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.
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.
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.
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.
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
– Water Proof Map
– 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