Have you ever been in a mountain village and seen a few twinkling lights coming from the tops of the mountains late at night? High up in the mountains all over the world exist a network of mountain huts or refuges, where amongst other things, you can buy an ice cold beer. Perfect!
Refuges have been a massive part of mountaineering and alpine history since the 1800’s. When planning our Via del Sale gravel bike packing trip this summer through France and Italy (piece coming soon in Grit.cx and Bikepacking.com), JC and I decided to reach as many huts as possible on our route, to save us carrying camping equipment and also to have a new adventure experience. This would enable us to stay as high as possible in the mountains for as long as possible safe in the knowledge that a hot meal and a bed would await us at the end of our day.
Usually favoured by walkers and climbers, refuges don’t see that many cyclists pass through their doors, especially British ones. We were quite the curiosity, particularly on one occasion when we arrived very Late into a dining room at 9pm, just as everyone else was polishing off deserts!
Experiencing life in a refuge is certainly something that more of us outdoor lovers should be getting out to do, whether on foot or two wheels. Some of the people we met and the stories we heard will stay with us for a very long time. I’ve put together a handy how to guide which covers some useful tips for staying high and what to expect.
The boss. The patron. The main man. This is the person who is in charge of the hut, and is more often than not a walking google search for the area you are in. Some are fairly grumpy, and others less so, interested in your journey and how they can help. Make sure you ask about the weather, anything you should know about the trail you are taking, and whether there is anything special in the area you may not have known about.
Manned huts usually provide evening meals, and some also provide lunches should you happen to arrive early. For a set price (€17-20) a three course meal is served. We ate very well, and the Italian huts generally serve a lasagna for starters, then meat and potatoes for main and some kind of chocolately goodness for desert! We also had vegetable soups, bread, an amazing risotto, lentil and sausage stew, spinach tart and salad. Some nights we got lucky and there was enough for seconds! There is usually a well stocked bar, and a glass of wine or beer costs around €2.
Generally breakfast is the same wherever you are. A bit rubbish! Our first morning saw great confusion as we expected porridge to be brought out for our empty bowls on the table, but instead of having something to chew on put in the bowl, they were indeed drinking vessels. Observing our table neighbours pouring coffee into the bowl, then preceding to dunk their bread in the coffee, then well drink it. Que massive confusion. By day two we had it nailed and knew what to expect- not much! On a daily basis we snaffled as many nutella sachets as possible for mid morning ride licks. I got used to drinking a bowl of coffee while JC compared the quality of the bread or faux-bread based item we were given. We affectionately began to call it ‘toy toast’.
Learning from this we made sure that we carried puréed fruit sachets (like or even actual baby food), bananas when we could find them in a village, our own toasted bread things and cream cheese. We were usually starving by 9am and had to stop to eat again usually an hour after breakfast.
Our new hut friend Jill accurately described it as being like “naughty school children eating their sandwiches on the school trip coach at 9am”.
Most refuges will provide a pic-nic which you order the night before, usually a sandwich or a cous cous box.
Because we wanted to stay as remote as possible for as long as possible we carried day snacks which included: The Best Trail Mix Ever (mini Daim bars, mini saussicon and salted cashews almonds and pecans), Pip and Nut nut butter sachets, power shots, ritz crackers and individually wrapped Madeleine cakes which absolutely got me out of the shit on a few occasions.
We carried roughly two litres of water each along with a lifestraw water filter.
A good tip is to arrive early to bag the best positioned bed! Some huts offer separate bedrooms but these are few and far between, the only hut I’ve seen this in was in Slovenia, which slept over 200 people. Generally rooms have bunk beds in dormitory style.
Rooms usually slept around 20 people which when full is ‘cosy’: aka a bit smelly, noisy (snorers), warm and personal space limited. Large silver backed men in tiny pants became quite normal. Some huts have same sex rooms but generally they are mixed.Blankets and pillows are provided, but a personal liner should be used and in some huts compulsory. We carried a cotton Drap de Sac each which did the job.
I recommend carrying earplugs, a head torch or small led light and an eye mask. Bedtime is usually very early in huts, as most people like to get away early in the morning. For climbers this could be as early as a 2am start!
The bathroom ‘situation’
Probably a bit excessive to use the word ‘washing’. A quick drizzle? A sink rinse? A cold blast?! Showers are generally coin operated and give you a set amount of water rather than time. Maximise your shower time by reducing the water pressure (thus saving rinsing shampoo out of hair in a basin. Lesson learnt!).
Towels and toiletries are not provided. As one hut bathroom sign felt the need to remind us “this is not a hotel”. Yep, got that memo! I carried a tiny shampoo and conditioner, a concentrated body wash and a small anti-bac quick dry towel. No hairbrush. Fingers sufficed.
Now toilets. If you are lucky you get a seat, and toilet roll. If you are semi lucky you get a squat job with a handle and toilet roll. If you are unlucky, you get a squat job with no handle and no toilet roll. And soap?! Never any soap. Carry anti-bac wipes or gel and a few tissues.
Carry enough cash, very few have the means to take card payments. Think ahead to where you will get your cash from too. We spilt the cash between us should one of us misplace a wallet. On average dinner bed and breakfast in a hut costs €50 per night.
Most refuges now offer enough power points for charging devices but best to carry a power pack as well. Handy for low beans during the day too.
Kit wash day
Some refuges have a sink and washing line available for washing kit. Drying it can be a different matter, and you should certainly be prepared to go smelly or face wearing damp kit the next morning.
Booking and arrival
No hard and fast about this one, but booking ahead can help. Some require a deposit for booking in advance.
Some huts will ask where you are coming from (town or trail) and very often when you check out they ask you where you are going next. All part of the mountain life.
If you are going to arrive late at a hut (or won’t make at all) it is courtesy to phone or email the hut guardian to let them know your eta. More than anything it means you can ask them to save you a dinner!
If you are a member of the hut organisation you get discounted rates. Enquire before you leave.
Hopefully this has given you an idea of what to expect and to help with your refuge adventure. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions! For this trip we used Apidura + Rapha rear and front packs which carried everything we needed to make our refuge experience great.