Historic hut systems around the world are simple sanctuaries to stay overnight and extend your miles.
Runner’s World | April 2022
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Ripples flowed across the surface of Vista Lake while the arms of pine trees danced in every direction. The helicopter’s high-pitched hum and rapid whoomph-whoomph-whoomph of the rotors roared overhead as we landed.
Our crew of nine trail runners was being heli-taxied to one of four off-grid huts speckling the Esplanade Range of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains in Canada. After the Vista Hut drop off, the pilot would shuttle our overnight bags to Meadow and Sunrise Lodges, where we’d venture next.
The four solar-powered shelters, owned by Golden Alpine Holidays (a tour company), are only 7 miles apart north-to-south, but require travel by foot up grassy slopes and rocky ridgelines between each one. And they also sit at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.
For the next five days, this remote region was home for me and those with me: 50,000 acres to explore via singletrack, rocky ridgelines, and sparkling turquoise tarns. We were excited to experience this special place with the added luxury of well-sheltered, well-fed overnights—plus wood-fired sauna sessions—all at the huts.
I first learned about hut-to-hut trail running trips through word of mouth, specifically the annual summer hut-to-hut trip launched and led by professional ultrarunner Rickey Gates. Growing up and living in the mountains of Southwest Colorado, historic huts have been a common sight on hikes I did with my family but only after hearing about Gates’ trip did I realize they could be used for trail running trips, too.
Later, I received a couple of invitations from trail runners to join hut trips, both catered and completely self-supported, opening up a new world of traveling through incredible terrain and locations.
The trips sound dreamy just reading about, right? If you want to plan your own hut-to-hut running adventure (not all are only accessible by helicopter—many by foot), here’s how to make the most of your time in the backcountry.
What exactly is a hut-to-hut trail running adventure?
Simply put, a hut-to-hut run trip means you stay overnight in a hut (or multiple huts) while “seeing a route, location or mountain range by running,” says Runcation Travel founder Liz Gill, a USATF-certified run coach and hut-to-hut running guide.
Founded in 2017, Gill’s company provides guided and self-led itineraries, including trips through the Dolomites of Italy and Slovenia and along the Tour du Mont Blanc (in Italy, Switzerland, and France, spanning 106 miles in total). Recently, Gill also launched a camp-to-camp glamping run trip in Machu Picchu, Peru.
Hut-to-hut routes can be a point-to-point path or circuit of any distance with one or more overnight shelters. For tighter timelines, you could also run an out-and-back to a single hut (good if you want just one night in the backcountry).
Your run route to, from, or around the huts may include segments of singletrack, pavement, doublewide dirt service roads, or no trail at all—just scrambling across boulder fields. Generally, hut systems are accessible by foot or helicopter. However, some of the huts along particular routes, such as those along the Tour du Mont Blanc, are located in villages or towns with road access.
Some hut systems, such as the hütten, as they’re known in the Eastern Alps, are nearly 150 years old while others, like a portion of Colorado’s famed 10th Mountain Division Hut Association hut system, were built in the 1950s, and a handful of bungalows offer more modern escapes. Certain hut trips, like mine in the Esplanade Range, are basically located in the middle of nowhere while others link up villages.
Historically, huts around the world have served as shelters for soldiers, sheepherders, U.S. Forest Service patrol or other guards, ski mountaineers, and foot travelers, to name a few. Today, many of these still-standing structures are available for recreational enjoyment.
Also known as rifugios, or mountain refuges, in Italy, refugios in Argentina and Spain, and gîtes in France, each one “can be quite different from another depending on the location and country. Rifugios can have private rooms with three-course meals and others are a simple shelter,” says Gill. With those simple shelters, you get a bed, perhaps kitchen utensils and books for leisure reading—and that’s about it.
How to plan a hut trail running route
Sunrise, one of the huts of Golden Alpine Holidays, in Canada.COURTESY OF MORGAN TILTON
Start by choosing an area of the country or abroad that you want to travel to, suggests Gill, pointing to The Mountain Hut Book, one of her primary inspirations, in addition to The Tour of Mont Blanc. Once you decide where you want to go, you can also research online to find a guidebook that details the huts in that place.
Commercialized huts will have contact info, overnight rates, and potentially reservation guidelines all online. As you research, also consider tracking down popular ski hut or hiking hut routes, because often those huts can not only be utilized for skiing and hiking but also be a good fit for trail running trips in the summer months.
Next, “use a mapping service like Fatmap and Gaia GPS to plot a route, marking huts along the way. Create a plan B and a bail out for if the conditions aren’t right. For instance, I’ve hit way too much snow to cross, had to go back and then go around a different way,” says Gill. Be sure to consider elevation gain and loss in addition to distance, so that you don’t bite off more ground than you feel comfortable.
Lately, huts are in growing demand for various adventurers, so book well in advance. “Popular huts can often book out by November for the following summer. Start early or look at off-season dates like late August or early September. There are plenty of lesser-known huts that are not along the most popular long-distance trails, like the Tour du Mont Blanc, that you can use for spur of the moment trips,” says Gill.
For example, Colorado Parks & Wildlife State Forest huts, Maine Huts & Trails hut system, or the huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club in the Northeast are all lesser known options. To learn more about hut systems in the United States, Hut to Hut USA is a full-scope resource. As the book outlines, there are nearly sixteen hut systems across 14 states, mostly concentrated on the coasts.
Less trafficked, more primitive huts often have smaller fees or none at all. For instance, an undeveloped hut run trip I took with friends cost $10 total (one night for my food), because we didn’t need to pay for one of the huts where we stayed. Other huts can cost over $100 per night, and require booking ahead.
This cost varies depending on the country, travel season, provided amenities, and whether or not you coordinate with a travel guide, private backcountry chef, or hire a certified mountain running guide.
If you do decide to hire a guide for your trip, check their certifications and experience. “It’s great to look for guides with certifications, which differs country to country, or at a minimum, extensive experience in the area. In some countries the certification is a ‘middle mountain’ guide that leads trails for running and hikingversus a high mountain guide, which is a more expensive service,” explains Gill.
For example, Gill has Wilderness First Aid, Sports First Aid, and CPR certifications. At a high mountain guide level, James Madden, co-owner of Canadian Rockies Running Adventures, which offers overnight run trips with huts and camps, is a double-certified IFMGA and ACMG Mountain Guide, alongside co-owner Emily Compton, an ACMG Apprentice Hiking Guide.
How to pack for a hut trail running trip
How and what you pack is influenced by the type of hut you visit. “Choosing staffed huts with a kitchen where the food and bedding is provided lends itself well to running, so that you can pack less and there are fewer logistics to organize regarding hiring a chef,” says Gill.
Otherwise, “You could carry an ultralight stove and bring your food or hire someone to hike in the linens and food to cook for you,” says Gill. Some hut systems offer a package with extra services for groups, such as the guided and catered options. Trail runners can also reach out to pack animal companies, outfitters, and backcountry chefs in their region of travel to inquire about the services and group packages they offer.
Minimalists or budgeted travelers carry all of their belongings in their trail running pack. “Don’t skip on safety items, such as a satellite phone and a miniature first aid kit with essentials such as anti-histamines for insect bites and antiseptics to clean out scrapes from a fall. You can leave out creature comforts like multiple toiletry products. Instead, use an all-in-one soap versus multiple products for the face, hair, and body. When you’re running, every pound makes a difference versus when you’re backpacking, you might not feel each ounce as much. You want your pack as light as possible,” she says.
Gill’s pack necessities include a first aid kit, satellite phone or cell phone, and a map. In some locations, you’ll also want bear spray and bug repellent. Sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen and chapstick with SPF protection is key, as well as a water filtration system, whether you’re in the backcountry or running through towns.
Gill also carries a rain jacket, wind layer such as the Patagonia Houdini, lightweight puffy, change of underwear and socks, one extra t-shirt, leggings, toothpaste, a mini toothbrush, and phone or satellite device charger if electricity or solar-generated power is available.
Another option: Hire a shuttle driver that transports your baggage to each hut by vehicle, pack animal, or helicopter—like my trip in the Esplanade Range—depending on the hut’s remoteness and accessibility. For primitive hut systems, friends and I have also backpacked our food and sleeping gear between remote mountain shacks, which each served as our basecamp for daily mountain runs.
The benefits of a hut-to-hut running adventure
From exploration to solitude to time in nature, enjoying fitness, stress relief and meditation, laughs, or camaraderie on the trail, all of the aspects that most athletes love about trail running is amplified in-depth on back-to-back days. Plus, running farther offers you an opportunity to see terrain you’d never otherwise experience: deep backcountry wilderness areas that typically can’t be accessed by road. As a result, these places are also more secluded and untouched.
“When you’re running hut to hut over several days, you can see the ins and outs of the trail and of a place, especially along a mountain route that crosses through countries or along a border where you see the food, language, and culture change day to day, in addition to the scenery,” says Gill.
Hut-to-hut run adventures can also be a fun way to connect with new or established friends or train for an endurance event in addition to seeing new terrain.
Top hut systems to explore on the run
A handful of the most idyllic huts to consider visiting include California’s Sierra Club Lodges and Huts, Clair Tappaan Lodge Backcountry Huts in California, and the cabins and yurts of the Alaska Huts Association, says Gill.
You could also add the San Juan Huts in southwest Colorado, the Maine Huts & Trails collection, and the huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire to your list. Also check out the Rendezvous Huts in Washington, the yurts of Idaho-based Sun Valley Mountain Huts, or the Boundary Country Trekkingyurt and bed and breakfast-style cabins in Minnesota.
Internationally, “Patagonia’s refugio circuits in El Bolsón, Bariloche, and El Chaltén—which hand-make pizza or brew their own beer—are really fun and bedding is provided,” adds Gill and says, “I have a personal preference for Italian rifugios—they’re really amazing.”
Sometimes, it’s easier, less stressful, and safer—say, if you’re not experienced with remote navigation or risk management—to book a trip with a run travel companythat has a pre-dialed program, especially in an unfamiliar or international location.
As mentioned, Rickey Gates offers the Hut Run Hut, a six-day mountain running adventure along huts in Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. My five-day Esplanade Range trip was organized by Retreat Golden and included a backcountry chef, so I didn’t need to pre-plan my meals yet enjoyed flavorful, nutritious food.
Alternatively, you could stay posted at a single hut for a less complex trip. In that realm, try the 4-day CMH Summer Adventures Guided Alpine Trail Runningfeaturing back-to-back stays at the isolated Bugaboo Lodge with helicopter bumps to mountain run each day in the surrounding iconic Bugaboo Mountains, Canada. Similarly, Canadian Rockies Running Adventures offers a Rogers Pass Weekend run trip based out of Wheeler Hut.
“Any hut that is relatively remote with a mountain view is going to be an incredible experience,” Gill says. The key is just planning ahead so you know what you’re in for in the backcountry.