Gearing Up for a European Alps Hut Trip

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Robert Suminsby

A couple of WildSnow Girls enjoy the European scene.

A couple of WildSnow Girls enjoy the European backcountry skiing scene.

So you’ve finally booked the airline tickets for your first multi-day hut tour in the Alps. Visions of icy spires and vast glacial valleys buried deep in fresh snow keep you awake at night as you begin to plan for your odyssey through the world’s most storied mountains.

As you draft your gear list, you don’t want to leave behind something you might really need, right? Just to be thorough, you check the airline website to see what an extra checked bag will set you back, and discover that the price has gone up from $50 to “First-born child.” Ouch.

So maybe you CAN leave a few of your favorite pieces of gear at home. But what, exactly, will you need? Here are a few suggestions for those contemplating a week-long hut tour.

GearUp 1

More than what you need, but the essentials are all here.



Leave-behind bag

Not everything that leaves the states with you needs to stay with you the whole time. When you come back grubby and unshaven from a week in the high mountains you’ll certainly enjoy the luxury of some clean clothes to change into, so bring a bag you can leave behind at your hotel luggage room with a change of clothes, walking shoes and anything else you don’t want on your back when you’re bootpacking up a couloir. Check with your hotel in advance, but most will be happy to store a bag for you if you are staying with them on either end of a hut trip.

Out-on-the town clothes

If you are making this trip with a significant other, at some point one of you is going to ask the question, “Are you bringing anything nice to wear?” If you are trying to travel light, fear not. Even in the glitzier resort towns in the Alps, there are very few places where you wouldn’t feel completely comfortable in a clean base layer top and a pair of trekking pants.

GearUp 4

Harscheisen or ski crampons. Note the red, break away ski leashes for glacier travel.

Skis/Boots

Do you really need to bring them? Most of us would say yes, but if you’re not in love with your current setup, renting skis in Europe is an option that could save you big in oversize baggage charges. Shops in the major European ski capitals, such as Chamonix, usually offer a decent selection of touring gear, so do some research before you decide. You may be pleasantly surprised at the options you find. (And if you can’t determine what’s available from a shop’s website, call them. Almost every shop will have someone who speaks English.) No one wants to take chances with unfamiliar boots on a multi-day trip, so bringing your own is a must. As the Dawsons and many others do, if your boots are custom fitted and hard to replace, haul them as carry-on baggage. Lou likes to just strap his together and dangle around his neck, but a boot bag can be nice. In either case, plan ahead for carry-on volume and restrictions.

Hardware

For most major tours in Europe, you will spend a good part of your time on glaciers, so a climbing harness, several carabiners, prusik loops, and a couple of slings are essential. However, if you’re using a guide service, they may provide this kit. Some will also equip you with an ice axe and crampons, or permit you to rent them for the week. If you decide to buy an ice axe, just because it will look so cool hanging up in the garage, select a small one, 55 or 60 cm. (In case it isn’t obvious, Agent Trotsky of the TSA will take a very dim view of trying to pack this in your carry-on.) You’ll also want ski crampons for negotiating icy skin tracks, and obviously a beacon, shovel and probe. If you are traveling with a guide, he or she will have a complete crevasse rescue kit and a rope. If not, someone in your party will need this and know how to use it.

GearUp 2

The author geared up for the Haute Route.

Pack

For a multi-day tour, a 35L pack should do nicely, and if you don’t stuff it full you can make this your carry-on bag for the flight. Pack all your planned gear into it (including the layers you won’t be wearing on a sunny day), load it up with about 2 liters of water, and weigh it. Hopefully it’ll weigh in under 25 pounds, or else you’ll need to attend Lou’s remedial “Ounces Count” seminar, where you’ll be forced to do 100-rep arm curls with a 1980s-era Lange boot on each hand.

Glasses and Goggles

If you are fortunate enough to have good weather, it’s going to be very bright in those high mountains well above treeline. Most of the time you’ll want a good pair of glacier glasses, but goggles are an insurance policy if you get caught in high winds and blowing snow.

viewer

Stylish? No. But, effective at keeping the sun off your neck.

Hats and Gloves

You’ll want two hats, a knit cap for warmth, and a light and breathable sun cap for sunny days. I recommend abandoning your fashion sense and wearing a Lawrence of Arabia-style sunhat, complete with earflaps and a long back to cover your neck. (You can take it off for hero shots.) Warm gloves are a must, but if the weather is fine, you’ll want something light and breathable that protects you from sunburn and allows you dexterity for putting on skins, adjusting buckles, and so forth. Ideally, look for gloves with a removable liner so that you can wear the liner, the shell, or both as conditions dictate.

Layers

Like any tour, what you need to stay warm and dry is a personal choice, but a few tips are in order. A good hard shell is essential, but you probably won’t be wearing it much, so err on the light side. A lightweight soft-shell mid-layer will see much more use. For an extra warming layer, a down or synthetic puffy will pack smaller than a fleece, and is very nice to throw on at the hut before the stove gets cranked up in the evening. For base layers, you should be able to get by with two; one to wear during the day, and another to change into after you arrive at the hut and to sleep in later. Yes, the one you wear every day will be pretty nasty, but no one’s going to notice after day two because they will smell the same. Wool blends are highly encouraged as they’ll be much less funky-smelling than synthetics. Soft shell touring pants are an obvious essential; augment them with lightweight rain pants that you can put on as an extra layer if the weather really turns bad.

Socks

Two pairs of ski socks should suffice, but consider treating yourself to the luxury of a heavy wool pair to weare around the hut. The huts provide clogs, but those won’t keep your toes warm. Again, wool wins out over synthetic vapors when you are sleeping 12 or 16 to a room!

GearUp 10

Crocs are unbiquitious in European huts. Storage bins are for things like crampons that don't belong in sleeping rooms.

Misc

Speaking of sleeping, all you’ll need to bring is a sleeping bag liner. A silk one will pack down very small, weighs only about 5 ounces, and should keep you warm under the duvet covers supplied by the hut. A headlamp is vital both for early morning starts, and middle-of-the-night visits to the bathroom. You’ll need a small toiletries kit, but everything you really need (small toothbrush, travel tube of toothpaste, comb) should fit in a ziploc sandwich bag. Don’t forget a personal first aid kit, with a few bandaids, moleskin and other blister treatments, sunscreen, chapstick, ibuprofen and aspirin. Your guide should be carrying a more comprehensive first aid kit–if not, you will want a few more items for emergencies. In another ziploc bag, tuck your passport, one credit card, and cash for the days you’ll be in the huts. Things like water and snacks (to say nothing of wine and beer) can be pricey when you’re paying to have them delivered by helicopter so don’t get caught short.

Depending on where your trip takes you, the local currency may be either Euro (€) or Swiss Franc (CHF). Even the Swiss huts take Euro, although at a slightly less favorable exchange rate. The Swiss use coins for denominations as large as 5 CHF, and while I’ll defer to the finely calibrated scales at WildSnow HQ on the exact weight of a 5 CHF coin, it’s definitely heavier than a €5 note.

GearUp 9

Typical sleeping accommodations: pillow and blanket are provided.

Must-haves

Don’t forget a camera. The whole point of this trip is to earn the undying envy of your ski buddies, so you want to bring back great pictures. This is one area where I personally throw weight considerations out the window: I have schlepped a full-size Nikon DSLR all over the Alps, and never regretted it. YMMV, however, and you may be just as happy with a point-and-shoot, or some of the new cameras that fall somewhere in between. If you shoot a lot of photos, consider a spare battery.

GearUp 7

You don't want to miss a moment like this. Remember the camera!

Finally, the single most indispensible item of all: earplugs. With a room full of tired skiers who have dulled the pain in their aching legs with several beers or a bottle of Valpolicella, it’s a stone cold certainty that someone in your room is going to snore!

(WildSnow.com guest blogger Rob Suminsby is a recently retired U.S. Air Force officer who has been skiing for many decades. When Rob had to give up flying F-15s, he turned to off-piste skiing, and eventually ski touring, to get his thrills. For the past four years he has lived in Germany, and traveled over much of the Alps in search of untracked snow. He recently moved to New Mexico with his wife, two sons, and a Basset Hound named Buddy. His search for the goods will continue.)

Comments

15 Responses to “Gearing Up for a European Alps Hut Trip”

  1. Richard December 28th, 2012 2:35 pm

    Another good option for a leave behind bag (if you’re not staying in a local hotel when you return) is to check it at the nearest train station. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do a quick change into traveling clothes in the bathroom. Just make sure that someone will be around when you return so you don’t end up with your bag locked in the station.

  2. Matus December 30th, 2012 2:35 pm

    If you want to save sime baggage weight, consider boarding the plane with your skiboots on. When flying with skis I usually travel with my skiboots and helmemet on . It radically saves weight and volume. You can always take off your boots while flying. Additionally, you look supercool while boarding!

  3. Nodz January 3rd, 2013 5:26 am

    One thing – under no circumstances should you forget a nice pair of comfortable earplugs! The snoring that goes on in the common rooms is unbelievable. Have fun!

  4. Christian January 3rd, 2013 7:00 am

    Matus: I did that when doing the Haute Route some years ago. On the way back I had a connecting flight that waited an hour for me….to run under an international airport in tlt4 was indeed an unforgettable experience, as was the look from the fellow passengers when they saw who they were waiting for. What was most fun, though, to go into the business lounge unshaved in full rando-equipment and try to refill all the lost calories.

  5. Tim January 19th, 2013 1:21 am

    When considering what soft shell pants to bring I would suggest one ensures you have two features: 1) windstopper and 2) long ventilation zips. Few manufacturers design pants that actually work well on a European mountain on a spring day. Tim

  6. Lou Dawson January 19th, 2013 12:59 pm

    Tim, I’d agree. My approach is indeed a membrane type pant with good ventilation. That way I have a pant that’ll work for a few hours in the rain and thus not have to carry rain shell pants, which tend to never get used and just add weight an bulk to the pack. Lou

  7. Andrew Schmidt April 2nd, 2013 9:56 am

    I noticed that in the gear photo a thermos is shown. I am planning on doing the haute route next week and the guide recommended the same. I would normally bring a 40oz water bottle for day tours. In your opinion, would a 1L thermos be a sufficient volume? Thanks!

  8. Dan April 2nd, 2013 10:18 am

    @ Andrew. Primus makes a one liter lightweight thermos. I have been using one for a few months now…love it. I have done 3 trips to the alps unguided (with 2 partners) and one trip guided (12 clients and two guides). I thought that there was a fair amount of sitting around with the guided trip and almost no sitting around with my friends (unguided). Since guided trips usually have a schedule, they have to move to the next hut no matter what the weather, etc. Consequently, some skiers may want a small thermos with a hot drink. Personally, I just carry a one liter bottle (now the Primus) with at least warmish water/tea/gatorade or whatever. However, if it looks like it is going to be a warm day, one liter may not be enough. I always have a half liter Platypus, which usually is rolled up carrying air. if I suspect a warm day, I fill the Platypus with cold water in addition to my Primus thermos. Also, most skiers I have met in the Alps tend to camel up in the morning and after arriving at the hut. One last thing…it seemes to me that the Euro skiers almost always have a small thermos with a hot drink. I think that is not worth the trouble/weight for a spring trip, but everyone is his/her own expert in regard to how much liquid they need. Have a good trip…GO LIGHT…be obsessive about it. You will be surprised at how little many of the Euro skiers carry.

  9. See April 2nd, 2013 8:46 pm

    As Lou observed (“Things have changed!”), ski weights are plummeting. Can the titanium thermos (version 2.0) be far behind?

  10. Dan April 3rd, 2013 12:13 pm

    See, when that Ti thermos appears, I’ll be happy to get one!!!

  11. Dan February 9th, 2014 2:26 pm

    Can someone tell me how I can set up an unguided 2-3 day trip? I live in Germany and want to do a cross country ski overnighter, but don’t want to spend all the extra money for the guide
    Thanks

  12. JCoates February 10th, 2014 4:54 am

    Dan,

    You should check out your local Deutsche Alpenverein (DAV). They can point you in the right direction–and if you join (About 65 euro/year) you get accident insurance and can check out the maps, rent avy gear if you need it, and get reduced prices in the huts. The membership will pay for itself usually if you stay in 3-4 huts a year.
    The Silvretta area has several huettes that are accesible by XC ski (Heidelberger, Jamtal, and Weisbadner) although if you do a “true” hut traverse you should probably have some metal-edged touring skis and some decent downhill skills (ie, no skinny skis).
    Let me know if you are in the Stuttgart area and I can probably help more.

    -Josh

  13. Bill H March 25th, 2014 7:58 am

    Can anyone weight in on what is appropriate range of guide gratuity for a mountain guide on a multi-day trip in Europe? Does it vary from country to country etc? Thanks

  14. JCoates March 25th, 2014 10:15 am

    Good question Bill,

    I don’t think there is a standard. It certainly isn’t 15%. The guide’s make pretty decent money in Europe (as they should since its a “real” profession) and a tip is almost never expected anywhere in Europe at any place I can think of. Of course the service prices reflect this too as the money is built into the salary. In the past I have bought drinks at the huts for guides as this can be a major expense–especially when bottles have to be flown in by helicopter. If there is a big group of people I think 10-20 euro/person chipping in at the end of a week of touring would be pretty generous. I’m interested to hear what others have to say to as one wondered this myself. Too cheap or too generous???

  15. Arnie March 25th, 2014 4:11 pm

    Agree with JCoates,
    Generally I don’t think a tip is expected but obviously very welcome!
    When I’ve gone with a “generic” group we’ve given 20 ish Euro each. Curiously since I’m now par of a small group that use the same guide each year we don’t tip! However, we make sure he doesn’t pay for a drink all week (we have a kitty) and if we have a lunch stop we pick up the tab for that too.
    This year in France a waiter was very pleased when we tipped him at lunch saying the French weren’t tipping much “on account of the economy” to quote Bruce Springstein.

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