How to prepare for backcountry outings

Filed in Expert Articles, General Information by on November 9, 2013

Tom Wiesen

When organizing for a backcountry outing, I try to follow a simple axiom, “Don’t just prepare for the day, prepare for an emergency.” Now this doesn’t mean you need to carry a giant pack, however it does mean that you need to prepare by taking along several key items to ensure that you and your loved ones come home safely.

In the Colorado high country, always be prepared for a change in the weather with a raincoat or poncho. Thunderstorms can blow in without warning, and drop two inches of hail, while the temperature plummets to 40 degrees. It is a fact that cases of hypothermia are more common in summer than in winter here in Colorado. Be prepared for cold rain. Summer thunderstorms usually occur after 1pm, so early starts help you stay dry.

Always bring plenty of water. Bring no less than one quart for every three miles hiked. The air is very dry here, and dehydration greatly increases the chances of altitude sickness. Also, drink plenty of water before hitting the trail.

Always prepare for the sun, even on cloudy days. At high altitudes the sun is very strong, so it is best to have a brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen. Reapply sunscreen every two hours.

Plenty of people hike in shorts and tee shirts. However, new lightweight synthetic sports shirts are ideal because they wick moisture away from your skin, and keep you dry. A light colored shirt is ideal so it won’t absorb hot sun. If conditions turn cool, a cotton tee shirt damp with perspiration will give you a chill, and that’s when a back up long-sleeved shirt is handy. Remember, if you’re cold, take off damp clothes and put on dry ones.

If I am on an all-day hike, say to a high summit or distant alpine lake, I like to bring along a change of socks. It feels great on sore, hot tired feet to take off old socks and put on soft cushioning new ones for the downhill. Also, soaking your feet in a mountain stream is both fun and therapeutic.

For long hikes always bring a flashlight and a way to make a fire, just in case it takes longer than you had thought.

Remember, local hazards include slick rocks and mud along whitewater streams and on wet trails. Also, rocks can be dislodged in steep areas and roll down causing injury to others below. Sometimes cliffs are close to trails and can create falling hazards. Stay below treeline if lightening is a possibility. If you’re allergic to bee stings, take an epi-pen. If you have asthma, take your inhaler.

I believe that the more prepared you are, the less likely you are to have an emergency, because you’ve been thinking safety from the start.


Rain jacket
Long-sleeved shirt
Warm hat
Map and compass
Matches or lighter
First aid kit
Cell phone (turned off with batteries charged)

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