How to Plan a Hike in Colorado

How to Plan a Hike in Colorado

Colorado is home to over 17,000 trails, all with their own features, terrain, and difficulty level. With so many options for trails and hundreds of trailheads, how do you know where to go or when to go? What to pack? How much water should you carry and what about food? How can you be prepared for wildlife encounters? There’s a lot of things that go into hiking and planning a hike, and we’ve put together all the essential information you’ll need in order to plan a successful, fun, and adventurous hike.

How Do You Choose What Trail to Hike?

Choosing a trail boils down to where you want to travel, what you want to see, your fitness level, and the time of year. There’s several main areas of hiking in Colorado, some of which are more popular than others. Places such as Rocky Mountain National Park and the Northern Mountains (e.g., Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail, etc.) are extremely popular areas and some hikes may even need reservations. While still beautiful, less popular areas like the Southern Mountains (e.g., Telluride, Wolf Creek) and western Colorado (e.g., Colorado National Monument) are less trafficked but aren’t as centrally located. We love hiking in the northern mountains, but also really enjoy exploring other parts of the state.

Hiking in the Colorado mountains normally involves features such as wildflowers, waterfalls, and alpine lakes in the summer and spring, fall colors and aspens in the fall, and snowy winter wonderlands in winter. The terrain throughout the state is extremely varied, so other areas may also offer grasslands and even deserts. Doing research on what you want to see is imperative, since terrain varies greatly, therefore changing the sights each hike offers. Our top pick is alpine lakes, such as Blue Lakes near Telluride, Wheeler Lake, Island Lake & Ice Lake,  or Blue Lake Trail in Breckenridge.

You can find hikes of all skill levels in Colorado. If you’re just starting, try an easy hike that is only a couple miles long with minimal elevation change. If you are more in shape, you might want to try a more difficult hike that is longer than 5+ miles with greater elevation change.

You’ll also want to consider the time of year. If it is the dead of winter, obviously you won’t find a hike with beautiful wildflowers. Some trails are only open during certain months due to weather conditions. And, of course, different parts of Colorado offer different views depending on the season. For example, in the summertime, you might want to hike in the mountains for cooler temperatures and stunning views, while for wintertime hiking you might want to stick to lower elevations for warmer temperatures and less snow. Our favorite is summer hiking in the mountains, but we love exploring new areas as well.

One of our favorite places to find new trails is AllTrails. There are up-to-date reviews with trail conditions, pictures of views to get a better idea of what you will see hiking. and you can even download the trail map to your phone for offline use so you have a map of the trail!

blue lakes hike colorado

How Long Will it Take?

Without knowing what your time frame is for hiking in Colorado, any estimate of time is just a guess and you should give yourself plenty of time so you don’t feel rushed. Hiking times can range from one hour to all day, or even several days for backpacking trips. As a baseline, most people hike around 2-3 miles per hour with an additional 30 minutes per 1,000 feet of elevation gained. For example, a 6 mile hike with 2,000 feet in elevation gain (like McCullough Gulch Trail) would be considered moderate to difficult and would take around 5 hours.

What does elevation gain mean? Elevation gain is the altitude gained during the hike. Say the trailhead is located at 10,000 feet in elevation and you’re hiking to the top of a mountain, which is at 13,000 feet. That’s 3,000 feet in elevation gain at the most basic calculation. If your hike is just straight up the whole way, that would be a pretty good estimate. If your hike is varied terrain where you may go up and down before reaching the destination, there may be additional elevation gain encountered.

Keep in mind that elevation gain is just an overall number, and doesn’t necessarily reflect how steep the trail is. Elevation gain of 1,000 feet over the course of 2 miles is much more difficult than 1,000 feet over the course of 6 miles, meaning some trails are more gradual and some are more steep. Elevation gain, distance, and altitude are all items you must take into consideration when calculating difficulty. Some hikes might not seem like much on paper, but they are tougher than expected due to these factors.

What Do I Need To Bring?

Some essentials include sunscreen, bug spray (depending on the season), water/hydration system, snacks or protein bars, a first-aid kit(including a blister kit with duct tape and moleskin, and a map of where you are going just in case. Make sure pants have zippered pockets as well–you don’t want anything falling out along the way! If there’s any chance that you’ll be encountering wildlife, don’t forget to pack bear spray and/or a whistle (see more about bear safety below). Here’s a general list of things you should pack:

  • Food. Such as snacks or even a pack lunch. See below for snack ideas.
  • Water. See below for how much water you should carry. Read more about treating water in the backcountry here
  • Sunscreen. The sun is more intense the higher in elevation you get, so you should always wear and re-apply sun protection.
  • Layers. Weather can change rapidly, and can vary greatly depending on altitude and wind exposure. Always carry extra layers such as a sweater or jacket.
  • Rain jacket: Pop up thunderstorms are frequent in the summer months, so always be prepared for wind and rain.
  • First Aid Kit. We always carry a mini hiking first aid kit, so we have basic first aid if we need it.
  • Camera. Most people just use their phone, but if you have a nice camera you want to carry, then bring it! 

It’s also important that you wear the right shoes for your hike. The terrain should help determine what type of shoe you need, but ultimately it’s personal preference. Some people like heavy waterproof hiking boots with ankle protection, especially on rocky hikes and hard surfaces. Just a word of caution, never hike long distances without breaking in your hiking boots. Some people like a more lightweight option in the form of a trail running shoe, which is less clunky and lighter.

black powder pass hike

How Much Water Should I Carry?

There’s no one definitive answer to this question, as how much water you need to carry will vary depending on a variety of factors, such as the length and difficulty of the hike, your age and fitness level, weather conditions, and what you’re wearing. That being said, on average, most hikers recommend carrying around 1 liter of water for hikes 1-3 miles, 2 liters for 3-6 miles, and 3+ liters for longer distances. Hikes with more difficult elevation gain, longer distances, higher altitude, or hotter temperatures would call for more water. Ultimately this is a judgement you should make for yourself and it’s best to get a feel for what you need by overpacking and seeing what’s left after you hike. Never leave yourself short handed on a hike, as dehydration can lead to serious problems and altitude sickness.

If you carry a water filtration device or some type of water purifier, you can also filter water along the way, so you don’t have to pack all the water you need. This is especially nice on longer hikes and multi-day backpacking trips, where it may not be logical to carry that amount of water in one go.

Also, consider if you are hiking in a hot climate or during the summer, it’s important to bring more water with you, as it is easy to become dehydrated in those conditions. Desert conditions in the heat mean carrying at least 1 gallon of water per person per day.

What Snacks Should I Bring Hiking?

While you’re hiking, it’s important to refuel your body by eating and drinking. The best snacks for hiking are those that pack a lot of energy and nutrition without weighing you down. Some calorie dense recommendations include nuts, protein bars, granola cereal bars, trail mix, jerky, hard-boiled eggs, or low-sugar energy gel packets. You can also bring water or electrolyte-enhanced drinks along the way–there are plenty of options available in sporting stores these days.

We also really enjoy packing a lunch on hikes, most often a peanut butter and honey sandwich (peanut butter for high calorie fat and honey for sugar, which gives you quick energy). Deli meat sandwiches are also good options. Sometimes the best part of the hike is sitting and enjoying the view with some food.

What About Wildlife?

One thing no one wants is a surprise encounter with wildlife during their Colorado hike! But when in nature, some wildlife encounters may be inevitable. The only thing you can control is how you react, so it’s important to educate yourself before you go.

Most of the wildlife you’ll see in Colorado consists of birds, squirrels, marmots, and mountain goats, pika, and overall pretty harmless creatures. Leave them alone, and they’ll leave you alone. On the off chance you do encounter a large animal, such as a bear, moose, or mountain lion, there are essential steps you must follow. First off, prevention is key. Avoid running into these animals by making noise while hiking, such as carrying on a conversation with a buddy or clapping your hands occasionally. This will alert any animals in the vicinity to your presence and they will most likely leave. You should also stay very alert, and never listen to music or wear headphones, since this drowns out noise and can prevent you from hearing something you should be avoiding.

For a complete write up on bear safety while hiking, read this article titled Bear Safety in Colorado.  The key with bears is to back away slowly and do not run away. Make yourself look big, and keep backing away until you can retreat. If they approach or charge, make yourself look big and yell loudly. For moose, back away slowly and don’t make any sudden movements. If they charge, do not run in a straight line. Instead, cut hard corners, such as running around trees, since moose aren’t agile in varied terrain but can run fast when going straight. For mountain lions, back away slowly. If they charge, fight for your life.

Conclusion

It’s important to plan for a hike in Colorado – if you’re not careful, then it can be dangerous or even deadly. The best way to avoid problems is by being prepared with the right supplies and knowledge about your surroundings before heading out on the trail. Make sure that you have food, water, clothing layers, and other essentials listed above so that you don’t get lost or become injured along the way!

FAQ

What are the steps for planning a successful hike?

Pick a hike based on what you would like to see, your fitness levels, the time of year, and the general area in which you will be.
Read up on said hike, looking for recent updates on conditions or any possible closures, fees, or reservation requirements. A great place for this is All Trails. 
Learn your route and download a digital version to carry with you.
Bring a buddy, and let someone know where you will be and when to expect you back. 
Dress appropriately and pack all the essentials, plus whatever you’ll need for your adventure. 
Plan where you will be staying and how long it takes to get to the trailhead, as well as if you need 4×4 to reach the trailhead or not. This will help you plan an early start time, which is especially ideal for hiking in the mountains or hot environments.  

How do beginners plan hiking?

Do your research and follow the suggestions above (e.g., pack appropriate amounts of water and snacks, pick a good hike, and be prepared for wildlife encounters)
Become familiar with the trail and download the trail map or bring a hard copy.
Dress appropriately with layers, comfortable shoes, hiking socks.
Pack the 10 Essentials. 
Keep it light and pick a trail appropriate for your fitness ability. 
Don’t go alone and always tell someone where you will be and when to expect you back.

How far can a beginner hike in a day?

The average hiker hikes about 2-3 miles per hour. Don’t forget to add at least 30 minutes per 1,000 feet in elevation gain, possibly more if you anticipate being slower. We recommend not pushing it too hard at first, and choosing a hike with an easier distance and lighter elevation gain.

How do I plan an all day hike?

Do thorough research on your route, and download the route on your app of choice. Make sure all your devices are charged and bring a battery pack so you can reference your map throughout the day.
Decide on how much water and food to bring. Food can be calculated based on calories. For water, consider carrying a water filtration system (only  for hikes where you anticipate water being available). That way, you can refill as needed instead of carry pounds of water. 
Bring appropriate layers for the varying temperatures throughout the morning, day, and night. Also bring headlamps in case you end up having to hike in the dark. 
Start early, so you can be back early. 

What are the hiking essentials?

The essentials are items that you should carry on every hike every time, as they can aid in your survival should something go wrong. These items are: fire starter, survival knife or multitool, map and compass, first aid kit, emergency whistle, illumination (e.g., headlamp or lantern,), sun protection (e.g., hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, UPF clothing). These should be carried in addition to traditional pack items such as water, snacks, and extra clothing layers.

How fast does the average human hike?

As a baseline, most people hike around 2-3 miles per hour with an additional 30 minutes per 1,000 feet of elevation gained. For example, a 6 mile hike with 2,000 feet in elevation gain (like McCullough Gulch) would be considered moderate to difficult and would take around 5 hours

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