Looking back at my first backpacking trip I can’t help but laugh. I laugh at how little I knew. I laugh at how cool I thought I was. But you have to start somewhere right? My boyfriend at the time, IG, was a backpacker. He was itching to go on a trip (an itch I am now all too familiar with), and I wanted to join him. After lots of planning on his part, and lots of nods and uh-huhs from me, who had no idea what was going on, I found myself at Glacier National Park on my first backpack. I wish I could remember all of the gear I had brought with me. IG of course helped me organize my gear, but I would love to see the difference between my pack then vs now. I wore regular tennis shoes and brought a really heavy $10 Target sleeping bag. The only thing I remember having in terms of proper gear was my new backpack. In fact, it is the same Deuter backpack that I have today. Compared to my 21 lb base-weight I have today, I wouldn’t be surprised if my pack was closer to 40 lbs on my first trip. Ouch!
I had always liked the idea of backpacking. I loved seeing pictures of people backpacking in the middle of a beautiful wilderness. I wanted to see views like they did. I wanted to know how to survive on my own with just the basics. The nature, the weather, the wildlife. All of these things were something I wanted to experience in their raw entirety. I was very excited about the whole concept of backpacking, so I was eager to jump on the backpacking train. IG had figured out everything for our trip. The cooking, the itinerary, the tent… I was really just tagging along, hoping I didn’t die, and hoping it was everything I imagined it would be.
We began our tip in Calgary, flying in on a beautifully sunny morning. About 3 hours later we were in Glacier National Park. My goodness was it beautiful! It was the first time I had ever seen mountains like this. Or at least that I could remember. To this day, Glacier is my favorite national park. I’m sure this is partially due to the nostalgia of my first backpacking trip, but nobody can deny the park is breathtaking. Going-To-The-Sun Road gives you views that are hard to beat, and they get better and better as you drive further along.
First things first, IG and I went to the ranger station to get a permit. We had to watch a video about backpacking in bear country, what the acceptable locations to do your business are, and other educational necessities. We also had to book our campgrounds in advance and leave the itinerary at the station. This was so the rangers could keep track of us in case of an emergency, and to limit the amount of people in each campground. Our plan was to enter at Loop Trail Trailhead, end at Goat Haunt Campground, and loop back around through Fifty Mountain Campground back to Loop Trail Trailhead. I was a little sceptical about the 17.4 mile day, but heck! If IG thought I could do it, then it wouldn’t be a problem. Maybe backpacking was going to be easier than I thought.
We drove through more of Going-To-The-Sun Road and parked at Loop Trail Trailhead. Next thing I knew our adventure had begun. My very first backpack! Soon after we began I already started to have problems. My backpack kept hurting me. The backplate was poking my spine, and I couldn’t seem to fix it. At first I didn’t want to seem like a wuss, so I kept going and didn’t say anything to IG. Maybe all backpacks are fairly uncomfortable? We stopped for our first break and I threw my pack down, very frustrated with the pain. I kept trying to adjust the back plate, but nothing I tried worked. Angry, I manhandled the backpack and slammed the backplate. Success! I just needed to use a little more force and the backplate went exactly where I wanted. Relieved, I was ready to continue on.
It was a hot day. The recent forest fire had burnt down the trees, and therefore the shade. We started hiking uphill, and although the incline was not huge, it was steep enough to make a difference with the high temperature. Trying to ignore the heat, I trudged along in my own little world, thinking about who knows what. My first major backpacking mistake was not paying attention to how my body was feeling. Suddenly, the world around me got strikingly bright. My vision closed in, and I was blinded by the bright green colors in the meadow around me. I couldn’t hold myself up, and I couldn’t see. I slowly lowered myself to the ground, grasping at anything I could to sit down. IG rushed over and realized something was seriously wrong.
An attempt to show you what I experienced
Although I was clueless in that moment, this was my first real encounter with heat stroke. I sat down for several minutes while IG fanned me and put some water on my head. My vision slowly started to return and I started to realized how bad I felt. I couldn’t believe how quickly I had gone from pleasantly hiking to instantly feeling like I was going to vomit up the world. After resting for several minutes, IG convinced me that while he carried my pack, I should try to walk as far as I could, and sit back down again. I felt strong enough to try, so I began to walk. Just a few steps followed by a break. Then a few more steps and another break. The breaks got shorter, and my steps got longer until I felt good enough to take my pack and continue. Although IG asked me several times if I wanted to turn around, I insisted that I was not going to end my first backpack before it had even begun. So we kept going.
We continued towards the campsite, which thankfully wasn’t much further. However, in a strange twist of mother nature irony, a storm came in. It began to rain. The rain turned into hail. Although IG did not think it was very funny, I couldn’t help but laugh. Here I was, not a half hour ago a victim of heat stroke, and now it was hailing… it was just something that I had to laugh at. Plus I’ll admit the cold felt wonderful on my face.
We picked up our pace and made it to camp by late afternoon. Someone had set up a tarp over the camp kitchen, and we chatted with our new neighbor while waiting out the rain. Once the rain stopped, we set up our tent, made dinner, said goodnight to the local deer wandering about, and went to bed. Perhaps I had been wrong about how easy backpacking was going to be.
This night was the start of what would be a long time of being cold while sleeping. I just assumed being cold was the consequence of sleeping in the wilderness. I wasn’t so cold that I couldn’t sleep, but cold enough to be absolutely uncomfortable. (Now I have “my baby.” A Western Mountaineering 10 degree down sleeping bag). When I woke up the next morning I was very thankful to IG for making me hot oatmeal. From that point on, oatmeal has been my staple backpacking breakfast meal. It’s fast and you can warm up water for your tea at the same time. However, there is no better way to warm yourself up than by walking.
Today was going to be the most difficult day. We had 17.4 miles to go, and after my heat incident the day before, I was not super motivated. Grudgingly, I started to walk. I quickly began to warm up. The landscape started to get more beautiful. Then the sun came up. I still remember how wonderful it felt to have the first rays of the day shine on my face. I stopped to enjoy the moment. This was the point where I realized I was surrounded by nothing but nature. The road was miles away. The further I walked, the more enthusiastic I got. With every step I was getting further and further away from civilization, and I loved it. I reveled in it! It was a beautiful day, and so far everything was going very well.
A few miles in, we ran into our first predator. A grizzly bear! IG was the first to notice him, and the bear was… well not exactly how you’d imagine a fierce predator. He was exactly how you would picture a grizzly bear frolicking through a meadow. It was quite a sight! We were close enough to see him clearly, but far enough away that we were comfortable watching for a while. He rumbled through the meadow, lumbered over logs, and gnawed at the grass enthusiastically. He was not the biggest bear, but impressive he was. After several minutes he wandered away and we continued on.
Reading helps us forget about our sore feet!
Right around here is the spot where I have an incredibly vivid image of hiking. It was so windy that I was getting pushed off the trail. We were hiking through a field, so green and beautiful, and I was experiencing pure bliss. That moment is what I had imagined backpacking would be like. Weather, nature, and wildlife were surrounding me on all sides. It’s little moments like this that make not showering for days worth it.
Our goal for the was to reach Goat Haunt Campground, which is next to Upper Waterton Lake. This is also the least-used border between the US and Canada. Though the hike had been pleasant so far, IG and I still had quite a ways to go.
We passed through a campground, a beautiful meadow, and made our way to a huge valley. We stopped here for lunch and looked down at the beautiful vista before us. We also made friends with a marmot. He was keeping a lookout for visitors on the trail and gave us a head-bob greeting.
Quietly munching on granola bars, IG and I realized the sky was slightly darker than it was when we had originally perched ourselves over the valley. When we started walking again it got even darker, and not long after we started down into the valley, the clouds were a very ominous black. The park ranger had told us there was always a 20% chance of rain in the forecast. The weather could change in a second, and we should never trust what we thought was going to be a beautiful day. She could not have been more correct. It had been beautifully sunny not half an hour ago, but the quickly darkening skies were going to prove otherwise.
We continued down into the valley, and sure enough it started pouring. It rained and rained, and rain some more. We did not stop and wait it out because we couldn’t. There was no shelter anywhere. We were on multiple switchbacks going downhill, with a steep upward incline on one side and a sudden drop on the other. The only thing to do was keep walking, albeit carefully. It must have been an hour or more of constant, torrential rain. Only once we got to the bottom of the valley did the rain let up. We stumbled on a little shed, and right as we opened the door the rain stopped completely. Tired, we took a long break to get our spirits up again. The sun made an appearance so we went back outside and aired out our clothes. My base layer was orange, and I soon learned that butterflies love orange. Two butterflies fluttered over and landed right on my shirt! It was a moment that I thoroughly enjoyed, because we all know how much I love butterflies. After admiring the butterflies and conversing with a couple who had waited out the rain in the little shed, we continued to our final destination.
Unfortunately, IG and I proceeded into what I am convinced is the biggest mosquito population on planet Earth. It must have been the mixture of the rain and walking on the edge of a riverbed. At that time I did not have any mosquito netting to put on (however I purchased some after the trip). We tried to convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad, but IG and I quickly gave up and jogged through the mile or so of remaining mosquitos. We were eaten alive! It certainly didn’t help that I’ve always been a tasty treat for mosquitoes. Once we were safely past we slowly trudged the last mile to our campsite. I can’t remember my feet ever hurting so much. First thing I was going to do when I got home was purchase hiking shoes.
When we arrived, IG and I didn’t take in much of our surroundings, but immediately set up camp. I was not in a favorable mood because of the mosquito bites covering my entire body. Most notably my face. And oh how itchy they were! After a quick dinner I snuggled up in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. What a day it had been. We let ourselves wake up slowly the next mornig and sleep in (well I always wake up slowly). After spending the morning lounging around and admiring my dozens of mosquito bites we went down to the lake. Only then did we realize what a magnificent spot we were in.
The mountains were beautiful, and the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky. I had the idea to put my sore feet in the lake. This was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had! It felt so good to have my feet in the nice cold water, and it was just like an ice bath. IG followed my lead and we enjoyed ourselves for quite some time, feet in the water, taking in the view. It was one of the most beautiful views I had ever experienced. Finally we decided it was time to pack up and do our quick 3 mile hike to Kootenai Lake Campground.
The Ranger had told us Kootenai Lake was the best spot to see moose. Seeing a moose in the wild had always been on my bucket list, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. Thinking about the moose, I started the short 3 mile hike enthusiastically. This quickly changed to lugging myself along the trail at a snail’s pace. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from backpacking, it is to never tell yourself it’s just a “quick” walk anywhere. You will easily become unmotivated because it’s always more of a walk than you think…or at least than I think. To this day I always mentally prepare myself for a 20-miler, even if I’m only going 2 miles.
We took a fork to the campground where a sign stated we had .6 miles left. I still remember that sign, and I still remember how long that .6 miles felt. When we got to the campground I felt just as I had the day before. Exhausted and frustrated. IG and I set up camp and parked ourselves right at the lake shore. Sadly, no moose came, but looking out at the lake was lovely in itself. It put my frustrations out of my mind. Sunset came, and so did the mosquitoes, so we ate dinner and called it a night.
We had far to go the next morning, so IG and I got up early. Well, it wasn’t necessarily the length of the hike, but the incline. We had to go back up the valley that we had come down in the pouring rain. Luckily the mosquitoes were not out in as much force as before, and we enjoyed the first few miles of the day. Before I knew it we were at the bottom of the valley. IG told me to take it slow, so at every switchback we took a quick break.
It was absolutely beautiful looking out at the valley. You could see so far without the rain! I enjoyed the hike back up and we got to the top much sooner than I thought we would. We had kept a steady pace and the breaks were just long enough to keep me going strong. When we got to the top of the valley IG and I took one last look into the valley. I looked down at our trail going to the right.
At that moment I promised myself that I would come back one day and take the trail to the left. Where did it go? What is just as beautiful as the trail we had taken? Was it more beautiful? I had to know.
We didn’t have much further to go that day, so we took our time getting to Fifty Mountain Campground. We said hello to our marmot friend and got to the campsite in no time. Tomorrow was a 16 mile day, so we had some dinner and went to bed soon after we arrived.
The next morning IG and I got up before sunrise. At first it was difficult to find the trail in the dark because it was heading up a rocky hillside. The sun started to come up when we found the trail on the ridge we would be hiking that day. Unfortunately the views were not great because of the cloud cover, and the big issue was the wind. I tried to keep my spirits up, as this was the last day of our hike, but I can honestly say this was the coldest I have ever been. I was absolutely chilled through, and the wind was relentless. The plan was to stop for lunch, but it was so cold I couldn’t think of stopping. IG also wanted to hike an offshoot trail and try to see a glacier on the other side of the mountain pass, but I was simply too cold. I needed to keep moving, and I needed to warm up.
You can see the trail in the distance on the far left.
At some point the wind finally died down and the rain began. Even with the rain I was very thankful that the wind stopped. The rain was not as cold and I got a chance to warm up. We arrived at a campground right outside of Granite Park Chalet and took a snack break. I needed to use the restroom, so I excuse myself and took a little path to the pit toilet. I consider this to be the best bathroom that I have ever used. I even snapped a picture and took my sweet time so I could enjoy the scenery. The background is unfotunately washed out, but you get the idea. To this day, I still think about this pee whenever I think about this trip.
We still had a couple miles to go, so I grumbled, put my pack on, grumbled some more, and continued on. The trail started to go downhill and the grade got steeper and steeper. Suddenly IG and I were motivated to quicken our pace because we saw the road! I was so relieved the hike was almost over. It had definitely been a trying day, and the downhill slope was so steep that my knees started to hurt.
Then the trail suddenly turned away from the cars. Just as quickly as the trail turned the wrong way did my motivation shatter. The car was out of sight and we kept walking away from the direction of the car. Kept going, kept going… Did we miss a turn? After some time of second-guessing ourselves the trail finally turned back in the direction of the parking lot. Completely ready to be done with the hike, the road came back into view. When I finally put my pack down I was frustrated, tired, hungry, and hurting, but I loved it.
Now I’ll be the first to admit this was not the most successful backpacking trip, especially for a first-timer. IG even admitted that it had been a tough one. In 4 days I had been through heat stroke, a hail storm, torrential rain, a mosquito orgy, and absolute cold. Not to mention incredibly sore feet. At first I was worried that all backpacking trips were like this – full of bad weather and blisters. IG promised me that this was not representative of a typical backpack. Knowing that, I felt that if I could make it through this trip without any previous experience, I could make it through anything. Although I have done my share of backpacking trips since Glacier, this trip still presented me with the most obstacles I have ever faced. Even with the gear and experience I have now, it still would not have been an easy trip. Yet, my trip to Glacier had been everything I’d imagined. Fierce weather, great wildlife, fantastic views, and the feeling of absolute accomplishment.