What are mountain huts and how do they work?

Top Tips - 11/03/2024

Posted by William, 11th March 2024


In this article we take a look at mountain huts (or refuges in French) which are to be found in many mountainous regions of France and Europe 


Some of our self-guided trekking and walking holidays in the French Alps use mountain huts for accommodation. They are a form of rudimentary accommodation, more basic than hotels or guest houses, often located in isolated positions in the mountains, sometimes several hours or even days from the nearest road. The huts are open for specific periods during the year when they are run by a guardian or warden and their team. For the Alps in France and other European countries these periods are during the summer season mainly from mid June to mid September, as well as during mid spring for the mountain skiing season for some huts. Some more accessible huts may also be open over the christmas or skiing season. Outside of these periods, some huts have a winter room which is left open for passing walkers and mountaineers, although there is no guardian.

A limited number of bed spaces are available, as well as cooking facilities and often a stove or chimney to heat the room. It is always best to reserve your place in a hut in advance as places are limited. This is of course done for you on our independent walking holidays which use refuges such as our self guided walking tour of the Queyras which uses a refuge on one night at the Col Agnel, allowing you to stay at over 2500m in altitude. 

Before setting off on your trekking or walking tour, make sure that you are well prepared and check the weather conditions

The huts are owned and run by different types of bodies. For example some of the huts in the Vanoise in the French Alps belong to the National Park authority, some to the Club Alpin Français (French Alpine Club), whilst others are private. The majority of huts in France have dormitory-style accommodation, although they vary in size and comfort from large rooms to small dormitories for just a few people. The odd refuge has rooms for 2 people. Each bed space has blankets and a pillow, but you’ll need a sheet sleeping bag. Silk ones are the lightest for carrying on your alpine trekking tour. There is no need to take a sleeping bag. 

There are usually communal washrooms with basins, while you can pay extra for a shower in some huts. Drinking water is usually available free of charge, except in those rare locations where it is not available (sanitary risk, no piped water or melt water) where you would need to buy bottled water. Water is provided with the evening meal, whilst breakfast includes a hot drink of tea, coffee or hot chocolate, plus juice. Additional drinks at others times such as beer, wine, tea, coffee etc can be purchased at anytime. The traditions in some countries vary, for example in Switzerland you automatically get hot fruit tea to fill your flask for your day's hike. Many mountain huts can also provide lunches on request. Our hut-to-hut trekking tour of the Vanoise in the French Alps is full board and is all booked and paid for on your behalf, so you do not need to worry about reserving places or ordering meals. 

Whether you are trekking independently or walking on one of our self-guided walking holidays, on your arrival at the hut, remove your boots and leave them with your rucksack and walking poles in the porch or kit room and select a pair of hut shoes provided for indoor use in the hut. Locate the warden of the hut to announce your arrival. When you have been allocated a bed space you may go to the room with those items you require in the evening. Sometimes their are baskets to use, whilst other huts allow you to take your rucksack to the dormitory. Bring things out that you may find useful, such as a book and your head torch, as it may not be lit when you go back later after dark.

Dinner and breakfast are served at set times; please check with the hut staff to find out when they are. You will also be allocated specific places at the dinner table. Meals in huts are often traditional local dishes. Over the years the general quality of meals has increased and now dishes are often as good as most restaurants, although they are adapted to provide you with plenty of energy for your hike the next day. If you retire to the dormitory later than others, please respect their sleep by not making any noise. Please remember that some people may wake up at 3 or 4am the next day to ascend an alpine summit. Make sure that you take all items with you when leaving the hut in the morning. 

Mountain huts are a great way to meet fellow walkers and spend an enjoyable evening sharing stories. They also allow you to stay at altitude in relative comfort and warmth, so that you can enjoy scenes that can often only be experienced at such heights. These include spotting chamois and ibex, watching remarkable sunsets and sun rises and gazing at a truly clear night sky with the Milky Way visible. 

Why not let us take the hassle out of your trekking holiday by booking on our hut-to-hut tour of the Vanoise in the French Alps.