Hiking The Colorado Trail – The Planning
Hiking The Colorado Trail – The Planning
Nine hundred years before Christ patted the earth with his sandals, a guy in Greece, an historian by the name of Hesiod I’m told, first penned the phrase, “… moderation is best in all things.” Then some English guy, Chaucer, trying to be clever among his fellow countryman 1500 years later, said it in a way only the Brits could understand, “In every thyng, I woot, there lith mesure”. No, I didn’t misspell any of this. But I felt it necessary to give the passing of time no credit for improving the original. I like originals. I’m going with the Greek on this one.
Some people plan things more than others. Some are grossly under-planned. Some are excessively over-planned. If you are guessing this article will be promoting a moderate planning approach, you may have ruined the punch line, but you would be correct.
It’s entirely possible to hike the Colorado Trail with a few days’ notice. I suspect there are not many people who do this, and probably few among them finish the whole trail. They might plan their first leg and leave the rest to whatever happens. Or with a little bit of forethought and thereby increasing their chance of success, they may plan a couple resupplies and chance the rest. I’ve known some hikers who live by the idea that planning ruins the experience. With no planning, every day is full of the unexpected. How adventurous is that, right? If the idea is to live on the trail opposite to our daily lives, then this might be a worthy consideration.
Then there are those who plan every last detail. The act and process of planning becomes part of the adventure. It’s a process that gives insight and possibility to experiencing everything the trail has to offer. For instance, researching the history of every section of the trail, knowing every possible water resource, taking inventory of every amenity and resupply option in every town along the way, or the exact location of all the best vistas or camping locations. This is about knowing all the options and choosing the best and most exciting – not missing a thing and getting the most out it. There are certain advantages to doing a deep dive in preparing for any trail.
In my wilderness adventures, I have been completely spontaneous and I have been ridiculously planned. I have realized the advantages of each. I’ve also experienced the disadvantages of each.
No planning means being least prepared for the worst situation. This can lead to a quick ending to the adventure, sometimes in great discomfort or injury. Or it could simply mean that you miss the benefit of having predicted the perfect place to stay the night and learned to be content with whatever the universe gives you… which, is a great state of mind.
On the other hand, planning like crazy is a time sucking exercise that can bring on too much stress before and during the hike; it can also cause burnout or unrealistic expectations. But comes with it the assurance that the best effort was put forward to gain the most out of the experience. And you didn’t get yourself in a bind over something completely preventable with a little planning, like not bringing enough water containers for that 25-mile stretch without water sources or that 10-hour stretch above tree line with thunderstorms looming and no place to escape the lightening.
Like that age old advice to take all things in moderation, so has been my approach to planning my Colorado Trail hike. I’d like to highlight a few elements of my planning.
The Why. Taking on such a challenge without a compelling reason is foolery. I’ve been on enough trails in Colorado to understand that it will get tough. There will be plenty of temptation to get off the trail. My mind will battle my will to continue more often and with greater intensity than I can probably understand at this point several months before departing. If my reason for doing this is not stronger than the mental battle of the trail, surely the stronger will win. I’ve written about my “why” in my last article.
The when. This is purely a logistical matter with my calendar. First I decided on the direction. It will be south bound (SOBO) for me because it’s the most common and easiest start. SOBO has a lower starting altitude and easier climbs in the beginning. Going from easy to difficult seems more logical to me. I will inevitably face the monsoonal weather patterns (lightning in the early afternoon above tree line), but I’ve become accustomed to planning around that obstacle over the past several years spent hiking in these mountains. I’m starting on July 15th.
Itinerary. There is much to consider here, but I’ve intentionally left out some detail and built in extra days by slowing down my pace. Reason: to give me options for spontaneity and to enjoy those captivating moments of beauty and freedom. This is where I refer to my “why”. I’m not looking to put in 20+ miles per day; this kind of accomplishment means nothing to me.
There are many other things besides pace and miles per day to consider in the itinerary. Among them are: resupply types and locations, zero days, terrain, route (Collegiate East or West), camping locations, water sources, 14er summit opportunities, fishing days, considerations of a hiking partner, hiker town activities, personal schedules before and after the hike, other trail activities (journaling, photography, videos, meditation), physical and mental capabilities, etc.
My itinerary includes these resupplies and zero days (days of no hiking, only rest):
This is a total of 41 days from start to finish, nearly 500 miles, an average of 13 miles per day.
Food. I’m a foodie, so stuffing my face all the time with food I wouldn’t normally eat is not the type of diversion I find attractive. I will, however, take part in consuming some calorie dense processed food, but only because getting the caloric intake I need from my normal diet would be very difficult… it would be a LOT of food, which would weigh far too much for me to carry. Look at the Trail Food section of this site to get an idea of my meals, most of which I will prepare myself. Not many people make most of their own food they will eat on the trail. But I’ve chosen this because, as I say, I’m a foodie… I can’t help it.
And for keeping the critters (big and small) out of my food, I did some additional research and planning. Every trail presents its own challenges. For the Colorado Trail, the population of bear is not dense; bears are rarely seen. It is black bear territory, however.
One thing to remember is that black bears only want your food; they don’t want to eat you. Still, the situation requires precautions, but for reasons you might not think. Bears are attracted to camp sites because they smell food. Bears that return to camp sites do so because they have been successful in the past at eating someone’s food. It's learned behavior. So, protecting our food source is not just about keeping our food; it’s also about teaching the bear that it’s not worth the effort. The more difficult you make it, the less you will see of them. This is why bear canisters are required in places like national parks.
My experience is that it’s rodents of all sizes that pose a greater threat to getting into my pack and food. So I’ve chosen to protect my food using a Ursack Bear Resistant Sack Bag. It’s a very tough sack that, when used properly, neither bears nor rodents can tear it apart to get to your food. Bear canisters are too heavy and are not necessary on the Colorado Trail – at least in the opinion of nearly everyone who has hiked this trail. Hanging food from a tree in a sack is not convenient or possible on several segments of this trail. And one last option is to just sleep with your food. Some long distance hikers have done this successfully for years. But to me it just goes against everything else I’ve read on the matter. So, pick whatever method makes sense to you – as long as you are not endangering others around you.
Gear. This is the subject that seems to be on every hiker’s mind all the time. And everyone has their own approach to selecting their gear. Some people are more insistent that their way is the best way and will even look down on those “less advanced”. Yes, unfortunately, it’s a thing. But, to me that’s just the kind of narrow minded, macho trail attitude we can do without. My advice: since everyone is in their own place, everyone should select whatever gear makes sense to them; enjoy what you have and learn as you go. There are lots of reasons to do whatever you want to do. No judgement here. Just embrace your decisions and roll with whatever comes your way.
I’m pretty much settled on my gear for this hike. See my post on this website about my gear. I’ve kept it updated. It’s not ultra-lightweight. It’s practical for me and where I’m at with what I like to take with me. And I guaranty that it will change. I have a couple shakedown hikes planned for later this spring that will help me adjust my gear based on functionality, convenience, and comfort.
The gear that deserves the most attention is shelter, sleeping system, and clothing – especially shoes.
Feet are essential for hiking (understatement of the year award candidate) – so, dig deep into figuring out how to care for your feet. Find the right shoes, socks, and foot care method. You simply can’t bring along too much gear to take care of your feet. Don’t go with the shoe brand that everyone likes. Instead, go with the shoe that best fits you – it’s that simple. If you have the opportunity to consult with a hiking foot ware specialist… do that.
The thing about a shelter is that it’s a balance between weight and comfort. It’s your shelter (home) for a month. Some people do fine with just a tarp. Others, like me, enjoy a full-size two-person tent. This is another one of my “do your own thing” things. It’s about safety and comfort. Find your balance and you’ll be fine.
There is nothing that will ware me out more than putting in an exhausting day in the mountains and then getting no rest because the sleeping system is inadequate. I’ve chosen a light weight air pad with a high R (insulation rating): Klymit Insulated V Ultralite SL with a 4.4R. And I've opted for a quilt instead of a sleeping bag - a 20-degree down quilt from Loco Libra: Loco Libra Gear 20° Operator Series Ghost Pepper Topquilt. There are tons of options out there and each person seems to have a near custom solution for them. So, find what works for you. I might also take a liner because I sleep cold... although, I do have my night cloths because sleeping in cloths that are dry will assuredly keep you warm. But, whatever you choose, be comfortable.
And so, there’s a little primer for planning a Colorado Trail hike. Whatever level of planning you choose, do at least enough to give yourself a reasonable shot at completing your goal.
That’s all until next time.
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