Timing and Walking Direction
The AAT is described, mapped, and waymarked to be walked southbound, but we hiked it northbound. Everyone we spoke with who was familiar with the AAT said they had never met a northbound hiker. Starting in April or May and hiking northbound avoids seasonal hot temperatures in the southern sections and to allows more time for snow to melt in the northern higher altitude sections. If hiking in September, walking southbound makes sense in order to avoid early season snowfall in the mountains.
Many people told us that during June to August the Alps are mobbed with hikers and tourists. Access to the mountains is easy because roads lace the area and the numerous ski lifts carry people to where the roads don’t go. We wanted to experience the mountains before the crowds arrived, so May was a perfect time for us to go. We believe that September may also be a good period for hiking this route. However, most refuges do not open until the beginning of July and close by early September, so if they are needed for food or lodging, the walking season will be constrained. Hiking the AAT in the off-season without a tent would require advanced planning and reservations as potential sources of accommodation are limited.
We are happy we walked northbound in May, but our plan did have a couple of flaws. There were the northbound waymarking problems described above. Secondly, very heavy snowfall late in the winter of 2013/14 left the higher regions with two to three times the normal snowpack so it was not melted out nearly as much as it normally would have been by May. We also had measurable new snowfall below 1200 meters on several nights in late May which the locals told us hadn’t happened in decades.
The AAT is not a purpose built trail; the route was laid out using existing roads, paths, and trails. In general, the walking was on good, well-maintained surfaces and is suitable for anyone with a bit of hiking experience; there is essentially no off-trail hiking. The trails were well drained and mostly dry and mud free even after recent rains. Most streams and rivers were bridged and we had to wade only once or twice. There are many newly installed cable suspended footbridges across the Soca River which add interest to the walk.
There are large altitude gains and losses on the route. We had many days with over 3500 feet of gain and several with over 6000 feet. The trails are occasionally quite steep and are usually relentless, sometimes gaining thousands of feet without a break.
We had problems with recently downed trees blocking the trail due to a severe February 2014 ice storm that destroyed vast areas of forest; in Slovenia approximately 20% of the trees were knocked down. We were forced to use alternate routes in a couple of places as the designated trail was completely impassible. Work was ongoing in various places to clear the trails and it seems likely that this problem will be reduced in the future. A few pieces were so badly covered with tree-fall that the trail may have be to rerouted.
Due to the heavy and late snow, we also had to contend with crossing snowfields that extended as low as 1000 meters on some north facing slopes. This was sometimes tedious, but generally not difficult, although on some stretches we had to kick steps or find ways around a few steep and icy chutes. Normally, snow on the track should not be an issue from mid-May through early October.
The settled areas of Austria were obsessively tidy and well maintained and the locals we met seemed to be very serious people. But, to our great amusement, garden ornamentation there has been taken to wonderful extremes. Elaborate displays of garden gnomes are very popular, fascinating and amazing us and providing another reason why a walk like this can be so rewarding.
We prefer wild camping to lodging and spent every night in our tent. Camping is usually quieter, always less expensive, often more scenic, and allows us to walk as far as we like each day rather than being tied to room reservations. There are very few basic public campgrounds in Europe similar to American USFS and NPS sites. Private campgrounds tend to be expensive and often highly developed with game rooms, swimming pools, spas and the like. Most people in these campgrounds use caravans (trailers) so camping in a tiny backpacking tent feels a little odd to us.
Most AAT hikers stay in guesthouses and mountain refuges. We met about a dozen other AAT hikers and none were carrying tents; some were even surprised by the idea of camping.
We never had any problems finding a reasonable campsite. We never saw any signs forbidding camping and when people happened by our campsite they either ignored us or were quite friendly. We camped on riverbanks and sandbars, in meadows and in the woods, on an official overlook, in functional and decrepit barns, and a couple of times next to old churches. Most of our sites were quite nice and many were superb. We camped near the snowline a few times, but never on the snow itself. We followed our usual guidelines for stealth and wild camping.
Food and Resupply
We primarily ate food purchased in grocery stores. As it was not yet hiking season, many restaurants in the small mountain towns were closed. One ski town was reported to have over 6000 seasonal overnight beds but only a single restaurant was open in May. Restaurants in Austria were usually more expensive than comparable places in the US, but meals were very inexpensive in Slovenia.
The grocery stores were generally well stocked with a wide variety of foods and prices were generally comparable to those at home. Grocery stores were almost universally closed on Sunday and in the smaller towns were often closed from noon to 3 or 4 PM. In Austria, it was hard to find meat other than pig products. We spent about $23 per person per day for food at a $1.38 per euro exchange rate. Since we don’t cook while backpacking, we cannot offer advice about the availability of freeze-dried meals or stove fuels.
Finding water was not an problem. Almost every town and village had at least one public water source with good tasting clean water. There were also many piped springs along the trails and we needed to treat water just once or twice.
We did not find any laundromats along the route so we made use of public fountains for washing clothes. Some commercial campgrounds may have public laundry facilities but we never explored that option.
As we were traveling before the start of the hiking season, we met very few other walkers. On weekends we saw day hikers, but otherwise the trails were mostly empty. We passed three or four parties southbound section hiking portions of the AAT. We only met one person heading south who planned to hike the entire trail. We saw no tracks on the snowfields until the very last day where a single set of tracks headed south from the Grossglockner. We had spoken with the man who had made them the prior afternoon and he said he was out for a week or so. Thus, we believe we were the first people to complete a thru-hike that year and are certainly the first people to do so northbound.
We had great weather. We had only one or two hot afternoons. Although there was often heavy cloud cover, daytime rain was almost non-existent. We had two afternoons with enough rain to be more than a minor nuisance, and very trivial amounts of precipitation on a few other occasions. We had measurable rain and some snow and hail on quite a few nights after we were snug in our tent, but it always stopped by early morning. Night-time temperatures dropped below freezing once or twice. Other hikers should not count on our good fortune; for instance, a heat wave struck the area a few days after we completed our walk, and on average, the region receives significant rainfall one day out three during the hiking season. As in most mountainous areas, the weather patterns can be extremely local: sunshine in one valley and rain in the next one over.
We enjoy watching birds while hiking but the birding on the AAT was difficult. There was lots of singing, but most birds were very shy and difficult to see. We saw about 110 species, with the long sought after Capercaillie and Fieldfare both being life birds.
We had no insect issues to speak of. At only one site were mosquitoes annoying enough that we elected to camp elsewhere. They were totally absent during the vast majority of the walk, but we do not know if insects are a problem later on in the season. We did see some interesting and beautiful moths, dragonflies and beetles.
Aggressive dogs can be an problem for hikers. On the AAT, dogs were surprisingly few in number and almost all those that we encountered were either on a leash or under voice control. The yard dogs were almost always tied up or behind a fence and never posed a real threat. We saw far more house-cats than dogs in Austria. Compared to Turkey or Spain the AAT is a dog-free heaven for a walker.