Winter walking holidays in Europe

“There!” Your guide throws down the stick with a flourish. They’ve drawn a cross-section of the mountain opposite in the snow, where each contour is highlighted by snow and underlined in ice.

“One of the beauties is that you can do great geology lessons in the snow,” says Simon Woollons, who founded our specialists Aragon Active with partner Lucy Woollons. Impromptu geology lessons are a regular occurrence on their winter walking holiday in Spain. “We have a huge canvas. The snow really does highlight the geology of where we are.”
One of the beauties is that you can do great geology lessons in the snow.
“It’s quite a surprise to people,” adds Lucy. “We’re in the Spanish Pyrenees, and generally when you say the Pyrenees most people think of sun, so just seeing the snow in Spain is something a lot of people never consider… It’s quite easy with the help of our guides for people to understand how the Pyrenees were formed – and it’s actually quite amazing.”

Winter walking & wildlife

The wildlife is also a big – and often unexpected – highlight of winter walking holidays in Europe. It can be much easier to spot wildlife in winter, because of migration patterns, stripped-bare treetops, fresh snow highlighting prints, and animals venturing closer to civilisation when food becomes scarce.

Lottie Joynes, from our Austria winter hiking experts WearActive, says: “You’re actually more likely to see wildlife in the valleys in the winter. In the summer, the wildlife goes up high, but when the snow falls, the animals descend to the valleys. The golden eagles come down and you can actually see them from our hotel – they nest nearby.

“Snow is great for following animal tracks, and our guides are very knowledgeable, identifying pine martens, wild boar, chamois, deer – all from the tracks or droppings. Guests love it, because the guides are as passionate about it as we are… We do walks through the forests and a lot of tracking. You can see deer, snow hare, fox – in the winter it has a white coat. You can also see snow weasel (ermine) – it’s white with a black tail. When you go downhill skiing you don’t see any of these animals because they destroy a lot of habitat.”
You hear the gush of the wind, you’re that close.
Lucy and Simon Woollons use walking guides from a charity successfully reviving the population of bearded vultures (lammergeier) in the Spanish Pyrenees. While out on the trails with guests in February, they were treated to a show. “When you’re up high snowshoeing and they glide over you, you can really be quite close to them,” says Simon. “Often, the first thing you’re aware of is a huge shadow on the snow and then you look up, and it’s either going to be a griffin vulture or a bearded vulture.”
“And you hear the gush of the wind, you’re that close,” says Lucy. “I can still remember seeing the orange feathers on the chest back in February – it was incredible.”
“I can see the people smiling now,” says Simon. “They were ecstatic at what we’d seen while we were out doing a completely different activity – not a wildlife activity. You can’t help but bump into wildlife, living where we do.”

Changing climes

Climate is an important part of winter walking holidays in Europe. Even small group holidays with a set itinerary are completely dependent on the changeable weather – far more so than holidays at any other time of the year. You must be happy to go with the flow. Winter walking holidays in the European mountains usually split the days 50/50, so you spend half the time walking and half the time trying a snow activity such as snowshoeing or cross country skiing.

If you’re heading for high-altitude parts of the Pyrenees or Alps, you don’t have to rely on damaging snow cannons and groomed trails. Many places in Europe are still under snow, if you go high enough – it’s the type of snow that can be the issue. Too much can shut trails and cause avalanches. If temperatures hover around 0°C for too long, then it can melt and refreeze into footpaths more suitable for skates than boots.
We are already experiencing extreme weather events across the Alps.
Lottie Joynes, from our Austria walking experts WearActive, says: “We are already experiencing extreme weather events across the Alps. The winter of 2018 was a really good example: Austria had the largest snowfall that it’s experienced in 50 years. You might have read about the avalanches that made the news. For people who live remotely, their way of life is becoming unfeasible.”
Meanwhile, on lower slopes and fells, climate change is creating longer, warmer winters that wick away snow. It can be hard to feel positive about snow-free hiking paths in environments that rely on the stuff. However, leading winter walking holidays that balance snow activities with hiking on clearer trails is one of the ways that tour companies we work with are adapting to changing climes.




Where to go on a winter walking holiday in Europe

Many winter walking holidays are set in areas where you can balance snow activities with hikes. In the Spanish Pyrenees, Sierra y Canones de Guara National Park deals out dramatic canyons and bird’s eye views of castles, while Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park is filled with high Pyrenean ridges with spectacular snowy views on all sides.
You’re away from all the crowds of the ski slopes, where people queue up on top of each other. That is one of the beauties of it.
Lucy and Simon Woollons host hikers in their restored 17th-century farmhouse in the hamlet of Albella. “We’ve got a lot of choice around us,” says Lucy. “There are canyons as well, but they don’t get the sun at this time of year and it’s absolutely beautiful. You can always rely on snow here. It’s not powder, but you still get wintry scenes… You’re away from all the crowds of the ski slopes, where people queue up on top of each other. That is one of the beauties of it.”

“We try to give guests the sense of being on top of the world,” adds Simon.

Italy lays out the toothy peaks of the Dolomites, where you’ll weave through towering boulders that look like they’ve been dropped by giants having a game of boules. Or you might head out into the snow meadows and forested mountain slopes of the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, where some wooden villages date back to the Middle Ages. There are almost 60km of walking paths around here – as well as cable cars that deposit you on otherwise inaccessible mountaintops. In France, you can base yourself in an auberge on the edge of Ecrins National Park. Romanian walking holidays take you to Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains.

Winter walking holidays in Europe largely equate to snow globe scenes – unless you head to the southern reaches. Cyprus is usually ice-free all year long, and hikes take you into the woodlands, orchards, vineyards and villages away from deserted beach resorts. Wildflowers bloom early here, too: in February and March on the Akamas Peninsula. You can walk in Greece year-round, as well – as long as you don’t mind an itinerary flexible enough to cope with weather that can range from thunderstorms to beach days.




A lifeline

Many of the hotels you stay at struggle to fill their rooms in winter. You’ll help provide income at low season and keep staff employed year-round. In turn, guest houses that stay open thanks to an extended tourist season buy regional produce, keep local guides, chefs and drivers in work, and send their guests out to restaurants throughout the year. As well as keeping the economy alive for locals in winter, you’ll revel in a more peaceful time of year. Everyone benefits.

Guest houses and small hotels tend to serve traditional food in winter. Claire Ouditt, from our adventure specialists Exodus Travels, seeks out the hotels for their holidays in the Austrian Tyrol: “The hotels are really traditional… even if they have modern facilities. Staff dress in local outfits. The food is quite specific to the region, but for me potatoes and lard works really well after a day on the mountain! There’s a lot of really lovely food.”
I really enjoy the challenge of winter – living so remotely.
Lottie from WearActive agrees: “In winter, our accommodation is really special. It’s really peaceful. It’s very cut off; we’re 3km from the nearest village up a road that has to be cleared of snow with a tractor. In winter, no one is allowed to come up the road. If you snowshoe from the hut you’re unlikely to see anyone else. I really enjoy the challenge of winter – living so remotely.”

Walking & other winter activities

Winter walking is often combined with showshoeing. When I spoke with Lucy and Simon from Aragon Active, they’d only just shaken off the snow from their shoes. “We’ve had blizzards this morning,” says Simon, “and there’s more snow forecast. We’ve been snowshoeing ourselves already right from our back door…. The beauty of it is that you can escape everybody. With snowshoeing, you can literally get off the beaten track and explore the wild places.”

“We’re bringing awareness to what other winter sports you can do,” says Lucy. “It doesn’t have to be the mass tourism of alpine skiing; you can have a fantastic time getting away from the crowds on a sustainable activity like snowshoeing.”
The beauty of it is that you can escape everybody… you can literally get off the beaten track and explore the wild places.
Walking in winter can be hard work, so many holidays also include wellness elements. Start your day in the Austrian Alps in a yoga studio lit up by the sunrise reflected on snow. In Slovakia, finish your day by soothing your muscles in a hot spring.

Other trips take on a speciality that get you working for your supper: ice climbing in France or snow-holing in the Scottish Cairngorms.

Our top Europe walking Holiday

Transylvania winter walking & snowshoeing holiday

Transylvania winter walking & snowshoeing holiday

Wander through the mountains and forests of wintery Transylvania

From £1249 8 days inc UK flights
Small group travel:
2022: 8 Jan, 15 Jan, 12 Feb
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Europe walking or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Practicalities

Winter walking holidays in Europe are mostly small group trips. You’ll be with 12-18 walking companions – and sometimes fewer – led by a trusty guide who knows the winter trails back-to-front. Trips are around a week long, with time often split between hiking and snowshoeing, depending on the snow conditions. Intensive walking trips that include specialist activities like ice climbing are shorter, although you often have the option of adding a few rest days at either end. Itineraries flex around snow and weather conditions, so patience is a real virtue. Your guide lives among these hills, so you can trust that they know where to go (and where not to go) for a bluebird or snow globe day. Most walks are moderate to difficult because of the mountain terrain and snowy and icy conditions. They’re usually all-day walks of 4-6 hours, including ascents and descents of up to 1,000m.
Make sure to pack a sturdy, waterproof pair of hiking boots and plenty of layers that can be removed or put on easily as the altitude changes. Snowshoes, plus tuition, are always included.
Mountain guides are usually local and they’re experts in their fields – whether that’s because they’re a conservationist, geologist or professional photographer, or because they know their hometown like no-one else. They’ll speak English, but learning a few words of the local language is always a good idea, especially if you’re exploring backcountry.
Accommodation and most meals are included. Hotels and guest houses lean towards crackling fires and hearty breakfasts. It varies from trip to trip, but you might stay in a restored 17th-century farmhouse or a Swiss mountain chalet. There’s often no single supplement for a private room, so winter walking holidays are good for solo travellers.
Europe has an excellent and far-reaching train network – including the Channel Tunnel that links Continental Europe to the UK – so a flight free holiday is completely doable from Europe (and beyond, if you’re up for an adventure). Train station transfers are sometimes included in the price.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Florian van Duyn] [Wildlife (bearded vulture): jayhem] [Changing climes: Julian Vinci] [Winter activities: Mael BALLAND] [Practicalities: Mael BALLAND]