Everything you want to know about free mountain shelters — bivouacs in the Dolomites

Bivouacs in the Dolomites (bivacco in Italian), or free mountain shelters, is the second most popular type of accommodation for hiking in the Italian Alps after mountain huts.

In contrast to rifugios, where you need to pay for a sleeping place, they can be used by anyone and anytime, and you don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission to stay in bivouac.

Read this article to know everything about it, so you can try it this autumn and the next winter, spring, and summer. Yes, as opposed to rifugios, bivouacs are open all year round!

Ivan Kuznetsov
Outdoor journalist and editor from the Dolomites and Karelia

What Is Bivouacs
Who Run Mountain Shelters
What is the Cost
When Is the Season
Where Located
How Does Bivouacs Look
What Is Inside
What Are the Rules
With Whom to Communicate
How to Find Bivouacs
How to Choose
What About Safety

What Is Bivouac in the Dolomites

— Bivouac is a type of temporary accommodation in the Dolomites and other parts of the Alps, as well as in other mountains of the world (they can be called differently there). It’s a French word that comes from army terminology, but it’s not used now in the army. It means “halt”. In Italian, it is bivacco, in Deutsch biwak, in Russian bivak.

Hikers, mountaineers, climbers, and sometimes even the mountain bikers stay in bivaccos. But among the latter, this type of accommodation is not very popular.

Standard bivacco in the Dolomites is a small metal cabin, or wooden or stone hut. In the latter case, it will be built mainly from improvised materials found in the mountains and in the forest: trees, stones, and so on. From here the cabins are not necessarily metal: bivouac is a common name for any mountain hut, in general.

Sometimes the role of bivaccos in the Dolomites is also played by alpine farms — malga in Italian. These are either stone or wooden buildings of former alpine cow and sheep farms, closed for lack of use. The important thing to know about malgas as a type of hiking accommodation is that they are not all open and converted into huts for tourists. Those you need are marked on maps as shelters and sometimes called: “Bivacco Malga (the name)” — you can sleep in them for sure.

The difference between malgas (1), free alpine mountain shelters (2) and metal cabins bivouacs (3):

Who Run Mountain Shelters in the Italian Alps

Mountain cabins aren’t standing in the mountains by themselves. In the Dolomites they are managed by the Italian Alpine Club (Club Alpino Italiano, CAI): it chooses the place, builds, installs, updates, and repairs bivaccos as needed. Dismantles the old ones and builds the new ones again.

It also means that unlike in rifugios, you won’t meet any members of CAI: the bivaccos are empty. They aren’t looked after every day, every month, or every year. And if they’re renovated, they’re taken care of before the tourist season, so they don’t interfere with tourists and climbers.

What Is the Cost of Bivacco in the Dolomites

Unlike refuges in the Dolomites, you don’t have to pay a euro cent for staying in bivacco. It is also important that they do not need to be booked. But that doesn’t mean they’re always available only for you personally. There can be other people with you as in the mountains huts.

In mid-summer, at the peak of the season in popular places like Marmolada, Passo Falzarego, or Tre Cime di Lavoredo, by your arrival in the bivacco part of the sleeping places in it may be already occupied. It’s better not to rely on luck and not to come overnight at sunset: leave a 2-3 hour time allowance to reach the nearest rifugio or return to civilization. But at the beginning and at the end of summer you can spend the night at an altitude of 2500-3000 meters in complete solitude. This is very cool!

When Is the Open Season of the Alpine Cabins

Bivouacs in the Dolomites is open all year round: both in summer and winter, the doors are unlocked. In addition, some refuges also have a few beds where you can sleep for free during the winter hikes — but only in winter. They are also called “winter bivaccos”. Their doors are not locked in winter.

Read the article “Don’t Mess Up With the Seasons and Weather in the Dolomites, Especially If Hiking and Cycling“.

Where Bivouacs Located

Free alpine shelters bivaccos is scattered by the Italian Alpine Club literally all over the Dolomites — from forests, meadows, and valleys to canyons, passes, and mountain peaks. Sometimes bivaccos stand in just fantastic places!

How do bivaccos end up in such difficult to reach places? It’s simple — they are taken there disassembled on helicopters, lowered to the ground in pieces, and collected. Wooden bivaccos in the forest zone are built on-site, the parts are delivered also by transport.

How Do Alpine Mountain Shelters Look

Usually, a bivacco is a small metal cabin that is bolted with metal cables to the ground or rocks to keep it safe from snowfall or strong winds. Yes, there is a lot of snow and wind in the Dolomites in winter and mid-season.

In the Dolomites, the cabins are usually red, but they can be a different color: yellow, grey… Red and yellow — so they can be easily found both from the ground by a hiker or climber and from a helicopter by a member of CAI. This is especially important in the mountains, where the weather is changeable and often cloudy with fogs and snowfalls.

At the time of publication of the article I had a chance to spend the night in two bivaccos:

Bivacco Marco dal Bianco
Bivacco Marco dal Biano on the Ombretta Pass, 2727 m, at the southern wall of the highest mountain in the Dolomites of Marmolada, 3342 m, at the end of September 2013 © Ivan Kuznetsov
Bivacco Marco dal Biano on the Ombretta Pass, 2727 m, at the southern wall of the highest mountain in the Dolomites of Marmolada, 3342 m, at the end of September 2013 © Ivan Kuznetsov
Bivacco Renato Reali
on a hidden mountain plateau, 2595 m, at the foot of Mount Croda Grande, 2849 m in the Pale di San Martino mountains in mid-June 2017 © Ivan Kuznetsov
Bivacco Relato Riali on a hidden mountain plateau, 2595 m, at the foot of Mount Croda Grande, 2849 m, in the Pale di San Martino mountains in mid-June 2017 © Ivan Kuznetsov

What Is Inside Bivouacs

Rooms and Beds

Inside each metal bivacco, there is one room, which makes up its entire interior.

In bivacco, which is monitored by the Italian Alpine Club, inside such a room can be from 2-3 to 10-12 sleep places — that is, beds.

In stone and wooden mountain huts and malgas there is also often one room, but may be two, three, or more rooms. Usually, huts and malgas are much bigger and more spacious.

Next, it’s more interesting…

Comfort and Cleanliness

Usually, the bivaccos have mattresses, warm blankets, pillows, and a small table at which you can take food. Sometimes the table can be turned into another sleeping place — as, for example, in bivacco Marco dal Bianco at Marmolada. In total there are 10 beds in that bivacco: 9 beds on three sides plus a table, the fourth side is the front door. When I saw 10 beds in a relatively small metal cabin, I was very surprised.

Some bivaccos are brand new, like the bivouac Renato Reali in Pale di San Martino. Sleeping in such free alpine shelters is nice. Others are quite old. Sleeping in them is not very pleasant.

Mountain cabins and malgas are more spacious, but less equipped inside: they may have old and dirty beds and mattresses or they may not be there at all. So when you’re going to spend the night in a bivacco, hut, or a malga, it’s always better to carry a sleeping bag if you’re not sure there are blankets and pillows.

Once I went to the mount Totoga, in the valley of the river Cismon in my home mountain region Feltrino Dolomites to sleep at the free mountain hut I’ve found on a map, but I couldn’t because it has nothing inside: no bed, no blankets, no table. It was an hour before sunset, I had to literally run away from the mountain to the nearest village Imer to spend the night in a B&B — for 40 euros.

You can try to find out about the living conditions of each bivacco from the traveler’s reports, from locals, or if you go somewhere on your own for a second time.

Bivacco Renato Reali in Pale di San Martino © Ivan Kuznetsov
On the official sites with a lists of bivaccos usually it is not written whether they have blankets and other sleeping accessories — this has to be found out by experience. But that’s why it’s more interesting! Bivacco Renato Reali in Pale di San Martino © Ivan Kuznetsov

Wind and Warmth

It can be cold overnight in a stone hut even in the middle of summer at high altitudes. Because if it is stone, it is likely to have wind inside and does not retain heat.

In bivaccos, on the contrary, it is comfortable to sleep, even at an altitude of 2500-300 meters — in the construction, there are almost no slots — they are carefully sealed. But this still does not mean that sleeping in bivacco is warm as in a home bed — it is better to still take a light sleeping bag at 0 … +10 degrees Celsius.

Water and Food

Another important difference between bivaccos and rifugios is that in the refuge you will have a hot tasty two dishes dinner with dessert and breakfast in the morning, not mentioning the bar with its all drinks, in the free alpine shelter in the Dolomites — an empty table.

Water and food for the night in bivacco should be brought with you. But food is not needed much, because usually in bivaccos people spend no more than one or two nights, they do not stay in bivaccos doing multiple-day hut-to-hut hiking in the Dolomites. But, of course, you can mix to types of accommodation: one night in rifugio, one night in bivacco, then a night in rifugio again and so on…

You can cook food and heat the water on the portable gas burner that you can take with you, or do a light snack if you brought a thermos. I recommend taking a gas burner or at least a thermos. On my first trip to Marmolada, I did not have either and I immediately realized that after a hard day’s journey, even in the heat I want to drink hot water.

Maybe I scared you early, though. Bivaccos often have some food left by past visitors. Usually, it’s pasta or a rise, maybe some cookies left, canned food, coffee, salt, sugar, and paper… All of that can be taken if the food looks like it’s edible (usually it is).

In the winter and late spring, you can melt some snow for drinking as I did in the middle of June in bivacco Reali because I didn’t have water with me.

Among the advantages of huts and malgas, they often have a stove and firewood, or an open place to make a fire, as well as a water source (a tank or spring with a hose connected to it). Next to the metal bivaccos, located high in the mountains, there are usually no water sources. Please always keep it in mind.

If to say about things, in both cases — in bivaccos and in free mountain shelters — there are often leave things left by previous guests: lighters, candles, cutlery, dishes, etc. But not always and not everywhere.

It is better to carry all these things with you to stay at night in bivacco, including water and food © Ivan Kuznetsov
It is better to carry all these things with you to stay at night in bivacco, including water and food © Ivan Kuznetsov

What Are the Rules of the Cabins in the Dolomites

Again, unlike refuges, bivouacs, huts, and malgas have no special rules of staying. They are truly free — it seems as if they stand in the mountains by themselves and belong to no one.

The main rule, perhaps, is one thing — to leave them as you found them:

  • Do not leave any garbage, do not break furniture, do not take their blankets and pillows.
  • Carefully use a gas burner or make fire and the like, especially if it windy outside.
  • Close the door of bivouac, before you leave, so that wild animals don’t sneak into the bivouac or it doesn’t get snowed inside during the winter or broken during a storm.

Read the article “Why Rifugio Is Not a Hotel. The Owners of This One Explans Funny“.

With Whom to Communicate in Bivouac

As it has already become clear, there is a 50/50 probability to spend the night in bivacco alone or with other people. Usually, people go to bivouacs in the Dolomites for this purpose first — to be alone with themselves surrounded by fantastic nature: silent mountains and often a clear starry sky, at an altitude above 2000 meters. When and where else will this happen to you? During my first night in bivacco, it was like this: stars, coldness, silence, no single soul except me…

But at the same time, I never get upset if I “have to” spend the night with other travelers. That was in the second bivouac I spent the night in. Before I came, three Italians from Padua — two boys and a girl — had already “settled” there.

Like in rifugios you do not have to actively communicate with others. I didn’t talk to my fellow travelers in bivacco Reali, they didn’t seem sociable. But usually, they’re travelers like you, keen on the mountains. And, of course, nobody interfered with anybody.

The discomfort is only caused by the fact that the bivacco is a very small place and even one person has nowhere to turn around in it. Therefore, it is also better to come to bivacco 1-1.5 hours before sunset, so as not to stand on the mountains in the cold, if you are sure there may be some people. And leave right after dawn first.

How to Find Free Alpine Mountain Shelters

There is much less bivaccos in the Dolomites than the refuges and they are more distant from each other: from one bivouac to another there can be a day’s journey or even two. In some areas, there are not bivaccos, free mountains huts, and malgas at all like.

Like rifugios bivaccos are easy to find: they are marked on all Tabacco hiking maps of the Dolomites. They are named beautiful — often by the names of local climbers.

Bivacco Marco dal Bianco in Ombretta Pass in Marmolada named after the famous local Italian alpinist © Ivan Kuznetsov
Bivacco Marco dal Bianco in Ombretta Pass in Marmolada named after the famous local Italian alpinist © Ivan Kuznetsov

If you do not have a paper card, use an electronic card or website Rifugi-bivacchi.com. — it has the most complete base.

There some bivaccos in the popular mountains groups:

  • Bivaccos in Tre Cime di Lavoredo area: bivacco De Toni Antonio e Torino, bivacco Mascarboni, bivacco Franco Piovan, bivacco Carlo Gera.
  • Bivaccos in Marmolada: bivacco Marco dal Bianco, bivacco Bontadini, bivacco Donato Zeni “Vallaccia”, bivacco Redolf, bivacco Jellici.
  • Bivaccos in Passo Falzarego: bivacco Baracca degli Alpini, bivacco Baccon — Barborka.

This site also has a list of bivaccos and rifugios in my home six regions: Feltrino Dolomites, Primiero Dolomites, Belluno Dolomites and other.

How to Choose Bivacco in the Dolomites

Choosing bivaccos is always a little lottery. Free night on a mountain pass or mountain peak under 3000 meters, or in the woods is guaranteed, but loneliness and/or comfortable living conditions — no. So you will need to check how lucky you are.

The main rules for choosing bivaccos, huts, or malgas are:

  1. Choose any bivacco. This kind of accommodation means adventure. Be ready for it.
  2. Bring a sleeping bag, food, water, gas burner, and other things that will make your arrival more comfortable and allow you to create a home away from home. For example, candles, a picture of your loved one, a mascot.
  3. Try to find out from the Internet or some locals the conditions of bivacco you planning to go to. It can be like a little investigation.
  4. Learn better the look and location of the bivacco. Sometimes bivouacs are very hard to find. Examine the map in detail, save it to your phone, or print out pictures of the free alpine hut to know what one looks like.
  5. Be equally prepared to spend the night in bivacco in the company of other people, when setting up a sleepover alone.

What About Safety in Alpine Cabins

It’s safe to sleep in a bivouac in the Dolomites. I have a great story about that. I’ll tell it to you sometime…


Cover photo: self-portrait at bivacco Marco dal Bianco in Passo Ombretta in the end of September 2013 © Ivan Kuznetsov.

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