Packing light is one of the best ways you can set yourself up for adventure. Whether taking a train through Tokyo, beach bathing in Bali, or climbing through Colorado, packing only what fits in a small backpack is the best way to prepare for any trip.

WHY PACK LIGHT?

It’s so much easier to jump on a train, plane, or stay at a friend’s house if you can comfortably carry everything you need for a trip. A checked bag, or awkward wheeling suitcase just slows you down. On our honeymoon to Japan and Bali, we both only took purse-sized backpacks. It gave us the freedom to explore, without needing a hotel room or locker to leave our stuff for the day. If you’re interested in down sizing tips, check out our 7 tips to living with less stuff. 

What to Wear in the Mountains

The key to packing for traveling in the mountains is finding clothes that can be both warm and active. Temperatures can fluctuate from hot to very cold, so you always want to make sure you are ready for the temperature to drop suddenly.  If style is your thing, then find clothes that can also be dressed up a bit.

The Perfect Mountain Day:

Imagine a perfect day in the mountains, and pack for those activities. Let’s say you get up early in the cool morning, bundled up and ready to go hiking. By the middle of the afternoon, you’ve hiked up a mountain, and are panting and sweating in the afternoon sun. As you summit the mountain and sit down for some lunch, your body temperature drops as the wind blows across the mountain peak. You put layers back on again, and take them on and off as you decent the mountain.

By the evening, the temperature drops yet again, and you want to be ready with more cozy layers. If you are in a happening mountain town, perhaps you and your friends want to go out for some locally brewed beer, and you want to look a bit more stylish than just running gear.

So what should you pack for a summer trip to the mountains?  Here are the 18 essential items you shouldn’t go without.

MountAIN Minimalist Packing List

Essential Accessories

Great thing about smaller accessory clothes, like hats and socks, is that they keep you exponentially warmer without taking up too much space in the backpack.

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SmartWool Hike Medium

1. Wool Socks Wool is breathable so you don’t get too hot, and it can still keep you warm if it gets wet. Bring at least 2 pairs. In case one gets wet, you want to let it dry while adventuring in the other one.

 

 

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Coal Yukon Unisex Beanie

2. Wool Hat – Find something that’s comfortable, warm, flattering, (you still want to look good in pictures, after all) and will stay on your head. This last one may seem silly, but we’ve all had those horrid hats that inch their way up slowly until you look like a cone-head. No bueno.

 

 

J+S Premium Military Style Classic Aviator Sunglasses, Polarized, 100% UV protection
Classic Aviator Sunglasses

3. Sunglasses – Mountain sun can get intense, so bring some shades that fit your personal style.

 

 

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Ysiop Wool Solid Scarf

4. Wool Scarf (optional) – Scarves are another smaller item that can pack lots of warm per ounce, but some people don’t like feeling restricted.

 

 

 


TOPS

Trick to staying warm and cool is layering. Pack clothes you feel comfortable in at every layer.

Rocky Mountain Minimalist Packing List
Nike Women’s Fitness Bra

5. Swim  / Sport Bra – Be creative in terms of doubling up multipurpose items, like finding a bra that you feel comfortable swimming in. You never know when you want to jump in a lake or hot tub while exploring! Pack 1-2 if you want to wash one and wear one along the way.

 

 

 

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Under Armour Tech Tank

6. Sporty Tank Top Find an under layer that is comfy by itself and under other layers. A close fitting sport tank top is one of our favorites. Again, dark colors can easily be dressed up in a different setting. A running singlet, compression tank or even a basic cotton tank top can be a great base layer. However, cotton may not be your best pick if you are planning heavy physical activity because it doesn’t dry as fast as other materials.

 

 

 

 

Happy Camper Life T-shirt

7. Graphic Tee – Ok, the mountains don’t require cute graphics or a witty design, but it’s nice to add a layer of style in the middle of the utilitarian outfit. A mid layer that you can wear by itself or under other layers is the goal here.

 

 

 

Nike Long Sleeve

8. Long Sleeve – long sleeve shirts, like running shirts, Under Armour or Nike Dry Fit do a good job adapting to an active day. They keep your body temperature in, and wick away sweat and moisture, helping you stay both cool and warm in the middle of adventures outdoors.

Long sleeve wool shirts can also be a favorite for mountain travelers. They also dry pretty quickly so are easily washed in a sink.

 

 

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Outdoor Research Long Sleeve

Fast-drying hiking shirts may be preferable to sports long sleeves because they are designed specifically for hiking. It keeps you cool and wicks moisture away while hiking up a mountain, and can look a little more classy than a sports shirt.

 

 


BOTTOMS

Nike Dry Crew Short
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O’Neill Hybrid Shorts

9. Running / Swim shorts – Like the sport bra, find a pair of shorts that can double as both swim and active wear. Whether you find running shorts you like swimming in, or swim trunks you like hiking in, both will work. They are great for those hot days, or under baggy pants or over leggings. Particularly in the mountains, you never know when you may get hot and want to strip down and go swimming!

 

 

 

Under Armour Men's ColdGear Armour Compression Leggings
Compression Leggings
Under Armour Women's HeatGear Armour Capri
HeatGear Capri

10. Spandex Leggings – Like the long sleeve, the long leggings pants give you an extra layer of warm that can fit under anything. They will also keep your warm whether you are adventuring or are comfy for sleeping in at night. Knit leggings can be comfortable or keep you warm, but cotton doesn’t do as well as spandex or dry-fit when it comes to getting wet, drying quickly, and retaining warmth even when sweaty. Some people love long wool under wear as a base layer in the cool mountain climate.

 

 

Columbia Sportswear Men's Silver Ridge Cargo Pant
Columbia Cargo Pant
prAna Bliss Capri

11. Breathable hiking pants – Hiking pants have come a long way in the style department in the last 20 years. You can now find stretchy, breathable, and stylish pants. Because of their versatility, they are worth investing in a pair you like. But you don’t have to break the bank….we actually discovered our love for these when Valerie’s mom brought her a pair of cargo pants from the dollar store.

 

 


Outer Layers

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Merino Wool Midweight Zip

12. Fleece or Hoodie – There is nothing more comfortable than a hug from a hoodie. It keeps you warm physically and emotionally. Knit hoodies are comfy, but performance fleeces are even better at keeping you warm.

13. Wool Sweater  Even with all the advances in garment technology, wool is still one of the best ways to stay warm and cool even when wet or being active. A nice woven sweater can also dress up the outdoorsy outfit for a night on the town. AND it keeps you warm during cool mountain nights.

 

 

Patagonia W's Triolet Rain Jacket Black Womens
Patagonia Triolet Rain Jacket

15. All-Weather Jacket – If you are planning a trip to the mountains in the winter time, consider adding snow pants and a snow jacket. But if you are planning for a summer trip, a good-quality rain /wind jacket with warm insulation should do the trick. You want something that keeps out the rain and wind and can be your final defense against the elements.

Someone gave us a Patagonia jacket as a present, and it is one of our favorite articles of clothing.

 

 

16 – Optional Layers:

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Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket
  • Down Alternative Vest/ Jacket – Yay! Poof layer!! If you are anticipating even colder weather, add an extra layer of insulation. The air created in down-style jackets add an extra layer of insulation.
  • Blazer -If you are headed to a more urban setting, you could always replace the mountain-rugged puffy jacket with classy blazer…and suddenly you’ve transformed this mountain packing list into an urban – chic packing list.

 

 


Boots /Shoes

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KEEN Women’s Whisper Sandal,

17. Walking shoes / hiking boots  – The intensity of your active shoes will depend on your desired activity level. An all-summer trek may require heavier boots than an afternoon’s hike. If you are a runner, a sturdy trail runner shoe may be able to double as your running + hiking boots. Even if you are not up for epic feats of athleticism, you may want stylish shoes you can comfortably walk in all day. If you are really committed to consolidation, some hiking sandals, like Keens hiking sandals, allow for both the flexibility of a sandal, and the walking-ready support of a shoe.

 

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Reef Rover LE Sandal

18 – Slip On / Flip Flops Shoes – Last but not least…the flip flop…or something like it. Particularly if you choose hardy hiking boots for your active shoes, you may also want something easy to slip on like flip flops or flats. This way you can put something on your feet to let the dogs out, go to the hot tub, or out dancing. or hiking! Valerie loves her hiking flip flops (as we all know)

 

Conclusion:

Packing light can be immensely freeing. At the same time, having the right gear can be the difference between an amazing time or awful time in the outdoors. This list is inspired by our current minimal philosophy, and Jessi’s 25 years in the Rocky Mountains. Remember, when packing for a trip to the mountains, the key is to find comfortable breathable layers, that you can put on and take off as the temperature fluctuates.  Outside of that, style is up to you!

Have other favorite items you love to pack with you? Please share in the comments below!

Happy travels everyone!

Want great tips on where to go in the Rockies? Check out our video: Exploring Banff National Park.


Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means purchasing an item from one of the links on this page will give a small percentage goes back to Happy Camper Wives. Affiliate links do not increase the price of the product. 

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188 Comments

  1. This is a great list but I’m actually this clueless. I assume you can only pack so much? How much of this actually fits in a purse sized back pack? How much of it did you have to wear? Any tips for squeezing it all in!! Thanks, and loving your blod thus far!! XO

    • Jessi Reply

      Hi Sophie!
      Thanks for your comment! Traveling light is always a dance of deciding on priorities…what can fit in a backpack and what can be worn en-route. So yes, in my experience this packing list will set someone up for a trip and be able to handle summer outdoor adventures, likely between 40-85 degrees F. We took purse-sized backpack for a summer trip to Bali, so we didn’t need to pack heavy jackets. For this list, you may want to have a medium sized backpack and/or wear some of the bulkier layers on the way. For me, if I am flying between mildly cool places, I travel with a regular school/book bag style backpack. I love to wear a hoodie on the plane, and generally bring the raincoat on the side of the bag. For squeezing more in your pack: here is a tip: first, roll your socks and underwear. That way they can be tucked into tighter places in the bag. Secondly, fold your shirts and put them in doubled-up grocery bags. Suck the air out of the bags and tie the bag. They take up less space in your bag when vacuum packed. Plus, when you get the clothes out, you’ll then have two bags: one for clean and dirty.

    • Jessi Reply

      Hi AdventureHan! Glad you like the list! Any other suggestions for packing light for your van-life?

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