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Wild and without: 3 day trek in Karwendel Alps – Part 1

Of all the things we wanted to do while travelling – long distance trekking was one of the most important. We wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and retreat to the nature. To get as far away as we possibly could by ourselves, by our own means. We wanted to challenge ourselves and accomplish something enormous, for us. The Karwendel Alps provided everything we needed.

Long distance trekking has always been daunting for us with regards to knowledge, experience, equipment, weather, safety and so on. Before we set off on our hitchhiking trip we did a lot of research and decided that we would do a 3 day trek around Innsbruck, Austria. We didn’t want to repeat previous mistakes.

With the help of the Tirol tourism website and the advisors there we decided on a trek through the Karwendel Alps. Through this post and the next two, we will share our experiences, struggles, highlights and lots of photographs. This trek was one of the best experiences of our lives. It was one of the most stunning places we’ve ever visited.

It was a rollercoaster of emotions, plans were trashed and changed. The weather destroyed us but on the other hand provided the most wonderful scenes. We were completely alone and scared at various points and at other points were basking in triumphant glory.

The Planning stage

In order to make this bucket list item become a reality we understood that we would need to plan meticulously. So that is what we did. Before embarking on our hitchhiking trip. We knew we wouldn’t have enough time or patience and possibly no internet connection to do it on the road so we got it sorted before we left. This was probably the best thing we did, it made everything incredibly simple.

There were a few questions we had:

  1. Which hike should we do?
  2. Where will we sleep, is it possible to camp?
  3. What food should we take?
  4. Where will we store the rest of our stuff that we don’t need on the hike?
  5. How do we get to the start and continue from the finish?
  6. What equipment will we need?

The hike

As mentioned above, we settled on a 3 day hike through the Karwendel Alps. We chatted with an advisor using the website and we told them we would maybe like to do a 3 day trek. They asked a few questions regarding our abilities and then suggested a bunch of hikes. It was actually a very useful service and it helped us tremendously. So now we have our hike. The route arches around Innsbruck for 60KM. Each day is roughly 20KM. We had planned to visit Innsbruck anyway (that’s where we are right now, Couchsurfing).

The accommodation

Since we are camping and hitchhiking we have already done a fair bit of research into camping around Europe. Much to our annoyance we learned it is not really allowed to wild camp. While we very much disagree with this, it is what it is. We assumed it would be the same for the Karwendel Alps, and it was. So that ruled that out.

What people actually do when they go on these trekking trips including in the Karwendel Alps, is stay in mountain lodges. There are hundreds of lodges high in the mountains situated along the various routes. Some of them can house over 100 people. They are often really cute in typical traditional Austrian style at the same time as being incredibly hardy, having to withstand the rough winter climate.

In the lodges are often dorms which you can share with fellow trekkers for a cheaper price than the private rooms. They are very bare bones with usually no hot water. Lots of them do not have electricity available for the guests.

You also should take your trash with you since maintaining the lodges is quite an art; due to their position, elevation and other complicating factors the huts are not easily reachable by vehicles which can restock them and take away trash. Incredibly, many of them are actually stocked by helicopters, which as you can probably imagine is quite expensive.

Steep prices

The last thing to mention about the lodges is the price. They are not cheap and one thing we soon realised is that if you want to do serious long distance trekking in the Alps, you need to have money. If you don’t: go to Romania instead, it’s much much cheaper there.

A dorm bed, without breakfast and dinner comes to €23 per person. To us it was just crazy but not crazy enough to deter us. We understood that it would be an incredible experience and to be honest, we also learned along the way that the price was inclusive of all the difficulties of managing a mountain lodge. Such as the problems regarding stock and trash like we mentioned earlier.

We decided to keep costs down we would just carry our own food.

What food should we take

We have to carry all of the food on our backs so this is really important. Tins of food are out of the question, they are just too heavy. We made some trail mix, nuts, dried fruits, apricots and so on. Trusty bread and hummus. Ramen noodles, these things don’t weigh anything and are quick to cook and eat. Cereal bars for breakfast. We decided we could afford a coffee or two at the lodges and if we got really hungry we would just buy a meal in the lodge. We also took a few bars of chocolate for cheap energy (bullshit we took chocolate because chocolate is delicious).

Where will we leave our stuff?

We are carrying all of our belongings for our whole 3 month trip in our rucksacks – but we can’t really walk that far with them. Especially not through the Karwendel Alps. Also, we don’t need all the stuff on this trek. We don’t need our laptops, we don’t need all the extra clothes and we don’t need most of the camping equipment, sleeping bags, tent etc. So we need somewhere to leave it.

This actually turned out to be quite complicated. We remembered that most train stations in Austria have lockers so we check to see if Innsbruck does and how long we can leave it there – apparently only 24 hours. We check for some left luggage place around Innsbruck but we can’t find anything affordable for that duration. Lastly, we consider waiting and asking at some accommodation but later decide we don’t want to leave it to chance incase it means we can’t do the hike.

Eventually we decide to ring Innsbruck train station and they actually inform us that we can use the lockers for a longer period of time and it costs but a few euros a day. Sorted.

How do we get to the start and finish

Train. We’re going to be in Innsbruck anyway. The start is Scharnitz and the end is Schwaz and in the middle is Innsbruck. Trains are running all around the Karwendel Alps.

Map of our hike relative to Innsbruck

We thought about hitchhiking but decided it’s not a great option. On the starting day we needed to be at the beginning of the hike bright and early. With hitchhiking you never know how long it will take and we could have ended up blasting away half of the day and then not making it to the first hut. Then there is the end; after walking 60KM without a shower for over 3 days, who wants to wait 4 hours for a ride? And honestly, who would want us in their car!

We checked out the trains and there were frequent local services running between these places. To Scharnitz is about €7 each and to Innsbruck from Schwaz is about €6 each.

What equipment to take

Priority number one for Aydin is his camera. The rest is secondary!

Rucksacks, waterproof stuff, clothes, first aid, power banks, phones, food, cooker, water, maps + compass.

The morning of the hike

If you’ve been following us so far you will know that we are couchsurfing in Innsbruck with two of the best dudes ever. We’ve had so much fun the last couple of days, doing barely anything. We did one tiny preparation hike. Now is the time to get back to business.

Chris and Markus kindly offer for us to leave our stuff with them so we don’t have to pay the locker fees at Innsbruck train station which is incredibly generous and saves us a bunch of euros which we don’t want to part with.

The guys house is just a 5 minute walk from the train station so we plan our morning and aim to leave about 40 minutes before our train is scheduled to depart so we can do some last minute food stocking and pay for our tickets. We’re on the platform with plenty of time to spare which is not common at all, BUT WE ARE EXCITED. This is going to be so awesome.

Even the short 40 minute train journey is incredible, from Innsbruck we climb up the side of the wall of mountains surrounding Innsbruck, running along the cliff edge, climbing higher all the while.

Through tight pitch black tunnels carved from the mountains and over elaborate stone arch bridges. The morning fog engulfs the valley and at some point we emerge from a tunnel above it, the view opens up to a thousand mountain peaks.

If you like mountain trains you will love our post about riding the scenic narrow gauge train through the Pinzgau valley.

We slowly snake through the valley we have climbed in to all the way to Schartnitz where we shall begin our hike. Well, not before Aydin experiences an (almost) toilet disaster, running around the town trying to find an open toilet.

After taking care of business we are now truly ready to start, and it doesn’t take long for the beauty to present itself.

Into the wild

Yellow, red, orange and green trees. Flowing forests of colour.

Within half an hour of walking it feels like we are on a different planet, the landscape is incredible and gargantuan. Civilisation is a million miles away, it is well and truly raw earth.

The weather is perfect, the sun is burning down, but the temperatures is freezing in the shade. As the sun rises high around late morning everything begins to defrost and clouds form from plants and bushes. We notice lots of frozen cobwebs thawing out in the heat.

A stroll through the valley

The hiking is pretty easy so far, fairly flat all the way through the valley, it’s the opposite of boring though, with every corner bringing a new surprise, rivers, waterfalls, colours and wildlife. The contrast and palette of these colours is just magical, we couldn’t recommend more to hike in Autumn. Everything is a feast for the eyes, you will witness colours you otherwise considered impossible for a landscape like this.

A few more hours of hiking through the valley on a steady incline, we pass a huge canyon with a roaring river raging through it. We sit on a bench high above and take in the serenity.

Endless alpine forests occasionally dotted with a red or orange tree, like a splurge of paint destined for somewhere else fell off the paint brush and landed in the middle of the steep rising green slopes of the Karwendel mountains. This is really one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen.

Trudging along, taking our time, passing only a handful of other people. We hop across the many wooden bridges and frolic on the banks of the river. We laugh, skim stones in the river and eat snacks. Everything in the universe is perfectly aligned.

A cute wooden bridge crossing the stream

The first waterfall we see on the hike is a really beautiful one – in order to get to it we have to hop across a small wooden bridge, veer off course and then dodge some small puddles and hanging branches, and then without realising, we are in the middle of it.

The water takes infinite courses through the soft wet mossy rocks with trees sprouting in the middle of it all. It’s like a natural obstacle course and the urge to run and hop over the rocks is strong!

A beautiful waterfall running around moss covered rocks and trees
Caroline crossing a wooden bridge that is basically just a tree trunk

Lunch time

We start to get hungry so we decide to cook and eat our noodles. Leaving the trail, we scout for the river bed so we can find some water and take cover, fire is not allowed in the area, but we know how to use our cooker and we won’t cause any damage or leave any mess.

There is something liberating about using the fresh mountain water, not having to carry our own, living off the land. It tastes better! We quickly cook our noodles and take short break to relax our legs. After a while it starts to get a bit cold in the shade so we decide to walk on.

A beautiful river scene leading to a mountain peak surrounding by colour red, yellow and green trees.

This was one of my favourite scenes of the day – the picture was quite hard to take, I almost fell in a few times while trying to balance on a big wobbly rock and not get scratched up by the prickly bushes. I took a couple of exposures and stitched them together to capture the full range of light.

This stream is so pure it feels like the mountain is offering its water as a gift to us explorers.

The endless valley

Moving on, the path joins a dirt road for a short while and we cross a completely flat plane. The scene is quite strange and it almost seems artificial, but we love the leading lines the road creates, drawing you in to the mountains. Although slightly cold, the sun was still strong and it was thawing out the grass in the field, it created a foggy effect which made the field seem almost alive as it wakens up from the deep freeze.

A dirt road running through an flat meadow surrounded by massive mountains.

Another hours passes and our legs start to tire so we take another quick break to stretch our legs out.

I sit for two minutes and get back up. I can’t help but wander around with my camera, I squeeze through some bushes and almost fall straight in to the river below. I catch my balance, take a step back and immerse myself in the beauty. The river has changed from a stream in to a sea – it engulfs the entire valley, branching and diverging in different directions, crossing and meandering like a lattice pie. It’s hard to not jump and float back all the way to the beginning.

The river shallows and widens engulfing the valley

The land of waterfalls

The path begins to climb and it feels more wild, the mountains are growing taller, the water rages ever strong and waterfalls present themselves at every corner, filling the valley with the roars of nature. The Karwendel Alps become more untamed with every step.

The yellow leaves create a wonderful frame for this waterfall. We can’t help but wonder how long the waterfall has raged on for, carving out the huge rock cave behind it. In the spring we imagine this waterfall to be even stronger and more powerful as it carries the snow melt from the peaks through the valley.

A tall thing waterfall framed by yellow autumn leaves

We wonder if we will tire of the waterfalls but we don’t think so, everyone is so unique.

A magical waterfall scene flowing over multiple levels of dense autumn forest

This one is particularly enticing – so wild. Raging water plummeting from one forest level to another, each begging to be uncovered. We wish we had time to go down and explore more, but we have to make the final push to the hut before the day comes to an end.

Check out our post about hiking the largest waterfall in Austria!

The ascent

Another kilometre along the path and our final destination is in sight. The mountain lodge. It’s the first mountain lodge we’ve slept in as this is our first multi day trek, we’re super excited.

Before we check in we’ve got to climb up here – it’s the first proper ascent of the day at around 500M. It’s not so bad and we’re hoping it will take around an hour and a half. We’ve done a lot worse. There is a dirt road looping around at a mild incline or there is a footpath that goes straight through the middle and up, we decide to take the footpath and get it done with.

At first we are confident and fast paced, we get half way up no problem. Then we start to get a bit groggy and tired, also very sweaty. We push on. Taking lots of short breaks to catch our breath. Towards the end it becomes really steep but as we cross the tree line we know we are almost there – the weather starts to change, grey clouds form around us.

With one last energetic push we scramble over the top and turn around to witness the valley behind us, from which we’d just climbed and spent the day hiking 18KM through. A great first day in the Karwendel Alps.

Caroline looking down in the valley we just climbed from

The hut

From this point the hut is about 1 kilometre away. I am super excited about the hut. In my mind it is full of dancing drunkards with loud live traditional music where we can drink all night long collapsing in to our warm cosy beds and then waking to eat a mountain of fried food in the morning before we set off on another adventure. Caroline is insistent that I will be disappointed.

The dorm is situated in the loft of the 3 story rectangular building, it is some 30 meters long and 10 meters wide with a high pointed roof. As we climb the wooden ladder from the second to enter the loft we are left immediately frozen cold from the gush of ice cold wind flowing through the loft because the window has been left open on the other side.

It is intentional though, because it smells. Think about it, one hundred hikers, sweating for multiple days, without showers. Yeah. It really smells.

The beds are tiny thin mattresses lined next to each other in a row down either side of the room. There is a small walkway in the middle separating the sides and when you lie on your mattress you cannot stretch your arms without touching the second person over from you. There is nothing separating you from either of your neighbours. It’s an adventure we mutter while retreating to the restaurant to get a well deserved beer.

Stay tuned for the next post to find out whether the bear does indeed step at the mountain lodge!

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

For us, the best way to get to the start of the hike was on the train. Check on the ÖBB website and look from Innsbruck to Scharnitz. They are going quite often. You can catch a train to Innsbruck from most places in Austria no problem.

You could also drive, there is a big car park in Scharnitz just where the hikes start from.

Accommodation

You will most likely want to spend the night in one of the mountain lodges. Karwendelhaus is your best option. You can book online or call them, find more details on their website: https://karwendelhaus.com. Unfortunately the website is not in English, but you can just translate in the browser. Most Austrians speak good English so you can call them no problem.

Pro Tip

It is important to book, especially in the summer as the huts can fill up very quickly with large groups of hikers.

Hike in the autumn, the colours are just incredible and it’s not busy at all. Make sure to bring waterproofs though – it can get very wet!

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