A guide to hut-to-hut backcountry skiing in Europe

A centuries-old network of Alpine refuges is a favourite with skiers keen to overnight far from resort crowds.

By Abigail Butcher
Published 20 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT
Hut-to-hut skiing

The ever-increasing number of skiers turning to ski touring — skiing uphill to find quiet, off-piste runs down — is driving a renewed interest in overnight stays at these refuges.

Photograph by Austria Tourist Board

The Alpine mountain hut system was established in the late 1800s to offer like-minded folk ‘refuge’ while walking, climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Each country has its own Alpine Club (including the UK’s British Mountaineering Council), whose members enjoy preferential prices and booking choices in huts dotted across Europe’s peaks, though there are now huts and mountain accommodation far beyond both the original system and European countries. These days, mountain hut accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes — from a simple, unmanned hut without running water where you let yourself in, make a fire and take your own food, to huts cared for by a ‘guardian’, who can provide food and hot showers.

The ever-increasing number of skiers turning to ski touring — skiing uphill to find quiet, off-piste runs down — is driving a renewed interest in overnight stays at these refuges. They’re places that offer early access to the mountain, before the ski lifts open in the morning, and in many cases, are far from groomed pistes and madding crowds.

Six practical tips

1. Ask the experts: It’s always best to book a stay at a mountain refuge through a guide. They will advise on the right place based on your abilities and requirements, and can lead you up there safely.

2. Clothing: Less is more. Take enough kit to be warm and dry in any weather, but unless you want to be last up the hill, limit lugging spare items. However, some huts will store bags during the day for multi-night stays.

3. Linen: Sleeping bag liners are normally compulsory to help keep bedding clean (and certainly this year, they’re likely to be required), though in more basic huts you might need a sleeping bag or, as is the case with some of the fancier huts, all is provided.

4. Back to basics: Unless you’re going luxury, don’t expect showers, loos or running water.

5. Sleep easy: To sleep well at altitude, remember to hydrate, not over-do the beers and respect ‘lights out’ time: normally 10pm.

6. Check capacity: This winter, most huts will have reduced sleeping capacity, especially in dormitories, and might require guests to bring their own bedding.

Five of the best mountain hut stays

1. Le Refuge De Vallonbrun, Maurienne, France
This little refuge in the Haute Maurienne valley, in France’s Vanoise National Park sleeps 20 in a dormitory. One night from €55 (£48), half-board, hot showers an additional €3 (£2.60) and picnic lunches €10 (£9). Ski tour packages with: upguides.com

2. Hotellerie De Mascognaz, Champoluc, Italy
Expect outstanding cuisine and spa facilities in the remote ski-accessed Walser village of Mascognaz near Champoluc. Ski tour packages from £598 per person with: ski2champoluc.com

3. Cabane Du Grand Mountet, Zinal, Switzerland
Stunning views abound at this hut at 9,469ft. It costs CHF81 (£66) per person per night, half-board. Or, a three-day trip with Grimentz Zinal Backcountry Adventures costs from CHF690 (£563). 

4. Refuge Du Montenvers, Chamonix, France
This refuge-cum-hotel has dormitories, rooms and even suites. Prices start from €89 (£78) for a single dorm bed, or join a guided group from €90 (£79) per person via skibro.com

5. Schwarzwasserhutte, Ifen, Austria
This Bavarian Alps refuge is best accessed from the Ifen ski area, via a 1.5hr ski tour. Here, warden Roland Frey offers half-board from €32 (£28). A two-night guided ski trip costs from £475: nbfalpineadventures.com

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the European ski season. For the latest advice, visit gov.uk

Published in the Winter Sports 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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