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8 Tips for Backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains

Did you know that the Sawtooth Mountains has nearly 350 miles of trails and hundreds of alpine lakes? Pretty cool, right? Well, I hiked about 80 of those miles, visited dozens of lakes, and if anything it just left me wanting more.

After my summer of living and working in Stanley, Idaho; I’ve learned quite a few things about backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Tip 1: Go During the New Moon

One of the best parts of backpacking in the Sawtooth’s are the stars. The area around Stanley, Idaho is a Dark Sky Reserve. This means that man-made lighting is limited as not to ruin the night sky. 

Aside from where I used to work in middle of nowhere Utah, the Stanley area has one of the best night skies I’ve ever seen. I’m talking you can see the Milky Way in full force. It’s that good. 

It’s well worth it to plan your trip during the New Moon to maximize your star gazing opportunities. 

Tip 2: Don’t Stress About Water

Water is plentiful in the Sawtooth Mountains. The trails are often criss-crossing streams and many of the hiking destinations are to pristine alpine lakes. Don’t get my wrong, definitely treat your water. But there’s no need to go overboard with hauling water in. 

I typically brought capacity for two liters. Often, I just carried one liter at a time and filled up whenever I had the opportunity. Just be sure to refer to the map often, as sometimes there’s several miles between water sources.

Tip 3: Brush Up on Stream Crossing Protocol

With lots of water sources comes lots of stream crossings. On my hike to Alice Lake, I crossed five streams in just as many miles. Be sure to do them in a safe way.

I recommend bringing sandals along to change into so you don’t get your hiking shoes soaked. 

On most of the established hiking routes, there will often be some sort of safe crossing such as a rock path or tree bridge. Sometimes there’s not though.

There are some basic rules of stream crossings. First of all, always unclip you hip belt. This way if you fall in, you can get out of your backpack quickly and it won’t drag you down. 

Second, don’t cross anything deeper than your waist or anything fast moving. You can test the water speed by throwing a stick in. If you can walk alongside the stick easily, then it’s safe to cross because it’s not too fast. 

Third, be wary of walking over downed trees. If the tree is partially submerged then it might be rotted out and weak. This means it could snap under your weight. If the tree is completely out of the water, then it’s probably fine.

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Tip 4: Bring Bug Spray

This might seem like a no brainer, but let me tell you the bugs in the Sawtooth’s are way more active than many other places.

I tried to go hiking and use my all-natural, homemade, essential oil bug spray. It did not cut it. I was covered in bites before finally accepting DEET bug spray from my friend. 

Layering up doesn’t help either because they bite right through my base layers. 

I hate covering myself in DEET because I know how powerful it is, and I don’t like not being able to shower it off. An alternative is wearing long-sleeves and pants and spraying your clothes. I’ve also found the bug repelling bracelets to be somewhat effective. 

Prepare for the bugs twice as hard as you would prepare anywhere else.

Me sitting on a log in a lake while backpacking in the sawtooth mountains

Tip 5: Hike in the Summer

The Sawtooth Mountains are snow-covered for a good part of the year. Some areas have snow all the time. If you’re into winter sports, go whenever you want. However, if you want a pleasant, snow-free hike then go in July to mid-September. 

Summer crowds aren’t much of an issue here. Sure, Alice Lake and Sawtooth Lake will be fairly busy. But it’s nothing compared to a national park. And you really only have to hike a little further than everyone else to find secluded campsites.

Tip 6: Enjoy Jumping in Lakes, But Ease Your Way In

One of my favorite Sawtooth activities is jumping in the alpine lakes after a long, sweaty hike. You should most certainly give it a try. However, I do have one word of caution…

There’s a thing called cold water shock (read about it here), which can cause you to involuntarily gasp when submerged in cold water. It’s happened to me before. This is only a bad thing if you jump in where your feet can’t touch. People have drowned in alpine lakes because of cold water shock and involuntarily gasping water into their lungs.

Be sure to ease your way into the water so you don’t accidentally drown yourself from the cold. 

A trail in the Sawtooths

Tip 7: Buy Trail Food Before You Get to Stanley, Idaho

Stanley, Idaho is a very small town with a population of around 70. They don’t have a full grocery store; just a small market with high prices. You hypothetically could buy enough food for backpacking in Stanley. I most certainly have. However, it’s overpriced and there’s not a lot of options.

Do yourself a favor and stop at a grocery store well before you get to Stanley. You’ll have way better snacks and will be able to plan your meals better.

Tip 8: Camp at the Lesser Know Lakes

Well known spots like Alice Lake and Sawtooth Lake are certainly gorgeous and worth visiting. But they are also some of the busiest places in the Sawtooth Mountains. You won’t be able to find a secluded campsite at the well known lakes during the summer. 

If you really want to see those lakes then go. But there are so many other lakes close by. You can take a nice break at the popular lakes, then hike on and find yourself a secluded lakeside campsite away from the crowds. 

Pretty much every single lake in the Sawtooth Mountains is beautiful. You’re not missing out on anything by camping at a lake different than the one you saw on Instagram. 

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