Alps Hiking Tours Target All Ages

Reed Travel Features

CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- You are never too old or too young to embark on a hiking adventure in the Alps.

Just ask Phil Scheidt, president of Wanderweg Holidays, a specialist in hiking vacations in Austria and Switzerland.

He has welcomed participants as young as 18 months old (the youngest to actually walk was 7 years old), and two 85-year-old gentlemen will hike the Alps with Wanderweg this summer.

After spending many years in the corporate world, Scheidt escorted his first ski group to Switzerland 18 years ago, and what started out as fun has turned into a thriving, full-time business.

A skiing accident led him to explore Switzerland's summer sports and, although the company still takes groups skiing, Scheidt found himself drawn to the mountain trails on foot.

Wanderweg now offers 12 walking programs in Switzerland and 11 in Austria. The company can be reached at (800) 270-ALPS or (609) 321-1040; fax (609) 321-1040.

Although, as seen in the photo, the participants can range widely in age, the hikers average between 45 and 55, said Scheidt, adding that the mix includes couples, singles and families.

There is no minimum or maximum age to participate as long as the group is not impeded, he said.

"Parents know what their children are capable of doing," he said, adding that parents with youngsters age 10 or older usually find themselves trying to keep up with the kids.

Families are a growing segment of Wanderweg's bookings, he said, adding that Austria and Switzerland are ideal destinations because of the strong family ties found in both countries.

Programs range from seven-night guided walking programs to three-night independent tours and packages combining hiking and cycling.

The company also will custom design itineraries to meet a group's or individual's needs, and the firm works with many incentive and corporate clients, he said.

The company's most popular programs are the Four Resort Walk in Austria and Wanderthree in Switzerland.

These self-guided, village-to-village hikes give travelers flexibility, he said.

Clients can arrive any day of the week and have their luggage transferred ahead of time for them; daily breakfasts and dinners are included.

The resort hikes feature Davos, Arosa and Lenzerheide-Valbella in Switzerland, and Lofer, Unken, St. Martin and Weissbach in Austria.

Scheidt attributes the success of these and the company's other independent programs to the countries themselves.

These countries have the best "network of organized, well-maintained and marked hiking trails," he said.

Distances on the trails from one point to the next are marked with times on posted signs, not kilometers, so hikers know how long it will take them to get to the next point on the trail.

What makes walking in this part of the world appealing is that "there aren't any poisonous snakes or poison ivy" ready to strike an unsuspecting hiker, and it is safe, Scheidt said.

He said safety is probably one of the main reasons 72% of the company's single clients are women.

Off the trails, service in hotels and other establishments is excellent, he added.

"The inns and hotels are usually family-run places that have been in a family for generations," and the owners take extra care to make sure their guests are happy, he said.

The company uses three- and four-star hotels in Switzerland and three- to five-star properties in Austria, he added.

Participants will find that most of the itineraries include small, secluded villages not frequented by many tourists.

Because Wanderweg is not as dependent on volume as some other tour operators, "we don't have any constraints" as far as destinations are concerned and can seek out undiscovered villages and regions that still have an old-world alpine ambience, he said.

Experienced and certified guides, who will share information and folklore that is not found in any guidebook, are used on all the tours, he said.

Escorted groups usually hike about five hours a day.

"You can't be a couch potato, but today a greater segment of the population is active, and the guided programs are a moderate level of difficulty," he said.

"Flatlanders from Kansas or Texas might find it more difficult" because altitude changes average 1,000 to 3,000 feet, he said.

People are advised on how to condition themselves: walking up and down stairs or working out on a stair-climbing machine; basically "use terrain or equipment that is an approximation of what you will encounter. The Alps aren't flat," Scheidt said.

"Typically, we find that women underestimate and men overestimate their abilities."

Most of the people who are interested in this type of vacation already are physically active and qualified, he added.

What Scheidt encounters more often are people looking for more strenuous programs. "They want to climb Matterhorn, and we don't offer that type of adventure," he said.

Active vacations is one of the fastest-growing segments of travel, he said, adding that, according to Walking magazine, 65 million Americans are recreational walkers.

And many of those walkers are looking for interesting destinations to explore on foot, he said.

What does a hiking vacation offer that others do not?

"If you really want to get to know a place, its people and culture," the only way to do it is on foot, said Scheidt.

Also, it is not a passive vacation. "You are making something happen, not letting something happen to you," he added.

On the group programs, participants are working together for a common goal, and "people always bond, the only question is how long it takes," he said.

"We also try to find a person's limit and take them a little further on," he said, adding that hikers learn to push themselves, and at the end of the tour they are grateful for the encouragement.

Of course, at the beginning of the week, that eventually grateful person is dragging along behind everyone mumbling unkind thoughts about the guide, Scheidt added.

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