This post is part of my partnership with Trover, a social media app changing the way I plan and share my travels. To see 10 of my favourite images from this hike, view my Via Dinarica White Trail list on Trover.
Via Dinarica White Trail: The good, the bad, and the unusual from a 1260-km journey across the Balkans.
In 2018, I spent September and October hiking the Via Dinarica White Trail from Nanos, Slovenia, to Valbona, Albania. The route is spectacular. It follows the Dinarica Alps; traverses Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania; highlights unique cultures and rural lifestyles; and features more jaw-dropping landscapes than any route I’ve previously explored.
It isn’t just a thru-hike. The Via Dinarica White Trail is part of a large-scale United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) partnership to spur tourism growth in rural communities across the Balkans.
During our time on the trail, we discovered a part of Europe we didn’t know existed. It was true wilderness, with rugged mountains, stunning rivers, and endemic wildlife.
The rural communities were quaint, each with its unique culture and heritage. Despite being in a region devastated by war, they felt unchanged throughout time.
As with any development project, whether led by government or NGOs, the results ranged from good to bad, but with plenty of unusual mixed in between. After our 50-day thru-hike, these are our observations from the trail.
Via Dinarica White Trail Observations
The Via Dinarica White Trail traces a single mountain range through five countries. It follows some popular hiking routes, especially near Velebit National Park in Croatia; the Prenj mountains near Jablanica, Bosnia; and along the Peaks of the Balkans route in Albania. It also crosses vast stretches of untamed wilderness that see few hikers each season.
It’s always difficult to create a 1260-km trail, but the Via Dinarica White Trail route choices ultimately threaded together the best scenery with just enough rural communities and resupply points to make it feasible.
Overall, it was designed beautifully and, as the trail if further refined and developed, I am confident the Via Dinarica will become one of Europe’s great thru-hikes.
Empty and Remote
Thru-hikes are growing in popularity, especially in North America and western Europe. It’s almost impossible to hike sections of the Pacific Crest Trail or European GR routes without seeing other hikers.
Throughout the entire summer, across the entire 1260-km Via Dinarica Trail, we felt like we had the mountains to ourselves. The first and last days were along popular hiking trails, but everything in between felt wonderfully remote. We had so much solitude, that we genuinely appreciated each time we crossed paths with other hikers.
The might not be Europe’s largest mountains, but the scenery along the entire hiking route was truly exceptional. These images barely do it justice:
It’s no secret that this region was devastated by a brutal war. As we hiked through rural communities, we did see negative impacts left from deep wounds; however, they were most often overshadowed by friendly locals who greeted us with kindness, warmth and respect in every community.
Subsistence farmers handed us vegetables from their gardens, small home owners invited us in for coffee, prepared turkish-style, and shepherds waved as they herded their sheep to new pastures.
We were far removed from modern Europe and we witnesses a rural culture that still puts community ahead of growth.
The UNDP and USAID mandate, when developing the Via Dinarica White Trail, was to implement sustainable economic impact in rural communities across the Balkans. The project is just three years old and it’s still in its infancy, yet we saw many promising results. Even in the smallest, most remote villages, small guest houses had either been built or renovated to provide shelter to hikers.
As the trail becomes more popular, it’s easy to see how this success will continue. Small businesses will continue to open, providing new opportunities for unique tourism business to open. Because they cater to hikers, and not large-scale tourism, it should be sustainable, too, focusing on small growth rather than creating a boom or bust industry.
I don’t want to dwell on the negative for too long, but there are a few major concern that future hikers should consider before heading out onto the White Trail.
Simply put, there aren’t any. At least, we never found any that accurately showed the route, but luckily it’s available on several phone apps. We used Outdoor Active, a subscription-based platform that showed the route, major landmarks, stores, and guest houses. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.
Ultimately, the trail is only marked in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Even in those countries, it would be almost impossible to follow the signs without additional support. Figuring out a GPS-based service is critical to staying on the route.
We live in the Canadian Rockies and deal with ticks each summer, too, so we didn’t do our research before heading to the Balkans. In this region, the ticks carry Tick-Borne Encephalitis. We weren’t immunized, we were bitten by ticks, and, thankfully, we didn’t get sick.
If I were to return, I would get the immunization.
The entire route follows a limestone karst, which means surface water mostly drains directly into the porous surface. In the mountains, there is very little water and it’s truly difficult to refill water during the day. On Outdoor Active, our mapping app, we had several water sources marked but half of them either didn’t exist or we didn’t find them.
We carried up to 4L per person, and planned our days around known water refill points.
Restocking and Diet
Without any dietary restrictions, restocking food and eating in the Balkans was easy. In general, it’s a hearty diet with plenty of grain, meat and potatoes.
Vegetarians would manage quite well, too, as there was an endless supply of inexpensive produce. Celiacs, unfortunately, should expect to struggle. There are few gluten-free substitutes available and they grew more scarce as we hiked south.
The Balkans are home to Europe’s last wild rivers, where endemic species thrive in rivers that have never been dammed or altered. Unfortunately, it’s under threat and Save the Blue Heart of Europe is working tirelessly to try to protect these water sources.
The bad news is it’s an uphill battle, because more than 2800 hydro-electricity dams are currently proposed for the region.
The good news is that tourism will play a vital role in protecting the area. As tourism grows, so will the local economy. Ultimately, it will provide an alternative to selling their natural resources to multi-national organizations.
As if my good and bad lists weren’t enough, I’ve also included some unusual observations from our time on the Via Dinarica White Trail. These range from the frustrating to the frightening, but they begin with silly bureaucracy.
The UNDP and USAID designed this trail and it crosses 6 international borders between five countries. It crosses only two border check points. I’ll never understand why two government-driven organizations didn’t prioritize legal border crossings.
It is possible to arrange permits to cross between Albania and Montenegro, a border that is crossed on three separate occasions. Police require forms be mailed weeks in advance that indicate the specific day you’ll cross the border. It’s possible, but it’s difficult.
Currently, there is no way to gain permission to cross between Montenegro and Bosnia without crossing a legal checkpoint. Most people ignore this and simply hike across the border at Maglic. We opted to summit the mountain, descend back into Bosnia and hitchhike around to the legal checkpoint.
And finally, the crossing between Bosnia and Croatia, literally crosses illegally within a few hundred metres of a checkpoint. Why this was the trail design is a complete mystery and we simply chose to walk across the legal entry point.
Bears and Snakes
The Balkans are home to plenty of wildlife, including brown bears and three venomous snakes: Ader, Orsini’s Viper, and Horned Viper.
During our hike, we saw bear poop and paw prints, but we never saw a bear. Locals show zero concern about their presence and common bear safe practices, like we have in North America, are completely non-existent.
We did see plenty of snakes, including multiple aders and at least one horned viper. Unlike the bears, locals are extremely concerned about the snakes and warned us often of their presence. When we encountered a snake, they fled off the trail.
Hidden at the very end of my post is the most unusual and depressing topic. The Via Dinarica White Trail crosses several mine fields left by the Bosnian war.
It’s undoubtedly the most visible lasting impact along the trail, but it’s ultimately of very little concern. With one glaring exception, signs mark minefields and trails navigate around them.
In Prenj, a mountain region near Jablanica, Bosnia, a local warned us of an unmarked minefield. We found an easy solution to the risk and implemented the practice throughout the rest of our hike: simply stick to the existing trail tread rather than follow the GPS route.
How to Get Involved
Writing about the Via Dinarica White Trail allowed me to reflect not just on this journey, but also my journey to Kyrgyzstan. In August 2017, I traveled to Central Asia to hike in the Tian Shan mountains and to see how a USAID project could help transform tourism in rural communities.
Looking ahead, my goal is to further explore adventure, conservation and development. As always, I will remain active on social media between blog posts, and I would appreciate if you’d take 15-minutes to explore Trover. I’ve just uploaded 10 of my favourite images from the Via Dinarica White Trail and, because of its precise geo-tagging feature, you can see exactly where each image was taken.
If you’d like an opportunity to make a difference, check out Trover’s responsible Tourism project. Throughout March, they will donate $5 towards Classroom of Hope for all image uploaded with a caption describing a responsible tourism experience or project and using the #TroverRT.