FOUNDER FILE: TONY & THE COLORADO TRAIL VOLUME 1
Recently, I helped a close friend prepare for the Colorado Trail, his first thru-hike. As you may know, I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail in 2018, and it was that experience that inspired Mesa. Needless to say, helping my friend prepare for the CT brought back a flood of memories and reveries. I want to take this opportunity to share my planning process — and hopefully help future hikers in a small way!
First, a little about me. I grew up along the Colorado Front Range, privileged to have access to great hiking trails. Often, I would go on weekend or evening hikes with my mom, or on weekend fishing or snowboarding trips with my dad. My first backpacking trip was a single overnighter when I was in high school. My next trip was a week-long backpack in Minnesota organized as a pre-orientation college program. From there, I would occasionally backpack when back home in Colorado, or when on vacations. Rarely did I backpack for more than 1 night — usually, I would use backpacking as a means to achieving other goals, such as climbing a Colorado 14er. So, when I decided to hike the 485 mile Colorado Trail in July 2018, I had no similar experience, and certainly had never pursued such an extensive solo trip.
Prior to my hike, I was holding down a full-time job that kept me busy during the day (and often into the evening). I was able to do my best trip-planning on nights and weekends, when I consumed just about every YouTube video, Trail Journal, and independent blog I could find. I broke my planning into 3 main buckets: the hike, gear, and food.
To plan the hike itself, I relied on the Colorado Trail Databook. This incredible booklet contains details of every major turn, intersection, water source, and campsite along the entire trail length. Plus, it includes mileage and elevation profiles for the trail. Amazing! My research told me that I should plan to start hiking a comfortable daily distance and build up my daily mileage over the first week. Based on previous hiking experience, and knowing I would have nothing else to do all day, I was confident that I could build up to a 20 mile-per-day pace. To start, I planned my first day’s pace at 16 miles, then set a few 18 mile days, before averaging out to 20 miles per day. I then cross referenced these mileage goals against the Databook, for several reasons. First, I wanted to be near a water source and (hopefully) a designated campsite most nights. I also used the Databook to gut-check my mileage, reviewing the elevation profile of the day’s hike to make sure it wasn’t too crazy. Finally, I wanted to make sure the number of days between resupplies was reasonable. This last point was particularly important because I would have to carry the weight of all my food between resupply points, and what food I would have along the trail depended on what was available in stores at the resupply or what I had mailed to myself. After checking and cross-checking my hiking plan, I had a pristine 30 day trip laid out in a spreadsheet, complete with daily mileage, cumulative mileage, and the number of days between resupplies.
The next part of my planning revolved around gear. Don’t we all love love talking about our gear? As such, there were no shortage of opinions and reviews online. After reading several (okay, dozens), I developed another spreadsheet identifying all of the gear I would bring, along with the weight of each item.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to read gear lists and ultimately pared down my pack based on what I read. For example, I originally planned to use my existing camping stove setup, but later read that combining the MSR PocketRocket and Evernew titanium pot would reduce my weight from 15.3 oz to around 6 oz — over half a pound lighter!
One big change for me was upgrading my tent. I had happily used a basic 2-person tent for several years, but quickly realized that its size and weight would be burdensome on the CT. After reading several reviews, and considering different styles including a bivy, a tent pitched with trekking poles, and a free-standing tent, I decided to go with a Big Agnes Fly Creek. This tent is “semi-free-standing” and requires staking two corners into the ground to complete the structure, but also lightweight and provided enough room inside that I could prop up and read in the evenings.
Another consideration regarded food storage. I decided to get an Ursack Minor, which is a rodent-proof bag, as well as a scent-proof liner to deter animals. The Ursack approach was much lighter and easier than a traditional bear canister and none of the lands crossed by the Colorado Trail required one. Not today, animals!
Finally, it was time to plan the most delicious part of the trip! One of the mantras I had always employed was that, while hiking, I could eat anything I wanted. Since I would be hiking 20 miles every day, I knew I would need to eat more calories than usual, and I equated that with meaning I could eat all of the high-calorie, low-quality snack foods I usually moderated or avoided. Many guides will suggest 5,000+ calories per day when thru-hiking, but from my experience — it’s challenging to eat that much food! Plus, it quickly becomes unhealthy when you achieve that target with junk food. (Wish I would have figured that out sooner!) The majority of my food supply was based on browsing through the grocery store and REI, buying whatever snacks, bars, and gummies sounded good from the label. For my hot meals — 1 per day — I knew I couldn’t commit to a pre-made dehydrated meal every night. Those things are hard to find at traditional grocery stores, not to mention expensive! That meant I needed to look around and get creative.
Initially, I had 3 dinner ideas from my prior backpacking experience: cheap ramen (the bricks have 400 Calories per package compared to some of the fancier brands with ~200 Calories), boxed mac & cheese (the white cheddar shells), and pre-made dehydrated meals. That would get me about 60 miles into the hike, and I was not prepared to eat the same 3 foods for a month. After looking online and brainstorming several possible meals, I settled on two more for my first 5 days, until my first resupply in Frisco/Breckenridge. The first new meal was burritos with minute rice and dehydrated black-beans, which I was able to buy from my local natural foods store. The second meal, recommended by several blogs, was instant mashed potatoes. Whats a mistake! Yes, instant mashed potatoes are cheap, light, and available, but they’re relatively low-calorie — only 450 Calories for a whole bag — and physically so much food. I literally carried half of my pot of potatoes around for a few hours until I had more room to eat! Of course, you can mix in cheese or meat (if you’re not vegetarian, which I am), or add to ramen for the monstrosity that is the Ramen Bomb, but in terms of a caloric hot meal, it ranked low on my list. (So low, in fact, that I didn’t buy another pack of mashed potatoes for the rest of the trip!)
If I could change one part of my planning, it definitely would be finding better, healthier foods. Not that I’m not advocating for low-cal here! But, after a month of hiking, I certainly felt more athletic, yet limited by my trashy diet. I wished my eating habits hadn’t taken a near 180 turn from life in the front country.
By the end of all this planning I felt incredibly prepared. However, I had built up so much conceptual knowledge that I felt a barrier forming between me and the trail. I had to make the shift from the theoretical to the physical. When the day came, I dove into the hike head-first, and immediately I felt the experience of the hike wash over me. My planning had paid off.
See you on the trail!
This post is part of what will be a series of blogs reflecting on my hike during July 2018. Originally posted 8/27/20