The complete beginner’s guide to staying in an alpine hut

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Chamanna d’Es-cha in Graubünden, Switzerland

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.

Arriving

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.

See also: 6 essential pieces of kit for a hut to hut trek in the Alps

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.

Rifugio Coldai on the Alta Via 1 early in the morning

Rifugio Coldai in the morning, Alta Via 1, Italy

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.

Beer - Best enjoyed at a mountain hut

Beer – Best enjoyed at a mountain hut

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!

Dining

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).

The dining room at Chamanna Grialtesch

The dining room at Chamanna da Grialetsch

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.

Sleeping

A compact dorm at Chamanna Grialetsch. Multiply by four and you have the whole dorm

A compact dorm at Chamanna da Grialetsch. Multiply by four and you have the whole dorm

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.

The modern Panossiere hut in Switzerland

The modern Panossiere hut, Tour des Combins, Switzerland

Leaving

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.

Related posts

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!

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19 comments

  1. Rachel · · Reply

    Great post. Do you know if you can bring dogs?

    1. Hi! Thanks! You can bring dogs to some huts. I know, as I once spent the night under a dog blanket. Was a bit of a surprise in the morning 🙂

      I’d call upfront to check with the specific huts you want to visit.

      M.

  2. Hi – we’re planning on hiking the Haute route in August and when booking the huts, I was wondering if the wardens spoke English? My French is passable enough to make a booking, but just so I’m prepared!

    1. Hi! Some do, but many don’t. I always ask whether they speak English first and then take it from there. Good luck with organising everything! marketa

  3. Vani · · Reply

    Hi

    We are planning to trek the haute route in August. Just wondering if my husband can use his cpap machine at night for sleep apnoea. Needs electricity 220 volts. Also how much in advance should we book.

    Vani

    1. Hi Vani,

      Thanks for stopping by on the marmot post.

      Using electrical appliances at huts can be tricky. I’d say it will be difficult if not impossible at most huts. Often there is just one socket (if at all) for a whole dorm. If you stay in valleys though you should be able to book B&Bs with standard fixtures.

      I recommend booking about 2 months in advance. Anything less than month is very risky.

      Good luck with planning the rest of your trip!

      marketa

  4. caoilte · · Reply

    Great post!
    I’m planning a first time trip to the Alps in a few weeks and these are exactly the “obvious” sorts of things that are actually reassuring when you’ve no idea what is in store for you. Another “obvious” thing defeating me is the best time of day to call ahead and book. There are a couple of huts that never answer the phone when I call. There is probably a magical time of the day when they answer the phone that I haven’t figured out yet!

    c

    1. Hi Caoilte!

      I’m glad you like the post 🙂

      Yup calling huts can be tricky. They get very busy at breakfast and dinner time, some also get a good deal of lunch visitors. I’d try calling around 10/ 11 am or 2/ 3 pm. Most huts should be fairly quiet then.

      I hope you’ll be able to get hold of them and have fun on your trip!

      marketa

  5. hi, we are setting off soon on our Haute Route and first huts, all in Switzerland. What is acceptable night wear for men and women?!

    1. Hi Helen,

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

      The standards vary largely between hikers, but generally speaking you will be staying in shared mixed dorms that might get a bit cold at night. A light tracksuit or a set of spare base layers is what most people will wear.

      I hope this helps.

      Enjoy the Haute Route!

      Marketa

      1. thank you – Im sorted, just trying to convince my hubby he needs to wear more than just his boxers!!

  6. Looks like great fun!

    1. It is! I’ve just come back from a week of hut to hut trekking in Switzerland. It was great fun as always.

  7. Guy MW · · Reply

    Heading off to Austria (Lech) for a few days of hut to hut hiking with young son & wife. My mother used to take me around the Alps when I was a child so I want to continue the family tradition. BUT, looking at the shelves of mattressess, I simply cannot see how I am going to get to sleep alongside complete strangers!. Surley I will roll over onto them, or wriggle myself into a tangle in my sleeping bag liner. I may just have to sleep outside under a rock or something! Oh well, must try not to be so English.

    1. Hi Guy!

      Thanks for your comment. Well yes, a hut dorm isn’t a very English thing. Some huts have private rooms, so you might be able to avoid the dorm experience. Otherwise I am afraid it’s a dorm or the rock outside. The only other option is scrapping the hut to hut bit and exploring the Alps from a B&B in the valley. That’s not bad either. Wherever you end up sleeping, I hope you’ll have a great time in the Alps.

      marketa

  8. Great and informative post!

    1. Hi there! Thanks. Glad you like the post.

  9. beautiful! hopefully i can visit this place sometime too

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