An essential part of a genuine Alpine experience is staying overnight at mountain huts. In the European Alps they are practically always at the most a day’s walk away and they offer food, shelter and often even showers to mountaineers.
A hut, in most cases, is a grave understatement of what these places are like. Many of the mountain huts in the European Alps are more like inns in the mountains, some bordering on being hotels. The largest ones can have space for 200 visitors while the simpler, remote ones maybe accommodate 20.
This article covers what you need to know about staying in mountains huts. The information is valid for most huts in the European Alps, particularly ones owned by ÖAV, DAV and AVS. Some huts have their own rules and ways of managing things, so please respect any local rules that might be in place when you visit.
About Mountain Huts in the Alps
The facilities, selection of food and services offered are in general dependent on how the hut itself is provisioned and how close they are to civilization.
The closer to a ski resort and/or the lower on the mountain the hut is, the higher the likelihood the hut has road access. In and near ski resorts the huts are sometimes right next to a ski lift they can use for service & supplies.
If there’s no road access, many huts have their own private cable cars that can lift supplies from the valley below. If the provisioning of the hut is not prohibitively difficult, you’re likely to enjoy a broad menu to choose your food from.
If a hut is way out there and doesn’t have access to a nearby cable car, chances are the menu is more limited, but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any worse. In any case you will get food and drink!
All the mountains huts are open during the summer. The bigger huts near and in ski areas can be open all year but the more remote ones typically close for the winter. Some may have a possibility to stay overnight in the winter for ski touring.
The exact opening and closing dates may vary a lot depending on the location so always check beforehand if you’re travelling at the very beginning or the end of the season.
Check out this page of the Austrian Alpine Club (UK section). It provides a lot of detail on how the huts are categorized, when they are open and how they are priced. The opening times are updated by the AAC(UK) as they become available.
Who Owns the Buildings?
Many mountain huts are privately owned and operated. These are often run by families who live in the mountains either all year round or during the summer. Often running these huts is in conjunction with farming.
However, the majority are owned by an Alpine Club, such as the Austrian Alpine Club (ÖAV – Österreichischer Alpenverein) or the German Alpine Club (DAV – Deutscher Alpenverein), or the South Tyrol Alpine Club (AVS – Alpenverein Südtirol).
While the clubs own the buildings and facilities, typically a hut guardian is responsible for the operations. They are tenants of the whatever Alpine Club section that owns the hut, and they make their income from the food and drinks they sell to visitors.
Considering a large hut can employ a staff of well over 10 people, the importance of the food & drink sales is significant.
Lunch in the Mountains
Even though this article mainly focuses on staying in mountain huts overnight, it almost goes without saying that the mountain huts are happy to serve you lunch and beverages even if you’re not there for the night.
Practically above every town in any of the valleys in the Alps, there will be a mountain hut. If you’re staying in the valley, a very popular activity is hiking up to a mountain hut for lunch and then back. If a ski lift is available, taking the lift and walking to a mountain hut from there for lunch is a less strenuous way of doing the same.
In most areas the mountain huts tend to be located fairly close to each other. Often there’s a few hours of walking between them. If you’re on a multi-day hike staying up in the mountains for days on, you’re probably going to have lunch at some huts without staying the night.
Keep in mind, though, that in some more remote areas there can be a full day’s walk before you reach the next hut. Please pay close attention to this when making your plans.
Finding Where to Stay
So, how do you know where the mountain huts are? There’s plenty of information available both online and offline:
- Trail descriptions on this site and others often list the ones relevant to the trail. For example, check out the Dolomites Alta Via 2 Planning Guide and Lechtaler Höhenweg Planning Guide available on Gohikealps.
- There’s plenty of books describing trails, which also list the relevant huts. For example, Trekking in the Dolomites (A Cicerone Guide)
- The ÖAV has an excellent map-based Alpenvereinshüttenfinder which you can use to locate huts in the eastern Alps (i.e. Austria, Germany, Northern Italy)
- All the Tourist Information centers in all the towns you visit will have detailed information about the huts, trails and other activities in that region.
- Any maps you get before or during your trip should display names of the huts in addition to their location. (I often use Kompass maps)
Most, if not all mountain huts have a web site, or have pages listed on one of the Alpine Associations’ sites. If you know the name of the hut, you will easily find details and contact information online.
About Booking in Advance
I often get asked if mountain huts should be booked ahead of time. My response normally is, it varies but I see no harm booking in advance as long as you cancel your booking if plans change.
I think it depends when you go and how many you are. If you’re going on a popular route during high season, the more popular huts can get very crowded and sometimes even overbooked.
If you’re like me and tend to spend long days on the trails, you might arrive at the hut quite late. Without advance reservation, you’ll be the last in line for whatever places remain. If none remain you might be asked to go to another hut relatively near (1.5 hours or so of walking) provided there is enough daylight.
I would not be overly worried about this. In my experience, the hut wardens will do their best to accommodate you. I was once at Memminger Hütte on the Lechtaler Höhenweg and arrived late and with no booking. This is a very popular mountain hut and it was packed. It was raining hard outside.
They organized a sort of lottery system for us latecomers without bookings. They wrote down the names of us non-booked latecomers on small pieces of paper and then at 6 PM literally started pulling the names out of a hat. I was lucky, I got an actual bed. Some were put into “emergency shelter” conditions (Notlager in German) which basically meant a mattress on the floor wherever there was space.
Let me be clear – even though the above happens, in my experience it’s a rare occurrence but I suspect for some huts are more likely to experience crowds than others. Advance booking, while not a complete guarantee, helps.
When should you book in advance?
In my opinion you should consider booking in advance:
- If you’re a group
- If the hut is popular and especially if they say so on their website
- If you have kids
- If you’re going on a weekend in the high season of July-August
- If any of the people you’re traveling with dislike uncertainty
When do you not need to book? Again, this is my opinion.
- If you’re traveling alone and don’t mind slight uncertainty
- If you’re hiking off season
- If you prefer keeping a certain amount of flexibility in your plans.
When I’m hiking on my own, I rarely book anything in advance. If I’m traveling with my wife or friends, I’m likely to book in advance.
How to book in advance?
Most mountain huts have a website where you can book directly. You’ll also probably see availability and if its going to be crowded. If they don’t have a booking system, just call them up or email.
Cancel Instead of No Show
Sometimes plans change due to weather or other reasons. If that’s the case, and you have something booked, PLEASE cancel. If you do not, a bed might be reserved for you unnecessarily, and because of that somebody else might be looking for mattress space next to the bar.
Even though it is possible that you could be sent away from a completely booked mountain hut, it should not happen in bad conditions. Also, if the hut is far away from everything, you will not be kicked out.
It is not in anybody’s interest to put people in harm’s way and the hut wardens will arrange something. Being a mountain club member should give you some priority for more comfortable accommodation in these situations.
About Payments & Cash
Many of the mountain huts don’t accept credit or debit cards. In my experience the number of huts that do accepts these have increased in recent years but still, a lot of place only accept cash.
Make sure you have cash with you in the mountains.
Alpine Club Memberships & Discounts
Being a member in an Alpine Club has many benefits. I’ve personally been a member of the Austrian Alpine Club (UK) Sektion Britannia for years. My wife is also a member, as is my son. My baby-girl will become a member beginning next year.
The AAC(UK) is open to membership regardless of where you live. I live in Finland and most of my hiking happens in the European Alps, so membership was a no brainer for me.
The main benefits of being a member of this club are:
- Worldwide rescue, medical and repatriation insurance. This is very important. Regular travel insurance may not cover anything if you get into a bad situation somewhere in the mountains – be it summer or winter. A helicopter rescue without insurance can be very expensive.
- Alpine Hut Rights. You basically get discounts for accommodation in most Alpine mountain huts.
- You get access to training courses in Austria and the UK.
If you plan on hiking or skiing in the European Alps, I think this membership is easily worth it. Another reason I like AAC(UK) is that they operate in English. I’m not fluent in German or Italian so this helps. There’s a good list of other relevant mountain clubs listed on the AAC(UK) website: https://aacuk.org.uk/p-links-alpine
For more information, visit the aacuk.org.uk website https://aacuk.org.uk/.
When you get There
If you run late arriving and you have a reservation (or even if you don’t), it’s a good idea to let the hut warden know. They’ll know to reserve your bed and possibly put aside some food for you if you’re late from the regular dinner time.
Leave Hiking Boots at the Door
When you’re entering any of the overnight areas in a mountain hut, you should always leave your hiking boots and hiking poles at the door. Often there will be a separate area or a room for boots. The odor in these rooms can be interesting.
Check in & Pay
When you arrive at the hut, you should first check in with the hut warden. They will allocate your sleeping space and give you information about how things operate at the hut. They will also collect payment from you. Do note what was mentioned about many huts being cash only.
Paying for things varies from hut to hut but often you are charged for the overnight stay on arrival and then for whatever food & drink you consume the next morning when you leave. Sometimes you’re expected to pay before you go to bed. Ask the staff or watch what others are doing.
Get Coins or Tokens for Showers
If the hut has a shower, it will probably operate on tokens or coins. The deal will probably be something like 2€ -3€ for 2 minutes of hot water. 2 minutes doesn’t sound like much but once you get used to it, its plenty!
Get the tokens or coins when you check in.
Claim Your Bed
Once you find the bed you’re assigned, claim it. I recommend making a bed immediately upon arrival when there is still natural light. If you try to do this after the bar closes, you’ll not only find it difficult, but you’ll also disturb others trying to sleep.
You are required to have your own sheet sleeping bag with a pillow pocket with you. If you don’t have one the huts will sell you one. The hut will provide a mattress, pillow and blankets.
I recommend getting a very thin liner. I use a silk one which weighs next to nothing and packs up in a very small space. Mine is similar to this one. If you tend to get cold, consider a Merino Wool one – here’s a nice example. The blankets are thick and if you get cold, just sleep with some clothes on.
Note that the blankets often have Fussend written on the other end. That’s foot end. You will want to make sure that Fussend is not where your head is.
If its crowded there will be a lot of stuff lying around all over the place. Make sure you put yours in one place to be able to find them later.
Get a Drink
Once you’re settled in, get a drink of your preference. If you walked to the hut you’ve earned it. Not many things are more satisfying for me personally than a cold beer in the early evening after a long day of strenuous walking.
I often find myself consuming that beer before any of the other actions listed above!
While you’re there
I already mentioned that you need to leave your hiking boots at the door. Most people use some form of lightweight slippers to walk around. Sometimes the huts will have a selection of slippers for public use but for obvious reasons most people prefer carrying their own with them.
Electricity / Flashlight / Extra Battery
Like water, the closer you are to civilization the more likelihood there is that the hut is connected to a power grid. However, it is more likely that electricity is produced by solar panels or a local power source i.e. diesel generator. This means there may not be much power to go around
If there is electricity, there will not be many power sockets, and everybody wants to use them. Since most of us carry all kinds of electronics into the mountains, I recommend two things:
- A power bank / extra battery big enough to charge everything you MUST have charged at least once. I use a power bank similar to this one from Anker.
- A charger with multiple outlets. Please share any extra outlets on your charger if anybody asks. I use this Anker charger for my trips as well as home.
Showers & Water
The higher up in the mountain the hut is located, the bigger the problem of fresh water generally is. Therefore, you should always do your best to preserve fresh water.
If the hut has a shower and is crowded, you will probably have to wait for your turn. If you’re late into the evening, it might be hot water is already used up. However, these minor inconveniences pale in comparison to the sensation of being able to wash yourself after a sweaty walk to the hut.
The showering water is often not potable. Ask the staff if unsure.
Some huts might have separate facilities for washing clothes but don’t count on this and keep in mind the scarcity of water. If you want clothes that you can wear comfortably for days, consider high quality Merino Wool clothing, such as Icebreaker.
Food & Drink
You are expected to eat and drink what the mountain hut provides. This means you’re not allowed to cook your own food or drink your own wine. There are some Alpine Club membership related exceptions, see here. https://aacuk.org.uk/p-alpine-huts-in-austria
The hut guardians earn their income from the food and drink they sell so I urge you not to try being cheap. Most of the time the food served is very good. Beer and wine are plentiful and equally good. No point even considering carrying any in your backpack.
The rule of thumb is that if you were fit enough to bring something up to the mountain, you’re fit enough to carry it away. It should be self-evident that you don’t leave trash on the trails, but this also applies to the huts. Unless they have garbage collection for public use, carry your own trash back down.
The above is what it looks like in the morning, in a crowded dormitory of a crowded hut. Everybody at breakfast, stuff everywhere.
In the Morning
Everybody wakes up at around the same time in the morning creating a hassle. If it’s crowded at the hut to begin with, it will be very much so in the morning. Everybody wants to brush their teeth, eat breakfast and get on the trails at the same time.
Not much can be done to avoid the hassle unless you leave before sunrise or later after the crowds have left. If leave early, talk to the staff about the possibility of early breakfast. If you have a long hike ahead of you, ask the staff about lunch to take with you.
About the Hut Book
All mountains huts should have a “Hut Book” or a guest book. It’s recommended to write up where you came from and where you intend to go. In more remote & extreme locations or If conditions turn bad, the hut wardens check up with each other to make sure that people ended up where they intended to go.
If you recorded in the hut book of Hut X that you’re going to Hut Y and in the evening the warden of Hut X calls Hut Y to see if you made it and the warden at Hut Y realizes you didn’t, a search party might be launched. Therefore, it is important that if your plans change suddenly, you let the wardens know so an unnecessary search won’t happen.
This, of course, assuming its possible to do. There are still many areas without cell phone coverage.
The Mountain Hut Experience
Nights at mountain huts can at their best be simply wonderful. If you’re into photography, dawn and dusk in the mountains are something to capture.
If it’s been raining all day, the hut is overbooked and crowded, there’s wet, smelly clothes hung to dry everywhere and you only get cold water in the shower – well, it is still a genuine Alpine experience.
Most of my hut experiences have been great. But great as the experience is, after a few nights spent in the huts, a hotel room with a guaranteed hot shower and privacy is hugely rewarding. Most of the time I plan my trips in a way that I’m in a hotel at least once every few nights.
I hope you found this article useful! If so, please share it!