On a hut-hiking trip, the primitive campsite is replaced by a trailside lodge with cushy beds--sometimes four-course dinners and fine wine, too.
What is hut hiking?
It's simply a combination of the standard walk in the woods with nights spent in backcountry shelters, far from roads or cars. The huts range from rustic shacks to grand lodges, but even buildings on the low end offer more comfort and fewer headaches than camping. "They save you the weight of a tent and other gear," says John Harlin, editor of the American Alpine Journal, "and offer safe haven in the mountains, where weather can turn truly foul in a few hours." Inside the huts, there's a camaraderie and neighborly feel not unlike the atmosphere in hostels (only without the all-night partying). Also like hostels, there's generally some sharing of space with other guests in communal kitchens, bathrooms, and bunkhouses.
Where can I find hike-in huts and lodges?
Almost everywhere there are big mountains. Some regions have highly evolved hut systems, like the cabanes in France, the hütten in Switzerland and Germany, and the rifugios in Italy, which are spread out in the Alps within walking distance of each other--perfect for multi-night hut-to-hut hiking trips. In other areas, there may be a single backcountry lodge that's best used as a base camp for day hikes, such as the Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park (graniteparkchalet.com) and the Len Foote Hike Inn (hike-inn.com) in Georgia's Amicalola Falls State Park. The Internet is a great source of info on hut systems in places such as New Zealand (doc.govt.nz), the Colorado Rockies (huts.org), New Hampshire (outdoors.org), Yosemite National Park (yosemitepark.com), and Canada (alpineclubofcanada.ca). Euro huts are usually run by local alpine clubs, which don't go out of their way to attract tourists--the Swiss Alpine Club's site (sac-cas.ch) is only in German and French. The best way to get started in Europe is to buy a comprehensive guidebook such as Lonely Planet's Walking in the Alps ($25).
How hard is it?
If you're comfortable walking for a few hours on a mountain trail, you'll have no problem on most hut adventures. The distance between huts in the Alps is about five to eight miles, and many trails are fine for inexperienced hikers. "Easier routes in Europe use cable cars to take the strain out of the ascent and descent, and wide, level pathways offer panoramic views with relatively little exertion," says Helen Fairbairn, coauthor of Walking in the Alps. "At the other end of the scale there are hikes that skirt glaciers, scramble up rocky ridges, and blur the distinction between trekking and mountaineering."
Where will I sleep?
In a bed, under a roof, often with a postcard view out the window. Most accommodations are bunks in a room shared with half a dozen hikers. Some huts also have private quarters with their own bathrooms. All beds come with mattresses, but not all have linens and blankets, so you might need to bring a sleeping bag or bed liner.
What will I eat?
The best-kept secret about hut hiking is the food--and it's not only because everything tastes better after a day of hiking (though it does). The standard in the Alps, where huts have staffed kitchens, is a four-course dinner accompanied by good wine. Christie Aschwanden, of Cedaredge, Colo., hiked the classic Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt in 2003 and was stunned by the arugula salad, beef consommé, entrecôte steak, and fine cheeses. "Trekking in Europe is all about superlatives," she says. "It's the finest alpine scenery and the ultimate in decadent living." In New Hampshire's White Mountain huts, you won't get Pinot Noir and thick slabs of Swiss chocolate, but kitchen crews serve hearty, flavorful pastas and stews. In both places, lodging includes breakfast and dinner. Self-service huts, like the ones in New Zealand, have stoves, but you'll need to pack food and cook your own meals.
Anything else I should bring?
You'll want a set of clothes to change into after sweating on the trail, but don't weigh down your pack with an entire wardrobe. No one will care if you wear the same T-shirt three days in a row. Pare down other items--toiletries, camera gear, etc.--to the bare minimum. On the other hand, some people never regret bringing a pair of cozy slippers and a sweater for chilly nights. You'll also need snacks and lunch for the trail.