In the U.S., the only beer you’ll find in the backcountry is the one you bring with you. In Europe, however, you can hike for hours, stumbling along rugged terrain and narrow footpaths carved intothe side of the rock, and then suddenly turn a bend and find a mountain hut cozily nestled into the folds of the craggy peaks. For a few Euros, you can get a hot meal and a cold beer while enjoying spectacular scenery. Connecting various Alpine routes, these huts (known as a refuge in French) make it possible for backcountry skiers and hikers to traverse the Alps comfortably while carrying only basic equipment.
Where to Go
There are hundreds of huts scattered across the Alps and thousands of routes available to the intrepid adventurer. By looking at the CAF website and a map of the area you’re interested in, you can plan the route that best suits you. If you’re short on ideas, you can sign up for an organized tour or pick up a guidebook on popular hikes in the French Alps. If you’re going to be backcountry skiing, a guide (whether in human or book form) is absolutely necessary.
Two of the more popular and famous routes in the Alps include the Haute Route and the tour of the Mont Blanc. The Haute Route is a long-distance trail that connects Chamonix and the Swiss town of Zermatt. The trail is rigorous and demanding, but the exceptional scenery makes the effort completely worthwhile. Give yourself up to 8 days for skiing and 9-14 days for hiking.
The tour of the Mont Blanc is an incredibly popular route and you will want to book your lodging as far in advance as possible. Trekking through France, Switzerland and Italy, you’ll circle 112 miles around the highest mountain in Western Europe. Typically completed in 11-12 days, this tour offers amazing views of the Mont Blanc and plenty of opportunities to relax along the trail.
When to Go
You’ll need to check the specific dates for each hut, but generally they are open from the beginning of April to mid-September. The location and accessibility of the refuge will dictate when it is able to open its doors to hikers and skiers.
Huts can fill up quickly during the high season, but even in less popular areas it’s important to make a reservation so the hut caretaker will know to expect you and can plan the meals accordingly. In more popular areas (Mont Blanc, for example), you will want to book as far in advance as possible. For less popular areas or during the off-season, calling a few days before your trip is usually just fine. Don’t forget to call and cancel your reservation if you change your plans or inclement weather prevents you from reaching your destination. Most huts have their own website and information page so all of the logistical information will be available there. In France, the huts are managed by the Club Alpine Française (CAF) and their website has a full listing of French alpine huts.
What to Bring
While it’s always good to have emergency equipment with you, the only thing you’ll need for staying in a mountain hut is your wallet, a sleeping bag liner (blankets are provided, but no sheets), and whatever other toiletries you need (a small towel is always useful). While some of the more luxurious huts provide showers, many of them don’t (check the website for details). Shoes generally aren’t allowed in the huts, but they provide slippers so be sure to bring warm socks. It’s also a smart idea to bring a cell phone. Pick up a SIM card with credit before hitting the trail and make sure you have the numbers of mountain huts in the region as well as emergency contact numbers.
The cost depends on whether you want breakfast and dinner or just a place to sleep. The meals are simple but hearty and after a long day of hiking or climbing, they hit the spot. The cost of accommodation is around 15 Euros for alpine club members and 30-40 Euros for non-members. Members of European alpine clubs receive a significant discount and if you are climbing regularly in the region, you might want to consider a membership.