Do you like camping in remote alpine areas but want to relax in a lawn chair with your favorite wine and other comforts of home?
A drop camp may be your answer to enjoying Idaho’s high country without the hassle. With a drop camp, outfitters take hikers’ gear into the backcountry, drop it off at a predetermined site and leave. When the campers are ready to go home, outfitters pick up all the gear and haul it back to the trailhead.
“It’s growing, especially as people get older,” said Darl Allred, who owns Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters, a horse-packing outfit in the Sawtooths.
Allred regularly takes hikers and their gear to beautiful alpine locations where they have many of the comforts of car camping. The difference is the horsepower to haul the load miles from the highway is provided by a pack string.
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Drop camps, or spot-packing services, are a major part of Allred’s business in the summer, he said as he cinched the ropes tight over manties on his pack horses before a trip into the wilderness area last week. Manties are canvas tarps used to wrap up gear in neat rectangles, almost like gift-wrapping. The gifts are supplies hikers don’t have to carry.
“One advantage is that you can have a nicer camp than if you were backpacking,” Allred said, saddling up his lead horse for a trip out of Grandjean, one of the main trailheads for the Sawtooth Wilderness. “It’s just nice to have lawn chairs and food that can be hauled in a cooler.”
Although the service is appealing, hikers still need to prepare their gear carefully, because there’s no such thing as unlimited horsepower. Pack horses can typically carry about 150 pounds of gear. Allred carefully weighed gear on a scale in his barn at Grandjean recently for a group of hikers in their 60s. Go over the weight allotment, and hikers have to add another horse to the trip.
For food, outfitters suggest boxed noodles, rice dishes, instant hot cereal, and “just-add-water” pancake mix, although some canned veggies and fruit can be packed in. Hikers can also take the basics, such as coffee, cocoa, cooking oil, toilet paper, seasonings, paper towels and trash bags. It makes camp cooking a lot more convenient. Allred suggests freezing meats that will be put in a cooler. Frozen meat takes the place of ice, which is heavy. Cured meats, like ham, keep fresh longer. Eggs and breakfast meats also can be packed in a cooler.
Don’t depend on campfires for cooking, even though it’s the backcountry, because there could be fire restrictions. Lightweight backpacking or camp stoves are more convenient and efficient than a campfire, anyway.
Besides the convenience of a lot more gear, arranging for a drop camp frees up hikers to explore lots of areas on day hikes from a base camp deep in the wilderness.
Scheduling a drop camp isn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. Plan now for next summer’s trip. Most outfitters are currently busy dealing with drop camps for hunters as big-game seasons begin throughout the state.
Outfitters offer hiking and horse packing trips in Idaho from the Seven Devils to the Sawtooths to the White Clouds and other wilderness areas. Hikers can search on the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association website ( ioga.org) for outfitter services.
A survey of several outfitters across the state showed drop camps or horse-assisted hiking trips can range from $900 to $1,800, depending on the number of people on the trip, the number of horses used, how many guides are needed and what services — such as camping gear and meals — are provided. Fully outfitted trips with food, camping gear and other essentials provided by the outfitter can run upward of $275 to $300 a day per person.
Karen Savage, who runs Heaven’s Gate Outfitters in Riggins with her husband, said they get the whole gamut of people wanting to have a plush base camp in the rugged Seven Devils Mountains of western Idaho — from families to those in their 70s still going strong.
“I’m in my mid-40s and have been a hiker and backpacker all my life, but I love these (pack) trips,” Savage said. “I can carry a small daypack on the trail and not be tired at the end of the day.”
Horses and mules aren’t the only way for hikers to get their gear into the backcountry. Sawtooth Mountain Guides offers portering services into the Sawtooths near Stanley. “One nice thing about porters vs. horses is that we can get into the more remote off-trail terrain that stock cannot access,” said Sara Lundy, co-owner and guide for Sawtooth Mountain Guides.
Rates vary depending on the final destination but generally run from $200 to $260 per 50-pound load. Backpackers can drop off a load at the outfitter’s office in Stanley and agree on a meeting time and place for delivery before heading out with lighter daypacks, she said.
Lundy said a popular way to go this summer has been the Traveling Light Backpacking Trip.
“The idea here is that we have porters join us for the entire four-day trip,” she said.
The porters move camp each day, while hikers enjoy day packing around the mountains. The trip includes food, general backpacking equipment and the benefits of the guides’ experience. Such a trip costs $1,200 a person.
“Many of our traveling-light backpackers have been boomers who thought their backcountry days were over because they are no longer able to carry heavy packs,” she said.
Whichever way aging hikers, or families with young children, choose to get into Idaho’s remote alpine areas — horses or porters — the idea is growing.
Savage sums it up simply: “You have some of the comforts of home. You can carry in a bottle of wine. You’re happy to stick the gear on a mule.”