Good news: you don’t have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, and a cooking gas stove for the multiple day hut-to-hut hiking in the Dolomites. Generally speaking, it’s even forbidden outside the designated places — сampings. Instead of it, you can sleep, eat and take shower in the mountain huts in the Dolomites — or refuge (Italian: rifugio), or cabins. There are more than 300 of huts in every of 9 main mountain ranges in every 2-3 hours of walking.
What Is Refugio
Who Run Mountain Huts
When Is the Season
How Does Refuges Look
What Are the Rooms
What Are the Rules
With Whom to Communicate
How to Find Refugios
What is the Cost of the Huts
How to Choose
How to Book and Pay
What Is Rifugio in the Dolomites
— Rifugio is a mountain shelter from the Italian word but usually refers to the mountain hut, or a mountain cabin in the Dolomites, or refuge. It is a traditional — and therefore the most common and popular — type of accommodation during walking, hiking and trekking in the Italian Alps, and other summer outdoor activities, as well as winter sports: skiing and snowboarding.
It is something between a hotel and a hostel (but in the same time rifugio is not a hotel or hostel).
This is the definition of rifugio I invented myself when I first spent the night in rifugio in the Dolomites at the end of August 2013. It was Refugio Locatelli / Dreizinnenhütte — perhaps the most famous in all the Dolomites because it is located opposite its main symbol — Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
If you come in the Austrian part of the Dolomites, you will see, that almost every rifugio has two names: rifugio Passo Principe / Grassleitenpasshütte, rifugio Re Alberto Primero / Gartlhütte…
Other famous rifugios in the Dolomites are Lagaruoi in the mountains of Tofana, rifugio Nuvolau and Averau close to it, Rosetta in Pale di San Martino.
Often refuges in the Dolomites is called by the names and/or last names of the owners that run it, especially in the Italian part of the Dolomites.
Who Run Mountain Huts in the Italian Alps
Rifugo is usually run by families who pass on business from generation to generation. So these are family hotels, not corporate hotels, like some Holiday Inn. Although the latter can also be run by a family — as in the case of the Hilton — the rifugio does not and will not have standardized compartments, similar to each other like two drops of water. Each rifugo is unique. In fact, it’s more of a family home than even a family hotel.
At the same time, it cannot be said that any mountain huts are better or worse in terms of living conditions and quality of service. Here, they are more or less standardized, if we speak about the quality of service.
During the summer or winter season, the hosts themselves live in rifugio and only return to towns and villages in the off-season. They often lift everything in the huts to the mountains on their own and only use machinery where there are lifts.
For the peak of the seasons, hosts hire additional staff and work almost 24 hours a day: from sunrise to sunset, because there are a lot of tourists in the mountains of the Dolomites. But then they rest for six months. You can get a job in rifugio through one of the local job search sites, for example, Subito.it. Or simply by writing an e-mail to them a couple of months before the season starts.
There are popular mountain cabins like Locatelli, and there are non-tourist ones.
Popularity of rifugio depends on the location: the more popular a particular mountain group, the pass or valley is, the more popular the rifugio.
Mountain hut as a family business is not a unique situation. Some of the mountain cabins are run by the Italian Alpine Association (CAI).
What Is the Working Season of Refuge in the Dolomites
Rifugio works strictly during the summer and winter seasons.
In the summer: from June 21 to September 21, and then usually only on weekends around mid or late October if the weather is good. The same is in the first half of June. If the weather permits, refuges in the Dolomites can already open on weekends during this period. Refugios rarely open in May. Usually, this happens at altitudes around 1000 meters and lower in places like Lake Garda, where it is warmer than in the rest of the Dolomites.
The winter season is clearly linked to the skiing season: from late December to late March. Summer rifugios, where there are no ski slopes but where there are ski lifts, can operate in winter, too.
The remote hard-to-reach huts in the less popular places do not work in winter and can open later and/or close earlier for a couple of days or even a week. It is better to specify its working schedule in advance from the website.
Where Are These Mountain Cabins Locates in the Dolomites
Rifugios are usually located at heights between 1000 and 2500 meters, which are usually only accessible by foot or by lift. They can be located absolutely everywhere: on mountain peaks and in canyons. Most often these are very beautiful places!
Important: usually to get to rifugio you will have to climb at least 1000 meters — it is difficult and will take you about 1.5-2 hours minimum if you walk quickly. If you walk slowly, it will take you 2-3 hours.
The lifts start working around the same time — from late June to late September. In winter, the mountain cabins are open at ski slopes or where there are ski lifts: around the end of December to the end of March. Where there are no slopes or lifts, the refuge does not work.
There is no need to climb to the rifugio, which is located on the mountain pass, where the asphalt road leads, if you travel by car and motorcycle (but not by bike!). Yes, there is rifugio on passes. Some of the mountain huts in the Dolomites can be even reached by public bus — like rifugio Auronzo in front of Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
Rifugio is usually located at a distance of 2-3 walking hours from each other, less often — 3-4 hours. During a hike, you will see 1-2 refuges in the Dolomites.
There more than 300 rifugios in the Dolomites in all 9 major mountain groups!
How Does Typical Rifugio in the Dolomites Look Like
Rifugio is usually one, two, or three floors building, quite large. Inside, there is one common room — like a living room in your house with a bar. It’s a place for communication and eating. The bar is a reception, like all Italian hotels. Sometimes, like in rifugio Pradidali in Pale di San Martino, there can be an extra room for eating and socializing — something like a second room in a restaurant or cafe.
There is a separate kitchen — it is for staff only.
Rooms and bathrooms are on the second and third floors. Usually, they are from 2-4 to 8-10 on the floor. The rooms are mostly quite small.
Each floor has a bathroom with a shower and toilet.
Sometimes there are other buildings near the mountain cabin, but you won’t need them.
What Are the Living Conditions in the Mountain Huts of Italian Alps
Room and Sleeping Places
Most often in rifugio, you don’t buy a room, but a place in the common room. The number of places in a room can be from 4 to 10 or more people, but usually from 4 to 8 if you are talking about small rooms, as in rifugio Canali Treviso in Pale di San Martino, where all rooms are for 4 people each. The number of places and rooms depends on the size of the rifugio. The biggest room I ever slept in was in the rifugio Tre Scarperi in the Tre Chime di Lavaredo Natural Park. There was a room for 15-20 people.
But that doesn’t mean that all the places in it will be filled, as in the shelters for pilgrims on the famous Santiago Way — rather, on the contrary. My room for 20 people was almost empty even on a high season weekend in late August. This is because Tre Scarperi is a much less popular rifugio than the neighboring Locatelli.
Sometimes there may be private rooms in the mountain huts, saunas (yes!), separate rooms with glass-roof for watching the starts, and other luxury types of accommodation.
You should check the availability of rooms on the site in each individual rifugio.
Rooms in the mountain huts are usually chilly for two reasons: 1) it is in the mountains, 2) always open windows, because of the large number of people. But it’s not cold to sleep under the blanket. Yes, there are mattresses, pillows, and blankets in rifugios — you don’t have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, gas stove, and other stuff for camping.
Food and Drinks
Every refuge in the Dolomites has a bar and a real kitchen like in a restaurant. Coffee is brewed no worse than in cities. In the bar, you can buy water (3 euro per 1-liter bottle), soda, beer, wine, and other drinks, as well as chocolate and snacks.
Some mountain cabins may have a natural source of water neat the building, where you can fill your bottle of water, but some not. You may ask to fill your bottle in a bar, or a but a bottle of water.
There are traditional Italian, Ladin, Austrian and German dishes are prepared. There are usually no lunches on the menu — only dinners and breakfasts because you can’t stay in rifugio during the day — it’s forbidden by the rules, hut exist only for overnight stay. But during the day you can have coffee or something else in the bar. Dinner is very good and consists of three dishes: the first course (usually pasta or vegetables, second course — potatoes, meat, and dessert). Everything is not tasty, but fantastic.
But breakfast in rifugio is very modest — as in all of Italy. Usually, it’s just coffee and bread with butter and jam.
Often the owners treat good travelers to desserts. The main Italian dessert is grappa.
There is not pizzas in the mountain huts in the Dolomites. At least, as great as my friend Luigi cook.
Bathroom and Shower
The main feature of rifugio is that it is not only possible to spend the night with relative comfort, but also to take a shower (and go to a real toilet in the mountains). But there is one very important condition: a liter of hot water costs 1 euro. In refuge in the Dolomites, you can buy a coin for 5-6 liters for 5-6 euros. This is enough for 3-4 minutes of shower. Not very long, right? That is, to wash up, you must first use shampoo and then wash it off. Girls usually lack a single coin if they want to wash their hair.
Cold water is not limited. But it’s melted, it’s icy. You can’t wash it too much. You can’t drink it either.
There are no washing machines in the mountain hut in the Dolomites, so take at least one clean t-shirt and socks for a day of hiking and one for all the evenings during the hike, if you do multiple-day hiking in the Dolomites from hut-to-hut. Usually, one pair of pants or shorts is enough, but I recommend taking two.
Personal Belongings and Hygiene
Important: unlike hotels and even hostels, bed linen is not changed every day. It is recommended to bring a sleeping bag liner, a light sheet, or a light summer sleeping bag on +10-15 degrees. This is a common hygiene rule. If you forgot your sleeping bag, you can buy a pad in rifugio, but I do not recommend it: it is very thin and immediately torn, and costs 20-60 euros.
Another important rule of hygiene is to take off your shoes and change your socks before entering the rifugio. It is not necessary to carry your own second shoes, flip-flops or Crocs — there are many of them in common in mountain cabins. But to change hiking boots after a hard day of walking is a must-to-do thing.
Clothes you wear all day long also need to be changed — at least the top — and hung up for drying in a special room or outside. Usually, there are a couple of benches or railing near rifugio where you can do this, but so that the clothes do not interfere with people sitting on them. Overnight, the clothes dry out but carry the rain.
Electricity and Wi-Fi
There is electricity in the mountain cabins in the Dolomites. The mobile phone can be recharged, but only until 10 pm from 6 to 9 a.m. The electricity is cut off at night. Outlets are only in the common room, but everyone leaves their phones to charge.
At altitudes above 2000 meters, the mobile Internet is usually not caught. But many refuges in the Dolomites owners have it to reply to e-mails, but… they specifically disable Wi-Fi, even if they have it so that people can communicate with each other instead of sitting on their phones. But at altitudes around 1000-1500, you can still catch a weak signal — it may be enough to view messages in messengers or check your mail.
I wouldn’t count on the mobile Internet for a hike, but rather used the time to be away from civilization and enjoy nature and lively communication, especially if you, like me, work remotely and have little contact with people in everyday life.
Garbage and Sustainability
There is a strict rule: you can’t leave any garbage in rifugio, as well as, of course, in the mountains. Everything you carry with you during the hike must be brought back. From here, before the hike, you should carefully consider a set of products that do not spoil immediately (or at all), and which you will take with you. Buy products without packaging in advance or get rid of it.
What Is the Daily Routine in Refuge in the Dolomites
Rifugio in the Dolomites has a daily routine (working schedule), as do hotels and hostels — and it is more “harsh”. Breakfast is early — at 6-7 am. Dinner too, at the same time, only in the evening. The owners of the rifugio Rosetta, the largest and most famous in the Pale di San Martino mountains, explain this by the need to relax and to ensure that food is better digested as it can be difficult for people at high altitudes.
Sunset in the Dolomites around the time of dinner in rifugio and this is one of the downsides of a night in mountain huts. You have to choose between watching the sunset or having dinner.
So I, for example, prefer to sleep in free alpine bivouacs (Italian: bivaccos). Another option is not to miss the sunset — cook food for yourself on a gas burner. It is not forbidden, but usually, nobody does it near the hut.
According to the rules, you have to leave refuge in the Dolomites in the morning at 9 a.m. at the latest. But at around 15-16-17 pm you can come back to this one or another rifugio if you do hut-to-hut hiking. That’s how people usually do. The weather is better in the morning and in the evening. There is often clouds / rain / snow during the day.
Rifugio in the Dolomites usually closes for the night at 22:00, so you are unlikely to see the night sky unless you make friends with the staff and ask them to let you out through the emergency exit. Usually, it’s open. Or such an example: rifugio Locatelli has a small separate house for 5-8 people next door. That’s where I spent the night. It was more like a barn, but it didn’t close for the night and I spent the night watching the sunset and then got up at 5 a.m. to meet the sunrise. It was fantastic!
In fact, “What else is important to know” can be stretched out into a separate big article! There are a lot of details and nuances to know. It is better to learn them in place. If you have any questions left, don’t hesitate to write me an e-mail.
With Whom to Communicate in a Mountain Cabins in the Alps
Mountain hut in the Dolomites is not a place for secluded rest. Usually there from 10-15 to 20-30 people in the hut. But they are all nice people — outdoor enthusiasts and travelers like you. The atmosphere is very friendly. Usually, it’s nice to talk to people in refuge. People share travel stories on this and other days, give advice, loot at maps together.
Other Europeans: Germans, Spaniards, Frenchs, Italians themselves travel to the Dolomites. You can often meet Russian-speaking travelers, too. There are many Americans, Canadians and some Australians, which do hut-to-hut hiking.
The owners usually speak English and exactly one of the two main languages of the Dolomites: Italian and/or German, or Ladin — the language of the native people of the Dolomites.
It is not necessary to communicate with people, of course, if you want to be alone. There is usually a small library in the hut. You can read books about the mountains in one of the two local languages (but not English). Or you can look at photographs.
There is also a journal in every rifugio where you can write your name and date of the night. So you’ll keep a memory about you in this place. It’s an alpine tradition.
How to Find Rifugio in the Dolomites on a Map
Refuges in the Dolomites can be found on Tabacco’s paper maps, through an online search, on Rifugi-bivacchi.com or on the websites of selected Italian regions where they are also collected, for example, huts in Lake Garda. Booking.com or Airbnb.com is not working for huts. And this a good news, right.
But the main source of information, primarily about the cost and conditions of booking and payment — the site or pages in social networks of the rifugio. Web sites of the mountain huts indicate a location, number of places, and other information. Not all rifugio have sites and social networks. Yes, in 2020!
How Much Does It Cost to Stay in a Mountain Hut in Italian Dolomites
The regular price for a place in the common room is 20-25 euros. For 50-65 euros you can order half board: in addition to an overnight stay, the price includes breakfast and dinner. Breakfast or sandwiches can be bought separately for 5-10 euros. Rifugio does not sell individual dishes like in a restaurant.
Advice: to save half of money, you can try to join the Italian Alpine Association (CAI). For its members, the cost of the night is only 15 euros and half the board is 25 euros. Here is the instruction on how to do it.
How to Choose Refuge in the Dolomites
If hotels and hostels need to be carefully selected, in the case of rifugio, they are not. You can sleep in absolutely any mountain hut in the Dolomites, as they are often similar to each other in terms of quality.
You have to choose the region where you plan to go to. For example, my home mountain groups of Pale di San Martino, Vette Feltrino, Belluno Dolomites, and Lagorai have more than 20 rifugios and it is much less popular and crowded than Tre Cime, Marmolada, Sella and other places in the center of the Dolomites. And the mountains are just as beautiful here as in other places.
How to Book and Pay for Mountain Cabin in the Alps
You don’t have to book the refuge in the Dolomites, you can come and stay with no reservation. However, on popular routes like Tre Cime di Lavaredo Loop and Natural Park, Cinque Torri, or Passo Ombretta near the mount Marmolada, it is better to book in advance by email or phone, which can be found on the hut’s sites.
If you still haven’t booked rifugio and there are no free rooms in it, in the Dolomites there is a general rule: if you have come before the closing, you won’t be left in the mountains and will be given at least some free space to sleep — for example, a storeroom where you can arrange a sleeping bag.
But if you come to a couple of hours before closing time and there are other mountain cabins in the area, you’ll probably be sent somewhere else to look for an empty bed. The same thing works in case of bad and good weather conditions. It also, and again, depends on the popularity of the place. The fewer tourists, the more locals take care of you.
You may also not be allowed to spend the night without booking if you are traveling in a group of 4-5 to 10-12 people. In this case, must also be booked. For a big group of people, the owners can ask for a 20% advance payment, which can be transferred to PayPal, or bank transfer.
Cover photo: rifugio Lavaredo at Tre Cive di Lavoredo Loop trail in 3 days (2 night) hiking in July 2017 © Ivan Kuznetsov.