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.
Will I get lost?
Trails that lead to huts are almost universally well marked and well trod. Expect trail signs that state how far it is to the next hut, with an estimated hiking time. Still worried? Stick with others. With dozens of hikers heading to the same hut each night, trail companions are guaranteed, if you want them.
Who will I meet?
Trails and huts are popular with locals and foreigners, so in New Zealand, for example, you're likely to take a rest break with some Swedes, have lunch with Germans, hit a swimming hole with Israelis, and hear a Kiwi snore at night. The small number of people--50 to 100 hikers at a hut is typical--makes it easy to strike up friendships.
How much time do I need?
Many treks are three to six days, but if you're short on time or simply want to put a toe in, you can just go overnight. A one- or two-night trip can be quite rewarding in terms of scenery. "Many of the most prized peaks in the Alps are just a day's walk from the nearest trailhead," says Lonely Planet writer Fairbairn.
How much does it cost?
Fees vary from under $10 for basic huts in New Zealand to $85 per person per night for a fully catered stay in a shelter run by the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire. Huts in Europe fall somewhere in the middle, depending on location and services. Reserving ahead is smartest, though as long as you're flexible it's possible to do a hut hike at the last minute. Once at the huts, there are no souvenir hawkers to eat into your pocket cash, but in a few locations you might run up a healthy bar tab. How are you going to resist a waitress--a waitress!--bringing you frosty lagers after an invigorating hike through the Swiss Alps, with your feet propped up on a deck and a Sound of Music view?
Hut, hut, hike! three short hut trips for beginners
Itinerary One: France--Switzerland The 112-mile Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt is world renowned for its dramatic scenery and Old World charm. The whole trek takes two weeks, but the first three days are a perfect intro to the Alps. Day 1 (4--5 hours hiking): From Chamonix, make a long ascent up forested slopes and behold the Mont Blanc massif and Mer de Glace glacier. Continue to Lac Blanc, where there's a hut with panoramic views. Day 2 (5--7 hours): Look for ibex (wild goats) on the way to Col de Balme, the first of 11 high passes on the Haute Route. End the day at Refuge du Peuty, where you'll be lulled to sleep--or not--by cowbells. Day 3 (5--7 hours): After a rocky climb to Fênetre d'Arpette, with views of crevasses and seracs in the glacier below, descend through meadows to the bus at Champex--or keep walking all the way to the Matterhorn. Cost: $15--$70 per night; meals served. More info:ohm-chamonix.com, sac-cas.ch.
Itinerary Two: New Zealand The South Island's 20-mile Routeburn Track mixes Lord of the Rings rain forest and alpine views. Day 1 (3--4 hours): Catch a shuttle from Queenstown to the trailhead ($22, infotrack.co.nz). An easy walk through a beech-and-fern forest parallels the crystalline Routeburn River, then rises to treeline at Routeburn Falls Hut, which has a deck overlooking the majestic valley you just climbed. Cool off in the hut's namesake falls. Day 2 (4--7 hours): Ascend open meadows with flybys of curious parrots called kea birds; at Harris Saddle, take a short detour up Conical Hill for a vista that stretches all the way to the Tasman Sea. Day 3 (4--5 hours): An easy hike through trees leads to a bus stop on Highway 94. Alternatively, make it a loop by adding two days and returning on the secluded 15-mile Caples Track. Cost: $29 per night for lodging only. More info:doc.govt.nz.
Itinerary Three: Glacier National Park Granite Park Chalet is a stone-and-wood wonder built in 1914 on a spectacular overlook deep in one of America's premier national parks. Day 1 (4--6 hours): Start at Logan Pass trailhead and hike the Highline Trail, with wildflowers, marmots, goats, and glacier views along the way. Day 2 (4--6 hours): Hike up to Swiftcurrent Pass and down the east side of the Continental Divide, past turquoise lakes where you can swim and maybe spot a moose. Shuttles pick up at the end of the trail. Cost: $66 per night for lodging only. More info:graniteparkchalet.com, 888/345-2649.