Do you love the idea of traveling through beautiful countryside on foot, but kind of hate the idea of eating freeze-dried pasta from a pouch and sleeping on dirt? Well then you sound like an ideal candidate for hut-to-hut hiking, one of my favorite ways to explore around the world.
The name kind of gives it away, but hut-to-hut hiking lets you do long distance hikes while only carrying your personal gear like clothing, toiletries, and snacks. Hut-to-hut hikes come in all different forms around the world. Whether you’re heading out for just a couple nights or a month-long trek, there are great options for you.
I’ve only had a couple hut-to-hut experiences, but I’m eager for more. It’s also a great solo travel activity, as you’ll generally be sleeping in communal spaces and it’s an awesome way to meet fellow hikers of all ages and nationalities.
Hikes to Kickstart your Research
The web is awash with information about hikes around the world, and many of them even have dedicated guidebooks. I want to highlight a few, just to kickstart your research.
In Europe, there are two major categories of hut-to-hut hikes – religious pilgrimages, and alpine treks. In the first category, the Camino de Santiago is perhaps the best known. If you want to get some flavor of the camino, and hut-to-hut hiking in general, I’d definitely recommend watching the movie The Way by Emilio Estevez. While the camino is most commonly walked as a route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, there are actually many pilgrimage routes across Spain and Portugal which end up at Santiago de Compostela. They’re all dotted with “albergues” (hostels), which provide a bed, sometimes a shower, and usually a low cost meal or kitchen. Other pilgrimage routes in Europe include the Via Francagenia, a newly revived trek following the path of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales from Canterbury to Rome.
For these religious hut-to-hut hikes in western Europe, you can get by with a lightweight pack with a couple changes of clothes and your personal items. Your hike takes you through towns and villages, so there are chances to do laundry or buy items you’ve forgotten or broken. And just to be clear, you don’t need to be a religious person to find these hikes meaningful – everyone hikes for their own reason.
The other major category of hut-to-hut hikes in Europe are alpine treks, found in Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia and elsewhere. Many of these hikes, like the very popular Tour du Mont Blanc, take you through a mix of alpine pastures and villages as well as steeper and more remote passes. The hiking in the Dolomites can include via ferrata, which involves attaching yourself to a steel cable system for safety.
Each night, you’ll sleep in some sort of refuge – either very basic and rustic or fancier and better equipped. Usually, you’ll have great food and a chance to meet interesting folks from around the world. I love waking up in the moonscape environment of high altitude in the mountains, discussing hiking plans over coffee with travelers from around the world, then setting out on an adventure.
In many cases, especially outside of peak seasons, you can just show up at these huts without any advance notice and get a bed. That gives you the freedom to chart your course each day, and readjust if the weather or your body has other plans. If you’re prone to worrying, you can always phone or email ahead to make sure there’s a bed reserved for you. (Even if a refuge is “full”, they’re not going to send you out to sleep with the wolves, it just might not be a comfortable night for you)
While I’ve only done hut-to-hut hikes in Europe, high on my personal bucket list is to experience some hut-to-hut hiking in Asia, and especially in Japan. The Nakasendo Trail, connecting Kyoto to Tokyo, follows an ancient route and is described as being like stepping into a timewarp. Along the way you stay in ryokan (traditional inns) and walk through car-free villages. South of Osaka, the Kumano Kodo is another ancient pilgrimage route. After Europe, the biggest density of hut-to-hut treks is in Patagonia in South America, in both Chile and Argentia. These are also high on my wishlist for adventure travel.
What to Expect
As with any adventure, you’ll want to do your research on specific gear recommendations for the hike you’re planning. You’ll also want to review whether reservations are required – in peak seasons, it’s possible for accommodations to fill up, so you’ll need to plan accordingly. The “hut” experience differs around the world, but there are a few things that are generally true no matter where you go.
Usually when you stay at a hiking-specific accommodation you’ll pay for a bed, with the option of adding half-board (breakfast and dinner). Sometimes it’ll cost a little extra for a shower. The food on offer is usually a match for the amount of physical activity you’re doing – expect lots of carbs, plus whatever might be in season. The people who operate huts for hikers are often doing it out of a genuine love of providing care and support for travelers, and pride themselves on offering quality food.
In almost all cases, you’ll be in a dormitory environment – sometimes sharing a room with two or three other folks, sometimes in a large room with dozens. In either case, if you’re a light sleeper you’ll want to bring your earplugs and some patience.
Power can be at a premium, especially in the more remote huts which depend on solar power or generators, so charging devices can be tricky – since charging phones is the main priority of modern travelers, there’ll be plenty of signage to set you straight.
Depending on your trek, a sleeping bag may or may not be required – more often than not, you won’t need one. I like to bring a lightweight sleeping bag liner (no sleeping bag), as it helps alleviate worries about bedbugs or other annoyances, without adding a ton of weight.
If you think this type of trip might be in your future, consider picking up Explore Europe on Foot by Cassandra Overby. Cassandra describes routes ranging from day trips to major excursions. There’s plenty of information online as well – the more popular routes will have dedicated guidebooks and forums where you can get up-to-the-minute information.
I’d love to hear from others who’ve done this type of travel. What do you love? What would you change?