Camping in the winter backcountry takes some motivation. It’s cold, there’s a lot of gear and supplies to carry and there is just a thin sheet of nylon between your sleeping bag and the outside elements. But there’s an alternative to roughing it in the snow in the form of backcountry huts and lodges.
Usually positioned around treeline elevation a few hours hike from the trailhead, these structures allow backcountry enthusiasts to carry in food and sleeping gear from their vehicles then ski tour, unhindered, for the rest of their trip. No cold tents and sleepless nights. No long retreat back to civilization. Just wake up, eat your oatmeal and get an express start to skiing the alpine.
British Columbia is home to dozens of listed backcountry huts; some run as commercial enterprises by private companies on tenured land, some run by non-profit organizations such as Alpine Club of Canada or government institutions like BC Parks. Private huts usually require guests to purchase a package stay, including guiding and catering (just like heli-ski lodges), but the other public huts operate on a user-pay fee per night to help with general maintenance, flying in firewood and emptying the outhouses.
Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures guides out of several huts in the Sea to Sky and the Rockies. In Whistler, we hold trips at the Wendy Thompson Hut in the Duffey Lake area, the Jim Haberl Hut in the Tantalus Range and are looking forward to the soon-to-be-built Spearhead Huts. In the Rockies, we guide along the Wapta Icefields Traverse spending nights at the Pyeto, Bow, Balfour and Scott Duncan huts. All these tours allow our guests to carry in just their sleeping gear, snacks and libations. On the longer trips guests may need to carry a portion of the group’s food, but in any case, it’s a lot more convenient than schlepping tents up into the alpine.
Backcountry huts are equipped with wood burning stoves to keep them nice and toasty, which makes waking up and pulling on your ski gear that much easier. It also allows skiers and riders to dry all their gear in the evenings to avoid waking up with the dreaded wet gloves or soggy socks.
Hut culture also encourages socializing a lot more than winter camping. Rather than retreating back to the warmth of sleeping bags and tightly zipped tents shortly after dinner, skiers and riders tend to congregate around the meal table with tea or the occasional hip flask being passed around. Some huts are known for their weekend parties, so don’t forget to bring your earplugs if you plan on turning in early.
Some other gear that will make your hut stay all the more comfortable:
- Hut booties. These down filled soft boots are great for keeping your feet warm and safely away from your ski boot liners
- Stuff sack. There’s no room for a pillow in your pack, but a puffy jacket inside a stuff sack is a great substitution
- A second set of socks to wear around the hut, add to this another set of cozy baselayers if you plan on sweating on the skin track all day
- Electrolyte tablets. Snowmelt has little to no mineral content compared to spring or tap water, so popping one of these in your Nalgene will help break the thirst without having to get up to pee in the night.
- Personal Toilet paper and other toiletry items. These are forgotten at home all the time.
When morning arrives, there’s a certain buzz of excitement around the hut. Stoves are firing, coffee is brewing and people mill about getting their gear ready for the day ahead. Stepping out the door directly into alpine terrain, your body freshly rested and nourished, it gives you the kickstart to a day of ski touring like no other.
Ski, eat, rest and repeat. These actions are all much easier from the base of a backcountry hut.
Looking to sample some of the Sea to Sky’s and Rocky’s best backcountry huts? Check out our guided trips or let us know if you have a particular destination in mind.
Written by: Vince Shuley