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Hiking the Pyrenees Solo

Lugging a tent, sleeping bag, all your cookware, and enough dehydrated food for a multi-day excursion can be a grueling trial. I was thrilled to discover that Europeans have found a civilized way around this dilemma: backcountry mountain huts.

Mountain huts, or refuges, are spartan trailside accommodations that offer lodging and meals to trekkers, and the Pyrenees contain an abundant number of huts thoughtfully spaced within a few hours or a days’ walk from one another along established hiking routes. You can walk from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast if you have the time and tenacity, but the park trails are good places to start. The trails are generally well-marked by paint or rock cairns, and when I did stray I got back on track after consulting my map or another hiker.

Refuges are a friendly, welcoming option for solo travelers. Meals are served family-style at assigned tables, so no one has to nurse their blisters or sore muscles in stoic silence. Dinnertime gives everyone the chance to swap stories and route advice, and to meet other trekkers—mostly Europeans. It can often be a challenge to find a common language.

Hut sleeping quarters tend toward coziness—many of the unisex dormitories resemble rack-like storage space for humans—but you only need to bring a sleep sheet to tuck yourself in between the futon and warm wool blankets provided. The majority of refuges have potable water and basic bathrooms, and some have showers and hot water.

At €11-€15 per night, staying the night in a hut is relatively inexpensive. But food can be more costly than you’d expect. Depending on the hut’s location, supplies arrive by helicopter, 4-wheel drive vehicle or on the backs of the hard-working staff. Dinners cost between €13-€15, and consist of three or four filling courses. You can also buy extra treats like wine, candy bars, and hot chocolate. When I make reservations at a refuge, I always let them know that I’m vegetarian, and I have never had any problems getting good meatless alternatives. Continental breakfasts with deep bowls of coffee fuel you up at daybreak and generally run €5. And if you want a picnic lunch for the trail, you can request a lovely bagged sandwich with assorted goodies for €5-€8.

Hiking the Pyrenees: Port de Matera Pass

For More Info

The Rough Guide to the Pyrenees by Marc Dubin covers the entire Pyrenees region, with good overviews of hiking routes and refuge information in France, Spain, and Andorra.

Lonely Planet's Walking in Spain by Miles Roddis has an extensive section on the Spanish Pyrenees, including a 23-day traverse.

Lonely Planet's Walking in France by Sandra Bardwell, et al. contains information about walks and refuges in and around the Parc National des Pyrénées.

Refuges throughout Europe offer 50 percent discounts on lodging to members of reciprocating alpine clubs. The American Alpine Club, www.americanalpineclub.org, is the only such club in the U.S. Membership fees are $35-$75 per year. However, members need to purchase an international hut stamp (currently $75) in order to get refuge discounts, so it’s not cost-effective unless you plan to stay in many refuges during the year.

Spain: Parc National d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici lists 14 refuges in and on the periphery of the park.

Federació d’Entitats Excursionistes de Catalunya / Catalonian Federation of Rambling Clubs lists all staffed and unstaffed refuges in the Pyrenees (Spain, France and Andorra), as well as others throughout Europe. Go to www.feec.org (Catalan) and click on “Refugis” at top of page to see refuges listed by area.

Carros de Foc / Chariots of Fire, www.carrosdefoc.com (English), is a very popular summertime challenge race to visit nine refuges within the Aigüestortes park.

France: Fédération des Clubs Alpins Français / Federation of French Alpine Clubs (French), operates guarded and unguarded refuges in the Pyrenees and other parts of France; refuge photos.