11 Tips I Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail was my first ever thru-hike. As a deeply anxious individual, I spent the months leading up to my start date frantically scouring the Internet for “The Tips” that would, if followed, magically guarantee a smooth, fun, easy trail experience.
When you Google “What do I need to know before thru-hiking the Colorado Trail”, you’ll learn a few things: Don’t get blisters, avoid lightning, and prevent altitude sickness. All of these things are easier said than done! Furthermore, none of this advice helped me feel more confident for the start of the trail, seeing as I had no idea how to avoid blisters, lightning, and altitude sickness.
Some of you may have read my article on ten tips I wish I had known before hiking the John Muir Trail. Most of those tips apply to the Colorado Trail as well, but the CT does have a few unique features that you’ll want to expect and prepare for. And, since I liked the Colorado Trail more than the John Muir Trail, I’ll even throw in a bonus eleventh tip.
Here are my eleven tips for preventing common mistakes and maximizing fun while on the Colorado Trail.
READ NEXT —
- Ten Tips I’d Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the John Muir Trail
- The Colorado Trail vs. The John Muir Trail: Which Trail is Better?
Caring For Your Body
Tip #1: Don’t Get Blisters
Okay, I’m kidding, kind of.
The state of your feet will be a pretty strong predictor of how much fun you’ll have on a day-to-day basis. I’ve seen the strongest hikers be knocked out by gnarly blisters that cause too much pain with each step to continue forward.
Everything I have to say about blisters can be placed in one of two buckets: Prevention, and Treatment.
The Colorado Trail is often dusty, meaning that lots of dirt will likely get inside your socks and rub against your feet as you walk. Bring extra socks, and change them each evening. Additionally, wash your dirty socks and feet whenever possible to remove the scratchy dust from your feet.
Your shoe selection is also important for blister prevention. Your pair should be snug, but not tight, and I strongly recommend you take a few trips with your shoes before tackling the trail to make sure they don’t rub anywhere on your feet.
A good rule of thumb is that reducing friction on your feet will prevent blisters from forming in the first place and make you happier in the long run.
Despite your best efforts, sometimes blisters are simply unavoidable. When this happens, addressing them early will help your feet get back to normal as quickly as possible.
When I reach camp with a blister, I clean my feet, sterilize a needle with my lighter, poke several small holes around the circumference of the blister, press to drain, and apply some antibiotic cream. The small holes allow the blister fluid to drain while maintaining the skin over the center of the blister. This will help it heal faster and will be less painful when you have to wake up and walk again in the morning.
I sleep barefoot after dealing with a blister, which I find helps the blister dry out as much as possible. In the morning, before packing up camp, I cover the blister with a piece of Leukotape. As a member of the Very Sweaty Feet Club, I’ve found that Leukotape is the only type of bandage to actually stay on my foot throughout the day.
While it’s better to stop a blister before it forms, it’s handy to have some treatment steps ready in your head for when one inevitably surprises you.
Tip #2: Acclimate On and Off Trail
The Colorado Trail ranges in elevation from 5,500 feet to 13,271 feet, and has an average elevation of 10,300 feet. With higher altitudes leading to lower oxygen saturation in the blood, it’s important to acclimate to this elevation as much as possible before beginning your hike.
First, if you are able, spend a week at an elevation of 5,000 ft or higher before starting the trail. Your body, given time, adapts to the lower oxygen concentration through tangible, physiological changes. The pressure in your pulmonary arteries increases, and your body produces more red blood cells and more of an enzyme called 2,3-DPG, which helps you release more oxygen to the tissues in your body.
In short, adjusting to altitude is not a mental game. Your body needs time to change the way it functions so that it’s able to work at higher elevations.
While you’re on the trail, sleep is one of the most important factors that determines how you will feel the following day, yet is often negatively impacted during the acclimatization process. While you sleep, slower, deeper breathing results in lower oxygen levels in your blood, which naturally disrupts your rest cycle. Insomnia is a common affliction at altitude, precisely when you need quality rest the most.
One way to mitigate this is by sleeping as low as possible. The Colorado Trail is full of ups and downs, which gives you lots of opportunities to sleep at an elevation around 1,000 feet lower than the highest point you reached during the day. This will lead to higher-quality sleep, and will help your body adjust to changing blood oxygen levels.
That being said, cowboy camping at the high point of the trail was one of my favorite memories. Listen to your body, and do what feels right to you in the moment.
Tip #3: Stay Hydrated, Stay Fed
Altitude messes with more than just your sleep, and it might not be long before you feel its effects.
The lowest point of the Colorado Trail is the eastern terminus at Waterton Canyon. From there, at 5,500 feet, you will have only a few days before shooting above 9,000 feet and not coming back down until the western terminus in Durango. As your body works harder to propel you along the trail at these elevations, it will use more water.
Make sure to hydrate more than you think you need to. I carried 2 liters of water with me, and would usually chug a liter at a water source before filling up again.
At higher elevations, some hikers will also lose their appetites. While hiking, getting an appropriate amount of calories to fuel your body is one of the most important daily tasks. Pack food you like, and force yourself to eat what your body needs, even if your brain is trying to tell you that you don’t want to.
Tip #4: Make Your Water Taste Good
Please enjoy this excerpt from my trail journal:
“These past two days have been brutal. What little water I’ve found smells and tastes like cow shit. I think this is the worst mood I’ve ever been in. Getting Giardia is going to be the cherry on top of this awful stretch of trail.”
If you’ve hiked the Colorado Trail, you probably know which segment I was hiking at the time. Was I being overly dramatic? Yes, but I think I was entitled to some theatrics after my last water source had a half-rotted cow carcass 50 feet upstream from where I was filling up my bottle.
I’m always shocked when I talk to people who don’t filter their water. Hike your own hike and all that, but I can’t imagine drinking straight from some of the sources on the CT. If you’re planning to thru-hike, buy the filter that works for you and use it.
And, do yourself a favor: Please bring some sort of flavored drink mix for some of the worst water sources. Filters will do an excellent job at filtering out the nasties that will make you sick, but will do little for the smell and taste of the water. It’s easier to stay hydrated when your water tastes like watermelon and Red #40 instead of cow poop.
Weather and Lightning
Tip #5: Prepare for Sudden Weather Changes
Here is a non-exhaustive list of the weather you can reasonably expect to encounter on a thru-hike of the Colorado Trail: thunderstorms, lightning, snow, hail, rain, blinding sun, intense heat, howling wind, and freezing cold.
To a degree, you sort of just have to grin and bear this. But, knowing which layers are worth the weight will absolutely make the experience more enjoyable. For the rain, hail, and wind, bring a raincoat and rain pants. A puffy, fleece midlayer, and a pair of sweatpants got me through every chilly night and overcast morning. A lightweight sun hoodie and baseball hat protected me from the heat and the sun as much as possible.
At all costs, I kept my fleece and my sweatpants dry. After a day in which I experienced all four seasons, nothing helped me mentally more than crawling into my tent and changing into dry, fuzzy, warm pajamas.
Tip #6: Expect to be Caught Above Treeline in Lightning
There are so many resources explaining how to avoid lightning in the backcountry, but most of them focus on prevention. Sometimes, when thru-hiking, you don’t have the option to stay inside or wait out a storm in a perfectly safe location.
On the Colorado Trail, there are two main sections above treeline where it would be very easy to get stuck during a thunderstorm: Cottonwood Pass on the Collegiate West Route and the high section just before heading west into Silverton.
If you’re caught on exposed terrain with lightning, you can usually descend below treeline, even if that means wandering off the trail. However, on some sections of the trail, you’re simply too high up for there to be any tree cover. If you’re caught in a thunderstorm here and there is absolutely no way to reach safer ground, remember to stay low, assuming the lightning position, and spread out if you are in a group. The current from a lightning strike can travel through the ground, so avoid standing next to your friends to prevent the same strike from knocking you all out.
Avoid high points and conductive objects (like the frame of your backpack!), and don’t seek shelter under a rock outcropping or by a lone, tall tree. If possible, get to the lowest point in a saddle and wait out the storm. I will always remember running a quarter mile off the trail to get to find a low point, wrapping myself in Tyvek, and waiting out a huge thunderstorm in the San Juans.
Deep breaths! You’ll be okay.
Tip #7: Don’t Get Burned
When I set out on my thru-hike, outfitted in a sun hoodie, shorts, long socks, and a baseball hat, I genuinely thought so much of my skin was covered that I wouldn’t have to worry about the sun. Terrible decision. By the time I hit Breckenridge, the tops of my knees, tip of my nose, and my knuckles were incredibly sunburnt.
The sun is more intense at higher elevations, and hiking the Colorado Trail includes a lot of time spent standing outside in the sun all day. Bring sunscreen — and use it! — along with a brimmed hat and a sun hoodie. Even with all my protective clothing, my knuckles and kneecaps were two places I had to apply sunscreen several times a day to avoid a burn.
Finally, and I speak from experience, make sure to apply sunscreen when you’ve shed any of your layers. Lounging by an alpine lake is relaxing, but a sunburnt back and heavy pack do not go well together.
Towns and Resupply
Tip #8: Resupply in Creede
This one may be a bit controversial, but I recommend visiting Creede instead of Lake City. The two towns are close to one another, and both are easy options for a resupply.
Lake City offers tons of cool things, like the Lake City Brewing Company, several delicious restaurants, and the incredible Raven’s Rest Hostel. If you end up in Lake City while on the trail, you’ll have a great time. It’s where I resupplied, and I had no regrets!
However, Creede has some advantages that would convince me to go there instead if I hike the trail again. It’s the slightly less popular option, which means you have a greater chance of getting lodging. It also has slightly more food options, offers free camping on the baseball diamond, and, best of all, the Creede Olive Oil Company calls the town home and offers free samples of delicious bread and flavored balsamic vinegars.
Creede is also so close to San Luis Peak, so staying there will give you the option to wait for a fair-weather day to summit the 14,000-foot mountain. And, on that note, Tip #8.5 is to definitely summit San Luis Peak. The Colorado Trail will take you within an hour’s walk from the summit, and the views are absolutely worth it.
READ NEXT — How to Hike Every 14er on the Colorado Trail
Tip #9: Don’t Mail Resupplies
I understand the draw of a mailed resupply. There is something comforting about knowing you’ll be getting a box of your favorite snacks and meals in the next town. But, I promise you, the towns along the CT have you covered.
Most resupply towns have stores with an impressive range of hiking food, snacks, and essentials. Appetites while hiking are so unpredictable, it’s nice to have the ability to mix up your food when you’re tired of the stuff you brought along the previous section of trail. Plus, by shopping at these local stores, you’re helping to support the communities that give so much to help you along your hike.
I understand that personal preferences and dietary needs differ. If you have dietary restrictions or a love for a specific snack, mail yourself a box of goodies. But, if you’re on the fence and are simply worried about not finding what you need in towns, I’d recommend giving the local stores a chance.
Tip #10: Enjoy the Towns
Hiking the CT isn’t just about the on-trail journey, it’s about experiencing the character and generosity of each town you pass through. Skipping past these wonderful spots would mean missing out on a meaningful part of the culture of the trail. Each town is a unique experience full of charm and character. Explore and enjoy the sights of each town when you resupply.
Some of my best moments on the trail were town. Floating down the Arkansas River in Salida, picking out a stuffed marmot to join me for the rest of the trail at Cabin Fever Mercantile in Lake City, relaxing with friends at Coffee Bear in Silverton, and gorging on fudge at the Jefferson Market were integral parts of the journey.
Each new town brought new, friendly locals, delicious food, and unexpected surprises. These towns are more than just dots on the map. They’re woven into the very fabric of the culture of the Colorado Trail. Don’t rush through. Pause and take a moment to really experience the warmth and diversity of each one.
And, of course, never pass up an opportunity for a real bed.
I did promise you a bonus tip — so here it is:
Tip #11: Just Get Out There
There are so many ways to experience the Colorado Trail. Don’t have time for a thru-hike? What about a section? A weekend? A day hike?
Throughout my journey, I met people exploring the trail in every conceivable way. I saw hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and one man who said he comes to the trail every weekend to meditate. I do not say this to be dramatic: The Colorado Trail is life-changingly beautiful. Spending any amount of time, in any capacity, on this trail is a valuable experience.
I hope this article helps assuage your anxiety about your time on the trail. Really, there aren’t many choices you could make that would make your experience on the CT anything less than incredible.
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