Category Archives: Hut systems

Update on Spearhead Huts Construction

Spearhead Huts Construction Begins!

by Sam Demas based on information from Spearhead Huts website

The Alpine Club of Canada and the British Columbia Mountaineering Club have broken groundAlpine Club of Canada - Claire and Kees  on the Kees and Claire hut, the first of three huts in three huts planned for the Spearhead Traverse.  Named after a young couple who perished in a collapsed snow cave they built for shelter while on the Wapti Traverse in 2006.                                                                 

The Spearhead Huts August 25, 2017 blog update provides some great photos of the intense volunteer effort undertake  to put in the foundation for the hut.  For an broad overview of the plan for the Spearhead Traverse, see the FAQ and other portions of their web page.

When completed this three hut traverse will offer safer access to the remarkable ski terrain that claimed the young lives of Kees and Claire.

Spearhead Huts Construction

Foundation of Claire Kees Hut emerges August 2017.  Photo Courtesy Spearhead Traverse Huts

Spearhead Huts Construction

Working fast on concrete pour between helicopter deliveries of concrete. Photo courtesy Spearhead Huts.

Alaska Huts

Alaska huts and trails and economic development

“Could the lure of trails salvage Alaska’s economy?”

article by Krista Langlois in High Country News (June 26,2017):

Summary  below with link to full article


This article is highly recommended to anyone interested in huts and trails and their potential for economic development.  Following is a brief summary:

The subtitle of this piece summarizes Langlois’ arena of exploration: A trial along the Trans-Alaska pipeline could be the start of a booming recreation economy. Krista interviews people on all sides of this question, but is clearly interested in the potential of Alaska’s greatest asset — its sublime landscape and huge tracts of magnificent wilderness — as a desperately needed driver of economic development.  

The economy of Alaska is on the ropes: timber jobs have decreased by 80%, oils production has dropped by 76% since 1989, the state is doing everything it can to prop up fishing and mining, but is now facing a $4 billion budget deficit.  Governor Bill Walker said in 2016 “We have reached a point in our state’s history that we need to be looking beyond oil.”  

The specific proposal Langlois explores is the development of an 800 mile trail that parallels the Trans-Pacific pipeline.  She outlines the arguments pro and con, provides interesting character sketches some of the advocates and opponents of the trail, and provides valuable context in comparing the state of trail development in Alaska compared with that in the lower 48 states.  The bottom line is that while Alaska has unsurpassed wilderness beauty, it has relatively little infrastructure to attract outdoor enthusiasts.

She hones in on the fact that the rugged wilderness of Alaska is beyond the capabilities of most people, and that the development of hut systems is one way of making these wonders accessible to the vast majority of “people in the middle” who appreciate and long for contact with wild but are simply  not up to the job of backpacking in Alaska.  She interviews Tom Callahan of Alaska Huts Association, and cites relevant economic development studies and initiatives including the New Zealand hut system and Great Walks, the AMC Hut System, and Adventure Cycling, and Fruita Colorado to name a few.  

But don’t settle for my summary: its well worth reading the entire article.

American Alpine Club

American Alpine Club Hut System

The American Alpine Club’s “Hut System”

While staying at the American Alpine Club’s (AAC) Grand Teton Climbers Ranch I was intrigued by a sign indicating that it is part of the AAC Hut System.

It turns out the AAC has borrowed the term “hut system” (see my article What is a Hut? Towards a definition)  for a more common definition) to describe its system of five lodging camps in USA.  I talked with Jesse Billingham, Lodging Director of AAC, to learn more about this accommodations network.  It turns out that AAC has developed four of these five properties in the past five years or so and is considering opening more in future.   As with the original Climbers Ranch in the Grand Tetonsthe other four lodgings are small non-profit operations. Some operate in the black and others in the red; it varies from year to year.  The AAC does not view them as a revenue stream, but hopes they don’t lose money.  

The mission of all these lodging enterprises includes:

  • providing affordable accommodations for climbers at iconic climbing locations,
  • community building through creation of a cultural hub for climbers,
  • education, and
  • environmental conservation.

To these ends each one provides lodging, a central dining pavilion, one (or two) communal fire pit (rather than many dispersed gathering spots), and education and volunteer service programs, such as the AAC “Crag and Classics” series of weekend events and clinics.

I was so impressed by the mission and thoughtful design of the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch, established in 1970, that I decided to look online at the others.  These lodgings are open to AAC members and to non-members. Reservations can be made online at the link below.

These are good examples of an organization developing lodgings to build community for their members and support nature-based activities.  Following is a very brief listing of the other for AAC lodgings, each of which is described in more detail on their website.

  • Snowbird Hut (Alaska), sleeping 6-12, this is a single hut that can be linked with two huts of the Alaska Mountaineering Club to form the Bombers Traverse.  Open year-round, this remote shelter is for back country skiiers, climbers, and hikers.  There is a link to the history of the hut on the AAC website.
  • Hueco Rock Ranch (near El Paso, TX).  Established about 2012, this ranch includes a house with rooms for rent, campsites, and space for parking travel vehicles.
  • New River Gorge Campground (Lansing, WV) was established in 2014 and has 40 campsites, a shower house, and two communal fire rings.
  • Gunks Campground (officially: Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground, New Paltz, NY) was established in partnership with Mohonk Preserve and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.  It has 26 drive-in campsites and 24 walk-in sites.
Vermont Huts Association Logo

Vermont Huts Association News

The Vermont Huts Association is preparing to build its first hut as part of an emerging state-wide network linking existing huts.  They report that they are exploring viable sites in Green Mountain National Forest to host a year-round facility capable of serving various outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, and snowshoers.

They also note that the IRS just granted them their official status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.


Betty Bear, 10th Mountain Division Huts, hut2hut

Huts on U.S. Forest Service Lands: a summary

Huts on US Forest Service Lands

by Sam Demas

Huts U.S. Forest Service Lands.  Recently I was asked what precedents exist for permitting huts on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands.  Digging through my publications and notes, I compiled this summary.   As a highly decentralized agency this information is hard to obtain.  So I am sharing this for the benefit of USFS personnel interested in how the agency handles hut permits, and for others.

USFS permits more huts than any other public land management agency.  Altogether 10 of the17 U.S. hut systems I have identified (see my definition of a hut system) currently have permits to operate on U.S Forest Service lands.

Following is a list of the hut systems permitted by USFS with brief notes about each.  Some are issued seasonal permits and the structures must be removed, while others are essentially permanent structures.  Some of these huts systems are wholly located on USFS lands and others only partly.  All are fairly rustic in their construction and are required to comply with environmental and other operational standards and regulations of the USFS, state, county and local governments.  More information on most of these hut systems is available in my post “Hut-to-Hut in the USA: Situation and Outlook” and and operational profiles.
1. Southwest Nordic Center (near Taos, NM).  Operates five yurts in ski season and one in summer.  Don’t know if they are allowed to keep the other four up all summer.
2. Sun Valley Trekking (ID). Operate two yurts year-round and four in ski season.  Don’t know if they are allowed to keep the other four up all summer.
3. Rendezvous Huts, (WA).  Began operations in 1982 and at first had to take huts down in summer.  At some point USFS issued permit allowing them to stay up year-round and they operate year-round.
4. Cascade Huts (OR).  Operates 5 huts in summer and three in winter.  They have to move the huts around seasonally.  They are up for permit renewal and are making a pitch for being able to leave huts in place.
5. Wallowa Alpine Huts.  I don’t know anything beyond what is on their web site.
6. Appalachian Mountain Club Hut System.  Eight huts, the first of which was built in 1888, are  located in a national forest in alpine zone, the AMC huts are permitted as permanent structures but most of them operate only in summer.
8. San Juan Huts (CO).  Their initial permits was for seasonal structures that were moved off the land each year; they are now allowed to keep their huts up year-round.
9. Summit Huts (CO).  They operate four huts on USFS land and I believe have been permitted to construct another.  I believe they operate year round.
10. Three Sisters Back Country (OR) . Operates two yurts for nordic ski traverse and is required to move their structures seasonally, and one yurt for winter skiing.

What has the experience of USFS been in issuing these permits over the past 35 years?  No one has systematically analyzed the results.  

When I have asked about this topic at USFS headquarters in Washington, DC, they say the data and experience resides in the regional districts and hasn’t been systematically reviewed across districts.  From what I can gather, no hut system permit has ever been revoked by USFS, but I can’t be certain about that.

It seems that an unofficial USFS practice is to sometimes initially issue permits for temporary, seasonal structures and operations.  The District then monitors the performance on a set of criteria laid out in the permitting document.  If there are no problems and if conditions are determined to be favorable, permits are later converted to allow for permanent location (within the duration of the permits, which generally range from 5 – 10 years) and/or for year-round operation.

When I talk with USFS District Rangers they say that the huts they permit are well designed and operated, and  that they are a useful amenity that does not cause them problems.

Mike Kenealy of the White River National Forest (CO) probably has more experience than anyone else in the USFS in permitting and monitoring huts and yurts.  He speaks frankly and knowledgeably about the issues around permitting huts and about working with hut operators.  In our phone conversation, his bottom line was essentially that huts and yurts are a useful amenity, that the operators are responsible and responsive, and huts and yurts are among the least of his problems in managing the many uses people want to make of Forest Service lands.

San Juan Huts (CO)

However, since the USFS has no policy on huts and does not formally recognize huts as a category in their Recreational Opportunity Spectrum, and because no research has been done on the environmental impact of huts, most Forest Service personnel are understandably reluctant to comment beyond their local experience.

When I talk with hut operators they say their USFS contacts are good folks who are very cooperative and understanding.  But they say the USFS Rangers they work with are over-worked and often uncertain — in the absence of any USFS hut-specific policy or practice guidelines — how far they can go in evolving their permitting restrictions based on their local experience and judgement.

May this summary of huts on USFS lands help start and inform an overdue conversation about what role huts are playing in protecting USFS service lands while making them accessible for environmentally responsible recreation.

What is the Environmental Impact of Huts? Lets find out!

by Sam Demas, July 2017

Dear readers,

I seek advice! How do we best advance research to assess the environmental impact of huts in comparison with other forms of overnight visitations in the front and back country?  This is the research gap we need to fill to help determine what, if any, environmental protection role huts might play in the nation’s recreational opportunity spectrum.  

The common wisdom is that huts/yurts limit the environmental impact of overnight visitations in the wild by concentrating use in a limited footprint and in a structure carefully sited and designed to minimize environmental impacts. Is this truism true?  Are huts effective in managing environmental impacts in areas of high density overnight use?  

Surprisingly, there is no recreational ecology research in USA to prove or disprove this assertion in relation to huts.   With the growth of hut systems in the USA and increasing pressure for overnight visitations, and with growth of hut systems in the USA, we need additional empirical data to guide us in conducting evidence-based evaluation of proposals for new hut systems.    

Appalachian Trail Shelter. It’s not uncommon for a shelter to have an area of disturbance in front of it that’s equivalent to a single medium to large campsite. Photo courtesy Dr. Jeff Marion

Research around the periphery of this fundamental question has  already been done.  In particular, Dr. Jeffrey Marion (USGS and Virginia Tech Field Station), a leading recreational ecologist, has studied the factors involved in designing and managing campsites to minimize environmental damage. He has also assessed the environmental impact of dispersed and designated camping by backpackers.  His findings show that a containment strategy effectively minimizes aggregate impact by restricting camping to a small number of designated expansion-resistant campsites.  Marion and his colleagues are currently gauging visitor impacts on the Appalachian Trail to enhance sustainability and improve visitor experiences.  This includes assessment of the condition of shelter and campground sites, many of which are heavily overused on the AT.  A prior study in Great Smoky Mountains National Park showed that camping shelters accommodated greater numbers of campers with substantially less resource impact than campers using traditional campsites.

Tent platform. The construction of tent platforms at many major alpine campsites in the Eastern Arthur Range in Tasmania has successfully focused camping pressure and so constrained or limited impacts – Photo Courtesy Dr. Grant Dixon, Tasmania

 The missing piece is research to extend this analysis to study the environmental impact of huts and yurts, and then to compare these with data from other options for overnight accommodations, e.g. dispersed and designated camping, and shelters.

To this end, I’ve written two grant proposals.  The first ($35,000) is with Dr. Marion and Dr. Robert Manning (Professor Emeritus, U of Vermont) to federal land management agencies for a two-year study. This would provide a comparative assessment of environmental impacts and user experience of back-country and front-country camping, shelters, and huts/yurts.   The methodology will include an international literature review, recreational ecology field studies, and assessing the experience of land managers and hut operators.  The second proposal ($4,000), submitted collaboratively with hut folks in the Northeast ,sought to identify best practices in environmental management for hut systems.

Neither proposal was funded.  The federal land management agencies are under siege, facing myriad challenges.  I need help identifying a foundation or other funding entity that might support this research.

Feeling stuck, but not discouraged, I appeal to you for assistance and/or suggestions:

  • who should we be partnering with?
  • what philanthropists, foundations and granting agencies should we approach?
  • should we undertake a crowdfunding campaign?  Anyone willing to help with this?
  • should we be taking a fundamentally different approach?

Please contact me or leave comments below.

With faith in science,

Sam Demas

July 2017


Huts & Trails: Programs at the International Trails Symposium

You can’t have huts without trails.  Surprisingly there is no communication at a national level in USA between the huts and trails communities.   Next month a conversation will begin at the International Trails Symposium (ITS).

The ITS is a rich mix of hikers, operators of many of the major trail systems in the world, federal and state land managers, and people interested in all aspects of trail planning, building, and operations. It turns out most of these folks don’t know much about hut systems, but they are curious to learn more about accommodation systems for long-distance human-powered travelers.

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Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts: book review part 1

Book Review by Sam Demas:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part one of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

With its highly-organized system of 1,000 backcountry huts New Zealand (NZ) — about the same size (area and population) as Oregon — is the hut capital of the world.  By comparison, the USA has about 110 huts operating within 17 different hut-to-hut systems; Switzerland and Norway each have about 500 huts.  Every nation’s approach to outdoor recreation — including how its citizens organize overnight stays in the wild — is based on local causes and conditions such as geography, size of the country, climate, terrain, history, economics, politics, and cultural values.  Shelter from the Storm is a richly illustrated, well-researched history of the causes and conditions that created NZ’s unique hut culture, and a beautiful tribute to the huts themselves.

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Shelter from the Storm – Introduction to a Book About History of New Zealand Huts

Below is a reprint of the “Introduction” to the book: 

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

Embedded below is the 14 page, beautifully illustrated “Introduction”, by Shaun Barnett, to the remarkable book Shelter from the Storm. In it he provides an overview of the benefits, history, and architecture of New Zealand huts. His “Introduction” gives the reader a feel for the book as a whole. For more on this book, see my two part book review of Shelter from the Storm click here for: part 1 and part 2. Continue reading

Shelter from the Storm: book review part two

Book review continued:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part two of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

For part one of this review click here.  Following are some fascinating themes and stories that are skillfully elaborated in Shelter from the Storm, about New Zealand Backcountry Huts.

This book tells the story of how a geographically remote island nation came to create a robust international outdoor culture, and how a disparate collection of huts built for other purposes – I like the phrase infrastructure lying in wait — came to form the backbone of the world’s largest hut system. Continue reading