Ask Me: How Do We Make a Big Backpacking Trip (on the Teton Crest Trail) As Enjoyable As Possible?
We are hiking the Teton Crest Trail for the first time this summer. You made mention in your story about the TCT that the first day was a hard one and that the toughest part of the trip was the Paintbrush Divide. What made the first day the hardest and why is Paintbrush the toughest? We are trying to make sure we plan this trip “correctly.” Three years ago, we flew to Colorado and hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park and had a terrible experience. My two sons and I thought we knew what we were doing. Going from hiking in the Great Smokies to hiking in the Rockies is like day and night. We flew in one afternoon and started hiking the very next morning with full, heavy packs. The weather was hot and we had no time to acclimate. Our hike began at about 5,500 feet and was uphill most of the way, and we camped at 10,200 feet. The night was miserable—we could not sleep at all. We learned valuable lessons that trip. I am 60 and my sons are both around 30, and it was the worse trip because of our lack of knowledge and preparation.
In the Tetons, our plans are to take the tram from Teton Village to the top of the ridge and begin our hike from there. We are looking to make our first campsite at either Fox Creek Pass or Death Canyon Shelf, depending on whether Death Canyon Shelf is available. From there, second day, hiking to South Fork Cascade Canyon to camp, and then our third day hiking to the Upper Paintbrush Canyon camping area. On the fourth day, we’re hiking to Jenny Lake to finish. Suggestions? Also, what is the likelihood or snow and ice and any issues with wildlife such as bears?
From what we have read on others blogs, there seems to be a water shortage in the Death Canyon Shelf area. What is your suggestion for obtaining water after we leave the Death Canyon area to our next campsite at South Fork Cascade Canyon or anywhere in between? Since we will be using water to cook with as well, I’m not sure how much per person we should carry.
Also, I wondered if there is any cell service on the trail for emergency purposes. I am a planner by nature, and since we are not familiar with this trail, just trying to cover all needs.
I appreciate your input and time. By the way, your story of your first trip on the Teton Crest Trail was very informative and very descriptive! Enjoyed it very much.
Thanks for following The Big Outside. You have a great itinerary for the Teton Crest Trail.
Short answer to your question about why our first day in the Tetons on that first trip years ago was a hard one: We hiked from Phelps Lake to Death Canyon Shelf with heavy packs on a hot day, and it’s a big climb at elevation. Paintbrush Divide is another big climb from the North Fork Cascade Canyon and it cooks in the afternoon sun.
Your experience in Rocky Mountain National Park sounds like my first backpacking trips in the West about 25 years ago, in Yosemite and that first one in the Tetons. We were young and fit, but we weren’t acclimated to those elevations and the hot alpine sun, we carried way too much weight, and we were not organized and started hiking too late each day. Consequently, we hiked through the hottest hours of the day. While we thought about daily mileage in planning our itinerary, we did not look closely enough at how much elevation gain and loss was built into our plans each day, or whether we’d be doing those big climbs on southern exposures during the hottest hours of the day.
You’ve learned firsthand many of the same lessons that I and many other people have had to learn. A nearly 5,000-foot climb with heavy a pack is a really hard day, even if you’re acclimatized.
Now, my most effective strategies for making a backpacking trip easier physically and more enjoyable are:
1. Keeping my pack weight as low as possible, including gear, clothing, food, and water. See this article for more explanation of that.
2. Drinking a lot of water when I’m at the water source (instead of carrying more water to drink it later).
3. Hiking early, in the cooler hours of the day, taking a break during the hot afternoon, and maybe hiking a bit in the evening.
4. Trying to plan big climbs for mornings.
5. Spending a night before starting a trip sleeping at a higher elevation, to start acclimating.
6. Not planning a hard first day of a trip, when my pack is heaviest and I’m not yet acclimated.
7. Making sure I snack frequently throughout the day.
Death Canyon Shelf has some of the nicest campsite views in the Tetons. There are springs that feed a couple of small streams on Death Canyon Shelf, and I’ve always seen them flowing, even in September. There’s also a creek you’ll cross in Alaska Basin, which, depending on where you camp on the Shelf, is only 3-4 miles (at most) from camp. Then you’ll pass Sunset Lake, but you’ll probably just carry enough water from Alaska Basin to reach South Fork Cascade Canyon, where you’ll finding flowing water again. Water really isn’t a big problem on that route. Unless you’re very slow hikers, you may not need to ever carry more than a couple liters each.
Try to camp high in the South Fork Cascade Canyon and dayhike (without all your gear) out and back to Avalanche Divide in the morning—great view, and you can easily hike off-trail down into upper Avalanche Canyon and explore the lakes there.
The climb to Paintbrush Divide is, along with the first day up to Death Canyon Shelf from Death Canyon Trailhead, the toughest part of that trip. You might consider adding a day, and after hiking to Avalanche Divide, hike down to camp that night in North Fork Cascade Canyon, which has wonderful campsites. Then you can have a shorter day and get an early start, in cooler temps, for Paintbrush Divide. You could also shorten your last day a little by finishing at String Lake instead of Jenny Lake, which just adds some hiking through the woods. Either way, your vehicle shuttle is about the same time.
In most summers, much of the snow on trails and at passes has melted away by late July. Call the backcountry desk right before your trip and ask about Paintbrush Divide; it’s likely you won’t need ice axes by late July. The park will require that you carry a bear canister for food storage, which the backcountry desk loans for free; a few campsites also have bear lockers. While those precautions are definitely smart, I’ve never had an encounter with a bear in the Tetons. Those bears just aren’t as familiar with human food as, say, bears in the High Sierra and especially Yosemite.
There are areas in the Tetons where you can get cell service—generally in high spots with a direct line of sight to Jackson Hole—although you won’t find service widely available. I don’t know exactly where you’ll get a signal along your route, but if you have an emergency, I would try to reach high ground with a phone and see if you can call or at least send a text.
See all of my Ask Me posts about the Tetons and all of the comments in my story about backpacking the Teton Crest Trail, where I’ve answered many questions from readers, as well as the many posts under the Backpacking header on my Ask Me menu page or at thebigoutside.com/tag/ask-me-backpacking.
Good luck. The Teton Crest Trail is a five-star trip. While there are some big climbs, significant stretches of it are more gentle and easier. You’re on good trails with awesome views the entire way. Plan well and you’ll enjoy the scenery more.
Thanks for writing. Get in touch anytime, and let me know how your trip goes.
I’ve helped many readers plan a backpacking trip in the Tetons. Want my help with yours? Click here.
Thanks so much for the quick response and the helpful information, and your articles are great. Your story about the Teton Crest Trail and your answers to my questions have been invaluable. We have bought new tents and sleeping bags, all lightweight. Just knowing we will be in the backcountry for four days and three nights, we know there are “musts” to bring.
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