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Home: Education: Guide to Backcountry Hot Springs
  Hot Springs Guides and Articles

Backcountry Hot Springs, Backpacking & Camping Guide

Guide Navigation:

Pre-Trip Preparation At the Hot Springs
Pack Lists Campsite Considerations
Area Research Soaking Etiquette
Seasonal Barriers Hot Springs Warnings
Technique Research No Glass Containers
> Leave No Trace Related
> Report Poachers

Backcountry hot springs afford a unique experience for many types of outdoor enthusiasts. They are often located miles off the beaten path, deep within protected wilderness areas. Some have natural soaking pools that have been carefully crafted by the ages, while others require a little elbow grease before a soak can be had.

Due to the nature of backcountry hot springs, it is often necessary to backpack, for potentially multiple days, in order to reach the hot springs. Only the minority of backcountry hot springs can be reached by day hiking. This guide has been designed to aid in your backcountry hot springs planning and preparations. Multiple day backpacking trips to hot springs, while more rewarding than anything imagined, are no easy task to plan.

Pre-Trip Preparation

Pack Lists
Until you get in a routine, making use of lists or checklists can greatly improve your packing accuracy. I use a list, but now more for double-checking before departure.

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Research the Area in Which you are Traveling
Pick up some guide books, maps and do some web searching - even call the Forest Service for area and trail condition information. This would also be a good time to ask about any fee or permits that might be required.

If you have mapping software (Google Earth is free), research and print your route. Otherwise plot your course on a regular map. Don't be wary of utilizing online driving directions to help get your vehicle to the trailhead either. I always carry an official public lands map, turn-by-turn directions, a compass and oftentimes a handheld GPS and customized map printouts depending on where I'm going.

Are there bears where you are going? If you recreate in the Northwest the chances are good that bears are nearby. The saying "A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear" is unfortunately very true. If you don't believe me read the real life story "The Death of Bear #583". The below websites contain information necessary to successfully lower your impact upon the dwindling bear population.

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Research Seasonal Barriers
There are quite a few places I like to go that only have a 2 or 3 month driving window. The other 9-10 months of the year the road is closed and covered in snow due to high elevation. Even despite a warm winter and dry spring the Forest Service typically doesn't have the capacity to open roads ahead of schedule - call ahead before you drive a few hours just to find the road closed and blocked only mere miles before your destination, junction or trailhead. Check the individual hot springs on this page for winter closure information.

A large portion of hot springs located next to rivers, creeks or streams are submerged during spring runoff. The best way to find out if the hot springs you are going to may be underwater is to check the individual hot springs listings on this page or research their status in a guide book.

Don't forget about hunting season! Wear bright colors if you plan to head out into the woods during hunting season, also keep in mind that you'll have to share campsites and hot springs with plenty of often environmentally abusive and inebriated hunters (another good reason to wear bright colors). Choose the time and place for your environmental education and awareness lectures wisely; preaching to a group of drunk or cracked-up hunters all by yourself out in the middle of the mountains is not a good idea. Instead; report them to the local Ranger if you witness them breaking the rules. Pictures of license plates always help.

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Research Low Impact Techniques & Leave No Trace Principles
Learn about how to treat the environment while you are out and about. Utilizing low impact techniques and leave no trace principles helps preserve the places you go for future generations and the wildlife that lives there.

Check out the websites below for more information. Not only are you educating yourself on the proper way to behave and conduct yourself in the environment but you are also learning about the rules and regulations in place for public lands usage that are for the protection of the environment.

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Leave No Trace Principles

Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit
- Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies
- Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use
- Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6
- Repackage food to minimize waste
- Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rocks, gravel, dry grass or snow
- Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams
- Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary

  • In Popular Areas
    - Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites
    - Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy
    - Keep campsites small. Focus activities in areas where vegetation is absent
  • In Pristine Areas
    - Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails
    - Avoid places where impacts are just beginning

Dispose of Waste Properly
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter
- Deposit solid human waste in holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the hole when finished
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater

Leave What You Find
- Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts
- Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them
- Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species
- Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches

Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light
- Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires
- Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand
- Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes

Respect Wildlife
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them
- Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers
- Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely
- Control pets at all times, or leave them at home
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, raising young, or winter

Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience
- Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail
- Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock
- Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors
- Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises

Some things I notice on a regular basis...

  • I can't believe I even have to mention this, but please always pick up all of the trash you bring in. That includes all of the trash you find. If you don't have enough room to pack it out at least pick it up and leave it bundled in plastic sacks next to the trail.
  • Don't use soap or bio-soap or leave tarps behind in any water sources or hot springs. It is illegal and very harmful on the environment. Tarps, soap and bio-soap don't breakdown and instead grow a foreign algae that overtake the natural algae and causes a dramatic change in the environment. Ranger Jeff Higgley of the Payette National Forest sees a lot of this type of abuse. He also welcomes any questions or concerns regarding this particular topic. He can be reached by contacting the Krassel District of the Payette National Forest. If you have to use soap, use bio-soap and keep it at least 200ft from any water.
  • Fires and fire pits; keep them at least 200ft away from any water sources and put them DEAD-OUT! Read the June trip report for Deadwood Hot Springs to learn about the terrible mess I found. If you have a fire please use an existing fire pit, It wouldn't hurt to dismantle the pit when you are done (as long as you are not in a fee-campground area).

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At the Hot Springs

Campsite Considerations
Setup camp at a location at least 200ft away from any water or hot springs source. If you are camping at a popular hot springs it may be advisable to camp away from the hot springs and main access routes as you might be continually interrupted by oncoming and going soakers not to mention the occasional wild partiers.

Please also read the above Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

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Soaking Etiquette
Maintaining a friendly environment at the hot springs is key to an enjoyable soaking experience. If you are soaking at Weir Creek for example; say you approach the only pool to discover it is currently in use (a highly probable situation considering the soaking pool is barley large enough for 3-4 people). Proper hot springs etiquette for this type of situation would be to first make your presence known by letting the soakers see you, then moving just out of view - enough to let the soakers know that you are patiently waiting. Give them around an hour at most, then start making your presence known again by standing in view of (but not staring at) the soakers. If this doesn't work politely approach and ask the soakers how much longer they plan on being there. If they still won't give up or at least share the pool after a couple hours then dealing with the situation is up to your discretion. Please always make an attempt to be polite and courteous.

Generally speaking; it's a good idea to wear a swimsuit at the easy-access soaks during the day and early evening. Hard to find, get to or backcountry soaks are almost always clothing optional save for ones located along popular rivers.

Most of the hot springs in Idaho that are located on public land are actually clothing optional. Places like Skinnydipper Hot Springs even have signs warning the newbie of nudity. This is a debate I'm not even going to touch. All I will say on the issue is that some people soak nude for the right reasons at the wrong places and times and vice versa.

Personally; I don't soak au natural at any easy-access hot springs unless I can notice an incomer soon enough to don my suit: you never know who you might run into in some places (read about the lesbian gang related scalping that took place at Kirkham). Backcountry hot springs are a different story however, there's nothing like soaking naturally in a natural setting with no one around.

Something else to consider is the hot spring's local customs in which you are visiting. The majority of my advice and wisdom comes primarily from trips in Idaho, which is a very conservative place in comparison to Washington and Oregon.

Keep in mind that a swimsuit washed with detergent carries that detergent into the hot springs every time you soak. Dedicate a suit specifically for hot springing and don't wash it, rinse it out instead.

Don't forget to be courteous, friendly and short-winded. Most of us are soaking in backcountry hot springs to "get away from it all". Don't jibber-jabber your new friend's ear off just because they said "hi" back and annoy everyone else (unless chatter is the general consensus and you are up for it). Instead have an enthusiastic, but quiet -personal conversation. It's actually possible to swap-stories and enjoy a quite soak.

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Hot Springs Warnings

Serious injury and even death can and have occurred at hot springs. The most common dangers/warnings are listed below:

  • Alcohol consumption and dehydration in hot springs - drinking and soaking gets you wasted fast because hot springs dehydrate the body. Many have drown or fallen off a ledge while hiking due to mixing alcohol and hot springs together.
  • Soaking in the sun without replenishment - sun and hot springs can sap the juice right out of your body quickly; keep water, electrolyte drinks, sunscreen and sun protection handy.
  • Avoid visiting popular hot springs at the most popular times - I've heard horror story after horror story about how a newbie visited a popular hot springs on a Saturday afternoon and had a terrible time. Same goes for popular hot springs on weekend evenings. Fights, vehicle break-ins, vandalism and overcrowded pools are not just something people in Oregon and Washington have to worry about. Unfortunately, it happens all too often in Idaho too.
  • Acanthamoeba - an amoeba that is known to inhabit some hot springs which can enter the brain through nasal passages and cause meningitis. This is another reason to keep your head above water while soaking. Usually, hot springs with acanthamoeba are signed.
  • Hot Springs & Red Spider Mites
  • Snakes - this is generally not a concern, but a few hot springs feature nearby thermal vents that provide year-round habitat for snakes. If you leave them alone - they'll leave you alone.
  • Hunters - hunters like hot springs so much that they often (and illegally mind you) build tree-perches so that they can shoot deer and elk that graze on hot springs algae. Their illegal kills and hasty clean-ups can lead to animal parasites entering the water complex and any people that soak in it along with attracting scavengers. While I've encountered respectable hunters in Idaho, the bulk majority have discouraged me greatly. I've seen drunk hunters shooting out their truck window while barley being able to drive, coke-head hunting parties and idiot hunters so paranoid of the woods and bears that they randomly shoot off their guns throughout the night.
  • Adult Situations - that's right, unfortunately. For some reason, people think that popular hot springs are a good place to get their freak-on. Not such a great idea. And really, how would it feel to get busted by little Tommy or Suzy with their family in tow, or a dozen drunk hunters? Think about it.
  • Spring Runoff - even small creeks and rivers experience large undertows during spring runoff. Don't try to cross anything fast moving until spring runoff is over, which is usually around late June to early July depending on elevation. See Research Seasonal Barriers from above for more.
  • Pets - soaking with Fido can be an enjoyable experience, but the majority of hot springs are NOT dog safe for a variety of reasons.

Recommended Reading: Hot Springs Etiquette from Scenic Hot Springs Blog

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No Glass Containers
This one is pretty self-explanatory and very important; glass gets broken - people step on it and it goes into the water. It is just a bad idea and illegal in most places.

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Related

Report Poachers!
Call the Citizens Against Poaching Hotline at 1-800-632-5999 or Report a Poacher Online Right Now!

Please feel encouraged to suggest topics to add to this guide as it is ever-evolving.

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PUBLIC BATHING NOTICE

No Soap, Shampoo or BIO-Soap/Shampoo Allowed in Hot Springs! Avoid Being Fined!

Public hot springs are not bathing facilities and do not have 'plumbing' like that of commercial, improved hot springs. Soap and shampoo (including biodegradable soap and shampoo) do not completely breakdown naturally. This pollutes our water systems (ingested by fish, animals, humans) at or near the source. This is also illegal in most wilderness and public lands areas.

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