Are Huts the Future of Sustainable Recreation?

A welcoming staff, home-cooked meals, and warm, comfortable beds are all fundamental parts of the image that many Americans have of the huts that are used during short escapes to the mountains to ski, hike, and bike. But huts are more than just a luxurious way for the wealthy to enjoy nature in comfort. Hut systems are prevalent around the world in varied forms, as they cater to a diverse array of people and provide benefits in both recreation and conservation.

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Becker

Nestled in the backcountry, away from the pervading noise of civilization, European huts come full of amenities, bringing a sense of relaxation after long days spent outside. These exclusive hideaways are sometimes linked with other huts to make travel through the open land more accessible. Yet, often European huts are stand-alone sites for guests to use as a home base for day trips. The hundreds of huts spread across the European continent range in price from $30 a night to the truly lavish that rise into the hundreds per night.

However, there is a stark contrast between these huts, the hut systems that crisscross New Zealand, and those that are emerging in Australia. Most of the huts in New Zealand were initially built as part of an expansive sheep industry, and later more were added as recreation grew popular; as a result, the New Zealand hut system is less extravagant and has a notably rustic feel. Intended to “provide access to large tracts of remote land for people to explore,” the New Zealand Department of Conservation utilizes huts to expand recreation while keeping conservation a top priority.

Trekkers must book from more than 950 huts spread across the small country ahead of time, acknowledging that the shelters come with few amenities besides wooden bunks and composting toilets. At $10 to $30 per night, these huts are an inexpensive way to encourage recreation while keeping natural areas from being trampled by the streams of tourists looking to experience New Zealand’s natural beauty in increasing numbers.

In the U.S., about 15 small systems of huts dot the country, with more being constructed. These vary between those based on the European model and those that take the more rustic approach that New Zealand embraces. On the East Coast and in parts of Colorado, the amenity-based style of huts is popular and often focuses more on backcountry-skiing day trips than connecting hiking or biking trails. Ski and mountain clubs often formed these huts, and they tend towards the more expensive side. Less common in the U.S. are the more rustic huts, which connect large sections of trail in order to foster the completion of longer treks. These huts are generally much less expensive, with even a small number of free huts existing in the Pacific Northwest.

Each of the two major types of hut systems has its own set of pros and cons, and each serves different populations and activities. The amenity-based huts aim to bring ease and comfort to outdoor experiences, but due to the high fees, can be quite exclusive. The more rustic huts, because of their affordability, are often more accessible to a wider portion of the population. The hut types also differ in the types of activities that they accommodate. Amenity-based huts typically center on skiing, while the more modest huts are mostly for those completing hiking and biking trips. Both types of huts offer an opportunity for lightweight travel and give those without access to outdoor gear a chance to participate in recreation.

As an enormous country with ample natural landscapes to explore, the U.S. has an intriguing way to promote sustainable recreation through hut systems. Recently there has been an upsurge in amenity-based huts owned by private organizations to promote skiing, but more modest huts still have a chance to gain popularity in the U.S. They provide a unique opportunity: with their simplistic design, they may build up ecotourism and attract new groups of people to participate in outdoor recreation. This increased outdoor recreation would bring both economic and conservation benefits. States with well-maintained hut systems would certainly attract higher numbers of tourists, and the building and care of the huts would create a number of both short- and long-term jobs. Huts also have low environmental impact in comparison to camping, as wild plants and animals are less likely to be harmed, and all trash and other human impacts are concentrated in one area that is subject to continual inspection by rangers.

Whether private organizations, the state government, or the federal government implement these hut systems, cooperation will be a necessary component for their successful establishment in the U.S. In terms of the placement and building of the huts, the care of the land, and the monitoring of visitors,  communication between the land managers and hut systems are also crucial.

In the United States, hut systems are a mostly unknown phenomenon, but their emergence in the country and clear success in other nations around the world show the possibility for the creation of more hut systems. These systems could make the world of recreation and tourism both more accessible and more sustainable.

One thought on “Are Huts the Future of Sustainable Recreation?

  1. I thought I’ll add some comments about the New Zealand hut system.

    While a good number of huts were originally built as shepard’s quarters or for tourism or alpine use as noted, the majority were actually built by the government for pest control (deer/goat culling) during the 1950’s to 1980’s.

    The large majority of the New Zealand huts operate on a first-come-first-served basis, meaning you can’t book the hut or guarantee a bunk in the hut. Whoever turns up at the hut on a particular night is free to access the hut. If more people show up than bunks available then it is common courtesy to allow space inside for everyone.

    The huts on the “The Great Walks” and a small but increasing number of popular huts do require booking. This is an area of concern for a number of organisations and trampers in New Zealand as booking huts has the effect of restricting access to the huts. Conversely it allows more certainty to less experienced parties that they’ll have shelter at the end of the day. The debate over free access vs a booking system is ongoing. DOC, the government department charged with looking after the hut system are trailing a hybrid booking/first-come-first-served system at some more popular huts outside of the Great Walks huts. Many trampers view this hybrid system as a less-than-perfect system, particularly when there isn’t a hut warden to enforce the bookings.

    The huts undoubtedly encourage and promote outdoor recreation. Managing the increasing numbers of people who do visit the most popular destinations/locations in New Zealand and their consequential effects is another debate that has yet to be resolved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *