Gear for High Altitude Hiking

Get Geared Up

So you’ve made it a goal to hike more this year? Right on! Ideally by now, you’ve started (and hopefully maintained) a regular fitness routine to help you tackle some tough trails and mountain summits this summer. Now it’s time for a gear check. If this will be your first time hiking above tree line, climbing a mountain or hiking at the higher altitudes of Colorado in general, you may be wondering what kind of gear you’ll need. Mountaineering in Colorado does require specific gear, so here’s our list of top 10 essentials for exploring the rugged Rocky Mountains.

Hiking Pack
Depending on the kind of hikes you’ll be doing and whether you plan to be on trail for a few hours or a solid all-day hike, a comfortable hiking backpack should be a staple in your gear collection. One with a removable hydration bladder is ideal. There are many choices on the market with a range of functionality but ultimately a well-made daypack should last you for years. For day hikes, we love the hydration packs from Osprey and Gregory. CamelBak also produces some great hydration hiking packs too. If you’re unsure or need help narrowing your selection down, the experts at outdoor sporting goods stores are usually equipped with helpful information/advice and can assist you in choosing the best pack for your needs. Try shopping for one at:, and
Hiking Boots/Shoes
Everyone knows a pair of hiking boots/shoes with good tread is an essential for serious hikes. (Well, almost everyone…we’ve seen our fair share of people sporting Vans on the trails). But when it comes to selecting a pair, just standing in front of the hiking footwear section at REI can feel slightly overwhelming. So many options! Do you look at hiking boots, hiking shoes or trail runners? The answer to that question comes down to choosing what’s right for you and what kinds of hikes you plan on doing. Hiking boots are typically heavy duty—made with tough, durable materials and featuring a high ankle cuff for more ankle support and stability. They are heavier, so will require more energy expenditure on your part. However, they are built-to-last and can withstand thousands of trail miles. If you’re undertaking more challenging, rocky terrain or have a history of ankle issues, then a pair of hiking boots may be your best option. On the opposite end of the scale, trail running shoes are lightweight and low-cut along the ankle—designed to help you cover a lot of ground quickly which is ideal of long-distance hikes. They are less durable of course than hiking boots or shoes and do not offer the same ankle protection or support. They are generally more flexible so if you’re planning for a long-distance hike or trail run on moderate terrain with a lighter weight pack and have no history of ankle sprains or problems, a trail running shoe might be best for you. Landing somewhere in the middle are hiking shoes, which can offer stability and durability while remaining fairly lightweight. They are typically made from more resilient materials than a trail running shoe, so navigating rough terrain is possible and they are lighter weight than hiking boots which means less weight for you to trek around with. Regardless of which direction you go with, we recommend choosing hiking footwear featuring Gore-Tex or other waterproof material since it’s not uncommon for trails throughout the Rocky Mountains to include stream crossings or sections of muddy forested terrain.
Hiking Socks
The value of a well-made pair of hiking socks should never be underestimated. Not only will they keep your feet warm and dry, they’ll also help prevent blisters and overly sore soles. Again, there are numerous options (lightweight or extra cushioning; low cut or crew cut), and selecting a good pair should be based on the climate and seasonal conditions in which you plan to hike in as well as your planned distance. Merino wool is found in most of our favorite hiking socks, providing comfort, warmth and sweat-absorption, yet lightweight breathable nylon/merino wool blends are wonderful for shorter summer hikes. Some of our personal favorite brands we’ve worn hiking include Darn Tough, Smartwool, Bombas and Stance.
Hiking Pants & Synthetic Shirts
Dressing in layers is always a great idea while hiking at high altitudes. At lower elevations, you might find yourself shedding a layer or two while you work up a sweat on a steep incline trail, but you’ll be thankful for those extra layers if you venture above tree line where the temperatures tend to dip. A good pair of hiking pants are made from durable, quick-drying synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester or spandex.  Same with shirts—avoid wearing cotton clothing which absorbs too much moisture. It’s always a good idea to check weather conditions before your hike to help you prepare for layering your clothes, yet weather at high altitudes can be unpredictable, so better to have the extra layers just in case. And ladies…we highly recommend a sports bra or another comfortable, wireless supportive top as your first layer.
Windbreaker Jacket or Fleece
We can’t emphasize it enough—the temperatures at higher altitudes can get chilly—really chilly—even in the height of summer and especially on a windy day. A warm fleece jacket or insulated down jacket are essential. Fleece will trap warmth in yet it is still lightweight and breathable. A lightweight down jacket will have enough insulation for warmth yet is easily foldable should you need to tuck it away in your pack. Some of our favorite brands for high altitude hiking include Kuhl, Marmot, The North Face, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Mountain Hardware, Columbia and REI.
Waterproof Shell/Jacket
Most of the insulated down-filled jackets or windbreakers mentioned previously feature extra waterproof functionality but check yours beforehand. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to bring an extra waterproof shell in case you encounter rain on your hike…which would certainly not be out of the realm of possibilities. Even a light early morning drizzle can make your hike fizzle if you end up cold and wet. Trust us…your trail adventures will be much more enjoyable if you stay dry (and warm). We like the ultra lightweight, compact, packable styles that fold up small and tidy into a pouch. Marmot, Columbia, Arc’teryx and Outdoor Research all offer highly compactible styles you can stash in your pack.
Hat, Beanie Hat and Gloves
A beanie cap and gloves may seem counterintuitive for a sunny summertime hike…but it all makes sense when hiking in the Rockies. If you are planning a pre-dawn start to your hike, you’ll often find morning temps in the frigid zone. A knit or wool beanie will keep your melon warm and gloves of course will keep your hands from freezing. Once the sun rises and you’ve worked up some heat, you can put these items away in your pack, however you may find yourself digging them back out again if you reach any summits high above tree line. Windy conditions and sudden cold fronts that sweep in are not unusual at elevations above the trees. We’ve encountered snow at 13,000 feet in August so just because it may be in the 70s or 80s at your basecamp, doesn’t mean you won’t encounter extreme conditions near the mountaintop. Even if you don’t plan to hike above treeline, weather in the Rocky Mountains can change abruptly. Additionally, you’ll likely want to pack some sort of hat that will provide some shade for your face—whether that’s a ball cap, trucker hat or a wide-brimmed backcountry hat—sunrays are more intense at high elevation, so you’ll be thankful for the extra protection. Click here to check out our selection of stylish Adventum Colorado Trucker Hats!
High altitude hiking means more intense sunlight—especially when you find yourself in an alpine tundra without the shade of trees to protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays. Look for sport sunglasses that are specifically designed for activities like hiking, running and cycling. They are lightweight and made from impact-resistant materials for fast-paced outdoor adventures. You could even consider a pair of glacier glasses which are specially designed to protect your eyes from intense sunlight reflections off of snow at high elevations. Both options often feature polarized lenses to help reduce glare.
If you hit the trail before the sun comes up, you won’t be able to see a thing but a headlamp will light your way through the dark. While you can stuff this piece of gear back in your pack after sunrise, it could also come in handy if you’re still heading back to trailhead following sunset. Quick Tip: make sure to check battery levels before your hike and replace batteries if necessary.
Cell Phone/Watch/GPS/Compass
A smart phone can obviously be all of these things in one plus a camera for capturing your adventures as well as the breathtaking scenery you’ll no doubt encounter along your hikes. Smart phones are definitely handy to have in your pack or pocket while hiking as it gives you easy access to the time and you can also download apps to help you determine your location and even elevation. But because cell phone batteries can drain before you’re finished with your hike, consider packing an extra charging device. If you’d rather go old school without a cell phone, we definitely recommend having a watch, compass and/or some sort of GPS device.
The above-mentioned items are what we consider to be staples for your mountaineering gear collection. Here are a few optional gear items you may want to consider adding to your collection:
  • Trekking poles
  • Micro spikes
  • Climbing Helmet
  • Water filter
  • Extra Batteries
  • Extra water bladder or bottles
  • Satellite Phone (an expensive piece of equipment but extremely valuable in an emergency)

Being prepared with the right gear for your hiking adventures can be the difference between your experience being a blast or a bust. Plan ahead and get geared up now…summer’s right around the corner. See you on the trails! ~ KM


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