Every year a group of women and I go on a backpacking adventure together, and it’s been such an incredible tradition. This year we went to the remote Wind River Range of Wyoming. Here’s how it came to be, gear, food, the play by play, and way more than ever wanted to know about it all…
A few years ago one of my closest friends, Mardi, and I decided we needed to plan a yearly outdoors trip with just women. You can hear more about how it started at the beginning of this Maine canoeing post (which was our first trip). In a nutshell, I was feeling like much of the outdoors experience I had was with and directed by Jared, who has a lot more experience than I. I love our trips with him, but I found myself letting him lead in terms of planning and execution. I wanted something that was all my own. It continues to be one of the highlights of my year in so many ways. In travel and adventure, in physical strength and confidence, in my relationship with other women, and emotionally in the metal game of physical challenge, mindfulness, and introspection.
The first year we canoed the Allagash river on the Maine/Canadian border. The canoeing was a new experience to me, but it was mostly a pretty chill system of rivers and lakes. Because we weren’t lugging everything on backs, we could cook real meals like rosemary chicken and veggies, meatballs and rice, eggs/bacon etc, even wine and homemade donuts! It was really nice. There was rain everyday in the evenings, and we saw a lot of moose. Really peaceful trip. I really love water trips. Find the Maine trip report here.
The second trip was a backpacking trip in Alaska which was quite a bit more intense and complicated logistically. We hiked the Chilkoot trail from Skagway, Alaska to Bennett, BC in Canada. It was a very well maintained and supported trail with warming huts, raised platforms to place our tents, pit toilets, bear lockers, and navigate trail systems. The diverse landscape ranged from temperate rainforests to alpine mountains and lakes. My favorite part was probably the rocky pass between the US and Canada (with a nice warming hut at the summit!). The Canadian side of this trail was jaw-dropping gorgeous and spotted with beautiful lakes. When we arrived in Bennett we took a scenic train back to Skagway filled with tourists. Before the trip we visited the Mendenhall Glacier, and after the trip we headed to Glacier Bay for a few days which were both incredible side trip highlights. Find the Alaska backpacking trip report here, and the side trips to Mendenhall Glacier and Glacier Bay here
(image here from day 4 of our Alaska trip)
Our group has grown pretty organically but we’ve been trying to keep it between 5 and 8 people for logistic and safety reasons. The first year, Mardi and I each invited a couple friends that we thought would be a good fit for a trip like this. Friends that had backpacked before and were down for adventurous trips. The second year some of our original group couldn’t come, so we invited a couple new friends. Group dynamics are challenging, for sure. There’s an intensity that happens when you combine the amount of time spent together with the challenges of survival in the wilderness. It’s something we’re continually fine tuning but I feel so lucky to adventure with such strong women that I count as some of my closest friends.
This year our group was (from left to right above): Jen from Vermont, Devon from D.C., Rebecca from Cincinnati, Mardi from Boston, Evadne from Boston, myself, and Diana from Portland.
Planning and Organization
The first year I did the trip planning. The last two years Mardi has, and she’s very detailed about it which we’re all so thankful for. It’s a huge amount of work, although Mardi says she enjoys it. I have to say it can be incredibly challenging, though. If you’re thinking of starting a group like this on your own it would be important to think about if you or another member of your group would be able and willing to take that on. We couldn’t have done it without her attention to detail, organization, and dedication to making it happen. We also have a range of outdoors experience in our group. Some are incredibly experienced and knowledgeable, and others are a bit more like myself, having backpacked but not feeling skilled in every area. Don’t ask me to tie the fancy knots or be the first person to lead a speedy llama through a river crossing, but I’ll work hard to be in great shape, set up a tent and stove in jiffy.
Our group is too large to try to find a date that works for everyone the way we did the first year. We have to pick a date and hope that most of the group can make it happen, knowing that will mean not everyone will be able to come. It’s a yearly trip so if not this one, maybe the next?
Planning involves several group calls, first about the general idea and overall plan. Mardi also created a google doc which includes info about the itinerary (including lodging before and after), people’s individual travel plans (exactly when and how they’re getting in so we can coordinate cars), and both group gear and individual gear (not everyone needs to bring a tent or stove since we can share many items).
This year we headed in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. More specifically we headed to Titcomb basin which is on the Northern side of this range. This is one of two very popular destinations in the Wind River Range, but it’s still one of the more remote parts of the US with very little trail support, and completely primitive, dispersed camping. This means that there are no designated camping spots. There are rules though and you do need a permit. You can’t camp too close to the trail or a water source, but besides that it’s up to you where you want to pitch your tent. It also means you need to dig a hole at least 6 inches deep when using the bathroom and carrying out used toilet paper. We had a system for this I’ll describe when talking about gear coming up. In some areas of very high elevation or incredibly sensitive landscape you have to pack out human waste, luckily we didn’t have to do that!
Our plan was to spend 2 days getting in, and then setting up base camp right outside Titcomb and spend two days doing day hikes into the basin, with one long day to head back. Because we were bringing llamas with us (more of that in a bit), we couldn’t actually camp in the basin.
You can see the approximate spots we camped on this map. Each night has a label: 1, 2, 3, and 4.
It’s also bear country so you have two choices. You can pick up a bear canister at the ranger’s station or you can hang your food high in a tree, far from a bear’s reach (there are specific rules about that- it has to be 12 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from the trunk). We opted for the bear canister, although we did end up having to hang food the first night as well. You can leave the bear canisters completely out at your campsite as there is no detectable smell to the bears. The boxes look like this (and pictured here).
We hiked for 5 days and 4 nights roundtrip with the destination being Titcomb basin. It’s not an easy place to get to, being at least 20 miles away from the trailhead, but I have to say it might have been the most beautiful and dramatic mountain range I’ve ever been in. Absolutely worth every step. The elevation gain wasn’t too intense, but it was very high in elevation. We started the hike at about 8,000 feet and headed up to close to 11,000 or 12,000. All of us were coming from sea level and we were clocking in about 10 miles or more everyday, so there were some concerns there. There were plenty of water sources so we didn’t have to carry more than a liter or two around with us each. Also, we had light packs because of…
The Pack Llamas
Because of the amount of mileage we would need to cover and a couple of us had some physical limitations on carrying too much weight, we decided to rent pack llamas. Mardi has a friend who works for NOLS in Wyoming, and has led many trips into the Winds and suggested it. We rented llamas through a company called Lander Llama. There was 3 hours of llama training involved to learn how to properly care for and saddle them up with gear and load the panniers (the bags they carry). Each of the llamas can carry up to 75 lbs, which meant each of our pack weight was cut down from 40+ lbs to under 20. This made a HUGE difference. Essentially it was like carrying around a day pack. The panniers did need to be equally weighted each time they were loaded up in the morning, which did take time. Other than that, maintenance is pretty low for them. They graze at camp and drink at river crossings. You don’t need to pack any food for them besides a small grain bag for a treat.
Because we were bringing livestock with us, we had additional restrictions on where we could and couldn’t camp. We had to be even further from water sources and couldn’t camp in the more populated spots. Mardi worked closely with the ranger over the phone before the trip to figure that out and create the best possible route to take for us and the llamas.
They were really gorgeous animals, ours were both male and named America (the lighter one) and Tommy (the darker one). Both very mild tempered and graceful animals. We did end up having some llama drama, actually quite a bit of llama drama that required us to change our route a bit. There was something going on with America where he wasn’t able to do the amount of mileage we were hoping. It was similar to a hiking with a toddler, where occasionally he would stop and plop himself down, refusing to budge! This happened on both the first and second day. I’ll explain a bit more about how this affected our itinerary in our play by play section coming up.
The way it worked for us is that the llamas ended up carrying all the bear canisters, which were large and awkward for our packs. We each had one personal canister, and then we had another for toiletries, and another for booze (what’s a backpacking trip without booze??). The llamas also carried our three tents, our sleeping pads, and backpacking chairs.
One of our major concerns was altitude acclimation since we were all coming from sea level. Because of that, we tried to get there at least a day or two ahead of the departure day. Altitude sickness can be really debilitating, and most of us had issues with it on the trip regardless of our acclimation attempts. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t, and I think it may have had something to do with this herb called ginkgo biloba I took. I heard it could be helpful in preventing altitude sickness by improving circulation. It might have been a coincidence but I had zero problems with the elevation, where most others did ranging in severity. One member of our group had to come straight from sea level the day before and didn’t have the opportunity to acclimate. She ended having the most severe response to the altitude, feeling very nauseous and lethargic for the first 2-3 days of the trip unfortunately.
What gear to bring on these trips is a pretty individual decision. For the most part, you’re carrying and responsible for your own gear but having too much, not enough, or not the right stuff could affect your performance and then in turn affect the group. So we made sure to list out what each person needed to bring for themselves in the spreadsheet, and then asked everyone to sign up for bringing group items that we didn’t all need to bring like tents, stoves, first aid kits, shovels, bug spray, etc. We brought three 2-man tents.
Here you can see what I pack. Even though our llamas were helping carrying about half of our weight, I still tried to pack really thoughtfully. I love my Western Mountaineering ultralight sleeping bag (it’s under 2 lbs), and used backpacking meals for dinner. For clothing I packed quick dry hiking pants like these, 2 pairs of shirts like these, 2 pairs of socks, underwear, two pairs of leggings (one only to sleep in), a soft shell down jacket, a thin patagonia jacket, and a rain jacket. My pack is an Osprey Aura 65 womens. My hiking boots are Vasque and I love them. I bought them brand new the day before we s tarted our Alaska hike last year because mine fell apart, and I had zero blisters. The other secret for no blisters are sock liners. They really are crucial. Just be sure they’re the very thinnest kind, I think the pair I have is this one from REI, or your boots will be too tight. I brought camp shoes which were lightweight slip on Keds. I carried two nalgenes for water.
For cooking, we used Jetboils stoves. These are by far the smallest, quickest way to boil water. You can’t fly with fuel, so we had to pick that up in Wyoming. Another important piece of gear is the small shovel for digging holes to use the bathroom. A couple of us brought shovels but this Sea to Summit Pocket Trowel one is by far the best and easiest to dig with.
Speaking of the bathroom, all of us had a different plan for this situation. Like I mentioned before, we had to dig holes for human waste and we had to pack out any used toilet paper. Most of us packed several small ziplock bags filled with a bit of baking soda for the used toilet paper. Also, we packed about a roll of toilet paper each. This seemed to work well.
Other things I packed were: my travel camera, an external charger for my phone, baseball hat, sunglasses, beanie, hiking poles, small waterproof sacks called zpacks, a book, a journal, 2 headlamps, and a sleeping pad. For bug repellant many of us used Permethrin which you spray on your clothes beforehand and then a small OFF spray for exposed skin. There’s been a lot of research about the use of permethrin and although it’s a harsh chemical, as long as it’s not on your skin and just your clothes it seems to be very effective. Picaridin is another great new option as well many people love. Mosquitos were often a bit annoying at camp but didn’t bug us much at all during our hikes. Clothing and sleeping bags were in compression dry sacks in case of rain.
For water we brought three water filters. One that was a Katadyn Base Camp bag and could filter and hang on a tree (great for a group), and two hand pumps. The better the water source, the less trouble you’ll have with the filters and the easier the water will flow, but for the most part they worked great.
If you have other questions about gear, please let me know!
Everyone brought their own food, with the exception of the first night when we made a fresh, group meal. For that we made a quinoa soup with chicken bouillon and veggies. It was really good! Every other day you were on your own for food.
Here are some ideas of what people brought (and liked).
For breakfast, most people brought instant oatmeal and then added in things like dried fruit, coconut, nuts, powdered milk. Also, instant coffee packs or hot cocoa. I mostly had coffee and a Lara bars for breakfast, the cherry pie flavor is my favorite.
For lunch, most people had a sturdy cracker like wheat thins and a block of cheese and salami. If it was warmer, cheese wouldn’t be a good option but it was fine. You could also do disposable tubes of peanut butter and jelly or hummus or whatever with pita or another sturdy bread. Or packs of tuna and crackers. Cream cheese and a sturdy bagel is good as well. Of course lots of trail mix is great, pretzels, and nuts etc. I also love snickers on the trail as well and prefer it over any protein bar.
For dinner, everyone used freeze dried backpacking meals, Mountain House being the most popular. There are also brands like Backpackers Pantry and Good to Go that try hard at making things more interesting but I’ve never loved them. I’m all about the basics. My favorites are MH spaghetti with meat sauce, pasta primavera, mac and cheese, chicken and rice, and beef stroganoff. I’m not too adventurous, it feels too much of a risk. If you’ve never had freeze dried meals before, you’d be surprised how much you’ll enjoy them! You simply boil water in the Jetboil and then add it into the pack, seal it up, and let it cook for about 15 minutes. Then, you simply eat straight out of the bag. No mess or clean up involved.
The Play by Play
We flew into Salt Lake City and then drove north about 4 hours to Lander, Wyoming. This wasn’t where the trailhead was, but it was where the llama company and training was. It also was where Mardi’s friend lived whom we stayed with the first night. The second day we spent in Pinedale organizing group gear and doing any last minute shopping. Having a day to do this is super important. We left the morning after.
We started at Elkhart trailhead with the goal to head to Pole Creek lakes to camp which was around 11 or 12 miles in. We started in the forest and headed through beautiful fields of flowers, stopping at Photographer’s Point for lunch (image below) where we had a nice view. After Photographer’s Point the landscape changed quite a bit to be more exposed, passing lake after lake. The first day was the only day we didn’t swim (er skinny dip), but every other day we did! There wasn’t much elevation gain on this first day. At about 10 miles we stopped to talk to some rangers and one of our llamas, America, sat down on the trail and refused to get up! It took us a while to convince him, maybe 20+ minutes? It was stressful, and not something that we were prepared for. Another challenge on our first day was coming up to a very large river crossing (pictured here) that we also weren’t expecting. It took us a while to decide that this was, in fact, the way we need to go and that we didn’t have a choice but to attempt the crossing.
The water was moving fast enough that it was challenging to get across and we weren’t sure how the llamas were going to handle it. Most of us weren’t prepared for water crossings and didn’t have water shoes so we took our hiking boots off and went barefoot. This made it even more challenging to step across rocks without any shoes while carrying a pack. The llamas went surprisingly fast which made for an additional challenge of being able to keep up with their speed in the water! But we survived. Little did we know, this was one of several river crossings we would encounter on our trip. Most of these crossings would have been dried up by August.
We camped the first night by Pole Creek Lakes (pictured here). It was actually hard to tell if we were in the spot that we had been permitted for, but we tried our best. We unloaded the llamas, tied them up, and made a fresh group meal. We also made a fire since we were still below tree line where fires are allowed. Most of us brought backpacking chairs and we sat around enjoying our dinner and hot drinks.
It surprised ourselves our long it took to pack out in the morning with the additional chores of the llamas! Most times when we backpack we can wake up, eat, and pack up in about an hour and a half, but with the llamas it took more like 2 hours. This was the day we had the most elevation gain to cross Lester Pass which would bring us to the base of Titcomb Basin. The issue we had the day before with the llama was top of mind. We began to prepare for the fact that A. America might be sick and it might be worse and B. We might need to adjust our plan.
We passed several more river crossings on this day. Once, I was leading Tommy across and he started moving fast, which ended up knocking me off balance and I twisted my ankle a bit. Luckily both Diana and Rebecca are nurses, so they were able to check it out. It hurt, but it wasn’t too bad, and was mild enough that walking barefoot through the cold rivers ended up icing it and then healing it pretty well, but it was a close call. It still feels a bit funny at times.
It was slow going today as we had many river crossing and trail junctions to navigate. We stopped for lunch at a gorgeous lake along the trail (there were so many, it wasn’t hard to find one), and went skinny dipping! The temperature was perfect- maybe 70/75 degrees with the water chilly, but not too frigid. Really refreshing and such a nice break from hiking.
After lunch, we headed up towards Lester Pass. At this point Diana and I had walked a bit ahead with the llamas (we were nervous about stopping too much with them right before the highest elevation pass). The rest of our group was quite a bit behind and we came across the most challenging part, which was a large and steep snow patch right at the peak (maybe 200 yards of snow). The llamas resisted, and then reluctantly starting to head up, but quicker than we were comfortable with. Leading the fast llamas was terrifying, I have to say. The footing was slippery, and steep. We were quickly trying to dig our feet in the snow, knowing that if we fell, we could slide into the llama behind us, knocking them over and probably sustaining some major injuries in the process (sorry, mom!). These llamas are by no means small animals. All I remember was Diana telling me from behind, “GO GO GO!”
Honestly, it wasn’t a safe situation but in the moment when they started moving we just had to move, and went as smart and fast as we could. I’m not sure what else we could have done. If the rest of the group was there, it’s possible we would have come up with a different solution, but there didn’t seem to be any way around that giant snow field. There are unknowns and risks inevitable in these trips. Mardi had spent so much time with the ranger figuring out our plan, but the area is remote enough and this particular route we took the first 2 days was not the most travelled. The river crossings and snow pass wasn’t something we, or even the rangers I think were fully aware of. Again, in a few weeks they wouldn’t have been there.
Once we got to the top, it was a huge relief. We stopped took some pictures and then, America the llama refused to budge (arg!). At the very top of the pass! Storm clouds started coming and we knew we were in trouble. We bribed and shoved a bit, but nothing helped. The rest of our group caught up and we ended up doing a steady shove from behind to force him back down. It took a long time to get him to move, maybe 30 minutes? We knew at this point going another 5 miles to the base of the basin where we had planned to camp wasn’t an option. We walked down about a mile and then America sat down again, so we poked around and found a place to camp right there. Which, actually ended up being our very favorite spot. We got lucky for sure. Because we were still pretty high up, we had incredible views of the valley below and even a little swimming hole.
As soon as we started setting up camp the clouds got really dark and we hustled to get all of our clothing and sleeping gear inside. Not only did the rains come but hail too! We jumped inside to watch the hail against our tents. We boiled up some water in the vestibule, the covered section outside part of the tent, and made some warm apple cider + rum drinks for cocktail hour 🙂
We swam, pumped water, and made some hard decisions about how to rearrange our route to accommodate the issues with our llamas.
We were hoping to give the llamas a nice break this day, so we continued down and set up camp in the same spot we had been planning to camp the day before. Instead of spending day 4 also in the basin, we were going to head back and break up the last day of mileage, which was originally going to be around 15 miles out. We knew this would be a problem with the llamas. Actually, to clarify, it was just one llama, America. Tommy was excellent and he could have handled the mileage. Our concern was that there weren’t any permitted spots for us to camp with the llamas on that 15 mile route back, that was why we had originally planned on having a long day out. But, that seemed to be the best plan we could come up with.
It was only about 5 miles or less to the base of Titcomb Basin. We tied them up, set up camp, and then headed out into Titcomb with small packs of food and water. Our plan was to spend as much time as we could in Titcomb that day, since we only had a day to spend now there. I can’t even begin to describe what a dramatic place the basin is. You’re surrounded by these incredible tall, jagged mountains. In the basin, it’s majestic lake after majestic lake. We stopped, we skinny dipped, we hiked all the way in to the end of the basin and made dinner on a rock by the lake. We walked back at sunset. It was definitely my favorite afternoon of the trip.
We broke camp and headed out, taking our last views of the beautiful basin. We knew there weren’t any spot we were permitted to camp, but hoped it wouldn’t be an issue. We ended up stopping at Hobbs Lake, about 7 miles in. We found some great spots that looked far enough away from Hobbs lake and the trail. Later that afternoon, some rangers came by and we were given a bit of a scolding for being in an non permitted camping area with livestock. They were pretty nice about it and didn’t make us move, especially after learning about our situation with the llamas. So, all was well. We skinny dipped once again, we made dinner, we hiked up to a high rock and watched the sunset. This was our last night and we wanted to soak it all up.
We hiked out about 7 miles or so back to Elkhart trailhead. Stopping again at Photographer’s Point for lunch, the way we had on the first day. We even ran into two of the same women we had met the first day (and there were not many women on the trail at all, especially over the age of 20). So that was really fun, they were volunteers that were doing some trail work. Everything went smoothly on this day, and we met the llama company with their trailer back at the trailhead in the afternoon. When we told him about the issue we were having with America, he was surprised. They hadn’t had this problem before, and America had been well rested. He was concerned and thought maybe something was wrong. We’ve followed up and they ended up taking him off any scheduled trips for the next month. I hope he’s okay!
While we were waiting for the llama company to arrive, Mardi and I went into town and came back with popsicles, soda, chips and sandwiches. It was SO nice to eat real food after 5 days in the wilderness. We then spent the next two days at Lakeside Lodge, a quaint little retreat with cabins and a great restaurant right on the lake only a few minutes from Pinedale and the trailhead. So nice to have time to decompress after an intense few days.
These trips are always incredibly challenging but I consistently feel like I come home a changed person for the better. More connected to my body, more connected to myself, other women, and the beautiful world around us. This tradition has been one of the most life altering thing I’ve done for myself. I highly recommend it and can’t wait for another year and another amazing all-women adventure.