Plan the Perfect Summer High Elevation Backpacking Trip

Oct 2017
Wide view of Tenaya Lake at Yosemite National Park.

Thoughts of summer camping trips evoke feelings of camaraderie, campfire smoke, and cold nights. Of days filled with hiking and swimming and sunshine. Take your childhood camping to a new level by planning a summer backpacking trip!

Find your summer escape in the peaks of the mountain west, where the west is still wild, the alpine lakes are sparkling, and quintessential through-hikes call to you. But, the season is short and the warm weather fleeting. Need some guidance and inspiration to plan the perfect summer backpacking trip? Read on.


1. Head to the peaks

Snowy mountains next to reflective lake on Longs Peak hike.

The high-elevation backcountry of the American West is an explorer’s wonderland. If you have a backpacking “bucket list,” Yosemite National Park, the Rocky Mountains, and the epic backcountry of Yellowstone have got to be on it.

Choose your mountain range and start researching routes — you will find that there is no shortage of options and all have their own unique appeal. Backpacking in Yosemite might be all about summiting Half Dome, or maybe you are itching to explore the High Sierra. The Continental Divide in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park lends extra epic appeal to any route through these famed pine-covered peaks. Following them north, the legendary draw of Yellowstone’s geysers, hot rivers, and bison herds are enough to keep you backpacking all summer long.


2. Plan ahead — well ahead

A crumpled up map.
Photo by Diana Zalucky

The most epic and inspiring peaks of the mountain west draw hikers from around the globe. Advance planning is necessary to plan around the seasonal influx of tourists and demand to explore these beautiful places.

Many trails, particularly in the National Parks, are now permit restricted to protect the natural environment. Each park manages their permitting differently, so it pays to begin your research and planning as far as a year in advance. Campgrounds in developed areas within the parks are often in high demand as well. Think through each piece of what you will need to make your perfect summer backpacking trip complete:

  • Permits
  • Campgrounds
  • Lodge stays


3. Consider the weather

Shoes next to an open fire.
Photo by Diana Zalucky

Summer weather in the mountain west can be finicky. We all go backpacking in search of those warm days where we hike all morning and lounge in the sun all afternoon, taking a quick dip in a freezing alpine lake to refresh for the next day’s hike. However, rain, hail, and even snow are a real possibility when you’re hiking above eight or nine thousand feet in elevation.

Try to choose the optimal timing based on annual average temperatures in your desired destination. But, with the difficulty of securing permits, know that you may not be able to control all of the factors and once on the trail, you can never control the weather. When heading into the backcountry, always prepare for the worst case scenario. If there is even a chance of snow, you should have clothing that will keep you warm in freezing temperatures and a plan for how to deal with the circumstances.

4. Pack appropriately

Set your expectations for packing early on. With a backcountry trip like this, what you pack is what you carry. The wilderness of the high-elevation mountain west has certain requirements:

  • Bear cans – Some parks require that you carry a bear can to contain all food and smellable items (including things like toothpaste and chapstick). Even if not required, they are highly recommended anywhere there is a population of black bears and curious raccoons.
  • High calorie food – Don’t think you can skimp on meals, even on a short 2 or 3 day backpacking trip. You need to carry calorie-dense, balanced foods to keep you fueled in all possible temperatures.
  • Clothes for all weather – Plan for the worst. In the summer in high elevations, you may go from a warm and sunny 85 degrees to a chilly 50 degrees and rainy within an hour. Don’t be caught unprepared.
  • Trekking poles – Not just for the injured, trekking poles are a backpacker’s best friend. They can lessen the impact of weight on your joints significantly and will minimize fatigue over difficult terrain.


5. Train

Make a training plan and stick to it. Particularly if your trip is early in the summer season, it’s easy to get complacent with your backpacking fitness while spring weather is still rainy and less-than-perfect at home. Get to the gym, train with weight on your back, and try to get out and experience an elevation similar to where you will be backpacking. High altitude adds an extra element of difficulty to any backpacking trip. Be sure to take this into account when designing your training plan.

Towering peaks. Tall pines. Cold nights. Alpine lakes. These are the hallmarks of a classic high-elevation summer backpacking trip.