Bow Hut teeters precariously on the edge of a glacial headwall with St. Nicholas peak towering above it. You’ll climb over a rushing river and cross glacial streams to get there. You’ll follow rock cairns as you scramble along rocky trails. It really feels like you’re suspended amongst peaks in the middle of nowhere. True Banff backcountry. Yet somehow, the Bow Hut route is just 8km from the road.
Alpine Club of Canada maintains 37 huts across Canada. The backcountry huts give you a sense of solitude you won’t find at Lake Louise. They’ll let you have the backpacking experience with a fraction of the usual gear you’d have to haul to another backpacking trip. They’re well equipped and surprisingly comfortable. And since they’re open year-round, you’re able to traverse the Wapta Icefield or summit the nearby peaks without having to worry much about a little bad weather.
Want to spend the night at Bow Hut in Banff? Here’s everything you need to know.
AT A GLANCE
Bow Hut is a self-service backcountry hut sitting at 2,350 m on the east side of the Wapta Icefield in Banff National Park. If you’re used to European huts (like the incredible ones in Slovenia!), ACC huts are quite basic. But if you’re used to camping? The huts are a real luxury.
Bow Hut was first built in 1968 and rebuilt in 1989 when the original hut had started contaminating surrounding snow and water because of overuse and neglect. The hut formerly owned by Parks Canada was transferred to ACC and rebuilt with 72,000lbs of material. At the time of construction, the hut set the standard for backcountry waste, water, and energy management. These days? It’s still an impressive example of backcountry accommodation.
THE BOW HUT ROUTE
Difficulty: Moderate // Distance: 8km one-way // Duration: 3-5 Hours
The Bow Hut route starts from Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. Start by walking along the flat trail that wanders to the north Bow Lake.
There’s a creek that feeds the lake that you’ll keep following once the lake ends. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, but keep your eye out for the first change of course just after a flight of man-made steps. Once you’re at the top of the steps, take the first opportunity to turn left and climb over the boulder bridge to cross the river.
You’ll follow the trail up the canyon for a while until it eventually dips down and reunites with the stream. Navigate along the stream for a bit, then the trail will climb back up the canyon. Once you get out of the trees, you’ll wind up in a rocky moraine-basin.
Keep your gaze up and to the right and you’ll see the hut shortly. You can choose between several trails to get there, but because of changing water levels and shifting rocks, it’s impossible to say which is the best way up! Just head towards the hut and follow the cairns on the trail that looks best to you on the day.
Visiting in Winter? Bow Hut is popularly part of the Wapta Traverse crosscountry skiing route. Take a peek at this awesome Bow Hut info sheet from the ACC for more details on the winter approach.
INSIDE BOW HUT
Bow Hut is a dormitory-style hut that sleeps 30; there are six large bunks with wide foam mattresses that are meant to sleep 5 people. There is also a wood stove for heat, propane lights, and a fully-stocked kitchen with propane stoves, cookware, dishes, and utensils. There are also two indoor pit toilets which are apparently a feat of engineering (and you get to pee indoors!)
HOW TO MAKE A RESERVATION
Bow Hut is among the most popular of the ACC huts. It may have the capacity for 30 people, but you still need reserve in advance if you’re traveling during high season. ACC members have the advantage of being able to book a year in advance while non-members only get access 30 days out.
Before planning your trip, you should read more about the approach and check the availability of huts here. When you’re ready to make your reservation, you can call ACC at (403) 678 3200 ext 0 or email email@example.com.
As soon as your booking is confirmed, you’ll get a reservation confirmation emailed. Then, a few days before your trip, you’ll also get an email from ACC with the lock combination.
Tip: Since we visited in the off-season (September), there were only 3 other guests at the hut. If you’re visiting during the summer or winter, expect a full hut.
If you want to book your hut nights in advance, it’s worth getting an ACC Membership. The ACC Family Membership costs $65 CAD, but it includes a discount on hut prices and first right for booking huts. With membership, most of the huts cost $30CAD per person per night plus the $9.75 CAD backcountry wilderness permit that has to be paid by anyone using the Banff backcountry overnight.
We felt like the rates were a really stellar value based on the location, experience, and what’s included in an overnight stay.
WHAT TO BRING
You won’t need to bring nearly as much as you’d bring on a standard backpacking trip since most of what you’ll need is provided. But there are still a few things to bring along that might otherwise slip your mind.
- Reservation Confirmation. This includes the reservation form from the ACC and the overnight wilderness permit.
- Clothing. Adequate clothing for volatile weather conditions. Be prepared for snow, wind, and rain on your hike!
- Food. The hut has the equipment you need to cook a feast (even basics like salt and pepper), but you’ll need to pack in all the food yourself.
- Sleeping bag and pillow. While there’s a foam mattress, bedding isn’t provided.
- First Aid Kit. Just in case! There’s no staff at the hut so you’ll need to be prepared to take care of any incident on your own.
- Materials for hut (newspaper, matches, 9V battery). The hut was equipped with a wood stove and firewood, but it relies on visitors to restock smaller supplies. The matches are to light the propane lights. And the 9V battery is to have on hand if the smoke detector runs out of batteries during your stay.
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer. There’s often some left behind by other visitors, but you might as well bring your own.
GOOD TO KNOW
As a membership organization, ACC huts operate a bit different than other types of accommodation. They’re self-service meaning there’s no one present to enforce the rules or maintain the hut. There are volunteers who drop in periodically, but things like closing toilet tanks to bringing in drinking water to shutting the place down are the responsibility of everyone staying there.
Water: There’s no running water at Bow Hut. There is, however, a glacial stream just south of the hut. In the kitchen, you’ll see yellow buckets that you can use to collect water from the stream. This is the water you’ll use to do dishes and cook. It is also drinking water, though it needs to be boiled or filtered before use.
Grey Water Disposal: There are sinks in the kitchen, but since there is no running water, there are detailed instructions on exactly how to handle dishes. Basically, it’s a three basin system with one for washing, one for rinsing, and one for sanitizing. All big food scraps should get packed out with your waste, but wastewater will get collected in a bucket below the sink. To the east of the hut, there are a bunch of pipes coming out of the ground (called a ground sump). To dispose of the water, unscrew one of the lids, dump the water in, and close it off again.
Fire & Lights: Lighting a fire has never been my best skill, but all the materials are there. There’s a wood stove both in the sleeping quarters and the kitchen, and firewood is provided. Once it starts getting dark, there are propane lights. To turn them on, you’ll twist on the gas and need to hold a match to the mesh pouch to light them.
Garbage: Be prepared to pack out everything you bring with you! Toilet paper can go in the tank, but everything from food wrappers to coffee grounds will need to leave with you.