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Backpacker Magazine – September 2012

Heroes: Margaret Fuller, 77

This trailblazing granny wrote the book on Idaho trails–and still hikes daily.

by: Morgan Tilton

Margret with one of her five kids (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Margret with one of her five kids (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Hiked Over 6000 Miles (Doug Fuller)
Hiked Over 6000 Miles (Doug Fuller)
Hand Sewn Tents (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Hand Sewn Tents (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Margaret's Cabin (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Margaret's Cabin (Courtesy Margaret Fuller)
Guidebook Writer's Gear Kit (Funbar)
Guidebook Writer's Gear Kit (Funbar)

In 1957, when Fuller’s first son was 18 months old, she afixed a wood plank to her external frame pack and strapped her baby to it with three leather belts. Then, with her husband Wayne, the California transplant set out on her first hike in Idaho’s craggy Sawtooth Mountains: a seven-mile trek up 1,200 feet to a string of sapphire lakes. With Wayne at her side, she stared at the reflection of blond peaks, hummed to her baby on her back, and inhaled the fresh aroma of pine. In that moment, she was hooked–on exploring the range, on improvising her own gear, and on defying expectations of what a woman of her generation should do or be.

Soon Fuller began sewing tents, down jackets, and sleeping bags for her growing family. In 1968, she and Wayne built a cabin (by hand) to serve as a basecamp for hikes with their five kids. ”On our first outing, there was no book to consult, and the only topos were from 1896,“ Fuller says. ”We stopped to ask a ranger for advice. His directions led us up an awful road to an uncrossable creek. We never found our destination.“

Fuller decided to create a guidebook so that other hikers could avoid bad experiences like hers. After seven years and 800 miles of exploration with a compass and tape recorder, she completed the first-ever guide to the Sawtooths–in fact, the first trail guide for Idaho. The book met with as much ridicule as praise. ”There were letters to the editors in the Idaho Statesman saying that I should not be giving away all these secret places,“ says Fuller. ”They even printed a cartoon with a backpacker hugging the state all to himself.“

Trails of the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains is now in its fifth edition, which Fuller updated in 2011 with GPS coordinates for the trailheads. She’s hiked more than 6,000 miles during the last three decades, which helped her to complete seven more books, including the one-and-only trail guide to the infamously remote and rugged Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. ”I was motivated to share the beauty of the mountains, and I wanted to pass on the hiking tradition to my children and grandchildren,“ she says.

With time and age, Fuller has shortened her distances and slowed her pace, but she’s not anywhere close to turning in the cards. ”I’ve realized from giving talks that a lot of people want to know tons of details about great places to hike,“ she says. ”In order to answer their questions, I have to hike and re-hike the trails.“ Even at 77, Fuller does a handful of solo backpacking trips each summer, and occasionally goes on multiday pack-llama expeditions. Her next project: a history book about Idaho’s abandoned ski areas. ”I’ve always loved being in the mountains, and writing is a way to give back to others what the mountains have given me.“

Take it from me...

>> Stay focused with every step. The worst trail accidents I’ve seen are when a hiker goes too fast downhill or crosses a creek inattentively.

>> Play games with kids. We used to run ahead and put Lifesavers and M&Ms on the rocks for the young ones to find. You can also stop and read from a book at every mile or so.

>> Constantly evaluate your gear. After every trip, I ask myself if there’s anything I didn’t use. After 30 years, I’ve learned I never need kitchen utensils, extra clothing, or a pillow.

>> Share your knowledge. Contact local hiking and service clubs (and gear shops) and volunteer to lead hikes or give free slideshows for them. Sharing quality information about trails is the best way to get more people outside.

>> Trust print. Online hiking forums without maps are great for conditions updates, but they’re generally not as accurate as I’d wish. With guidebooks, you know a pro has dedicated time to accuracy and clarity.

>> Explore without a guidebook sometimes. You’ll discover new and beautiful places that most people don’t know about. Make sure you take a topo map, compass, and GPS unit with you.

>> Never stop hiking. That’s my secret to staying in shape. I may be slower now, but I still keep a target of 10 miles a week on hills, as well as calisthenics every other day.

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