If you’ve been hiking for hours in the mountains, chances are you’re tired, sweaty, and ready for a hot meal, a cold beer and a nap. If you’re in Europe, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what you’ll get.
In North America the only beer you’ll find in the backcountry is the one you bring with you. In Europe, you can hike for hours, stumbling along rugged terrain and narrow footpaths carved into the side of the rock and then suddenly turn a bend and find a mountain hut cozily nestled into the folds of the peaks rising above you. Leave it to the Europeans to add a touch of civilization to even the most extreme wilderness adventures. Known as a refuge in French, these secure mountain huts exist in many forms. The most basic of them simply offer mountaineers emergency shelter whereas the more equipped mountain huts are staffed and well maintained, providing hikers a bed and a home-cooked meal.
Connecting various Alpine routes, they make it possible to traverse the Alps carrying only basic equipment. Whether you’re a backcountry skier looking to ski the famed Haute Route or a casual hiker looking for a pleasant and relaxing way to experience the Alps, les refuges in France will help provide the support you need to get where you’re going.
When to go
Generally the mountain huts are open for spring skiing and close as summer winds down. You will 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.
It’s always wiser to make a reservation, particularly in the more popular areas (Mont Blanc, for example) and during the high season (summer). For these areas and times, you will want to book as far in advance as possible. For less popular areas, 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 silk sleeping bag liner (blankets are provided, but no sheets), and whatever other toiletries you need. While some of the more elaborate huts provide showers, many of them don’t. You can check the website for details before you book. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to bring a small, lightweight towel with you. Shoes are usually forbidden in the huts, but they provide slippers or indoor shoes. Be sure to bring warm socks though. You’ll also want to make sure to have a cell phone with you. Pick up a SIM card with credit before hitting the trail and make sure you have the numbers of mountain huts in the region (make a list of all of them in the area you’re hiking/skiing through and not just the ones you are planning on going to) as well as emergency contact numbers.
The cost depends on whether you want breakfast and dinner included or just a place to sleep. The mountain fare at the refuges is simple but hearty and after a long day of hiking or climbing, a hot meal and a warm place to sleep will have this place feeling like a five-star hotel. 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. Again, be sure to check the details of the specific hut you’re staying in as these details can vary widely. You’ll also want to check about the cost of meals and inform the caretaker ahead of time whether you plan on having dinner there.
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. Going along this route you’ll have the opportunity to stay at Cabane Bertol (among other mountain huts), which is accessible only by a series of fixed ladders. 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 exceptionally popular route and one where you will want to book your lodging as far in advance as possible. Trekking through France, Switzerland and Italy, you’ll circle 180 kilometers (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. It does tend to be a little bit crowded in the summer, but that just means plenty of opportunities to make new friends while hiking around one of Europe’s most beautiful mountains.