When the World Turned White: Snowshoeing in Vorarlberg, Austria
We recently spent a week exploring the winter wonderland that is Vorarlberg, Austria, where a snowshoe hike through the snowy landscapes of Kleinwalsertal inspired childlike wonder and became a memorable adventure.
I raise one arm, allowing an avalanche beacon to be slipped over my neck before being secured into place against my diaphragm.
In all my years of travelling, I can safely say I’ve never had to wear a search and rescue beacon, and the tiny device feels both thrilling and mildly terrifying against my core as it begins to map my little grey dot via the satellites overhead.
Being Australian, I’ve also never got over the excitement of snow, spent more than a few days in its presence, or gone snowshoeing through it.
That dream is about to come true in the winter wonderland of Kleinwalsertal, in Austria’s alpine Vorarlberg region.
We’re at the Ifen valley ski rental shop, watching as Olli, our enthusiastic mountain guide for the day, packs our backpacks full of snow shovels (just in case, he says) and demonstrates how to clip and unclip the flipper-like snowshoes.
Our journey will take us from here through the Schwarzwassertal (Blackwater plate) area, following the creek into the picturesque dead-end valley of the Kleinwalsertal, where nature has been left largely untouched.
There hadn’t been much snow about when we first arrived to the area a few days prior, but today is definitely a powder day.
More than a meter has fallen in the last 48 hours and flakes continue to drift from the skies as the three of us finally set off from the hut.
When the world turns white with snow like this, everything seems clean and fresh. Gone are yesterday’s footprints, the mud of melting snow and tyre marks, the landscapes peaks and dips; all replaced by a plump layer of magical-looking white fondant.
We’ve stepped through the cupboard doors and landed straight in Narnia; this is the Austria we’ve been hoping to discover.
Olli leads the way, taking one for the team. The leader of a snowshoe pack has the hardest task; ploughing their way through the thick untouched snow to compress a path for those who follow.
At first, the ground is awkward and energy-snapping under our feet, even trudging through the trails left by our guide. Each step crunches and squeaks, our snowshoes compacting 30cm of ice as we go.
Olli was born to the mountains and their snow having grown up here in the Kleinwalsertal region. A true mountain man by blood and trade — though he jokes that the electronic heat pads hidden in his ski socks mean he’s really a ‘soft mountain man’.
Soft or not, his experience and knowledge of the terrain means we’re in the safest of hands.
Not long into our trek, we’re faced with a steep downhill, and Olli guides us to take exaggerated ‘moon steps’, heel-first. He demonstrates it with ease, seemingly gliding to the bottom in a few long strides.
My turn is a very different story, more uncoordinated bear cub tumbling out of control than graceful descent, and halfway down I find myself caught waist-deep and breathless with laughter.
The harder I struggle the more stuck I become; the more stuck I become, the more feeble my attempts to dig my way out as the giggles take over again. Who knew that snow could feel at once light and fluffy, and as thick as quicksand?!
After what feels an age, I wriggle one leg free, then the other, and manage to slide (ungracefully, again) to the bottom, where Olli is laughing and throwing snow high into the air like confetti.
I can’t help but think of how refreshing it is to see a local, one who’s spent their entire lives exploring these nooks and crannies, as giddy to be in their own landscape as we are too.
As we continue on carefully, Olli scans the powdered mountains around us, constantly reading the slopes and snow patterns to assess the risk of avalanche.
Every now and then we hear a soft ‘whumpf’ as a layer of weak snow fractures, causing the upper layer to collapse.
This is mother nature calling to us, warning us away from certain paths we’d otherwise wander through.
But overwhelmingly as we trek in near silence, it’s what we don’t hear that captivates us more than her warnings.
No birdsong, no cars, no human voices — other than the soft ‘wows’ exchanged by Mark and I every few metres or the constant clicking of our camera shutters.
The silence around us is intense, somehow thick and treacly. Save for a cloudy puff of breath or the soft squeak of a shoe against snow, only the sounds of the forest as it breathes with frost can be heard.
“Those who ski go faster, they miss the smaller details. This way you have no choice but to take it in slowly,” muses Olli.
Going slow is perfectly fine with me — I’ve caught myself grinning from ear-to-ear every few minutes, and have begun to suspect that these few hours spent meandering through the snow are ones I’ll bottle up to keep in my memory forever.
We cautiously weave a route through the forest alongside the frozen creek, the recent snowfall has left the landscape looking fluffy and white; a meringue with stiff white peaks and powder-dusted larches.
With their boughs weighed heavily, these tall trees loom over us somewhat protectively, like silent guardians of the forest. Huddled together in groups, they whisper with the wind and snow.
We learn to move slower near the spaces around their roots, the snow there deceptively cavernous and soft enough to swallow us up to our waists.
Reading the snow and its depths is like rolling a dice; will it be this footstep or the next that sends me sprawling face first into the snow?
What feels like minutes but must be some hours later, we come to a large open plain, a few football fields long, encircled by mountains like a bowl with a few huts dotted along its base. It’s one of the many established protection zones here reserved as quiet spaces for the local wildlife during the winter months, when food is in short supply and environmental stress can take its toll.
As far as the eye can see, a thick white quilt has been pulled up and over the land’s chin, tucking its rises and falls to sleep until the warmth of a summer sun will eventually peel it back again.
We skirt along the edge of the reserve as thick downy flakes float down, catching in our hair and tickling our eyelashes. When the wind blows, it picks up handfuls of snow and whips them into eddies that spin across the powdered sugar.
Of all nature’s weird and wonderful processes, I think snowfall must surely be its prettiest.
The peaceful beauty is broken when, after a few heavy steps wrongly placed, Mark slips down an embankment and comes to a bumping stop, waist deep and partly upside down, like a beetle stuck in the snow.
Olli and I pause for a second, before erupting into belly laughs as he tries to awkwardly dig himself out unsuccessfully. Once we’ve had our fill of observing his struggle, Olli leaps forward to rescue him out and set him upright again.
Dusting off the soft powder covering himself head-to-toe and grinning like a cheshire cat, there’s a childlike glee on Mark’s face that I know is a reflection of my own earlier brush with the icy stuff.
So often, caught up in the day-to-day of running a business or living our adult lives, we forget to take time, to adventure past our limits, to give in to glee.
But every single time we find ourselves out here in wide natural expanses and new terrains, I realise how much closer we become to understanding what pure happiness is.
A morning spent laughing as we stumble through snow, alpine chill on our cheeks and flakes falling around; like my moving grey dot, mapped by the beacon snuggled under my jacket, these moments will form the markers on maps by which we’ll find our way back childlike wonder and glee.
And later, as we warm our souls again with a hot chocolate and apple strudel in a toasty alpine chalet, I’ll be grateful for the reminder that no matter how old we become, nor how many places we visit, there will always be new joy to discover, more beauty to see.
SNOWSHOEING IN VORARLBERG | ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION AND TIPS
HOW TO BOOK YOUR KLEINWALSERTAL SNOWSHOEING TOUR
The Schwarzwassertal snowshoe tour we took in Kleinwalsertal runs every Wednesday morning between December and April, departing from the Ifen Valley cable car station at 9:45am.
BOOK | Tours cost €58pp and can be booked online via the Kleinwalsertal website here
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR SNOWSHOE TOUR
Before you strap on the shoes and take off for your winter wander, there are a few essential pieces of information to know about snowshoeing in Kleinwalsertal:
YOU CAN RENT YOUR GEAR
We rented our snowshoes, poles and a daypack as part of our tour, so all you need to worry about is wearing the right layers and waterproof / ski appropriate gear (more on that below!)
HAVE TRAVEL INSURANCE
We always say don’t leave home without travel insurance - but in this case particularly, don’t even think about heading off for your winter adventures without it. Heavy snow, slippery landscapes, increased risk of injury from skis or snowshoes - anything can go wrong without warning.
BOOK | Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider.
ALWAYS TREK WITH A MOUNTAIN GUIDE
This is something we actually hadn’t given much consideration to prior to our own tour, but it’s super important.
Trekking through mountains covered in thick snow when you’re unsure of the landscapes or how to assess avalanches can actually be relatively dangerous thing; always make sure you have a local mountain guide with you who knows the area and is constantly assessing risk.
DRESS IN LAYERS
Like skiing, your body heats up quickly as you start to move through the snow, and it won’t take long to feel too hot! Prepare by dressing in thermal layers, thin fleece, and a down jacket and/or waterproof over (particularly when it’s snowing heavily) so that you can layer down or up as you need.
Also, we did our hike in ski pants and would say they’re fairly essential to staying warm and dry. Ditto for decent ski gloves and a beanie!
WEAR WATERPROOF, STURDY BOOTS
Don’t be fooled - even with your snowshoes clipped on, you’re likely to end up in snow at least to your ankles… This is definitely not the activity for your casual street shoes or sneakers! You’ll need sturdy, decent quality waterproof boots that will keep your toes toasty and warm during the hike.
WEAR / PACK SUNSCREEN
Any skier will tell you the same; always make sure you’re wearing sunscreen and pack it in your bag if you’re spending a day outside in the snow! The UV light is much more easily reflected in the white snow, and you don’t want to end up looking like a lobster.
BRING A SMALL DAYPACK
Everyone who participates in the snowshoeing tour will need to carry their own emergency snow shovel, so bring a daypack to carry this, and any extra layers, water bottles (also vital!), beanies, etc in.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO VORARLBERG | TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
WHERE IS VORARLBERG?
Vorarlberg is Austria's second-smallest state after Vienna. Nestled into its most western region, near Lake Constance, it shares its border with Liechtenstein, Germany and Switzerland.
WHERE TO STAY IN VORARLBERG
During our time in the Kleinwalsertal area of Vorarlberg, we stayed at the Genuss & Aktiv Hotel Sonnenburg in Riezlern, a beautifully designed, super comfortable wellness hotel with panoramic views over the surrounding mountains.
HOW TO GET TO VORARLBERG
Like most places in Central Europe, the Vorarlberg region is extremely well connected by train. We travelled by train from our home base Budapest via Vienna (about 10 hours all up).
If you’re travelling through Europe we’d highly recommend train travel, as it’s both more comfortable, you get up close to the landscapes, and environmentally, it’s a fraction of the carbon emissions of short haul flying (read our guide to carbon emissions and how to offset them here).
If flying is your only option, Zurich is the nearest airport (then train from here).
HOW TO GET AROUND VORARLBERG
Vorarlberg has a brilliant bus and train system connecting each region, which makes it possible to travel without having to hire a car (though if you do decide to hire one, we recommend organising yours via rentalcars.com).
The Walser Guest Pass | In Kleinwalsertal, your hotel key card actually triples as both your bus pass and ski pass (the latter can be loaded to your card once you arrive). Buses ran from directly outside our hotel and were in town within about 5-10 minutes, where a quick swap to another service took us right to Ifen Ski area (about 15 minutes total).
For full timetables and bus information, check the Walsertal Guest Card site.
EXPERIENCE MORE OF VORARLBERG WITH THESE ESSENTIAL POSTS
SUMMER IN VORARLBERG | The stunning beauty of Austria’s Vorarlberg region in photos
HIKES, WELLNESS, AND FOOD | 10 of the best things to do in Vorarlberg during summer
EUROPE DREAMING | Discover more European adventures with our travel guides and tips
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
VISITING AUSTRIA SOON? YOU’LL LOVE THESE POSTS TOO
We visited Vorarlberg in partnership with Visit Vorarlberg. As always, musings and opinions are very much our own!
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