Refuges began as rough survival shelters built by people travelling in the mountains, and have evolved into full-scale constructions with all mod cons. Traditionally, accommodation was in communal dormitories but increasingly refuges offer individual rooms and of course the accent is sustainability. The style, however, remains rustic; you will not find luxury in a refuge and the prices reflect this.
Some refuges are so famous and popular that they need to be booked months in advance, like the Nid d’Aigle (Eagle’s Nest) on the Mont Blanc in Haute-Savoie. Out of season, although availability is generally no problem, it is best to ring ahead and check that the refuge is open.
The Fédération Française des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne (FFCAM) – aka the Club Alpin Français (CAF) – runs around 150 refuges, mainly in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but other organisations and even private individuals run refuges. You can ring the relevant tourist office and ask for information, or track them down online using websites like www.refuges.info (a non-official but very comprehensive listing). Before setting out, as well as ensuring your destination is open, check exactly what is provided because not all refuges offer meals.
There are also cabanes-non-gardées – which have no staff in residence. Staying there is a matter of trust. Some are open and others are locked, meaning you have to ask for the key at the mairie/tourist office/national park information desk. Each one has slightly different rules.
Generally, they are small huts containing a table, a couple of benches, some mattresses which can be put down on the floor and blankets. You may find firewood, and other people may have left candles or matches. You will need to bring your own food, and a trowel for digging holes outside behind a bush: they generally do not have lavatories or showers, although most have some form of running water. Prices start at around €5 for a night.
The spirit of a mountain refuge is convivial; a place where hikers and others can meet, exchange experiences and tips. Refuges are designed to offer shelter to all-comers so it is not possible to reserve a cabane for yourself or your party. If other people turn up, you have to let them in. This is part of the experience however; many cabanes have a guest book in which people write about their journeys, and leave tips and advice on where to find firewood etc.
Cabanes are a wonderful resource if you truly want to get away from it all. Some are better maintained than others, and sadly not everyone leaves them as clean as they found them, but the further away from the road you go, the less likely you are to encounter people only looking for an isolated place to party (which is frowned upon but does happen).
Refuges with gardiens tend to be much more comfortable. The Refuge des Prés in Contamines-Montjoie, for example, can accommodate 30 people and has a restaurant. Electricity is powered by solar panels, and the entire building has been renovated to a high standard. Access is via a 2 hour 25 minute walk from Contamines, or you can take the Signal cable car and only walk for 1h 30 minutes. Prices for one night with a meal are €70 for adults and €49 for children.
The Refuge du Roc de la Pêche in Pralognan-la- Vanoise in Savoie is perfect for families with children, as access it an easy 40 minute walk (climbing 150 metres) from the car park at Pont de la Pêche. It has 60 beds split into 12 rooms, as well as a gîte if you want more privacy.
There is a single menu for everyone, served each evening at 7pm. There are lots of activities in the area and it also has a billiard table, table football, books and board games to use, plus a spa containing a hammam, a jacuzzi and a sauna. Prices for food and lodging are €68 for adults and €48 for children.