Lately we've been enjoying the Alpine hut system with our kids. They are two 5 year old boys who like to hike. I thought I'd share some of what we've learned.
The huts are a great way to bring kids on a real adventure. A real adventure lasts longer than a day. It should have a dark night with stars, a cold morning and another day of sun. While admitting that camping is probably the purest adventure, we find that huts represent, for us anyway, a happy medium. Nobody needs a heavy pack, and we can cover more ground. Parents are happy because they can drink with new friends in the hut after kids went to bed. The kids are happy because...well, they are easy to please! Give them a bunk bed, a handful of legos and a boulderfield outside and they are in heaven. Throw in some shooting stars, the wild sight of snow in the summertime, and a half-dozen animal encounters and you've got a weekend or a week to remember.
It takes some effort to pick a good destination for the whole family. The criteria I've devised are:
- Not too much elevation gain. I've capped it at 700 meters from the car, and don't want to go further this summer. It's a lot of work for little legs to climb that high.
- No road walking. Nothing bores my kids more than walking up a road. And I sympathize completely, so I'm not good at bullying them along!
- Significant travel above timberline. This is as much for me as them. I enjoy the mountains so much more when I can see a long way.
- Avoid long flat trails. I don't know if they got my genes or what, but they are as bored by long flat trails as I am.
Here are two example hikes near where we live (Munich) which perfectly met the criteria:
- The Westfallenhaus in the Stubai Mountains. 500 meters up, passing through timberline at about halfway. All trail, with excellent traversing above a valley to reach the hut.
- The Frischmannhuette in the Ötztal Mountains. 700 meters up from Köchle. Tough work to gain a pass and timberline (600 meters up), but then an amazing belvedere trail rounding a valley with views of snowy peaks.
Real trails with some steepness are good, the kids find it more exciting to a point. But be careful. It's okay to have short areas where falls would be bad, like maybe crossing the occasional creek. It seems to be good for the kids to wake up and be aware of difficult spots, and the parents can attend to them. But long traverses above cliffs or spending an hour on very steep switchbacks isn't a good idea. I guess what I'm saying is, you can count on the kids to focus their attention and be aware of danger for short, sharp intervals...but avoid long sections with less apparent but just as real risk.
Novel method of finding hikes
Like many parents who want to take their kids hiking, I've accumulated a few "kid-specific" hiking guidebooks to different areas. Those were great to get us started, but they tend to be heavy on road walking to accomodate strollers. I've gone to a completely different method of finding hikes which brings a sense of adventure for me as well.
Open Google Earth
and prowl around the mountain regions you can reach easily by car. Look for grassy ridges above timberline. When you find one you like, start using the mouse to find the minimum elevation gain to reach it from a road. My criteria requires this to be around 500 meters or so. Zoom in and look for trails. This being the Alps, there usually is one. If you don't have a map, you can usually buy one on the way there at a gas station in the nearest town. You may find that you picked an unusual or little-used trail, but I guess that is part of the fun. It's fun to tell the Hut Warden where you came from in that case. "Really?" they'll say, and walk away contemplating the mystery.
Contacting the hut
I don't like to plan a destination more than a couple of days in advance, because who knows with the weather? But I'll try to organize everything by Thursday afternoon. Then it's time to call the hut. Some huts have web pages and email reservation systems. Don't trust them...it's pretty easy to have a situation where the nephew from the city came to the hut for the summer, set up a web page, but nobody in the hut really uses it! You've got to call. Now, as a non-native German speaker (and no Italian and no French), this can be intimidating, especially with the thick accent that the alte Frau
who picks up the phone usually has. But it's important because sometimes the hut really is full. Just do your best...they are probably used to hearing all kinds of languages mangled terribly!
Don't forget cash!
A tired boy approaches the hut
If you are a member of an alpine club (any country seems to be fine) then you get a significant discount. The Westfallenhaus is an DAV (German Alpine Club) hut, and it's prices for lodging are similar to others in the area (translated from here
|Alpine club member
|Students (19-25 years)
|Children (7-19 years)
|Children (0-6 years)
|No Alpine Club membership
|Students (19-25 years)
|Children (7-19 years)
|Children (0-6 years)
So you can see, there is a significant savings if you belong to an alpine club. For our family, we splurged for a private room the first time, so the cost was 42 euros. For all the subsequent trips to huts, we've slept in the common room, which has the advantage that the kids are free. This brings our cost down to 20 euros per night, much more reasonable.
Food can be expensive! We try to be frugal with food purchases, but it's important to remember that food is where the hut makes it's money to pay salaries and to survive year to year. Alpine Club huts like the Westfallenhaus must pass on a significant amount of the room payment to the club. Currently, at the Westfallenhaus, you get dinner and breakfast for 27 euros per person. There isn't a discount for kids. If you buy that, then for a family of four staying in the common room we have a cost of:
20 + 27*4 = 128 euros
And that is without drinks. Clearly, if you want to do this every weekend you need to find a way to save money.
What we've done is bring our own breakfast supplies and after-dinner dessert. Basically, bread, butter, jam and some cookies. We buy dinner from the menu, sometimes getting one meal for the two boys and sharing. The treats are a cold drink when we get to the hut, and wine or beer for the adults at dinner. With those modifications we strive to spend 80 euros per night for the room, food and drink.
That is acceptable to us. Possible later economies are cooking our own food, or converting to mountain climbers with bivy sacks to avoid huts entirely. Camping, per se, is not allowed in most areas of the Alps. But you can lay down a bivy sack somewhere out of the way at dark and move on at dawn.
As a courtesy (and maybe it's actually a requirement, I'm not sure), we avoid eating our own food inside the hut. So for dessert we take a walk out under the stars. And for breakfast we'll find some boulders a bit away to make our toast and plan the day. Sometimes I'll order a coffee just to be neighborly.
I'm in a beer-fueled haze, trying to keep up with these guys on the guitar.
Kids are funny, they can swing back and forth between being too tired to lift their foot one more inch, and cackling like mad scientists climbing over a fence repeatedly.
The key is to surprise them, make them laugh, or just get their mind off the endless trudge. They have good imaginations, and right now they are using it to imagine putting one foot in front of the other forever. Surely you can sympathize!
One thing we like to do is point to a huge cow pie and accost one of the kids, telling them that they've been told over and over to stop going to the bathroom outside like that. This starts a whole chain of potty jokes that are better left unrecorded!
Another thing that can be interesting is getting them wondering about things. I'll point to a cave on the mountainside and wonder aloud if any pirates still live in there. Get them thinking about topography, effective defense from monsters and where they might take shelter in rain.
For our boys, Legos are king. They are each allowed to bring two Lego men to the mountains. The men are just the right size to make a boulder look like a mountain, and the parents can nap in a meadow while a massive battle between the forces of good and evil rage in the boulders nearby.
Finally, when all else fails, remember that the hut has some kind of cake, maybe chocolate cake. Maybe with whipped cream too. If you are lucky, they'll forget about that bribe, but it hasn't happened to us yet!
Perish the thought! But a book or an iPod can be nice to have. It's nice when the hut has a guitar, as many do. One of the parents can get away in the morning for a quick "lightning assault" on a local peak. That's how I got this picture:
On the other hand, maybe someone just wants to relax!
Another good thing for the adults, is to stay downstairs with the crowd. Once everyone had a few drinks it's easy to meet some crazy people and you'll have an experience to remember with some people of various nations.
We are excited to go on longer trips. Next summer we plan to stay out for a week. One day, we'll cross the Alps with the kids. There is no real limit as long as you are having adventerous fun!
See ya next time!