Many years ago, I took my young family on their first backpacking trip into the heart of Idahoís Sawtooth Wilderness Area. We knew very little about the sport, but hiking "way back in" for some alpine trout fishing seemed like a fine idea to me. Our kids could play in mid-summer snowbanks while we took pictures of gorgeous mountain scenery.
Doing it all wrong
As backpacking amateurs, we did nearly everything wrong. To start with, we entered from the low-elevation west side and had to puff several thousand feet upwards to our chosen lake. (A topo map would have saved us that pain.) We all packed bulky square-cut sleeping bags on cheap frame packs that kept breaking. Our trail foods were heavy (even canned!) and not especially nutritious. We limped with foot blisters, while mosquitoes and deerflies dined at will on our unprotected hides. On our second night out, a fierce midnight thunderstorm struck with driving rain and howling mountain winds. Our cheapo tent sprung multiple leaks and threatened to rip apart at its feeble seams. Huddled together in the darkness, we kept each other warm till daybreak -- then took off downhill for the car!
Since that first tough experience our family has hiked many times through the Sawtooths and other Idaho wilderness areas. That should say something about the enormous appeal of Gem State backpacking -- but only if you learn, as we did, to "gear up" properly for some of the most unforgiving backcountry in the lower 48 states!
From general common sense to a "light-pack fetish"
In general, Idaho backpacking gear should be necessary, lightweight, and reliable. When youíre packing a weekís supply of food, clothing, campgear, tackle, and other miscellany on your back, every single item must earn its keep in utility. Otherwise, leave the darned thing home!
Secondly, once you determine something is truly needed, get only the lightest possible version and even then try to trim its weight down. (Some fanatics even snip paper tabs off teabags and comparison-weigh brands of underwear.) Finally, if you canít afford the very best equipment, at least avoid discount-store trash. You can afford even less to have third-rate gear break down many miles from a trailhead vehicle.
In choosing a backpack, the old external aluminum frame type is still the best for most hikers. A frame packís most important function is to transfer shoulder-level weight to your waist, where strong leg muscles can take over. Shoulder straps should be wide and well-padded. Ditto for waist belts, which also must completely encircle the wearer. (Never buy a pack with just two simple waist-straps riveted to the frame.)
Internal-frame packs are popular with mountain climbers and others who want pack weight riding closer to their backs. Much improvement in the internal frames have occurred in the past several years. There are quite a lot more choices among backpacks in general, made more for specific purposes, even have water-carrying systems (called "hydration pockets") with tubes easily accessible for drinking without taking off a thing. Packs are now made, like many other outdoor products, especially for womenís body shapes. Outdoor comfort has become a high art.
For extended off-trail hiking under heavy loads through very rocky terrain, high-quality boots with ankle support and overall foot protection are vital, with substantial rubber lug outsoles for traction. For shorter light-load trips over clearly marked trails, lightweight hiking shoes on the market today are quite comfortable. Often made with water-wicking or water-proof materials, leather, suede leather, nylon, steel shank supports and cushion arches. All kinds of special socks are made nowadays to avoid blisters.
At high, thin-air elevations, ultra-violet-blocking sunglasses are also vital.
For hot weather hiking, shorts and short-sleeved shirts are appealing. Unfortunately, high-altitude sunburn, insects, and all kinds of poisonous plants then become threats to bare skin. We prefer hiking in full-length clothing during cooler parts of the day. For headgear, use a cap or soft-rimmed hat to avoid constant packframe bumping against stiff hat rims. If you insist on puffing uphill in mid-day heat, a large bandanna is nice for keeping the sweat out of your eyes. At high, thin-air elevations, ultra-violet-blocking sunglasses are also vital. In bright snow conditions, consider "glacier glasses" which block peripheral light. Be sure there are vents to keep the glasses fog-free. Some darken as light gets brighter.
Hiking through Idahoís mountainous shadows at twilight can draw hundreds of mosquitoes within seconds, so keep either insect repellent or a lightweight headnet handy to avoid the babbling meemies! I have seen it bad enough that youíre literally choking on the bugs and youíd give a hundred dollars for mosquito netting. Hold a bandanna or handkerchief over your mouth to breathe if you have to! And itís been proven that the only repellent that really works is that which has DEET in it. Many folks consider DEET dangerous and try to keep it away from their kids. We used it on our kids, but read the instructions and be careful with it. Body chemistry does play a role in how popular you are with mosquitoes. If they donít like you, just consider yourself lucky.
Some basic items
Non-personal gear to keep within reach while hiking includes topo and trail maps, compass, camera, binoculars, quick-energy snacks like "gorp" ("good old raisins and peanuts"), fieldguides to flora and fauna, and maybe pencil and paper. If youíre traveling along back-country streams or near frequent lakes, youíll probably want to have a fishing rod rigged and ready.
For fishing steep-banked alpine lakes, I recommend a lightweight spinning rod, 2 to 4 pound line, and an assortment of small wet flies presented with a water-weighted casting bubble. Alpine trout usually hit flies better than metal lures, but these waters are generally too deep to wade away from shore for flyrod back-casting. To counter this problem, some devoted longrodders pack in lightweight float tubes and fins.
Camp and Tents
Once youíve arrived at the dayís camping destination, select a low-lying tentsite safe from lightning and midnight rain puddling. Camping in open meadows or under trees each has its advantages (warmth, fewer
Itís best to take tents slightly larger than your party can minimally squeeze into
insects, no falling limbs, better view, vs. shade, wind protection, privacy, etc.) Supporting trees and bushes are rarely where you need them, so backpacking tents should be free-standing. For rainy-day comfort as well as better nocturnal gear access and protection, itís best to take tents slightly larger than your party can minimally squeeze into.
Mountain tents must be able to withstand fierce winds and driving rains, so streamlined shapes and adequate ground stakes are important. Tents should be floored against crawling insects and annoying forest duff. Screening should be ample to admit cooling breezes and should be of the "no-seeum" type of mesh to repel the teeny biting insects called "no-seeums."
Many backpacking beginners see no reason for lugging tiny campstoves and fuel when "more romantic" meals can be cooked over open fires. But look at the advantages of a backpackerís stove: no firewood gathering, no choking on smoke, no super-sooty, sticky pans, minimal wildfire danger, accurate heat control, and in-tent cooking under rainy, buggy, or dark conditions. Besides their danger and inconvenience, open fires create ugly firepit scars in pristine wilderness settings -- and are often banned altogether.
Trail stoves usually burn white gas, butane, propane, kerosene, or alcohol. Each fuel has its pros and cons. Kerosene is safe and "hot," but ignites reluctantly. Pressurized butane is convenient, but is expensive and burns poorly in cold-weather. Alcohol yields relatively little heat. Propane is hot and convenient but comes in heavy steel containers. White gas ignites well and burns hot, but is explosively dangerous, especially inside tents. Hardcore hikers on long expeditions usually opt for white gas stoves and their reassuring "roar" in severe conditions. For short mild-weather trips, any of the above are fine. Many stoves today are built to burn almost anything. Other optional fuels are diesel, automotive gas, aviation gas, stoddard solvent and naphtha. Some are even tiny wood-burners. You also have the option of doing without either stove or open fire by consuming only uncooked foods and beverages.
Sleeping bags and pads are among the more critical of backpacking gear. Modern hiking bags are usually stuffed with two to four pounds of natural down or impressive down-like synthetic fills. The synthetics are cheaper and, unlike down, retain their "loft" even when soaked.
The "cut" or shape of a mountain sleeping bag should be of the tapered mummy or semi-mummy type, if you really need guaranteed warmth, and include extra foot room, plus an insulated hood that draws snugly around your head. Interior/exterior double zipper, of course, preferably of the nylon "self-mending" type. We suggest you stick with proven brands on sleeping bags.
Given present ecological consciousness, nobody strips tree limbs any more to make one-night "balsam beds" of yore. For softness and warmth, some sort of sleeping pad is therefore required luggage. Lots of macho hikers still snooze on closed-cell foam pads, which are light, cheap, compact, and miserably uncomfortable. They do insulate you from the cold ground.
Lots of macho hikers still snooze on closed-cell foam pads, which are light, cheap, compact, and miserably uncomfortable.
We use the self-inflating kind of mattress with open-cell foam inside an airtight covering. Open the valve and expanding foam mostly self-inflates. Close the valve and you rest mainly on air, but with insulative foam retaining body heat. Deflate the pad, roll it up, close the valve, and the sucker stays flat from vacuum. Itís a great idea in backpacking technology! One disadvantage is that they can be punctured with sticks and ground debris, so be careful. A repair kit usually comes with them.
Other vital hiking gear might be to include nylon rain ponchos big enough and long enough to cover packs while hiking, a synthetic-fill warm jacket that doesnít get soggy in rain, small flashlights for midnight emergencies, extra batteries, reliable fire-starting materials, matches in a waterproof container, first-aid kit, water-purifying chemicals or filters for removing bacteria from mountain drinking water.
So involved and popular is modern backpacking that numerous large books continue to be written on the subject. These spell out in great detail just what gear you need and why. The above few tips, however, will at least start you down Idahoís hundreds of great outback trails!