Don’t go to the Decathlon, buy a new pair of hiking boots and go for the “Tour de Mont Blanc”. As emblematic for walkers as the Tour de France for cyclists, this legendary route encircles Mont Blanc through France, Italy and Switzerland.
Because within 30 minutes of leaving Chamonix, you will feel your first blister. By the end of the first day, my heels looked like raw bacon. There are only 11 days left.
Despite the insane beginnings, this trip sealed my love of mountain huts. Stroll through alpine forests and meadows, hear the distant sound of bells, pick wild raspberries, savor local cheese and sausage, cool off next to a glacier … you can’t get off the beaten track much more than that.
And now imagine that feeling of relief and satisfaction when you arrive, dusty and sweaty, at a sturdy stone chalet perched high on the mountain. You undo your boots and sit down, pumped with endorphins from your exertion, for an ice-cold beer and sweeping views of the snow-capped peaks.
That night, you’re served a hearty three-course meal before sinking exhausted into your bed, surrounded by stars and silence.
At the top of the Alps is a network of hundreds of mountain huts
Ranging from unmanned cabins to mini-hotels perched on the edge of glaciers at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, the shelters are open to everyone. But few know they exist or how to access them. Not intentionally secret, it’s just that mass tourism and modern marketing isn’t really their priority.
But before we get carried away, let’s recognize that mountain huts aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
They are distant – often several hours on foot from the nearest road or from human habitation. They’re basic – water comes from mountain springs, electricity from solar panels, and a trip to the toilet at night can mean tripping down a squeaky wooden staircase and heading to a dry toilet outside.
On the plus side, they’re relatively affordable – a three-course meal, often homemade with local produce, and a bed for the night in a shared room or dormitory typically cost around 40-50 euros per person.
Each mini-expedition requires careful preparation
Your first challenge will be to choose and book a refuge.
Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds, as there is no centralized information and reservation system. Mountain huts are managed by a range of organizations ranging from individuals to individual municipalities and French Alpine Club.
Promoted by local, departmental and regional tourist offices, the jumble of websites and phone numbers can be quite confusing, especially for non-French speakers.
Here is my tip if your French and your patience are not up to this jumble of information.
Check out the alpine hut travel packages highlighted on the few niche UK tour operator websites, such as Hikes in the French Alps + guide. Often, they give itineraries, detailing the stops chosen and the distances between them. If you don’t feel like joining a guided group, you can search for one of these shelters on Google and book directly.
Most of the hut keepers speak enough English to make a reservation, if you really don’t have French for “I would like to book a night in a hut …”
Maps are crucial for high altitude navigation errors
Although shelters are usually well signposted from the nearest parking lots or public transport stops, it’s always best to have a detailed walking map with you as a back-up. The Institut Géographique Nationale (IGN) is the French equivalent of Ordnance Survey and its 1: 25,000 maps are superbly detailed.
You can use the IGN cartographic application on your phone, but remember there aren’t many charging points up a mountain.
Estimating the time it will take to walk from A to B is a nerve-racking challenge for novice hikers.
You want to arrive at the refuge around 5 p.m. to admire the sunset and enjoy your beer before dinner. An average walker on flat ground will cover approximately 5 km / hour. But what if you are climbing steeply up or down a narrow, rocky path, with a backpack?
Most signposts in the Alps show an estimated walking time, as well as the destination, but that’s not very helpful when planning from the comfort of your living room. If you don’t feel comfortable with Naismith’s rule To estimate your walking time uphill, don’t be afraid to call the refuge to ask (you won’t be the first) or the local tourist office (who will speak English).
Respect the “refuge label”
Shelters are friendly places, where you can easily engage in conversations and share directions and tips with fellow travelers. But it is important to remember that you are in France and that the French like to be welcomed.
This means saying “Good evening, Sir” or “Hello, Madam” upon arrival, ideally to everyone you meet. If you need to ask for something, don’t jump right into your American-style request with a “Can I get…?” You must first say hello correctly, recognizing that you are interacting with a person, not a robot. Then you can make your request.
Before COVID, everyone had dinner together on long wooden tables and slept in dormitories. Now, groups tend to be separated for dinner and dorms are split into shared or partitioned rooms.
For everyone’s comfort, there are essential rules to follow, such as removing outdoor shoes, not wasting water or electricity, making your bed before leaving, taking your own garbage. If in doubt, read this excellent guide on ‘How to behave in a mountain hut’ will help.
Top choice: majestic scenery with donkeys outside our cabin
Each refuge is different and each has its own charm. This makes it difficult to pick favorites, but here are my top three to get you started.
- Refuge Le Lindion: 19 beds, wood stove, free-range chickens, kept by agricultural students who also take care of the herd of local cows, homemade after the digestive dinner on the house. 1h30 walk from the Morette car park, near Annecy.
- Moëde-Anterne Refuge: 91 beds, spectacular view of Mont Blanc, family-friendly, delicious fondue made from local cheeses, 2h15 on foot from Plaine-Joux, near Chamonix.
- Pré-Vérel Refuge: 34 beds, the adjoining restaurant serves the best rib of beef in the Alps (cooked over a wood fire), accessible on foot or by car, the nearest village is Talloires-Montmin.