Walking safely in Crete

Even if you are an experienced hiker don't overlook the advice below as some of it applies to Crete specifically!

I have many years of experience leading groups and individuals on all kinds of walks in West Crete. The advice below doesn't stem from a book but is the result of my watching how people interact with the Cretan landscape, the difficulties they may have and the mistakes they make.
Crete is a wild island. This is what makes it so attractive for walkers and hikers but a good number of those totally underestimate how wild it can be and get themselves into situations which are potentially dangerous. People need to get rescued every year, people get hurt and some die. Most of the time none of this would need to happen if some basic safety (or plain common sense) had been applied.

The advice below is a bit of a mixed bag, from the trivial and obvious to some specific points to deal with certain places and situations. Please read through it and try to remember what might apply to what you are planning to do.

  • Crete is a pretty rough and the ground is stony and uneven, the footpaths are often very small and many time experienced walkers who came to Crete for the first time couldn't believe their ears when I said to them "this is a good, well-trodden path". To them it was almost non-existent! You must also watch your step all the time. If you want to look at the surrounding countryside stop first then look. Not doing so is possibly the biggest factor of accidents.
  • Shoes: you need good walking shoes to be comfortable. If you don't have walking shoes and prefer to walk in trainers this is also OK on many walks but make sure that the soles have a good profile. Sandals, even good walking sandals are not that great because of the stony ground and the constant risk of bumping your toes.
  • Sun protection is necessary even on sunny winter days.
  • Walking poles: If you are used to them, take them with you.
  • Water: in the summer you will need to drink a lot and will also need to carry an emergency supply of water in case you get delayed or lost. There are not that many water places on many paths, you may also not find tiny springs or they might dry out in summer.
  • Never walk in a gorge when it is raining or has just rained. The danger of flash floods is very minimal but there is a high risk of stones falling from the brittle limestone cliffs. If it starts raining whilst you are in a gorge get out of it as quickly as you can. If there is no escape route minimize the risk by avoiding walking right below the cliffs. Another thing to look for in gorges, even when it doesn't rain, is goats. Goats (and kri-kri but those are rare) tend to dislodge stones when they move about in cliffs or on slopes and you should avoid walking below goats. Keep an eye out for them.
  • Don't walk on your own unless you know for certain that the path is well-frequented. Many places rarely see a soul for days on end and a small injury (such as a sprained or broken ankle) could have dramatic consequences. If you cannot find a walking companion, make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you are expected back. A mobile telephone (with a charged battery as well as the phone number of someone local to call) is also a good idea. Almost every year, some people "disappear" because they didn't take these basic precautions.
  • Mobile phones coverage is excellent in Crete but not in gorges and not in the centre of the White Mountains (unless you know on which ridge or summit to climb in order to get a signal). Make sure that your batteries are charged before setting off. If you go into the high mountains on a cold day carry your phone close to your body. Batteries can discharge really fast when it is cold.
  • Carry a torch in case you get delayed. It is not possible to walk at night on a Cretan path without a torch unless you know it very well. If you know that you are likely to be walking at night carry headlamp (and make sure that your batteries are charged).
  • Choose the right time of the year for the type of walk that you intend doing: July and August is generally too hot for walks at sea level. You run the risk of dehydration and sunstroke. This is the perfect time of the year for mountain walks though.

Special conditions apply in the mountains

  • Although the mountains in Crete are no higher than 2457m they are remote, very wild and in most places totally devoid of any human presence. An additional problem is that in the centre of the White Mountains almost all the summits look the same so that it is very easy to get lost unless you know the area extremely well. Always have a compass with you (and know how to use it) in case you loose the path or if visibility drops. Even with a compass, the escape routes out of the mountains are limited to certain routes.
    There is a lot of snow in the mountains in winter with a very real risk of avalanches. Snow will stay in some areas until mid-summer (but of course not so much that there is a risk of avalanches!).
    Always take warm clothes with you if you go high up in the mountains, it can get very cold even in mid-summer if there are clouds and wind.

To finish off, I have listed some of the mistakes I have seen people do in the Cretan mountains

  • No warm clothes: relying on perfect weather (no wind and no clouds) in the summer is a mistake. If you get a cloud cover and wind the temperature will feel close to freezing point even if the temperature is above 30°C at sea level.
  • No planned exit route in bad weather or fog: due to having no compass and accurate map (or no GPS with marked route). If the weather turns foggy you'll have to wait until the weather clears. This could be hours...or days.
  • No equipment for an emergency overnight stop (because people rely on good weather conditions and will have a very bad night if they have to spend it in summer clothes in the mountains).
  • Thinking that you can find old paths easily: forget it! Apart from some well marked routes (the E4 is in part sign posted) most of the paths that you see on maps are hardly visible. Be prepared to spend time looking for them (and plan your walking time accordingly).
  • Relying on a mobile phone for emergencies but not knowing who to call (this happens all the time!).
  • Walking back to a village to get some help for an injured person (because you don't have a mobile phone / a signal / working batteries / don't know who to call) and then not being able to find the injured person again (yes it happens!)
  • Calling for help on a phone and not knowing where you are (yes, that happens too)
  • Thinking that you can keep going straight out of fog or cloud (with your compass) and you will end up somewhere eventually. That one can lead to cliff faces.
  • Assuming that what looks like a path on a map will be something easily walked. Many of the old paths may be easy routes for Cretan shepherds and hunters but not for foreigners unused to living in the Cretan mountains.
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Crete photo of the day
Crete Photo of the Day