"If you want to have a real Swiss experience," says Miriam Schuler, "you do it this way." We're seated alongside each other in full sunshine at a wooden table on a rock patio drinking coffee with schnapps and sharing cake with whipped cream. The view in front of us is alps in bloom and scree-sided peaks patterned with leftover snow. The stone building behind us is a Swiss Alpine Club hut, accessible only on foot, where our beds are already bagsed. Nearby is a small outhouse hikers all use with the door wide open.
Scattered throughout the Alps are 152 of these SAC huts with enough beds for about 9200 people. The Swiss Alpine Club was created in 1863 and cabin construction encouraged members to access more remote areas than a daytrip would safely allow. Some structures are still rustic unstaffed shelters catering for the meagre needs of mountaineers but most are fully equipped chalets with caretakers keeping things clean and serving meals and drinks.
Andermatt Holiday Region, where Switzerland's south-eastern cantons of Uri, Graubunden and Ticino intersect within the Gotthard massif, has 16 SAC huts. From the village of Andermatt it's only 18 minutes by train to Oberalppass station and a short walk to a trailhead for Badus.
Huts in this region are mainly built out of stone and sleep 20 to 85 people at elevations ranging from 1475 to 2708 metres. Between huts in clusters – such as those of Oberalp and Unteralp – the distances are very manageable on medium-graded ''mountain trails'' that aren't particularly steep or precipitous by Swiss standards. Heated dorm-style rooms have bunk beds or a string of side-by-side mattresses and are usually gender-segregated, though rooms for mixed groups are often available. Booking half-board is the done thing but there's just one dinner sitting so don't be late.
"Tout suite," an aproned host will say when I appear to dawdle on our last night at Vermigel Hut where she and her family are wardens for a fortnight. Between third and fourth course, when the conversation naturally slides into and sticks on Swiss German, I'll slip into the kitchen and speak the universal languages of drying dishes and schnapps shots.
Offering to help with chores at Maighels Hut where we stay after Badus, however, doesn't feel so appropriate; Pia Schmitt has had things well under control for more than 25 years. She also has a teenage assistant who tells me this is a summer holiday job she looks forward to. After breakfast the next day Miriam and I hike Cavradi mountain behind Maighels and, on the descent, accompany a goat herder carrying a lame nanny to his hatchback.
Being mid-July, the days are long and the sun hot. On the short trek between Badus and Maighels we plunged into Lake Toma – the source of the Rhine. After leaving Maighels Hut we take another dip just upriver from a gorge gushing spring water and snowmelt and glacial till before walking over Maighels Pass to Vermigel Hut in the next valley.
The architecture and setting of each hut is unique but locals tend to make the distinction based on best cake or meal or proximity to a gondola or road. Maighels is known for its dinners and traditional fruit-topped tart, Vermigel has road access and 360 degree views from indoors, at Badus the outhouse has a view-facing doorway and a sign you flip from frei to besetzt to, as Miriam explains, "really enjoy the nature".
Swiss International Air Lines, along with partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See swiss.com
Zurich to Andermatt is 2½ hours by train. Swiss Travel Pass gives unlimited access to all public buses, trains and boats in Switzerland. See myswitzerland.com/rail
Hotel Baeren, where Italian is spoken and breakfast served by the chef, is walking distance from Andermatt train station. From CHF195 a night for a double. See baeren-andermatt.ch
Sleep in the mountains by creating your own itinerary using the region's hiking map then booking individual huts in advance. Rule: the easier the access, the louder and rowdier the Friday and Saturday evening crowds. Half-board from CHF70 a person a night. See sac-cas.ch
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.