More hut-to-hut hiking in USA? Part 1: Benefits

More hut-to-hut hiking in USA?

Part 1: Benefits

By Sam Demas,

Lets have a national conversation about huts

Americans love to hike their 167,00 miles of trails located on federal and state lands. We are building new trails to meet demand, and trail use is projected to continue increasing. But how do Americans feel about placing hut systems on some fraction of their trails? How do we feel as a nation about hut-to-hut hiking, skiing and biking? No one knows. It’s worth talking about.

In the USA there are a dozen or so hut-to-hut systems (see definition below). While popular with those in the know, hut systems are not yet part of the consciousness of most American outdoor enthusiasts and recreation professionals. There is almost no discussion about huts as part of our growing outdoor recreation and education infrastructure, and we know little about how they operate. Why does this matter?

First, population growth, along with demographic, lifestyle, and health trends are creating increased pressure for access to the outdoors. How can we accommodate more people on our trails without damaging the environment we are trying to preserve? The irrepressible impulse of Americans to connect with the outdoors is a significant challenge to parks and recreation managers. Hut systems are an environmentally responsible way of supporting human use of the back-country.

Second, we seem to have created a hiking paradigm of extremes: backpacking vs. day hiking — with nothing in-between. Of the 35,000,000 American “hikers”, 3% identify as backpackers, and 97% as day-hikers. Backpacking is great for the few of us who are strong enough to carry the weight, can afford the equipment, and highly resourceful and skilled. But lets talk about the 97%.

What are we doing to meet the needs of the “day-hikers” who are eager to go beyond 1 – 5 hour hikes that start and end at a car? How can we support hikers who want to walk further, experiencing and learning more through multi-day immersion in the outdoors? How can we broaden immersive access to nature for the 8 in 10 Americans who live in urban areas?

As we innovate to meet growing interest in forging meaningful connections nature — and address the imperative of environmental education – I think we should discuss:

  • How can we best support the hut systems that already exist? Why aren’t there more hut systems in the USA? Should there be?
  • Should we plan to locate additional hut systems on some U.S. trails?
  • If so, how, when, where and why?
  • What are the challenges, potential pitfalls and opportunities? How do we provide a growing population with access to the outdoors without despoiling natural areas, or, as Aldo Leopold put it, “loving it to death”?
  • What can we learn from other nations with extensive hut systems?
  • How might we develop a uniquely American, environmentally sensitive, 21st century approach to huts as one thread in the fabric of outdoor recreation and education?

This article summarizes the potential benefits of creating more huts systems in the USA. It also touches on some creative possibilities that infrastructure for long distance, nature-based travel might make possible. Part 2 of this article addresses the challenges and potential pitfalls inherent in thoughtfully siting, building, and operating hut systems on some of our nation’s trails.  For an overview of existing American hut systems see Hut-to-hut in USA: situation and outlook.

What is a hut system?

Huts (aka refuges) take many different forms. For this piece we’ll focus on just one category: hut and yurt systems such as are those common in Europe and New Zealand. In my definition, hut systems are chains (or circuits) of three or more huts intentionally spaced a days walk, ski or bike apart on a designated trails. [For a broader definition of huts, see “What is a hut?”.] They are designed to support walks ranging from several days to weeks on end. Huts in this category are essentially hostels or hotels (ranging from very rustic to rather elegant) providing space for eating, sleeping and social interaction. Hut systems may be further subdivided according to whether they:

  • are staffed or unstaffed,
  • provide meals or cooking facilities, or at least a place to set up your stove;
  • provide beds (ranging from individual rooms, to dormitories or, simply designated places to put down your sleeping bag.

While there are probably thousands of individual (i.e. disconnected) cabins, yurts, and lodges in the USA, only a few hut systems exist that are designed to support long distance human-powered travel for more than a few days in a row. [For a view of existing huts systems in USA, see “Hut Systems Map of the Americas”.] Prominent examples include 10th Mountain Division Huts in Colorado (a network of 24 huts), the San Juan Hut System (6 huts for biking, and 5 huts for skiing and hiking), and Appalachian Mountain Club Huts (8 huts) in New Hampshire. They are already innovating in ways described below, blazing a trail for the American recreation scene, and richly deserve our support.

Basic benefits: conservation, comfort and conviviality

Carefully planned hut systems concentrate and manage human activity in the outdoors, significantly reducing environmental impacts. They provide back-country access to a wider demographic than backpacking, but restrict use to thoughtfully sited and managed huts and trails.

The benefits commonly mentioned in my discussions with hut travellers around the world include:

  • Light-weight travel. People everywhere appreciate the difference between carrying a 15 – 20 pound hut-to-hut pack and carrying 35 – 45 pounds of backpacking equipment. The gear needed for hut-to-hut is much less expensive, and it feels good to sleep in a bed at the end of the day.
  • Enjoying the journey. People love waking up each day with one task ahead of them: walking to the next hut. They need only put one foot in front of the other, an ancient practice, find a comfortable rhythm, take in the beauty of the landscape, and stop for a simple lunch. They enjoy an immersive experience in nature, focusing primarily on the daily pleasures of the journey. Logistics (navigation, camp-craft, cooking, latrines, etc.) are simpler when using a designated trail and hut system. While the walks are physically challenging, they do not leave folks too exhausted to enjoy the evening hours.
  • Meals and conviviality. Huts provide a place to rest and share a meal. When staffed — frequently by young people or, in Europe, families – the staff create a welcoming atmosphere. Having reached the hut and cleaned up and rested a bit, walkers enjoy sitting down to the simple pleasure of sharing a good meal with fellow travellers. While socializing is optional, travellers often enjoy talking about the trail and the weather, sharing hiking stories, and generally relaxing over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Huts provide a social leveling opportunity: you can spend a little time talking with people from many different places and walks of life. There is an appealing coziness about hut life. Playing games or reading after dinner soon puts one in a mood to get to bed early and do it again the next day.

Huts make it feasible for people to enjoy occasional extended backcountry experiences. This includes those who didn’t grow up camping – in particular those from racial and ethnic backgrounds currently under-represented in the hiking community – and don’t have the gear and experience needed for responsible backpacking. Huts make it possible for the average person to undertake a long distance journey without getting back into a car at the end of each day. They provide a refuge for people seeking a restorative break from their daily lives.

Community-building benefits:

Hut systems are about place. They engage with ecological and cultural localities. Few of the benefits of hut systems outlined above can be realized without strong local community connections. Hut systems usually employ local people, use local businesses, and celebrate and protect the local environment.

  • Partnerships

Hut systems operate in a rich network of partnerships with local businesses, and with youth, community, and environmental groups. Communities tend to love their hut systems. In some European nations huts are built and cared for by the community through local chapters of the national alpine club. Americans will likely adopt different models, but there is tremendous opportunity for creative work in building community by building huts.

  • Nearby nature

With 80% of Americans living in urban areas society can’t afford the direct cost or the carbon footprint generated by transporting even a fraction of our citizens long distances to our great mountain landscapes and wilderness areas. And we can’t risk trampling the landscapes we love through over-use. To provide a great walking experience, huts need not be located in environmentally sensitive areas, such as designated Wilderness and environmentally fragile areas. There is potential for huts in the front country as well as back-country. To responsibly meet the needs of the next generation, we may want to experiment with hut systems closer to population centers.

  • Economic development

The Outdoor Industry Association estimates the economic value of outdoor activities to be $646 billion per year, about $81 billion directly from trail-based recreation. Most hut system have an economic development component to their missions. The hut system managers I have talked with have conducted informal economic impact studies. A few are working on more formal methodologies, but there is almost no hard data available as yet. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to believe that American hut systems can stimulate small business development in rural communities. In addition to local and regional tourism, American hut systems have great potential to draw visitors from Europe and other parts of the world where long distance walking (but not backpacking) is already very popular.

Access to nature for health, education, and spiritual renewal

Beyond the fundamental benefits of community building, conservation, comfort and conviviality, what piques my imagination is the potential for hut systems to partner with a range of organizations in educational programming. Huts can be laboratories to experiment with immersive educational programs promoting health, environmental education, and spiritual renewal. Following are some obvious arenas in which hut systems can support innovation in developing beneficial attitudes and behaviors promoting human and environmental health:

  • Environmental education

Hut systems perform important service in promoting environmental education. And there is potential for even greater contribution to this critical educational challenge. Many people believe that continued existence of our civilization is directly linked to the success of our efforts in broad-based environmental/outdoor education. I believe huts are uniquely capable of playing a small but important role in meeting this challenge. Huts can provide the essential infrastructure for hosting a wide range of creative nature immersion programs in partnership with the vibrant community of environmental educators.

  • Exploring the relationship between nature and health

Outdoor exercise and exposure to the natural world help people create healthy lifestyles. Health professionals are experimenting with strategies to address the sedentary lifestyle factors related to diseases such as childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, Vitamin D deficiency, exercise intolerance, and sleep disorders. One strategy is writing medical prescriptions for nature and outdoor exercise.

One example is the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Children and Nature Initiative. Their program Rx for Nature Activity educates child health care providers about prescribing outdoor activities for children. Their Fact Sheet on Children’s Health and Nature, highlighting research supporting the health benefits of contact with nature, is one of the many resources they provide for pediatricians and outdoor program developers.

A partnership between the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Massachusetts General Hospital is moving theory into practice. Through their “OutdoorsRx” program, physicians are writing prescriptions for outdoor activities. But the biggest barriers to filling these prescriptions are the cost of getting kids to outdoor activities and the lack of family experience with the outdoors. The AMC is developing a range of programs to address these barriers. Hut systems could play a creative part in filling prescriptions for children and families to occasionally spend time outdoors for more than a day at a time.

  • Experimenting with nature immersion

Exposure to nature has therapeutic effects, including stress reduction. Unplugging and slipping away from every-day pressures, media streams, noise and pollution for a hike or a weekend camping trip helps restore peace of mind. But achieving a meaningful and lasting sense of rest, renewal, and re-creation takes more than a day or two. For those who can afford it, this usually takes the form of “vacation”, such as: sending kids to camp, participating in outdoor recreation activities, going to the beach or mountains, camping, backpacking, or spending time at the family cabin.

Hut systems add another option to the vacation portfolio, providing an especially concentrated and unplugged form of nature-based retreat from everyday life. This includes optional educational programming and organized events for kids and families. Huts can supplement and democratize the choices Americans have for immersive learning and therapeutic experiences in the natural world.

  • Revisiting rites of passage, pilgrimage, and spiritual refuge

Human-powered long distance travel is a highly effective vehicle for nature connection for people of all ages. Human belief in nature as spiritual sanctuary is found in the ancient ascetic traditions of most world religions. In the West it was celebrated by the Romantics, and developed in American thought through the Transcendentalists, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and others influencing the American conservation movement. One thread in these traditions is that going on a physical trip in nature is conducive to an inward journey of redemption, renewal, spiritual insight, and/or moral perfection. By living for a time closer to nature, we seek its tonic effect on the human spirit and hope to come back to our everyday lives as better people. Today there is great interest in revisiting, reclaiming, and updating timeless traditions such rites of passage, pilgrimage, and other forms of nature immersion that help us understand ourselves and our place in the world.

The concept of pilgrimage may be expanding beyond strictly religious destinations and traditions to also encompass dedication to nature and environmental conservation. Hut-to-hut walkers may evolve in some ways into environmental pilgrims. Partly in response of a spate of books and films, participation in long distance walking on our National Scenic Trails system (e.g. Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail) is now wildly popular. Similarly there is a huge resurgence of interest in pilgrimage, a metaphorical journey of spiritual significance. Pilgrimage routes are popular among adventure travellers and spiritual seekers. The Route of Santiago de Compestela, for example, is currently over-run with pilgrims. The Green Pilgrimage Network was developed to involve people from many religious traditions in minimizing the environmental impact of so many pilgrims.

There is also a revival of interest in rites of passage that mark the transition into adulthood and inculcate an understanding what it means to take on adult responsibilities. In the contemporary environmental arena, this has long taken the form of Outward Bound-type “solo” experiences and vision quests. Long hut-to-hut walks, working in a hut system, serving as a guide for youth groups, and trail maintenance work are all informal forms of rites of passage. Hut systems can provide infrastructure for youth and community groups experimenting with more formal rites of passage to promote environmental awareness and responsibility.

Possible elements of a national conversation:

This two part article — along with the website – are my way of helping to stimulate and inform a national conversation about the future of hut systems in America. To further this cause, I am preparing presentations to make to interested organizations. But in the end stimulating a meaningful national conversation about huts in America will require the initiative and participation of many people from many different sectors of society.

Following are thoughts on some potential elements of a set of discussions of the costs and benefits of creating more hut systems for Americans, and about supporting the ones we already have.

  • Presentations on and discussions of hut systems in a wide range of outdoor recreation and environmental clubs and organizations.
  • Discussions among federal and state land management agencies, nature conservancy groups, and private land-owners.
  • Discussions with tourism and Chambers of Commerce groups.
  • A series of meetings of the owners and managers of existing hut systems in the USA to discuss what they have learned, what they think, and best practices.
  • Formal study tours by American hut managers and government officials to Europe and New Zealand to learn from their experience.
  • Articles and reports in popular and professional publications discussing the challenges and opportunities inherent in expanding access to hut systems in USA.
  • Other??

Please send your thoughts and join the conversation!

Sam Demas,