European alpine countries are known for their hiking culture in the Alps. Every summer, between mid-June and mid-September the hills literally come alive with hikers. Countless alpine huts have been built through the centuries to provide rest and shelter to wanderers. Most provide dormitory-style accommodations and absolutely fabulous food. Here are the best 10 tips for hut-to-hut hiking in the Alps!
1. You don’t need to book a tour
True, there are some benefits to booking a tour. You don’t need to worry about planning all the details. There is someone to translate for you if you don’t speak the local language. But if you are someone who is budget conscious or if you prefer your independence, there is no need to use a tour company for hiking in the Alps. Just follow the remaining 9 tips.
2. Choose an established long-distance walking route
When planning your hike, first determine how many days you would like to be on the trail. Most routes are divided into stages or days and can be shortened or lengthened accordingly. Use a guidebook and a map to identify the area that interests you the most. My favorite guides are Cicerone and Kompass. Some popular established hiking trails in the Alps are the E5, The Tour du Mont Blanc, and The Alta Via 1.
3. Join an Alpine Club
Plan on joining a local Alpine Club. With membership, you are qualified to make reservations at the huts and receive discounts. Your membership also includes mountain rescue, should you need it. I joined the Austrian Alpine Club, but most alpine countries have their own clubs and share benefits. Just check the Club’s Mutual Rights Agreement.
4. Make reservations
Reservations can be made up to a year in advance at alpine huts. Most huts are owned and operated independently. So, reservations need to be made at each individual hut you plan to stay at. Each hut may have a different reservation system. Some can be reserved with an online service. Others require you to email the hosts directly. I stayed in one hut during my hike of the E5 that had no internet access at all. The only way to make a reservation was by phone call to their landline. Beds can fill quickly in the more popular huts, so don’t delay.
5. Bring cash
The Euro is the currency of choice in most alpine countries. Some huts require you to pay online when you reserve your bed. Most huts take reservations without payment and require you to pay in cash before you go to bed at night. We were surprised to see guests freely ordering drinks and food all night. But then we noticed everyone had a tally sheet where they kept track of their own purchases and were required to pay when the kitchen shut down for the night. Germans tend to be rule followers, and they expect guests to their country to do the same thing. This system has worked for them for centuries.
6. Research the distances and the terrain
Maps and guidebooks in Europe tend to measure hiking distances in hours. This can be very confusing for hikers that are not used to it. I have found the times to be fairly accurate if you are a brisk hiker. It is also very important to pay attention to the altitude changes during each stage. If it is more than you think that you can handle, consider breaking the day into two stages.
7. Recognize waymarkers
Make sure you know what the distinctive waymarker looks like that marks your trail. Most trails have a blaze of color sometimes accompanied by a number or a symbol. For example, in Austria trails are marked with stripes of red, white, and red (like the Austrian flag). Numbers are added to distinguish specific routes. You should be aware that in some cases the waymarkers change when you cross international borders.
8. Understand hut etiquette
Most huts are maintained by individuals who consider the hut to be their home for the summer months. So be respectful and always follow the rules. There are absolutely no hiking shoes allowed inside. Most huts have a boot room near the entrance where you will store your boots. It is by far the stinkiest room in the hut! Hüttenruhe (quiet time) begins at 10:00. There are no exceptions. Be sure to pay for all your purchases in full before you head to bed.
9. Know what to pack
Your packing list will look a lot like any other backpacking trip except there is no need to bring a tent or a stove. Other additions specific to hut hiking: Ear plugs– you will be sleeping in close proximity with a lot of other people and you never know if one of them might be a snorer. Sleeping sheet or bag– pre-pandemic all you needed was a silk liner and the blankets were provided by the hut. For the time being blankets will not be provided. Hut shoes– some people use extra thick socks or slippers, but you can’t wear your boots in the hut! Trekking Poles- literally almost every European hiker uses trekking poles and there is a reason. It is so much safer and efficient. Some of the high mountain passes may still have snow on them and your poles will help you navigate the ice.
10. Be prepared for the social experience
Some people go hiking to be alone. When you are hut-to-hut hiking, even if you are on the trail by yourself, you will most definitely not be alone at night. In alpine huts, the hours between when you arrive and when you go to sleep are very social. Frequently you will see the same hikers night after night. You may eat together, play a game in the dining room together, and then end up hiking together the next day. I’ve made friends on the trail that I still keep in touch with years later.