What is it like to stay in a mountain refuge?

The heat of the midday sun threatened to turn a usually enjoyable hike into a bit of a trudge. I reassured my sister and her boyfriend that we were almost there.

‘You said that an hour ago.’

Luckily, I was a bit more honest this time and I was as relieved as they were to turn a corner and spot our cosy wooden home for the night. Perched high above the Chamonix valley, the Refuge du Lac Blanc commands impossibly beautiful views of the entire Mont Blanc Massif. The stunning views, friendly staff and short walk-in makes it the perfect introduction to staying in a mountain refuge.

I’m not too sure what my sister expected for accommodation with no road access and a three-hour hike in. But she was surprised to find we would be sharing a room with twenty other people. She wasn’t too impressed with the shower facilities either, despite me explaining she was lucky to get one! Luckily, her initial reluctance quickly disappeared over a hearty three course meal, shared with hikers from France and the Czech Republic.

After dinner we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen in the Alps. The mountains glowed red, reflected perfectly in the clear still waters of Lac Blanc. And in that moment, I was reminded what the mountain refuge experience was all about. It’s one thing to hike for a day in the Alps, but another experience entirely to be fully immersed in the mountains for a few days.

View on mountain refuge
The Aiguille Verte and the Dru reflect perfectly in Lac Blanc at sunset. The Refuge du Lac Blanc is just visible on the left. Photo by Jennifer Stretton

If you are getting ready for your first trip to a mountain refuge, this article will answer your questions to help you blend in like a local!

What standard can I expect?

The standard of mountain refuges varies wildly across the Alps. Some are tiny climber’s huts, equipped with only a mattress and a long drop toilet outside (if you’re lucky!). Others are far more luxurious with comfortable dining areas, three course meals and private bedrooms. During the ultra-classic Chamonix to Zermatt Haute route trek, we stay in the beautiful Cabane de Louvie and Cabane de Prafleuri and for many guests it’s the highlight of their trip!

Forche mountain refuge
Some friends relaxing after a hard climb up to the Forche Bivouac on the Italian/French border near Mont Blanc. Luckily trekkers mountain refuges are much more luxurious than climbers huts! Photo by David Thexton
In most refuges you will need to share bedrooms with other people but it all adds to the fun! On a snowshoeing trip in March 2018, we had the room to ourselves so stayed up playing cards long after everyone else had gone to bed. Photo by Naseer

Do I need to book ahead?

Definitely! Mountain refuges book up early in peak season – particularly on the Tour du Mont Blanc and Haute Route treks. Even out of season, it’s courtesy to call ahead so that the refuge guardian knows how much food to prepare for dinner that evening. You can now book most refuges online, whereas you will need to call ahead for some smaller ones. Many hut guardians speak very good English, but it shouldn’t be expected! The big advantage of going on a guided trekking holiday is that all of the accomodation is booked for you, meaning you can relax and enjoy the views.

Are meals included?

When you book, you will be asked if you want dinner and breakfast. It is cheaper if you don’t book meals, and some refuges have kitchen facilities that you can use. Some refuges also offer packed lunches. Dinner is very hearty and you can usually expect a three course meal, so it’s well worth paying for it.

Do refuges cater for special diets?

Although they are still a little behind the times, most refuges are now very happy to cater for vegetarians if you tell them ahead of time when you book. However, if you are vegan, gluten free or have severe allergies, then it is wise to take supplies with you. The rule of thumb is to always ask ahead so the refuge guardian has time to get any supplies needed.

What time do I need to arrive at a mountain refuge?

Dinner is usually served between 6pm and 7pm and it is considered incredibly rude to turn up late. If bad weather or unforeseen circumstance means that you are running late, call the hut guardian to let them know so that they can set some food aside.

Is there any special etiquette I should be aware of?

By following a few simple rules, you will blend in like a local and avoid causing any offence:

  • Take off your shoes in the boot room and wear the hut slippers provided.
  • Don’t be embarrassed! Have a go at the local language, it’s very appreciated!
  • Leave your walking poles and rucksacks in the area provided. Dorm rooms are quite small and it is usually expected to leave your equipment in a boot room and only carry into the dorm what you need for that night.
  • Be on time for dinner!
  • Serve others before yourself. At dinner time, food is served in sharing bowls and it is polite for one person to dish out other people’s food. If that’s not practical then be sure to leave enough for everyone else at the table! Don’t worry, refuge guardians are very generous and will often bring out seconds!
  • Respect silence in the dormitory rooms. Many hikers go to bed and wake up very early and so conversation should be kept for the dining areas.
  • Always book ahead and notify the guardian as soon as you can if you need to cancel your booking.
mountain refuge in courcheval
Dancing on the balcony of a tiny mountain refuge near Courcheval, France. Myself and some friends stayed here for a joint birthday celebration in October 2016. Late that afternoon a group of French hikers we didn’t know showed up too and joined in the fun! For me the best part about staying in a mountain refuge is meeting new people from all over the world. Photo by David Thexton

Can I pay by card in a mountain refuge?

It depends where you are staying. Even for refuges that accept card, it’s worth carrying enough cash to cover your stay just in case their machine isn’t working. It’s a long walk to the nearest ATM!

Can I have my own room?

This depends completely on the mountain refuge. If private rooms are available, you will almost certainly have to pay more. Dorm rooms are mixed sex unless otherwise specified, though I have never been to a refuge with single sex dorm rooms.

Are there showers?

Mountain refuges on popular hikes such as the tour du mont blanc or haute route will often have showers, however it shouldn’t be expected. If there are showers, then you will usually have to pay for tokens to use them. Consider your impact on the environment and take a cold shower when you can.

Can I charge my electrical devices?

Whilst many refuges now have charging points, in peak season there may be competition for them! If it’s important to you then it’s worth carrying spare batteries, a portable solar charger or charging pack.

How much does it cost to stay in a mountain refuge?

The cost varies hugely depending on the popularity of the refuge, it’s facilities and the region. Switzerland has the most expensive refuges. In general you can expect to pay between 30 and 70 euros per night, including breakfast and dinner.

Are discounts available?

If you are in the Alps on a long trip, then it may be worth becoming a member of the French or Austrian Alpine Club. Membership entitles you to discounts at many refuges and also a level of insurance cover for accident and emergency.



Jennifer Stretton
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