Backpacking in Colorado: Hiking experts share their backpacking tips and suggestions for summer
Explore some of the best places to go backpacking and helpful tips for first-time trekkers
In the summer, brown bears abound so it’s important to set up a bear-safe campsite when backpacking. Bears have a nose that’s 100 times more sensitive than a human’s and if they find food, they’ll often come back for more. When camping never sleep near your food, and always hang it and your trash from a tree in a bear-safe container. Bears can also smell things like scented toiletries and toothpaste. When hiking, bells or noisemakers aren’t necessary, as bears will usually smell or hear you long before reach them and leave the area. For more tips on backpacking in Bear Country, visit cpw.state.co.us.
Here in late May it’s not uncommon to see snow on the ground, making it easy to forget that summer is right around the corner. In just a few weeks hiking season officially begins, as local trails closed for elk calving and wildlife protection start opening back up on June 15, with all trails open by July 1. Maybe it’s been awhile since you broke in your hiking boots, or attempted backpacking in Colorado as part of your summer must-do list. As we try to think warm thoughts during mud season, we asked some local hiking experts to share their favorite backpacking trails, and give some tips and tricks they’ve had to learn the hard way, so we don’t have to.
HIKES THAT AREN’T TOO HARD
Longtime local hiker Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of both “The Vail Hiker” and the “The Summit Hiker,” has blazed the trail for backpackers in the area for decades, literally. Fun fact: It was Gilliland who found and named the popular Shrine Mountain Trail in 1987. For beginners new to backpacking in Colorado, Gilliland recommends the Cross Creek Trail, which starts 5 miles past Minturn along Highway 24 along Tigiwon Road #707. At 14 miles, the hike takes two to three days depending on your pace. Cross Creek doesn’t have much altitude gain, which makes it easier to carry your pack, and the shade of the forest keeps you cool. Gilliland said the trail has unusual terrain for the area, with a “canyon atmosphere” filled with “gem-like” lakes and giant rocks covered with moss, ending at Missouri Lakes.
For more of a challenge, Gilliland also recommends Red Buffalo Pass, which begins at the Gore Creek Trailhead in East Vail, or could be accessed from Silverthorne. On the roughly 11- to 12-mile hike, you’ll see wildflowers galore and come across a bevy of babbling streams. Gilliland said on the trail you can also decide to camp and hike the additional 3 miles to the remote Gore Lake.
Here are some other multi-day local hiking trails local backpackers suggested for both beginners and those a bit more experienced:
Four Pass Loop: Located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area near Aspen, this 26-mile loop can be hiked in two to four days and crosses four mountain ranges with peaks of over 12,000 feet. Sights along the way include Snowmass Lake, West Maroon Pass, Buckskin Pass and Fravert Basin.
Flat Tops Wilderness: Once you get up to the Flat Tops, this area is hiker-friendly and provides a change of scenery from the jagged peaks we’re used to. Try the Island Lake Loop, which traverses over a mountain pass to view the three Island Lakes, with an option to hike farther north to Deer Lake. Accessed off of the Colorado River Road (take I-70 West to the Dostero exit).
PACKING THE ESSENTIALS
Considered the basic checklist for what to bring on both day treks and longer hikes, the Ten Essentials was compiled in the 1930s by a group of backpackers known as The Mountaineers. Updated in 2003, the list is now broken down into a “systems” approach: navigation (map and compass), sun protection, insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp/flashlight), first-aid supplies, fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles), repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration and emergency shelter.
Will Elliott, head guide at Paragon Guides in Edwards, joked that his most essential backpacking item is “my llama, because then I can bring everything,” he said.
Elliott said the biggest mistake people make is carrying a pack that is too heavy. One way to lighten your load is by buying a new backpack if yours is outdated, which can shave off up to 5 pounds. Elliott said in the summertime one could skip the tent and just sleep under the stars.
“Luckily in Colorado, we don’t have a lot of predators,” Elliott said. “Sleeping out under the tarp can be wonderful. A tent is a lot of weight. Shaving weight by sleeping under a tarp can be a good way to lessen the load in (your) pack.”
EXTRAS WORTH THE WEIGHT
If you have the room, Elliott also suggests adding an umbrella to your hiking essentials list, which can keep both you and your pack dry while hiking in the rain, and can be easier than putting on rain gear.
Gilliland suggests bringing sturdy black garbage bags, which have multiple uses: you can cut a hole in it to make a rain poncho, use it as a tarp if the ground is wet, and if you set up camp, you can fill it with water, hang it up and let it sit in the sun. At the end of the day you’ll have a hot wash to scrub away all the sweat and mud.
Dan Brewster, owner of Haute Route Gear & Apparel in Avon, said one thing people often neglect are trekking poles, which are much more common in Europe.
“I would say (poles) are an overlooked equipment accessory,” Brewster said. “(They) do take some of the load off your knees and ankles.”
Gilliland said a “backpacker’s biggest woe is blisters,” but there are ways to prevent your feet from killing you after only a few hours on the trail.
She suggests slathering your feet with Vaseline before you slip on your shoes and socks, and wear two sock layers, one thin and one thicker. Also put Vaseline on your skin right above your hip, or make sure to tuck your t-shirt into your pants. Doing this keeps your backpack and its straps from rubbing up against your skin the entire time, which is one of “the things that drive people crazy,” Gilliland said.
Elliott said even though the region is dry, there are so many streams that run during the summer you really don’t need to worry too about much your water supply when backpacking in Colorado, but make sure to bring some sort of purification system.
“Unless you’re doing a high ridge hike or one of the Fourteeners, those are the places you have to worry about water a little bit more,” Elliott said. “For the most part in the High Country, there’s quite a bit of water for the whole hiking season.”
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
In addition to the right gear, Brewster said one thing people don’t think about before embarking on a challenging backpacking trip is carrying the right mindset.
“The attitude you bring is almost as important as the equipment,” Brewster said. “If you’re not with the right person it can sometimes be pretty tough, if they’re not into it like you are. You want to make sure that everybody in the party knows what to expect in terms of their physical abilities.”
It’s not unheard of to hear stories of hikers who go missing in Colorado, reminding us that there are dangers to backpacking in Colorado. Elliott said these incidents are more likely to happen with solo backpackers, so be wary of hiking alone and tell someone your route before you head out. Gilliland said especially during the early hiking season, if you come across a stream or creek with heavy runoff and need to go across, take off your pack.
“If you were to slip on an algae-covered rock, and the water’s running high, that pack could submerge you into the water,” Gilliland said.
NOT A BAD CAMERA ANGLE FOR MILES
Vail and Beaver Creek may be synonymous with great skiing, but those who only see the valley as a map of ski runs are missing out on experiencing the mountains by traversing Colorado hiking trails that wind, curve and take you to sights no gondola ride can match. Local hiking experts agree that with hundreds of acres of wilderness surrounding us, we really do live in a backpacker’s paradise.
“(We have all) these splendid mountain ranges that are almost a stone’s throw from us,” Gilliland said. “Their proximity to one another is so great. No matter what trail you’re on, you’re going to have beautiful mountain views.”
For maps, directions and guides to backpacking hikes in and around the area, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov.
Originally published in the May 29, 2015 issue of the Summit Daily and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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