Today was a particularly gray and drizzly day, and it was inevitable that I started to daydream about the great camping trips my family and I did this past summer. We’ve been making the most of living in Geneva, Switzerland, seeing as much of the magnificent scenery as we can. And this summer, we did most of it without using the car.
I think my family’s invented a new recreational activity: train camping. Here in Switzerland, the infrastructure boggles the mind, and there’s a train–anything from high speed inter-city to mountain cog railways–that cover every corner of the country. And most of the rest of the country is served by frequent local buses. And then there are the cable cars, telepheriques, and gondolas to schlep you up to the alpine high country.
For us, it began this way: we’ve got all this wilderness camping gear, but in Switzerland, plunking down a tent in any place that’s not a private campground is frowned on. Alternately, a lot of people hike to alpine chalets, where you need no tent at all. So, it dawned on me: why not bring our backpacking gear, take transit to a local campground and use that as a base camp for all sorts of hikes.
We live about a ten minute walk from train station, so we just pack and walk out the door. The girls carry their own clothes and sleeping bag, and my wife and I carry the rest. We’ve got two fantastic tents from MSR that weigh nearly nothing, and the stove is tiny too. We don’t need to carry food–that we purchase once we’re at our destination. Sometimes the campground is a kilometer or two walk from the nearest train or bus stop, and we usually plan ahead to make sure we’re not far from a grocery. Most campgrounds are located on the outskirts of a village, and there’s usually a little store close by the train station.
European campgrounds are very different from American ones (or at least the state and national parks I’m used to). Often they’re no more than a patch of grass where you’re plunked down right next to a camper van. But what these “campings” lack in wilderness feel they make up for in amenities: sometimes you’ll find kitchen shelters, playgrounds, hot showers, and often a bar and restaurant. Fresh baked bread and cappuccinos are temptations in the morning. These campground are a social experience, which can be fun if you’re feeling chatty, but maybe a little much if you’re looking for solitude.
But the lonely windy ridges of the Alps can be reached quite easily, and that’s why we’re here. Once we’ve set up camp and bought our ingredients for spaghetti carbonara and a bottle of Rioja, it’s off to the hills. Switzerland is designed for walking. The entire country is threaded with marked pedestrian routes, whether it’s a paved path in a village or a narrow trail through edelweiss-strewn meadows. The ubiquitous yellow signs for wanderweg or tourisme pédestre are everywhere, and they’re marked with estimated walking time rather than distance. (And they’re frustratingly accurate no matter how fast your pace!)
On our various trips, we’ve been to the crazy gorge of the Aareschlucht, at the base of the vertiginous wall of the Eiger, surrounded by glaciated peaks and crystaline lakes near Jochpass, and in blissful solitude on the Lakes of Macun route in Switzerland’s only national park, in a remote corners of Engadine. Often, you can make your hike easier (especially handy for hiking with kids) by taking a cable car up, wandering a high ridge, and and then riding the car back down again. Or you can take a train to a stop, hike for the afternoon until you reach another station further along, without having to backtrack.
The trains are comfortable, and it’s usually easy to find a spot to stow your pack. One other perk of the train system is the Swiss obsession with timetables and planning. You almost never need to wait more than thirty minutes for a connection, and often it’s less than ten. SBB (the Swiss national railway) has an amazing smartphone app that plans the most efficient route to your destination.
Hiking and camping, without burning a drop of gas (trains are all electric in Switzerland, yahoo!). And en route, everyone gets to sit back and read or play Minecraft or gaze out the window at the jaw-dropping scenery.
Want to try train camping for yourself? Be sure to check SBB’s website for train routes and schedules. The official Swiss tourist website’s hiking section profiles nearly 500 hikes across the country. And the camping section includes helpful maps and profiles of several hundred campgrounds. One of our favorites is Eienwäldli, near the town of Engelberg. It’s not cheap (41 CHF per night for two tents, two adults, and two kids) but it’s got an amazing playground complete with a pond full of rafts, a restaurant, grocery, and bar (!), and abundant hiking trails that start right from the campground.