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What is a Via Ferrata? A Complete Beginners Guide

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For those who want to branch out from regular hiking but don’t fancy taking on anything quite so extreme as rock climbing or out-and-out mountaineering, there exists a very fun, safe, and no less thrilling middle way that might just be exactly what you’re looking for—the via ferrata!

So, what is a Via Ferrata?

A Via Ferrata is an exhilarating mountain adventure blending hiking and climbing. It features a series of steel cables, rungs, and ladders affixed to rock faces, allowing climbers to safely ascend steep terrains without extensive climbing gear. 

Originating in the Alps, Via Ferratas offers a thrilling way to experience high-altitude vistas with a dash of adrenaline. The perfect balance between hiking and mountaineering, it combines the beauty of nature with the challenge of the ascent.

A Short History of Via Ferrata

Via Ferrata in Alps

In the latter part of the 19th century, via ferrata routes first appeared in northern Italy and southern Austria-Hungary, but they gained notoriety for their involvement in the “White War” of the First World War, a battle between Austro-Hungarian and Italian forces across the mountainous terrain of the Italian Front.

During the White War, both the Italians and Hapsburgs installed cables, ladders, and iron spikes into the rock as a means of transporting troops and ferrying supplies to high-altitude, otherwise inaccessible garrisons, gunning stations, or eagle’s nests located high in the mountains of the Dolomites, the Ortler-Cevedale Group, and the Julian Alps.

After the war, the popularity of the routes led to the addition of new ones and the renewal of old, war-time ones for recreational mountain-goers, creating a new way to reach previously inaccessible summits and safeguarding routes that were otherwise too difficult or exposed for the average hiker.

5 Tips to Tackle Your First Via Ferrata

Today, there are over a thousand via ferrata routes in Europe alone, and the sport has become a popular source of tourism in its own right in destinations as diverse as Spain, China, Colorado, and Kenya.

1. Get Your Gear Right

gear for hiking

Your gear is the single most important factor in ensuring your safety on any ferrata route.

In the event of a slip, fall, rockfall from above, or any other accident, your harness, helmet, carabiners, and leashes are all that stand between you and the nearest landing spot below, however far that may be.

Either buy a pre-made via ferrata kit for yourself or make your own one and then spend some time getting to know how to use it on easier routes before venturing onto anything overly testy or exposed, preferably with the guidance of someone with extensive via ferrata experience.

You can make your own kit by simply buying two six-foot lengths of climbing rope to use as lanyards (8 or 9mm rope is best), one locking screwgate carabiner, and two key-lock carabiners.

Tie overhand knots in the ends of both ropes, attach one end of both ropes to your harness with the screwgate, and clip the others to the remaining bights to use for clipping into protection on the route.

2. Choose Your Route Carefully

A via ferrata is just that—a via ferrata, correct? It’s got chains, wires, bolts, rungs, and ladders, and that’s about all there is to it. Well, yes and no.

The presence of the above features may lead us to believe that all via ferratas are essentially alike and easily doable for anyone with a bit of a head for heights and a reasonable level of fitness. This, however, would be a mistake.

The difficulty of via ferrata routes varies greatly, as does the environment in which they are located. Different parts of the world use various rating systems, each taking into account the length, difficulty, and exposure of any given route, as well as the technical ability required.

To provide you with a visual representation of these gradings, we have included the descriptions for the various route difficulties in the Italian grading system below.

  • F—An equipped or assisted walking path
  • PD—a shorter route with limited exposure.
  • D—a medium-length route with some exposure and potential overhangs or vertical sections. D-rated routes generally require a good head for heights, technical proficiency, and a relatively high level of fitness.
  • TD—Exposed, technical, and sustained routes with no less than vertical angles.
  • ED—The toughest via ferrata routes out there, ED-rated routes usually feature sustained exposure and require a high level of technical skill, some rock-climbing ability, and the strength to negotiate overhangs with minimal assistance from rungs or stairs.

If you happen to be new to via ferrata, we’d highly recommend starting off with a few routes at the lower end of the scale before venturing onto anything with sustained exposure and/or vertical or overhanging sections.

3. Footwork

hiking Via Ferrate

As with climbing, many newcomers to via ferrata underestimate the importance of footwork in improving their technique and performance.

Initially, it might appear that via ferrata doesn’t require any intricate or delicate footwork, and this may indeed be the case on many routes.

Owing to the presence of large steel rungs, ladders, stakes, chunky cables, and chains, many novices to the sport choose to pull themselves up their route using an excessive amount of upper body strength.

While this approach is doable, and you’ll probably get away with it on shorter, easier routes, on anything trickier or longer, you’re likely to tire yourself out far too soon, leaving little gas in the tank for the latter stages of the route.

The remedy for this mistake is simply to make better use of the far larger muscles in your legs by stepping up instead of attempting to haul or muscle yourself up with your arms alone.

One simple way to achieve this is to view the fixed protection in the rock for your arms and hands as there purely for balance, and instead do all the pushing with your legs.

4. Avoid Complacency

Perhaps the most significant risk in via ferrata occurs when climbers, having successfully completed their first few routes, become overly comfortable and relaxed about safety, especially when it comes to clipping in their carabiners on the fixed protection.

We come to a slightly easier section of route or simply want to speed things up a little by minimizing handling of our gear, so we start clipping in with only one ‘biner or, worse, go ‘biner-free, relying on our grip on the fixed protection to keep us safe.

But what if we happen to take a slip? What if a rockfall from above causes us to lose our balance?

The key to staying safe while doing a via ferrata route is to ensure that we have at least one cord and carabiner clipped into the fixed protection at all times.

This, of course, is why via ferrata kits use two cords (lanyards) and ‘biners instead of just one—so we can unclip one ‘biner and move it between bolts, rungs, or sections of cable without leaving ourselves unprotected in that second or two between unclipping from one piece of fixed protection and reclipping to another.

As you might have guessed, the best way to avoid any accidents caused by overconfidence or complacency is to be meticulous and patient, taking the time to use both ‘biners on all available protection, even on the easiest sections of your route.

5. Go Early and Stay Safe

walking on Via Ferrata

Via Ferrata routes significantly reduce objective hazards common in traditional mountaineering, such as avalanches and crevasses.

Fixed cables and personal ferrata kits also mitigate subjective risks, such as slipping on steep terrain. However, it’s important to remember that these routes still carry inherent risks that require caution and respect for the mountain environment.

One of the greatest threats to the well-being of users of via ferrata routes beyond that of simple human error with equipment is that posed by the presence of other parties on their route.

Because many via ferrata routes are not vertical and often feature substantial ledges along which climbers can walk, there is a high risk of stones and rocks gathering on said ledges and clumsy or careless climbers further up the route knocking them down on parties below.

To avoid falling foul of other climbers’ lack of consideration or simply unfortunate luck, it’s a beneficial idea to set off early so as to be the first group on the route.

Not only will this reduce the risk of getting caught in a rain shower of rock, but it will also mean you won’t have to wait for any larger, slower-moving parties who happen to beat you to the start of the climb.


Via ferrata offers a fun and thrilling way to experience and explore high-mountain routes that, for most of us, would be just a touch too testy without the protection of our carabiners, lanyards, and all that “ferrata” (literally: “iron”) that gives the routes their name.

For those of you keen to get into via ferrata, we hope the above tips will help quell any fears you might have had and inspire you to get out on the iron for the first of many happy adventures to come.