What to Pack for Your Rocky Mountain National Park Vacation

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The Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park

The Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park

You are headed to Rocky Mountain National Park where you will find yourself surrounded by 300 miles of hiking trails, beautiful alpine lakes and outstanding views of the 14,259-foot Longs Peak. But how do you pack for Rocky Mountain National Park, a place where temperatures can fluctuate 35 degrees in one day? Here are the top 16 items to bring to the park.

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1. Sturdy Hiking Boots to Help You Really Experience the Rockies

A good pair of hiking boots is a must. To make the most out of your trip, pack a pair of supportive, waterproof and breathable hiking boots. These will allow you to navigate wet and dry hiking trails with ease and enable you to explore farther than you maybe would have. 

If you're not going more than a couple of miles down the trail, you can pack light with a hiking shoe that can go from the trail to the restaurant. We love the Lowa Locarno Low hiking shoes.

2. A Rain Jacket to Protect You from Colorado’s Afternoon Storms

Who brings rain jacket to dry Colorado? We do. Every time we head to the mountains in the summer. Like clockwork, afternoon rainstorms can roll in, wrecking a perfectly beautiful day. The good news is they pass quickly. The bad news is the temperature drops dramatically when it rains, turning a warm day into one that feels freezing. When it rains and temperatures plummet, you want a jacket that can keep you warm and dry. Be sure to take cover from thunderstorms and lightening.

Tip: Pick a jacket that claims to be waterproof or watertight, not water resistant. Check out the many brands of rain jackets at www.rei.com.

3. Binoculars to See Rock Climbers and Wildlife

Don’t miss seeing the rock climbers on Longs Peak or elk and moose grazing in a nearby meadow. Bring along a good pair of binoculars to see it all. It’s worth talking to your local camp store employee about the different types of binoculars for sale as not all are created equal. You don’t want to end up with an extraordinarily weak pair, nor a pair too heavy to hike with. The Nikon Monarch series offers some great features.

Need help on choosing a pair of binoculars? REI.com has this helpful article and has a plethora of binocular brands.

4. Daypack for Extraordinary Alpine Hikes

Make going for a stroll to Adams Falls on the park’s west side or a strenuous hike to Thunder Lake on the east side much more comfortable with a daypack. Place all your (and your family’s essentials) like extra layers, extra snacks, a flashlight, binoculars, whistle and simple first-aid kit in it.

Daypacks don't need to be the big expensive kind that backpackers use. If you're just going out for the day, a smaller 18-30L size will work just fine and many can also double as a personal item on an airplane. Here are some good options for daypacks made specifically for travel.

5. Snacks to Fuel Adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park

The only restaurant inside the park is next to the Alpine Visitors Center, situated at nearly 12,000 feet on Trail Ridge Road. Be sure to stock up with food you will need for camping in the park or for day trips before you enter the park. Estes Park and Grand Lake have grocery stores, gas and restaurants. Grand Lake has two small grocery stores, so do not expect a huge national chain grocery store when you drive into this quaint historic town.

6. A Couple of Water Bottles or a Hydration System

Combat the effects of elevation and sun by drinking water almost constantly. Because the air is dry, your sweat quickly evaporates. Often, you won’t know you are sweating. Drinking water ensures you won’t get dehydrated, which can lead to headaches, altitude sickness and more serious conditions like heat cramps and heat stroke. Plan to drink .5 -1 liter per hour of hiking.

Even when you are not recreating, be sure to keep drinking while you are in Colorado. If your urine is clear, you are hydrated. We love bringing along our CamelBak, which allows us to keep sipping even as we are on the move.

Read more: Why Reusable Water Bottles Are Important

7. Warm and Cold Clothing Layers for Rocky Mountain’s Temperature Extremes

When you are sitting in sweltering heat in Dallas, it may seem totally ridiculous to pack a winter hat and warm layers for your Rocky Mountain National Park trip. Ignore your inner cynic. With extreme elevations changes, park temperatures in July can fluctuate 35 degrees in one day, going from 80s F during the day to 45 F during the night. Be sure to pack light layers for daytime and others that will keep you warm in the evenings, including a winter hat, for when the sun sets and cooler air moves in. You will be surprised at how quickly temperatures drop as the sun sets.

8. A Star Chart or Star App

You’ll find some dark skies in Rocky Mountain, despite the fact it is easily accessible from Denver, the state’s capital. With a star chart, you’ll be able to identify some of the formations you may never have seen before, especially if you are coming from an urban environment. Or use technology and download the SkyView® Free app for iPhone or Android, which enables you to identify stars and so on by pointing your phone at them. You may be able to see up to 15,000 stars in the park’s sky in comparison to 500 in an urban sky. It’s far out!

9. Sturdy Water Shoes for Rafting the Colorado River or Boating in Grand Lake

If you plan on river rafting the Colorado River or canoeing, kayaking or paddle-boating in Grand Lake, you will want a good pair of water shoes. Flip-flops are not recommended for water activities as they will get stuck in the mud and either break or get swallowed by the current down river. A covered rubber-toed shoe can help you avoid getting bruised toes from river rocks or cuts from stray logs.

Not sure what a water shoe is? Here's a great selection of everything from socks to sandals and shoes made for the water.

10. A Tablecloth

It’s the little things that make a big difference. When you stop at the roadside weathered picnic table to eat lunch, pull out your tablecloth to go from downhome to gourmet in a matter of seconds. You’ll also avoid getting hard-to-remove splinters when you lean against the table.

11. Bug Spray to Combat Mosquitos

Spend more time enjoying the scenery instead of swatting bugs. If you don’t want to use strong chemicals, there are plenty of bug sprays available these days that are derived from natural ingredients and are safer for use by children.

Our pick is the family-friendly Sawyer 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent. Consumer Reports has ranked this formula as the best protection against mosquitoes. Sawyer’s insect repellent is also very effective for ticks and biting flies, and it won't damage gear or equipment. Learn more at Sawyer.com/picaridin

12. Headlamp to Read or See at Night

Read at night in your tent comfortably with your headlamp or use this great lighting device to safely walk to and from evening ranger talks. Taking photos of the night skies? A headlamp with a red light option will help you change your camera settings in the dark with minimal annoyance to your travel mates.

13. A Sun Hat, Sunglasses and Sunscreen to Protect Yourself from the Colorado Sun

You only need to have experienced the sun in Colorado one time before you realize how strong it really is, especially since Rocky Mountain elevations ranges from 7,700 to 14,000 feet. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, which is preferable over a baseball cap, to cover your entire face.

Then, apply sunscreen over all exposed skin, including the back of your neck. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from being burned and polarized lens will help you see views more clearly. Don’t forget you are 7,000-to-14,000 feet closer to the sun than at sea level. Purchase sunglass straps if you plan to be on the water ⎯ it can be frustrating watching your new sunglasses float down the river without you.

14. Park Maps

Rocky Mountain National Park has a plethora overlooks, trails and waterfalls. It's good to have a map. You can wait until a park ranger hands you a map at an entrance station, or you can plan ahead and get your maps now. Download a free PDF map, or get the detailed NatGeo topographic map or NatGeo Day Hiking map at REI.com

15. Plastic Bags to Leave No Trace

Plastic bags come in handy to keep things dry in the event you get rained on, as well to pack out used toilet paper if nature calls while you are hiking. It’s a big no-no to try to bury toilet paper in the back country. It has to be packed out.

Read more: Leave No Trace

16. Ice-Traction Devices for your Shoes

If you are headed to Rocky Mountain's shaded hiking trails in late spring and early summer, bring ice-traction devices like Yaktrax to prevent you from slipping on the icy snow. The forested Bear Lake, Glacier Gorge and Wild Basin trails get heavy snow in the winter which gets packed down by snowshoers, so the snow often remains until mid to late June. Here is a good selection of traction devices.

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