How to Choose the Perfect Backcountry Hut

The summer solstice has come and gone.  That means winter is approaching (not fasting enough for some).  Now is when the KMG team starts dreaming of skiing deep powder in our terrain around Red Mountain Pass and Silverton, CO.   This is also the time to plan your hut trip for the 2018 and 2019 season.  The San Juan Mountains are filled with backcountry ski huts.  Huts range from small yurts with only the basic of necessities to large backcountry lodges complete with indoor showers and saunas and everything in between.  In total there are over two-dozen huts in our ski backyard.  So where does one begin?  There are so many questions!  How do you go about choosing which hut?  What is the ski terrain like adjacent to the hut?  What time of winter will provide the best skiing?  What time of winter will provide the safest avalanche conditions in our scary San Juan snowpack.  How do we maximize our ski time and minimize travel time for each day?  So many questions!! Where do we start!?!

KMG Lead Guide and Owner Josh Kling has been recreating in the wintery San Juans for close to 20 years and ski guiding in them since 2003.  He is also the author of the Silverton Off Piste Ski Atlas, the only published ski guidebook for San Juan Mountains.  He has found the following list of questions a great starting point for booking a hut.

san juan backcountry hutsHuts are supposed to make your trip comfortable and enjoyable.  Deciding how much room and what amenities your group needs is important.  Here, IFMGA Guide  and BCA Ambassador Joey Thompson instructs a Kling Mountain Guides hut based AIARE Level 2 avalanche course on Red Mountain Pass at the Addie S Cabin.

 1. Where do you want to go in general? That is probably the first question to ask?  Are you going to Roger’s Pass in Canada? Or are you going to the San Juan Mountain’s of CO?  If you are traveling from within the continental US, it can be easier to stick within our borders.  Incorporate one new thing at a time.  IE, it’s way easier to plan a hut trip that does not involve international travel and flying with ski gear, especially an avalanche float packs

2. How many people will be in the group? This is typically where we start when booking a hut trip for folks with Kling Mountain Guides.  Some of the huts in our terrain can only hold six skiers.  Other huts can sleep over 20.  There is no sense in booking (and paying for) a hut that sleeps 18, if you only have 4 people in your group.  On the same note, if you have a group of 15, you’ll want to make sure there is ample room for everybody and all their ski gear.

3. What is everybody’s downhill ski ability? This is purely a technical downhill ski skill question and does not take uphill or avalanche terrain assessment into account. Different huts have access to different levels of skiing terrain.  Some of the ski huts in the San Juan Mountains are phenomenal for the newer backcountry powder skier or snowboarder.  Other huts have limited beginner level terrain and are better suited to more advanced skiers.

san juan back country hutsInside the Mount Belle Cabin on Red Mountain Pass.  Photo copy write Brett Davis.
San juan backcountry huts
The bunk room at the Mountain Belle hut on Red Mountain hut.  This is a great hut for your first hut trip.
san juan backcountry huts
The terrain at the Chatanooga Curve adjacent to the Artist Cabin and within close proximity and a great linkup tour from the Addie S Cabin, both on Red Mountain Pass.


Other huts have a great mix of both beginner and advanced skiing terrain.  Make sure you do an honest assessment of everybody’s ability.  The last thing you want is for group dynamics and human factors to put anybody into an uncomfortable situation.  This can happen in either direction.  IE, you do not want the more aggressive folks convincing the group to travel into advanced skiing terrain if other members of the group are not capable.  On the flip side, it’s a bummer when the snow and conditions allow for some more technical and advanced skiing, but somebody in the group is holding everybody back. There is a great article on the Backcountry Access website discussing human factors here.

san juan backcountry huts

IFMGA Guide and BCA Ambassador Jed Porter discussing terrain options at the top of the Chatanooga Beluga during a hut based AIARE Level 2 course on Red Mountain Pass with Kling Mountain Guides.

4. What is everybody’s uphill ability/ physical fitness? This is another question you want to be honest about to the group.  There are numerous options in the San Juan Mountains, let alone all of Colorado for huts.   Some of these require short non-technical and not exposed tours to access, like the Mount. Belle hut  located just east of Red Mountain Pass and adjacent to US Basin.  Other huts require approaches that can be exposed to significant avalanche hazard, such as the OPUS hut  located on Ophir Pass, west of Red Mountain Pass and east of the town of Ophir. Still others are drive-to-ski-from such as the Addie S Cabin, located  at 10,860 ft on the east side of Red Mountain Pass  In my experience having done hundreds of nights at numerous huts over the past 20 years is most skiers and riders love the touring aspect (the hiking/ cardio/ “earing your turns” mentality) with awesome skiing and great snow.  However, they are not as keen on the hike in with a huge pack.  Questions come up like: “ Do I bring my favorite ski pack AND a big pack to hike in with?”  “Do I just bring my larger pack that I don’t like to ski with as much, but carry’s everything?” “Should our group tour in with a normal 30 liter ski pack but drag a sled with group gear??”

 5. What type of terrain do you want to ski? IE Big open bowls above tree line?  Tree runs? “Mini-Golf” laps?  High millage tours?  Different huts lend themselves to different kinds of skiing.  Make sure that when you start researching your hut, you look at what type of skiing is adjacent to the hut.  Two great resource for this are as well as Google Earth.  Between Caltopo and Google Earth you should be able to get a really good idea of the type of terrain adjacent to the huts.  The slope shading tool on Caltopo is especially useful.   If you have the time, consider building a run list on what and where you plan on skiing.  What are you options if it’s stable and blower?  What are you options if it’s super sketchy out?

san juan backcountry hutsA screen shot of the terrain adjacent to the OPUS hut on Ophir Pass. Slope shading helps in assessing terrain, both in regards to pitch as well as features (IE a bowl, basin, ridge, etc)

Additionally I recommend looking into what guidebooks are available for the area.  A well written guide book should give you a wealth of information on the terrain in that area.  The third edition of the Silverton Off Piste Ski Atlas (that I authored) is coming out this fall.  The book has a wealth of information as well as high resolution areal photos of terrain adjacent to multiple Red Mountain Pass huts such as: OPUS hut (new for the 3rd edition), Addie S Cabin, Artist Cabin, Mountain Belle Hut, and Aladin’s Lamp (new for 3rd edition).  Crack a beverage of your choice and spend some quality internet time looking at the terrain around the hut

6. Lastly…Limit yourself. Limit yourself on the above questions.  Consider each of the above questions as an “adjustable dial.”  When you adjust one dial, all the others change.  So…don’t adjust too many dials at once!  Pick one or maybe two of the above and begin your search there.

san juan backcountry huts
 Terrain adjacent to the Mount Belle Cabin and Addie S Cabin on Red Mountain Pass. Both cabins are available through

Written by Josh Kling.

Josh Kling is a Coordinator of the Outdoor Pursuits Program at Fort Lewis College and the Owner / Lead Guide for Kling Mountain Guides, LLC.   He is an AMGA Certified Alpine & Rock Guide, AMGA Assistant Ski Guide, AIARE Course Leader.

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