Choosing A Tent Site On A Guided Backpack Trip

On any of our guided backpacking trips, your Big Wild guide will choose the campsite. On our Yellowstone backpacking treks, we will have reserved each campsite prior to the trip. But on most of our other treks, the guide can pick and choose as the trip unfolds, according to the groups’ progress, weather, animal sightings and other considerations — including our knowledge of great places to camp! In any event, once the guide proclaims “We camp here!”, it will be up to you to choose your tent site. The guide will point out general tenting areas, and of course he will make a specific recommendation if you ask, but the final decision for a good night’s rest is yours. Here are some things to consider:

  1. In bear country, set up your tent at least 50 yards from the cooking and food storage area. Your guide will provide guidance on this important consideration.
  2. Beware of snags, especially “leaners”. Standing dead trees, known as “snags” are more likely to fall or blow over than are live trees. And they generally fall in the direction in which they lean, usually, but not always, in stormy or windy weather. So don’t place your tent where a snag might fall and skewer you! On our guided Yellowstone backpack trips, many camps are loaded with snags, so care in tent placement is essential. In addition, Yellowstone is known for sudden storms, often with strong wind gusts, so consider this, too. If a snag is leaning with the prevailing wind, that is a double whammy. If you have any question as to whether you’ve chosen a safe tent site, please ask your guide. Although most beginning backpackers are primarily concerned about bears, we think that falling trees are under-rated as a source of potential danger.
  3. Level ground is not essential and is sometimes impossible to find in the mountains, anyway. No matter. The important thing is to make sure that if you are on a mild slope, you set up your tent so that your head is uphill and your feet directly down the fall line, so that you won’t slide sideways at night.
  4. Smooth ground is good. Pine needles are better than rock. Before you stake out your tent, lie down on the proposed sleeping area to make sure that it is comfortable, with no big lumps or sharp rocks or pine cones that might ruin both your tent and your night’s sleep. Remember, though, any “gardening” that you do to the ground to make it smoother for sleeping should be minimal; and you must completely naturalize the site when we break camp.
  5. A great view out your tent door is nice, but really, how much time do you spend looking out your tent door? If the choice is smooth comfortable ground or a site with a great view but with rocks stabbing at my ribs, I’ll choose the comfortable ground every time!
  6. Privacy: Sometimes, with limited tent space and a group of 6 to 8 hikers, privacy for your tent is not possible. But other camps have plenty of room to roam. If I can bed down near a stream so that the flowing water lulls me to sleep, I am a happy camper. And with any luck, the white noise will drown out anyone in the group who snores!
  7. Never set up your tent close to the trail and avoid the less obvious game trails, too. Humans are not the only critters that use trails. Especially at night, trails are used by many species, including some with fangs and sharp claws! Or sharp hooves! This is basic common sense!

In fact, most of this is common sense. And again, if you have any questions or concerns, just ask your Big Wild guide. After all, we want you to have a great wilderness experience, and that means that on any of our guided wilderness backpack adventures, we also want you to sleep safely and soundly.

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5 Backpacking Mistakes Many Beginners Make

Backpacking trips are undoubtedly growing more popular with each passing year. In fact, approximately 38.05 million people went on a hiking or backpacking trip between 2013 and 2014 in the United States. But if your interest in wilderness travel has just become piqued, you certainly aren’t alone. It’s never too late to try a national park or wilderness area backpacking trip! Whether you choose to go with a wilderness outfitting company on guided tours or opt for a family trip on your own, there are some typical mistakes novices tend to make. You’ll want to avoid these in order to remain safe and get the most out of your trip. Here are five of the most common mistakes:

  1. Not looking at gear before the trip
    Don’t make assumptions about your backpacking gear. Even if you thinkyou know how it works, you’ll want to test and inspect everything thoroughly before heading out. Be sure to read all instruction manuals carefully and ask questions if you aren’t certain about how to operate your gear. Waiting until you get into the wilderness to test out your camp stove or give the tent a trial run can make for a potentially dangerous situation. You could be left without shelter, water, heat, or food. Don’t take the chance! It won’t take long to familiarize yourself with everything — but do so from the comfort of your home.
  1. Overestimating how much you can carry
    Beginners have a tendency to over-pack. It’s understandable — you don’t want to forget something that could be very important. But even an extra five pounds of weight can make a huge difference. Leave the canned foods at home and opt for lightweight sustenance on your backpacking trips. You probably don’t need a big coffee mug, another pair of shoes, or that additional change of clothes. This is not the time to test your feats of strength. Pack only what is essential, and what you can feasibly carry.
  1. Underestimating Mother Nature
    Don’t discount the power of nature! If you’re caught in extreme weather, your main goal is to stay safe. In the event of a lightning storm, take shelter in the valley, preferably in continuous woods in flat terrain. Bring rain protection and beware of high winds. Exercise extreme caution when crossing rivers (or avoid doing so if at all possible). And above all, take the weather forecast into account. Do not plan backpacking travel when storms are predicted.
  1. Relying on technology for help
    In today’s world, many folks rely on our phones and navigation systems to know where they are and where they’re going. But when you’re in the wilderness, GPS and cell services can be unreliable, at best. In the event of an emergency, you may not be able to call for help or let anyone know where you are. Prepare for your trip as if you won’t be able to have a cell phone at all. Bring guidebooks, maps, compasses, as well as emergency and first-aid kits, to help you along the way. And know how to use them!
  1. Failing to refuel and hydrate
    When you’re hiking, you may not realize how much energy and water you’re losing. That’s why it’s so important to hydrate properly before, during, and after your excursions. When you arrive back at camp, make sure you eat a good meal and snack throughout the day. Though you may feel you’re too exhausted to cook, it’s imperative to refuel your body in order to make it through the rest of your trip.

If you want to start taking backpacking trips, make sure you’re prepared! Our guided tours through our national parks and Wilderness areas can allow you to see our country in a while new way while remaining safe and gaining knowledge. Contact us today to find out more.

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The Little Ones

Perhaps more than any other nature preserve in North America, Yellowstone National Park is known for its large mammals. On any of our guided hiking tours in the world’s first national park, our clients might see elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn or mountain goats. We occasionally view predators, too, including black and grizzly bear, gray wolf and coyote, plus red fox, bobcat, lynx and mountain lion, though I am aware of just two lynx sightings and one mountain lion sighting on Big Wild treks, these two cats being extremely secretive. Big avifauna includes sand-hill cranes, white pelicans, trumpeter swans, ravens, bald and golden eagles, great gray owls plus many other birds of prey. If you love big animals in big numbers, our Yellowstone hiking trips can’t be beat!

Nonetheless, in my opinion the little creatures define Yellowstone every bit as much as the mega-fauna. The noisy red squirrel is ubiquitous throughout the coniferous woods. Yellow Pine, Least and Uinta Chipmunks abound as do their Uinta and golden-mantled ground squirrel cousins. The aquatic mink and its terrestrial relative the American marten are two of my favorite members of the weasel family. I love bald eagles as much as anyone, sure. They are spectacular. But my favorite bird is the gray jay, formerly called the Canada jay and affectionately known as the “camp robber”. So graceful and silent are these robin-sized Corvids, as they swoosh through northern conifers from Alaska to Maine and across the northern tier, extending their range southward in the Rocky Mountains to Colorado. And they’ve earned their nickname around northern and high country campsites. In fact, I once had a gray jay snatch half a tortilla from right under my nose!

Then there are the crickets in the grassy meadows, the water voles along our sub-alpine streams, the northern pocket gophers churning up the sub-alpine meadows and all of the varied waterfowl that graces the lakes, ponds and wetlands. Not to mention the spring and summer symphony of songbirds. Indeed, Yellowstone is a land of many wonders and our guided hikes do provide an opportunity to see big animals, sometimes in great abundance. But don’t forget the little ones, for in many ways they also define the character of this magnificent landscape!


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Three Reasons To Choose Yellowstone

Of all the national parks in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone is my favorite. There are many reasons, but here are three of my top ones.

First, Yellowstone has the biggest, wildest backcountry. Sure, Death Valley National Park is larger, but numerous paved and dirt roads carve its backcountry into a couple of dozen separate units. Yellowstone also has roads, to which millions of tourists can attest, though fewer than Death Valley. But Yellowstone National Park is bordered on much of its north, east and south sides by some of the biggest national forest Wilderness Areas in the country, with no intervening roads or fences dividing the park backcountry from the Wilderness Areas. Which means that Yellowstone’s backcountry is effectively far bigger and wilder than what you might surmise by just viewing a map of the park. In fact, the farthest distance from a road in the lower 48 states is along the far southeastern border of Yellowstone, a fact first discovered by Dave Foreman and myself when we were researching our book, The Big Outside, A Descriptive Inventory of the Big Wilderness Areas of the United States.

Reason number two is wildlife. There is probably no place in the temperate regions of the Earth that compares with Yellowstone — and indeed the entire the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem — for wildlife. It is one of the only places left where all vertebrates known to have historically existed still do. And the number of large mammals is amazing! Yes, in the backcountry the animals are typically more secretive than along the roadsides. Nonetheless, if you want a backpack trip with a good chance to see lots of animals in their native wilderness habitats, don’t look any further than Yellowstone. Think elk, bison, wolf and griz, pronghorn, beaver, sandhill cranes, eagles……and so much more.

My third major reason is solitude. Compared with many other parks such as Yosemite, the Great Smokies or even Glacier, the Yellowstone backcountry is uncrowded! Plus, in many national parks such as Glacier, for example, backcountry campsites are allotted on the basis of carrying capacity. This means that if the official capacity for a particular backcountry camp is 12 people at one time, there might be 4 groups of 3 people, all camping within a stone’s throw of one another. By contrast, in Yellowstone, campsites are exclusive. When we reserve a camp, that campsite is ours alone. Even if the camp capacity is twelve and we have just six Big Wild Adventurers, we will not be camping with any other groups. Solitude is an important wilderness value, and the unsurpassed Yellowstone backcountry provides plenty!


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Take a Hike! 3 Important Health Benefits of Hiking

Whether you belong to a group of experienced wilderness adventurers or you’re a newbie to the world of national park backpacking, now is the perfect time to take a hike. The fall foliage, lack of insects, and cooler temperatures can make an autumn hiking trip ideal. But regardless of the time of year, backpacking trips can be highly beneficial to your health — maybe in ways you would have never realized.

Here are three of the best health-related reasons to take a hike at any time of year:

  1. Hiking burns calories
    This one is probably the most obvious benefit, but it’s an important one. Hiking and backpacking are fantastic workouts. Exercising on a machine in the gym can get boring, which means you’re not working out to your full potential. Switching up your routine in uneven terrain with new challenges will keep your muscles guessing and get your heart pumping. Although hiking alone is excellent exercise, carrying backpacking gear can give your workout that extra edge. If you weigh 155 pounds and carry just 10 to 20 pounds of backpacking gear (though you’d be carrying at least 30 pounds on a 5-6-day backpack trip, so you’ll be burning even more calories!), you’ll burn around 528 calories an hour while climbing those hills. That’s way more than you can achieve on the treadmill, and your hiking workout will definitely keep your interest!


  1. National park backpacking can help soothe existing conditions
    If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, regular hiking can help you considerably. The fresh air and muscular workouts can reduce blood sugar levels and can increase your stamina. You’ll therefore lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. This can be especially important for those who are genetically predisposed to these conditions. Prevention is by far the best medicine, and you’ll have fun doing it!


  1. Wilderness travel can boost your mood
    If you’re in a foul mood or are even suffering from depression, fitting in an outdoor workout can do wonders for your state of mind. Because it’s a social activity and you’ll release endorphins, you’ll probably notice you’re in a much happier state after your hike. These activities have also been shown to increase creativity and a sense of peace by connecting with nature. The idea of being healthy in both body and mind has never been more applicable than it is to hiking and backpacking.

Want to find out more about the wilderness adventure tours we offer? Get in touch with us today!

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Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights 2016, Part Two: Of Bears and Snow

What a year for our guided Yellowstone hikes: wildfire, snow, the great bear and much, much more! Really, who is to say what constitutes an actual “highlight”? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and while in these two blogs I focus on wildfire, bears, snow and autumn foliage, perhaps to some of our guests an equally valid highlight might simply be a great view from a high vantage point, or a beautiful sunset. Or perhaps the sighting of a weasel or the primordial calls of sandhill cranes. There is just so much magic out there in the incomparable wilds of the Yellowstone backcountry!

One grizzly gave us a brief but good look in the Hellroaring Creek drainage on our June Northern Yellowstone trek. And on our layover day in the wild Wyoming Absarokas a few miles to the southeast of the park, our entire group of eight watched two grizzlies foraging at treeline all day long on our layover day. The bears were about a mile away, and binoculars were  helpful. But the “best” griz sighting of the season (in terms of the clearest, closest view) was at the last camp of our Central Yellowstone Wild Off-Trail Trek in early September. Camped at a small pond surrounded by grassy wetland and lodgepole pine, shortly after dinner I walked to the edge of the lake to view some ducks, when I spotted a large male grizzly directly across the water. I called over to the two women in the cooking area and we all watched the big bruin circle the lake along its grassy shore, gradually changing direction until he was heading straight toward our camp, still unaware of our presence! At about 70 or 80 yards, that was close enough. “Hey Bear!”, I called out. He stopped immediately, turned his head to see three upright two-legged hominids standing together with aimed pepper sprays, and immediately galloped away, into the adjacent lodgepoles. Adios. That was the last we saw of this big silver-gray griz, but what a sighting it was!

The September Southwest Yellowstone Bechler Waterfall Wonderland trek was another highlight for me, as it produced an early autumn snowstorm and some of the best autumn foliage colors (in the Bechler Canyon) that I’ve ever seen in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem! There is nothing I love more than autumn colors and fall snows in the backcountry.


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Yellowstone Backpacking Highlights 2016, Part One: Wildfire!

Our 2016 guided hiking trips in Yellowstone National Park included some amazing experiences, from wildfires to snowstorms to spectacular views of grizzly bears in their wild habitats. What a year it was!

The summer of 2016 was a dry one throughout most of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, although localized thundershowers did produce wetter conditions in some areas, particularly in the northern part of the region. Consequently, by mid-July the forest fire danger in most of the park was rapidly increasing. As the summer unfolded, lightening struck and ignited blazes in a number of different areas around the region. On two of our Yellowstone backpack treks, Big Wild Adventures guide Beau Fredlund was forced to alter the route in response to natural wildfire. None of our other trips or guides were so inconvenienced. On one trip in Yellowstone’s Gallatin Range, Beau watched as an afternoon thunderstorm passed by, just a few miles down the valley. After dark, he noticed a faint but growing glow coming from that area. It was the last night of the trip, and the new fire was between the group and the trail-head! Rather than wait until morning and hope for the best, Beau made a quick decision to break camp in the dark and lead a moonlight stroll back to the Big Wild van. Although fires rarely grow very hot at night, Beau took no chances, erring on the side of safety in performing his duties as a guide, with safety as the absolute first priority.

Lucky Beau! Because on the Southern Yellowstone Late Summer Magic trek in late August, Beau had his trip re-routed by the Park Service when the agency decided to close the South Entrance road to all non-official traffic. The closure was because of a wildfire south of the park. The fire never actually threatened our group, but the Big Wild van was in the road-closure area. A park ranger intercepted Beau in the field to let him know about it, and happily, the Park Service was very helpful in providing a ride to retrieve our van at the end of the trek.

Lightening-ignited wildfires are a natural feature of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, and are an example of the “untrammeled” (meaning uncontrolled or unregulated) nature of real wilderness. Wilderness travelers must adapt to the wildness, not the other way around. And that’s one of the great things about wilderness adventure: when heading into the wilderness you are heading into the unknown, even in familiar territory. You never know what unexpected adventures await!


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Our New Guided Yellowstone Backpacking Trip for 2017

For those of you who have been with us as clients over the years, you’ll note on our 2017 trip schedule that we have replaced our September Colorado trip with a new and exciting Yellowstone backpack adventure, the Northern Yellowstone Autumn Splendor trek, from September 18-23, 2017. Not that anything was wrong with our treks in Colorado’s high country, but fewer clients in the shoulder season and considerable travel expense for us made that trek less than economical. But above all, the Yellowstone back-country in early autumn is so wonderful that we really do need to offer more than one such autumn adventure. So here it is, a fairly strenuous walk along a route of Northern Yellowstone that overlaps with our June Northern Yellowstone trip, but also includes some higher terrain that we rarely visit in the spring.

The route is chosen to include groves of quaking aspen that most years are turning glorious gold by the third week of September. Aspen is the only common deciduous tree in the uplands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where most forests are dominated by conifers, such as spruce, fir, Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine. There will also be brightly colored willows, elk will be bugling and nights will be frosty with typically clear sunny days. But be prepared: September at 7,500 feet can pack a meteorological wallop, so don’t skimp on warm clothing and good rain-gear, just in case Mother Nature cuts loose. Again, this trek will cover some new territory not usually seen on our June Northern Yellowstone trip, so don’t miss it!

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Yellowstone Backpacking and the Great Bears’ future, Part 3

Yes, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly has made an impressive comeback, and backpacking in Yellowstone means an encounter is more likely than at any time in decades. Nonetheless, the population is far from secure. Here’s why.

First, some high nutrition food sources have declined or are vulnerable to decline. For example, cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake have been decimated by non-native invasive lake trout. Whitebark pine nuts have dramatically declined as a food source throughout the ecosystem due to an explosion of native bark beetles (probably due to warming climate) and the exotic white pine blister rust fungus. Both of these pathogens have killed off huge numbers of whitebark pines. In addition, army cutworm moths are a fat-filled food source where great numbers of these insects gather in high elevation talus slopes on the east side of the ecosystem’s mountains. They are still plentiful, but are considered and treated (with pesticides) as an agricultural pest in the Great Plains, from where they migrate. Their future is uncertain. And of course, climate change is the great wild card; nobody knows how the great bear will fare in this unprecedented world of worrisome warming.

All of these threats are enough to give one pause about removing the grizzly from the endangered species list. But to me, the next three reasons are paramount. First, towns and rural areas in and around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are among the fasting growing areas of the country. Subdivisions, new roads, fences, water diversions, power lines and a mushrooming problem of mechanized off-road travel — from four-wheel machines and dirt bikes to mountain bikes — are encroaching into grizzly habitat at an alarming rate. And as population grows, so does traffic and the number of inevitable vehicular collisions with wildlife, including bears. Poaching and fatal encounters with overzealous, armed humans are another inevitable mortality factor due to regional population growth. Even though backpacking in Yellowstone’s backcountry — and horse-packing for that matter — have not increased much in recent decades, ecosystem-wide human activity is exploding, and grizzly habitat is becoming more of an island — an island under siege — than ever before.

Second, the GYE griz population is a classic “island population”, contained within a “habitat island” (the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) with essentially no connectivity to other grizzly populations. Highways, including Interstate 90, plus ranches, fences, reservoirs, towns, mines and more, currently segregate Yellowstone grizzlies from their nearest kin 150 miles to the north in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. And a Clinton Administration plan to reintroduce bears into the slightly closer Greater Salmon-Selway Wilderness Complex in central Idaho was squelched when Bush and Cheney took over the government in 2001. As conservation biologists warn, and as I explained in the previous installment of this series, isolated populations are vulnerable populations, unless they are very large. The Yellowstone grizzly population has come back from about 120 to maybe 800-900 bears, yes, but that’s still a small vulnerable isolated group of animals in a rapidly changing world.

Third, if grizzly bears are de-listed from “Threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act, they will be hunted.  Like other wildlife species, grizzlies will be under state wildlife management jurisdiction and that means hunting licenses will be sold. Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are already formulating hunting plans for grizzly bears. The last thing the Yellowstone grizzly needs is increased human-caused mortality. It needs protection. And connectivity to other griz populations. And it needs the respect that humans can but often do not demonstrate when they debate whether to make it possible to coexist with wild creatures that need lots of wild habitat. That is the crux of the matter. We still have a chance to protect the bear and its habitat and to provide and restore connectivity to other grizzly populations. The choice is ours. If we cannot do it right in the Greater Yellowstone, then where?

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Yellowstone Backpacking and the Great Bears’ Future, Part 2

After the Park Service closed the now infamous Yellowstone garbage dumps (where bears fed as a public spectacle) during the early ’70’s, the Yellowstone grizzly population plummeted. That’s because the agency failed to heed the warnings of bear researchers John and Frank Craighead to wean the bears off the garbage gradually. Instead, the “cold turkey” approach  utilized by the Feds resulted in lots of bears raiding camps, injuring people and getting into trouble in a frenzied search for new food items. As a result, way too many of these “problem bears” were “removed” from the population, which is a euphemistic way of saying that they were intentionally killed by the Park Service.

By the mid-1970’s the grizzly was plummeting toward extinction in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) and the total population was down to not much over 100 bears, with very few breeding females. One of the basic precepts of conservation biology is that small isolated populations are likely to “wink out”; that is they become extinct due to various potential pitfalls such as drought, disease, loss of food sources, hunting, too few breeding females, or genetic problems such as inbreeding (bigger populations, especially if  connected by suitable habitat to other populations of their species, can better withstand such events). So by the mid-1970’s, the Yellowstone grizzly was in grave jeopardy. While backpacking in Yellowstone during this time period, it was a rare event indeed to encounter an Ursus arctos horribilis in the wild.

Fortunately, at the end of 1973 Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, and in 1975 the grizzly bear was listed as a “Threatened” species in the lower 48 states. That was just in the nick of time! The listing ended grizzly hunting in Wyoming and Montana and placed full legal protections on these animals. Throughout the ecosystem, garbage and other human food sources were bear-proofed. Educational efforts taught folks how to safely behave in bear country including the use of bear spray. Restrictions were placed upon resource extraction schemes in grizzly habitat on federal lands. And the big bruins re-learned how to thrive on natural foods.

Gradually, grizzly numbers began to grow. Fewer bears were getting into trouble and being killed by humans. Natural food sources were plentiful and by the early 2000’s grizzlies were spreading into areas of the Greater Yellowstone where they hadn’t been seen in decades. Our clients are now much more likely to see grizzly bears while backpacking in Yellowstone than at any time since Big Wild Adventures has been in the guided backpacking business. Although nobody knows precisely how many grizzlies inhabit the GYE, the best estimates are roughly 700 to maybe 1,000. That’s a far cry from the population bottleneck of the early ’70’s. There is no doubt that the grizzly has made a great comeback. The endangered Species Act has worked. So grizzlies are recovered, right? Time to remove them from Endangered Species Act protections, correct?

Well, think again! In the third and final post of this series, we will look at some compelling reasons to keep the Yellowstone grizzly fully protected under the Endangered Species Act. Stay tuned!





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