Hütte, cabane, rifugio, chamanna are all names for mountain huts in the Alps. But what are they about? If you are planning a trek in the Alps, you will most likely be staying in mountain huts and if you’ve never been in one, you might be asking yourself what it involves. Or, you might well think that it’s just like staying in a B&B. Whether you are curious or oblivious, here is a quick guide to what to expect.
Even before you arrive at the first hut and gleefully drop your bag at the end of a long day of hiking, there are a couple of things to think about. First, you should probably book in advance. Most mountain huts are fairly small and fill up quickly, particularly in July and August. Second, you should try to arrive before 6 pm. Facing a demand higher than the supply of beds and living in a world where 6 pm is really late, many hut wardens will release any bookings that are not taken up before 6 pm to those who forgot to think about point one. Plus there are other significant advantages to arriving early.
Now that you’ve booked and arrived early, it is time to start acquainting yourself with the alpine hut etiquette and enjoying the ambiance. So, step in and take your boots off. Nearly all huts don’t allow you to wear your boots beyond the ‘boot room’, but they also provide slippers or crocks. If you prefer the comfort of your own, bring a pair of sandals or similar.
Finally, you are ready to check in. This usually happens somewhere in the common/ dining room at the door or window to the kitchen. This is where you’ll find the hut warden. Checking in is usually a simple procedure, at most you have to fill in the guest book. The warden then takes you to your room – or more likely your dorm.
Mountain huts are small and the demand is substantial, so staying in dorms of 6+ people is seen as standard. In fact, most often there are probably going to be about 10 people per dorm. This is where arriving early comes in handy. As most hut guests only stay for one night, early arrivals can usually pick from a few dorms and get to choose their bed. If you’re lucky enough to get a pick, make sure you make your territorial claim clear.
You have now arrived for your first night at a mountain hut. It is time to celebrate. Have a beer!
After some pre-dinner beers you might want to freshen up before dinner itself. What you can expect from the communal washrooms varies widely from hut to hut. Small, traditional huts usually only offer cold water and a few wash basins and no showers. More modern and/ or bigger huts tend to have hot showers operated with tokens. You have to pay extra for your hot water tokens, but they are worth all the cash (usually €2).
By now you must be starving. Alpine huts always serve food. Most of the time it will be part of the overall fee and will consist of a set dinner menu and a breakfast. If you happen to be staying at a big hut it might resemble a restaurant, but in smaller huts meals tend to be served in the common room around big tables. The hut warden will usually assign a seat for you and your group where you are expected to eat while you are staying at the hut.
Dinner most often consists of a soup, a main and a salad. Portions and the quality of cooking vary. From my personal experience the Swiss huts usually serve relatively small portions of alright food. Austrian huts tend to be better with both portion size and taste. The Italians are unsurprisingly the best Alpine caterers.
Now after dinner, the time has come to plan tomorrow’s trip and tell tall tales of previous exploits. … have some more beers, play cards, attempt to play the accordion/ guitar/ other random musical instruments found in the hut. Whatever you do, watch out for Zirben!
When you are finally ready to go to bed, settle your bill with the hut warden. Breakfast time is busy for the hut warden and their small team and it will make your departure the next morning faster too. Make sure you have cash, though. Only very few huts accept cards.
Having had a beer in the sun, a cold wash at the wash basin, a communal dinner, and hopefully not too many shots of Zirben, you can now slip into your sleeping bag liner. In a standard mountain hut dorm, you will find a pillow and a woolen blanket on your bed. You will be expected to bring your own sleeping bag liner. The actual bedding in huts isn’t changed often. Using sleeping bag liners makes this possible and acceptable. Sleeping bags, on the other hand, are not allowed in huts. I am not quite sure why.
Last summer, I learnt a valuable lesson. As there might be no electricity in your dorm, or at least no light, because your already sleeping dorm mates would not be impressed by you turning the light on, it is a good idea to make your bed right after your arrival. At Chamanna d’Es-cha I made my bed in complete darkness. When I woke-up, I realised I slept under a dog blanket. Delays that first beer, but can make for a more comfortable night.
One more thought – bring ear plugs. There is always at least one snorer in every dorm.
You have now stayed the night in a mountain hut in the Alps. It is time to trek to the next one. It might come earlier than you think. I for one was definitely surprised, when I realised that leaving a mountain hut at 8 am, means leaving late. The really serious mountaineers heading up to climb summits or cross glaciers will have left at about 4 am. Whenever you are leaving, don’t forget to grab breakfast before you go – cereal, bread, jam, cheese, coffee.
- 6 essential pieces of kit for a hut to hut trek in the Alps
- What to pack for the Alta Via 1 and any other trek in the Alps
- The reverse Kesch trek: 4 days, 3 huts and 1 dog blanket
Have you got any questions about staying in mountain huts in the Alps? Have you got your personal advice on Alpine huts? Share your questions and advice in the comments!