Quick Tips: Gearing Up for a Wilderness Fly-Fishing Trip

A wilderness cutthroat. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.
A wilderness cutthroat. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.

When you’re heading out on a wilderness fly-fishing trip, it’s vital that you bring along the right gear. There are no fly shops or convenience stores in the backcountry, so you need to be prepared from the very start. Which fly rods you bring will depend on where you’re going and what species you’ll be fishing for, but the rest of the gear mentioned here is what you’ll need for any expedition far from the pavement.

Wading Gear

The frigid water in mountain lakes can make wet-wading impossible, so pack good waders. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.
The frigid water in mountain lakes can make wet-wading impossible, so pack good waders. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.

Although a lot of trips involve summertime wet-wading, good waders and boots are important, especially during early and late summer. Waders enable you to fish water that’s otherwise unreachable, and wet-wading in high-mountain lakes can be cold even during the warmest summer months due to the continued snowmelt.

When selecting waders, you should focus on those that are lightweight and packable. Ideally, they should also be tough, as hiking along small rivers and backcountry lakes offer plenty of obstacles that can easily tear a pair of waders. For wilderness fishing, I always recommend stocking-foot waders over those with built-in boots. A stocking-foot wader with a good wading boot is easier to pack, and it will provide better fit and stability for hiking on uneven terrain.

For boots, a lightweight, hiking-style wading shoe is ideal. Look for one with a with a Vibram rubber sole for good traction. We don’t recommend felt soles because they don’t offer great traction in this type of mountainous terrain. More importantly, felt soles carry an increased risk of introducing invasive species to our waters. Studded or cleated soles are usually not necessary, and are not recommended if you will be using inflatable rafts.

For wet wading, you will want a pair of quick-drying pants and wet-wading sandals, shoes, or boots. You may choose to wear wet wading socks, or you can wear a pair of neoprene socks with your regular wading boots.


Good quality, polarized sunglasses are also critical for fly fishing. They provide eye protection from high altitude sun, tree limbs, brush and flying hooks. They also enable you to see fish easier in the water. Plastic sunglass lenses are the way to go, for safety reasons. Brown lenses are considered a good all-around color for a wide range of fly-fishing conditions. Buy the best sunglasses you can afford within your budget. You will not regret it.

Fishing Packs

Fishing packs can be another overwhelming area of gear because there are so many styles and brands on the market. Whether you fish with a traditional backpack, a sling pack, waist pack, chest pack, fishing vest, or some combination of the above, is all just personal preference. Ideally, you will want something that allows you to organize your fishing tackle and flies, as well as the rest of your gear. On a backcountry trip, you will need enough room for extra clothing, rain gear, food and water. For day trips into the wilderness, 1,800-2,000 cubic inches of space is about right. However, this doesn’t include room for waders and wading boots. Otherwise, you will need a pack in the range of 3,000 cubic inches.


Packing the right gear can be key to success for a wilderness trip. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.
Packing the right gear can be key to success for a wilderness trip. Photo courtesy Winterhawk Outfitters.

As with any venture into the wilderness, make sure you bring enough clothing layers for a variety of temperatures. In the morning, it can be 40-50 degrees when we leave camp. By midday, temperatures can rise into the 70s or even low-80s. During the early and late parts of the season, it can even be in the 30s in the early mornings. Lightweight layers are ideal, so that you can adjust as needed.

Fleece, merino wool, and even Primaloft are all great choices for cooler conditions. Add a rain jacket with these, and you will be warm even in windy or wet conditions. Lightweight, highly breathable, polyester layers are great for warmer temperatures and also provide protection from the sun and bugs. With the sun and bugs in mind, a couple of other items to bring along are a hat, sunscreen and bug spray. In general, mosquitoes are only a problem early in the summer, but biting flies can pick up once the mosquitoes are gone. Usually by August, bugs are no real issue, but it’s better to have some spray along in case you need it.

Rain Gear

The last item we want to discuss in this article is quality rain gear. It is a must for backcountry fishing, and you should never leave camp without it! It’s not uncommon to leave camp in the morning with clear, blue skies, and by early afternoon be looking at heavy thunderstorms. These storms can include downpours, hail and even snow at the highest altitudes. For rain gear, I recommend bringing both a jacket and pants. Rain gear should be lightweight, breathable and packable. If you have some good rain gear for hunting, this will work fine.

Packing the right gear will ensure your wilderness fishing trips this summer are more enjoyable and successful.

Written by Bob Terwillger. Terwilliger guides backcountry fly-fishing trips for Winterhawk Outfitters in Collbran, Colorado.

2 Responses

  1. A few things to ad to this, because every year folks trot off into the wilds with nothing more than “sunglasses” and a few personal items. Then they find themselves in rapidly changing conditions, spending the night with nothing more than a power bar to keep them warm while the rain turns to wet snow, and the temp. goes from 70 to 40. This is more than what you carry to “Base Camp”, this should be with you everytime you go more than 200′ down the trail.

    A good Knife, you should have one with you at all times, no excuses. 2-3 space blankets, they weigh nothing…take up little space, are waterproof, and can save your butt (shelter, sleeping) in an emergency. 30′ min. of 550# Paracord….this is a $5.- item, worth its weight in uses. Fire Starting Kit, make your own….waterproof matches, lighter, Fire sticks (a $3.- item) 1 brown paper bag, cut into 12″ squares and folded. Everything fits into a 1 gallon ziplock. A Compass/Map, and some time spent orienting yourself to your location. Make sure to tell someone where your going and when you plan to return. Finally, a solid little First Aid Kit. I build my own with cloth style bandages (the strip kind) 3×4 non-adherent pads, cloth tape, neosporin, sunscreen, lip balm, etc.

    1. Jaeden, Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to this post with the added tips. All great information! You can never be too prepared when you’re heading into Colorado’s backcountry. Thanks again, and have a great fishing season.

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