Many people come to Rocky Mountain National Park without really thinking about what to pack or what they might need in an emergency. Here are some of the essentials to always have with you.
How to Pack for Your Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Far too often visitors head into the mountains entirely unprepared for the wilderness. Besides dressing appropriately, it is important to bring more on your hike than just your cell phone and car keys. If you end up lost or injured, having the following essentials will enable you to better handle the situation.
Navigation (maps & compass)
Sun Protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, sun hat)
Extra Clothing (rain protection, warmth, extra socks, gloves, hat)
Illumination (head lamp & batteries)
First Aid Supplies
Tools (knife, multi-use tools, duct tape)
Hydration (water filter & bottle)
Signaling Devices (whistle, mirror, high-visibility clothing)
Emergency Shelter (bivy sac, tarp)
The most important thing to have in your pack is an old-fashioned map and manual compass together with the knowledge of how to use them. They aren't very heavy or expensive and may save you in an emergency. The National Geographic Trails Illustrated Topographic Map is a good option. You also need a simple compass, which you can buy for about $10–$20. If you aren’t comfortable reading a topographical map and using a compass, take a few minutes and watch the linked instructional videos. This is all very old school, but you want these in your pack. They may save your life.
There are of course more high-tech options out there. However, they all have significant limitations. The main limitation is that they rely on battery power. You can help to compensate by bringing a battery backup but when that also runs out, the high-tech device in your pack is meaningless weight. In many emergency situations, people are stuck in the wilderness for days or even weeks. No battery will last that long. Additionally, these are fragile electronic devices, and if they were to be damaged by a fall, water exposure, or an electrical strike, you are again stuck. So, bring a map and compass with you and know how to use them, just in case.
Once you have those in your pack, then you can take advantage of some of the modern options available. There are numerous apps for your phone such as Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and many others. With such apps you can download detailed maps of the areas you plan to hike, and the app will help you know where you are even when you lose cell reception, assuming you downloaded the detailed maps before you left. These tools will not only help you find your way but can also track your trips, and many have a lot of other fun features. There are also dedicated GPS devices that are designed for this purpose. They are usually waterproof and have a long battery life. I mentioned elsewhere that there are some devices that have not only the GPS capability but can also serve as a personal locator beacon that can summon help in an emergency. Some of them even allow you to send texts via satellite when you are far from any cell connection.
Coloradans often boast that they get more sun than places like San Diego or Miami with over three hundred sunny days a year. This makes for beautiful dark blue Colorado skies and great hiking, but it also comes with some drawbacks. Because of the high elevation of Rocky Mountain National Park the rays of the sun are much more intense. At Bear Lake the UV rays are 40 percent more powerful than at sea level and they continue to increase by about 4 percent for every additional 1,000' in elevation gain. As a result, it is very easy to get burned in the mountains not only in the summer but also in the winter. Not only will this harsh light quickly burn any exposed skin, but it is also very hard on the eyes. In the winter people sometimes suffer from snow blindness when their eyes become burned by the sun. Even though snow blindness is usually temporary, it is definitely something you don't want to happen out in the wilderness.
It is therefore essential that you always wear sunglasses with full UV protection. Cheap sunglasses may actually cause your eyes to dilate and let in more harmful UV rays, causing even greater harm to your pupils than if you had no sunglasses at all, so get ones with proper protection. Additionally, you'll want to lather on the sunscreen before you leave the trailhead and take additional sunscreen with you to apply as needed. In the winter it is important to also cover areas such as under your chin and nose since light will reflect off the snow below you. You'll also want to wear sun-protective lip balm. Some hikers wear lightweight loose clothing that has UV protection in the fabric. You can find this type of clothing at most outdoors stores such as REI or the hiking stores around Estes Park and Grand Lake. Additionally, it is a good idea to wear a UV-protective sun hat while out in the mountains, especially is you have less hair to provide natural protection.
You never know what the weather is going to do when you are in the mountains, no matter the time of year. The wisest thing to do is pack your backpack with the idea of what with items you might need to survive a night in the mountains in case the unexpected happens. Do you have enough clothing to stay warm at night? In particular, do you have a warm hat, gloves or mittens, a warm sweater or jacket, as well as a weatherproof (wind and water) shell? Some folks like to bring along an additional pair of warm socks and two thick plastic bags about the size of bread bags. This way if you have gotten your feet wet you can dry them, put on a pair of dry socks and then before you put your feet back in wet boots, put a plastic bag on each foot to serve as a moisture barrier. This isn’t a great long-term solution but for the short term it is much more comfortable than wet, cold feet.
Never leave a trailhead without a head lamp in your pack. If the hike ends up taking longer than you expected you might find yourself out at night, which can be very disorienting. Because the mountains block the horizon, it can get dark very quickly unlike other places where the sky can give off light for hours after the sun goes down Some people think they can rely on their phones for light. This works for only thirty minutes to an hour. When your phone runs out of power, you are stuck. It is a good idea to have some sort of light that will work for several hours. Headlamps are better than flashlights as they allow you to keep your hands free. Carry several spare batteries for your headlamp and keep the batteries separate from the headlamp until you need it lest the batteries discharge or corrode. Just remember to put those batteries in before it gets fully dark, as you will have some trouble doing it at night without another light. Without a headlamp or a full moon, you'll have to sit by the trail until the sun rises again the next day. Even in summer, this will involve some long hours out in the cold and exposed to the elements.
First Aid Supplies
Always keep a first aid kit in your hiking pack. Essential items include antiseptic cream, bandages of various sizes, gauze pads, tape, pain reliever such as ibuprofen, tweezers, blister pads, moleskin, allergy medicine, any personal medicine you might need if you had to spend the night. You can find great little first aid kits that include most of the basics at most outdoors stores. If you plan to travel in the wilderness regularly, take a Wilderness First Aid course to help you know what to do in an emergency in the backcountry. Whether or not you’ve taken a course, it is wise to carry either a physical or digital copy of a wilderness first aid book. It will have all sorts of helpful information to guide you if you find yourself in an emergency.
While making fires in Rocky Mountain National Park is illegal in all but a few special areas, if one's life is in danger, then the wise use of fire may keep you warm and alive until help can arrive. For this reason, it is good to have with you what you need to start a fire in the wild. This includes waterproof matches, a lighter or flint, as well as fire-starter sticks or squares made of something like wood chips and wax. A candle can also be helpful to maintain a flame while getting a fire started.
Be aware that the Rocky Mountains are a high desert and so it tends to be very dry. With great ease one could burn down an entire forest. So, choose a location where you can completely control the fire, where the ashes are not likely to drift into the dry treetops or the flammable undergrowth. When you are done, be sure to not only extinguish the fire but also douse it completely with water and stir it well, since fire can actually continue to burn underground. If you don't have easy access to water, use dirt, sand, and a stick to really stir until it is no longer hot. In 2013 an illegal wildfire spread across the park and to the border of Estes Park. It resulted in the evacuation of a large area of Estes Park and cost $6 million to put it out.
You don’t need to bring a hammer or drill, but there are a few small pieces of equipment you may find very helpful. The first is a pocketknife or better yet a multi-tool with a knife. This can be helpful for everything from creating wood shavings for a fire to making a small spear for catching fish. A multi-tool often includes things such as a small saw, pliers, a screwdriver for fixing your hiking poles, or other useful little tools that can help you fix your equipment or survive in the wild. The second item that you should certainly have with you is duct tape. There are so many uses for this in the wilderness, from protecting your heels from developing blisters to patching a rain jacket or creating a splint with pieces of wood. If you start to feel a “hot spot” on your foot, a place where the boot is beginning to rub, put a large piece of duct tape on that area and it will likely prevent you from developing blisters. It is also helpful to carry a length of parachute cord. It is small, lightweight, and very strong and can come in handy for a wide variety of situations.
When you head out into the mountains, you'll be burning a lot of calories. To keep going you need to bring adequate food with you. Candy bars and potato chips are not what your body needs. Choose foods that will last in both the heat and the cold and will provide you with proper nutrition to fuel your body. Be aware that meat and cheeses may go bad in your backpack, and chocolate may turn into a runny mess unless these types of items are properly insulated. Consider bringing snacks such as trail mix, granola bars, nuts, dried fruits, and dried meats. For sandwiches consider using tortillas instead of bread, as they are less compressible.
When out for a day of hiking it is best to eat small amounts at frequent intervals rather than eating large meals less often. People often eat too much when they stop and then they find themselves very fatigued just a short time later, as their body has to work too hard to process all that food.
Be sure to bring an empty bag with you such as a Ziplock bag where you can put all of your trash. Check all around you before you leave the place where you ate to be certain that you've picked everything up and that nothing has blown away. Pay attention to any micro-trash, those tiny pieces that might be overlooked. Take it all and leave this place pristine for the wildlife that live here and for those who will come after you.
At these high elevations staying adequately hydrated is essential. Your body loses moisture at a much greater rate in the mountains than at sea level but surprisingly you might not feel as thirsty. People are often unaware that they are dehydrated until it is fairly advanced and a serious issue. So be very conscientious about your water intake. There are apps that will remind you to drink and tell you how much you have drunk during the day, and these can be helpful when at elevation. The recommended amount of water intake is 48–72 ounces per day, but if you are out hiking on a hot summer day you may need to drink as much as a liter of water per hour. Your goal should not be to over-hydrate, just be sure you are not ignoring your body's need for water. Also, don't substitute coffee, soda, alcohol, or other drinks for what your body needs most, which is water.
So how do you stay hydrated while hiking? Unfortunately, you won’t find water at the trailhead so come prepared. Bring a good supply of water with you. Buy a bottle you can use over and over again while hiking, one that won't break. The visitor centers near the park entrances have places where you can fill your own bottles with fresh cold water. For long hikes, you will also need a way to clean water that you find along the way.
While the streams and lakes in the park come directly from melting snow and are generally pretty clean, it still needs to be properly treated, as elk, bighorn sheep, and other animals may have contaminated the water farther upstream. If you don’t clean the water you find, it could lead to giardia, which is a way to lose a lot of weight in the most unpleasant of ways. There are different ways to filter water. Many people choose to bring a pump type of water filter with them, others use special straws, or use a SteriPEN (specialized UV light) to purify the water. Each of these methods has pros and cons. A good outdoor store can walk you through the options. (Be aware that if you are using one of the UV light purifiers, it only works properly with lithium batteries even though it looks like it works with regular batteries. Regular batteries simply aren’t strong enough to fully purify the water.) Remember that without one of these purifying options, your hikes are limited in length by the amount of water you can carry.
Be aware that along with water your body also needs a little salt and electrolytes to maintain its balance. A few bites of a salty snack and a few sips from a sports drink along with enough water can help to keep your body chemistry in equilibrium.
If you find yourself lost in the wilderness, you need a way of signaling others. The first item you absolutely must have is a whistle. You will lose your voice after about twenty minutes of yelling, but you can keep using a whistle as long as you can breathe. Another helpful thing to have with you is a small mirror. With a mirror and some sunlight, you can signal a helicopter that may be looking for you. Wearing very bright clothing also helps if you get lost, as it will make you easier to spot. Consider keeping a brightly colored rain jacket in your pack that you can wear if you need to be found.
Carrying with you an emergency locator beacon will be invaluable if you need to be rescued, as you will not only be able to notify the authorities of your need for rescue, but the device will also transmit your exact GPS coordinates. When paired with the other signaling devices listed above, tan emergency locator beacon is an invaluable tool.
If you end up having to spend a night in the wilderness, you will be glad to have some sort of emergency shelter. A small tarp with string can be set up to keep the rain off you during a cold, rainy night. An emergency bivy sac can help you hold your heat and avoid hypothermia. These are made of waterproof, windproof, reflective material that may save your life. They also can be used for signaling for help. Both the bivy and emergency tarp come in small packs that will not take up much room in your backpack.
Additional Items to Consider:
Besides the essentials above, consider bringing:
Hiking poles are not just for older people. People of all ages can benefit from hiking poles. They absorb some of the impact on the knees and feet when descending, they help with balance on unstable terrain, and they may actually increase the speed at which you can comfortably hike. However, simply having them isn’t enough; you need to know the best way to use them. Here's a great YouTube video showing the best way to use them.
Cell Phone and Portable Power Charger
Although cell reception is nonexistent in many parts of Rocky, it is wise to bring a cell phone with you just in case you can get reception. Yet a cell phone by itself won’t do you any good if it loses power, so bring along a portable charger. Ideally, keep your phone off and in a waterproof pouch inside your backpack until you need it. If you are in an emergency situation, you’ll want to connect with the NPS Dispatch (970-586-1203) and then set a schedule with them for ongoing communication. This way you can turn your phone off to conserve power until the scheduled check-in time.
Generally, there are very few pesky insects here in Rocky Mountain National Park but on wetter years or when you are traveling near marshy areas you may find yourself attacked by mosquitoes. For those rare situations keep some insect repellent in your bag as well as a mesh head net to wear when they are at their worst.
Bring an extra bag that you can use to carry out any trash you come across on the trail. If all of us take a little extra responsibility, we can keep this park pristine for generations to come. You might want to bring a pair of medical gloves to remove the worst rubbish.
This may sound like an odd item to carry, but often when hiking through the tundra there is a strong cold wind. In high winds, you can simply put in some earplugs and prevent earaches. Alternatively, music earbuds can serve the same purpose.
Ziplock and Human Waste Bags
If you use toilet paper in the wilderness, you need to pack it back out with you. For this purpose, keep a few Ziplock bags in your pack. They don’t take up any space or weight and ensure that you can leave the wilderness as you found it.
If you find that you have to do more than pee, bring a human waste bag for poop and toilet paper and pack it out. With the millions of visitors, burying your waste is no longer a viable option.
A pair of gaiters can be helpful year-round. They wrap around the lower part of your leg and boot. In the winter and spring they can keep snow out of your boots and during other seasons they can keep the rocks and sand out. They are handy when you encounter deep mud or if you simply want to keep the bottom of your hiking pants clean. They are also very helpful during tick season, preventing ticks from crawling under your pant leg.
If you plan to visit the park between late October and early May, you will have a much better experience on the trail if you have a set of microspikes such as those made by Kahtoola. They stretch around your boot and provide great traction when you are walking on icy trails. While others are slipping and falling, you can hike right on by without difficulty.