Bivouac or refuge : what’s the best to preserve the environment ?

Refuge du col de la Vanoise. ©Jocelyn Chavy

It’s a question you’ve probably already asked yourself when planning your next mountain adventure. Aside from the price of a night in a refuge or bivouac equipment, and whether or not you’ll be living in close proximity to other humans, there’s another question: which on is better for the environment : bivouac or refuge ? Let’s investigate.

“Ah! Alone at last.” That’s certainly what you thought, once you’d set up your tent in an area where you’d checked beforehand that bivouac is tolerated. In the best-case scenario, indeed, you’ll be alone. But the practice of bivouac has exploded in recent years, seducing people with its minimalism and feeling of freedom. So there’s a good chance that your bivouac neighbors, in this high season, are only a few dozen meters away, on the other side of this hillock or this magnificent mountain lake.

The impact of bivouacking on flora and fauna

While bivouacking remains a practice synonymous with the freedom and autonomy in the wilderness so dear to all mountain lovers, the problem lies in widespread bivouacking, according to Bastien Deleplanque, territorial forestry technician at the Office National des Forêts (ONF) in the Bauges massif (French Alps). “It’s a question of density: a tent every now and then is no big deal. But if you start multiplying the number of tents, which always crush and trample the vegetation, and potentially generate waste and fires, all this will add up and could have an impact on the vegetation.”

According to Suzanne Foret, curator of the Hauts de Chartreuse Natural Reserve, it takes thousands of years to make a few centimetres of soil: “On the Reserve, between 15,000 and 40,000 years, in the sub-alpine zone, to make 10 cm of soil.”


And vegetation is not the only thing to be affected by the widespread use of bivouacs. Bastien Deleplanque and his team conducted a study of chamois movements using GPS beacons. They were able to observe that chamois slow down in the vicinity of trails frequented by humans, which means they are more vigilant and have less time to feed. Conversely, the further chamois are from the trails, the faster and more fearlessly they move. “This is what we call the landscape of fear”, sums up the ONF forestry technician.

He also notes that bivouacking exacerbates this phenomenon. “The areas at the edge of the trails are not grazed by chamois during the day, but they can still get there at night. So when you add bivouacs scattered all over the place, you lose this surface area for the animals, which are often alpine pasture areas, because bivouacs are made in nice, flat areas with good grass, and not in steep, rocky areas. So in very rich areas that the animals need.”

It’s worth noting that in areas that are heavily frequented, this fear of man is reduced. But this is not a desirable adaptation, according to Bastien Deleplanque: “Animals consequently get used to the presence of humans and become much more vulnerable, especially to hunting, since they can’t tell the difference between a hunter and a hiker.”

Bivouac in the Aravis massif (French Alps). ©Jocelyn Chavy

Faced with these problems for flora and fauna, it would seem necessary to regulate the use of bivouacs or to modify accommodation methods. One solution is being studied, with the creation of secure bivouac and fire pit areas: “The ideal is to always concentrate on the same areas. We’ll be sacrificing areas of lesser biodiversity to accommodate the public. We need to group bivouac spots together to avoid diluting the impact”, says Bastien Deleplanque.

And this method has long been used around refuges. “Bivouacking next to a refuge will always have less impact than if there are people everywhere in the mountains. Animals are used to the fact that there’s a refuge. But if a tent arrives once in a while, they’ll be on constant alert”, explains the ONF technician.

Animals get used to the presence of humans and become much more vulnerable

The refuge: CO₂ emissions and impact on water resources

But bivouacking in the immediate vicinity of a refuge is not an ideal in-between solution, according to Florent Roussy, in charge of refuge maintenance and renovation work for the FFCAM (French Federation of Alpine and Mountain Clubs) in the Pyrenees massif.

In his view, this type of bivouac is tantamount to adding refuge annexes all over the place: “Refuge and bivouac are two different practices. A person bivouacking next to a refuge and using the refuge facilities is no longer bivouacking. He’s using the refuge”, in addition to his environmental impact on the area where he’s going to set up. He goes on to give an example of the problems that can be caused by overcrowding in a refuge: “Refuge toilets are made to accommodate 100 people, but not 200.”


At this stage of our investigation, the least damaging accommodation solution for flora and fauna would therefore be to sleep in a refuge. But a refuge also has an impact on the environment. When asked if a refuge pollutes, Florent Roussy is categorical: “Like any human activity”. He adds: “Like any tourist activity, a refuge will have a negative impact on the environment in which it is located.”

And according to Florent Roussy, this pollution is not only linked to the use of the refuge. “A refuge will also have a carbon footprint that will explode when we think about where the refuge’s users come from.” An argument that also applies to bivouacers who park their vehicles in the same parking lot as refuge guests. In other words, the massive use of private cars to get to the mountains is a major source of pollution.

At the Col de la Vanoise refuge, 10 tent spaces on a wooden platform, priced at €5 per person for an overnight stay and access to the hors-sac room. ©Jocelyn Chavy

But tourists aren’t the only ones who need to be transported up there. Because tourists are hungry. And considering the quantities of food needed to feed dozens (hundreds) of people every day, the helicopter is a widely used and often indispensable tool for resupplying.

“Today, there is a growing awareness on the part of keepers, the FFCAM and other owners such as national parks and municipalities to limit this. […] The keepers at the Ayous refuge in the Pyrenees no longer offer drinks in cans or bottles, but only syrups. The keeper at the Vénasque refuge offers lemonade from the machine instead. More and more refuges are also offering vegetarian meals to limit meat consumption. […] Some keepers are also trying to limit their carbon footprint by using helicopters.”

But the helicopter remains an economical solution for quickly bringing supplies up to the refuge. “A study was carried out on replacing helicopters with mules. But a kilo transported by helicopter costs three times less than a kilo transported by mule. And since the mule transport industry barely exists any more, we’d be blowing up the carbon footprint by creating an activity that no longer exists. Mule transport still exists, but it’s more a matter of opportunism on certain refuges,” continues Florent Roussy, who proposes instead to get customers involved in supplying the refuges “by calling the keepers and asking if they need anything.”

To cook food and operate the various systems in the hut, it is also necessary to have energy resources on site. “In terms of energy, we’re always thinking about how to produce enough power to avoid running a generator which, in addition to the carbon footprint, makes noise and gives off bad smells”, explains Florent Roussy.

Just because you’ve come to do a mountaineering tour doesn’t mean you have to take a shower in the evening.

If we can one day imagine a solidarity-based system for supplying refuges, another important point in calculating the carbon footprint of a refuge is the pollution it generates during its construction in difficult-to-access mountain areas. “We’re always asking ourselves whether we do carbon footprints on the construction of refuges. But we always say that it’s not a particularly good idea, because building refuges is hardly comparable to building in the valleys, because of the heliporting of materials.”, according to Florent Roussy.

Then there’s the problem of water, an increasingly scarce commodity due to global warming and drought, even in the mountains. According to the person in charge of maintenance and renovation work at FFCAM refuges in the Pyrénées massif (French Alps), “it’s also a question of optimizing water consumption to limit extraction, and treating it after it’s been in the refuge. There are hardly any renovation programs with water toilets any more. As for showers, we’re increasingly asking ourselves whether or not to leave them in our renovation programs. Just because there’s a shower doesn’t mean the customer has to take one. Perhaps it should be reserved for people on tour or for guides who don’t go down into the valley. It’s not because you’ve come to do a mountaineering tour that you need to take a shower in the evening.”

we are at a real turning point in the consumption of natural space

Reducing or increasing refuge capacity?

Once this analysis has been made, one solution that immediately comes to mind to reduce the ecological impact of refuges is to reduce their capacity. Fewer beds mean fewer tourists, and therefore less pollution. And even if “the capacity of refuges is the subject of discussions with the various mountain stakeholders” and “the trend is towards a reduction in capacity”, Florent Roussy warns: “If we reduce the capacity of refuges, people will still go there, we’ll just have more bivouacs around.”

In addition, reducing a refuge’s capacity would mean having to close it down altogether, because “if the refuge can’t accommodate enough people, it’s no longer economically viable for the keeper, who has to face up to heavy expenses”, adds Florent Roussy. It should be noted, however, that the general interest function of the shelter means that it is possible to go beyond this capacity, particularly for people in danger or in distress.

Bastien Deleplanque, ONF forestry technician, concludes that “we are at a real turning point in the consumption of natural space”. In the end, it’s up to each and every one of us to decide freely and responsibly how we want to accommodate ourselves in the mountains, considering the rules and the impact of our activities on the environment.