Hiking the Rheinsteig – a guide for foreigners

The Rheinsteig is a 190 mi (320 km) network of walking trails following the Rhine (Rhein) River in Germany from Bonn to Wiesbaden.  The network was officially completed in 2006 and has been steadily gaining fame since then—and for good reason.  The scenery is breathtaking, the history impressive, and the people lovely.

Rheinsteig!

Rheinsteig!

I stumbled across this trail when trying to figure out how to walk from Koblenz to Bingen along the Rhine, as Richard Halliburton did in 1921.  The day before I started hiking I pieced together some information from the very thorough official website and some independent blogs.  It was enough info to go ahead with my impromptu plan, but my research definitely left me with some questions, the answers to which I would simply have to learn on the road.  The problem with the internet sources is they’re largely aimed at either Germans (who already know what’s up) or at foreigners who put a lot of time and energy into their plans.  I am neither.

Four days later, exhausted and footsore, I arrived in Rudesheim (across the river from Bingen) and compiled my story and my information here, for you, so you can sleep soundly the day before you start hiking. Enjoy!

Note:  my observations took place along the Upper Middle Rhine from Koblenz to Bingen—I have no idea what the rest of the trail is like.

Preparation:

My big questions were about the following things:  accommodation, luggage, maps, food and water.  This is what I found out:

  1. Book a hotel at the beginning and end of your trip.  The middle bits don’t matter (more on that below), but with a starting and ending point you can send your luggage ahead of you!  Aha!  This way you don’t lug 15 kg of useless crap with you through the Rhineland hills.
  2. Go to the Deutsche-Bahn website and schedule your luggage to be sent ahead of you.  Enter your starting and ending addresses (don’t forget to include the names of your hotels!) and timeframe, pay the €17.50 with credit card, and rest easy.  That last part was hard for me—I looked online and found nothing about people using this service.  Did it work?  Did it exist?!  Yes and yes.  DB uses the company Hermes to fulfil these orders and it appears they do a damn fine job of it as my backpack was awaiting me in Rudesheim.  Oh, and be sure to email your destination hotel and let them know your luggage will be arriving before you.
  3. The Rheinsteig is really a simple trail to follow.  It is clearly marked along its entire length, and you don’t even need a map.  Now, bearing that in mind…I highly recommend you get a map.  This could just be me, but I love maps.  I don’t care if I’m sitting at a trail junction with a sign that says “Sarah, your destination is THIS WAY”, I still want to look at a map and see where I’m going, what the terrain will be like, the name of that mountain over there, and ooh look, a scenic overlook in 2.5 km!  But more than that, a map of the Rheinsteig will help you create your own shortcuts when you no longer feel like going an extra 6 km just because it’s pretty (more on that below).  There’s a shop in Koblenz called “Reuffel”—they sell a few Rheinsteig maps there (more on that later, too).
  4. At a minimum, bring snacks, and if you’re cheap like me, bring lunches, too.  I actually found a shop in Koblenz that sells “American style peanut butter”.  The amazing part wasn’t its smooth texture and slightly sweet flavor, but that it came in a plastic jar.  Hey, I’m an environmentalist all the way, but there’s no way in hell I’m toting around a glass jar of peanut butter.  Kind of defeats the purpose.  There are plenty of towns along the way to stop and have lunch in, but many of them require a detour [read: a steep descent followed by a steep ascent].  I preferred to eat lunch at one of the many scenic benches along the way.
  5. Water is a similar problem—yes, there are towns, but you’ll have to come across them at the right time, you’ll have to access the towns, and you’ll have to procure water.  And as a heads up, there are NO water fountains in Germany.  Seriously, not a one.  I don’t get it.  Anyways, I hate buying and throwing away plastic bottles (except peanut butter jars), but also dislike imposing upon hard-working business owners and asking them to fill my bottle for me, so I just took my Steripen (which I happen to love) and purified water from steams and these cute little basins that looked clean and pure…but why take the chance?  Also, I’m a camel and did fine with one bottle, but most people will want two.  It’s hot and humid in those hills.

On the trail:

After adequately preparing for the hike, all I had to do was find the trail.  The map came in handy for getting me off on the right foot, but once you’re on the trail it’s hard to lose it.  

Rheinsteig signs and logo

Rheinsteig signs and logo

The trail is thoroughly marked with little “Rheinsteig” markers and arrows.  There’s one at every junction, and then another one within the next 50 m to confirm you went the right way.  This is true in towns and forests, vineyards and intersections.  In towns, the same symbol on a yellow background will lead you back to the main trail.  Every so often you’ll come across a marker that makes you say “huh?” but a 1-minute wander should answer your questions.  Additionally there are frequent signposts telling you the distance to the next town or landmark.

And, because you didn’t book any of the middle accommodation, you can stay in whatever towns you want to along the way.  I mean that literally.  If you do an internet search for hotels along the Rheinsteig you’ll find they’re all expensive and booked out.  Don’t worry—they’re booked because they’re online.  In non-internet reality, every town is rife with accommodation, everything from three-star hotels to rooms in people’s homes (these people advertise with a sign that says “zimmer frei”.  The rooms are lovely and cheap, rather like a home-stay).  Hotel prices ranged from €30-45 for a single.  Traveling with another person will make accommodation much less expensive.

It should be noted that scarcely any of the townsmen along the Rheinsteig speak English. Hell, for that matter, not a single hiker on the Rheinsteig spoke English.  Not that they should, just be prepared to ask for a room in German (single or double?  How many nights?) and to recognize the German word for breakfast (Frühstück) which should be included.

Which reminds me…unless you’re into cold cuts for breakfast, you may be a little disappointed.

Oh, and because this is wine country (!!!)  make sure you can ask for a glass of wine (no, not with breakfast…unless you’re into that).

And, one more thing—don’t plan on sticking to a vegetarian diet.  This is rural Germany, after all.

Also, the hotel owners tend to be very efficient in a way that may seem rude to an American but is really just…efficient:

Me: “Hallo”

Her:  “Hallo”

Me:  “Sorry, I don’t speak German.  Einerzimmer?”

Her:  “Yah, okay.”  Scribbling on paper, €42, “Mit Frühstück.  Okay?”

Me:  “Yah, gut.”

Her:  Walks me to the room, points at the remote control for the TV. “Dankeshön!” Leaves.

Me: “Uhh….”

The hiking:

The trail is relatively smooth and easy to walk on.  The underlying rock of the area is almost exclusively shale and sometimes you’ll be walking on that (every single roof in the Rhine gorge is made of shale, too).  Anything that’s remotely sketchy has accompanying ropes or cables to hold on to.  Most of the “trail” is actually composed of unused logging roads, but sometimes it’s single-track.

Variety of scenery on the Rheinsteig

Variety of scenery on the Rheinsteig

Scenery ranges from dense green forest (most of the time) to dry, scrubby ridges, the occasional wheat field or goat pasture, lots of vineyards, and sometimes the cutest little towns you can imagine.  Oh, and there are castles everywhere.  Seriously, I longed for a bungalow.

The only downside of the trail has to do with how scenic it is.  The route strives to be high-up all the time so the hiker can have great views at every opportunity.  But have you ever tried staying high-up while walking the ridge of a gorge?  Little secret—you can’t.  Every time a stream or river comes in from the side you either have to descend into it and climb back out, or make a long detour following the same contour.  This is why the Rheinsteig from Koblenz to Bingen is 70 mi (120 km) long with almost 13,000 ft (4,000 m) elevation gain whereas the river itself only flows 38 mi (64 km) and changes by just, what, 100 ft (30 m)?

Again, the map comes in handy here.  I created my own detours and shortcuts, not only to make the route a bit easier, but also to add a bit of diversity.  Once a day I’d cut off a bend of the river by heading over the hilltop through beautiful agricultural land and cute farming towns, and I finished every day down on the bike path following the river, just for the change of pace (okay, and the shorter distances).

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Well, I think that’s all I have to offer!  If you have any questions about the section of the Rheinsteig I completed, don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below.  Happy hiking!

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26 Comments

  1. Looking through the Bible for the “Patron of Really Sore Feet” . . aw ratz! Will St. Jude for Hopeless Causes” help at all? At any rate, with Matty just 5 days away, Sarah, you definitely need a miracle. And you are too far away from Lourdes to pray for one. Gosh, now my feet hurt just thinking of yours. Hang in there, Miss Wanderlust.

  2. Yay! Eddie reference!

  3. william r. taylor

    I am beginning to think that reincarnation might have some substance after all. I won’t be sure until you successfully conquer the Matterhorn but you may be Richard Halliburton come back to thrill and inspire millions of armchair travelers/adventurers all over again.

    I won’t have to hike the Rheinsteig again because I have already done so through your vivid, thorough commentary. The light touch of humor put a nice cap on the story.

  4. Sarah! You’re a treasure!!! Although I’m totally bummed I can’t be there with you, I’m loving every ‘word’ of your close encounters with ze Germans ;) Also… now I get it! about not having a super heavy pack! I hope you don’t mind me following in your footsteps one of these days!

  5. Were there any mosquitoes (or other biting insects) along the way, especially in the evening? I’m thinking of camping along the way for several nights (any tips on places to do that), and am wondering if I need to worry about bugs… What month were you there? Thanks for the great post!

    • I was there in late July, and I don’t recall any biting insects. I can’t think of any specific places to camp. Probably anywhere off the trail would be fine, but be aware that the region is quite heavily populated and you’re never very far from towns, roads or people. One place that comes to mind is an overlook for the Marksburg castle (between Koblenz and Osterspai). I recall the overlook being flat with a picnic table or two, though you might have frequent company in a place like that. Good luck, and let me know how it goes–if you end up with camping info, I’d love to add it to this post!

  6. Great Post! I am planning a trip to Germany (Wiesbaden) in August (wine season) to September (Oktoberfest). I am really interested in doing some miles (ok Km) on this trail. Do you have anymore information on the section you did, places you stayed? From my understanding there is no primitive camping allowed in most of Germany (no public lands). So traditional backpacking is out of the question.

    • Hi Blaine, glad you liked the post! Here are the places I stayed:
      Koblenz: The Hotel National (http://www.nationalhotel.de/). It was fine, and within walking distance of the train station and the trail.
      Osterspai: I went to the tourist office and the tourism lady (very, very little English) made some calls for me and found me a hotel room for 40-something Euros. Osterspai also had a cheap little riverfront restaurant that served fish and chips, and good local wine for cheap.
      St. Gaudsheim: It was raining, so I took the first hotel I found. I think it was the Hotel Colonius: http://www.hotel-colonius.de/.
      Lorch: Again, went into the first hotel I saw. It was a B&B sort of place run by an elderly lady named Renata. Her English was a welcome surprise! I don’t remember the hotel’s name, but I do remember she sent me to her granddaughter’s restaurant up the street, and it was amazing. I think this was the restaurant: http://www.weinwirtschaft-laquai.de/Weinwirtschaft/Kueche1.htm
      Rudesheim: I booked this one in advance so I could have my luggage sent ahead. I would not stay here again. The proprietress clearly looked down on me, and the internet was outlandishly overpriced. But, it was the cheapest place and they received my luggage, so it wasn’t all bad. http://www.hotel-hoehn.de/index.php

      Hope that helps!

      • Thanks for the information. 120 Km Sounds like a great trip. I put together a three day bier/walking tour in Bamberg last year. 9 Breweries and Weyermann Specialty Malts. From what I can remember it was fun! Time to try a Wein and Sekt tour along the Rhein

  7. Thanks for the guide! I’ll have to remember this for my next trip to Germany :)
    Stephen recently posted…Into Borneo’s Heart, Belaga to Kapit – Sarawak, MalaysiaMy Profile

  8. Hi Sarah – thanks for the info! I am putting together a trip for next June to include the stretch you hiked. Most of the companies that will book rooms and transport luggage from inn to inn have us hiking north to south as you did. Do you know of any reasons why not to hike this south to north instead? I’d like to end in Koblanz.

    • Nope, I can’t think of any reason. It made sense for me as I was heading to Switzerland. The companies ought to be able to organize it for you south-to-north pretty easily. Have fun!

  9. Hello Sarah, thanks for your post, really helpful and I intend to use it as a base guide in my upcoming trip this summer. I would like to hike from Rüdesheim to Koblenz or the other way around, have not decided yet and I have just 5 walking days for it. If I would like an easy walk of up to 6 hours a day and enjoy the rest of the time, which area would you recommend I skip and which ways are there to help you skip it (bus/train) ?
    Also, do you know if parts can be done by bike and if bike rental are in the area ?
    Thank you

    • Hi Amir,
      I’m sorry, but I don’t have any info about bikes/trains/buses. It looked like there was a train and road following the river the whole way, and I’m pretty sure there’s a ferry that connects the towns along the river. The ferry would be a great way to do things, I think. I can’t really say which sections I’d skip–they were all beautiful in their own way. Have fun!
      Sarah

  10. Leonard Schlenz

    My sister and I will be hiking north from Wiesbaden early September 2017. As your blog is about 3 years old do you still think it is NOT NECESSARY to book hotels in advance (except first and last night)?

    Thanks

    • I have no idea, sorry. I don’t think the Rhine region has been overwhelmed with tourism, but it’s up to you. Good luck!

  11. I am so happy that I ran across this blog! I’m an older (much older) woman and I plan to visit the Rhine area (starting in Wiesbaden) in the fall of 2018. This is exactly the kind of information I’m looking for, love your writing style with a bit of humor. Good to know about the need to bring water, to know a bit of German, not needing to book hotels ahead, the trails clearly marked. etc. Any tips for an older (slower) woman doing this hike?

    • I’m happy you found my blog, too! I hope it’s helpful. If you’re going slower than I was, then I’d simply recommend biting off smaller chunks each day, and maybe taking a day in the middle to not hike at all (winery tour, perhaps?). I spent almost the entirety of each day on the trail to get between my destinations. Keep in mind that there’s a lot of up and down on all the inland sections, so those days take longer than you might think. Have an amazing time! -Sarah-

      • Sarah thanks again for all the info. I love all the detailed info in your blog and I will take your advice about hiking in shorter chunks. I hadn’t read any of Richard Halliburton’s books, but now I’m anxiously awaiting a copy of “The Royal Road to Romance” inspired by your comments about him.

  12. My sister and I (I’m 71) did about 70 miles north from Wiesbaden Sept. 2017. The book “Rheinsteig Hiking” is very good. We ended up booking all the hotels but to this day we don’t know if it was necessary. The first day, Wiesbaden to Rauenthal, went well until the big loop (on the map) It (the big loop) is a waste of time and very confusing as it leads you in circles. The second day north to Kuhn’s Muhle was a complete disaster. We were lost the entire day because of lack of signage, and the few trail signs we saw were obscured by grape vines, and untended. (but got in a lot of hiking) and ended up taking a taxi to the next town.

    That said, The rest of the trip was absolutely great. The hiking was hard but doable and the scenery and little towns were outstanding. The people were friendly and the food was superb. Language was not a problem. We may even return next year and continue the trail where we left off.

    • Leonard, I’m glad to see a comment from someone close to my age–makes me feel optimistic that I’ll be able to do some of this hiking. I hope to get a copy of the Rheinsteig Hiking book you mention but I’m surprised at how expensive it is for a “pocket guide”. I found it on Amazon for $46.34. Seems a bit high.

      • Wow. I bought the book from Amazon in September for $17 (it fits in your back pocket). Unfortunately I no longer have my copy. I’d wait and see if they do another printing. I think I remember seeing some good detailed guides and blogs on line.

  13. Folks.

    There is a great app that can be used – it has interactive maps, trail descriptions, photos and even elevation charts. It also has several other trails from around the area. I used it with the book when I hike the trail in 2016.
    Rheinland-Pfalz erleben – Free App. You can find it in the Google Play Store. Not sue about Apple but I am sure they have it too.
    Couple of notes:
    WATER – I did my hike in August of 2016 and it was unseasonably hot. Water was an issue for me. While I am used to filtering/treating my water on the trail in the US – I did not bring anything to address this issue for Germany. My plan was to just buy water (and bier and wein) along the way. If you are hiking in the summer carry a Lifestraw or something similar.
    Closed Sundays, holidays and just whenever they feel like it. Most German stores are closed on Sundays and German holidays. You will not be able to buy water, groceries, or say Ibuprofen. You may also have trouble getting a hotel if you do not already have a reservation. Plan accordingly for those days. During my hike the whole town of Schlangenbad – except for one pizza restaurant – was closed from 1100-1400 on a Monday. I arrived in the town looking for water and had to wait until after 1400 to buy some bottles. It is also very typical to arrive at a German restaurant and they will be closed for a couple of hours. Lastly some businesses will close for a whole week or so for vacation. They do not post it on the web. Usually the only warning you will get is a sign on the door when you get there.
    Safe Travels.

    • Thanks for the info. The app sounds like an excellent tool to have. Does it work offline or do you need to have a data connection?

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