Thursday, January 30, 2020

Like to stay comfy? Seven tips for newbies on winter camping in Idaho

Winter camping ... just you and the mountains. (photo by Alex Gillespie)

By Alex Gillespie

There is nothing quite like waking up and stepping out of your tent with a view of snowy mountains, knowing there's sweet, fresh powder ready to be skied. If it’s your first time camping during the cold, winter months, I highly recommend it. However, it can be pretty miserable if you aren't prepared. 

Here are seven tips I’ve learned along the way to improve your winter camping experience.

Choose the right winter campsite:

Picking your campsite can be fun! Do your research to see where you'd like to set up. 

Fresh tracks on Pilot Peak, Boise National Forest 
In the greater Southwest Idaho and Central Idaho area, pick a spot that has plowed-road access to trailheads the Boise, Payette or Sawtooth National Forest and Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Popular backcountry winter camping jump-off spots include: 

  • Mores Creek Summit, providing access to Pilot Peak, Freeman Peak and Sunset Mountain, accessed via Idaho Highway 21, north of Idaho City. 
  • Big Creek Summit, half way from Cascade to Warm Lake. 
  • Idaho Highway 21 - Beaver Creek Summit or Banner Ridge Park and Ski lots provide access to many miles of trails in the Idaho City Park and Ski system and remote backcountry locations for winter camping. 
  • Idaho Highway 21 - Copper Mountain and Bull Trout Point are two popular destinations between Lowman and Stanley, on the Stanley side of Banner Summit. 
  • Lick Creek Road and Goose Lake Road, both snowmobile trails in the winter, provide access to the Payette National Forest.  
  • Stanley Ranger Station and Redfish Lake Lodge trailheads in the Stanley area, Sawtooth NRA. 

Beyond Idaho, here are more recommendations on winter-camping locations. You may find reviews from other campers or find great information on the campsite’s website, if they have one. (This is for more developed sites, of course)

Check the weather and avalanche conditions:

It is always important to check the weather and avalanche conditions before you go. This is especially important when camping during the cold winter months. 
Continually check the upcoming weather, check Idaho Snotel sites to check on local snowfall/snowpack, and stay on top of any trail closures in the area. Always make a plan, and let anyone close to you know your where you're going and when you'll be back in case something goes wrong.
Bring the right gear:

Packing for a cold-weather camping trip can be a little bit tougher than during the summer months. It is important to find the perfect tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and whatever else you may need to keep yourself warm. You may notice that many sleeping bags are specifically insulated for a certain temperature. In Idaho and the Rocky Mountains, a sleeping bag that's rated to 0 to -20 degrees would be essential for staying warm. Pick the right sleeping bag for the occasion. Finding the right gear is a crucial part of camping during the colder months, so choose wisely!

Photo by Alex Gillespie
Wear/Bring the right clothes:

The key to staying warm is having the right clothing and layering up. For me, three layers is typically a good place to start. The base layer consists of the underwear layer that directly touches the skin. Wear synthetics that absorb and wick away moisture. Capilene works great. Shop around for light to heavyweight long underwear depending on how low the temperatures will reach. The middle layer is good for insulation. Peel layers when you're climbing and carrying a heavy pack, so they don't get soaked with sweat. Find a warm puffy down or synthetic insulated jacket to wear. For your outer layer, it is necessary to have a waterproof jacket/shell and pants to protect you from any sort of crazy weather that may happen.

Protect your electronics:

Whether you have your phone with you, a nice camera to take photos, or any sort of electronic device, you need to protect it from the cold weather. Cold weather can drain your battery fast or permanently damage your electronic device. You also need to think about the wet conditions you may face whether it rains, sleets, or snows. It would be smart to purchase a dry box container to store your electronics when not in use.

Insulated coolers and water bottles:

There is a greater risk of dehydration when you’re are camping at a high altitude or in extreme weather. Because of that, it is important to keep your water from freezing overnight. Do your research to make sure you are buying well-insulated products for your food and water. When skiing or snowshoeing, it's handy to have a water system where you can take sips as you're climbing. Most day packs come equipped with an internal water bladder. Make sure the outside tube is insulated somehow to keep the water from freezing inside.

When nature calls…:

Don’t try to hold your pee in the middle of the night when nature calls. This will make you colder since your body has to burn calories to keep urine warm. If it’s too cold to leave your tent, men can consider using a designated water bottle and women use a jar or purchase a female urination device (FUD) before-hand. It’s not glamorous, but it works!

I hope you can use these tips to experience an unforgettable winter camping trip. Take the time to do your research on where to go and what to pack. Once you’ve set up camp, be smart and play it safe, but most importantly, enjoy it!

Alex Gillespie a guest columnist for Stueby's Outdoor Journal. She can be reached at

If you're interested in submitting a guest column, please send to 

Thursday, January 23, 2020

My favorite xc ski, snowshoe and snow biking spots in McCall for Winter Carnival

Fat biking at Jug Mountain Ranch is a fun activity. (Courtesy McCall Chamber of Commerce)
Cross-country skiing in Bear Basin (courtesy McCall Chamber of Commerce)
Hi all,

Well, it's that time of year, once again, when the McCall Winter Carnival is swinging into action on Friday, Jan. 24, and it runs through Sunday, Feb. 2. The theme is "It's a Kids World."

I've been in McCall frequently in recent weeks, and despite 50 degree temperatures and bare ground in the Treasure Valley, it's full-on winter in McCall, with 2-3 feet of snow in town. Master ice sculptors are perfecting their masterpieces as we speak, and downtown McCall is looking bright and festive for this wonderful occasion!

"The McCall Winter Carnival was inspired by the Payette Lake Winter Games, first held in 1924 when a train from Boise brought 248 visitors to McCall. The official McCall Winter Carnival started in the 1960s and over the years, the Carnival has grown into an iconic Idaho event bringing more than 60,000 people to McCall each year!" writes the McCall Chamber of Commerce.

I highly recommend the Marti Gras parade on Saturday, checking out the ice sculptures, ice skating, live music, beer garden, and scores of other events planned for the next 10 days. Have you been growing out your beard, or ladies, your leg hair, for the hairy legs contest? The McCall locals have a great sense of humor, and they know how to celebrate winter!
While you're in town, I'd like to share my favorite places to go snow-shoeing, xc skiing or snow-biking in the greater McCall area.

Drew snowshoeing with me in Ponderosa
Park on the Meadow Marsh Trail.

1. Ponderosa State Park:
 Located close to downtown McCall, Ponderosa State Park has 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) of groomed cross country ski trails and 3.5 miles of marked snowshoe trails that will be nicely packed from recreation use until we get more snow. There’s also Rover’s Roundabout, a 1-mile groomed trail loop for dogs near the park entrance.

It’s a beautiful experience skiing at the park because of the huge ponderosa pine trees that tower over the groomed trails. The classic day trip is to ski up the main trail to Fox Run, climb Fox Run and take that around to Lakeside, turn right and climb up to Osprey Point, a sweet overlook of Payette Lake. That’s about 6.2 miles (10k) round trip.

My favorite snowshoe loop is to walk around Meadow Marsh. When you’re halfway through, if you’re feeling strong, you might take the Lily Marsh trail to Fox Run and retrace your steps. If that’s too easy, stay on Lily Marsh to Ridgeline and climb to the top of Osprey Point for the view.
Getting there: Take Railroad Avenue off Main Street, heading east. Follow signs to Ponderosa State Park (entrance and trail fees apply).

We're regulars at Bear Basin since they allow dogs on all of their trails. Huck loves it!
Bear Basin: We like Bear Basin because it allows dogs on all of the cross country ski and snowshoe trails, and the trails there have a little more diversity and length. The grooming is frequent and well done, as it is at Ponderosa. Bear Basin has 18.6 miles (30k) of cross country and skate ski trails, and 6.2 miles (10k) of marked snowshoe trails.

Beginning cross country skiers or skaters can do a 2-mile (3.2k) loop right out of the parking area on a green trail called “Just Right.” You can change things up and add more distance and challenge by doing the Polar Express Loop (1.4 miles/2.3k), Mack’s Loop (1.3 miles/2.1k) and Lyle’s (1.9 miles/3.1k). If you do all three of those intermediate to advanced loops, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten your workout for the day.

Snowshoers will find a number of loops in the woods close to the trailhead, and then, of course, you can travel more distance by making your own trail or following the cross country trails wherever you wish to go.

Getting there: Take Idaho 55 west of McCall to North Club Hill Drive at the top of the hill before you come to the Little Ski Hill. Turn right. Go a quarter mile to the Bear Basin Trailhead on your right. There is a restroom, yurt and parking by the trailhead. Be sure to pay your trail fees before you ski or snowshoe.

Snow biking on the North Valley Trail, excellent choice! 
Activity Barn/North Valley Trail: Located south of McCall, the Activity Barn is the go-to place for lift-assisted tubing. Kids love it. There’s also 3.1 miles (5k) of groomed cross country ski trails open to snowshoeing and fat biking as well. You can connect to the North Valley Trail, which is groomed out to Heinrich Lane, about three miles one way from the Activity Barn. The bonus of all of these trails is that they’re open for free, courtesy of Brundage Mountain and Valley County Pathways.
Getting there: Take Mission Street south of McCall to Moonridge Drive. Turn right and follow the road less than a mile to the Activity Barn parking lot.

4. Jug Mountain Ranch: Jug has awesome cross country ski/skate trails, plus it’s the go-to spot for fat biking in the area. There are 15.5 miles (25k) of groomed cross country ski and skate trails at JMR. The trails are also open to fat biking and dogs. The classic trip is to ski or ride Mainline trail up to Upper Jug Creek Reservoir. Enjoy the pretty setting of the lake, with Jughandle Mountain looming above, and then cruise downhill, retracing your steps, or take a different trail downhill.
JMR also grooms fat bike singletrack on the South Elk and North Elk trails, which are definitely worth riding. If you don’t have a fat bike, JMR rents them at the clubhouse. Fat bikes are available at McCall outdoor stores as well.

Getting there: 
Take Idaho 55 to Lake Fork. Go east on Lake Fork Road to the entrance of JMR. Stay on the main road and drive up to the clubhouse and trailhead. Check in at the clubhouse before you ride or ski to pay your trail fees.

Enjoy Winter Carnival! 
- SS

Friday, January 17, 2020

Ride a snowmobile to Burgdorf Hot Springs! Iconic Idaho winter trip!

Hi all,

My outdoor tip of the week is about our snowmobile trip to Burgdorf Hot Springs!

See my detailed write up in the Idaho Press ...

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Try Ann Morrison Park for winter dog walk close to home

Room to Roam! Huck is a speck off the distance in the middle of Ann Morrison Park.
Huck goes after the ducks and geese
Hi all,

As Boise grows, it seems we've been losing access to some places where you could let your dog run free, off-leash, places where you could throw balls for your dog, or just let them run around and burn off some energy.

But the new Together Treasure Valley Dog Island Park, a 5.4-acre dog-friendly park inside the huge 153-acre Ann Morrison Park, create two excellent destinations for exercising your dog in the winter in Boise.

Ann Morrison Park (courtesy Boise Parks & Recreation) Dog Island Park is in the SW corner.
The ability to walk anywhere in the park with your dog roaming around along the tree rows and creeks in Ann Morrison is a real treat. It's a super-pleasant, quiet place to walk, while your pups get their exercise. On Thursday morning, we walked around the park in our snow boots, with a few inches of fresh snow on the ground.   

I've personally found that the Dog Island Park can get pretty packed with dogs and people at times, so having the option of roaming the whole expanse of Ann Morrison Park is a real value-added experience.  

Dog Island Park is fenced but still pretty spacious.
The larger park is open to dogs off-leash from Nov. 1 - Feb. 28 in hopes of scattering Canada geese, in particular, and cutting down on goose poop. Make sure your pooch has a current city dog license.

Dog Island Park has a off-leash areas, "shy dog" fenced-off areas, ponds and oodles of extra tennis balls that people have left behind on the lawns or in the ponds. I thought that was kind of funny to see so many tennis balls lying around.

See a Boise Parks and Recreation listing of other off-leash parks, where you can take your dog. Please remember to pick up after your pets!

BTW ... it's going to be a stellar powder weekend on the slopes wherever you might be heading. Big powder dump coming Friday/Saturday/Sunday! Yay!

- SS

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Idaho Free Cross-County Ski Day is Saturday, plus update on Nordic conditions everywhere!

It's Free Cross-country Ski Day in Idaho on Saturday, Jan. 4! Free hot drinks at the Stargaze yurt! That's the mighty Quinn!
Hi all,

For those of us who pay close attention to snow conditions, snowfall, ski conditions, etc., it's been a bit of a slow start to winter in Southwest Idaho and most of the state for that matter. The series of storms we've had in the last few weeks, however, especially the big storm we had on New Year's Eve/New Year's Day, has put the mountains in pretty good shape for full-on winter recreation.

Wendy and I went up to Mores Creek Summit on New Years Day, as alas, we were not in McCall, where the really big powder dump occurred. There was a good 8-10 inches of new snow on the grade heading up Sunset Mountain, and it was pretty thick snow with high moisture content. Not the best for making turns, but it's the kind of base-making layer we need EVERYWHERE!

Let's hope we get some more big dumps soon! There's a small system that will bring a few inches of new snow to the SW Idaho mountains on Saturday, but we need more! Keep track on Idaho OpenSnow

In the meantime, here's an update on Nordic trail conditions and events coming up: 
  • The annual Idaho Parks and Recreation Ski Free Day is happening on Saturday, Jan. 4, statewide. In the Idaho City Park and Ski Areas, you can attend an open house at the Stargaze yurt from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Stargaze is accessible to snowshoers and backcountry skiers from Beaver Creek Summit on Idaho Highway 21 between Idaho City and Lowman. Park in the pullout, hike 1.2 miles to the yurt, and learn about the Idaho Park and Ski Trail System from Tom Helmer, IDPR non-motorized trail coordinator. He'll be serving free hot chocolate, coffee and tea. Tom replaced Leo Hennessy in the last year.
  • DeEtta Peterson, IDPR yurt coordinator, will lead a 1.76-mile snowshoe hike from the Banner Ridge Park and Ski parking lot, beginning at 10 a.m. She'll be leading several groups through 2 p.m. The Banner Ridge trailhead accesses the Banner Ridge and Elkhorn yurts, plus snowshoe and ski trails. DeEtta is super knowledgeable about all of the yurts and park and ski trails as well.
  • To check on the latest snow and grooming conditions at the Idaho City Park and Ski Trails, call 208-514-2423. The latest recording I heard as of Dec. 30 indicated that there was a 26-inch base (prior to the New Year's storm event), so it's well over 30 inches now. Much-improved coverage! The trails are groomed weekly.  
  • Ponderosa State Park will be offering free lessons and free equipment in McCall from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Gravity Sports and Hometown Sports have a great selection of gear to try out.  McCall Master Naturalists will offer free snowshoe instruction and guided tours. McCall Master Naturalists, St Luke’s McCall and Albertson’s will provide hot drinks and snacks. Hopefully, Scout the Fox will be visiting, too. 
  • Race for the Diamonds at Ponderosa Park on Saturday - This sounds really fun! Registration at 5 p.m. Two-person relay teams are picked at random. Each skier races a 3K course. The winning team gets a $150 gift certificate from McCall Jewelry! Plus there is a 1K and 3K race for kids.
  • Tamarack Resort has opened its Nordic Trails - About 15K's are groomed. Some of Tamarack's Nordic Trails are open to snow-biking as well. 
  • All of the trails in Bear Basin, Jug Mountain Ranch (snow-biking, too) and the North Valley Trail (snow-biking, too) are groomed and in great shape! See McCall Nordic for the latest grooming reports on all of the xc areas in Valley County. 
  • All of Bogus Basin's Nordic trails are open. See the grooming report here.  
  • See the Blaine County Winter Trailink for the latest conditions in the Wood River Valley. Almost all of the trails are open in the valley now. 
- SS