Hut to Hut in the Tyrol - A Family Adventure
Walking with kids doesn't have to mean thinking small. Keri Wallace finds the perfect child-friendly three-day objective in Austria's stunning Ötztal alps.
For my husband Ben and I, summer holidays had always been about big mountains, big routes and big days. Today there are two small people in the mix and the objectives have become distinctly smaller too - even as the effort required has increased.
As the children get older, we've been exploring how we might start edging back towards the kind of adventure trips that we once knew and loved. Certainly there's no syllabus showing how to encourage your children into climbing, mountaineering or trekking. And is that even the right thing to do? Should we push them along; teach them the value of striving and suffering? Should we coerce them gently and keep our fingers crossed, or do we just let them follow their own path (which will likely be very different from our own)? Of course, there is no right answer and every family and child is different.
With this in mind, we decided to take our daughters (ages 5 and 7) on a mini hut-to-hut hiking tour in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria this summer. We were aiming for them to enjoy the journey as much as us, and ideally to set the stage for bigger adventures in the mountains, for years to come (no pressure).
Children have less stamina than adults and how much they can manage varies with age. Before planning a route, it's important to know what they can do
The Tyrol (Ötztal region)
The Tyrol offers some 24,000km of marked hiking trails, and has a fantastic network of huts and uplift, making it the perfect destination for outdoor families with a range of sporting interests.
We based ourselves in the Ötztal Valley on account of its access to a number of different areas and possible easier hikes for younger children - namely plenty of uplift and mountains of 2000-3000m.
The Ötztal tourist board is excellent and produces a number of informative brochures (actually little guidebooks), including Hut Hiking and a useful Adventure Guide (both available in English from the Tourist Office, gondola stations and campsites etc). These include guide recommendations and route ideas.
The Austrian Alpine Club runs a number of 'family-friendly huts' in the region. These are located on accessible trails (suggested 'tours' are graded according to age) and are suitable for children to play outside safely. They offer family-oriented hospitality with child-friendly meals. They should also have some games, books and high-chairs etc. Many will also have private family rooms that can be booked in advance.
We particularly liked the Ötztal Hiking Pass, a leaflet available from the Tourist Office which you stamp with each huts' unique rubber stamp, and collect huts as you go (app also available). Our children loved stamping the card and later presenting it at the Tourist Office to receive their Bronze Ötztal Hiking Badge (a pin badge of an eagle) for their efforts.
The Ötztal Valley has also has tons of great swimming pools and lakes, mountain biking and child-friendly climbing venues, as well as playparks – so there is plenty to do on non-hiking days. It's worth looking into the Ötztal Inside Summer Card (known locally as the 'Summer Card'). This is different from the Ötztal Inside Card which comes automatically with most accommodation bookings. The Summer Card is a separate package that covers mountain uplift, admission to swimming pools, bathing lakes, museums etc. It also covers the very efficient local bus service, frequently linking all the neighbouring alpine villages.
We had planned a three-day tour starting in the beautiful Alpine village of Kühtai and finishing in nearby St Sigmund in Sellrain, just 8km down the road.
Day one began by taking the Drei Seen Bahn chairlift to 2409m (cost covered by the Summer Pass). Immediately, the views were splendid as we alighted close to the Oberer Plenderlesee lake, then passed the Unterer Plenderlesee on the way downhill to the Drei-Seen-Hütte (2311m). A downhill start might sound a bit illogical but actually it set a nice tone for the trip, as it meant we weren't instantly slogging uphill and the kids could enjoy the high mountain environment, running and bounding down to their first hut of the tour. Although we didn't stay at the Drei-Seen-Hütte, the guardian was more than happy for the girls to stamp their Oztal Hiking Pass and be on their way.
A slightly arduous section followed as the wide access road climbed to the dam of Speichter Finstertal reservoir. The view that greets you here makes the climb worth the effort though. We followed the flat trail along the shore of the emerald blue-green lake, surrounded by high peaks such as the Pockkogel, Kraspesspitze and 3016m Sulzkogel. Once we reached its southern tip, the climbing began in earnest as the route became steep and a bit scrambly (part of the 146/Gubener Weg).
Some kind passers-by warned us about the terrain, expressing concern for the little ones. Thankfully, we felt confident in what the children were capable of and had seen them over this kind of terrain many times. The ascent ahead was 425m and the trail well waymarked with red and white paint. We enjoyed an atmospheric climb in swirling cloud and changeable visibility. It was fantastic for echoes (the haunting voice from Disney's Frozen worked particularly well!). A few simple rock steps later saw us arrive on the col of Finstertaler Sharte at 2777m. Feeling a bit chilly we donned insulated jackets and dropped a few metres down the other side for lunch.
The view looking south over the Weites Kar and down to the valley is spectacular: A rocky high-alpine landscape of outcrops and small lakes, turning to grass and cows as you lose height. Our staple diet of cheese, bread and 'mountain sausage' gave us the extra energy we needed to drop many hard-earned meters to the Schweinfurter Hütte (2034m) - but only after a good chunk of 'bug time' spent chasing grasshoppers.
Time for our second hut-stamp. The Schweinfurter Hütte would be our first experience of sleeping in a communal bedroom with the children. In truth, it didn't go well, as our eldest repeatedly fought and lost her battle with her tangled sleeping bag liner and may have woken some slumbering Austrians (sorry!). But the evening of traditional food and family card-games was a real highlight – with us still buzzing from having made it there. The off-grid existence of hut-life made for a nice change as phones had no signal or Wifi.
This hut can actually be reached by a vehicle track and it is possible to descend from here, bailing to Niederthal if required.
Day two would be a short one but mostly uphill, so we took our time in the morning, following the stunning trail through the alpine pasture, tentatively stroking baby cows and marvelling at the opaque glacial river until our upward turn. Here the route climbed steadily at first but became steep in the final pull up to the Gleirschjochl (2751m). The dramatic rocky spine linking Zwieselbacher Grieskogel summit to the Gleirscher Fernerkogel (3189) was breath-taking and the perfect backdrop for (many) sweetie stops along the way. We had lunch at the col, happy in the knowledge that we had climbed 700m and that the hut would soon be visible below.
It is possible to summit the Gleirscher Roskogel from here (2994m) but this would be a further 210m of ascent and 2.5km (total out-n-back). We chose to continue our route down to the Pforzheimer Hütte.
The first section of the descent is a bit loose on gravelly mud, and tricky for tiring wee legs. But as the gradient eases, the trail becomes a straightforward one, winding down to the hut at 2310m. On the way down we spotted a baby marmot and sat a while as he gained confidence, watching him creep out of his burrow and explore the warm boulders. This was apparently the kids' favourite moment of the holiday and we had to go and buy a cuddly memento once we got back to town.
The Pforzheimer Hütte is well set-up for children, with a 'Familien wilkommen!' sign on the door. The girls relaxed in hammocks outside while we enjoyed a Kaiserschmarrn (Austrian Scrambled Pancake) and a cheeky beer in the sun. Maybe these smaller objectives might be alright after all!
On this occasion, we were able to sleep in a smaller room with no other occupants and we largely resolved the liner wrestling. So after a good sleep and simple hut breakfast we took the trail down into the Gleirschtal valley, where we picked up the access road back to St Sigmund in Sellrain. A pretty boring trail, on first inspection, turned out to be a perfect last day. The track leads past a pretty cabin café then through a glacially sculpted landscape of open fields and forested hillsides, scattered with ponies of all colours (yet another favourite moment for the girls). The trail terminates in a lovely wooden adventure playground (the St Sigmund in Sellrain Fuchsspielplatz) near the Gleirschalm Hut. The perfect end to a perfect hiking experiment!
From here it is possible to catch the bus the short distance back to Kühtai (cost covered by the Summer Pass). Note that the bus timetable can be viewed online but is also available in the Pforzheimer Hütte.
The overall tour was 22.5km and 1300m ascent over three days.
Hut Hikes with Kids - Top Tips
Some children will walk and some will not and there's often not a lot you can do about it! A hiking trip characterised by whining and badgering isn't much fun for the parents or the children – so here are some ideas that may or may not work for you.
Choose the right tour - Children often have less stamina than adults and how much they can manage also varies significantly with age. Before you plan a route, it's important to know what they can (ie. will or won't) do. It's a good idea to try one or two hikes of a similar height gain and/or distance before committing to a hut-to-hut tour. Tours of the right length and ascent, with options to cut things short are ideal too.
Safety first - Match the technical difficulty of the route to the sort of thing they are capable of. Some trails (namely those with dashed/dotted lines indicating cables, via ferrata, narrow or intermittent trail) might prove too demanding.
Slowly does it - Go at their pace and have lots of breaks. Allow time for this in your plan. All parents know it's pretty hard to rush reluctant children.
Weather watch - Temperatures are lower in the higher mountains, and while this can be nice in a heatwave, it can rapidly feel cold in the wind and rain. Aim for a good weather window and avoid dragging the kids along in adverse conditions. That said, pack as though it's going to be a cold and wet one (it's a very bad idea to be ill-equipped when hiking with young children). If it's hot and sunny up there, make sure you keep them cool, pack a sun hat and use plenty of suncream. Be aware that children are more susceptible to extreme heat and are easily dehydrated.
First aid kit for kids - In addition to a standard first aid kit, we always go big on plasters (for the little problems) and big on pain relief (for the bigger problems). I recommend carrying Calpol sachets or fastmelts rather than a heavy glass bottle. Hopefully you won't need it.
Kids that carry - If your child will find the tour pretty easy, then get them a comfortable kids backpack and ask them to help lighten the load. With very young children, even a small pack will really affect their gait and slow them down. I found carrying my youngest's bag (age 5) helped her no end when she was growing tired.
Motivation - Kids are usually not motivated by the same things as adults, so summits or metres climbed might not impress them as much as you think. Allow plenty of time for rests, dips, snacks and games along the way. Hunting for bugs or identifying alpine flora takes time but is well worth it if you want them to enjoy the journey. We also used sweets to motivate the girls – taking turns to choose target locations they had to reach before having the next one. We found this better than just giving them each a bag of sweets and ultimately eating too many Or try offering a penny for each trail marker they spot along the way (it will cost you a few ice-creams).
Disinformation - We never called it a 'walk' (too many negative associations): Try hike, tour, climb, or journey!
Distraction - Kids can often do more than they initially want to. We find that distracting our girls with word games, spotting games, songs and gripping stories can help the climbs slip by almost unnoticed. They were always very proud of themselves afterwards too.
Variety - We found that mixing up mountain days with fun/low-level activities, like swimming lakes or sightseeing, helped bring balance to the activity holiday and prevented our kids from getting sick of hiking.
Ötztal day hikes
Single day hikes are a great way to introduce kids to walking in the Alps or to build up to a multi-day tour. Here are some other child-friendly hikes we enjoyed as a family in the Ötztal region:
- Winnebachseehütte from Gries (5km and 780m). A spectacular hut setting, complete with alpine lake and giant waterfall. You can extend this hike with a walk up to the Ernst-Riml-Spitz viewpoint or Bachfallenferner glacier.
- Wetterkreuz with uplift from Oetz, finishing in Obere Issalm (9km and 638m). Play area at Hochoetz gondola station. Double summit ridge with stunning long descent on the Knappenwegg trail via Pochersee. Refreshments at the finish (cabin café). Return to Oetz by bus.
- Wildes Mannle circuit with uplift from Vent (5km and 538m). Popular 3000m summit with incredible views over the Rofenkarferner glacier. Option to call into the Breslauer Hütte for refreshments on the way down! NOTE steep down-climbing with a cable in descent towards the small glacial lake.
This is just a tiny snapshot of an enormous amount of potential for family holidays in the wider Tyrol region. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.