Hut-to-hut hiking through the Alps is incredibly fun and very doable for the average hiker. The system of trails and huts is very well organized and allows you to hike for days on end with just a daypack of clothing and essential toiletries. I flew over with nothing but a 25 liter daypack from REI. The trails are well marked and easy to follow thanks to being worn in over thousands of years.
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to join the Austrian Alpine Club (Österreichischer Alpenverein). For Americans, its probably easiest to join through the British chapter which has an English application.
Not only do you get to be a card-carrying member of the coolest club (sent via Royal Air Mail), you also get discounts on almost all huts (this extends outside of Austria as well—each country has their own club, and the benefits are usually reciprocal), you get priority if the hut is filling up and finally, and it includes insurance for mountain rescue. The mountain rescue services are very professional, but can include helicopter, which can lead to large bills!
The most developed mountain hut systems in the Alps are probably contained in Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. Each has it’s own style: Huts in France can be more “shelter-like”, Switzerland is in general a bit more expensive, while Austrian huts are very comfortable with hearty food but still reasonably priced. Italy is similar but the food becomes a little more gourmet. Obviously, there is a range of accommodations in any country.
I think that Austria is a great place to start because of the huge number of mountain ranges in a compact country, the easy public transportation to any of them, the highest number of huts (over 1,000), and the comfortable nature of the huts. I also loved the Italian Dolomites, which are completely unique and also featured comfortable huts (sometimes more crowded, and at lower elevations closer to bed and breakfasts).
Hut Finder: This site helps you search for any hut or see huts in different areas, and provides contact info and other details on each.
Outdoor Active is a great resource for seeing the trails between any two points and assessing rough estimates of hiking time. It works like Google Maps for hiking trails, allowing you to search for any hut.
Tirol.at is the tourism website for the Tyrol province in Austria. It has lots of information and great photos of different mountain routes, areas and huts. Often specific mountain ranges have their own website. The Stubai Alps had information at stubai.at.
In Austria, there are many hut-to-hut treks already identified, known as High Routes “Hohenweg.” Although you can piece together any hike you want by researching the trails between huts, for a first visit, undertaking a known route with materials online may be helpful. The Stubaier Höhenweg had it’s own website detailing each stage, for instance.
Reserving huts: It’s not required, but usually a good idea. It really depends on the season —I went in late June, and some of the huts were pretty quiet (I was the only person in the dormitory at Starkenburger hut). However, in mid summer, they can get very busy! It’s also depends on how accessible the hut is: Franz Senn was at the top of a popular day hike, was larger and more popular. Most of the huts had an email or web form, but a couple I had to call.
Pack a sleeping bag liner or “sheet sleeping bag”. You can find these online or at stores like REI. They are really just a sheet sowed together like a sleeping bag. They are required for all the huts so that they don’t have to wash their bedding every night (most just have a warm blanket, a small pillow and the mattress).
Hut Slippers: You don’t need to bring your own. Every hut I went to provided them. One hut with particularly nice clogs took a 5euro deposit, but most just had an assortment of well-used footwear by the door.
The most economical way to eat is by getting the Half Board (usually referred to as Half Pension or HP). This includes your bed as well as breakfast and dinner. It’s a set meal rather than ordering from the menu, but not any less enjoyable. You can still tack on desserts and drinks for extra. Some huts also featured something called a “Mountaineering Half Board” or Bergsteiger HP that was even cheaper. It is usually something very hearty but potentially a little less fancy (I was pleased with them).
Try the schnapps! Many huts have their own flavors and it was a favorite toasting drink with hikers I was with.
Paying: Many of the huts only took cash. Some of the larger huts accepted cards, especially on the Italian side, but I wouldn’t count on it. That meant I looked up the prices ahead of time and withdrew more than enough cash to cover it (keeping in mind beer and desserts are extra!) It felt a little weird to know I had a couple hundred Euros in my backpack, but unlike cities, there was no fear of pick pockets. When looking at hut prices, look for the term mitglieder, which means “member,” and signifies discounted prices for Alpine Club members.
Many huts have drying rooms for wet/sweaty clothes and boots. Some even have heated pegs to hang boots on. They also usually have clotheslines outside, but don’t leave your clothes out overnight or they’ll get wet from dew.
I thoroughly studied maps of my routes before I left, however I didn’t bother buying and bringing a printed map with me. It was easy to pick up locally. Identified routes such as the Stubai High Trail had free photo-realistic maps at visitors centers in the villages below as well as in the huts. In the Italian Dolomites, I picked up a more technical map by Tabacco, which was great.
As long as you know where you are going, the trail system is very clear and easy. In Austria, each intersection had yellow, metal signs. They list the destination, such as a hut or a peak, and the average time to get there (rather than distance). I found those times accurate if you hiked at a moderate pace without stopping. I could often hike faster, but stopping to take pictures balanced it out.
On areas where there is soil, the trail is extremely worn in and easy to see. Sometimes sections of loose rock or scree could make finding the trail harder, but they were still very diligent about painting rocks. Overall, I found it more clear than U.S. trails.
I packed a compass for emergencies but never used it.
Austria is very navigable as an English-speaker, although knowing a few terms helps. Every hut owner spoke English, and public transportation included both German and English. Less of the other hikers in Tyrol spoke English, but they were very friendly and inclusive. In Italy, I was in the province of South Tyrol, which was once Austrian, so German was as common as Italian. Some of those areas had a wider mix of visitors, and overall I saw more young people there.
Cicerone has good books. “Walking the Dolomites” includes many routes as well as “Walking in Austria”. These can be helpful for choosing an overall area as they describe the various ranges.
Hut to hut trekking is a unique and unforgettable way to experience the Alps, and I recommend it to anyone!