Hiking is one of the most accessible activities the ordinary outdoorsman can enjoy. You are simply walking….walking through amazing aspen groves, or around beautiful high-mountain lakes, over mountain ridges with amazing views in all directions or through gorgeous valleys you can’t see from the road.
Hiking is also a great family-friendly vacation activity and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho offer some of the best mountain scenery you could want. So if you are planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, Glacier, or one of many other federal or state wilderness areas, be sure to include a hike or two on your list of activities.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Rockies, or if you aren’t experienced hikers, here are 10 tips for hiking in the Rocky Mountains that will help you prepare for your visit.
1. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes.
A good pair of tennis shoes is really all you need for hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Basketball sneakers will do as well. You want something that fits snuggly and that is sturdy. Sandals and flip-flops are a mistake (unless they are sandals designed for rugged hiking). Shoes that are a little too big or a little too small will kill your feet in no time. Unless you hike on a very regular basis, you don’t need to buy special hiking boots or shoes.
2. Carry a backpack.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, just enough to carry some snacks, some water bottles, and maybe a jacket. Have your kids grab their school backpacks. Take turns carrying the pack, bring multiples, or better yet, have the kids do all the carrying!
3. Dress in layers.
Even in summer, the temps at elevation can be quite cool, even downright cold. I typically wear a lightweight long-sleeved shirt and sweatshirt or jacket. If the sun is out, it makes a huge difference! But if its cloudy it can cool off quickly. Check the weather before you head out, and if it looks to be fairly cool, add one more layer (like a sweatshirt). Consider grabbing a couple of these cheap emergency ponchos in case it rains.
4. Have plenty of water.
One of the other changes when you go up in elevation is that the air is thinner and dryer. Consequently, your body loses moisture more quickly without realizing it. In humid climates your sweat doesn’t evaporate quickly and the next thing you know your shirt is sweat-soaked. But in the dry cool air of the mountains your sweat evaporates very quickly and you hardly realize you are even sweating. If you are planning on hiking just 2-3 miles, one water bottle with you and one in the car for when you return will do. If you plan on hiking farther, carry more with you. Those hydration packs are nice, but not worth the investment unless you hike all the time (or you simply enjoy plastic-tasting water with notes of surgical tubing).
Do NOT drink water from mountain streams. It’s wonderfully cold and clear, but if you drink it you will likely regret it…at both ends. Be content to take off your shoes and rest your feet in the cool water somewhere along the hike.
5. Protect yourself from the sun.
One of the mistakes visitors make is not realizing how intense the sun is at elevation. You will burn much more quickly when you are at 9000+ feet than back at home in the midwest (or wherever you are from). You will need sunscreen or plan on wearing a wide-brim hat, lightweight long-sleeve shirt, and long pants. Even so, you will want to put a little sunscreen on the back of your neck and hands. Sunglasses would be a good idea as well.
6. Rent what you don’t already have.
If you want to hike but don’t have use for buying special gear, then simply rent what you need for hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Many “gear” shops in highly visited areas rent hiking boots, walking sticks, backpacks, camping and fishing gear, etc. If you are there in winter, you can get snow boots, snow shoes, poles, snow pants, sleds, etc. Rates are (usually) reasonable. When we visit Rocky Mountain National Park we get our rentals from the Estes Park Mountain Shop.
7. Bring a camera.
Fortunately most of us carry one with us all the time in our phones. Which, by the way, depending on where you are you likely won’t have a cell signal.
8. Don’t approach or feed wildlife.
Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. When I was young it was common to stop at Rainbow Curve in Rocky Mountain National Park and openly feed the chipmunks, ground squirrels and birds. They would come right into your lap. You could hold up a peanut and a bird would swoop down and grab it from your hand. And the park rangers wouldn’t stop you. In fact, I think I remember them selling bags of peanuts you could use to feed the animals (but I may be mistaken about that detail).
Not so anymore. Feeding the animals creates a dependency on humans that isn’t helpful. Is it that big of a deal if you toss a peanut from your trail mix to a chipmunk? Not really. But don’t do it anyway.
And never approach larger animals. Elk and deer may look docile, but they can really hurt you if they feel threatened. There are some frightening videos out there of people who got too close to these docile creatures.
9. Follow the trails.
In national parks it is generally a good idea to stay on the path. This is for two reasons. First, to prevent unnecessary damage to the landscape. You will often see “restoration areas” that have been fenced off due to too many people trampling through sensitive areas. Secondly, so you don’t get lost. Most people lose their sense of north, south, east and west when they are in the mountains.
Grab a map online or at the park entrance or visitors center and bring it with you so you know which way to turn at trail junctions. Fortunately, most common hiking trails are easy to follow and clearly marked.
10. Start early in the day.
There are two reasons for this. First, if you are visiting a popular destination (like our national parks) during the summer it will likely be busy…especially on weekends. But most tourists and vacationers take their time getting up and out in the morning. I am not saying you need to get up before dawn, but traffic will increase mid to late morning and that will make parking spots scarce.
Secondly, in the Rockies during the summer it is common for small thunderstorms to pop up in the afternoon. In my experience (mostly in Colorado) they don’t usually drop a lot of rain, but the lightning! Yikes! Experiencing a lightning storm from an elevation that practically puts you in the clouds is intense! Start early and you can be back to your car before any afternoon storms pop up.
How about you? What other tips do you have?