How to Choose the Right Refuge for Your Next Mountain Vacation

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you liked this article, read even more of Tayte’s articles on our website. Photos by Tayte Pollmann.

This past week, I spent the beginning of the new year in a mountain “refuge,” Refugi de la Feixa, in the Spanish Pyrénées. A “refuge” is the name for a building, lodge, chalet, hut or yurt commonly found in the mountains, which is used to house hikers, skiers, snowshoers and other outdoor enthusiasts for their mountain adventures. In this article, I will describe what a “refuge” is, why you should stay in one, and how to choose the right refuge for your next vacation.

What is a Mountain Refuge?
Refuges house outdoor enthusiasts for their adventures in the mountains. Guests can book a certain amount of nights and meals, similarly to hotels or hostels. Prices for private yurts or chalets may be higher, but the majority of refuges are less than $50 per night, as they offer only basic accommodations such as a bed and mattress.

Refuges are usually situated in remote mountainous locations, oftentimes inaccessible by car. Refuges are some of the best places in the world to enjoy mountain views, starry nights, proximity to wildlife and easy access for trail running. Most refuges are in the Pyrénées, Alps, United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, Himalayas, Canada and the United States. The majority of refuges in North America are situated in the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. See the end of this article for a list of popular mountain refuges in North America. Learn more about refuges or huts in the US on this website.

Refuges are important for mountain lovers for many reasons. First, they give trekkers places to spend the night on long multi-day mountain treks. To complete long treks, such as crossing the Appalachian Trail (2,181 miles) or the entire Pyrénées mountain range from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, one can travel from refuge to refuge along the way. Refuges allow trekkers to hike without having to carry tents or organize food drop-off locations along their route. Refuges are also a place for day-hikers to take a break and stop for meals or beverages.

My stay at the Refugi de la Fexia was incredible. In winter, this refuge is only accessible by foot, which makes it a great way to avoid crowds and experience the nature of the Pyrénées. Listed below are my top things to consider to have an incredible mountain refuge experience.

Refuge del Malniu, Spain.

Know the Purpose of Your Refuge Stay
Refuges are convenient for mountain lovers in many ways. It’s important to know the main purpose of your trip so you can match your needs with the right refuge.

Are you looking to travel for many days, weeks or even months across the mountains? Look for a system of refuges that run in the same direction as your planned itinerary. Most refuge systems space out refuges in a way that is most convenient for hikers wishing to complete classic trekking routes. Are you looking for a place to have a nice lunch or beverage during your day hike? Search refuge websites for menus and hours for meals.

Are you looking for a place with access to many hiking or skiing opportunities? Research possible itineraries from the refuge and book multiple nights, so you can make the most of your stay. Most refuges have incredible mountain access. It should be easy to find countless ways to fill your day with amazing mountain adventures. Are you looking to organize a special event in a refuge? Some smaller huts or yurts allow you to reserve the entire space for your needs.

The author hiking near Refuge de la Fexia.

Choose the Right Size
Refuges may vary in capacity from four beds up to several hundred. Larger refuges tend to be found in more popular hiking destinations, so keep in mind that trails around these refuges may be more crowded. Larger refuges are also more likely to offer private rooms and additional accommodations. Smaller refuges may lack accommodations, but can be quite cozy. Small refuges can also have a more familial environment that is more suitable for bonding with other guests and refuge caretakers.

Learn About the Accommodation Structure
Knowing what services are offered is essential. Remote refuges may not provide running water for showers or toilets. Questions to ask about accommodations include: Do you have to bring your sleeping covers? Are there private rooms or is it communal? How is the refuge heated?

Trail signage in French Pyrénées.

Plan Your Sleep Schedule
You should plan your sleep schedule for early bedtimes and wake-ups. Sunset to sunrise is the most common sleep schedule for mountain trekkers, which allows them to spend full days hiking. Those attempting to summit peaks may wake up earlier to have optimal conditions in these volatile environments. Refuge caretakers may also set predetermined times for lights to be shut off and turned on. You should talk with others in the refuge to see if you can match your schedules and avoid disturbing each other’s sleep. Book private yurts or chalets for more freedom with your sleep schedule.

Guarded or Unguarded?
Refuges with guardians, or caretakers, provide meals, beverages and take care of cleaning. Caretakers are often knowledgeable about the area and can suggest itineraries or places to see. Unguarded refuges may allow more flexibility for your schedule. You decide your meal times, cook your own food (if there is a kitchen) and decide your schedule. Most unguarded refuges are small yurts or chalets that can be rented for private bookings at higher rates.

Beautiful sunrise views from Refuge de la Fexia.

Is it Accessible?
Know the potential challenges of getting to the refuge. Some refuges are only accessible by foot and can require several hours of hiking with significant elevation gain. Refuges for mountaineers may be even more extreme and require specific mountaineering skills and gear to reach them. Seasons also affect a refuge’s accessibility. Some refuges accessible by car in the summer are only reachable by snowshoe or ski in the winter. At higher elevations, keep in mind that terrain can be rocky, snowy and more difficult. Altitude sickness is another danger to consider when sleeping at high elevations (above 2,000 meters/6,500 feet).

Think About Style
Refuges come in many different styles and choosing the right one for you can help you better enjoy your stay. Some refuges are over 100 years old, rustic and made of stones. Others are modern and styled with artistic intentions. Many modern or remodeled refuges are constructed with environmental considerations, such as solar panels, solar showers (video below), compost, environmentally-friendly cleaning products, and organic foods.

Enjoy the Cuisine
After a long day in the mountains, you are likely to be hungry and ready for an excellent meal. Most refuges offer full menus of regional foods. During my stay at Refugio de Fexia, our meals included many traditional Spanish foods such as olive oil toast for breakfast. Many Spaniards refer to olive oil as “liquid gold,” a sentiment I definitely share. Refuges may cater to vegetarian, vegan or other special diets, however, you should ask the refuge owner beforehand if you have any specific requests. It can be difficult for more remote refuges to obtain certain food items based on their locations. You may be able to bring your own food, but check with the refuge beforehand.

Spanish breakfast at Refuge de la Fexia.

Make a Checklist for Your Gear
Spending even one night in the mountains requires many different kinds of gear. Making a list can help you avoid forgetting any essentials. Common gear to bring in the mountains includes, sunscreen (especially important at higher elevations), sunglasses, plenty of warm clothes, rain and windproof gear, water purification tablets, hiking poles, and trail maps (or applications such as All Trails Pro and Topo Maps+. Research the environment and weather patterns near the refuge to prepare accordingly.

Popular Mountain Refuges in North America:

Sunset view from the window of Refuge de la Fexia, Spain.

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