Our flight into Kalispell, Mont., broke through the clouds and light rain started streaking across the window. The town itself became visible as we approached, but the mountains, which I knew surrounded us on all sides, were obscured by thick gray clouds.
The Flathead Valley was socked in. Which meant I might be in for a wet backpacking trip here in Montana. I’d brought a rain jacket, of course. But not much else.
In fact, beyond my clothes and some barebones toiletries, I hadn’t brought anything. My backpack, tent, sleeping bag, pad and pillow, stove, and kitchenware — all of it I left back in Colorado. Even my trusty pocket knife, which I never backpack without, had stayed at home.
I felt a tinge of unease as I peered through the rain. Somewhere down there, all of the necessary gear should be waiting for me. But I wasn’t used to relying on strangers to pack my backpack for a trip like this. So, why now?
I’d traveled here to test a new gear system from RightOnTrek. The company, known for its environmentally friendly backpacking meals, had just started renting gear. It had built a first-of-its-kind gear rental hub on the outskirts of Kalispell, minutes from the airport and within sight of Glacier National Park, called the Wilderness Edge. I covered it when RightOnTrek first announced its opening. And I’d asked if it would be possible to give the new backpacking and camping gear rental system a try.
RightOnTrek had obliged. So, I logged onto its website, selected the gear I thought I’d need and the meals I wanted to eat, picked the dates I’d need it for, and checked out. Now, weeks later, I was touching down in the Treasure State with little more than the clothes on my back.
In short: RightOnTrek’s gear rental system is a seamless, easy, and affordable (about $50 a day) way to rent high-quality backpacking gear on the fly. You can reserve it ahead of time, or rent it onsite at the Wilderness Edge just outside of Glacier National Park. And while the system is currently limited to one location (a good one at that), the brand has big plans for expansion.
Renting Gear at the Wilderness Edge
The Wilderness Edge is about 5 minutes up the road from the Kalispell airport. It’s an A-frame-style structure with lockers lining the walls, lockboxes, touchscreen tablet kiosks, vending machines for backpacking meals and wilderness essentials, Wi-Fi, and charging stations.
Had I not preordered my gear, I could have walked up to one of the kiosks at the Wilderness Edge and done all of my gear rental right there, onsite.
You simply touch the tablet and walk through the steps picking out what you need, pay, and lockers containing the gear you selected will automatically open. If you need meals, the Edge also has a ton of RightOnTrek options ready for purchase.
I’d done all of that online, though. So, my gear was in one of the lockboxes waiting for me. RightOnTrek had emailed me describing which box it would be in and what the lock code would be. I found it easily and walked over to a table pressed against one wall to take stock of the gear.
What’s in the Bag?
The backpack was a Granite Gear Crown 60. Its contents: one Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra sleeping pad, a down Patagonia Fitz Roy sleeping bag, a three-person MSR Elixir tent, a Garmin inReach Mini, a Katadyn Hiker Microfilter, a Snow Peak cooking system with an MSR Pocket Rocket backpacking stove, fuel, two GSI Outdoors mugs, a headlamp, a bathroom trowel, trekking poles, a “backcountry essentials” kit, a bear bag for food storage, and a canister of bear spray.
I audibly sighed with relief looking over the gear. It was all high-quality, lightweight backpacking gear. Much of it was brand new. And all in, it was just $50 a day to rent (with food, fuel, and the essentials kit sold separately).
I checked the food bag next: one Hearty Beef Bolognese meal, one High Country Pad Thai, some Savory Mountain Grits, Broccoli Beef Stroganoff, beef jerky, tuna, Wisconsin vintage cheddar, almond flour crackers, trail mix, dried fruit, and instant coffee. I’d ordered a lot for just 2 days, and it was all accounted for.
As I was getting ready to take off from the Edge, another car pulled in and a couple got out. I watched them approach a kiosk and rent a backpack before getting back in their car and driving off toward Glacier National Park.
The system seemed to be humming along as intended.
Finding the Trail With RightOnTrek
Unlike that couple, I wasn’t headed into Glacier. I hadn’t secured a backpacking permit, nor had I reserved any campsites in the park ahead of time.
Instead, I’d gotten some local advice: head north: up past Whitefish is the 10 Lakes Wilderness Study Area. Permits are not required up there, I’d been told. And there are several fire lookouts you can hike to, and even sleep in (on a first-come, first-served basis).
So, north I headed, bound for Stahl Peak, and the century-old lookout perched atop its summit.
One of the services offered by RightOnTrek for free is its Wilderness Studio. Similar to how Google digitized cities, towns, and roadways across the world for its Maps app, RightOnTrek is working furiously to digitize the wilderness. The Wilderness Studio maps out thousands of trails, campsites, water and resupply stations, transportation, towns, and attractions.
For now, they’ve only digitized the areas around Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park in Washington, and much of the John Muir Trail through Oregon and California. But RightOnTrek’s founder and CEO, Victoria Livschitz, said the aim is to digitize as much U.S. wilderness as possible — without ever charging for the service.
Selecting an Itinerary
When you select a trail (aka an “itinerary”) on the Wilderness Studio, it shows you a profile of the hike. It tells you what the elevation gain is, the geology and history of the area, permitting and fee information, seasons and weather, risks and hazards, animals and plants, and so on.
Stahl Peak and the fire lookout were on the RightOnTrek Studio when I checked. However, the exact trail I was going to take was not. So, I had to download a local area map that guided me to the summit.
It would have been great to use RightOnTrek’s map. But as Livschitz explained to me, digitizing the wilderness and creating a profile for each and every trail is a beast of a project. Especially in a place like Montana, where there are almost as many trails as there are people.
Using the RightOnTrek Gear
The quality of gear that RightOnTrek provided impressed me. As mentioned, most of it was from companies like MSR, Patagonia, and Big Agnes. It really didn’t skimp on the good stuff.
The diversity of brands kind of surprised me, though. Normally when you rent gear from a company, it’s all from one or two brands. When you rent from REI, you’ll mostly find REI Co-op camping gear. When you rent from Christie Sports, you’ll see a few brands they carry, and not much else.
That wasn’t the case here — RightOnTrek’s gear is a hodgepodge of big names. I asked if it partnered with any of the brands and apparently, it doesn’t. It’s buying all this gear at market value. Instead of filling its customers’ packs with gear from the brand(s) that will give it the best deals and pricing, RightOnTrek makes its gear selections based on quality and performance.
The weather broke when I finally got on the trail. So, luckily, I wasn’t hiking in a downpour. It trickled a few times, but by and large, the sun was out. It was warm and humid as I trudged the 4.5 miles into Kootenai National Forest, into the 10 Lakes Wilderness Study Area, toward my destination.
I wasn’t fast enough, though. A group of local hikers beat me to the lookout by less than 5 minutes. I’d been skunked out of the shelter. So, it’s a good thing I was so thoroughly outfitted.
The tent was a cinch to set up and held rain and morning moisture easily at bay. The MSR pocket rocket stove boiled water within minutes. My 20-degree Patagonia sleeping bag was comfortable and plenty warm for the conditions. I did have a bag liner but didn’t need it.
And the food. RightOnTrek’s backpacking food really is top-shelf. But unlike classic dehydrated meals, you don’t just pour boiling water in and wait. Every RightOnTrek meal comes with prep instructions on the back and requires active cooking. They are more work, but aren’t complicated. You do have to time how long it boils, stir them, and add ingredients at different stages.
But the payoff is worth it. I ate every meal provided. Not a single one disappointed. And the packaging is bio-based. So it’s guilt-free to throw away your waste when you’re done.
The only piece of advice I’d offer is to give these meals 1 to 2 minutes longer boiling time than the instructions state — especially at altitude.
Wilderness Education for Renters
Obviously, the gear rental model isn’t for everyone. Most backpackers are going to bring their own gear for a backpacking trip to Montana or elsewhere. But for those who don’t have their own gear, or who are new to backpacking, it’s an awesome, affordable, and very useful service.
The issue? People who are new to backpacking might not be familiar with proper wilderness conduct, how to pack out waste, bear safety, and other pieces of etiquette that many people are taught by parents, friends, or mentors.
That’s why RightOnTrek has partnered with Leave No Trace and tries to incorporate wilderness education into every step of its gear rental process. It’s why the Wilderness Edge had big signs explaining how to practice bear safety. It’s why every backpack and food bag comes with a plastic tag explaining in detail how to Leave No Trace.
The Wilderness Studio even has a page dedicated to information about how to respect wildlife, be considerate of others, properly dispose of waste, minimize campfire impacts, and more.
RightOnTrek Gear Rental: The Final Word
When I dropped the gear back off at the Wilderness Edge, I was honestly kind of floored at how seamless the process had been. Preordering my gear online had been painless, picking it up had been straightforward, using it had been great, and returning it was as easy as dropping it off in the same lockbox I’d picked it up in.
I’ll still travel with my own backpacking gear when I’m venturing into a trip like this. But if RightOnTrek had a Wilderness Edge outside of every National Park, National Forest, or Wilderness Study Area, it would be extremely useful for those moments when you realized you forgot something. Did you leave your tent on the table at home? No problem, just rent one from RightOnTrek’s Wilderness Edge near your destination.
And for folks who are just getting into backpacking, and haven’t yet made the financial commitment to buy a ton of gear, it will be invaluable. Yes, REI offers a similar service. But you won’t find brands like Patagonia, MSR, or Big Agnes on it. Nor will the rental hub be situated so close to a recreation area. And you won’t be able to buy RightOnTrek’s backpacking meals through it.
For now, this service is limited to people visiting Northern Montana. The Wilderness Edge at Kalispell is the only one RightOnTrek has built so far. But Livschitz has big plans to expand. She wants to install one at the entrance of (or nearby) every major National Park or Forest in the U.S. At which point, you could feasibly backpack or camp in some of the coolest places in the country — without ever packing your own gear.