Safety Tips for Your Summer Backcountry Trips

A pair of rock climbers begin their hike into Glacier Gorge on their way to climb The North Ridge of Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Summer Backcountry Trips: Safety Tips for Your Next Adventure

As many people begin planning their summer backcountry trips, it’s important to remember all those skills you use for camping, hiking, and even tips you learned in courses like the 3-day AIARE Level 1. However, summertime brings on new challenges. And there’s so much that comes into play.

A few years ago, Colorado Mountain School’s AMGA certified guide Jason Maurer pulled together a piece for Gear Junkie: 12 Tips You Don’t Learn in a Level 1 Avalanche Course. Many of these nuggets we’ve covered here, along with a few other backcountry travel tips that pertain to traveling in the warmer months.

A group of hikers pass through Chasm Junction, below Longs Peak, in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Backpacking through Rocky Mountain National Park in the summertime gives you access to pristine alpine lakes and beautiful mountain views!

Top Tips for Summer Backcountry Travel

1. Take a First Aid, CPR, and Wilderness Medicine Course

During a First Aid and CPR training course, you will learn the basics of wound care, trauma, and basic wilderness medicine. This is where our Essential Outdoor Skills Classes come in. New for this summer, we’ll be offering a Wilderness Medicine Course with Mountain Rescue Institute and NOLS- National Outdoor Leadership School.

In addition to taking a class, there are several apps available, like the Wilderness Medicine Reference App.  Developed by former Breckenridge ski patroller and paramedic Karen Lapides, the app provides guidance for first aid and trauma that can occur in a backcountry setting.

2. Get The Backcountry Gear

“Do your research, because the gear isn’t cheap and you want to be happy with your purchase,” Maurer said regarding safety gear.

For the best experience in Rocky Mountain National Park, make sure you are comfortable carrying a mid-sized pack and hiking several miles a day.  And, hiking at elevations over 10,000ft.

Don’t forget to break in your hiking shoes well before your trip.  Remember, this is a remote area.  And, access to shops that sell hiking gear, as well as medical services, will be miles if not hours away.

“Go to a local shop – in Colorado, that might be Neptune Mountaineering – with knowledgeable staff who can make suggestions,” Maurer said. “Support local companies. And if something is wrong, you can more easily take it in for an exchange or fix.”

summer backcountry trip Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park.

3. Practice Packing Your Backpack

“Use stuff sacks to organize your gear so nothing is loose in your pack and it’s all grab-able,” Maurer said.

“Have the items you use frequently near the top of your pack where they can’t get buried by other stuff. Put the first-aid equipment in an area of the pack that’s easily accessible.”

“I always carry a compass (even though I most often use my phone to navigate), water, puffy, first-aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, Leatherman multitool, and an extra pair of sunglasses. I keep extra snacks hidden, too, like Snickers! Depending on the remoteness of the area, I may also carry a personal locator beacon for emergencies.”

4.  Practice Summer Backcountry Camping Techniques

As part of our new Outdoor Skills Courses, we’ll be offering a 5-Day Camping and Hiking Course. If you are new to the mountains, this five-day program is the initiation you are looking for!

We start from the very beginning, introducing you to the joys of natural landscapes, backcountry travel, safety, and preparedness. By the end of this course, you will know how to plan short day trips into the mountains, overnight excursions, and you will be prepared for the challenges and rewards of mountain travel.

Backcountry Food Storage

Practice things like tying up your food or using bear canisters.  Although Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t have any grizzly bears, and even black bears sightings are rare, plan for the area you’ll be backpacking through.

Plan to tie up everything from toiletries to dog food.  Bearproof canisters, dry bags, and smell-proof bags that are easy to pack and carry with you are great to have. We recommend either buying a hanging food storage bag system or creating your own.  And finally, here’s a great video that demonstrates the PCT bear bagging method.

If you will be backpacking through an area where bears are more common, pack bear spray, keep it on you and know how to use it.

Backcountry Water Filtration

There is easy access to water from lakes and streams, however, you will need to purify the water by boiling, filtering, or using chemical tablets.  Lifestraw makes several types of personal water filtration systems.

Furthermore, you can read Outdoor Gear Lab’s reviews of the best water filters on the market.

summer backcountry trip

5. Get Familiar with the Weather Conditions in your area

The best time for a summer backcountry trip in Rocky Mountain National Park is mid-June through mid-September.  This way most trails should be clear of snow. 

However, keep in mind chilly nights and thunderstorms are common above 10,000 feet in the summertime in Colorado.  And snowfall can also occur year-round. Therefore, pack waterproof rain gear that you can hike in.  And check the latest conditions before your departure.

6. Learn How to Read a Map and Navigate in the Backcountry

Know how to use a compass and read a topographic map. If this is not a strength of yours, hire a guide.  Or take our Mountain Navigation Course. Trails may not be well-marked. And most backcountry trails deeper into Rocky Mountain National Park see very light traffic throughout the summer. 

Colorado Mountain School guides have deep-rooted experience within Rocky Mountain National Park and in several other areas across the West. Therefore, if backcountry travel is very new to you, hire a guide or take one of our courses before you head down the trailhead.

Finally, using apps like CalTopo or Gaia GPS can be very helpful. Gais GPS in particular is user-friendly, it can be oriented, aspects are viewable, and you can follow your hike in real-time. Just make sure to download these and set them up before you lose service!

summer backcountry trip
Colorado Mountain School’s Mountain Navigation Course will teach you how to read topographical maps and use a compass.

7. Choosing Your Group for Summer Backcountry Trips

“I keep the group size to four people or lower,” Maurer said. “Anything more than four, and you’re more likely to make human factor mistakes, and it’s harder to please everyone.”

Throw out feelers and weed out the group based on the timeframe for everyone. Suss out the details in advance and be blatant. Planning on a day trip? Make sure your group can stay until 4:30 p.m. – or as late as you want to go. Or, do they need to pick up their kids at 2:30 p.m.?

You don’t want to split up the group or leave anyone solo in the backcountry. As Maurer warns, “When you go into the backcountry together, you need to leave together.”

Make sure there’s a clear objective for the day. Make sure everyone is like-minded and the ability level is the same.

8. Find Summer Backcountry Trip Mentors

“To meet mentors, go to as many outdoor-related fundraisers and events as you can,” says Jason. And in Boulder, Colorado, Neptune Mountaineering, puts on weekly events!

“And follow up with your course guides. Only about 10 percent of students get in touch with me to go out afterward!”

As an example of ways to find mentorship, Colorado Mountain School’s Backpacking Development Series Level 1 and Level 2 help professionals develop leadership skills you might learn from a mentor. Our certified guides teach the fundamental mountain skills necessary for outdoor adventures, and the leadership skills to make the most of these experiences as they relate to everyday challenges in our professional and personal lives.

We develop leadership skills that are essential in both professional and wilderness settings with our curriculum cultivating communication skills, partnership, and teamwork.

womens mentoring colorado
Finding mentors in the outdoor recreation space can be challenging, but extremely rewarding!

9. Find Backcountry Trails and Practice

“Get into the backcountry more and acclimatize with these skills,” Jason said. In addition, determine what essentials you’ll need based on your type of trip.  Don’t skimp on the rain gear, water, or food!

10. Acclimate to the Altitude

The elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park and its surrounding areas ranges from 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet! It’s one of the nation’s highest national parks, so if you do not live in the area and are flying in, make sure to acclimate.

This means spending some time at lower elevations between 6,000-8,000 before beginning your summer backpacking trip.

Next Steps for Your Summer Backcountry Trip

There’s definitely a lot to think about when planning a summer backcountry trip! Remember that we’re here if you have questions, or want to do a guided day trip with us to test out your gear.

And finally, remember to Leave no Trace. Whatever you pack in you must pack out. This includes all trash and waste.

Want more tips or options for day trips or overnight programs? Check out one of the following courses:

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