Planning a Grand Canyon Backpacking Trip…

In the middle of April a group of us will be hiking the 40  mile Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon.  Over 4 nights, 5 days we will descend over 5000 feet down Tanner Trail to the Colorado River and then hike along the unmarked Escalante Route from east to west, connecting to Tonto Trail and then Horseshoe Mesa along Grandview Trail.  Here is a more detailed summary and map of this route.

Planning a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon poses a few challenges, but nothing that experienced backpackers can’t easily handle.  Leading up to this trip there were three main challenges that we needed to spend some time discussing:  getting the backcountry permit, time of year to hike this route, and clean water sources.

Getting the Backcountry Permit

For some reason we had significant issues landing a Backcountry Permit for the Grand Canyon, although we did finally get one after several submissions.  Like most National Parks, permits are required for backcountry camping but each park has it’s own process for how that is done.  Most of the time it has to do with the volume of requests.  Being that there is a higher demand in Spring/Early Summer and Fall for backcountry permits in the Grand Canyon (because of more moderate temps), there is a four month window in which the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted for a random drawing.  For instance, if you are wanting to hike in April like us, the backcountry permit application needs to be submitted on December 1.  Once submitted, the random drawing and slotting begins.  The mistake I made on this particular application was that I only listed our preferred itinerary and one alternative itinerary.  From my research the Escalante Route does not have high demand so I thought we would be slotted easily.  My other mistake was that I thought the Backcountry Office would contact me and offer another suggestion if one of the campsites had already been taken.  Sure enough I received a DENIED email and letter.  Upon calling the office and asking why our application had been denied I was told that one of our requested sites had already been filled for that particular night.  I was very frustrated because every other NP I have ever worked with has been incredibly helpful with offering other options or suggestions.  The Backcountry Office at the Grand Canyon told me that they have too many applications each month to work with people.  Anyway, after three submissions we were FINALLY approved… even though it is over Easter weekend.  My suggestion is to do your research and know all of the backcountry camping spots that are available to you in each zone and the mileage between each.  Be prepared to submit your application with three separate itineraries to increase your odds of getting exactly what you want.  It appears that the spot that was the snag for us was Tanner Creek.  This must be a spot that overnight hikers compete for as well.

Time of Year

As I mentioned above, the best time during the year to hike the Grand Canyon is Spring/Early Summer and Fall.  Winter is an option as well, however icy conditions may make trails difficult and/or dangerous.  One thing to take into consideration is the change of temperature with altitude.  The Grand Canyon is a bit different than what you might expect.  The elevation at the North Rim is about 8000 feet and the South Rim is about 7000 feet.  As one descends, the temperature actually rises and can be up to 30-40 degrees warmer at the bottom.  This is significant and should be taken into account when planning the time of year that you want to go, the gear you should pack, and your strategy for water.

Clean Water

For our group this has been the most discussed topic.  On the Escalante Route there are few suitable drinking water options.  Now granted, we will not be hiking in the middle of the summer in which the canyon temperatures could reach up to 120F and necessitate significant water consumption… but for the elevation changes and the daily mileage we will cover we also do not want to carry large quantities of water.  Water weighs in at about 8 pounds per gallon and can easily become the heaviest single item in your pack.  There is at least one spring along this route near Horseshoe Mesa (Page/Miners Spring)… so utilizing the Colorado River is essential.  The greatest single threat for pumping and filtering out of the Colorado is fine silt, which can easily pass most pre-filters and damage the pump.  After considering several researched ideas we put together a few that should make for some fresh, clean water.  We are planning to bring a collapsable bucket so that we can scoop water out of the river.  By adding Aluminum Sulfate to the water, particulate begins to clump together and fall to the bottom of the container.  This will allow us to use our water filters without fear that the sediment will damage them.  Additionally, we are going to secure our pre-filters with coffee filters in order to add one more layer of filtration.  Overkill?  Always.

Once we return I will give a day-by-day account of the hike.

Have you hiked the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon?  If so, tell me about your experience.

Brandon

 

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Preparing for a Glacier National Park Backcountry Hike…

As I have mentioned in previous posts, a successful week-long hike is planned several months in advance (maybe even up to a year based upon the demanding logistics).

Planning in Advance

To give you an example, when we arrived at Glacier National Park for our 60+ mile North Circle Route hike the park ranger issuing our backcountry permit exclaimed, “Wow. By looking at your itinerary you guys must have planned way in advance to have such an amazing trip lined up.” He absolutely nailed it. We did plan way in advance. We had the most envious permit in the entire park because our research and planning began almost an entire year before our trip.

After researching and selecting our route a year in advance, we knew that the only way to secure this particular trip and get a permit would be to submit our application as soon as the early submission window opened. The Backcountry Office states that all early registrations are selected randomly… but you can not convince me that there isn’t a benefit for getting the application in at the beginning of the window. The window opened January 1st and I made sure that our application was on their desk on January 1st (which meant I sent it a bit early). We not only got the most sought after loop in Montana but we also got TWO backcountry campsites at each destination. Every single destination that we submitted along the trail was approved “as-is.” Maybe we got the luck of the draw… who knows… but I think that good planning and getting the application in at the beginning of the window got us the spots.

Planning Meetings

We had three planning meetings leading up to our trip to Glacier. I know that some may think that all of the planning is overkill but I can assure you that it isn’t. I wish I could document every story of every knuckle-head that we have encountered on the trails who hasn’t planned well.

On this Glacier hike we had a guy come up to our tent and ask if we knew the signs of hypothermia. His buddy was hiking down the mountainside and was in bad shape. Come to find out that he was from Florida and had not taken elevation into account, had not dressed appropriately, and did not plan for rain and 45 degrees.

Careful and meticulous planning will keep you from being a knuckle-head. Of course accidents can happen to anyone… but set yourself up to eliminate as much risk as you possibly can through careful and meticulous planning. You will thank me for that piece of wisdom.

Go over your route together. Look at the mileage and elevation profiles of the routes. Do research about the the average seasonal temperatures and call the Backcountry Office with questions. Talk about how many calories you will burn per day and how much food you will need to pack. Discuss safety procedures if you encounter wild animals or if someone gets hurt. Put together a recommended list if gear and comb through it together.

Do not think you can go over this stuff too much… because you can’t.

Gear

Speaking of gear… only take what you will REALISTICALLY NEED. Once you have an idea about the seasonal temp… only pack what you will minimally need. Pair up with a buddy and share items like water filters and stoves. Break up the components of your tent so that the weight is shared equally. These are some great ways to reduce your pack weight.

For our seven night, eight day hike we were shooting for our total pack weight to be below 35 pounds (without water). If you consider that food weight will be between 10-15 pounds for that duration, your backpack and gear ought to be 20-25 pounds or less. I found this to be realistic, as I shared items and only packed essentials.

The temptation for hiking newbies is to disregard good advice and pack way more than what they will realistically need. Yes… I have stories about this as well. Just trust me. Once you begin lugging around 5-15 extra pounds (that you shouldn’t be carrying) for several days, across many miles, up and down mountainsides… you will have wished you packed minimally.

Food

Packing 8 days of food in which you need at least 3000 calories a day can really add significant weight. I may write a post specific to food in a later post so I will keep this one short.

I have changed my overall approach to eating on extended hiking trips. Rather than plan for three squares per day… I now eat all day long. Sure I still have breakfast, lunch, and supper but in order to maintain my energy level I always have something to eat in my pocket. I am not a big eater so this was difficult for me at first. But as the days passed I found that it was a brilliant strategy and it got easier each day.

I had a nice mix of carbs, protein, and fats. I shot for 3200 calories each day and was able to accomplish that with 9.6 pounds of food. In our group I was definitely on the light side… but I also didn’t come home with any leftover food. Perfect planning!

Spend a significant amount of time researching food and putting together your eating list. Go after foods that have a high calorie to weight ratio (calories per gram). Packing calorie dense foods (in my opinion) is a great way to manage how much food you end up carrying on your hike.

Day by Day Summary

Over the next few weeks I will begin detailing each day of our 7 night, 8 day hike along the North Circle route in Glacier National Park (Montana).

If you have anything to add or if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.

peace…

brandon

Indiana: Knobstone Trail- Elk Creek to Delaney

I will be updating live throughout the day as we hike a 15-mile section of the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana.

The entire Knobstone Trail is about 40 miles. Two weekends ago, a couple of the guys went out to tackle the entire trail. It was an ambitious goal for a few reasons. Of course it was very cold and snowing, which made the conditions quite muddy, but there was an even greater obstacle: elevation.

I know that sounds crazy because Indiana is vertically challenged. But, I am dead serious. Over the 40 mile hike the total elevation gain is 10,500 feet. I know, I know that is insane! That is as much elevation gain as we did in July in the Rocky Mountains. But that just proves how hilly this portion of trail is in southern Indiana.

The guys covered approximately 25 miles before calling it quits because of the conditions. I am joining them today to finish the final 15 miles.

7:15 AM- leaving Columbus, Indiana

8:15 AM- From I-65 we dropped off one car at Delaney Park. It was about 10 miles off of I-65 and took about 30 minutes to get to the park.

What a beautiful drive. The sun was rising over the hills. We left Columbus with Thunderstorms and 41 degrees. Looking at clear skies now and already 56 degrees. Fantastic day for a hike!

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9:00 AM- Starting at Elk Creek. Beautiful, beautiful morning.

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First 15 minutes greeted us with a nice 200 ascent. Stopped to zip off the legs. Already 60 degrees.

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9:40 AM- Nice breeze. Rewarding hike.

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10:05 AM- This is NOT a trail for beginners or for families or anyone out of shape. The ascents and descents are rigorous. Definitely pushing me early.

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11:40 PM- The reason the early ascents and descents were so rough was because there are no switchbacks anywhere. It is point A to point B. I am going to refer to this trail as The Good Ole Boy trail.

Pretty trail though. Not any green yet. Still too early. Looks like Fall. On a trail deviation right now due to the tornado last year. Probably at the six or seven mile mark.

Well the deviation only took us to mile 38 (which is only 5 miles). A lot of deviation walking with little return!

1:23 PM- Right before mile marker 40 Patrick said that other than the first three ascents.. this trail is pretty good. After marker 40… we hit the toughest ascent. Woof. We have about five miles remaining.

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3:01 PM- Getting close to the end. I will write a summary when I get home. BUT just after mile marker 43 we hit the beast. It went STRAIGHT up and definitely was a hard way to end.

SUMMARY

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As you can see from the elevation chart above, the Knobstone Trail has many peaks and valleys, which make the overall elevation gain over 45 miles significant.  For this particular trip we started at the third red line around the 32 mile marker and finished at around the 46 mile marker.

We started around 9 AM with the temperature right at 60 degrees.  Quickly into the hike we each had to loose some clothing.  We had a constant 20 mph breeze that accompanied us over the 15 miles.

The greatest challenge was the lack of switchbacks and you should make a note of this.  Hiking a straight shot up a hill (and going down) at a 65 degree angle will test your stamina and your knees and ankles.

The greatest head-scratcher was around the 37/38 mile marker.  We descended over 150 feet straight down, turned to our left, and then the trail went back up to the ridge from which we had just descended.  As soon as we got back to the top, the trail went immediately back down.  It was incredibly frustrating and redundant.  We could not understand why they did that.  We thought we were on a hidden camera show.

Ultimately, this portion of the Knobstone Trail is quite enjoyable and worth the effort.  There were several areas where it leveled out and afforded some leisurely hiking.  I wish the area would have been greener but it was still early.  A few more views of the rolling hills would have been nice, but I really enjoyed my time there.  This is definitely a unique area in Southern Indiana to get opportunities for significant elevation.  I can see why so many use this as a training ground for the Appalachian Trail (AT).

brandon

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park- Long’s Peak Trail- Day 5

We woke up early on Thursday to make our way to the parking lot and trailhead (TH) for Long’s Peak Trail. The day before we had just finished the 25-mile North Inlet/Tonahutu Loop trail which was simply spectacular, but summiting Long’s Peak, towering over the park at 14,258 feet was going to be an adventure. The first leg of our journey would take us to the Boulderfield which would involve nearly a six-mile hike and a climb near 3400 feet in elevation.

Day 5 (Thursday, July 26)

Longs Peak Trailhead (9400 feet) to Boulderfield Campground (12,750 feet)- 5.9

Total Day 4- 5.9

Elevation- 3370 feet

The journey to Long’s Peak (via the Keyhole Route) is quite an endeavor. Before I discuss the details of this hike I would like to share a few thoughts. This is not an easy or casual hike. It is tough terrain that involves a lot of physical exertion for many miles. Additionally, people have died trying to summit Long’s when proper precaution has not been exercised. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to dissuade anyone from hiking this trail. I am simply saying that, while this is a very popular peak to summit, do not just show up and start hiking. Do your homework and be prepared.

Here are a few important factors to take into account when preparing:

– Wear (and potentially pack) appropriate gear. The temperature swing from the TH to the summit may surprise you. Be prepared with sleeves and long pants.

– I would HIGHLY recommend sturdy hiking boots. Leading up to the Boulderfield and beyond you will thank me for this advice. It is very rough terrain. Headgear and sunglasses are also recommended.

– Take plenty of water. This is a long hike with a significant altitude difference. Dehydration is a serious concern at higher elevations. If you have a pump, the Boulderfield has accessible water to pump.

– Make preparations to summit and be below the tree-line before early afternoon, as afternoon showers typically roll in with lightning.

– If it has been raining or is continuing to rain, I would not pass the Keyhole or continue to the summit. Many people have fallen off of the shear cliffs to their death because of wet and slippery conditions. The same can be said for wind. If it is a really windy day, take precaution. It is not worth risking injury or death to reach the top.

– Follow the designated route to the summit. There are bulls-eyes marking the best and recommended route while scrambling over the rocks. Always know where your next bulls-eye is located and go straight towards it. Not following the suggested route can, once again, put you in a very precarious situation leading to injury and potentially death.

– Before beginning your hike, talk to the ranger at the trailhead to get up to date information about the trail and conditions.

 

Despite the significant elevation gain from the TH to the Boulderfield, it is made easier in that it is a gradual incline over six miles rather than a steeply graded incline. That definitely makes this trail more enjoyable to hike. Be prepared for a lot more people-traffic going up and down Long’s. The alpine hike continues for over a couple of miles before it breaks out around 10,500 feet into Mills Moraine and then onto Granite Pass. You will know why the Rockies are called the Rockies when you get to this area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we approached the Boulderfield in the early afternoon, I had a lot of different feelings. I was relieved to be at our end destination so that we could set up camp and get ready for our summit attempt the next morning. I was overwhelmed by the Boulderfield and how surreal it was to be hiking in a place I had studied about for so long. And then, I was confused and a bit frustrated as we approached the reserved camping spots and noticed that many people had already pitched their tents. What made this frustrating is that none of the spots were marked in any way and it was hard to determine who was supposed to camp where. Ultimately, after much investigated and talking, we decided to simply take two open spots. We had our reservations and the appropriate paperwork, so we wouldn’t have any problems anyway.

We decided to stay overnight in the Boulderfield for several reasons, but the main reason being that it is just a REALLY COOL place to camp. In my next post I will write about the Boulderfield specifically.

peace…

Brandon

 

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park- North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail- Day 4

After going to bed at 7pm because of the pouring rain on Day 3, we awoke the next morning with clear skies overhead.  In terms of elevation, the last leg of the North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail was almost entirely downhill.  In fact, this final 9.2 miles would take us down 3000 feet through Big Meadow and back to the North Inlet/Tonahutu TH.

Day 4 (Wednesday, July 25)

Renegade Campsite (10,500 feet) to Tonahutu/North Inlet TH via Big Meadows (8540 feet)- 9.2 miles

Elevation- downhill

 

This was one of the toughest mornings.  Of course it was really wet when we got out of our tents, but then packing up our wet stuff is another thing.  The sun would not be offering any help because it was still hiding behind the mountainside.  This is more of a reality for this area than what we experienced throughout the entire trip.  We were really fortunate that we did not get rained on more.  I would advise anyone backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park to always have a raincoat accessible at the top of your pack.

 

The coolest thing about the North Inlet/Tonahutu Loop Trail is that you get a ton of variation and diversity in terrain.  While my favorite portion was the alpine hike through the cairns along the Continental Divide on Day 3, there is no question that there was something refreshing and reinvigorating about falling below the tree-line and then walking out into a vast green meadow.  Big Meadow makes you take off your pack and stand still… so the calming breeze can envelop you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The homestretch of our nine-mile trek took us back through the pines.  There were not many exciting moments on this day, it was just a peaceful hike back to the TH.  As we approached the parking lot to wrap up North Inlet/Tonahutu Loop Trail, our minds were already thinking about the next day when we would be tackling Long’s Peak, the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,258 feet.  Day five would have us hiking over 3300 for five miles to camp at the Boulderfield, which will be by far the coolest camping spot to which I have ever been.

 Day 5 (Thursday, July 26)

Longs Peak Trailhead (9400 feet) to Boulderfield Campground (12,750 feet)

Total Mileage Day 5- 5.0

Elevation- 3370 feet

peace…

brandon

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park- North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail- Day 3

We left July backcountry campsite, where we stayed at the end of Day 2, early on Tuesday morning.  We would be ascending over 1700 feet as we continued on North Inlet Trail to reach our connection to the Tonahutu Trail, which travels along a portion of the Continental Divide.  We would then drop 1800 feet altitude to finish up our 7.5 mile hike at the Renegade backcountry campsite.

Day 3 (Tuesday, July 24)

July Campsite (10,650 feet) to Renegade Campsite (10,500 feet)- 7.5 miles

Total Day 2- 7.5 miles

Maximum elevation gain- 1713 feet

As we started out the morning… the name of the game was elevation.  We were climbing by switchbacks along the mountainside which overlooked an absolutely brilliant valley.  In every way this spacious vastness just screamed life…and we took it in with every breath.  Forget about the heavy packs and trudging upward fighting gravity…this was heaven on earth man.  It was just good.  But it didn’t take long before we were left standing still in our own tracks.  As we looked 25-feet uphill… a 6×6, 600-pound bull elk was hovering over us chewing on this green breakfast.  He thought we were interesting, but his breakfast was more interesting.  He was close enough that we did not want to move for fear that he might get defensive, so we stayed put.  Eventually he began to move away but only to move ONTO OUR TRAIL AT THE SWITCHBACK.  He never snorted.  He never stomped his hooves.  He was definitely cool.  But we didn’t have the courage to move forward.  So we retreated back by 30-feet and had to climb straight up the mountain to connect to our trail.    Some fellow hikers, without our knowledge, was below us on the mountain and snapped a couple of pictures for us.

Photo by Melanie Glissman

photo by Melanie Glissman

Once we made it above the tree-line into the alpine region… my heart began to skip from the striking beauty.  These are the places you see in magazines and say, “I wish I could be there.”  And here we were.  It was so surreal.  Forget my words… just look at the pictures.

The beauty speaks for itself.  You find out very quickly how the area got it’s name because it is definitely rocky.  Some of the boulders and boulder configurations baffle the mind.  The temperature on this July day was in the mid-60’s at this elevation (over 12,000 feet).  We needed light shirt with sleeves… but it was the ultra-violet radiation which was the concern.  We wore our UV sunglasses and put on sunscreen for our exposed skin areas.

We could see the valley opening up with a mix of wildflowers and pine.  The final leg of our hike along the Tonahutu Trail would take us to Renegade.  This final section, in my opinion, was rough hiking.  The rocks were many times the size of baseballs and softballs, which made our steps rough.  We also began to see a ton of marmots running out from the rocks across the trail and into other rocks.  Pretty amazing stuff.

We set up quickly at Renegade and went down to the creek to cool off and wash up.  We ate supper early and sat back to relax when the storm clouds rolled in.  It started to rain at 7pm and we hopped into our tents.  We ended up falling asleep as it rained all night long.

This was one of my favorite days on the hike.  Day 4 will take us through the Big Meadow and back to the TH.

Day 4 (Wednesday, July 25)

Renegade Campsite (10,500 feet) to Tonahutu/North Inlet TH via Big Meadows (8540 feet)- 9.2 miles

Elevation- downhill

Read North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail- Day 4

Peace…

Brandon

Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park- North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail- Day 1

In my previous post I discussed some of the preparations we made leading up to our five-day-long backcountry hiking trip in the Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado. A significant part of our planning and consideration was altitude. Coming from Columbus, Indiana, where the elevation is around 650 feet above sea level, transplanting ourselves in an environment two to three miles above sea-level and doing significantly rigorous hiking involved careful attention.

As I also wrote before, I began taking an altitude medication, Diamox, in addition to Aleve and Aspirin a couple of days before reaching elevation and then as I hiked throughout the week. Being that the effects of altitude are somewhat out of my control, I wanted to take as many preventive measures as I could to have a successful hike.

Additionally, we decided to arrive in Denver (approximately 5200 feet) on Saturday and then travel to North Inlet/Tonahutu trailhead (8540 feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park to begin our hike on Sunday afternoon. Our hiking plan had us only traveling 3.4 miles with 300 feet elevation gain on that Sunday to our first day’s destination near Cascade Falls. This first day plan was encouraged by the Rangers at the Backcountry Office in RMNP in order to give us essentially one more day of acclimation before hitting significant mileage and elevation. This wisdom and precaution, I believe, set us up for a very successful week.

Sunday’s itinerary:

Day 1 (Sunday, July 22)

Tonahutu/North Inlet TH (8540 feet) to Cascade Falls Campsite (8840 feet)- 3.4 miles

Total Day- 3.4 miles

Maximum elevation change- 300 feet

The North Inlet/Tonahutu TH parking lot is located near Grand Lake, which is in the southwest portion of RMNP. There are plenty of spots to park at TH parking lot and both the North Inlet and Tonahutu trails are connected to it, which makes entering and exiting very easy. We parked, geared up, had some fellow hikers snap a couple of pics of us, and headed out on North Inlet trail, which we would traverse until Tuesday when we would connect to Tonahutu. The entirety of the loop trail from North Inlet to Tonahutu and then through Big Meadow would take us just over 25 miles with an elevation gain over 3500 feet.

The first 3.4 miles of the North Inlet trail start off in a welcoming and un-intimidating manner leading hikers among pines and open meadows. If you are not overtaken by how surreal it is to be hiking in such a beautiful place, take just a second to close your eyes and breathe deep- the fresh and crisp wind blowing through the pine makes you forget everything you are walking away from in the parking lot. Prepare to leave everything behind and be completely enveloped.

Camping at our first backcountry area near Cascade Falls requires a permit. This camping area is dispersed, which means that you may camp anywhere within the designated zone. However, it is important to keep in mind that backcountry camping encourages setting up tents 70 adult steps away from creeks/rivers and dead trees. I have to admit that it was somewhat challenging finding a clear area meeting those requirements, but we eventually found a nice spot upon a large rocky area about a hundred feet above the creek that runs parallel to this portion of North Inlet. It had an outstanding view above the creek and was still close enough access for pumping water.

Our itinerary for the next day:

Day 2 (Monday, July 23)

Cascade Falls Campsite (8840 feet) to July Campsite (10,650 feet)- 5.1 miles

Total Day 1- 5.1 miles

Maximum elevation change- 1810 feet

Read north inlet/tonahutu trail- day 2

peace…

brandon

Preparing for a Rocky Mountain Backcountry Hike…

I thought about simply jumping into our Rocky Mountain trip- posting the route, the photos, and descriptions… but realized very quickly that if a group of people decided to do this exact trip it would be incredibly beneficial for me to discuss our exhaustive planning leading up to it.

I am all about over-planning, especially when it comes to backcountry hiking. There are just so many variables that can go the wrong way and lead to a less than successful hike.

Planning Your Route

The planning for our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado began within a couple of months of finishing the Shenandoah National Park backcountry hike last year, which would have been around September. Some may say that planning ten months in advance is overkill but keep in mind that once a backcountry route is chosen you just don’t show up on the day of the hike and camp anywhere you please. Within most national parks, backcountry permits are required and backcountry camping spots are limited. So it is wise to begin mapping out your route sooner rather than later so you know which backcountry camping spots you need to reserve. Based upon my experience, these spots go rather quickly. The initial hiking route that I mapped out was scrapped because I could not secure the two backcountry campsites. So plan in advance…and have a contingency plan! I sent in the second planning worksheet, which included the backcountry campsites we were wanting to reserve, and our detailed day-by-day logistical plan around January of this year. I then called on March 1, the day reservations are slotted in the backcountry office, to ensure that we got the spots we requested. We ended up getting every spot that we wanted to reserve on the loop trail.

Consider Altitude

Once we decided upon the North Inlet/Tonahutu Loop Trail, we charted out elevation and mileage in order to get a sense of which backcountry campsites were reasonable for each day’s hike. Being that we were coming from a low elevation state, Indiana (650 feet), we knew that it would be wise to have a couple of days to acclimate to higher elevation. With five guys in our group, we wanted to minimize altitude sickness at all costs. What affects one person in the group… affects the entire group. As a result, we arrived in Denver (around 5000 feet) on Saturday, started our hike at the North Inlet/Tonahutu trailhead (8900 feet) on Sunday, and only hiked three miles with 300 elevation gain the first day. This allowed us a couple of days for our bodies to adjust and it turned out to be a wise plan.

One other consideration that we took into account was taking altitude medication. Of course this is something that should be discussed with your physician, but it is an invaluable option if you come from the lowlands. I had a physical prior to the trip and asked about medicating to avoid altitude sickness. As a result, my doctor prescribed Diamox, Aleve, and Aspirin to prepare my body for high altitude. Over the course of 50 miles hiked and several thousand feet in elevation change (5000 to over 14,000 feet), I never once felt the effect of high altitude. To me, this is good planning for a successful trip. In fact, not one person in our group was debilitated by altitude.

Packing Considerations

In my opinion, packing is one of the most important factors for a successful backcountry hiking trip. There are so many factors to consider, especially when hiking at higher altitudes with significant changes in elevation from day to day.

Here is a quick story to prove my point. We arrived at the Boulderfield (13,000 feet) in the early afternoon and set up camped while the sun was still out. This is incredibly rough terrain, but even more difficult to navigate through at night. The sun had already gone down and we were waiting to watch the stars above when we saw movement on the horizon. As the movement got closer we realized it was two guys hiking through the Boulderfield without headlamps. One of the guys in our group greeted them and asked them what they were doing. The teenagers explained that they had recently moved from Florida to Colorado and were wanting to tackle Long’s Peak (14,258 feet) the next morning. Upon further conversation, it was discovered that one of the guys forgot his sleeping bag and neither of them packed a tent. It is important to note that the last temperature reading I took from the Boulderfield that night was 44 degrees. Improper planning can put a person or a group in serious danger. Make a checklist of all the items you could potentially need… then double and triple check as you pack.

For the Rocky Mountain hike, here are some of the considerations we made when planning:

Water– dehydration is a significant concern at high altitude. Pack a water bladder, a couple of Nalgene’s, and some way to filter or clean water that you collect from streams or rivers. We not only packed two water filter pumps but also Iodine drops.

Food– the two most important considerations for me is weight of the food and protein. I try to pack as lightly as possible with the maximum protein content as possible. For this trip I packed five small bags of almonds and dried cranberries, which I kept accessible throughout the trip. I also packed several high protein Clif bars and pouches of tuna. For supper, I packed super protein food Quinoa and ate it with some prepackaged high protein Indian cuisine. Those are my preferences and yours may be a bit different. One of the guys in our groups sometimes has low blood sugar… so he packs jelly beans. Think about yourself and your individual needs, but make sure that you pack just what you need. I can assure you that you do not want a ton of extra food weight in your pack that you will never eat.

Bear Canisters

This is no longer an option in Rocky Mountain National Park. You have to buy or rent bear canisters in which to put all of your food at night. With a quick search, you can find out the retailers that rent these canisters.

Clothing

Again, a very important consideration for an area that can be hot, cold, wet, and dry at any moment. Here are some important things to consider:

– Avoid cotton clothing at all costs! It absorbs water, does not breathe well, and takes forever to dry. Get clothing that is designed to breathe and dry quickly. You will thank me later.

– Pack a rain jacket! Rain can come upon you at any moment. I packed a light water and wind proof jacket and always had it at the top of my pack just in case.

– Consider hiking pants with zip off legs that turn into shorts. With changing temperatures you do not want to stop and have to do a complete clothing change. Make it easy on yourself!

– Be prepared with longer sleeve options. Again, I like the breathe-able stuff with UV protection. If you are going to be at higher elevations you have to consider that it could be 20 to 30 degrees cooler than what it is at lower altitudes, especially at night. Don’t overpack, but find a light long sleeve shirt and a heavier long sleeve and you will be in good shape.

– Your feet are your most important asset. Without feet that are taken care of… your hiking will be limited. Get a nice durable pair of hiking boots with Gore-Tex and Vibram soles. I prefer boots that go above the ankle for additional support. The Rocky Mountain trails can be brutal on your ankles.

– Make sure to pack some UV sunglasses. UV radiation is significant at higher elevations.

– Cover your head with something. Pack a hat, bandana, etc.

Other Packing Essentials

– Limit pack weight by bringing tents for the exact number of hikers in your party.

– The camping terrain varies significantly from spot to spot. Make sure you have an inflatable ThermaRest. They pack very small and are light. It is worth every penny in my opinion.

– Trekking poles, for me, were one of the most essential items I took with me. I cannot underscore how important they were for me. If you haven’t used trekking poles before, I would highly suggest doing some research and getting a pair for yourself, especially if you are doing significant backcountry hiking.

– Twenty degree sleeping bag

– Headlamp with extra batteries

– Compass

– Water Proof Map

– Sunscreen

– Knife

– Bear spray

– First Aid Kit

There are other items to consider, but these are some of the essentials that we packed for our trip. Of course, not every person needs to pack every single item. Sharing with your group also reduces pack weight.

It is also wise to do research in advance about having campfires at your destination. Since campfires were only authorized in designated firepit areas in RMNP (none of which were at our backcountry camping spots)… we had to plan accordingly. Each of us brought our own Pocket Rocket portable stove for cooking.

What other items do you think are essential? Please share what you pack.

Next Post: North Inlet/Tonahutu Trail- Day 1

peace…

brandon