The United States’ relative youth makes it a good place to recreate. We’ve faced true development (roads, permanent structures, and the like) for less than 500 years. The West, where the vast majority of our wilderness lies, has been developed for even less time. We have nearly undiscovered canyons and un-swum swimming holes, un-skied couloirs and unclimbed routes. But when you’re traveling through an area with more history—especially someplace with a longer history of outdoor recreation—you’re liable to find an old estate, ruins, a hidden home on your long outdoor jaunts. It might even be someplace you can rest your head for an evening. Compared to countries like, say, Scotland, our backcountry infrastructure is lacking. Here are three of the coolest backcountry hut systems out there.
Scotland’s Mountain Bothies
For decades, wanderers have taken shelter in abandoned, rustic homes hidden away in the windswept countryside of Scotland. They’re called bothies, and they came about in the mid-20th century, when many of Scotland’s rural farming areas faced depopulation with the rise of motorized vehicles and the decrease in hill farming. Deserted, far-flung farms became a favorite spot to seek shelter among hikers and cyclists, who first slept in these abandoned buildings in secret and later, more commonly with the estate owner’s knowledge and support.
As the activity, known as bothying, became more popular, the quality of the huts quickly deteriorated. A few were maintained by climbing clubs and other groups, but others fell into disrepair. That’s when the Mountain Bothies Association came into existence, founded in order to maintain, refurbish, and eventually construct new bothies. They’re an excellent resource for locating bothies and checking out what amenities you might find and any rules or restrictions the estate owner might have for the space. They’re free to stay in as long as you adhere to the bothy code, which advises against large groups and advocates care and consideration. The recently published Scottish Bothy Bible by Geoff Alan should help you nail down just where you’d like to stay.
New Zealand’s 900-plus Backcountry Huts
Photo courtesy of New Zealand Department of Conservation
New Zealand is roughly the size of Colorado, but they’ve got more than five times as many backcountry huts as the mountainous state. The roughly 965 huts range from modern mini-lodges to century-old stone huts. Shepherds and miners built the first huts as a response to unpredictable mountain weather. In later years, hunters made use of government-built shelters. Today’s huts are mostly used for recreation, but the early working folks’ shelters planted the seeds for the expansive and well-used system.
Camping overnight at the most basic huts is free, but other, more amenity-rich overnight stays cost anywhere from $5-$70 per night per adult. If you’ll be in the area for a while, you can get a hut pass—$92 for a 6-month adult pass—that lets you stay in most of the huts within the Department of Conservation system. Some of the heavily-trafficked huts can be reserved in advance, but the majority are first-come, first-serve. Fortunately, plenty of them have camping nearby. New Zealand’s famous Great Walk huts are among the most popular (thanks to their position on one of the most beautiful hikes in the world), but plenty of other huts, like those on the less-traveled South Island, offer more solitude.
The Refugi of Club Alpino Italiano
Over 600 huts tended by Italy’s premiere mountaineering club, the CAI, punctuate the country’s trails and mountain ranges. Every range of hut experience—from rustic to full-service—is available in Italy. The rustic, no-service huts are called bivacchis (like bivouac, get it?), and bigger huts with heating, electricity, and hot food are called refugis. Typically, they’re placed several hours apart on Italy’s hiking trails, so you can stop for lunch at one and spend the night in another. You can book a bed in advance, though the huts don’t tend to fill up more than a month in advance.
Visit the highest hut in Italy, Rifugio Regina Margherita, which sits at nearly 15,000 feet, for a truly remote experience. It’s perched atop a subpeak of Monte Rosa, and if you’re daring enough to hike up to its high-altitude home in the winter, you can stay for free. If you’re looking for something a little more luxe, visit the Rifugio Bella Vista in the Val Senales ski domain. In the winter it’s easy to reach on skis, but still feels remote. Plus, it has a sauna. Typically, a night in a refugi will run you around €40-50, though rates vary. Many no-nonsense bivacchis are free or ask for a small donation, but luxurious huts—the kind with bottomless wine cellars and bedding—may be a little pricier.
The mountain hut culture isn’t unique to Italy. Most every mountainous country in Western and Central Europe has a hut system, including France, Switzerland, and Spain. In fact, France has nearly 4,000 huts.
Weekend Cabin isn’t necessarily about the weekend, or cabins. It’s about the longing for a sense of place, for shelter set in a landscape…for something that speaks to refuge and distance from the everyday. Nostalgic and wistful, it’s about how people create structure in ways to consider the earth and sky and their place in them. It’s not concerned with ownership or real estate, but what people build to fulfill their dreams of escape. The very time-shortened notion of “weekend” reminds that it’s a temporary respite.
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