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Hiking the Alps, Sans Huts

Dan had mentioned his novel idea before our summer trip to Switzerland: we’d go backpacking, in the Alps — no huts. Bring your sleeping bags and bivy sacks, he said.

Hilary and I wandered a grassy meadow at 7,500 feet near a dried-up mountain lake called Hundssee, searching for a spot to lay out our sleeping bags and bivy sacks. The wind had picked up in the evening, driving a stiff, cold breeze from the west at about 25 mph. For several minutes, we looked for a small site that was out of the wind, somewhat flat, and hadn’t been dumped on by a cow. In the end, we settled. Our “bedroom” for the night would have a majestic view of the sun’s last rays washing over the snowy west faces of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau — but we would have a cow pie 12 inches from our heads, and another cow pie 12 inches from our feet.

“Be careful if you get up in the night,” I said to Hilary, also reminding myself. The best view in the world isn’t so great if you find yourself ankle-deep in poop at midnight.


Dan had mentioned his novel idea before our summer trip to Switzerland: we’d go backpacking, in the Alps — no huts. Bring your sleeping bags and bivy sacks, he said. Brilliant, I thought.

No huts meant not sharing a bunkroom with 12 other people, which meant no waking up in the night listening to strangers snore, no breathing the humid international farts of those strangers, no one getting up at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom and making noise as they exited and re-entered the bunkroom. We would save $78 per person per night; my inner dirtbag rejoiced. We could make whatever food we wanted for dinner, and for breakfast, and most importantly, we could sleep anywhere we wanted. We would simply roll our sleeping bags out somewhere with an incredible view and go to sleep with the stars just above our heads. How wonderful!

The Swiss Alpine Club operates more than 150 mountain huts with a total of more than 9,000 beds. There are many reasons people choose to use Swiss huts instead of camping, including, but not limited to:

1. The huts are convenient and reliable.
2. They provide uncompromising shelter from the sometimes harsh weather in the Alps.
3. Sleeping in a hut enables hikers and climbers to carry lighter packs, without stoves, fuel, cookware, sleeping bags and tents.
4. Many desirable camping spots are very desirable places for cows to graze and defecate.

America lacks Europe’s hut culture. Most of our mountain terrain is wilderness, meaning there are few if any buildings and very few staffed huts. So I’ve enjoyed my trips to Europe, on Italy’s Alta Via 2 and the Haute Route, as well as climbing trips in Switzerland and France, carrying a light pack, using the unique infrastructure that makes hiking and touring in Europe inviting: sleeping in a bed at night, snacking on coffee and strudel or tarts from a hut kitchen in the afternoon.

There were more than a dozen huts close enough to use during our hike just outside of Interlaken. But, with the negatives of communal living in mind, we decided to stick to our plan: foregoing the huts.


Our first day, we swung on our backpacks and started hiking from Isenfluh, a small village at the north end of the Lauterbrunnen valley. We climbed up through the quiet Soustal valley, past cows grazing in muddy meadows, six miles to the north face of the Schilthorn, and at 8,200 feet, our trail disappeared. We battled up the steep, wet, shattered rock on the north face of the Schilthorn, slick with mud under our feet. At noon, we crested the saddle between the Schilthorn and the Chilchflue, two peaks almost 10,000 feet in height. Before lunch, we had gained more than a vertical mile, which felt a little bigger with an extra nine pounds on my back (stove, fuel, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, bivy sack, and extra food).

I looked to my left, and at the summit of the Schilthorn, less than a half-mile away on the ridge, was an enormous circular building: The Piz Gloria, a rotating restaurant offering diners a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains. Patrons of the restaurant, I later discovered, ate $32 main courses off James Bond 007-themed plates (much of the 1969 James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was filmed at the Piz Gloria) at window tables that did one complete revolution every 47 minutes. Most people arrive at Piz Gloria via four trams from the village of Stechelberg, 7,000 feet below.

In the end, the conveniences of the mountain huts saved me.

At the end of our first day, after walking four miles, climbing a vertical mile and descending 1,600 feet, we huddled around a pot of linguine noodles with walnuts and pesto, sharing spoons and trying to eat the pasta quickly before the icy breeze from the west cooled it off. Then we rushed to find our flat spot to bed down for the night, somewhere in the minefield of cow pies. Bedded down for the night, I watched as the sun dropped and the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch turned from bright white, to orange, to red, to blue, and then I pulled up the hood to block the wind for the night.

Gear for Going Hut-less

Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Bellyache Mountain SL 17
Bivy Sack: Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy
Stove/Cookset: Optimus Crux Lite with Terra Solo Cook System
Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Ultra Mountain Carbon Trekking Poles
Pack: Deuter ACT Trail 32
Jacket: Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody
Footwear: Salomon XA Pro 3D

We started our next morning with good, strong coffee, instead of the typical Nescafe huts serve — and we sipped it in a quiet meadow watching the sun come up and over the same snowy Alps we’d gazed at last night.

We climbed up to a pass and traversed into the glacial valley below the towering 11,272-foot Gspaltenhorn with massive glacial seracs hanging off its west face, then dropped 1100 feet to the moraine of the Gamchigletscher in a matter of knee-punishing minutes. Below the Gspaltenhorn we trekked through meadows and headed slightly down the valley, our next goal, the high Hohtürli pass, disappearing above our heads. It was warm as we began climbing, and I started to pour sweat and fall behind the rest of our group — part indigestion, part dehydration, part tired legs. I slowly clawed up the steep trail, leaning on my trekking poles for support, a cloud obscuring the ridge above me. Was it another 2,000 feet up? 3,000? I felt out of shape and weak, and cursed myself for falling behind. I drank the last of my water, wishing I had brought more. Maybe the hut near the pass would have a water fountain and I wouldn’t have to pay $9 for a 1.5-liter bottle, as low-altitude huts often charge. Was that cheating, if I filled up a bottle there?

After what seemed like hours of climbing, we reached a wooden staircase, several hundred stairs in all, that brought us to the Hohtürli pass. I was crushed. At the pass, Dan laughed and said, “That must be the steepest trail in Switzerland!” I did not laugh with Dan. (Later, I would measure that section on the map: we’d gained 2,400 feet of elevation.) I was exhausted and parched. If I didn’t get some water soon, I wasn’t sure I’d make it down to Kandersteg, the village where we hoped to catch the train home, still another vertical mile downhill.

I was crushed. At the pass, Dan laughed and said, “That must be the steepest trail in Switzerland!” I did not laugh with Dan.

In the end, the conveniences of the mountain huts saved me. The Blüemlisalphütte, a five-minute walk above the Hohtürli pass, had water, snacks, and coffee. True to the spirit of our trip, though, I didn’t buy an expensive 1.5-liter bottle of water at the hut. Instead, Janine and I took our backpacking water filter into the women’s restroom at the hut and filtered water from the faucet (but only after buying snacks). Leaving the hut, we looked up at the enormous northwest face of the Blüemlisalp, a steep 3,000-foot wall of snow and glacier above the hut, with its highest summit, the Blüemlisalphorn, proudly poking into the sky at 12,011 feet. The wind at high altitude cut through my layers, and it was hard to imagine trying to camp up here.

In two hours hours, we flew downhill past the arctic-blue waters of Oeschinensee, and wolfed down pizzas at a restaurant in Kandersteg, only an 80-minute train ride from Interlaken, where our trip began 36 hours earlier.

Sometimes you have to go without the things you enjoy to remember why you enjoy them so much. In the weeks following our backpacking adventure, I made sure to visit plenty of other Swiss Alpine Club huts, and didn’t pass up a single chance to have an afternoon coffee and tort at any of them. It was nice. Although I have to admit, I did miss waking up to that view of the mountains right outside my sleeping bag hood. But not the cows, or the cow pies.

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