*2020 UPDATE: Traveling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic increases your risk and the risk of those around you. Please be mindful and observe local restrictions, stock up on supplies and fuel close to home, wash your hands, WEAR A MASK, and practice social distancing with locals. Needless to say, hut hiking is not a good idea during this moment. So, read on, make a plan, and hike later.
Nestled among the endless mountain peaks of Austria sit over 1,000 mountain huts, staffed by host families ready to receive hikers after long treks through the Alps. Don't let the term "hut" fool you—this incredible system of mountain lodges serve hearty food, often have showers, and provide a range of shared dorms and private rooms.
During a recent summer, I took advantage of this opportunity, and spent eight nights in the Alps with nothing but a light daypack. Setting out from Innsbruck, Austria, I reached the mountain valley of Stubai easily by public transportation.
The Stubai valley is home to a classic “hut-to-hut” route known as the Stubaier Höhenweg (Stubai High Trail). The beauty of these routes is that you can hike for as many days as your knees can handle without descending from the mountains. Most huts are situated between 2,000–3,000 meters: below the summits but very much above the rest of the world.
After spending four days and nights traversing ridge lines and climbing passes, I caught a train south across the border to hike a different style of mountain: Italy’s Dolomites. The “pale mountains” offer unique experiences such as via ferrata, a climbing method utilizing iron hooks and rails installed by soldiers during World War I, as well as extraordinary displays of alpenglow, or enrosadira in the local dialect of Ladin.
The hut system varies slightly from country to country—Italy had more wine and espresso, natch—but some things are consistent: the provided hut slippers, summit sunsets, and the camaraderie in the evenings. Rather than reserving your own spot for dinner, the hosts generally arranged tables, grouping together individual travelers so that no one eats alone. Looking back, the trails and the vistas are as memorable as the fellow hikers with whom I shared schnitzel and schnapps with at the end of each day.
"The system of trails and huts is very well organized and allows you to hike for days on end with just a daypack of essentials."
Key Resources for Planning Stage:
Hut Finder: This site will help you search for a specific hut or discover huts in different areas, and provides contact info and other details for each.
Outdoor Active: A great resource to see the trails between any two points and for assessing rough estimates of hiking time. It works like Google Maps, but for hiking trails, allowing you to search for any hut.
In Austria, there are many hut-to-hut treks already identified, known as High Routes, or “Hohenweg”. Although you can piece together any hike you want by researching the trails between huts, for a first visit, undertaking a known route with plenty of online materials may be your best bet. The Stubaier Höhenweg had its own website detailing each stage, for instance.
What to Know Before you go Hut Hiking:
Hut-to-hut hiking through the Alps is incredibly fun and doable for the average hiker. The system of trails and huts is very well organized and allows you to hike for days on end with just a daypack of clothing and essential toiletries. The trails are well marked and easy to follow thanks to being worn in over thousands of years.
The best piece of advice I can give is to join the Austrian Alpine Club (Österreichischer Alpenverein). For Americans, it’s probably easiest to join through the British chapter, which has an English application.
Joining the Alpine Club gives you a rad membership card (sent via Royal Air Mail), discounts on almost all huts (outside of Austria as well; the clubs have reciprocal benefits), priority if the hut is filling up, and finally, insurance for mountain rescue (thankfully, something I did not experience).
The following is also useful to know.
Reserve huts ahead of time. Reservations are not required, and foot traffic varies by season, but it's usually a good idea. I went in late June, and some of the huts were pretty quiet. However, by mid-summer they can get very busy. The reservations generally weren’t binding, but it helps the wardens plan food and space.
Bring cash. Most of the huts only accept cash. Research the prices ahead of time and bring enough cash to cover all your huts (keeping in mind beer and desserts are extra). When looking at hut prices, look for the term mitglieder, which means “member,” signifying discounted prices for Alpine Club members.
Pack a sleeping bag liner or “sheet sleeping bag.” Sleeping bags aren’t necessary, as all huts have individual beds or bunks. But you will need a sleeping bag liner—essentially a sheet sewed together like a sleeping bag. They are required for all the huts so that they don’t have to wash their bedding every night (most just have a warm blanket, a small pillow and the mattress).
Hut Slippers: Wearing boots inside is not cool—hut system etiquette dictates you remove your boots when inside. Luckily, most every hut provides complementary “slippers,” which are often colorful Crocs (Pro Tip: act like a local and bring your own). One hut with particularly nice clogs took a 5€ deposit, but most just had an assortment of well-used footwear by the door. It’s also worth noting that many huts have drying rooms for your boots, socks, clothes etc, which can be super helpful after encountering unexpected weather.
Eating on the trail: The most economical way to eat is by opting for the Half Board (usually referred to as Half Pension or HP). This includes your bed as well as breakfast and dinner. It’s a set meal rather than ordering from the menu, but not any less enjoyable. You can still tack on desserts and drinks for extra.
Try the schnapps! Many huts have their own flavors and it was a favorite toasting drink with hikers I met.
6 Gear Essentials for Hut Hiking in the Alps:
Sleeping Bag Liner: as described above.
Day Pack: REI 25L or 40L Trail Pack. Both of these are well made and include rain covers. I flew over with the REI's 25 liter pack alone, but I was pretty economical with the amount of clothing I brought. You don't need much, but even in summer, make sure you have layers in case temps drop. And always pack rain/wind shell too.
Trekking Poles: If you're hiking days on end, these help save your knees. Plus they fold up to easily fit in your pack when not in use. (Note that many airlines do not allow trekking poles as carry-on luggage.)
Peak Design Capture Clip: If you're hiking with a camera, this is a game changer. Clip the camera to your backpack strap so it is positioned rigidly on your chest. It doesn't swing around and you don't have a strap digging into your shoulder.
Headlamp: An essential for any trip, really. Though oddly enough, I mainly used this to find my bed or the bathroom at night.
Wool Socks and Merino Baselayer: Absolute necessities for hiking and really any extended travel in general.