Nothing beats coming in from skiing to meet a blazing fire and a warm shelter.
Basing your skiing out of backcountry huts and yurts mean you can log day after day of pristine backcountry touring and cap them off with cozy nights with an actual roof over your head.
You can hole up in a five-star resort in pretty much any mountain town; you can also skin into the backcountry with nothing but your sleeping bag and a candle to keep you warm in an ice cave you dug yourself. Both are legitimate ways to spend the night in the snow, but primitive shelters sit in that sweet pocket between comfort and roughing it. It’s the security, warmth, and comfort of being inside with the adventurous, connected feel you get from being immersed in your environment.
While huts are basically cabins, some with gas and running water, some with little more than a roof and four walls, yurts might feel like a stranger danger to the uninitiated. A yurt is a circular semi-permanent lodge built on a wooden platform. Thick canvas is stretched over a wooden frame, creating a tent-esque structure that can stand up to hard-hitting storms. A midnight blizzard or brutal cold front might wake you up, but only long enough to shove another log into the stove and think about how bad it would suck to be in a tent.
Some yurts have gas lamps, and the really fancy ones have photovoltaic electricity, but keep your headlamp handy in case you have to make an outhouse run. Running water is rare, so be prepared to boil snow for drinking and cleaning water. Wood-burning stoves are the norm for heat and cooking as well as melting snow for drinking and cleaning water.
Many mountain ranges host a system of yurts and huts. Plan it right and you can put together a multi-day, hut-hopping tour that will maximize your powder time. Wake up on the mountain, strap on your skis or snowshoes, and track to the next sleeping hut with enough time to lay down lines as you find them.
Photo Credit: Danielle Mariott
A lot of backcountry shelters rely on volunteers or time-strapped civil servants for upkeep so campsite rules apply. Leave the place better than you found it. If you build a fire (and you will), chop firewood for the next group. Anything you bring in should go out with you. Don’t leave food (even crumbs) behind. You might think leaving those granola bars behind will lighten your pack and be a good treat for whoever comes next, but you’re just attracting rodents. It’s common for one side of the shelter’s exterior to be designated as the clean side. This is where you’ll gather snow to melt for drinking water. The other side is for discarding dishwater. If it’s not clearly delineated, use your context clues and never, ever go to the bathroom outside of designated areas. Yellow snow isn’t so easy to spot under a few inches of fresh snow, and you don’t want someone using it to make your morning coffee.
Some huts and yurts operate as an open house like a backcountry hostel: you pay for a bunk, but everyone else staying in the shelter might be a new face (at first anyway)—bring your friend-making skills, or if you don’t have any of those, a bit of whiskey to share.
Primitive shelters are run by public organizations like the United States Forest Service, state parks, and civic recreation offices. Some are overseen by universities, and others are owned by private guide companies (these sometimes offer catering and portering options if you’re up for pampering). Reserve early—they fill up fast; many require a months-in-advance reservations or lotteries to secure a spot.
Here are a handful of hut and yurt systems around the country to get you started on your search.
Where: North of Telluride, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains, spanning a 30-mile route through Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison, and Manti La Sal National Forests.
Lodging: Five eight-person huts equipped with propane cooking stove and lantern, wood stove, and enough cookware to melt water and build simple meals. $30 per night will get you a bunk in these shared huts.
Difficulty: Three-mile to nine-and-a-half-mile legs. Largest single-day ascent is 2,520 feet. Suitable for all backcountry-ski skill levels.
Reservations: Get availability and more information from San Juan Huts here.
Where: The Uinta Mountains, east of Park City, Utah and south of Evanston, Wyoming.
Lodging: Five yurts with bunks for four to eight skiers. Four are equipped with propane heaters.
Difficulty: Yurts are accessible from between one-and-half miles to eight miles from the trailhead. Most trails are groomed and great for Nordic skiing. Avalanche exposure is minimal until Boundry Creek yurt, which provides access to good backcountry skiing.
Reservations: Bear River yurts are managed by the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance and reservations are handled by the Evanston Recreation Center. Each yurt can be rented out in its entirety for $50 per night on weekdays and $75 per night on weekends and holidays. Information about each yurt can be found here.
Where: Along the Appalachian Range, from Virginia to Maine.
Lodging: Bunkhouses, cabins, and huts. There’s a huge variety from rustic backcountry huts to fully equipped cabins with hot water, saunas, and home-cooked meals.
Difficulty: All skill levels, depending on location.
Reservations: Through the Appalachian Mountain Club. Membership is not required. Price varies by location.
Where: Throughout the Colorado Rockies.
Lodging: 34 backcountry huts and cabins. Most are equipped with wood-burning stoves or propane heaters. Rental fees vary.
Difficulty: Large variety of skill levels depending on location.
Reservations: Booking info and information on each hut or cabin can be found here.
Where: Above the Yosemite Valley.
Difficulty: All skill levels. Avalanche exposure is minimal on trails, but take safety equipment with you if you want to head off the trail.
Reservations: Guided trips to Glacier Point cost $350 per person for one night and $550 for two nights. Self-guided tours are $120.50 per night. Start your reservations for Glacier Point here.
Ostrander runs $55 per person per weekend night with a discount for Yosemite Conservancy members. Ostrander only takes reservations on a lottery system which must be entered by 5pm MT November 20th. Enter here and best of luck.
Where: The Alpine Club of Canada operates cabins, lodges, and huts throughout Canada and into northern New York.
Lodging: Large variety ranging from alpine huts to full-service lodges. Prices and accommodations vary. Check out the Alpine Club’s lodging list here.
Difficulty: Anything from expert mountaineering skiing to Nordic trails depending on location.
Reservations: Reservations can be made here. Alpine Club of Canada members get early booking rights.
Where: Throughout Montana
Lodging: Variety of yurts, cabins, and semi-permanent tents. See all the huts here.
Difficulty: Wide variety from beginner to advanced, depending on location.
Reservations: The Montana Backcountry Alliance lists yurt and hut options for most of Montana. Visit their site for information on several guide companies and hut rentals.
Where: Teton Range between Idaho and Wyoming
Lodging: Four eight-person yurts equipped with complete kitchens, propane cooking stoves, propane lanterns, and wood-burning stoves. Both guided, catered tours and self-guided tours are available.
Difficulty: Each yurt is located approximately four miles into the backcountry with elevations gains of between 1,800 and 2,200 feet.
Reservations: Price varies by length and guide/catering options. Head here for more info.
Since getting to any yurt or hut in the winter means backcountry travel by ski, splitboard, or snowshoe, you will most likely be traveling in avalanche country. Don’t head out unless you have the right safety gear: a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. Be trained on how to use your gear, and always check conditions before you go.