Preparation is key for this kind of hiking. You just don’t go into the mountains without it, especially with small children in tow. During the preparations we found out that it’s easier said than done. It takes a good amount of planning, researching and surfing the web to find hikes that are suitable for relatively inexperienced and relatively old mountain goats. What can you handle? When does it get too scary, too steep or too tiring?
Walking time and walking level
How do you determine the right amount of hours to walk per day? That’s a tricky one. This works for us and might work for you too: about 4 hours of walking per day (net walking time, excluding breaks and swimming) and about 600 ascending and 1000 (not too steep) descending altimeters. We take into account that we will start the hikes relatively (read: some of us very) untrained, but our children can walk quite well, listen well, know the risks and have no fear of heights. The oldest male in our household is the only one who is afraid of heights, so all hikes with long stretches of cables, chains and ladders are excluded. Hikes that contain small pieces with steep sections and deep abysses are possible, but only if we don’t have to secure ourselves. We don’t take harnesses and ropes with us.
Our advice is not to put too many hiking hours in your days. At nearly all the huts you can do extra climbs if the day wasn’t hard enough, but if the hiking is too tough and too long it’s damn hard to keep the good spirits up.
On the internet relatively little information can be found about doing multi-day hut hikes with children. Except for a few sites that offer paid information there is not much to find about hiking in the Alps with children. Information about single day hikes is easy to find, but even then it is quite complicated to assess what the difficulty of the hikes is. A short hike that looks easy on paper can be very challenging in reality, with steep abysses and tricky climbs with ropes and ladders. Our experience is that steep descents are much more difficult for children to control than steep ascents. In general, children tend to go too fast going down the mountain. Descending requires much more technical control for children than going up the mountains (and requires nerves of steel for the parents…).
It is usually quite easy to find out how long a hike is and how many altimeters you have to conquer. Also, you can generally find an altitude profile for a hike. But how perilous a hiking route really is, is more complicated to find out. Fortunately, sites like Outdooractive, Bergwelten, Deine Berge and Bergfex offer some solution. Most of these sites are in German and English. With a bit of research you can find out more about the terrain and the hiking level. This will give you the necessary information about what the hikes look like, whether they contain difficult steep passages with chasms on both sides or long stretches with cables and ladders. You can also get useful information from other hikers’ reviews, travel reports or vlogs of hikes on youtube.
In addition, the websites of mountain huts contain a lot of useful information, especially about the hiking times to nearby huts and hiking levels. A beautiful website for instance is the site of the Büllelejochhütte in the Dolomites, in Italian Rifugio Pian di Cengia. You immediately will feel the urge to put on your mountain boots when looking at this website!
Examples of multi-day hut hikes that are suitable for children
The following multiday hikes are – in our opinion – suitable for children with some walking experience (and parents with just a little fear of heights). The daily distances are not too long on these hikes. If necessary you can do short extra climbs at almost all huts to make the hiking day more challenging, or you can go swimming.
The description of the hikes includes some information about the facilities in the mountain huts. We advise you to check the facilities for each hut before you go on your hike. For example, it is very important to know if there is drinking water in the hut. Buying drinking water for 4 persons can be very expensive. It’s also useful to find out if you have to pay in cash, and where in the valley you can withdraw money before you start the trip. That did not always go smoothly for us. Before you know it, you will have to drive 20 km backwards to find an ATM. So calculate how much cash you are going to need and withdraw enough money, at least a day in advance. Don’t wait until the last minute to do this.
Our experience is that you will have to multiply the walking times as indicated on the signposts by at least 1.5, usually even by 2 (especially in Switzerland). The hiking times that are mentioned on the signs and on hiking websites (like outdooractive) are very, very optimistic. You really do need to calculate in the extra time for all the eating, swimming, peeing and pooping breaks and the slightly slower than average walking pace.
Booking mountain huts
Most mountain huts can be booked online, though some huts can only be booked by phone. Some of the huts of the alpine clubs can be booked (and cancelled) online at Alpsonline.org, which is very convenient.
We always make reservations well in advance. Taking your chances without a reservation in the high season is asking for trouble. You do not want to be forced to walk to another cabin or the valley with a bunch of tired children in the afternoon because there are no sleeping places left.
Almost all huts offer half board. Generally huts will offer a cheap option (Bergsteigeressen – usually only for members of the alpine club) and a normal halfboard option. Without exception, the food is nutritious and delicious, packed with the necessary carbohydrates and fats. Vegetarian options are available in most huts, but it will get more difficult if you have requests like vegan, gluten free etc. Don’t even think about low carb, paleo or low calories. You will have to pay for the drinks separately. A cup of coffee or tea after the meal or during breakfast generally is included.
You can save some costs by buying the food separately, which is usually an option in the larger huts. We however think half board is a good deal.
When it comes to sleeping, we almost always choose the cheapest option – in a dormitory (Lager). Sometimes rooms for four or six persons are available (at extra costs). We think that the Lager is perfectly fine. It’s a bit sweaty and noisy sometimes, but it’s all part of the mountain hut fun. Just don’t forget to bring your earplugs.
The beds will have a pillow and a blanket. You will have to bring a lightweight sleeping bag – a liner.
In the huts you are not allowed to walk indoors with your outdoor shoes . You will put your shoes and hiking poles in a separate (drying) room. You will have to bring a pair of flip-flops or crocs. Some huts will have these, but don’t assume this is the case.
We are members of an Austrian alpine club. In Austria and Germany, being a member of an alpine club will give you a considerable discount on the accommodation and the food. privately owned huts however don’t give discounts. In Switzerland and Italy the discount is given only when you are a member of a national alpine club, such a SAC in Switzerland. We did not get a discount in Switzerland and Italy with our Austrian membership card.
What to carry with you?
Unfortunately, an universal packing list for a hut hike does not exist. It all depends on how long you will be on the way and in what terrain you will be hiking. A very important advice is: ‘take less than you think you need to take’. You really don’t need 4 pairs of socks and 5 pairs of undies. 1 spare of all your clothes is enough. In all huts you can rinse out your clothes and in most huts they will have a drying room.
Alpine club membership and insurance
As a foreigner you can become a member of a local alpine club. We (Dutch) have become a member of the Austrian alpine club (Österreichische Alpenverein). This will give us discounts in most mountain huts and will provide us with mountain sports insurance – indispensable if you have to be taken off the mountain by helicopter.
We use the Swiss hiking scale during our hikes. We hiked mainly level T2 and T3.
T1: Hiking. Well developed, signposted and marked paths. Flat or slightly inclined terrain. No danger of falling with appropriate behavior.
T2: Mountain hiking. Continuous route and passage marking. Steep in parts. Danger of falling not excluded. Some steady footing Trekking shoes recommended. Basic navigation skills.
T3: Challenging mountain hiking. A footpath is usually available. Exposed places mostly secured with ropes or chains. Partially exposed areas with danger of falling, gravel plains, pathless steep terrain. Good trekking shoes, average navigation skills and basic Alpine experience required.
T4: Alpine walking. Path not necessarily available. Sometimes you will need to use hands to keep going. Terrain mostly exposed. Tricky grass heaps, rocky slopes, simple firn fields and snow covered glacier passages.
T5: Often without a path. Individual, simple climbing sections. Terrain exposed. Challenging terrain, steep rocky slopes, snow covered glaciers and firn fields with danger of slipping.
T6: Mostly without a path and unmarked. Climbing sections up to II. Terrain often very exposed. Tricky rocky slopes, snow covered glaciers with increased danger of slipping.