What is a mountain refuge?
A mountain refuge makes high-altitude, mountain activities possible. They offer over-night accommodation, and are essential to activities such as hut-to-hut hiking and snowshoeing. They’re also used by mountaineers and skiers, as a way to access the high mountains (e.g. most people who climb Mont Blanc stay in a refuge). Mountain refuges are a great place to meet other hikers, practice your French or Italian, and just enjoy being in nature.
A “hut” or a “refuge”?
You might be more familiar with the term “mountain hut”, but in the Alps it’s common for English-speaking people to refer to them as refuges. This is because it’s the same word in French and in English, and “refuge” is similar to the Italian word, too (“rifugio”). Check out these links to help you pronounce “refuge” in French and “rifugio” in Italian.
Across the Alps, there’s a vast network of mountain refuges. They allow us to stay in spectacular, remote locations, and they’re a fundamental part of alpine culture, history and tradition. If you’re planning to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) or the Haute Route, staying in a mountain refuge is essential. These routes take you high into the mountains, so it is not possible to come down to a hotel every night. The hotels in the Alps are of a good standard, and they operate like any other hotel. It is the mountain refuges that may be a new experience for you.
What is a refuge like?
The standard of mountain refuges varies, but most hiking refuges are larger and nicer than those at really high altitudes. The smaller ones at higher altitudes are build for climbers and mountaineers. These can be simple cabins, sleeping as few as 6 people. The ones on popular hiking routes such as the TMB generally sleep between 40-100 people, and the standard of accommodation and cleanliness is very good. It is similar to what you would find in a traditional youth hostel, which is impressive considering how remote the locations are.
Considering their remote locations, you’d be surprised by the amount of facilities some refuges have. Most importantly, there is always a bar, so you can enjoy a drink on the terrace after your hike! On the TMB, all refuges have showers, but sometimes these are time-limited. The refuges do not provide towels, so you’ll need to bring your own. We recommend bringing a lightweight microfibre towel. Bathrooms are shared (separated into sexes), and each floor has its own set of bathrooms. Drying rooms are available if you need to dry clothes, shoes or equipment. Most refuges have electrical outlets, which you can use to charge your phone, but these are sometimes limited.
Generally, sleeping is in shared dormitories of mixed sex, which vary in size depending on the refuge. Some dormitories sleep 4 people, some 20 people. Sometimes the beds are bunk beds or alpine bunks (lots of beds close together), so there is not a lot of space to spread out your equipment. The refuge provides pillows, a blanket and / or a duvet. The bedding is not washed every day, so it’s important to bring a sleeping bag liner (see this example at Decathlon). The lights are out at around 9pm. We recommend using ear plugs and an eye mask, this way you can get to sleep easily if there are people moving around or snoring!
FOOD AND DRINK
On the TMB and other multi-day hikes, breakfast and dinner are generally provided by the refuge. If you’re vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free, just let your guide or the refuge staff know. This is not a problem, and they will provide you with a specific meal. If you’re hungry, you can ask the staff for more servings of food.
Breakfast in refuges is continental in style. Each refuge has a different start time, but you can normally arrive from around 6.30am and help yourself from a buffet. There is always bread and condiments (e.g. honey, jam, nutella), and then normally cereal, yoghurt, milk, fruit, cheese and a selection of cold meats. In Italy, there is always cake too! You can help yourself to tea, coffee and juice.
There is always a set dinner time in a refuge, which is normally 7pm. Don’t be late, as you may miss your first course! The staff will tell you what time dinner is when you arrive. Your group will have a set table, and sometimes you’ll share with other hikers. It’s a social occasion, and a great opportunity to meet other hikers.
Dinner is usually 3 courses of simple, filling food, starting with soup and bread. The soup is usually brought in a large bowl, and it is custom to serve others and also help collect the bowls together after everyone has finished. The main course is usually something like pasta, rice or potatoes with a meaty dish, such as casserole or a stew. There are normally vegetables on the side. Dessert is usually something simple like yoghurt and fruit, mousse or fruit salad. Refuges in France will often serve a sample of the local cheese, too. You can order drinks at dinner and these will be paid for after.
Each refuge, no matter how remote, has a bar! Here you can buy soft drinks, tea, coffee, beer and wine. These are paid for separately. Sometimes they can be a bit more expensive than normal, as everything in the refuges gets delivered by helicopter. There isn’t normally a road!
You can drink water for free in the mountain refuges. It is not difficult to find drinking water on the TMB. In most refuges and hotels, the water is perfectly safe to drink straight from the tap, unless there is a sign telling you otherwise. There are also many fountains along the route, where you can fill your bottle. The water is from the mountain but from a controlled source. There will be a sign if the water is not drinkable. Drinking from streams is more risky, as often there are grazing animals high on the mountains that can pollute the water. It is recommend to fill at least 1 litre of water at the start of each day as there are sometimes long stretches without a refill point. Your guide can advise how much you need to carry each morning to save any unnecessary weight.
It’s a good idea to prepare your things for the next day when you first arrive. Try to be neat and tidy, and avoid spreading your belongings everywhere. Do not organise your bag at night, when other people are sleeping; try to do it before dinner.
The dormitory is really just a place for sleeping. The refuges all have separate places for socialising, so you should go there if you want to stay up past 9pm. People are usually tired and getting ready for an early start the next day, so be respectful and don’t make noise late at night. If you need to go to the toilet, try to avoid shining a torch into anyone’s face while they’re sleeping.
Is a mountain refuge safe?
If you’re not used to sharing rooms with other people, it can be daunting at first. For female hikers, it might seem especially daunting to share a room with male strangers. However, rest assured; mountain refuges are very safe places. We have never seen aggressive behaviour in refuges, and we have never had equipment stolen. People are always friendly, and everyone is of the same mindset; they are just there to sleep and enjoy their night in the mountains!
However, if you’re feeling nervous about this, it might help you to sleep in between two people from your group, who you already know. If you’re travelling alone, speak with a member of staff and tell them your concerns. Some refuges also offer a few private rooms.
What should I wear in a refuge?
Most people wear thermals in a refuge. This is easy, because you should already have some thermals packed, which you’re using to hike in or as an emergency backup. The dinning rooms can sometimes be chilly, so it’s normal to wear thermals with a small coat. At night, the dormitories are usually warm, so you might want to sleep in a thin t-shirt and leggings. The refuges provide crocs to use, so you don’t need to pack slippers.
The best thing about staying in a refuge is that you’re usually way up in the mountains! Often the refuges don’t have road access, so once the day hikers have left in the afternoon, it is just you and the other guests. Make sure to take time to enjoy the peace and quiet. Go outside to watch the sunset, or see the stars.