Drop-camp trips with Idaho horseback outfitters gain popularity with Baby Boomers

A Mystic Saddle Ranch horseback guide packs in a load of gear into the Sawtooth Wilderness for a group of hikers. (Courtesy Mystic Saddle Ranch)

In the 1970s, backpacking was all the rage in the West.

As a student at the University of Montana in Missoula, I was among thousands of Americans who absolutely loved the freedom of exploring our national forests and parks to see new country, visit a high mountain lake, go fishing for trout, maybe climb a peak nearby. It was all part of the “1970s” back-to-nature experience coinciding with the Hippie era, Rock and Roll, the anti-war and civil rights movement and more.

Baby Boomers were at the heart of the movement - people born between 1946 and 1964. Many of those folks who were avid backpackers in their 20s-50s, might be over 65 now. They might reflect wistfully about the joys and benefits of backpacking back in the day, but perhaps worry about how carrying a heavy pack will affect their aging body – especially the back, hips, knees, ankles, etc.

Idaho horseback outfitters have a perfect solution – they offer “drop-camp” trips in which they carry your heavy camping gear, tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food, pots and pans to a high mountain lake of your choice with a pack string of horses and mules.

With horseback assisted trips, pack mules can pack in your float tube for the best fishing experience. (Courtesy Bighorn Outfitters)“All of us Baby Boomers came of age after the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, and now we’re in our 60s, 70s and early 80s,” says Jeff Bitton, Board President of IOGA. “Going the drop-camp route, you can enjoy your hike into a high mountain lake, carrying a light day pack with your water and snacks, and experience the freedom of having a lighter load. It’s a great way to see the wilderness with much less impact and hardship on your body.”

Catering to the Baby Boomer generation can be a smart choice, according to national travel trends.

“Born between 1946 and 1964, this generation has largely made it into retirement and is taking advantage of opportunities to explore the world and tick off their bucket list,” according to a national travel article. “Confident and adventurous, these travelers also are more focused on comfort than they once were, and are willing to spend more to experience the destinations of their dreams.”

To that end, drop-camp trips cost more than a spartan backpacking trip, but compared to a world cruise it’s still affordable for many. Pricing starts at $375 per person per day, depending on the outfitting service you choose. People engaging in the drop-camp service are more than glad to pay extra for the comfort, outfitters say.

“It’s pretty nice to show up in camp and have an actual camp chair to sit in, kick back and have a cold beer,” says Rebeka Cain, owner of Mystic Saddle Ranch in Stanley. “I take a lot of older folks who were very avid and experienced backpackers. It’s cool to see them out enjoying nature.”

Drop-camp trips are popular in both the Sawtooth Wilderness and White Clouds Wilderness, with multiple outfitters available for booking a trip. Idaho outfitters also do drop-camp trips in the Bighorn Crags, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Pioneer Mountains and mountain ranges in Northern Idaho. “Pick a mountain range, there’s a horseback outfitter waiting to serve you,” Bitton said.

Go to Ride-Idaho.org to check on availability and pricing statewide.

Dave Melton, owner of Bighorn Outfitters, which leads trips into the Bighorn Crags in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, suspects that many people aren’t aware that drop-camp services are widely available. “I think folks just don’t know there is a service out there,” he says. “We have people tell us all the time they wish they knew and maybe next year we can call you guys.”

Booking a drop-camp trip with Bighorn Outfitters would help take the bite out of a 10-mile backpack to Ship Island Lake, arguably one of the most drop-dead gorgeous high mountain lakes in the state.

Rebekah Cain with Mystic Saddle Ranch ties down a load on one of her pack horses, taking care to ensure the load is balanced on both sides.

Mystic Saddle Ranch in Stanley has a steady demand for drop-camp trips, Cain says. Mystic Saddle offers a full range of wilderness trail rides and pack trips, including drop-camp trips and fully outfitted, multi-day trips in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Aging Baby Boomer customers are frequently the people booking drop-camp trips, she said.

“It’s a way for older folks to get back there and enjoy the wilderness,” Cain says. “We can take people’s gear to anywhere they’d like to go.”

Some people book a more luxury trip with Mystic Saddle in which the outfitter carries gear and food for a 5-day tour of the Sawtooth Wilderness. Customers can walk on their own or ride horseback from camp to camp, where they enjoy the comfort of full-sized camp chairs, top-shelf meals, ice cubes for drinks and cold beer.

“Those are pretty epic, pretty awesome trips,” Cain says. “It’s the difference between eating a freeze-dried backpacking meal and enjoying a wild salmon or steak dinner, green salad, and cheesecake for dessert.”

Across the Sawtooth Valley, in the White Cloud Mountains, Pioneer Outfitters and White Cloud Outfitters offer a steady string of drop-camp trips, among other services, including multi-day outfitted trips.

Several friends and I did a drop-camp trip with Pioneer Outfitters during the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness-National Monument dueling campaigns in 2015. We needed to pack heavy video camera gear into Walker Lake, so we hired Devan Jackson with Pioneer to pack in our gear with his pack string of horses and mules. He also packed in our sleeping bags and tents, pots and pans, and a cooler of beer, so that was a big bonus!

Devan Jackson, owner of Pioneer Outfitters, pauses at a creek crossing with his trusty dog, with the Sawtooth Mountains in the background. (Courtesy Pioneer Outfitters)

It’s a seven-mile hike into the Walker Lake from the Big Boulder trailhead, with several thousand feet of vertical gain, so having a lighter load was really nice. Two of our buddies wanted to bring float tubes, so the pack stock hauled those to Walker Lake as well.

Above Walker Lake, we hiked uphill to Cove, Saphire and Cirque Lakes to go fishing for the day and film our surroundings. Here, I felt like we were on top of the world in that tranquil lakes basin. I stood in awe of the mountain peaks around me, and I was mesmerized by the deep turquoise gin-clear water in those lakes. When I hooked a fish, I could see that the spectacular colors of the native cutthroat trout matched the reflection of their underwater world.

That is the ultimate payoff when visiting the wilderness. You’ll be touched by the deep beauty, while also enjoying the pleasure of being unplugged for days, the camaraderie of your group, forming memories that will last forever.

And the best part of all, you’ll come home without aching shoulders and serious bruises on your hips!

If you go … 

Check trip dates and availability, trip length and costs, from the outfitters below:

  • Mystic Saddle Ranch operates in the Sawtooth Wilderness, based out of the Redfish Corrals and Stanley.
  • Bighorn Outfitters leads trips in the Bighorn Crags, based out of Salmon.
  • Pioneer Outfitters offers trips in the White Clouds Wilderness, based out of Stanley.
  • White Cloud Outfitters leads trips in the White Clouds Wilderness, based in Challis.
  • Mile High Outfitters offers drop-camp services in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Big Creek and Cabin Creek areas, in the summer for hikers and fall for hunters, based in Challis.
  • For a statewide list of horseback outfitters, go to Ride-Idaho.org.

Longtime outdoor writer Steve Stuebner is a regular contributor to the IOGA Exploring Idaho blog.