Despite the burning lungs, cramping thighs, or calf muscles on fire, there’s something almost otherworldly about peak bagging. Peak baggers, the term for adventurers who summit, or bag, the highest peaks, want the exhilaration of reaching unparalleled vistas and gazing across mountain range after mountain range.
“There is a lot more cosmic energy up there, and you get charged up,” says Tom Lopez, author of Idaho: A Climbing Guide, known as the Bible of climbing in the state.
Lopez bags peaks year round, including this winter, when many lower-elevations peaks didn’t have snow. Because of the mild winter in Idaho, snow has come off a lot of the state’s peaks earlier this year. As a result, July is shaping up to be a prime month for hiking to Idaho’s nine peaks that are more than 12,000 feet in elevation, with hundreds more in the 10,000- to 12,000-foot range.
Every week during the height of the summer, hundreds of hikers climb (or attempt to climb) 12,662-foot Mount Borah, Idaho’s highest point, each week in the height of the summer. Want to join them? Take a look at our insider tips on peak bagging in Idaho.
1. Know what you’re getting into.
Idaho’s 12,000-footers, which are spread among several different mountain ranges, are some of the most popular peaks among climbers, including Leatherman Peak at 12,230 feet and Mount Church at 12,200 feet. Although many peaks have trails going to the top, with the last 50 or so yards scrambling across rocks, such excursions require strong physical fitness and plenty of planning.
2. Carve out a weekend (or longer) for your trip.
It takes a weekend, at least, for a peak-bagging trip, especially for newbies. Many climbers plan to reach the trailhead on Friday night and camp. A lot of climbers plan a dinner on Friday at a favorite restaurant in a nearby town like Ketchum, Hailey, or Stanley on the way to the trailhead.
Many peaks can be done on a long day hike, but others, like those in the White Clouds and Sawtooths, may require overnight backpacking trips. Peaks in the Boulder Mountains and Pioneer Mountains around Sun Valley offer very scenic day hikes.
3. Do your homework ahead of time.
Lopez’s book is a must-read for any hopeful peak baggers in Idaho. In addition, plan routes on computer topo programs and get a lay of the land beforehand. Dig out U.S. Forest Service national forest maps for the best back roads to trailheads.
4. Plan on getting up early.
It’s called an alpine start: The tactic used by veteran climbers to leave camp around 4 or 5 am with headlamps glowing. Some climbs take about 12 hours, meaning that you’ll have to start your hike before daylight, and start descending shortly after noon, before thunderheads start gathering. (And speaking of the weather …)
5. Keep a close eye on the weather.
You don’t want to be on a peak in a lightning storm. Keep up-to-date on the weather forecasts before your trip and don’t be afraid to cancel with storms rolling in. Watch the weather right up until the start of the climb.
In addition, be aware of warming temperatures and snowmelt. If your route is a dried creek bed, it could be flowing with water in the afternoon after warm temperatures melt the snowpack upstream. Walking down the mountain in knee-deep icy water is no fun and could ruin a pair of hiking boots. Keep in mind that stream crossings also get deeper in the afternoon.
6. Fuel up the smart way.
Dehydration can set in fast and lead to trouble, like mountain headaches and muscle cramps. Be sure to pack water for the entire day if the peak is a dry hike with no creeks or snow. If the peak can be reached in a drainage with a creek, pack a water filter and filter and drink as you go, a strategy that means carrying less water and cuts down on weight.
For food, high-energy snacks like trail mix and energy bars are a convenient way to stay fueled up.
7. Strategize your clothing choices.
Dress in layers: the first should be performance underwear, and the second, synthetic fleece. Have a wind or rain shell for protection in a storm. Fast-drying wind proof nylon pants, the ones that zip off into shorts, are an ideal layer.
Short gaiters are good for crawling across scree and will keep dirt and pebbles out of your boots. Wear a hat with a wide brim to shelter from the sun.
In addition, it’s a good idea to pack winter ski hat and gloves. Snowstorms can come up in July and August. Trekking poles are a must. They save your knees, help with balance, and put the pressure on your arms for going uphill. Some peak baggers also carry an ice axe for extra safety crossing snowfields.
8. Don’t forget other essentials.
A daypack should include a small first-aid kit, emergency space blanket or light bivy sack, food, extra clothing, compass, GPS, topo map, and multifunction watch with altimeter. Pack a cell phone for emergencies; signals can be obtained on many peaks. Comfortable hiking boots are also recommended, as trail shoes don’t give enough support on scree and during the final scramble. Take a small point-and-shoot camera to save on weight; don't miss the fabulous shots that will also document your adventure. And, for a fitting toast when you finish, don't forget to bring a stash of beers.
9. Keep others informed.
It should go without saying for any excursion into the wilderness, but be sure to tell relatives and friends what peak you are climbing and give them your estimated time of arrival at home. Tell them where you will camp, what trailhead you are accessing, and information about your vehicle (make, color and license plate number). And when you get off the mountain, call to let them know you’re safe—and that yes, you bagged that peak.