Hill skills: how to go hut-to-hut trekking in the Alps

Posted by Alex Messenger on 29/07/2013
A room with a view. Photo: Rob Dyer

Give your walking a lift this summer with a hut-to-hut walk in the Alps. Emma Jack has some expert tips for staying high.

Why huts?

The Alps stretch over 1,200km: from Austria and Slovenia in the east, through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany, to France in the west. To make it easier for us to explore this superb mountain range, there is a vast network of mountain huts, so you don’t have to go back down to the valley to sleep each night. Known as Doma, Hütten, Refuges or Rifugi, depending on the country, huts can vary in standard from a four-person unmanned tin shed, to a 200-man near-luxury hotel with gourmet food. The norm is dormitory accommodation with a hearty three-course evening meal and breakfast before you leave.

Where to go

If you don’t like the idea of sharing dorms with strangers, you could try a one-night stay before committing yourself to several weeks! Start with a night in the Lac Blanc refuge above Chamonix – a beautiful setting, and not too far for your first foray. If you like that, then try one of the many classic hut-to-hut routes – such as the Tour of Mont Blanc (passing through France, Italy and Switzerland over 10-11 days), the Haute Route (Chamonix to Zermatt, 13 days), or one of the scores of lesser known routes (such as a 4-day circuit in the Vanoise National Park, France).

Advance planning

This is the key to any trip. Firstly, you have to decide whether you want an organised trek or whether you’d prefer to be independent. Many companies run hut-to-hut trekking trips where all of the organising is done for you: no transport to worry about; hotels and hut bookings sorted; no map reading – as there is a qualified guide to keep you safe; a sensible and feasible route planned for you; and baggage transfers so you carry as little as possible. If you do decide to do it yourself, then it’s important to make your hut bookings months in advance: especially if you’re travelling in July or August. Read up on your trip in advance – Cicerone do some great guidebooks to most of the hut-to-hut trekking routes in the Alps. The majority of the huts also have websites.

What to expect

Walking routes in Europe are often well signposted – but not always! You should come equipped, able to use a map and compass and be prepared for sudden changes in weather. As the mountains are much higher than in the UK, some of the paths cover steep, exposed terrain. It’s also quite common to come across fixed equipment, such as chains and ladders, to enable you to cross rocky steps and small cliff bands. If you are going in June, then some of the routes may still have a lot of snow cover, particularly on passes over 2,500m. It’s not unusual for snowy patches to remain well into July, so an ice axe could be a good idea.

Hut etiquette

Each hut has slightly different rules, but in general: leave your boots in the boot room, use a sheet sleeping-bag, and respect the lights-out time. You often can’t take your rucksack into the dorm (if you can take it into the dorm, remove your axe and walking poles). It’s polite to do any packing and rearranging of kit outside the dorm, so that you don’t disturb others – alas there are too many rustlers who don’t adhere to this! Also, remember to fold your blankets at the end of your bed before you leave.

What to bring

Try not to bring too much – remember you have to carry it for days on end! In addition to a normal day-pack, I bring: one change of clothes, sheet sleeping bag, head torch, something to read, ear plugs (very important!) and my personal luxury is a pair of crocs: they weigh next to nothing, and it’s bliss to change out of my walking boots. They are not essential though, as all huts provide slippers. Some huts have showers, so you could take a travel towel and soap.

Pros and cons

The main advantage of hut-to-hut trekking is the weight you save by not having to carry a tent, bedding, stove or food. Plus you can drink as much wine as you like without having to carry it! There is always a stunning view to look at, and like-minded people to share it with. Those like-minded people can, however, form the main disadvantage: the lack of sleep caused by sharing a dorm with snorers can sometimes wear a bit thin.

Top tips

Go in June or September to beat the crowds. Bag your bed as soon as you can, so you can be near a window and away from the door. Do your research so that you stay in the best huts: some are better for scenery, some are renowned for their food, some have showers and some are very basic. It’s definitely worth doing your homework for the hidden gems. But, most of all, enjoy being able to stay in the heart of some of the best scenery in the world.

Emma Jack is an International Mountain Leader, based in Chamonix, France. She works as a freelance trekking guide, and runs a small trekking company, Cloud 9 Adventure (www.cloud9adventure.com). View her profile on Explore & Share.


Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is Gareth Jefferies. Gareth is an International Mountain Leader who has lived and worked near Morzine in the French Alps for the last 12 years. He works as a snowshoeing, walking and mountain-bike guide. See www.endlessride.com.

Q. Can I get a discount if using a lot of huts?

A. No, but you a can get a discount with a reciprocal rights card. You can buy this from the BMC (www.thebmc. co.uk/reciprocal) and it will reduce the accommodation fees by around 50%, by 75% for children and free for the under 8s.

Q. Can I drink the water in huts

A. Generally, yes. Although the high altitude huts won't have a running-water source so you'll have to carry your own water or buy expensive bottled water at the hut.

Q. What are the emergency numbers?

A. The European-wide emergency number is 112. Mountain Guides and Mountain Leaders may also carry local emergency numbers that can be slightly more efficient.

Q. Do hut-to-hut walks include glaciated terrain?

A. It depends! For instance, around Chamonix many of them do. This will considerably increase the amount of equipment and skills required. If you’re not confident crossing glaciated terrain, I would suggest hiring a Mountain Guide or staying at one of the majority of huts that don't require a glacier crossing.

Q. What insurance cover do I need?

A. I wouldn't rely on high-street insurance cover. If you do, then make sure you have access to the small print. I always recommend BMC insurance cover and to carry a copy of the policy, assistance number and a European Health Insurance Card (the replacement for the E111) on your person.


Further info


The British Association of International Mountain Leaders is the national organisation for International Mountain Leader award holders. www.baiml.org

International Mountain Trekking

The essential guide to international trekking available in the BMC shop.

BMC Shop

Visit the BMC shop for a full range of trekking and hut-to-hut guides and maps for the Alps. shop.thebmc.co.uk

Check out our essential Alpine know-how

Read more hill skills articles

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Anonymous User
Good article! Just a couple of points: I've just come back from a short tour of Austrian huts (above 2000m) in the middle of August. Booking wasn't necessary, and in any case, your itinerary can't be predicted more than a day or two in advance, due to the weather. The other point is that not all huts have slippers! Carrying a lightweight pair is a good idea.
We're planning an 8 day trek through the Gran Paradiso and the Vanoise, following a route suggested in a 2003 guide book. This is the first time in the Alps for all of us, and we are trekking with our 3 teenagers (age 12, 14 and 16). I'm very confused about whether we need to book the huts in advance. I really don't want to be left out in the cold with 3 kids, on the other hand, some flexibility would be good in case we need a rest day or to adapt the route for shorter stages.
I'm also confused about the level of equipment and skill we need. We are experienced hill walkers but not accustomed to ice axes, crampons or ropes. The guide book says the route is "avergae" except for one difficult crossing of the Cima Del Carro. I'm not quite sure what "average" means in the context of alpine trekking! We'd be really grateful for any advice or if you wanted to share your own experience!


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