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Photo Credit: WanderFree

What to Pack and Wear when Hiking in the Rocky Mountains

Mountain weather the world over is notoriously fickle and unpredictable, and Rocky Mountain National Park is no exception. Average temperatures in and around the park vary greatly from season to season and depending on elevation, ranging from well below zero in winter months to the high 80s in summer.

To make sure your hikes here are as safe and enjoyable as possible, therefore, wearing the right clothes and packing the right kit is absolutely essential.

Below, we offer a short guide that will help you choose what to wear in different conditions and detailing what you should carry with you while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Clothing

The Layering System: A Clothing Strategy for All Seasons

The layering system works by using multiple layers of highly breathable garments instead of only one or two bulkier items. This allows your sweat to pass easily outward through each layer and evaporate on the surface of the exterior layer as opposed to saturating the fabric of interior layers and increasing your risk of succumbing to hypothermia.

The beauty of the layering system is that it is very easily adaptable to different weather conditions and temperatures:

In colder weather, you can choose more substantial layers throughout the system to increase insulation and reduce heat loss.

In warmer temps, lighter layers that offer protection from the sun are ideal, though we’d always recommend carrying the other components of the layering system (midlayer and shell) due to the unpredictableness of mountain weather and the potential for storms.

The standard layering system consists of three parts: a baselayer, a mid-layer, and a shell layer.

The Baselayer

The base layer’s main role in the layering system is moisture management. As the garment closest to your skin, this is the one tasked with transporting sweat away from your body to subsequent layers. In doing so, it assists in keeping you dry and reduces the chance of hypothermia in colder conditions by ensuring that said moisture isn’t allowed to turn cold and lower your core temperature.

Some good baselayer materials include merino wool and proprietary synthetic fabrics like Polygiene, Lifa, Omni-Wick, Capilene, Polartec Powerdry, and polyester-polypropylene blends.

The Mid-layer

The mid-layer is all about insulation and warmth. It works by keeping your body heat trapped close to your body and providing a ‘buffer’ against the ambient air whilst simultaneously allowing moisture vapor to wick through to the layer’s outside surface.

Some examples of mid-layers are fleece, down, or merino jackets or sweaters, all of which can be purchased with varying weights and insulating capacities to suit the season or conditions in which you are hiking.

The Shell Layer

The shell layer’s purpose is to provide protection from the elements and keep your inner layers dry. As with other layers, however, the shell layer must also offer a good degree of breathability and the efficiency of any shell—whether pants or a jacket—will ultimately rest upon it offering a good balance between breathability and water resistance.

Avoid Cotton

As mentioned above, the key factor in a successful layering system is breathability and wicking capacity. Although light, cheap, and comfortable against the skin, cotton garments are very poor performers in both of these metrics.

While materials like merino wool and technical synthetic fabrics shift sweat away from the body, cotton garments simply soak it up like a sponge and can, incredibly, absorb up to 27 times their weight in water. Given that water can conduct heat away from the body up to 25 times faster than air—and, therefore, seriously increase the risk of hypothermia or just a nasty dose of the chills—cotton is not only an unwise choice as regards comfort but also a potentially dangerous one.

Extras

In addition to the main components of your layering system, some extra clothing items we recommend taking on your hike include:

  • A sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Gloves (and spares in winter)
  • Gaiters
  • A beanie
  • A bandana or buff

Footwear

We recommend that hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park use trail shoes or hiking boots as opposed to sneakers, sandals, or other non-outdoor footwear. Both hiking boots and trail shoes provide the superior grip, breathability, and water resistance required to hike the trails safely and in comfort.

Which of the two options will be best for you will depend on when you are hiking and trail conditions at that time.

In very wet conditions or on snow-covered trails, a pair of mid or full-height hiking boots will serve your purposes better. If, however, you will be doing most of your hiking on well-maintained trails in warm, dry weather, then a pair of trail shoes will be adequate and could prove to be a more comfortable option.

Gear Requirements

Now that we’ve covered clothing, let’s take a look at additional gear requirements for hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

While these will vary depending on the time of year and the type of trail you plan on hiking, the following items can be considered must-haves at any time of year and on any trail:

  • Food and snacks: enough to last the duration of you hike and a little more as backup
  • Water: a good rule of thumb is to take one liter per two hours of hiking
  • Water purification system: to save yourself carrying liter upon liter of water on longer hikes if there are wild water sources along the way
  • Map and compass (and a spare of both, just in case)
  • Cell phone (or personal locator beacon): be sure to go easy on the pictures and save some juice in case of an emergency
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Headlamp: this is often overlooked by many hikers, but if an injury or other mishap slows you down it will be all but essential to get back to your car safely
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency bivy shelter (a.k.a. “space blanket”): if conditions take a turn for the worse or one of your team gets injured, this lightweight addition to you kit could be a lifesaver

Additional items you might wish to carry include the following:

  • GPS device: if using this, be sure to carry a map and compass as backup
  • Altimeter
  • Trekking poles: these are especially handy on knee-jarring descents
  • A guidebook or trail description
  • Extra clothing: in winter months, it’s better to carry too much as opposed to too little
  • Sanitary supplies
  • Toilet paper
  • Insect repellent: don’t leave home without it in summer months!
  • Binoculars
  • Matches and firestarters: if you get lost and have to spend a night in the wild, these could prove to be a lifesaver

In summer months, we’d also recommend carrying plenty of sunscreen, extra water and rehydration salts, especially on longer hikes.

In winter, some trails may require the use of an ice ax, snowshoes, and/or crampons—if you have any doubts about conditions and whether or not these will be needed, it’s best to call the visitor information desk before setting off (970-586-1206: daily 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, MST).

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