Enjoying Idaho’s Backcountry In Winter
If there’s one thing Idaho is known for as much as potatoes, it’s outdoor recreation. Proof of that might lie in the fact that Boise has more outdoor stores per capita than any other city in the U.S. The mountains of Idaho beckon adventurers on a year-round basis here, and while the warm months of summer are perhaps the biggest draw, there’s no reason to stow away your backpacking gear just because the temperature drops and there might be a little snow on the ground.
VisitIdaho.org offers a wealth of information on places to go and things to do in Idaho’s winter backcountry, everything from bona fide ski and snowboard resorts to yurts, guest ranches, even glamping sites.
“If you can stay dry, so you can stay warm, and you have enough to eat, unless the bone is sticking through your arm, the weather doesn’t matter,“ jokes Emil Hutton, owner of The Benchmark, an independent outdoor store in Boise.
Emil has been selling outdoor gear for more than 40 years. After college in Flagstaff, Arizona, back in 1969, the Detroit native decided he liked the West, and stayed on, teaching elementary school. A hiking buddy kept telling him that outdoor recreation was going to be the next big thing, and they decided to test his theory by opening a store. Sure enough, their gear started selling like hotcakes, and soon they had two stores. Five years later, he was back in Michigan, where he quickly opened three more.
“Every state has its backpacking stores, because it’s a life-long activity,” says Emil. Technology has made us spectators in the lion’s share of what we do today, outside of work. But it’s hard to be a spectator as a backpacker. Whether you’re hiking, skiing, canoeing, biking, or just traveling, you’re a participant.”
In 1985, his hankering for the West returned with a vengeance, so he hopped a train West, visiting several states before settling on Idaho. He arrived in Boise that June, and by September, his first Benchmark store was up and running on Emerald Street. In 1991 he bought an old Safeway store on Vista Avenue and moved The Benchmark to bigger digs, offering the latest gear for backpacking, mountaineering, skiing, fly fishing, even rowing sculls. He’s since narrowed his focus a bit.
“My love is climbing and backpacking, and the four basic things you need for that are packs, tents, boots and bags, so now we basically just do that, along with most of the applicable accessories,” Emil says.
The Benchmark’s sleeping bag display alone is worth a visit. It fills two walls, with the bags laid out on shelves that seem to invite you to crawl in and take a snooze. Prices range from around $200 to over $1,000, and they’re almost exclusively down-filled.
“Look at it this way, when you take vacations you stay in a hotel,” says Emil. “How many nights in a hotel would it take to pay for a good sleeping bag? And you can take that bag home with you, and it will be there for 50 years if you take care of it.”
According to Emil, educating the customer about what they’re buying is key to making sure they get the right gear for their needs.
“Making an educated decision today is a challenge, because convenience has become more important,” he says. “You can shop online, where you’re not intimidated by someone who’s trying to sell you something, but at the same time you’re relegated to only two senses; sight and sound. If you go to a store, you can see hear, smell, touch, taste, and then, in most cases, you’ll get some help from a sales person who not only knows what they’re talking about, but has your best interests at heart.”
Without a doubt, the most important decision you’ll make when it comes to hiking gear is boots.
“The number one thing about picking a pair of boots is fit,” says Emil. “Second, fit. Third, fit. And then it’s picking the right tool for the job. In other words, are you hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for six months, or trekking through Ann Morrison Park? The boot that’s best for the job but doesn’t fit you is the worst boot to buy.”
According to Emil, boots that come out of Europe surpass those made in America. But while the heritage of brands like Scarpa, Aku, Asolo, and La Sportiva is European, in many cases today, they may be manufactured in Romania or China. There are also insulated boots, aka packs. Arguably the best are Canadian brands like Baffin, Sorel, and Kamik, which aren’t necessarily ideal for hiking on rugged terrain, but can be the perfect option for showshoeing or trudging through deep snow. Prices for all these can range from around $130 to upwards of $300. If that sounds like a lot, just remember that fit equals comfort, and your feet are what’s getting you to your destination, and hopefully back home again.
“The most important thing you can do with your boots is put real socks in them,” Emil says. “Not a pretend sock. Not a $200 boot and a $7 pair of socks. And it should be wool.”
He also subscribes to the two-sock method.
“Silk has the lowest conductivity of all fibers, which makes it a good inner sock for the wintertime. Wool is the best overall because it’s the only material that keeps its heat-retaining ability even when it’s wet. Synthetic socks are the worst, because they don’t transfer moisture well in the vapor state.”
When it comes to packs, the list for picking the right tool for the job starts off the same as for boots. First, fit. Second, fit. Third, fit. Fourth, adjustment. And fifth, how you load it. You also need to pick the right capacity to carry all the warm-dry-full things you’ll need, along with any other stuff you want to bring along.
“Sadly, external frames have left the arena,” Emil says. “I think without a lot of justification. I mean, what is a pack? Bag, frame, suspension. With frame packs you wear the frame and the frame wears the bag. With internal frame packs, you wear it all.”
At Emil’s first store, in the early 1970s, the most expensive pack you could buy was $65. Today, they’re around $130 and up. The most expensive pack The Benchmark carries is just under $300, and it will hold one heck of a lot of warm-dry-full. Some packs are even designed especially for winter with attachments for skis, snowboards or snowshoes.
The final piece in Emil’s four-part backpacking primer is tents. They come in a wide variety of styles, sizes, and prices range from around $130 to $400, but again, the best rule of thumb is to pick the right tool for the job. There are four-season tents, three-season, even two-season models, but all that aside, you want a tent for the two basic things every tent does: keep you warm and dry. You also want it to be light, which can wreak havoc with the warm factor in winter, so a good rain fly becomes an important accessory. And you also want it to be strong, because winter weather can mean high winds and heavy snow.
“What makes a tent more applicable to the fourth season, is more poles, and more intersections made by those poles,” he says. “Every time one pole crosses another, the tent gets stronger. That said, a simple center pole model can also be very stable.”
Of course, there is a plethora of accessory gear, like clothing, cooking stoves, food, and other items that may or may not be necessary, depending on the type of trip you’re taking, and the terrain you’ll be hiking. But wherever you’re going, in whatever season, if you take the time to investigate these four primary staples: boots, bags, packs and tents, you’ll be well on your way to staying warm-dry-full in practically any condition Mother Nature wants to throw at you. And The Benchmark is an excellent place to start your search.