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Words by Devon O’Neil • Photos by John Milne
Skiing or snowboarding to a backcountry hut in winter can sound intimidating, like the mere idea requires expert survival skills or Ironman fitness. But in reality, anyone in average physical condition, with the right gear and an interest in getting away from civilization, can do it. In fact, during my shifts as a hutmaster for the Summit Huts Association in northern Colorado, the vast majority of people I meet at the huts are beginners or intermediates, rather than the hard-core athletes you might picture dropping cliffs and getting radical.
It doesn’t matter if your destination is a mile from the trailhead or a day’s trek into some remote wilderness; a special kind of zen accompanies any hut trip. You go to unplug, to peel back society’s layers, to be with friends and family in a setting that reminds you why life is such a gift. Because let’s be honest: the world’s congestion isn’t only about traffic. We get so sucked into our routines and jobs and bills and deadlines that it’s easy to forget there are places that make us feel free again — oftentimes just an hour or two from our doorsteps. The fact that you can eat great food, take as many naps as you want, and — lest we forget — sip margaritas around a wood stove while watching the sunset, only adds to the allure.
Here are some tips on worthy hut systems around the U.S. and what you need to get there, other than a reservation.
WHERE TO GO
10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION: Think of this network as the Cadillac among American hut systems. A smattering of 14 fully stocked cabins in central and northern Colorado, the 10th offers a bevy of hut-to-hut routes and easy approaches for beginners at a rate of around $35 per person per night (some huts sleep up to 20 people). You can also book spots in 21 other huts located across the state through the 10th website. huts.org
SUN VALLEY TREKKING: A network of four yurts and two huts around Sun Valley, Idaho, this system is as good as you can get for small-scale hut-tripping. The Boulder Yurts are especially ideal for beginners, snowshoers and families, with a 1.5-mile approach to a pair of yurts that sleep 14 between them. More advanced skiers should consider the Bench Hut on the flank of Mount Heyburn. Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Teton Backcountry Guides also run excellent hut trips in this region. Expect to pay around $35 to $45 per night, not including a guide. svtrek.com
CASCADE HUTS: Sixty miles outside Portland, Oregon, in the shadow of Mount Hood, the three Cascade Huts deliver a worthy, if not extreme, experience for Pacific Northwest adventurers. The Barlow Butte and Barlow Ridge huts sleep five people each, with the White River Hut accommodating eight. Snow cover can be fickle in the White River Valley, but in a good winter, with clear skies, you will have your pick of low-angle terrain out the hut door while staring across at the dominating peak in the region. Book by the hut; $165 for one night, $305 for two, and $395 for three. cascadehuts.com
EAST COAST: Hut-to-hut linkups aren’t as prevalent in the East, but there are still plenty of individual huts worth visiting. Two that provide good backcountry skiing are the Zealand Falls Hut, an Appalachian Mountain Club shelter on the edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire ($44 per night, outdoors.org/lodging), and the Mines Madeleine Hut in Quebec’s Chic Choc Mountains, a beautiful swath of Gaspe National Park just over the U.S. border ($35 per night, sepaq.com/pq/gas/).
WHAT TO BRING
Avalanche Rescue Gear: You will need a transceiver, shovel and probe if you plan to get anywhere near avalanche terrain (think: slopes over 30 degrees). The BCA Tracker2 ($300) is easy to use and straightforward for beginners. Seek out instruction on how to conduct a rescue before you enter steep terrain. www.backcountryaccess.com
Backpack: You need a pack with enough room to carry all your gear but not too much that it flops during day trips around the hut. A volume of 40 to 50 liters seems to be the sweet spot, and Osprey specially designs two packs in that range for hut trips: the Kamber 42 for men, and the Kresta 40 for women. Each runs $190. ospreypacks.com
Hut Shoes: An underrated yet no less essential element in any hut-tripper’s pack, these are what you wear around the hut when not in your ski or snowboard boots. The best I’ve found are Packems, which make lightweight, burly shoes in a range of styles. Try the classic high-tops for $40— a great value and excellent comfort. ebags.com
Skis/Snowboard: Your options here are almost endless, but skiers should aim for something lightweight in the 100-115mm underfoot range (because you still want to float above the powder) and snowboarders should find a splitboard (which becomes two skis for the ascent) that they are comfortable taking apart and putting back together. Combined with bindings, this is the most expensive part of your gear stable, so consider buying something used until you know exactly what you want.
ALSO: Extra socks, polypropylene layers that dry soon after you’re done sweating, a garbage bag to pack out your trash, a sleeping bag, headlamp and first-aid kit.