Tales of a Backpacking Newbie

Photo: Emily Long

“Isn’t four days a bit ambitious for a first backpacking trip?”

Several of my friends, all far more experienced with such things than I, tried to hide their concern as we wrapped up some last-minute planning. No, I thought, it’ll be fine. Some combination of pride, independence, and stupidity prevents me from backing down from most challenges, so I packed a bunch of borrowed gear into a borrowed backpack, donned my trail runners, and set out for what I assumed would be a few days of moderate hiking on northwest Montana’s Alpine Trail #7.

While Glacier National Park is an obvious choice for all manner of outdoor adventures, nearby Flathead National Forest offers similarly stunning views without the crowds or park rules. Alpine Trail #7 is so underappreciated, in fact, that no one, Forest Service rangers included, seems to know for sure exactly how many miles nor what type of terrain it covers. Armed with only a district map, we mentally committed to 50-plus miles over four days with relatively few opportunities to call it quits.

We started on the Columbia Mountain Loop Trail, which climbs somewhere around 4,000 vertical feet in just six miles— exactly the kind of surprise you don’t want when your pack is at its heaviest and your legs are the most uncertain and your brain is screaming “maybe this was a bit ambitious after all.” After muscling through the climb, we camped that night on top of the ridge where Alpine Trail #7 meets the Loop and our reward for a tough first day was the sunset over the Flathead Valley.

The next morning we woke to see the sun rise over the rocky peaks of Glacier National Park. On that second day we covered many miles up, along, and down the mountains of the Swan Range, on steep and narrow ridge trails and through wide valleys and over snowfields that managed to survive the summer heat.

We spent another entire day crossing Jewel Basin, a “hiking only” section of Flathead that contains 27 lakes so blue that you think they can’t possibly be real. We swam in the frigid waters of Crater Lake, lost and found and lost our trail again countless times, and didn’t see another person for miles at a time.

Tired, dirty, sunburned, and covered in bug bites—I’m still wondering what the swarms of Montana mosquitos eat when they can’t find humans to torture—we walked out of the woods on day four. It had been less than a week, but I’d learned a lot, like the basics of propane stoves to how not to panic when you lose your hiking partner for three hours on a two-mile stretch of trail. I’d also gotten a crash course in independence, in humility, and in the sometimes unforgiving quality of nature.

I was glad to be back in civilization, but to be honest, after a shower, a burger, and a beer, not necessarily in that order, I was ready to hit the trail again.

Photo: Emily Long