Often overshadowed by nearby and iconic destinations like Yellowstone and the Tetons, the Wind River Range is the definition of a hidden gem. Located in Central Wyoming, the Winds – as they are called by those who know them well – run for 100 miles along the Continental Divide. Towering granite spires, pristine alpine lakes, fields of wildflowers, and remote meandering trails create one of the best wilderness areas in the country. It’s a backpacker’s dream.
Cultural history runs deep, with traces of Shoshone and Crow Native Americans dating back 9,000 years. The area was first explored by European Americans in 1807, soon after crossed by the Oregon Trail explorers, and eventually hiked and climbed in depth by mountaineers in the late 1800s. Over time the Wind River Range established a name for itself as a truly wild, rugged, and remote wilderness.
The full extent of the range was nationally protected with the Wilderness Act of 1964 and includes the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests and the Wind River Reservation. Together the three encompass a total of 728,020 acres. With more than 30 peaks over 13,000’ high including Gannett, the tallest in Wyoming at 13,804, more than 180 glaciers, and two legendary climbing areas of Titcomb Basin and Cirque de Towers, the Winds have almost endless opportunities for adventurers.
I’ve heard about the area for a long time, but never visited. Years ago my parents took my grandma on her first backpacking trip in the Winds, one of my sisters worked a ranger here after college and the other guided a month-long trip in the Winds at a similar time. With ample stories and photos for inspiration, I decided to visit in August and selected a 35-mile loop through the Cirque. The route took me past a handful of picturesque lakes, off-trail on granite slabs, and back to the trailhead where my adventure started.
Getting to the Winds isn’t easy. Almost all of the trailheads take an hour or more of driving on a bumpy dirt roads, with little cell service. The place is remote – and that’s part of what makes it great. Once you finally arrive in the Winds, don’t expect perfect weather. Winter lingers for eight months in the high country, then come two months of misquotes, and two more of thunderstorms. Then back to winter.
I planned to hike for 3 days and got a little of everything, weather-wise. Cold nights, buggy days, and afternoon showers. I bought groceries in Pinedale and headed east to the Big Sandy Trailhead. There are no permits required to backpack in the Winds; the only regulations are that you follow LNT principles, travel in groups of 15 or less, stay on trails, and don’t camp directly adjacent to water sources. There are also many great resources online for planning a route that is good for your fitness and experience – the options are almost endless.
Here are the key pieces of gear I used to stay safe, comfortable, and light, helping me travel fast at high elevation. This list leaves off some of the basics often called the Ten Essentials – navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, and fire – as well as other necessities like bug repellent, bear spray, and a bear canister. Instead I’ve focused on the more expensive and technical pieces of gear that I’d recommend you bring along.
The recently updated Atmos comes in a couple sizes – 50 and 65 liters – that are perfect for weekend or week-long trips, respectively. I do a fair amount of guiding and multi-sport trips that require more gear, so I opted for the larger size and was pleasantly surprised by the weight and design. Osprey, renowned for their comfort and fit, now boast one of the most ventilated back support systems on the market. The pockets, straps, and storage areas that make up the pack are just what you need, without anything you don’t, making the Atmos 65 is my go-to gear hauler.
The award-winning Hubba Hubba is one of the lightest tents on the market, without sacrificing technical performance. I’ve used it everyone where desert canyons to Arctic traverses and have yet to find an issue with it. It sets up fast, stay strong in stiff winds, offers enough space for you, a friend, and your pup, too.
I’ve used the same Dragonfly stove for over a decade now – more than 500 backcountry days – and it’s yet to fail. It’s one of the most reliable pieces of gear I own. It’s great for international travel as it can run on any type of fuel and with its ability to simmer, complex meals are much easier. While there are a few lighter stoves out there, I’d never trade one for my Dragonfly.
A simple design with 650-fill, responsibly sourced down makes the Ratio 32 a great sleeping bag for beginner and experienced hikers alike, for use during summer and the fringe seasons. The SV sleeping pad is light, compact, and warm enough for year-round use. It’s the most versatile and comfortable pad I’ve ever used, not to mention one of the easiest to blow up, with the SpeedValve technology.
I try to pack as little as I can when backpacking, especially when it comes to clothing. Each trip I try to challenge myself to just the essentials, forcing me to find apparel that can be used with versatility. For example, the Ozonic is as great as a windbreaker as it is a raincoat. The Kor Strata is great warm layer while on the move, in camp, or as a pillow at night. The AP pants are the only pair you need in life, let alone on a backpacking trip.
At the risk of being blacklisted by some traditionalists, I’m a huge proponent of wearing running shoes on backpacking trips instead of hiking boots. They are lighter, dry faster, and are more comfortable. Unless the terrain is incredibly rugged or I’m carrying an extremely heavy pack, it makes more sense. if I’m going to select a running shoe with ample padding, the HOKA Speedgoat 2 is always my choice.
Dog Love: Ruffwear Quencher ($15) & Bivy Bowl ($25)
The Winds allow your best friend to tag along on your adventures, so you ought to be prepared. Ruffwear, the longtime leader in the outdoor dog market, is a great place to start. I’m able to easily fit 3 days worth of food into the Quencher bowl for my dog, Bea, and keep the Bivy bowl accessible if we ever trudge through long stretches without easy access to water for her to drink.
For many including myself, too many CLIF bars on a long hike can wear you down – until you get your greedy paws on the new Nut Butter Filled bars. They are an organic and delicious snack filled with peanut butter. Need I say more?
All photos by Andy Cochrane
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