Via Ferrata is like rock climbing although instead of using a rope, you are securing yourself to steel cables that are drilled into the rock. This allows you access difficult/isolated mountainous areas that would otherwise require expert climbing skills/ropes or the willingness to climb very steep scrambles without any assurances of safety. It allows you to also get a glimpse of the isolated, raw beauty of the mountains. For someone who is reasonably in shape, it’s a great way to get off-the-beaten path, work out while on vacation, and have an adrenaline-filled adventure!
In this post, this is a via ferrata guide for beginners with what you need for via ferrata, why to do via ferrata and where to do via ferrata.
What is via ferrata!? / What is klettersteig?
Imagine the hardest hike or scramble that you’ve ever done up a very steep hill/mountain. Now imagine that there are steel cables along the rock and handholds/footholds to help you through the hardest parts. You walk up/down ladders (while attached) when it’s very steep and move across short cable sections as you go up the route. When it gets difficult or steep, you’re attached to a short cable section to stop you from slipping even if you misstep.
The photo below shows me doing a via ferrata in Kentucky. Note my harness, the footholds/handholds, the steel cable, my helmet, and the rock. The idea is that a course is set and the minimum number of rungs/cables are set to allow you complete the course while remaining safe. Obviously,the courses vary in difficulty. The easiest via ferratas allow you to take a short walk with the safety of a cable/ladder to experience a fantastic look-out from above (similar to the photo above) while the hardest ones can be both very difficult and very long climbs through mountainous areas with no climbing aids and exposed rock.
It was first invented as a way of traveling and fighting in the Dolomites during World War I by the Italians and the Austrians. You can still see/climb some of the old military routes today in the heart of the Dolomites, which is quite cool. Today, it’s popular among Italians who treat it like most of us treat hiking: a fun way to get some exercise. It’s most popular in summer when you don’t need to worry about snow in the mountains, which can be an issue in winter/fall/spring depending on the location.
Why try out Via Ferrata?
- Exercise! You will be surprised how sore you are the next day in the arms.
- Incredible views of hard to access areas. Imagine discovering a secret waterfall that nobody else can see except within the gorge you’re climbing up (photo below).
- Can be done solo unlike many other forms of climbing.
- Adrenaline rush.
- Most of all, it’s fun.
Do I need a professional guide for klettersteig? How much to hire a via ferrata guide?
What you need: Via Ferrata Equipment / Via Ferrata Kit List
Minimal fear of heights. Admittedly, I get vertigo sometimes, but if you’re not comfortable with climbing tall ladders and hiking with a drop below you, this may not be for you.
Water & Snacks. You’ll be in a remote mountainous place–so bring a good water bottle and snacks to keep you going! I swear by my Nalgene bottle as I hook it on the side of my backpack to leave space for my gear.
If you’re going without a guide, a good backpack to hold your gear and your food/water. I use a military backpack as it’s sturdy and allows me to wait to put on my gear until I reach the start of the via ferrata trail (which can be a bit of a hike). I think the most important thing is that your backpack as a strap across your chest/stomach to minimize movement while you’re climbing..
Surefootedness. It’s the ability to be sure in your steps and trust yourself when you’re hiking on a path. I admittedly struggle with this, but this improves the more that you hike and do via-ferrata.
Comfortable sports clothes that fit tightly. Bring an extra layer (sweatshirt) since it can get cold at higher elevations. I recommend wearing full coverage pants that are a bit thicker as you might need to crawl–which means that your knees might get cut up.
Where can you do via ferrata?
Some areas to consider within Europe:
- The Dolomites in Northern Italy (you can fly into Venice or Verona).
- Southern Dolomites: Close to Lake Garda/Brentas. If you’re considering this region, Arco is the major hub for climbing and you will be able to rent via ferrata equipment.
- Northern Dolomites: Canazei, Belluno, Cortina and Bolzano Cortina is a major hub for climbing and I believe you can rent via ferrata equipment here.
- If you’re considering doing a vacation here, you can actually take a ski lift up to a high point and do via ferratas in between mountain huts.
- Austria. The largest number of via ferratas of any country. I haven’t done a via ferrata in Austria yet, but the Rax mountains are quite close to Vienna.
- France. Mostly in the Pyrenees mountains mountains closer to Toulouse, however there are some via ferratas closer to Lyon/the Italian border.
- Germany has many via ferrata routes around the country. You will find many in the Alps close to Munich.
- Romania has a few via ferrata routes, however some are illegally installed, so read up carefully about the routes before deciding to do so and find out if the cables are intact prior to going.
- Switzerland. A nice assortment of different routes catered to different interests in the various mountain ranges, mostly in the SW part of Switzerland and close to Bern. (Link here to a guide to one in the beautiful Lauterbrunnen valley in the Swiss Alps!)
- Spain. Less well-developed via ferrata system and not as well-maintained, but present in the south: Pyrenees and close to Sierra Nevadas. We did one via ferrata known as the Stairs of Death in Ronda, which gave an incredible view of Ronda’s famous bridge as we climbed up the sides of the gorge. There’s also a few famous routes close to Barcelona, including one difficult one on Montserrat. (Click for more information about the Ronda via ferrata.)
- Triglav National Park in Slovenia and the Julian Alps Full of beautiful lakes and incredible via ferrata routes. You can rent equipment in Bled although it is easiest to bring your own.
- Torrent Falls. Located in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. It’s more of a technical training course, as it has several separated courses of different levels. It’s kind of nice since you have the opportunity to try some courses above your level (and fail miserably) as well as rest/get a snack between courses. I’ve been here twice now and the staff is incredibly knowledgable.