more info, check out my travel insurance page. You can also fill out the form below for an instant quote.
Hikers should keep in mind that most rifugios deal in cash, and that ATMs are rare outside of larger towns. Before you set out on your hut-to-hut trek, withdraw enough Euros to cover your expenses.
I find that when I’ve booked half-board rifugio lodging (which includes breakfast and dinner), I can budget about €25 a day. This covers lunch, drinks, and snacks.
Some additional tips for maintaining a healthy cash flow:
- Alert your bank and credit card companies before travel.
- Italian ATMs offer the same exchange rates as banks. It’s useful to bring two ATM cards, just in case one has issues. You can also set up your credit cards for cash advances.
- Most European checkouts now use chip readers, so make sure your cards are chip-enabled.
- Check foreign transaction and ATM fees for your credit cards. Rates range from zero to surprisingly high.
If you’re staying at a rifugio, you can purchase your food a la carte or pay an additional cost for “half board,” which entitles you to a 3-4 course dinner and breakfast. You’ll usually have a couple of options to choose from for each course.
While the half-board menu is definitely an experience you should try, keep in mind it’s A LOT OF FOOD — even if you’ve been hiking all day. So don’t feel the need to go half-board every night.
For lunch, many hikers stop at rifugios, malgas (farms), or restaurants along the trail. If you’re heading to a remote area, most rifugios will pack you a lunch for about €10. Also, most hotels and rifugios serve bread, jam, cheese and coldcuts at breakfast, so you may also be able to make yourself a sandwich to carry.
Note that if you carry a picnic lunch, you can’t eat at a table at the rifugio. (Paying customers only!)
Some rifugios have rooms with en suite bathrooms, while others have communal showers. The shared showers may require tokens that you can purchase from the front desk. To save money, shower fast and split the time with a friend. (You can shut off the water while you switch people.)
Most newer smart phones will work in Italy. If you plan to call, text, or use data (outside Wi-Fi), here are some things to ask your phone company before you go:
- Does my phone support quad-band GSM? (If it doesn’t, it won’t work in Europe.)
- Is international roaming enabled for my phone?
- Is my phone unlocked? And if not, can you unlock it for me?
Keep in mind that international roaming charges for cell phones can be outrageous, and that modern smartphones compound the problem by using data in the background. Here are a few tips to avoid surprise phone bills:
- Consider purchasing an international roaming plan. Some companies, including Verizon and AT&T, offer plans that only charge you for days when you use your phone.
- Keep cellular data turned off until you need to use it.
- Shut off apps after using them.
- Disable settings that allow apps to run in the background.
If your phone is unlocked, another option is to purchase a local SIM card for your phone. This is generally much more affordable than international roaming. However, it may make it difficult for friends at home to stay in touch, because it changes your phone number to a local one.
Cellular service can be hit or miss in the Dolomites, depending on tower location. In general, don’t count on having it at rifugios or in remote locations.
Italian hotels and Airbnbs generally have decent Wi-Fi. Many campgrounds offer Wi-Fi at the office.
More and more rifugios are jumping on the Wi-Fi bandwagon. However, connection speed in the mountain huts ranges from OK to glacial.
When trekking from hut to hut through the Dolomites, you’ll need to wash your clothes by hand. Be sure to pack quick-drying clothes and a good biodegradable detergent. (I love Sea to Summit Trek and Travel Laundry Wash). Some rifugios provide clotheslines and clothespins, but it’s never a bad idea to bring your own.
So there you have ’em. All my tips for the perfect hiking trip to the Italian Dolomites.
Happy trip planning, and if you have any additional tips, please comment to share.
Originally posted October 14, 2018. Last updated Oct. 19, 2018.