The Colorado Trail Guide: Gear List
You’ve done some preliminary research on the Colorado Trail, checked out the top highlights of the CT to get sufficiently hyped for the adventure, and committed to a thru-hike. Now it’s time to work on your packing list. Buying backpacking gear can be intimidating, but it’s also a meaningful way to solidify your commitment to thru-hiking. It’s often one of the first concrete steps prospective hikers take in prepping for a long trip. Once you have your gear together, you’ll have tangible evidence that the trip of a lifetime is really about to happen.
If you’re not sure how to get started, fear not! This packing list will outline all the gear you’ll need to thru-hike the Colorado Trail, including specific examples in different budget ranges. Start shopping early so you can take your time researching gear and searching out great deals. Make sure you have an opportunity to test all your gear at least once before heading to Waterton Canyon to ensure it works for you.
More Resources from the Colorado Trail
Packing List: Quick Navigation
- Sleeping Bag/Quilt
- Sleeping Pad
- Sleeping Bag Liner (Optional)
- Hiking Shoes
- Camp Shoes (Optional)
- Gaiters (Optional)
- Hiking Shirt and Bottoms
- Socks and Underwear
- Rain and Wind Gear
- Puffy Jacket
- Fleece Jacket (Optional)
- Hat and Gloves
- Camp Base Layers
- Umbrella (Optional)
- Bear Bagging Kit
- Water Bottles
- Dirty Water Collection Containers
- Battery Bank (Optional)
- GPS device (Optional)
- Earbuds (Optional)
- First Aid Kit
- Trowel and TP
- Stuff Sacks and Dry Bags
- Pack Rain Cover
Most of the items on this list will look fairly familiar to anyone who’s looked at a backpacking packing list before. The reality is that your backpacking setup typically won’t change that much from trail to trail, and most of the gear you used to hike the Appalachian Trail will work just as well for the CT.
Still, every trail is slightly different, and there are a few areas where your Colorado Trail setup might look a little different than your bog-standard packing list. All of these items are detailed in the complete CT packing list below, but I’ll call your attention to them right now so you know what to look for. If you already have backpacking gear from previous hikes, you might still need to get these items specifically for the Colorado Trail:
- Sun protection: Much of the CT is above treeline and you’ll be exposed to intense, high-elevation sun all day long. Sunscreen and UV-resistant long-sleeves are a must, and you may want to consider an umbrella for shade.
- Microspikes: Only if you’re hiking early in the season in a high snow year. July and August starters need not worry about this.
- Down sleeping bag and puffy: Synthetic works fine, but down is so much lighter and softer. Other than price, the only reason to go with synthetic insulation is moisture management, which natural down admittedly sucks at. But the Colorado Rockies are a very dry environment and you’re unlikely to run into issues with wet down (and if your down does get wet you’ll be able to dry it out rapidly in the sun).
- Three-season layers: Fairweather hikers be warned: the weather along the CT is very unpredictable and you will be likely to encounter temperatures near or below freezing even in the height of summer. While daytime highs will feel very summerish, you’ll want warm clothing and a decently-rated sleep system.
Colorado Trail Gear List
And now for the part you actually came here for. Worth noting: we’ve included a few specific examples in each category, some that are “more expensive” and some that are “less expensive.” Please know that “less expensive” does not mean “worse.” Some of these items are incredibly popular among thru-hikers in part because they combine quality and affordability. The examples we give are by no means a comprehensive list of recommended options—they’re just a few options that we think will work well on the Colorado Trail.
No need for bulky, specialized gear on the CT, nor any need to carry food for more than about 100 miles (and often less). With that in mind, anywhere from 40-65 liters of pack capacity will be sufficient. If possible, buy all your other gear first, and then buy a backpack that’s sized to accommodate your stuff.
READ NEXT – The Best Backpacks for Thru-Hiking
You’ll rarely need to camp on bare rock on the CT, so either a freestanding or trekking pole tent would work just fine. A hammock probably isn’t the best choice for this trail, as many campsites will lack appropriate trees. Whatever shelter you go with should be able to stand up to rain, hail, and high winds.
READ NEXT – The Best Tents for Thru-Hiking
What about a footprint?
There are different schools of thought about whether a tent footprint is really necessary. I say it’s worth a few extra ounces to protect your long-term investment in your tent, especially if you forgo the expensive footprint sold by your tent manufacturer and instead opt for a cheap Tyvek or Polycro option.
When buying a sleeping bag, you should get one rated at least 10 degrees colder than the coldest temperature you expect to encounter. A typical CT thru-hiker in the summertime should expect to see nightly lows in the 30s, if not the 20s on occasion. I used a sleeping bag that was comfort-rated to 20 degrees and it worked well for me. In general, a comfort rating of 15 or 20 degrees should be sufficient, though it depends on your individual cold tolerance and the time of year you plan to hike. Learn more about sleeping bag temperature ratings here.
READ NEXT –
Again, anticipate freezing nighttime temperatures when shopping for a sleeping pad for the Colorado Trail. You can get away with an inexpensive foam pad if you’re hardy and have a sufficiently warm bag, but an inflatable will be more comfortable (on so many levels).
READ NEXT – Best Sleeping Pads for Thru-Hiking
Sleeping Bag Liner (Optional)
A liner gives your sleep system a lot more flexibility. It will make your sleeping bag feel much warmer on cold nights, and on warmer nights you can forgo it and sleep comfortably (on scorching nights on the AT I sometimes slept in just the liner sans sleeping bag, but that’s unlikely to happen on the CT). Using a sleeping bag liner will also help protect your expensive sleeping bag from your BO and body oils since you can easily launder it.
Whether you opt for boots or trail runners for the Colorado Trail is largely a matter of personal preference, though trail runners are far more popular among thru-hikers. There are some rough and rocky sections of the trail, especially above treeline, with strong ankle-turning potential—something to consider if you have weak ankles to begin with. I wore Altra Lone Peaks the whole way and was very happy with my choice. One pair of trail runners should last you the whole CT if you start with them new (typically they last 400-600 miles), while a pair of boots should last and still have life to give after the 485-mile hike.
The price range between different models of boots and trail runners is fairly negligible, so rather than price range, here are a few recommended trail runner and boot models.
READ NEXT – Best Trail Runners for Thru-Hiking
Camp Shoes (Optional)
If you want to reduce your camp weight, camp shoes are one of the easiest things to eliminate from your pack to save potentially as much as a pound or two. Still, it is nice to have a dry, non-disgusting pair of lightweight shoes or sandals to luxuriate in camp or wear around town on zero days.
Optional, but recommended—especially if you wear low-top hiking shoes or trail runners. A low-profile pair of gaiters will keep stones, sand, twigs, and a minimal amount of snow from getting inside your shoes (and all of these materials abound on the Colorado Trail).
Ideally, you want a breathable, synthetic, long-sleeved shirt with UV protection. Sun protection is the name of the game here. There’s no need to overthink your choice here—after all, it’s just a shirt.
Most people go with shorts and throw on base layer tights or wind pants for chilly mornings. I went with athletic tights + wind pants for extra warmth—I tend to get scratched up a lot when I wear shorts so a little more protection worked for me. Standard hiking pants are, of course, also an option here.
Lots of hikers go commando, but if that’s not you, moisture-wicking/odor-controlling undies are ideal. No cotton. Wool is a good natural fiber option if that’s important to you (Smartwool and other manufacturers do make merino sports bras).
Recommend a merino wool blend if possible. Many hikers also wear thinner liner socks underneath their hiking socks to prevent blisters. It’s all about reducing friction and wicking moisture away from your skin. Not breaking recommendations down by price range because, well, they’re socks.
A nice, thick pair of camp socks will keep your tootsies warm in your sleeping bag at night. Just like the rest of your camp clothing, you should keep your camp socks dry at all times.
Gloves and Hat
It’s important to keep warm in wet and cold conditions, and investing in a good hat and gloves won’t be a decision you’ll regret. You’ll want to look for gloves that are lightweight, warm, and maintain insulating properties when wet. Tech-savvy? You might want to check out sensor gloves!
A good rain jacket is a must for the Colorado Trail, where it rains at least a little bit virtually every afternoon in summer. You should carry either rain pants or wind pants on the CT for extra warmth and protection above treeline, where cold wind and rain can put you at risk of hypothermia. I went with wind pants (by far the lighter option) and had no issues, but I digress. Just remember that the most important function of your rain gear is to keep you WARM, not necessarily to keep you DRY. If you hike in your rain jacket, you’ll probably end up sweaty and clammy, but at least you’ll be warm.
READ NEXT – Best Rain Jackets for Thru-Hiking
Wind Gear (Optional)
If you have a rain jacket and pants, you don’t strictly need wind gear, but if you have enough money in your budget I think it’s well worth the investment. A wind jacket and pants are incredibly lightweight and take up almost no space in your pack, but they provide that little bit of extra warmth you need on extremely cold days. I carried a wind jacket in addition to a rain jacket and wind pants in lieu of rain pants. I wore the pants for an hour or two almost every morning while I was warming up and never regretted bringing them.
Less Expensive: If your budget is tight, just stick with rain gear
More Expensive: Montbell Tachyon jacket and pants, Enlightened Equipment Copperfield jacket and pants
Your puffy jacket will function as an insulating midlayer (over your base hiking shirt and under your outer wind/rain shell) when you really need to keep warm. You’ll probably wear it around camp in the cool morning and evening hours and might even throw it on during the day on breaks. The CT is a fairly dry trail, so you’ll probably want to opt for an ultralight, natural down jacket. However, I used a puffy with synthetic insulation because I run cold and wanted to be able to start my day hiking in it without worrying about my sweat damaging the insulation.
Hiking Fleece (Optional)
Fleece midlayers aren’t quite as warm and light as insulated down midlayers, but they’re significantly more affordable. They also perform well when wet so you can wear them while hiking and sweating. Depending on how cold you run, you may choose to pack a fleece instead of or in addition to a puffy.
Camp Base Layers
The CT is chilly in the mornings and evenings even if it’s hot and sunny during the day, so a decent set of long underwear for camp is a must. Wool is ideal, but synthetic will work fine if you’re on a budget. Just make sure to protect your base layers from moisture: if you get soaked in a cold afternoon thunderstorm just before getting to camp, you’ll want a set of warm, dry clothes to change into once you’ve gotten your tent pitched.
Non-negotiable—trust me, your eyes will thank you. They don’t have to be anything fancy so long as they’re polarized and offer UV protection (both features are widely available in $10 gas station sunglasses). In fact, sunglasses are so easy to lose and/or break on a thru-hike that you might be better off going with a cheaper pair even if you have room in your budget for premium shades. Just something to consider.
Sun umbrellas have ballooned in popularity among thru-hikers in recent years. They’re lightweight, SO much more breathable than a hat or hood, and shade a lot more of your body. They’ll also shield you from light rain without getting you all hot and sweaty like your rain jacket would. Optional but definitely worth considering—especially for the blistering heat of Segment 2. Prices for hiking umbrellas all lie in the $35-$45 range so we’re not breaking our recommendations out into price ranges.
It’s up to you, of course, but I don’t recommend going stoveless on the Colorado Trail. The weather is just too cold and too unpredictable—odds are you’re going to want a hot drink and a warm meal more often than not.
Aluminum pots are cheaper and heavier, titanium is lighter and more expensive. 750mL is a nice size for an individual hiker. You can save weight and money by eating and drinking directly out of your pot rather than carrying a separate mug or bowl.
A canister stove that runs off a propane-isobutane fuel mixture is probably the best choice for this trail—it’s certainly the most common. A standard canister stove will be the cheapest and lightest option, but note that an integrated canister stove like the Jetboil will be faster, more fuel-efficient, and incorporates the pot and windscreen into the setup so you don’t have to buy them separately. I used a Snow Peak GigaPower stove on both of my CT hikes. You do want a stove with an on/off valve so you can easily control and shut off the flame, given you’ll be in a fire-prone environment throughout the hike.
READ NEXT – Best Stoves for Thru-Hiking
*Fuel: doesn’t seem worth its own subheading, but I do have a couple of things to note about fuel. First, even though the CT is at high elevation, I had no problem using a standard canister stove with propane-isobutane fuel. Second, save yourself some weight and stick with the little four-ounce fuel canisters—one of these little guys should be enough to get you between resupplies on this trail.
Up to you whether you prefer a spoon or a spork, but unless you’re planning to eat salad and spaghetti out there the tines of a spork will probably be more of a liability than an asset. Go for a long-handled version if you plan to eat a lot of prepackaged freeze-dried meals.
Some stoves have an automatic piezoelectric igniter, but those things are notoriously finicky and shouldn’t be relied upon. Always carry a small Bic lighter as a backup.
Bear Bagging Kit
Black bears (not grizzlies) live in the Colorado Rockies, but they don’t generally go above 10,000 feet elevation, and most of the CT is higher than that. Even so, I carried a rock bag, paracord, and a carabiner and hung my food as often as possible. It’s not hard to do once you get the hang of it (assuming there are trees where you’re camping, which in my case there usually were) and helps keep your grub safe from rodents and other animals in addition to bears.
Less Expensive: DIY kit including at least 40 feet of paracord, carabiner, rock bag (old tent stake bag works well), and double grocery bags or 13L Ultrasil dry bag for food
More Expensive: Zpacks Bear Bagging Kit
What about bear canisters?
The CT is getting more popular each year and you can’t trust that the water quality will be pristine, even in the mountains. I’ve seen piles of literal shit on a sandbar right next to a stream just a little way up from where hikers were filtering their water on this trail. Also, the CT often goes through cow pastures. Moral of the story: filter your water.
Recommendations: Virtually every hiker uses the Sawyer Squeeze to filter their water. The Platypus Quickdraw is an up-and-coming alternative. Some hikers prefer the Katadyn BeFree because of its speedy flow rate. They all cost around the same amount (~$40).
Nalgenes are needlessly heavy, bladders are hard to use and the lines can easily freeze, and both options are relatively expensive. Two one-liter Smartwater bottles, plus collection containers, are all you need.
I carried a 2L Cnoc Vecto water container for collecting and filtering dirty water. A double-female Sawyer cleaning coupling allowed me to hook up the dirty water Cnoc to the clean-water Smartwater with the Sawyer in between for an easy, leak-free gravity-fed water filtration system. I also had a 2L Evernew bladder that I shared with my partner, giving me an excessive 5L of carrying capacity for dry stretches.
I did a lot of pre-dawn hiking to avoid the heat and afternoon thunderstorms on the CT. Even if you don’t care for night hiking, you still need a headlamp for after-dark camp chores, getting up to pee in the middle of the night, and just in case.
READ NEXT – Best Headlamps for Thru-Hiking
Battery Bank (Optional)
If you keep your phone on airplane/low power mode most of the time and mainly use your phone for photos and restrained use of the FarOut app, you may not need a battery bank at all. However, if you want to be able to use your phone more freely, especially to listen to music and podcasts and make calls or texts when you have service, you’ll probably want some extra charging capacity between towns.
What about solar panels?
While the CT offers favorable conditions for portable solar chargers, we don’t recommend them because a battery bank is still a cheaper, lighter, and more reliable option.
READ NEXT – Are Solar Panels Worth It for Thru-Hiking?
GPS Device (Optional)
Optional but recommended. There are different schools of thought on the necessity and desirability of emergency GPS beacons in the backcountry, but personally, I like the peace of mind it gives me and my loved ones back home, especially on a high elevation trail like the CT where a lot could potentially go wrong. Be sure to factor in the cost of the satellite subscription plan and rescue insurance when comparing prices.
Any old earbuds will do. Bluetooth will make it way easier to listen while you hike without annoying cables getting in the way, but on the other hand, you have to worry about charging them.
Depending on what electronics you bring, you may need charging cables for your phone, headlamp, earbuds, battery bank, and GPS device (some headlamps and GPSs use disposable batteries). Hopefully, at least some of your devices use the same type of charger. Don’t forget to bring a plug-in charging block as well.
First Aid and Toiletries
First Aid Kit
You can buy a ready-made backpacking first aid kit, but it’s simple enough to put one together in a Ziploc bag from supplies you probably already have. Don’t get carried away with your first aid kit: a small stock of basic medicines and supplies is all you really need (barring any specific medical needs you have).
- Antiseptic Wipes (2)
- Triple Antibiotic Cream (tiny tube or spray bottle)
- Antidiarrheal (diarrhea in the backcountry puts you at risk of dehydration)
- Antihistamine (for allergic reactions to pollen, poison ivy, bee stings, etc. Obviously not a substitute for epinephrine if you need that.)
- Sewing Needle (heal ripped clothes, tents, shoes, etc. using dental floss as thread)
- Duct tape
- Leukotape (thru-hiker’s blister prevention/treatment of choice. A little bit wrapped around a golf pencil or your trekking pole is adequate, don’t take the whole roll)
- Emergency Fire Starter (Cotton balls in Vaseline, dryer lint dipped in wax, etc. In a pinch you can use corn chips, like Fritos, or pine cones found around the campsite instead.) (2)
Trowel and Toilet Paper
Bury your poop at least six to eight inches deep, four to six inches wide, and 200 feet from water. Some people use a stick or trekking pole tip to scratch out a cathole, but choosing the right tool for the job will make you more likely to do the thing properly.
Do I need special camping toilet paper?
No! Any old TP will do. Pack it out.
- Toothbrush (cut in half to save space) and toothpaste
- Hand sanitizer and/or biodegradable soap in a tiny bottle
- Floss (doubles as thread for emergency repairs)
- Vaseline, Bodyglide, etc. (optional but nice for those prone to chafing and blisters)
- Lip balm (ideally with SPF)
- Baby wipes (very optional, but nice if hygiene is really important to you; pack them out!)
- Kula cloth and/or pStyle (optional for hikers sans-penis who don’t want to squat and drip dry)
- Sunscreen (important!)
- Insect repellent (with DEET or DEET-free; permethrin for clothing and gear)
While some hikers choose to pack all their gear loose inside their packs, you’ll probably want at least a few stuff sacks to keep your stuff organized. Likewise, even if you have a waterproof backpack or pack cover, you might want a few dry bags to provide secondary protection for really important gear, like your electronics or camp clothes.
It can and does rain on the Colorado Trail, so you need to make sure your pack and its contents are protected from moisture. Some hikers just put everything in dry bags and let the pack get soaked, some have waterproof packs, and others use internal waterproof liners or external pack covers.
Carrying a small knife is optional on the CT. Realistically, the knife belongs in the cooking section because you’ll probably only use it to cut cheese. This baby Swiss Army knife is perfect for that job.
If you’re worried about self-defense, a keychain pepper spray will probably be more functional. But if you have your heart set on a slightly larger, stabbier knife as a deterrent for two-legged varmints, the Petzl Spatha is a lightweight option that you can hang from a string around your neck.
In reality, most hikers rely on the FarOut app’s Colorado Trail guide to navigate the CT. The trail is mostly well-marked and easy to follow. That said, having a hard-copy map and compass (and knowing how to use them) is the best and most reliable way to stay found on any trail.
I did choose to carry a map and compass on this trail, partly for safety but mostly because the map gave me a far better understanding of the geographic context of my hike. It was fun to pull out the map while I was above treeline and try to identify some of the gorgeous peaks surrounding me, and I identified some neat-looking side trails and off-trail routes that I would love to come back and explore another day.
If you do opt for a map and compass, I recommend the Suunto A-10 compass. You can navigate the whole trail with just these two National Geographic maps.
Trekking poles are a must for the Colorado Trail. On a trail that’s famous for its elevation change, they’ll save your knees on the downhills and give you extra power on the climbs. The footing isn’t always so great on this trail, and my trekking poles kept me from tumbling any number of times. (Although my trail name is Ibex, I have an unfortunate tendency to faceplant in spectacular fashion while hiking).
Common Luxury Items (pillow, mascot, journal, instrument, electronics, etc.)
- Rite in the Rain Outdoor Journal
- Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow
- Sit Pad (I never leave the trailhead without it)
- GoPro (I wished I had a GoPro on this trail because so often the views just went on and on and I found myself stopping every 90 seconds for more pictures. Being able to take continuous video of some sections while I walked would have been amazing.)
- Fanny Pack
More Resources from the Colorado Trail Guide
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the Colorado Trail
11 Highlights of the Colorado Trail You Won’t Want to Miss
Towns and Resupply on the Colorado Trail
Logistics for a Colorado Trail Thru-Hike
Essential Safety Tips for Thru-Hiking the Colorado Trail
Colorado Trail Section-by-Section
Collegiate East vs. West: 8 Key Differences for CT Hikers
How to Hike Every 14er on the Colorado Trail (with FarOut Miles)
The Beer Drinker’s Guide to the Colorado Trail
Does this list of resources seem pathetically short? Never fear, it will be much longer soon. We’ll be releasing new Colorado Trail Guide content every week this spring. Subscribe to The Trek’s newsletter to catch all the updates. Next up: logistics of thru-hiking the Colorado Trail.
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