Backpacking in the Uintas: One Day
Backpackers and hikers are a strange breed that thrives on rejecting basic comforts in exchange for a physical goal accomplished. Think type-two fun. On any given weekend, you can see an endless line of campers and RVs headed to spend time in the Uinta wilderness. The second someone steps away from creature comforts and takes on the mountains sans machine, they escape the droves and experience a more natural setting. This guide is the first of three in a progression on backpacking in the Uintas—starting with a single day, then an overnight, and finally a multi-day backpacking trip.
There are two major mountain ranges in the Park City area: the Wasatch and the Uintas. Both have an abundance of trails cultivated by non profits and state agencies for decades. With thousands of miles of temperate coniferous forest in the Wasatch range and seemingly endless alpine wilderness in the Uinta, the hiking and backpacking options are vast.
The Uinta mountains set themselves apart by being the highest range in the contiguous United States running east to west. It is a rare direction for mountain ranges in North America—most others, like the Wasatch, go north to south. Rugged and isolated with a unique geography and history, they seem to possess a certain mysterious ambiguity.
A Day Hike: Different Meanings for Different People
There are a variety of day hikes for all ability levels within the Uinta range. Most people enter on Utah S.R. 150, the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, which cuts through the range north to south cresting at Bald Mountain Pass (elev. 10,715 ft.). As the name suggests, this road is beautiful, and it’s dotted with many lakes, camping areas, and trailheads. Although this area can get congested in the warmer months, hiking a bit further usually provides some escape. If you are visiting Park City or want to explore with others in a supportive atmosphere, Jans offers a wilderness hiking tour in the Uintas. This scenic day trip fills up fast and touts an epic day out with local experts who are Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certified.
For those looking for a more remote experience, the High Uinta Wilderness is a protected area within the Ashley National Forest that does not allow vehicles. Here you will find Utah’s tallest and most prominent mountain, Kings Peak, which tops out at 13,528 ft. Just shy of a fourteener, but no less prominent, most people attempting the summit take two or three days to hike the 25-mile roundtrip. Some superhumans called ‘trail runners’ prefer to accomplish this same grueling trek in a day. Don’t ask me how because I do not understand it. But for the sake of acknowledgment, I will just state that yes some elite few consider Kings Peak a day hike.
Checking the Weather to Packing a Bag
When you are preparing to go into an alpine setting, even just for a day trip, it is important to be thorough and not forget key items that might make you surrender early. For me, it always helps to make a list of the essentials I need for my trip. I begin this process by checking multiple weather sources and then planning for the worst case scenario. In the Uintas, the weather can change quickly with fast-rolling thunderstorms in the summer afternoons that can even turn to hail or snow. Coming from the desert, I once wore flip flops on an afternoon climbing adventure. Long story short, we decided to bail when the rain picked up. As we were briskly walking the couple miles back to the car, the weather escalated quickly to marble-sized hail. Needless to say, my feet took a beating and I acquired a lingering cold.
There are many packing techniques, but for me personally, it helps to lay things out so I can see everything in front of me and what items I’m still missing. From there I can analyze how to pack the backpack properly. Using dry bags to separate different categories in my bag helps to keep things organized and accessible. When packing your bag you’ll want to prioritize two main things: access and weight.
Access: Packing things you need sooner or more often at the top or in outer pockets helps you reach them easily. Lesser-used items can go in the bottom of your bag.
Weight: You want to make sure the heavier items are packed closer to your back and center of gravity. Putting heavy gear lower in your pack will help you not lose your balance. This is why many packs have a pocket for your water bladder located in your back panel.
After you pack the majority of your gear you can use the extra layers you plan to bring with you. Shove them into the empty space inside your pack to keep things from moving around and possibly putting you off balance. This also makes your puffy and rain jacket easily accessible for when cold or rainy weather rolls in. You can find numerous packing lists online so I won’t bore you with those now, but I will mention a few key things that have saved me in the past.
- Double check you charged your headlamp battery and bring it even if you think you will be back by dark
- Extra socks are literally a game changer for countless situations
- Electrolytes are life and have saved me from not getting heat exhaustion on hard, hot days
- In the same theme, always bring enough water and/or a water filtration system
- Bring Wag Bags just in case (see below for description)
- My Garmin InReach helps my family feel better about me recreating in the mountains and adds a safety net to my trip. Although it is not an answer to all emergencies, knowing how to use it and having it on me allows communication with emergency services, law enforcement, and my family if something happens and I need help
Nutrition: What? Where? Why?
Keeping your snacks readily available in your pack will help ensure you eat enough nutrition throughout the day. Electrolyte chews or salty nuts in a small pocket that you can reach while hiking help keep you snacking on the trail and can benefit your overall performance throughout the day.
For a big day out, you’ll want something that packs well into a backpack. I find that wraps are the perfect vessel to get lots of veggies, cheese, and hummus for lunch. Throwing in something crunchy like corn nuts or chips changes it up by adding some texture and salt. Whatever food you choose for the day, make sure that you are getting a good amount of fat and protein, and make sure it is something you actually want to eat. Hiking in higher altitudes can reduce your appetite—even when you need nutrition the most.
Fatty Foods High in Protein
|Salami||Peanut Butter||Chia seeds|
|Nuts||Cheese||Extra virgin olive oil|
Waste, Emergencies, & Leave No Trace
Waste is not easy for everyone to talk about, but poop remains an important factor to think about before you go hiking or recreating in the backcountry. Listen, I get it. It’s gross and a somewhat-taboo topic to talk about, but learning where and how to dispose of your waste properly is incredibly important if you’re backpacking. National parks and forests often have restrictions or preferences on where you can go.
The Basics: If you are going to rely on public toilets, know where they are and have a backup option. If you are backpacking and plan to bury your poop, remember to bury it at least six to eight inches deep and at least 100 feet from any stream, river, or lake. It is also important to make sure you are in an area where the poop will decompose, like the forest floor with lots of little organisms that will eat it up. You don’t want to bury poop in soil with low decomposition rates, like in desert and alpine areas. Finally, only bury human waste—all trash should be packed out, including toilet paper. Bring an extra sandwich bag so you can zip up and stash your used toilet paper to throw away at home.
Go Anywhere Toilet Kit: Formerly known as the WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) Bag, this poop kit has gel powder inside that gelatinizes your waste before you seal it inside the rip-proof zip plastic bag. These come with a small amount of toilet paper and a hand sanitizer wipe for basic hygiene. It is not glamorous to use the toilet in a bag, but I can tell you it does get easier. I like to have a little extra toilet paper and a plan on where and when I am going to dispose of it. Most waste bags claim that the best way to dispose of them is in the garbage can, but make sure you check the area you’re in. Moab, for example, uses trash compactors and requests that you do not dispose of poop bags in your home trash.
Recreating in alpine areas is rewarding and beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. Weather can change in a moment, rockfalls are common, and the further out you go the longer it would take if you were to need help or rescue. For a big objective day, pick a turn-around time. This will keep you on a schedule and in the mindset of safety despite feeling summit fever.
Anytime you go out into the wilderness you have to be prepared to take care of yourself if something goes wrong. Even if you are lucky enough to have service or a device to call for help, most rescues can take hours or days and are only a last resort. Having first aid kits, protective clothing, and a plan puts you in the best position to enjoy your time outdoors and reduce your chances of an emergency.
These days, the idea of being out of service doesn’t always cross our minds as we head out on an adventure—but it should. If you have an opportunity to bring a backup communication device, then you might as well bring it. It could help you or others on the trail if something goes wrong. Lets just say I have been lost quite a few times, and my Garmin InReach was the difference between bushwhacking for hours or finding the trail with some quick backtracking.
Leave No Trace
Despite our differences, I think we can all agree that we live in a beautiful area with an abundance of scenic recreation areas. To keep our wild places clean and accessible for future generations, we can all attempt to live by the leave no trace principles. Leave No Trace is a non-profit organization that started in 1994. The principles are a framework for minimum impact on the land and are now used by land managers throughout the country and the National Park Service. These are not hard and fast rules but rather helpful guidelines to help us all get on the same page on outdoor etiquette so we can continue to preserve these beautiful mountains. Stay tuned for next month’s article on Leave No Trace principles. Above all else have respect for the land and others while you are recreating.
Planning and Preparation Yield Ultimate Enjoyment
After the lunch is packed, the weather checked, and your bags are ready to go, it is time to have some fun. The reason we all feel good in the outdoors is that we can disconnect from screens and the never-ending stressors of life and finally get to live in the moment. So keep your phone on airplane mode, and give yourself time to let go and enjoy the natural wonders of these other-worldly mountains. You can even bring an extra bag to pick up trash on your way out, leaving it better then you found it. I will end with a quote from Walt Whitman, “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
By Calindra Revier, Jans Content Writer & Media