Planning my first US thru hike – The Colorado Trail

by backpackingbongos


Colorado trail map

(Click to enlarge)

I have wanted to do a through hike in the US for a long time, for years being obsessed with the Pacific Crest Trail. DVD’s were collected and time spent reading books and trip reports. However the dream has never been realised. Life gets in the way and a job, marriage and owning a dog make disappearing for six months a distant dream.

About a year ago I stumbled across a trip report about the Colorado Trail. This starts near Denver and makes its way south-west across the Colorado Rockies to Durango. At 486 miles long it is for me a realistic proposition time wise with most people completing it in four to six weeks. Last summer I spent some time negotiating with my wife Corrina about jetting off for a couple of months. It’s not a prospect that she is thrilled about, but being a star she agreed. The next step was to approach work. They have been great and now August and most of September have been booked as unpaid leave. I’m good to go!

The Colorado Trail is a high altitude route ranging between 5,520 feet just outside Denver to 13,271 feet below Coney Summit. The average elevation is above 10,300 feet. It passes through eight mountain ranges, six National Forests and six wilderness areas. Adding that to the 89,000 feet of ascent and descent during the entire trail and I think that I will be physically tested to my limit.

It’s the first time that I’ll trek in an area where bear sightings are a real possibility, so this is something that I need to do research on. Last summer the first segment through Waterton Canyon was closed due to bear activity (article here). Bear canisters are not a requirement for the trail so I will be storing my food in an Ursack.

I’ll be trekking through the Colorado ‘Monsoon’ season. This means that afternoon thunderstorms are a regular, often daily occurrence. The reading that I have done so far indicates that these can be very violent with frequent lightning strikes. I’m not ashamed in admitting that my greatest fear in the outdoors is lightening (after a near miss a few years ago). It terrifies me! They are meant to be fairly predictable though, building up from about 1pm and often clearing by evening. This will mean dawn starts to ensure that I am off exposed high ground by around midday. A new mindset will be needed for this late rising slackpacker!

There are opportunities for resupply, although they will involve a hitchhike, something I used to do regularly in my early twenties but have not done since. Towns like Leadville (the two-mile high city) and Silverton look very pleasant and somewhere I would be happy to rest up for a couple of nights. Resupply is going to be the major bit of planning, working out when to leave the trail, how to get into town and then get back on the trail. I’m not going to bother sending packages ahead, I’ll live with what I can find in the shops. This may mean travelling a bit further to somewhere with a proper supermarket. I have already purchased the most up to date data book but am waiting for the new guidebook to be published in the spring. I’ll start planning in earnest when that has been released.

Data book (1)

One of the best resources I have found online is by Paul Mags, link here. The blog that really sparked my imagination and gives a day by day account with loads of photos is here.

As someone who purposely seeks solitude and most of the time avoids established trails and busy areas, the Colorado Trail will probably be a bit of a shock to me. Although not many people through hike it, the 28 segments each with a trailhead mean that it is accessible for day hikers and weekend backpackers. Also apart from the wilderness areas it is a shared trail and popular with mountain bikers. Therefore I will have to change my mindset and look at it as a cultural experience as well as a backpacking one. When I receive the maps I will look for a few detours off the main trail and work out what 14,000 peaks I want to bag. One exciting thing is that I’ll be sharing about 300 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) if I take the Collegiate West option.

Kit wise I’m pretty much ready to go. I’m not going to be spending hundreds of pounds trying to knock a kilo off my base weight (although I do need to knock off a few kilos from my body weight!). One thing that I have just invested in though is a new meths stove, currently making its way across the Atlantic (Flat Cat Gear Bobcat Jr). I’m a big fan of my Jetboil but it looks like meths will be available in places that don’t have outdoor shops. I think it is yellow Heet that I need to look out for when resupplying. Another investment will be in trail shoes. In the wet and cold UK I am happy in leather boots most of the time as I am usually up to my knees in a bog somewhere. The Colorado Trail is meant to be pretty easy-going underfoot, well-drained and with a good surface. Along with generally warm temperatures during the day (can get cold at night), I don’t want to be clumping around in boots. The rest of my gear is what I usually use, nothing special is needed.

So, with flights now booked the trip has become a reality rather than just a dream!


36 Comments to “Planning my first US thru hike – The Colorado Trail”

  1. Brilliant. What an adventure. Bet the PCT wont be long behind after this. Odd I was watching a film about the PCT this very morning. I will look forward to reading all about your Colorado walk.

  2. Sounds fab’.
    I’m sure you’ll have a great time James.
    The US does look very appealing.

    • Been wanting to cross the Atlantic for a while now Paul. It will be nice to have a well manicured trail to follow for a change after the bogs of the UK!

  3. Fantastic James, go for it, really wish you all the best. Have fun and enjoy. Many folk will be rooting for you and I, like many, will be looking forward to your usual high quality photos and superb write ups.

  4. Now, after several close encounters the thought of bears no longer bothers me, but I have been known to be a bit obsessive about snakes….and lightning…..
    It’ll be great though, you’ll have an absolutely amazing time 😊

    • I think that I will make my mind up about bears when I have finished. I’m ok with snakes as long as I don’t wake up to find one in the porch of my tent……..

  5. Looks a great hike.

  6. great idea James. I got altitude sick in the Rockies – I ate too big a meal! Many of the USA cyclists use tablets to help with the altitude ( I was only at 9,600ft ). No matter how fit you are or how good you were last time, it can get you. Snakes still freak me and yes ditto lightning storms.

  7. Sounds brilliant James.I do admire how you make things happen.

  8. Hi James,

    I hope you have a fantastic trip.This one has been on my to do list for some time.

    Here is a trip report from a guy who did the trail (quickly!) in the opposite direction last year, a little later in the season than you plan.

    Also his gear list

    Hope it helps!

  9. Hi James,

    I hope you have a fantastic trip. That one is on my list for sure. I’ve included a couple of links from another blog I follow This guy hiked it last September in 15 days (!) with an ultralight gear list. Hope its helpful. Looking forward to your trip reports. Always great to see a fellow Brit doing USA thru hikes!

  10. Yay welcome to the Rockies! Do they allow people to camp anywhere along the trail as they would in Scotland, or do you have to find designated camp grounds?

  11. That walk looks like a dream come true! Can’t wait to read your trip reports, especially as I have yet to venture out of the Uk on a hike.

  12. Quite an adventure James. We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Colorado a few times, indeed we have stayed in Leadville twice. Only done day walks but its a superb place for hiking. A worthwhile diversion is Mount Elbert at Leadville. Its the highest mountain in Colorado and the second highest in the lower 48 states. Its a straightforward walk with the only difficulty being the altitude. Indeed when we climbed it we joined the Colorado Trail for a short section. I’ve some photos here including some from top of Mount Elbert.


    • There are some great photos there Paul, the blue skies and autumn colours look very inviting. I’ll be finishing mid Sept so I hope I get the colours too. What did you think of Leadville? I’m thinking of spending a couple of nights there to rest up and re-supply.

  13. Jealous! Been reading several books about the PCT but it’s well beyond my ailing knees. I’ve never backpacked in the US (although I’ve done several say hikes) so I’d love to go for a short trip one day. Sounds like a fantastic outing, looking forward to the write ups later this year for some inspiration.

  14. Nice! We too are planning to hike the Colorado Trail in 2017 and have already started our training. I hope you’ll post often about how your training is progressing, as well how your actual hike goes for you. Happy Trails!

    • Happy planning for 2017! I have to say that my training only consists of backpacking at weekends, getting used to the miles and kit carried.

      • Thanks! That’s about what we’re doing so far. That and gathering info and gear. Good luck to you on your adventure!

  15. Thought I’d better get round to reading this…😆

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