Beautiful, snowy backcountry. Chatting with friends over tea or whiskey by the fire. Reading a book that’s actually made of paper. Such are the delights of a winter hut trip in Colorado. If you’re new to hut adventures, here’s the rundown on what to do, know and bring to have a fantastic backcountry experience.
Huts and Yurts
First, let's talk shelter. A hut is a solid structure that basically looks like a rustic cabin. A yurt is a round structure made from a wood frame and canvas material that resembles a larger, fancier version of a tent. Most people use “hut” as a general term encompassing both types of shelters, and we’ll use hut in this post. Both types of structures are widely found in Colorado. Both typically have a wood-burning stove inside, and as long as you keep the fire going, your temporary home will be very warm and comfortable.
Skiing and Snowshoeing
For maximum fun, skis or snowshoes are the way to travel. If you're going on your first hut trip, snowshoes are recommended because they are light, easy to use, and allow for less fussing and gear managing. You’ll also be carrying a full backpack, so snowshoes are also a nice option when carrying a heavy pack through the snow.
If you are experienced on skis, then skiing is a fantastic option for getting to your hut. You’ll need skins for an alpine or AT setup, and be sure to practice using your skins prior to your trip. For steeper or generally more difficult routes, keep in mind that skinning up will be hard work! But skis provide the advantage of a fast and fun descent from your hut, as well as backcountry skiing options during your stay.
Unless you are very experienced on cross country skis, forgo their simple and dreamy hut trip appeal for your first outing. When you’re carrying a full backpack it is fairly difficult to balance on cross country skis, especially when heading downhill.
Access and Trails
Huts are typically located on or near a trail system, so in most cases you won’t be haphazardly tromping through the unmarked forest. Standard outdoor navigation rules apply: understand where you’re going, bring a map and know how to use said map. Bring a GPS for your navigation if that’s your preference, but do not plan on using your phone to direct or guide you. While you may be able to use basic map functions on your phone, it's unlikely you will have service of any kind (depending on your hut’s route and location).
Huts trails vary widely in difficulty. When choosing a hut, consider the total elevation gain and length of the route. Winter hiking or skinning is harder than summer hiking so keep in mind your pace will likely be slower than walking on a standard trail in the summer. For your first hut trip we suggest a one-way distance of four miles or less, and elevation gain of 1,500 feet or less.
If you do not have winter backcountry experience (i.e. avalanche knowledge) then steer clear of huts where your route could expose you to avalanche danger via steep slopes or chutes. Hut trip listings will often mention avalanche exposure when it's a concern, but be sure to review your route on a map and check current snow conditions to understand any potential hazards.
Most huts have bunk beds with a basic mattress or sleeping pad. Bring a quality sleeping bag designed for backpacking. A bag rated 20 degrees or warmer is recommended for winter camping.
Food and Water
Kitchen amenities vary from hut to hut. Some may have a full stove powered by propane and a kitchen stocked with dishes and utensils. Others will be minimal and you’ll need to bring a backpacking stove to prepare a hot meal. If you have a full kitchen, get creative with your meals! Trust us, you'll have plenty of time to cook. Plan on melting water by filling a pot (usually stocked at the hut) and placing it on top of the wood-burning stove. Boiling the water will make it safe for drinking, but also bring a standard water treatment option (such as a Steripen, gravity filter or iodine tablets) for water sources that may be close to the hut and more convenient than melting water.
Many huts will have an outhouse stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. For more remote or minimal huts, standard backcountry bathroom rules apply, so bury your waste and pack out all trash.
What to Do in a Hut
Many huts are stocked with a random selection of reading materials, but bring a book you know you’ll want to read in case the hut library options don’t suffice. Reading by the fire with a winter drink in your hand - that's hard to beat. Board games can also be found at many huts, but pack your own cards to ensure you'll have a complete deck. Remember you have to actually carry your games and books with you, so choose wisely. Huts provide a great opportunity to hang out phone-free with your friends or family, so take advantage of the actual quality time.
How to Reserve a Colorado Hut
Huts can be reserved online, by email and/or by phone. Reserve your hut as far in advance as possible to increase your chances of getting the dates you want. Choosing a hut can be overwhelming, so here are some considerations to help you get started:
Decide on the number of people in your party. Huts are available for small groups and large, but smaller groups will have an easier time booking more desirable dates like weekends and holidays. Plan for 4-6 people and you’ll have a much easier time finding a reservation. If you have a large group, book well in advance of your trip or consider weekday travel.
Define expectations. Carefully consider your group and what type of outing you’re after. Decide before your trip whether you want a challenge or a more leisurely outing. Your hut space will be confined so it’s no place to be with a tense group who got more adventure than they bargained for.
Have a location in mind. There are many private huts in Colorado that do not have a prominent online presence. For online searches, use specific location names such as “near Lake City” or “in the San Juan mountains” in addition to your other keywords. This can help you uncover gems that are less crowded and therefore have greater availability.
Good Hut and Yurt Trips for First-Timers
Located near Monarch Ski Area outside the town of Salida, Lost Wonder is a private hut that sleeps 14 people. The one-way trip is roughly three miles with 1,200 feet of elevation gain. The hut has amazing views, a beautiful upper deck, and plenty of space for hanging out with your group.
Never Summer Nordic
This is a system of ten huts and yurts in Northern Colorado between Steamboat Springs and Fort Collins. The yurts sleep 5-9 people and all are appropriate for first-timers. Some of these yurts are especially family-friendly with short distances to hike and little elevation gain.
Phoenix Ridge Yurts
For the first-timer who's not ready to completely rough it, head to the glamping version of yurts near Creede. This yurt includes solar powered electricity, a bathroom and a futon bed. The hike is three miles one way depending on snow and plowing conditions.
What's Up With 10th Mountain Division
The 10th Mountain Division huts are the most well-known hut system in Colorado due to their unique World War II history and the relatively high number of huts in the system. These huts are located in the Aspen, Leadville and Vail areas and can be difficult to book, especially on shorter notice. To get a spot at one of these huts, your best strategy is to have a small group and look for spots in larger, 12 to 20-person huts that you will share with other groups that didn't book the whole hut. You’ll also have a better chance of getting a weekday spot than weekend. Many 10th Mountain Division huts are challenging to access both in distance and elevation gain, so make sure you understand the route and the undertaking before making a reservation.
Other Things to Know About Winter Hut Trips
Most huts will have clear instructions from the owner or manager about how to clean the hut, operate amenities, lock the hut and so on. Be sure to read and respect these instructions to make sure you leave the hut clean and most importantly, don’t burn it down.
In addition to your sleeping bag, food, water and necessary cooking tools, make sure to bring clothing layers including a down jacket, a headlamp and good sunglasses. Bonus for acquiring down booties - they'll change your life.