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Hiking the Dolomites on a Budget

Hiking the Dolomites on a Budget

It looks like a hiker’s dream – beautiful jagged rocky mountain cliffs set against verdant green meadows and clear blue skies – and all the while well-marked with trails that make exploring this mountain paradise possible. Also known as the Pale Mountains, the Dolomites attract hikers from all over. You’ve decided this is on your must-do list, but you’re on a bit of a tight budget and wondering whether you can still live out your hiking dreams? No problem.  

Budget-friendly food, accommodation, and travel options do exist in the Dolomites. Accommodation in the Dolomites is one of your biggest expenses. Camping or staying at mountain huts is a more budget-friendly choice and will let you explore the mountains at a fraction of the price of a hotel.

From how you plan your trip to where you stay, when you go, and what you eat, we’ll have you covered if you want to hike the Dolomites on a budget and still get the most out of your trip. This beautiful part of the world should not be missed out on due to budget restrictions, so we’ll show you how to make sure you can still tick this off your hiking bucket list. 

How do I hike the dolomites on a budget?

Good news! Right from your choice of when you begin planning your trip, you can already start saving money. Planning your trip a few months in advance can ensure that you get the accommodation that you want, at the price that you want, organize your transport, and avoid any unnecessary last-minute costs, such as being forced to stay in more expensive lodging to fit in with your booked dates. 

Planning

In terms of planning, there are a number of decisions that you can make and tips to use if you’d like to save money on your trip.

  • Solo vs. group travel. Solo does not mean hiking on your own. You may be on your own, in a pair, or in a larger group, but in this case, hiking solo means doing the planning and execution on your own, as opposed to using a tour guide. The Dolomites are a popular area for hiking, and there is plenty of information available, direct accommodation reservations options available, and well-marked trails that mean that using a guide is a totally unnecessary cost.
  • Maps and apps. This brings us to the next point. In doing the planning on your own, take advantage of the resources around you. This means reading up beforehand on the area, reports of people who have hiked this region before, and local hiking information. Take advantage of technology and download a local hiking app with detailed information on the various trails and different parts of the mountain. If you’re not such a tech-savvy hiker, do it the old-school way and use a map of the area instead of an in-person guide. There are local tourist offices as well that can help to provide up-to-date information on trail conditions and hiking routes before you set off. 
  • Time of year. The time of year that you travel can also impact your budget! Going during peak season means that everything, from flights to accommodation, can be more expensive. Choosing the months alongside the main season (for example, May or September) can help you to shave off some of your expenses. 
  • Advance booking. Planning ahead and making your reservation well in advance (usually, a few months beforehand is advisable) can save you money, both by helping to anticipate costs so that you aren’t left with last-minute surprises for your wallet and by securing your ideal selection of everything from flights to accommodation that fit into your budget, while they are still available. 

Trip length

How long you plan your trip for will obviously have an impact on your budget. It is good to plan before you go what your priorities are in terms of spending. For example, within your set budget, you may decide that accommodation is most important to you and prioritize a nice hotel with a hot shower and three-course meal every night over the amount of hiking that you get to do, which would mean a shorter trip. 

Alternatively, you could decide that you would rather see as much of the area as possible and you don’t mind having more basic lodging in order to accommodate this, in which case you could afford to stay for longer. Once you have decided on a budget and thought about your priorities for the trip and what your non-negotiables are, you can plan the trip length. Of course, there may also be other factors that come into your decision-making, such as other places you would like to visit on the trip or work-related time constraints. 

In terms of the possibilities offered by the hiking trails, you could stay for weeks! There are various trails that take different lengths of time. For example, the AV1 trail is great for less experienced hikers and is around 75 miles long. This hike would take around ten days to complete if you do day hikes and stay at the overnight mountain huts, which are conveniently spaced at day-hike length intervals along the trail. You could just stay for a few nights and hike one area, or if you chose to hike longer trails, you could spend between one and two weeks in the mountains, or longer.  

Where to stay

This is one of, if not the most, important decisions you’ll make regarding your trip to the dolomites. It can easily be your largest expense while hiking, and which level of comfort you’re looking for will be a large determinant in how much of your budget is used up on a shower and bed. 

There are two primary ways to explore the Dolomites: by basing yourself in one place and doing day hikes from there (it could be multiple bases to explore different regions, depending on how much time you have), or by moving around on multi-day hikes and stay in the mountains. Note that wild camping is prohibited in Italy, so if you do stay overnight in the mountains, you either need to find a campsite or use the overnight mountain huts, known as rifugios

Basing yourself in one place

This is the option to consider if you enjoy coming back to the same place each night or if you’d like to really get to know one area of the mountains well by thoroughly exploring all the trails in a particular part. If you’d like to save money here, you may think about choosing a campsite at which to base yourself, or else a hostel in one of the villages, rather than a hotel or guesthouse. Note that these options are unlikely to provide meals, so you need to cater for yourself – more on that coming up!

On the move

The second option you have is to do multi-day hikes. If you sleep in the mountains, there are mountain huts you can stay in that are spaced out at day-hike intervals. Alternatively, you find a campsite and pitch a tent there. Another option is to do a day hike and return to the same starting point, and then move along to the next place for the night. 

If you decide to do this, while local transport is the cheapest option, you may want to look at renting a car instead. This gives you more freedom and is not very expensive. You have somewhere safe to store your gear during the day while you’re hiking and aren’t tied to the local transportation timetables, some of which only include one or two trips per day, the timing of which is not always the most reliable. 

Food and drinks

This is another major and inevitable expense. Luckily, you can get delicious fresh local food for very good prices. One way to save money is to pack your own picnic instead of buying lunch at restaurants. There are local markets that have plenty of fresh produce, local cheeses, and bread, and these make for a great picnic lunch. Additionally, if you are going to be camping, you can do the same for dinner to save restaurant costs. 

For those who just want a meal cooked for them after hours of hiking, the best deals are in the mountain huts, where you can get meals at very reasonable prices, much less than in the cities or village hotels. Please note that many of these only accept cash, so be sure to carry cash on you while hiking. Water is available on the mountains in the huts, so it is possible to refill your own bottles with safe drinking water without needing to purchase more, though it is a good idea to pack enough for what you’ll consume throughout the day, in case you don’t come across other sources along the way. 

Five tips for hiking on a budget

  1. Don’t go with a guided group or agency – do the homework and do it yourself. The trails are well-marked, and it’s hard to get lost.
  2. Plan in advance and read as much as you can online. It also wouldn’t hurt to learn a little Italian and have a free translation app to hand.
  3. Eat from local markets and drink the local wine. 
  4. Hire a car if you’re planning on seeing different parts without doing a multi-day hike – mountain transport is infrequent and unreliable, which can be frustrating and puts you on a schedule when you want freedom.
  5. Don’t forget to budget for mountain transport. Gondolas will be one of your highest costs aside from accommodation. 

What should I bring?

Whether you’re going camping or just backpacking on day hikes will be a large determinant of your packing list and what you need to bring. Should you decide that you’ll just be making day trips, then you’ll need the following in addition to fresh clothes for each day. Each day, pack a backpack (ideally 20-35 liters) with sunscreen (at least SPF 50 hiking at altitude), sunglasses, a hat/cap, water bottle, a phone, camera, picnic, extra layer of warmth, and some cash. 

Hiking poles are not necessary, as most of the trails are easy-moderate in difficulty, though if you prefer to hike with them for balance or other reasons, then please bring them. Given the terrain, most of the hikes do not require special equipment. This includes shoes! Most importantly, make sure they are comfortable, and wear them in beforehand if they are new – wearing your hiking shoes for a few hours is very different from wearing them all day for days on end! Trail running shoes should suffice for many of the hikes, but hiking boots are recommended. 

If you opt for camping, your list will be a lot longer! You will need camping gear in addition to the day hiking gear listed above. Some of these items will be tricky to bring with you on a carry-on if you’re flying in, for example, firelighters, Swiss army knives, or gas, and it may be worth checking a bag. 

For those items that are still tricky to fly with, you’ll need to obtain them once you’ve landed, either through rental or purchasing the items. Depending on where you’re coming from, explore the local options for this before heading into the mountains in order to be fully prepared and avoid last-minute stress. Checking a bag is advisable if going for longer than a week in general, otherwise, if camping, even if traveling for less than a week. 

When is the best time to hike the Dolomites?

The Dolomites are a wonderful year-round destination attracting snow sport lovers during the winter and hikers during the summer months. Unless you want to hike in winter with skis or snowshoes, the best hiking months are from May to November. It is warmest and driest over the summer months, from June-September, with a higher likelihood of rain during the shoulder months, but generally warm and pleasant for hiking during the entirety of this period. 

While it does get busier during the summer months, this is generally not an incredibly touristic area, and the mountains have space, so you are unlikely to feel like the paths are crowded and overrun, even if you do decide to hike during the summer months. The only thing to bear in mind if you do go during this peak time is the need for booking accommodation or campsites in advance, as they do get busier over this period. 

Is hiking the Dolomites difficult?

If hiking the Dolomites is on your bucket list, but you haven’t ever done multi-day hikes or even necessarily gotten onto the mountain before, there’s good news – you don’t have to scratch off this experience! You don’t have to be a very experienced hiker to enjoy all that the Dolomites have to offer. It is advisable that you feel comfortable on the mountain and can physically manage a bit of exercise without difficulty breathing or other health issues, but you don’t need to be super fit or have years of hiking behind you to manage this range.

There are multiple trails in these mountains, some with more exposed rock that caters to those who are looking for a challenge, while others meander along easy paths on the side of the mountain, allowing you to drink in the magnificent views without the stress of falling off the edge of a cliff. Basically, you have the option of choosing to make your time in the mountains as easy or as challenging as you would like to, but your level of experience needn’t hold you back from going in the first place. 

Conclusion

The Dolomites are one of the most alluring mountain ranges to explore, and whether you spend three days or three weeks exploring what the region has to offer, the budget should not hold you back from doing so. There are ways to save money on accommodation, food, and transport, so now that you know-how, it’s time to get excited and get planning!