Hiking the Colorado Trail: Answers to Essential Questions

It’s only been a few days since my husband and I finished hiking all 490ish miles of the gorgeous Colorado Trail. I miss it already! The spaciousness, the enveloping greenery, the high-elevation vistas…

After years of hearing about the majestic mountains of Colorado, it was such a privilege to experience them so fully, day after day after day after… (34 days!)

We did our research beforehand, and yet a number of things still surprised us while hiking the CT. While it’s all still fresh in my mind, here’s everything that stuck out to me as the most important tips for planning and hiking a Colorado Trail thru-hike or long section hike.

Some of these are tips we did manage to learn ahead of time, and others we learned the hard way. Some you’ll find in the guidebook and online planning guides, and others are a bit more subjective. In all these cases, I hope they’ll help you with your Colorado Trail planning.

Colorado Trail at a Glance

If your CT planning journey is just beginning, here are essential facts about the CT to keep in mind as you read the rest of these FAQs.

Distance: ~480 miles
Start and end: Denver to Durango (or reverse)
Hiking season: July to September (depending on snow)
Trail conditions: Well marked and maintained, sometimes steep or rocky
Permits: None needed!

Biggest challenges: High elevation, mountainous terrain, afternoon thunderstorms

Biggest rewards: High alpine scenery, small mountain towns

Water on the Colorado Trail

How much water capacity should I have for the CT?

For much of the trail, I think 3 liters of capacity is sufficient. If you stop to filter often you can carry 1-2 liters at a time for much of the trail, filtering from the frequent, clear mountain streams and only filling up to 3 liters for the odd dry stretch or dry camp.

However, there are several notable drier sections (specifics below) where having 4 liters of capacity would be helpful for dry camping, especially if you tend to drink a lot in hot weather. Slower hikers may even need more in some cases.

Are there any long dry sections?

Yes. You can learn more about these from the guidebook and Guthook app, but three stretches in particular stuck out to us as having infrequent and/or particularly low-quality water:

  • Near Denver: first several days heading SOBO can be a bit dry in late summer
  • “Cow Land”: infrequent and very dirty water through segments 17-19
  • Near Durango: segment 27 is drier than surrounding sections

Check Guthook comments carefully before heading into these sections so you can plan ahead. We usually found enough small sources to get by, but in late July and early August many were almost dry. Be sure to consider the date of the last comment, as sources do dry up throughout the summer.

Note that the trail generally becomes drier as summer goes on. If hiking late in August or September, especially after an unusually dry winter, you should research current conditions carefully as other sections may become dry under these conditions.

Key tip: To get water out of nearly-dry streams, learn the art of leaf spout engineering. A pointy leaf oriented in just the right way can turn a muddy dribble into a trickle of clear water you can easily fill a bottle from.

Hiker uses leaf spout to collect drinking water for small stream
Using a leaf spout to collect clear water from a small trickle in segment 27 of the CT

What’s the best way to get reliable info about CT water sources?

Guthook App for Water Sources

The Guthook app has a comments section for each labeled location, and we found these the most helpful when trying to learn if a particular water source was still flowing.

Be sure to note the date of the last comment, and open the app and let it update (pulling in recent comments) whenever you’re in town and have mobile data. Many small water sources do dry up at some point during the summer. If you find one that has dried since the last comment, do your fellow hikers a favor and add your own comment to the app.

Important tip: Not all water sources are marked in Guthook. We found a few significant ones – like in the middle of long dry stretches – that were only mentioned in comments on the adjacent junction or trailhead markers. Be sure to check all the markers in areas where water is scarce.

Wildflowers and mountain stream along Colorado Trail
A beautiful mountain stream on the CT

CT Databook for Water Sources

The CT Databook has many of the same water sources listed, but in less detail and obviously without the GPS function. This can make it hard to tell, for example, whether this tiny trickle is the noted water source or whether there’s a big stream just up ahead. Still, it’s good for cross referencing, and in case something happens to your phone.

CT Guidebook for Water Sources

The guidebook mentions certain key sources, and also gives a sense of whether a section is unusually dry. It sometimes mentions water sources that Guthook doesn’t, in particular some that are a bit off-trail (such as small lakes below the high ridge sections) but potentially useful as emergency backups.

What’s the water quality like on the CT, and what kind of treatment method should I use?

Most importantly: yes, you need to treat your drinking water on the Colorado Trail. Even many of the nice mountain streams are likely contaminated from animals (we saw abundant sheep and cows in some sections) or from human trail users camping (and pooping) nearby.

The most popular water treatment method on the CT is some kind of gravity or squeeze filter, with Sawyer being the most common. The water is often a bit silty, and in “Cow Land” it can be downright disgusting, so chemical or UV treatments alone won’t cut it.

Collecting water from a cattle tank on the Colorado Trail
This water wasn’t actually that bad; we just had to shoo the cows away first

I strongly recommend bringing some chemical treatment as a backup though, because filters can and do fail on the CT. Chlorine dioxide is the most effective, and can be found either as drops or tablets.

Key tips for Sawyer filters on the CT: Many of us (*raises hand*) experienced clogged filters in Cow Land. Ours became so slow, despite repeated backflushing, that we could only get enough water for the morning by leaving it hanging overnight (inside our tarp, so it didn’t freeze). Here’s how to mitigate this problem:

  • Backflush early and often. It’s a pain, because you need to save enough clean water to do it with, but it makes a difference. Try to put a few squirts through every time you finish filtering. When you find plentiful clean water, flush a whole liter through. You can use a Smart bottle or Platypyus and the Sawyer coupler if your filter is dual-threaded, but it might even be worth bringing the cleaning syringe.
  • Pre-filter especially dirty water. This is infrequent on the CT, but there were a few disgusting ponds (Snow Mesa comes to mind) and muddy streams (Cow Land for sure) where pre-filtering with a bandana or buff will really help the filtering go faster. If you have the Sawyer coupler and dual-threaded filter you can screw the pre-filter cloth inline with the rest of the system and do it all in one step.
  • Don’t count on replacing your filter in town. I know 2020 was an especially busy year on the CT, but in the southern half we found the towns cleared out of essentials like water filters (and stove fuel!) in mid-August. We did manage to find some chlorine dioxide tablets, which allowed us to limp through with our clogged filter).

For more info on water treatment methods for backpacking, see this detailed guide.

Campsites on the Colorado Trail

Can I camp anywhere I want on the Colorado Trail?

With the exception of a few miles at both ends, and a few very specific restrictions throughout, free dispersed camping is legal along the entire length of the CT.

This doesn’t exactly mean you can camp anywhere though. Except in rare emergency cases, you should follow Leave No Trace practices which means choosing previously used sites and durable surfaces. Don’t just throw your tent down in that pristine grassy meadow, no matter how soft and delightful it looks.

Though it’s often considered good practice to not camp right next to the trail or a water source, many of the established campsites on the CT violate both these guidelines. Go ahead and use them, but (in the case of water sources) be extra careful to situate the bathroom as far from the source as possible.

If you like private campsites, keep an eye out for small use trails that lead to flat spots a bit further from the trail. They exist, but you might need to do some hunting since, by definition, they are hard to spot from the trail itself.

A lovely high campsite at the southern end of Collegiate West, with just enough trees to break the wind.

Is it easy to find good campsites? How far apart are they?

Good campsites are typically easy to spot all along the trail… until you actually need to find a place to camp. Then they all disappear. 🙂

In all seriousness though, yes, campsites are generally easy to find at least every mile or two. Look out for flat places with fire rings and logs or rocks arranged as “furniture.” However, many of these sites are dry (see below) and/or small, ideal for a single tent. Those hiking in groups may need to travel an extra mile or two to find space for everyone.

A few sections traverse steep slopes, high ridges, or populated areas (near Twin Lakes in particular). In these spots it may take a couple extra miles to find any kind of good spot. Guthook and the guidebook can help you identify these sections.

Not a lot of flat space along this old railroad grade, so camping right by the trail is necessary.

Are campsites generally near water sources?

Where you see a substantial water source, yes, there are usually (but not always) campsites nearby. This is obviously convenient for cooking and filtering the next morning’s water without having to carry extra.

If you’re willing to dry camp though, you’ll have many more campsite options, some quite scenic. Dry campsites are usually less crowded too, great if you seek solitude or find yourself hiking in a busy “bubble” where your desired sites are often taken.

Dry camping can also be essential for hikers on a slower schedule (roughly speaking, maybe 12 miles per day or less) who can’t easily push to the next water source.

A nice rhythm is to collect water from the day’s last good source, carry it just a couple miles to a dry camp, then take a mid-morning break the following day to fill up again.

Are most campsites below treeline? Should I avoid exposed sites?

On the CT most campsites are below treeline, largely because this is usually more comfortable. Treeline is around 12,000 feet in Colorado, and nights above this can be cold and quite windy. Plus, summer thunderstorms can make high campsites downright dangerous in bad weather.

That said, there are a few places where you may have no choice. You’ll find usable exposed campsites near some of the high ponds and lakes, as well as in patches of scraggly little trees on the low points of high ridges. On a clear evening these can make gorgeous sites; just keep an eye on the weather. It’s not unusual to have thunderstorms start as late as 5 or 6pm, so choose your site extra-carefully if stopping early for the day.

Tent next to high-elevation lake while camping on the Colorado Trail
We had lovely clear skies for this exposed campsite on Snow Mesa, but it was COLD.

Important tip: Below treeline, look around for standing dead trees before choosing your campsite! Sadly much of the CT is affected by bark beetles, and there are entire sections where most or all of the trees are dead and just waiting to fall over. Don’t be camped under them when they do.

Avoiding dead trees while camping on the Colorado Trail
In forests full of dead trees, camp out in the open!

Where can I find details on campsite locations?

Campsites are NOT explicitly marked in Guthook, perhaps because there are just too many and preferences vary so widely. However, you’ll find mention of some (but definitely not all) in the comments for other marked locations nearby.

We found this most common in the northern half. Perhaps by the southern half most hikers are tired, and/or have figured out how to find their own campsites on the fly.

The Guidebook and Databook also mention some of the most prominent campsites, especially near water sources. These are good for cross-referencing, but also usually more crowded.

Will I likely be camping alone, or with other people nearby?

This depends very much on your preferences and style of camping. If you’re willing to dry camp, use small single-tent sites, or search a bit for use trails that lead to more hidden sites, you can likely camp in solitude most nights.

On the other hand, if you structure your hike around major water sources, you will end up camped near others at least some of the time. This is especially true in areas with fewer water sources, as well as closer to the northern end of the trail, where hikers tend to bunch up more. There are plenty of solo hikers who purposefully choose these sites hoping for company.

A large camping area near the northern end of the trail, with room for many tents near a nice creek. These types of sites will often be shared by several groups.

Also take note that the first camping area after a high pass seems to be fair game for crowding, especially if it’s the only good site for awhile. Twice we set up alone at lovely campsites after high passes, and twice other groups arrived after dark and set up just a few feet away, having pushed over the pass late in the day. Eventually we learned to leave these sites for the late-comers and push on if we could.

Sometimes we shared our campsite with cows.

Is it easy to find soft ground for tent stakes for my tarp or non-freestanding tent?

Yes. In contrast to the hard granite found in much of the High Sierras in California, most areas of the CT have soft dirt. We never had meaningful issues getting tent stakes into the ground.

Is it easy to find trees for hammock camping?

Yes and no. Yes, many good campsites on the CT are below treeline. But often these trees are small, scrubby, or dead. There are also several areas where camping above treeline is necessary unless you do some big days or very careful planning. We only saw one person hammock camping on the CT.

Wildlife on the CT

Do I need to worry about bears on the Colorado Trail?

Short answer: yes.

Personal experience: on the morning of our second day a bear visited our campsite during breakfast! He was disconcertingly tame and did not run away when we banged our mugs. Our food was safe, but you can bet we packed up and hit the trail in a hurry that morning!

Bear canisters are not required on the CT, but some hikers choose to bring them, and an Ursack at the very least is highly recommended. Bears do go after hiker food with regularity. In 2020 there were a number of reports of food bags, including supposedly bear-proof Ursacks, being damaged by bears.

There are many areas where bears pose a risk, particularly in the lower elevation areas of the trail. Known problem areas in 2020 included segments 1 and 3, and the Kenosha Pass area between segments 5 and 6.

To reiterate: it’s important to practice good bear avoidance techniques on the CT. Store your food properly in a canister or an Ursack properly tied to a tree; regular bear hangs are not very effective. Cook away from where you sleep, and don’t leave food scraps.

For more information on bear canisters and their alternatives, including the lightest models and how to pack them effectively, see this detailed guide to bear cans.

Are rodents a problem on the CT?

Most definitely yes. We heard a number of stories of marmots stealing camp sandals, rodents chewing through tents, and more. Our own backpack straps, gaiters, and hiking pole handles were lightly nibbled a few times.

A number of small animals on the CT – mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and more – are drawn to food and salty human sweat. Important tip: bring your shoes, poles, pack, etc. inside your tent at night if you have the space. If tarp camping or short on space, at least pull your pack cover over the pack and try to tuck things away as much as possible.

And of course, store your food properly at night or even if leaving camp for a few minutes. Bears aren’t the only animal that want your food.

What’s the cutest animal on the CT?

I’m glad you asked. The answer is undoubtedly: pikas. These adorable little creatures live in the rock piles at higher elevations. They scurry about making adorable squeaking noises and gathering greenery in their mouths to store for the winter.

Pro tip: For some extra energy, pretend the pika squeaks are personalized cheers of encouragement as you hike by.

A pika on the Colorado Trail
Seriously, these little guys are adorable.

Resupplying on the CT

Will I need to hitchhike?

Probably. The CTF website, guidebook, and Facebook groups are full of information about resupplying on the CT. Unless you plan your trip very carefully, carry a ton of supplies, and/or arrange for shuttlers to meet you at trailheads with resupply boxes you mailed in advance, at least a bit of hitchhiking will be necessary.

In 2020 we tried to avoid hitchhiking as much as possible for health reasons. With a bit of luck and only moderate planning (one box mailed to Monarch Mountain Lodge, zero pre-arranged rides) we managed with only one hitch (to Silverton) and it was easy. We did get lucky with Lake City though, managing to get in on someone else’s prearranged shuttle, and we accepted an offered ride into Durango at the southern terminus.

For more detail, see this resupply guide with sample plans based on preferences like hitchhiking, social towns, mail drops, and more.

Pro tip: if having trouble hitching a ride, try walking the highway with your thumb out. Some drivers are more likely to help you out if they see that you’re really trying hard to get yourself to town, instead of just lounging around by a trailhead.

Will towns on the CT have what I need?

Most towns are well-equipped with a post office, small grocery or general store, and at least one outdoor gear store. However, don’t let the fantastic services in Frisco/Breckenridge spoil you. The towns get smaller as you head south, and many of them are more focused on catering to the ATV / RV / fishing / etc. crowds than to thru-hikers.

I guess 2020 was a particularly busy year, but we found the small outdoor stores in Lake City and Silverton to be out of some essentials like stove fuel and Sawyer water filters and bags. We made do with substitutes and some trail luck (a found fuel canister), but be prepared to go without if your luck is bad.

In hindsight, Monarch Crest Gift Shop was surprisingly well stocked for its remote location! And Monarch Mountain Lodge was surprisingly poorly stocked. Call ahead if you need something important, don’t assume it will be there.

Hiker sorting food in Lake City park while resupplying on the Colorado Trail
Repacking food in the Lake City town park

Can I mail supplies to myself?

In most cases yes. Check the guidebook or databook; most towns have a post office where you can mail packages to yourself. It’s often more convenient (more flexible pickup hours) to mail your box to a business you’ll be visiting, such as a hostel or store, but be sure to call ahead and make sure they’ll accept it first.

Do be aware though, the CT is long enough that you may get tired of the food you packed and mailed. We used a mix, mailing one critical box to the halfway point and then resupplying from stores along the way for the rest. This felt like a good balance.

What’s the typical distance between resupply stops?

This depends on how much effort you’re willing to put into hitchhiking, and how flexible your schedule is. Carrying enough food for 50-70 miles will get you through most sections and allow you to resupply at towns that are reasonable to hitch to.

The longest stretch for many hikers is before Creede or Lake City (15 miles apart). Unless you do some longer or harder hitches, that stretch will be 90-100 miles.

It’s always possible to do longer stretches by skipping stops; for example we hiked all the way to Frisco before our first resupply instead of stopping in Jefferson like many people do.

You can also do shorter sections by arranging rides in advance for hard-to-hitch-to towns, or paying someone to deliver a resupply box to a trailhead.

Important tip: The Collegiate West alternate splits off from Collegiate East at mile 183 and rejoins about 80 miles later. Pay close attention to resupply details through this section. Many places are listed as resupply options for both routes, but are much closer to one than the other. For example, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs is right on trail for Collegiate East hikers, but a tough 15 mile hitch for Collegiate West hikers.

The CT Databook is a good place to start figuring out your resupply strategy, and the Facebook groups often have discussions about which stops are best for ____ (hostels, groceries, hitching, restaurants, etc.).

For more help on planning your resupply, see my resupply strategy guide. It has some helpful sample plans for different paces and preferences, like whether you want to hitchhike or not.

Weather

How much will it rain? Do I need full rain gear?

Summer in the Rockies brings frequent afternoon thunderstorms, as well as regular rain, especially during the month of July.

Our first couple weeks we had some kind of rain nearly every day. I was glad to have a full set of reliable rain gear: jacket, pants, and backpack cover. Compared to the Sierras in California where I hike more frequently, I felt there was a lot of rain on the CT.

If you’re undecided on rain pants (versus poncho or just getting your legs wet) let me add: I wore my rain pants many times. Not often for rain (often it was too warm in the afternoons) but for extra warmth in the chilly evenings at higher elevations.

I was also happy to carry rain pants as emergency gear in case we encountered a nasty hail storm up high. They’re great for warmth in high wind too. And, rain pants are key for doing laundry when you get to town, if you don’t have a spare set of pants otherwise (a presentable pair of long underwear can also work).

Hiker with pack cover on the CT
Happy to have my “pretty purple pack protector” (rain cover) during one of many afternoon showers on the CT.

How can I not get struck by lightning?

When preparing to hike the Colorado Trail, warnings about lightning loom large. The summary is, you don’t want to end up in an electrical storm on high exposed peaks or ridges, because your risk of getting struck by lightning is higher.

This is easy to avoid in the northern part of the trail by simply getting the few high passes done before noon. But what about later, in the sections that stay high for many miles at a time? The only way to avoid being above treeline after noon is to hike during the night and/or hike some very short days.

We actually got lucky and encountered relatively few storms, maybe because we hiked a bit later and the storms become less frequent into August. We spent many lovely afternoon hours above treeline, keeping a watchful eye on the weather of course. Still, the CT was an opportunity to refine my lightning safety knowledge. Here are some tips that you should know:

  • Look at the elevation profile 2-3 days ahead as your plan your days. It might be worth pushing through a couple extra miles today in order to position yourself well for a high section later. Many people try to camp partway through big climbs for this reason.
  • In bad weather, you want to be below treeline in a patch of many trees (not under the only tree around). Treeline is around 11,700 feet, give or take, slightly higher as you go south.
  • Many (not all) of the high sections do dip below treeline every few miles, allowing you to hop from one “safe” point to the next as you watch the clouds (though honestly no point up there is totally safe in an electrical storm).
  • If there are no trees available, seek the lowest point. Even if there are trees around, avoid the tops of ridges in thunderstorms.
  • Many of the high sections can be escaped by traveling downhill off-trail to treeline or at least lower ground. If a storm rolls in, don’t hesitate to leave the trail to seek shelter.
  • You can often see storms coming ahead of time. Identify which way the clouds are moving and watch to see what’s coming.
  • Learn to read clouds. Separate, puffy clouds are usually ok even if dark. It’s the big masses of tall dark clouds all smushed together that can be trouble.
  • If you do get caught in a bad situation, find the safest place you can and then separate from your hiking partners, crouch on the balls of your feet with your feet touching (lightning crouch), and say a prayer to the storm gods. In the unlikely event that a hiking partner is struck, give them CPR (this is why you should separate, so the chances of both people being affected by the same strike is smaller).
These happy, puffy clouds are no problem.
Stormy clouds above the Colorado Trail
I was keeping an eye on these, but they turned out ok.
Thunderstorms in the distance.

How cold are the nights on the CT?

During our July/August hike the nights were mostly not too cold. I’m quite cold-sensitive but was only uncomfortable a handful of times, all at high elevation (12,000+ feet) campsites. The temperature may have hovered around freezing on a couple of those nights.

If you hike in late August or September, expect more nights around freezing and some chilly mornings and evenings.

For those worried about cold weather, these tips on how to stay warm while backpacking might help.

Does it get very hot on the CT?

The heat was only bothersome on “low” stretches of the trail: the northern and southern ends, near Twin Lakes, parts of Cow Land in the middle, and I’ve heard Collegiate East can be hot. On these sections it was important to drink plenty of water, and electrolyte powder was a nice treat.

Once you’re above 10,000 feet the sun can feel intense but the air temperature is usually not too hot.

Other Trail Users

Is the Colorado Trail crowded?

It depends on what you think a crowd is. I heard 2020 was a crowded year, but I also heard we started after the biggest group had passed. I heard reports of dozens of tents at the major camping areas in the first segment a few weeks before we started, but we never camped with more than 3 or 4 tents nearby, and often we camped alone.

Different segments vary greatly. Some, mostly near Denver, are crowded with day hikers and mountain bikers and backpackers on shorter trips. A few short sections (just a few miles here and there) further south can feel busy as well. However, there are long sections that are mostly only traveled by backpackers.

As for other thru-hikers, there were days where we leapfrogged with 2-3 groups, and other days where it seemed like we encountered a dozen groups. To me, sometimes this was a little too much. Rarely did it actually pose a problem in terms of trail usage or camp availability though. It just detracted a bit from the sense of being “out there” in the wilderness.

Is the Colorado Trail a social thru-hike?

I suspect the CT is less social than some long trails like the AT, but I was still surprised by how many thru-hikers seemed to be looking for a social experience. They would form loose groups of “tramily” (trail family), sometimes hiking near each other or sometimes just meeting up at camp or even in town. Sometimes they would hike together for just a day, or stick together for weeks.

As a couple (and introverts) we mostly hiked in our own little unit, but we enjoyed chatting with others in passing. If you’re interested in meeting other hikers and making lasting connections, I think the opportunity is definitely there on the CT.

Is it common to hike the CT solo?

Yes! It seemed like a majority of the hikers we met were solo, though sometimes by the end they had joined up with other solo hikers and formed groups.

The CT is long enough that not everyone can talk their friends into joining, and not everyone is lucky enough to have a partner who enjoys hiking. Many people were out there making their dream a reality on their own.

Even for women?

Yes. I was thrilled to see so many confident ladies out there hiking solo on the CT. And why not? The few real risks in the wilderness – bad weather, getting lost, poor decision making – don’t care about sex or gender. The CT is a safer place than most for solo women.

Are there a lot of annoying mountain bikes?

Not usually. It’s true, backpackers and mountain bikers can bring very different types of energy to the backcountry, and we tend to get in each other’s way. But almost without exception every biker we met was friendly and courteous. We tried to stay out of their way when possible, and they tried to not run us over. Win win.

That said, a few segments are popular with day riders, and their sheer numbers (especially on weekends) can be frustrating. Segment 3 comes to mind in particular. It doesn’t usually last for long though.

Most of the trail sees only long-distance bikepackers, of which there aren’t many. These folks are fun to talk to (sometimes I’m one of them myself, though usually on less technical trails) and share much of the backpacking ethos.

All the wilderness areas are off-limits to bikes entirely, making for quiet and peaceful trails.

The Trail

Is the Colorado Trail well marked?

Yes, the trail is quite well marked and the tread is always easy to follow. I think it would be possible – though I am not recommending this! – to follow it from end to end by just looking for the markings and blazes. However, a map and guide will save you much time and uncertainty.

A combination of CT blazes, CDT blazes (the CT forms part of the CDT), and rock piles mark the trail clearly in most places.
Colorado Trail blaze on fence post
You’ll learn to love the sight of these blazes.

Is the CT well maintained?

The CT is typically very well maintained by crews of amazing volunteers. You might encounter the occasional downed tree that hasn’t yet been cleared, but otherwise maintenance is no issue.

The one exception was some large log tangles on the descent to the Animas River that required a bit of scrambling. Not sure how long those have been there, but they seem unlikely to be cleared soon. [Edit: just kidding! Looks like some have already been cleared as of late summer 2020! Thank you awesome trail crews.]

What kind of surfaces and terrain will I find on the CT?

Just because it’s well-maintained doesn’t mean it’s always easy footing! Much of the CT is quite rocky, and some sections are steep and slippery. Others are gradual with smooth dirt tread, but that’s the minority. You’ll find a bit of everything on the CT.

Some parts of the CT are a little rocky.
Some parts are extremely rocky.
Hiker on smooth trail in the scenic San Juan mountains
Other parts are wonderfully smooth.

Are trail running shoes well-suited to the CT?

Absolutely. I hiked the CT in my Altra Lone Peaks (plus Dirty Girl Gaiters – highly recommended) and loved them. For more detail on why I love backpacking in trail running shoes, see this post. The one exception might be if hiking very early in the summer and traveling through a lot of snow.

Of course, if you prefer hiking in boots, then that works too!

Do I need hiking poles for the CT?

I don’t always find hiking poles that useful, but on the CT I was VERY glad to have them. They add a lot of “umph” on the many climbs, and are very helpful for balance on the rocky and slippery bits.

For more detail on how to choose hiking poles and use them most effectively, see my trekking pole guide.

Happy to have hiking poles here.
Hiker crosses stream using trekking poles to balance
And also here.

Planning and Navigation

Which maps and guides are the best?

The CT is extremely well documented. The most commonly used resources seem to be (in order from most used to least):

  • Guthook guide app: Topo map and elevation profile with distances and waypoints (water, trailheads, landmarks, etc), comments from other hikers on recent conditions
  • CT Databook: Essential distance, elevation, water, camp, and resupply info. Printed copy is a good backup in case of phone issues.
  • CT Guidebook: Interesting history and geology info along with description of each segment including mile markers for prominent waypoints. Good for understanding the segment’s character (exposed, dry, busy, remote, etc) instead of having to infer from the other resources. I recommend the Kindle version, which you can read on your phone with the Kindle app.
  • National Geographic map pack: Nice if you like the “big picture” or plan to do a lot of side trips, but not really necessary otherwise.

For planning and dreaming, definitely check out the excellent Colorado Trail Foundation website as well.

The databook isn’t tiny, but it’s small enough and very durable. I saw it peeking out of many a backpack pocket.

Should I take Collegiate West or East?

Ah, the classic question! Starting around mile 183, the CT splits into Collegiate West and Collegiate East. Both are about 80 miles; West is just a few miles longer.

Decision time!

It’s generally undisputed that West is the most scenic choice. It’s mostly above treeline and features some gorgeous high passes and ridgeline walking. For trail running fans, Hope Pass from the Leadville 100 course is a must-experience.

Hiker crests a high pass on the CT
Cresting the iconic Hope Pass

Collegiate West is naturally a bit more physically challenging, due to the big climbs and high elevation that facilitate all the gorgeous scenery. It also requires keeping an eye out for afternoon thunderstorms in order to hike safely. It’s also a bit more limited in resupply options, but not problematically so.

We took Collegiate West and I highly recommend it! However, we met other hikers who chose Collegiate East for various reasons – concern about weather, nursing niggling injuries, the desire to stay on less remote trails, following their hiking companions – and also enjoyed it. I’ve heard it involves a lot of forested climbs and can be hot, but the desert section toward the southern end is interesting.

If you love big mountains…
… Collegiate West is the obvious choice.

Should I climb any 14ers or take other side trips?

If you can find the time, yes, I recommend climbing at least one 14er during your CT hike. They’ll be all around you in the higher sections, and you’ll enjoy looking up and thinking “I know what it feels like to be up there!”

This super helpful post details all the 14ers accessible from the CT. If you only have time for one, I suggest either Elbert (the tallest Colorado 14er, and the second-tallest peak in the lower 48) or San Luis (the easiest to reach from the CT). However, there are many other popular choices.

We made a last-minute decision to hike Elbert the morning before our Twin Lakes resupply stop, and I’m glad we did. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to climb a 14er though; the 8 miles took us around 6 hours! Just because you’re well-acclimated to 12,000 feet doesn’t mean 14,000 won’t be tough.

Hiker on summit of Mt. Elbert during side trip from Colorado Trail
Mt. Elbert summit – totally worth it, even though we had to rush into Twin Lakes for our resupply before the store closed.

What’s a good daily average mileage on the CT?

Ah, the most personal of hiking questions. The answer: it depends! We met experienced lightweight hikers doing many 20+ mile days, and we passed families and older couples doing 10-12 mile days. You can make either work.

Our average on non-resupply or rest days: around 16 miles per day. We took two zero days and several half-days in towns. Our longest days were three 20 milers and one 22 miler, and by the end an 18-19 mile day felt pretty casual.

My biggest advice: don’t push too hard in the first week. Give your body time to adjust to the rigors of high-elevation hiking with a heavy pack, and it will reward you later with more energy than you thought possible.

If you’re feeling ambitious, this post on how to hike your first 20 mile day might come in handy.

When’s the best time to hike the CT?

I guess I’m biased, but we hiked from mid-July to mid-August and it felt like the perfect time. Here’s what you tend to get with each month:

June: likely tons of snow in the high country; special gear and skills required

July: warm weather, thunderstorms, mosquitoes, lots of other hikers, amazing wildflowers

August: warm weather, fewer storms, less mosquitoes but also less wildflowers, fewer water sources by end of the month usually

September: shorter days, colder temps, less rain, fewer water sources, more solitude

Purple and yellow wildflowers in green meadow with mountains in the distance.
The wildflowers on the CT were amazing in July

Should I plan camp locations in advance?

I like spreadsheets as much as the next person (ok let’s be honest, probably more), but in my opinion the CT is too long to plan out each day in advance. There’s just too much that will change as you go: fitness, preferences, weather, social connections with other hikers, to name a few.

Obviously it’s helpful to know your rough resupply plan, especially if mailing boxes to yourself. And some people have schedules to keep. But if you can manage it, I suggest planning in flexible chunks and carrying at least one day’s more food than you think you might need between each stop.

To plan our CT hike, I made a spreadsheet with rough daily mileage estimates for each resupply chunk. The days started shorter (15 miles per day) and got longer toward the end, but we knew these were just averages and not exact daily targets. There were several zero and “nearo” days built in, but we didn’t decide in advance where and when to take them. Instead, we let our bodies tell us along the way.

Recommendation: look 2-3 days ahead to identify exposed, high, or dry sections. You may need to hike a long day here or there to set yourself up for a tricky section later. Otherwise, plan to adjust as you go, if your schedule allows it.

I have more questions, where can I ask them?

There are several active and supportive Facebook groups dedicated to the Colorado Trail. This one is very general, this one is for women, and there is one each year for thru-hikers (here is 2020 and here is 2021). Check them out!

The obligatory Durango finish picture. What a trip!

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re dreaming about a Colorado Trail thru hike, you might also find these helpful:

Or, check out the full backpacking resources section right here!

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the western US. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

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Pictures of mountain landscapes with text: thru hiking the Colorado Trail, essential tips
Pictures of mountain landscapes with text: backpacking the Colorado Trail, 35 questions answered

2 thoughts on “Hiking the Colorado Trail: Answers to Essential Questions”

    • If you’re on a budget, it *might* be cheapest to make your own dehydrated meals and send yourself resupply boxes, but the postage can really add up. If you can mail them from Denver or somewhere near the trail, or even deliver them by car, that will save money. Of course standards like Ramen, instant potatoes, etc. are cheap and you can buy them as you go, but you might get tired of it after awhile. 🙂 It’s probably cheapest to hitch into the larger towns along the way and buy budget-friendly food at the grocery stores. The little convenience stores in small towns (Twin Lakes for example) can be expensive.

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