Each year we like to go on a long multi-day hike, one that takes us to a new region somewhere in the mountains. This hiking is an exercise for the body and also for the mind. To disconnect with our day-to-day and also to reconnect with a region once unknown to us and learn about it through its nature and people.
Our trek of 200 km / 125 miles through the mountains of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo along a the Peaks of the Balkans Trail was one we’ll never forget.
We had high expectations from the almost two years of planning since the first time we'd heard of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail. In the end, however, our experience exceeded our expectations — both in terms of the extent of dramatic mountain landscapes as well as the cultural context.
We found research for this hike a bit difficult, however, and clear information lacking. Having fielded numerous questions about hiking the Peaks of the Balkans trail and more generally the region referred to as the Accursed Mountains, we decided to capture in one place all the information we ourselves could have used before setting off — which trek and trails to choose, how to find a trekking agency, whether to have a guide, when to go, how to get there, and more.
So we created this Peaks of the Balkans Beginner’s Guide with all the information we would have wanted to know when we first started planning and researching this hike.
We hope it encourages you to consider making the journey to take your own Peaks of the Balkans hike.
May 2022 COVID-19 Update: Before embarking on a Peaks of the Balkans trek this summer be sure to do your research on possible travel restrictions and closed border crossings to/from and between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). At this time, (May 2022) a full Peaks of the Balkans is possible and cross-border permits are available as the participating countries have dropped most Covid travel restrictions. Be sure to check the requirements of each country, however, before starting your hike. Here is a handy summary of relevant Peaks of the Balkans Covid and border information. Most guest houses along the trail should still be open and have received special COVID-19 hygiene and safety instructions. However, it's always best if you can call in advance to be sure they are open and so that they can expect you.
Update: You can now buy the Peaks of the Balkans: A Beginner's Guide (pdf) with all the information from this site with extra packing details and other goodies in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.
What is the Peaks of the Balkans?
The Peaks of the Balkans (PoB) is a 192-km cross-border trekking trail through the Accursed Mountains of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. The premise of the route was to offer a culturally immersive adventure travel and sustainable tourism product that would also support local families in remote mountain areas through hikers staying the night at family homestays or guest houses.
At first blush, this sort of cross-border project may not sound like a big deal. But, when you consider the region’s turbulent history and once tightly controlled borders, it is. Virtually free movement across borders is now possible in a way that was inconceivable a couple of decades ago. The various bunker ruins and abandoned guard towers scattered across the region stand testament to this and to the winds of change.
Choosing a Peaks of the Balkans Trail
Peaks of the Balkans Trail (original): 10-12 Days
The full Peaks of the Balkans trek is a 192 kilometer (119 mile) circuit through the remote mountain areas of northern Albania, western Kosovo and southern Montenegro. The trail is designed to be accomplished in ten days, including overnight home stays with families in local villages.
Peaks of the Balkans Map
The trail is a loop, so you can begin and end it in any number of locations. Theth or Valbona, Albania are the most common trailheads. However, you can also choose to set off from Pejë (Kosovo) or Plav (Montenegro).
The official Peaks of the Balkans trail (above) purportedly features some dull moments, including dirt and tarmac roads rather than mountain trails. This was partly the result of politics, to ensure that trekkers following the route would spend an equivalent number of days in each of the three countries. As such, the official trail is not always optimized for the best views or experiences.
Private trekking agencies have since stepped in to offer routes that include a “best of” Peaks of the Balkans and other alternative trekking experiences that remain aligned with organizing premise of supporting rural and sustainable tourism, while delivering a more memorable experience.
This is what we did.
Modified Peaks of the Balkans Trail (Our Route): 12 Days
You can find all the details of our modified route in this Peaks of the Balkans, Day by Day article, including the itinerary, distances and trekking times. We've also incorporated all of this into a nifty Peaks of the Balkans table with itinerary, accommodation and transport information. Finally, you can see the visual of our route in the Google Map above.
There are endless options when considering an optimal Peaks of the Balkans itinerary. This is a strength of the route, but it also can result in decision paralysis. We know this well from our own experience. To help you out, here are the main changes and additions we made to the original Peaks of the Balkans route on our modified 12-day trek. We recommend all of them, as they formed some of the best experiences of our journey.
Recommended Adjustments to the Peaks of the Balkans Trail
Ferry Across Lake Koman, Albania: Begin your adventure in Shkodër and take an early morning public bus to catch the ferry from Koman to Fierzë. The 3-hour journey across this manmade lake will take you through stunning canyon and mountain scenery, and will cost only 500 lek (€4/$5).
Valbona to Çerem, Albania: There is the standard Peaks of the Balkans route to get to Çerem, but we suggest you take the trail that goes through Qafa Perslopit and Stanet e Derzhanes. You begin from Valbona with a steep 1200m/2900 ft climb from Valbona, but the trail is beautiful and is worth the effort.
Not only can you enjoy great views of the granite peaks of the Accursed Mountains, but you cross high pastures filled with shepherds' huts. You may even find yourself welcomed in one of them for coffee, as we were.
Mt. Gjeravica, Kosovo: This trail from the shepherd village of Dobërdol, Albania will take you across several mountain passes, valleys and lakes to finally reach the summit of Mt Gjeravica, the highest peak in Kosovo (2,656m/8,714ft). The views from the top, especially of the turquoise alpine lakes below are impressive. If you are interested in taking this side trip detour, you'll need to arrange transport from Gropa Erenikut.
Mt. Hajla, Kosovo: This is an easy side trip from the standard Peaks of the Balkans trail between the villages of Reka e Allages and Drelaj, Kosovo. From below, Mt Hajla may not look like much, but once you get to the top and walk along its ridge you will not be disappointed by the views into both Kosovo and Montenegro.
Vermosh–Mt. Grebenit–Lëpushë–Mt. Talijanka–Grbaja Valley, Albania and Montenegro: We're actually surprised that this two-day route is not part of the standard Peaks of the Balkans route as it has, in our opinion, some of the best mountain views in the area.
You can add this on easily from Plav, Montenegro, by hiring a taxi to take you over the Albanian border towards Vermosh village. From there you can find the trail to Mt. Grebenit and finally to Lëpushë where you rest overnight before climbing Mt Talijanka the next day. The descent from this peak features the stunning granite peaks of the Karanfil Mountains on the border of Albania and Montenegro.
Peaks of the Balkans Hike: Independently, with a Guide or Guided Tour?
If you are planning any cross-border multi-day treks along the more remote, challenging portions of the trail, we recommend hiring a trekking guide. (In our Peaks of the Balkans, Day by Day article, we highlight which segments do not require a guide.) However, if you are on a strict budget there are some day treks in the more popular areas that you could do independently. We list these below.
When it comes to crossing some of the more poorly marked mountain passes, forests, and remote borders — and finding guesthouses at the end of the day — having a guide is not only a matter of safety, but also one of being able to focus on enjoying the journey rather than finding your way.
Our guide also provided a great deal of natural, cultural, and historical context which enhanced our understanding and appreciation of where we were. He also served as translator for conversations with shepherds and local families we encountered.
Many of the Peaks of the Balkans trails, especially in parts of Kosovo and Montenegro, remain very poorly marked despite development funds having been provided for local guides to do so. One explanation given to us: execution was deliberately botched because some locals felt that if the trails were too well marked then travelers wouldn’t hire trekking guides.
While we appreciate this logic, this short-sighted mentality is shameful and postpones or dampens the long-term viability of the destination. As we’ve seen in countless other parts of the world, if a trail or destination becomes more popular with independent trekkers, that popularity usually serves only to attract even more trekkers requiring guides and other services.
As a result, even if you are armed with a GPS device and imported waypoints, navigation can be difficult — so much so that it’s even difficult for guides who are not experienced on that segment of the trail. Weather-induced visibility issues further complicate circumstances. Finally, some areas are so remote that it’s possible to go several hours before encountering someone you might ask for help.
To the point, we met a group of experienced Israeli trekkers who had with them all the Peaks of the Balkans maps and a GPS device loaded with the appropriate waypoints. In the first days of their trek they got lost several times and had to sleep in an abandoned shepherd’s hut instead of the guest house they’d booked. Fortunately for them, they carried camping gear.
Across multiple similar instances, they wasted several days getting lost. When we last encountered them, they decided to cut their trek short, rent a car in Montenegro, and take day hikes for the remainder of their holiday. In our research and conversations, their experience trekking the Peaks of the Balkans independently is not unusual.
You can also choose to join a Peaks of the Balkans guided tour where you are hiking with a small group and have a mountain guide, all of the logistics (accommodation, transport, etc.) and luggage transport (up to 15 kg) taken care of you. These guided tours are usually 8-12 days. You can see the scheduled departures for Zbulos! Peaks of the Balkan guided tours to see if one of those timings work for you.
Peaks of the Balkans: Difficulty and Safety
To hike the entire Peaks of the Balkans trail, you must be prepared for a challenge, some long days, and rocky terrain. The official circuit and the modified trail that we trekked featured a lot of up and down, which proved both challenging and fun. On the first day, we climbed 4000 feet/1,220 meters and went back down another 3000 feet/915 or so. This pattern is common.
We hiked a half dozen peaks in this manner and usually descended back into the valleys to stay the night. In this way, there's more elevation gain overall than a typical Himalayan hike or peak-climb like Mt. Kilimanjaro.
However, on Peaks of the Balkans, you won't reach the breathless, oxygen depriving altitudes. The highest altitude we reached on our trek: 2750m (9100 ft).
If you mind the advice given in this article with respect to safety, preparation and equipment, you’ll find that the trail is not technical and is generally quite safe during the recommended hiking season (mid-June – September).
Warning about Valbona Pass in snow / early in season: Sadly, a there have been a couple of deaths the last few years at the Valbona Pass when it was covered in heavy snow in May. This popular route between Theth and Valbona is used safely in the summer months, but it usually has a heavy snow pack until early/mid-June and can be very dangerous during that time as it is very slippery. Therefore, it's suggested not to try this route until mid-June. You can learn more about the safety of the Valbona Pass here.
Choosing a Peaks of the Balkans Trekking Agency and Guide
We aimed to find a guide and agency with local knowledge about the trails, nature, culture, and history. To that end, we worked with Endrit and Ricardo from Zbulo! Discover Albania in Tirana to assemble our itinerary and organize our guide, transport and accommodation.
We spent a lot of time discussing our goals for the trek and what trekking routes and peaks would best meet them. The modifications we made to the official Peaks of the Balkans trail, many of which turned out to be the highlights of our trek, came from their guidance.
Both founders of the company are avid trekkers and still lead groups so they know the trails intimately. They were also active in the development of the official Peaks of the Balkans and had worked with local families to set up home stays and other rural tourism services.
While you can engage or hire a guide directly, we feel that local agencies with contacts in the region provide an additional level of confidence and comfort. If something went awry (e.g., our host in Vusanje didn’t show up), Endrit from Zbulo! was on it and managed to find or facilitate alternatives from afar. We appreciated this extra support.
Advice for working with your Peaks of the Balkans trekking guide
It’s always best if you can meet your guide in advance and let him know a little bit about you and your interests and goals for your trip.
If you have an unusual itinerary with optional climbs or trails, as we did, be sure to actively discuss multiple times. This means before the trip, each night, and at the beginning of each day so that everyone is in agreement as to what the itinerary includes and what needs to happen in order to accomplish everything on it with the least amount of stress.
For example, on our trek from Vusanje to Theth, we didn't climb Mt. Arapit; we reached the base too late because of a unnecessarily long lunch break. This was very disappointing; had our guide alerted us of the time constraint in advance, we would have adjusted our schedule accordingly. Instead, we had to learn the bad news as we bewilderingly passed the peak. By then, it was already too late.
Peaks of the Balkans day hikes and multi-day hikes you can do independently
Valbona Valley (Albania): The trek between the northern Albanian villages of Valbona and Theth is probably the best known and most trafficked in the area, due in part to Lonely Planet having recently recognizing it as a Top Trek.
We are told it’s well-marked, making it difficult to get lost. In addition, there are quite a few other day treks in the Valbona area. The owners of Quku I Valbones guesthouse list day trek options.
How to get to Valbona: Public bus from Shkodër to Lake Koman (2-3 hours, 500 lek/$4), ferry across Lake Koman (3 hours, 500 lek/$4) plus minibus or transfer to Valbona or Dragobi (approximately 3 hour forest walk to Valbona). For more transport options check out this page.
Theth (Albania): Theth is another popular setting for trekkers in northern Albania. In fact, when we visited, we noticed a building and tourism development boom with guesthouses and cafes going up at pace.
The most popular trek here is from Theth to Valbona. However, we’ve heard the trek from Valbona to Theth in the opposite direction is easier and more pleasant. There are also some other treks on well-worn paths to Lake Pejes (12 km/7.5 miles). You can also walk to Nderlysa and the Blue Eye watering hole.
How to get to Theth: Public minibus from Shkodër takes four hours, 1000 lek ($8).
Lëpushë and Kelmend Valleys (Albania): This area is not along the official Peaks of the Balkans trek, but features some great hikes, including to the tops of Mt. Talijanka and Mt. Grebenit.
If you only have time for one trek, choose Mt. Talijanka, for it offers some of the best views in the region. If the weather on top of Mt. Taljanka is bad, wait it out if you can. The views are worth it.
There are many guesthouses in and around Lepushe — a trailhead of sorts to approach Mt. Taljanka — that are marked by signs on the road, so it’s easy to find accommodation there (€25/person including all meals).
How to get to Lepushe: Bus from Shkoder, 2-3 hours. We didn’t take this ourselves, but it's what others suggested. For those interested in getting a taste of some of the best views in Albania on a short, independent trek, this is probably your best bet.
Reka e Allages and Drelaj, Rugova Valley (Kosovo): An area where we encountered other trekking groups on day trips from Pejë (Peja). The main trails here are relatively well-marked — especially for Kosovo, a country whose Peaks of the Balkans segments are generally very poorly marked. If you are interested in a Kosovo day hike with outstanding views, check out Mt. Hajla.
How to get to Reka e Allages: The closest city is Pejë, so you'd likely need to arrange a taxi or private transfer.
Grbaja and Gusinje/Vusanje (Montenegro): This area seemed more popular with cyclists than with trekkers, given the popularity of mountain biking map signs. There were, however, several marked paths, especially along the popular foot path from Vusanje to Theth.
For several of the trails mentioned above, you can download the route and waypoints on Endrit Shima’s Wikiloc page. We used several of these on our trek. He took readings to create the official Peaks of the Balkans map, so you can definitely trust the accuracy. You can also find different trails in Kosovo for the Via Dinarica and GPS trails marked here.
Accommodation along the Peaks of the Balkans Trail
Our favorite hikes often include incredible scenery combined with the possibility to engage with local people along the way. Peaks of the Balkans is one of those experiences; its cultural context was one of the main reasons we chose it.
Summer 2022 Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: We checked in with Zbulo!, the trekking agency in Tirana we used, to see if guest houses and accommodation providers are open this summer for trekkers. Most providers will be open, but it's best to try and call in advance. Those that work with Zbulo! have been given instructions for COVID-19 related hygiene and safety measures. Remember that even if your first choice is not available, there are often several other providers in the area who can take care of you. The goal is to spread travelers and trekkers around to different family hosts so that everyone in the community benefits.
Throughout much of the region, hospitality is deeply ingrained in the culture. In northern Albania, hospitality was actually codified in the kanun, the traditional Albanian law.
An adherence to hospitality had been so strong in the culture that when some of guest houses were initially set up a few years ago in Theth and Nderlysa, convincing locals that it was acceptable to charge trekkers money in exchange for providing accommodation and food proved a challenge.
Most nights during our trek, we stayed with families whose homes featured rooms converted to accommodate trekkers. This system supplements the families’ farming and shepherding income. Many families are in the hills only from mid-June to mid-September as remote areas such as these are almost impossible to reach during the winter.
The official Peaks of the Balkans map indicates where you can find accommodation along the official route and we have put the details of where we stayed in this table.
Note: Since our trek there are more accommodation providers, meaning that usually each location usually has several different host options. If you see that one guest house already has trekkers there, please continue to another one so that not everyone is crowded into one place. The services are vary similar between guesthouses and by spreading people around it ensures that more people in the community can benefit from tourism.
Depending on which segment of the circuit you are on, guesthouses may not be clearly marked on the trail, so you may need to ask around if you don’t have a guide with you. Not all locations have mobile phone coverage, but it’s still best to try and call the family in advance so they know you are coming and can prepare for your visit.
We stayed in a couple of hotels during city/town stopovers (e.g., Plav on the trail, Prizren during our Kosovo break). However, those experiences were much less personal, less tasty and usually more expensive than ones in family-run guesthouses.
A full listing of our accommodation during our Peaks of the Balkans trek can be found here.
What to expect at a Peaks of the Balkans family-run guesthouse:
Sleeping arrangements: This will depend on the actual home. We usually found ourselves in rooms with 4-6 beds, though some fit 10-12 people to a room. Sometimes you can have the option for a double room (2 people). Beds were often separate twin beds, but on occasion we had a double bed.
Because we traveled early in the season, we often had a room to ourselves. All guesthouses provide sheets and blankets. Most also provide a towel. You should pack a travel towel and sleep sack just in case.
Food: As virtually all food and drink along the Peaks of the Balkans trail is sourced from the farm and cooked fresh, eating at family guesthouses was one of the things we eagerly anticipated at the end of each day.
Cow and sheep milk is plentiful; particularly in the more remote mountain areas you’ll eat a loads of feta-like semi-hard cheese and delicious, tangy yogurt. Bread is baked fresh, salads are made with vegetables from the garden or the local market (on the edges of the trail), and jams and fruit preserves are home made. Families will provide you with a pack lunch — often including a sandwich with cheese and vegetables — before you set off each day.
If you drink alcohol, be sure to try rakija, the local firewater brandy. Each family has a different recipe, so it’s interesting to sample a variety. A little rakija in the morning and/or evening also seemed to keep digestive issues at bay.
Note: If you have special dietary requirements, let families know in advance so they can prepare accordingly. We heard from a friend who has celiac disease that the families prepared cornbread to accommodate her gluten intolerance. For additional vegan considerations and assurance, contact Ricardo Fahrig of Zbulo!, himself an avid and fit vegan trekker.
Toilets and showers: The “roughing it” quotient in the region is relatively low. Most guesthouses have hot water showers and flush toilets. Just a couple of the accommodations will feature Turkish (squat) toilets or outhouses and only cold running water.
Electricity: The vast majority of villages have electricity (exceptions: Çerem and Doberdol) so it’s easy to charge your batteries and smartphones most nights. Even in these locations, there are solar panels, making it possible to charge something if you absolutely must.
When possible, keep your smartphone on airplane mode during your hike to conserve battery power, and consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery.
Guesthouse Costs (2015 prices): If you are traveling independently (i.e., you haven't booked a pre-paid tour), estimate that in Albania you’ll spend around €20-€25 per person per day for homestay accommodation + 3 meals (exception is Lëpushë and Vermosh at €25 per person). In Kosovo and Montenegro the cost is €25 per person. If you travel with a guide, he usually stays and eats for free.
Hotels in more developed towns (e.g., Plav, Gusinje, Prizren) do not follow this rule and your guide will be charged as a paying guest.
Practical Details for Peaks of the Balkans
Health and Medical Issues
In general, you shouldn't be worried about hygiene along the Peaks of the Balkans. We never had a problem finding clean water, either from family guesthouses or from clean mountain springs along the trail. At the time of writing, all water sources did not require water treatment or filtering.
We found food hygiene to be quite good, especially as almost everything we ate came straight from the farm. We also found sleeping conditions at family guesthouses to be adequate with clean sheets and towels. However, you should carry a sleep sack for those nights where the sleeping arrangements perhaps don’t quite live up to your sense of comfort (e.g., in a shepherd’s hut). This is true particularly as the season wears on, the traveler traffic increases and the frequency of laundering bed linen wanes. Again, we don’t know first hand, but we can imagine. So, it’s best to be prepared.
As indicated in our trekking packing list, be sure to carry a basic medical kit for headaches, tummy problems, scrapes and basic infections.
Cross Border Permits
If you’re following the Peaks of the Balkans trail (or a similar cross-border trek in the region) you are required to carry a cross-border permit, which must be applied for in advance. Given the level of bureaucracy and the stories of local authorities ignoring email and phone calls, it’s probably best to engage an agency for this. Zbulo! arranged ours and you can apply online for border crossing permits. To be safe, be sure to arrange and submit your documents at least two weeks in advance.
Although we did not encounter border guards at any of the remote border crossings, it is possible to be stopped. Cross-border permits ensure that you are safe and legal in these cases. If you walk from Babino Polje to Plav, you will need to visit the Montenegrin border police station (on the eastern edge of Plav) and show the border officials your permit and passport so they can officially register you in their system. The officers are friendly, but the process moves slowly. Budget anywhere between 30 minutes and one hour for the visit.
Cross Border Permit Costs: The cost for cross-border permits through Zbulo is €40 for two independent trekkers and €60 for groups of three or more independent trekkers (this includes €10 fee for Montenegro). If you book a tour, these fees are already included in the price of the tour.
It's possible to add luggage transfer service to your hike or trek, which means that your belongings are delivered — often by horse, mule or donkey — to your next guest house so you need only carry a daypack on your walks. We chose not to do this as we preferred the flexibility and access of carrying all our own gear, particularly because of the changeable weather. We also wished to reduce our costs and avoid a 400€ luggage transfer fee for the two of us across 12-14 days.
If you take a Peaks of the Balkans guided tour then luggage transfer (15 kilos) is usually included as part of the price.
Transportation along Peaks of the Balkans
Although there are some public transportation options to the more popular and accessible locations along the Peaks of the Balkans trail (e.g., along Lake Koman and to Valbona, Theth, Nderlysa, Vermosh, Lepushe from Shkoder, Albania; in and around Plav, Montenegro and from Pejë (Peja) to Reka e Alleges, Kosovo), readily available public transport options dwindle as you head more deeply into the remote locations along the trek. Of course, that’s the point of the trek and experience.
Unless you have an unlimited amount of time, patience and endurance, it is best and more realistic to organize any transport you need in advance, rather than hoping to find someone to pick you up along the way. Your guide or trekking agency should be able to do this for you. If you are traveling independently, ask your guesthouse for help in providing transport, calling the minibus (furgon) driver to pick you up (e.g., if you are along a public transport route) or contacting a local driver to negotiate a ride.
Money and Local Currency
It's best to carry Euros with you, since it's the official currency of Kosovo and Montenegro, as well as the unofficial (i.e., everyone seems to accept it) currency of Albania. However, we did find that prices quoted in Albanian Lek prices were less than the Euro alternatives, so taking out some Albanian Lek before your trek is a wise idea. You can find ATM machines that accept international cards in Shkodër, Plav, Prizren and Gusinje.
Mobile / Cell coverage and internet
Mobile coverage and 3G internet is fleeting, at best. Prepare to enjoy a mainly offline experience. However, we armed ourselves with an Eagle unlimited data pack (9€) for coverage in Albanian areas. In Kosovo, 2GB costs a couple of euros with Ipko telecom. In Montenegro, get the tourist pack from Telenor for 3€ which includes 200MB of data and the possibility to re-up with the credit you’ve purchased.
GPS waypoints, GPS devices and trekking maps and apps for your smartphone
We did not carry a proper GPS device (our guide did), but we did carry our smartphone and used the Pocket Earth app that had some of the trails already integrated in their downloadable maps. S
ince PocketEarth worked offline (you MUST download all maps in ADVANCE) we could monitor our progress along a trail and have better assurance that we were on the right path. The app also very helpfully highlighted a few mountain peaks, points of interest, restaurants, hotels and the oh-so-motivating beer garden at the end of one trail in particular.
We’ve also heard good things about the WikiLoc App, which is often the open-source origin of trail overlay information found in apps like PocketEarth. For more technical hikers and climbers, you can also use the ViewRanger app, which includes topographical overlays and allows easy import of GPS files with waypoints and tracks.
You can find many of the Peaks of the Balkans GPS data and waypoints here.
Packing for the Peaks of the Balkans
Our Ultimate Trekking Packing List covers most of what you need for summer treks along the Peaks of the Balkans. For flexibility and to avoid the need and cost of luggage transfer, we each traveled with small 30-35 liter backpacks.
As with all treks, ditch your vanity and pack light. No one cares if you wear the same shirt every day. Really. You will feel any unnecessary pack weight almost immediately, particularly up the steeper inclines. Here are a few items you must include:
- Trekking backpack: You don't need to carry a lot if you're trekking during the summer as you don't need a lot of heavy layers and accommodation and meals are provided for you. Here is our recommended women's hiking backpack and men's trekking backpack.
- Trekking pole / walking stick (travel friendly): Usually we pick up a stick at the beginning of a trek, but we were advised to bring proper poles for this trek and we were glad we did. Some Peaks of the Balkans trails, while not technical per se, are tricky and rock-strewn. Poles help, especially on the downhill portions. We carried only one trekking pole each.
- Waterproof gear: Weather is always a wild card in the mountains, so be sure you have packed a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, a backpack cover, and even a plastic bag or two if necessary to keep clothes dry in your bag.
- Cold weather gear: The later your trek in the season (e.g., August), the less an issue cold becomes. However, on a couple of occasions, we experienced low temperatures that required hat and gloves. And, we had layers of long-sleeved shirts and fleece jackets with us.
- Trekking pants: Even if temperatures are high and you want to wear shorts, resist the urge as trekking pants will protect your legs from scrapes, branches, thorns and much more. We each wore the same pair of Clothing Arts pants (for men and for women) every single day on the trek and were impressed at how they held up and repelled odor. Also, all of the pockets and zippers that are there to protect you against pick pockets in cities are actually quite useful for securing your smartphone, wallet and other valuables on the trail. Disclosure: We received these pants when we were speakers at an adventure travel conference a couple of years ago. Having said that, we wear them constantly at home and on the trail. They are that good.
- Hiking shoes: We wore low-rise hiking shoes and had no problem. If you have weak ankles then consider bringing high-rise hiking shoes with more support. Recommended men's hiking shoes and women's hiking shoes.
Estimated costs of trekking Peaks of the Balkans
Trekking the Peaks of the Balkans is relatively expensive compared to some other treks we've done. As such, we would not characterize it as budget travel, particularly if you take a guide with you for the entire time, as we did. We opted to spend a little more in pursuit of remote areas and cultural context.
That said, if you focus your budget on day and multi-day hikes and do so independently as outlined in the sections above, you can manage your budget to take you further for less.
Roughly speaking, the more in your group, the lower your cost. Your guide’s daily rate and private transport costs (per vehicle) are usually the same whether you are one person or four. Budget-conscious individuals or couples seeking to trek Peaks of the Balkans should ask trekking agencies whether they can join departures of smaller groups with a similar desired timeframe.
Here are some example cost guidelines (provided to us by the agency we trekked with, 2015 prices) that you might expect on 12-14 day treks coordinated through a trekking agency. Costs include the guide, transport, accommodation, cross-border permits, and entry fees:
- 2 people: €120-€130/person per day
- 4 people: €90/person per day
- 8-12 people: €80/person per day
- If you would like luggage transfer you can estimate an additional €10-€15 per person per day if you are in a large group.
By comparison, a friend went on a solo trekking trip with a guide and she paid €1,200 for eight days along the standard Peaks of the Balkans route including accommodation, transport, guiding services and food.
Note: These figures are current at the time of writing (August 2015). If you are seriously considering a Peaks of the Balkans trek, you should discuss and confirm figures directly with your agent and/or guide.Disclosure: The trekking agency did not take a commission for our trek, so we paid slightly less than the amounts above.
When to trek the Peaks of the Balkans?
The main Peaks of the Balkans circuit and the additional trail segments we hiked are generally open from mid-June to mid-September. This limitation is partly a function of weather-driven trail conditions when there can still be substantial snow cover on the mountain passes, which makes them dangerous. See our note above and here regarding safety considerations for the Valbona Pass in May and early in the season.
In addition, many of the families who run guest houses in the region typically arrive and depart their shepherd huts and farms within that time window.
In general, weather along the Peaks of the Balkans trail is highly changeable — you are in the mountains, after all. Scheduling with an eye to avoiding rain or bad weather is nearly impossible. Weather is luck of the draw and at Mother Nature’s discretion
We chose to trek Peaks of the Balkans from mid-June to early July because temperatures would be cool, wildflowers would be in bloom, and traveler traffic would be less on the trails and in guesthouses. Sure, a bit of snow remained some trails and we wore our hats and gloves occasionally, but the fresh air, wildflower-covered hills and relatively quiet guest houses more than made up for it.
We’ve been told that temperatures can rise to 35 C/95 F in late August. If you don’t enjoy heat you may want to consider scheduling your trek earlier in the season like we did.
The Peaks of the Balkans trail makes for an excellent multi-dimensional experience. However, if you're like us, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the options and the apparent complexity and opacity of the current information available. Don’t be deterred. Pursue it, ask questions, including of us in the comments below.
The region has a rich history and is currently in the process of figuring out ways to share that history with others. Armed with the right information, you can have a transformative experience and take in some of the most surprising experiential landscape that the Balkans — and Europe — have to offer.
Update: You can now buy the Peaks of the Balkans: A Beginner's Guide with all the information from this site plus lots of extra details and other goodies in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.