Tips for Day Hiking in the Mountains

Tips for Day Mountain Hiking on High-Country Trails

View of San Juan mountains from Telluride hiking path.
You can sit on a bench and enjoy a view of the San Juan mountains when hiking the Ridge Trail in Telluride, Colorado. © 2011 Lois Friedland

Hiking mountains brings you up close with nature, from the sweeping views of pine-fringed peaks and stark rock cliffs above tree line to the colorful faces of tiny flowers at your feet. But mountain hiking takes thought and planning, even if you're just hiking for a few hours or a day on marked trails near a Rocky Mountain resort.

As I hiked on the Ridge Trail at Telluride, the only sounds were the clacking of the cicadas, shrill tweets of unidentified birds and the shivering of the aspen leaves as the wind swept through them. Flashes of light through thick pines highlighted tiny purple flowers at my feet and patches of green lichen on fallen logs. The far view through trees that towered 50 to 60 feet overhead revealed sheer striated cliff bands still capped by snow in July.

I met just one other group of hikers on this usually popular trail, so while I walked along some hiking tips began rattling through my mind.

Tips for Hiking Mountains Even on Marked Resort Trails

  • Before starting, get information about the trail you want to take at the tourist information office or booth, the Forest Ranger's station or a local store that selling hiking and biking gear. Take any buff local's advice carefully - if he or she says the trail is easy, it may be for them by not for desk-anchored city folk.
  • Choose trails carefully, so young kids can't get in trouble, by walking into the woods or off a cliff.
  • Decide in advance if you want to spend most of your time hiking uphill, downhill, or both. Sounds obvious, yes? But, take the Ridge Trail as an example of what's not easily apparent. The name and the map suggests you are walking on a ridge line. While that was true, I choose the route (unknowingly I admit but happily I later realized), that was almost entirely downhill. I learned this from the group I met, who had been steadily climbing since they started at the other end of the Ridge trail. Even their dog was panting heavily.
  • Always check the local weather report to see if thunderstorms are predicted. (They often start in the afternoon.) Take your hike early in the day. If it starts thundering and lightening, head back down.
  • Some trail maps, especially at resorts, indicate whether the trail is just for hikers, only for mountain bikers, or for both. If you prefer quiet and not having to worry about constantly moving a few steps off the trail so bicyclists can get through, pick a path accordingly.
  • We're all told that we should never hike alone. This is certainly true in the backcountry. On resort trails, however, I've seen many people hiking alone (and I was hiking alone that day). In either case, always let someone at home or a friend know exactly which trails you are planning on taking. If you hurt yourself and can't get back to the trailhead, people will know where to start looking for you. Living in the Rockies, during TV news hours we often hear of successes in finding lost or hurt hikers and of bad endings, sometimes because no one knows where to search.

    What to Take on Mountain Hiking Day Trips

    • Always bring several layers of clothing. When it's in the 80s at the base of a mountain the temperature up top, where it's several thousand feet higher, will be lower. On the rare occasions, it can even snow in the Rockies and often drops down to below 50 degrees at night. (At times, even in the 30s.) If you start out in a t-shirt, toss a long-sleeved shirt, a fleece and spare socks in a daypack or a hip pack. Lightweight rain gear is handy if it starts pouring.
    • Wear shoes with a good grip, because most trails are a mix of rock and dirt. Over the ankle hiking boots may help save you from twisted ankles on rough trails, where shale or rocks stud the dirt to keep the paths from eroding.
    • Several people I know who have knee problems use walking sticks. You can get lightweight ones at many sporting goods stores. I've used them on hikes when there you have to work your way up, down or around larger rocks and dirt steps, and they make it much easier.
    • Bring a small first aid kit, a flashlight, a compass and a map. Sounds low-tech, but there are places in the wilderness where you can't get a signal and the GPS or other apps on your Smartphone won't be available to you.

    Bring Food and Water

    You get dehydrated faster at higher altitude, so bring lots of water. Don't forget energy bars or other food that gives you the power to keep hiking.

    Watch Out for Wild Animals

    You are on their turf, so don't be surprised if you see elk, deer, even a bear or—although scarce—a mountain lion. Here are some suggestions for avoiding confrontations with wild animals.