The Ultimate Colorado Trail Gear Guide for 2023
Lightweight Gear for the Colorado Trail
One of the foundations for a successful backpacking trip, especially a thru-hike, is a solid set of lightweight gear that hits the sweet spot for comfort and weight. Keep in mind that comfort is both on and off trail, so if you reduce your weight by eliminating warm clothing or your favorite sleeping bag, you may find the trade off not worth it. Conversely, the opposite could also be true! A lot of this depends on how many miles per day you plan on hiking and your own personal ability to withstand some discomfort, either while hiking or when sleeping. While everyone's preferences are going to be different, I believe any slight variation of this gear list should help you have a very successful trip. The Colorado Trail thru hike holds a particular set of gear challenges due to the rugged and varied terrain hikers find themselves in, presenting unique backpacking needs that should be considered; therefore, I've tailored this gear guide with those needs in mind. I've spent countless hours researching gear for the Colorado Trail and I hope that you'll find this list to meet your expectations.
I should also mention that I have created an amazing spreadsheet that serves as a backpacking gear guide and planning tool which will help you make your own choices on what to bring. Download your free backpacking gear guide here.
Why You Should Trust Me
My name is Matt Payne and I'm a 5th generation native of Colorado. In 2012, I completed my goal of climbing all 53 Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation and in 2018, I completed my goal of climbing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado. I have been a Colorado backpacker for most of my life. I've photographed the Colorado mountains extensively as a professional landscape photographer, which has required me to spend countless nights in the backcountry through backpacking excursions. I've also co-authored a climbing and hiking guide book for the San Juan Mountains. Through these adventures, I've tested many sets of gear and backpacking set-ups and have landed on some time-tested winners that helped me develop my Colorado Trail setup. In 2023, I thru-hiked the Colorado Trail via the Collegiate West route and climbed 30 mountains on the way, earning my trail name, "Extra Credit." Since I brought my photography equipment with me, including a tripod, I had a tremendous desire to reduce my base pack weight as drastically as possible. Below you will find my complete gear list as well as some solid alternatives that I have either used or considered and can recommend. Lastly, none of the camping gear listed below was given to me for free, it was all paid for with my own money, so you can further trust my recommendations.
Colorado Trail Gear Basics
Throughout this article you find some terminology that you may or may not be familiar with, so I would like to get some of this out of the way! Firstly, when we refer to "base pack weight," we are referring to the weight of all of your gear, excluding consumables. This includes your sleeping system, backpack, clothing, cooking system, shelter, gadgets, and survival gear. In my opinion, you should try as best as you can to reduce your base pack weight to under 20 pounds, but ideally get it down to around 15 pounds. "Total pack weight" is your base pack weight and the weight of consumables, such as food and water. Your total pack weight will obviously fluctuate day-by-day depending on how much food you have on you and how much water you need to carry for the distance you are travelling. Everyone's needs are going to be different and the only way to truly know what you should or should not bring with you is gained through experience. I recommend starting small by going out on 1-2 night excursions in a variety of conditions to get a feel for what you find yourself using or not. Additionally, when it comes to ultralight gear, it's ideal that many items have multiple uses. A good example of this is trekking poles, which can also be used by some tents as the pole system. Look for items with multiple uses if you can! Lastly, the time of year you choose to do your hike will impact your hike gear list significantly. Most people choose to hike the Colorado Trail starting sometime in July; however, with early (May / June) or late starts (August / September), you may find yourself needing warmer clothing and sleeping systems. I should also note that some (but not all) of the links throughout this article are affiliate links and by using them you help me out a little bit. Thanks in advance! With all of that being said, let's get to the lightweight gear list!
Colorado Trail Gear List
While most experienced backpackers are accustomed to carrying heavier "off the shelf" backpacks from Osprey, Kelty, or Gregory, I think there are a lot of advantages in choosing a backpack that has been designed with thru-hiking in mind to carry all of your valuable camping gear. Most notably, these backpacks typically weigh less and have incorporated pockets and other design features intended to meet the unique demands of hiking 20 or more miles a day, including fast access to food and water and are often tape-sealed to meet the rigorous weather conditions found on a typical thru-hike. The only downside to many of the backpacks specifically designed for thru-hiking is that they are often custom made and require a lead time for production. When I set-out to find the perfect backpack for me, I spent a great deal of time researching other reviews and contacting manufacturers for more details. As a photographer, I had some other needs in mind including a way to store my tripod and a system for securing my camera. While not everyone will have these needs in mind, I think the pack I chose is the best option available to almost any thru-hiker.
Colorado Trail Backpack Recommendations
LiteAF - 46L Curve Full Suspension Custom
After countless hours of research, I decided to purchase a LiteAF 46L Curve backpack. Here's why:
The LiteAF is fully customizable including color, materials, shoulder strap pockets, webbing, hip belt size, torso size, and side pockets. You can also choose to add a bottom pocket (I used mine for trash), an ice axe loop, and trekking pole loops (awesome for town days). I also found it super fun to customize the colors of my pack. It is also sealed throughout with seam tape, making it virtually waterproof, although I also used a pack liner for added insurance from the elements because no backpack is fully waterproof! Since this pack has a suspension system, it uses lift loaders, which I really like especially after a resupply day! The aluminum suspension is also removable for lighter loads, which I found to be another nice feature. One thing that drew me to this pack were several reviews that said that they have the most comfortable shoulder straps in the business. Sold. Having worn mine for 35 days straight I can tell you it was pretty nice! A new LiteAF Curve 46 will cost you $375 without add-ons and weighs in at a meager 25 oz without add-ons.
Atom Packs - The Atom+ 40L Custom
Atom Packs is a cottage backpack maker based in the UK with long lead times for high quality backpacks. I was very close to having a custom Atom+ made for me for some of the same reasons I shared above about the LiteAF packs; however, I decided not to based on some reviews of the shoulder straps stretching out over time (mostly due to improper use, but knowing me I would have had the same problem), and because they do not use seam tape to seal the fabric, making them less water resistant. By all accounts, they are incredible backpacks. I had a lot of fun using their customization tool on their website to visualize the colors of the backpack and the add-ons. The base option of the pack weighs just 23 oz, costs $285, and offers heaps of ways to customize it.
Durston - Kakwa 40L
I am a big fan of Durston products and came close to buying a Kakwa 40L for my hike. They are built very similar to the LiteAF packs and are made using Ultra200 fabric, making them very water-resistant; however, they are also not seam taped and so I was worried about water seeping into my bag and getting my camera gear wet. One advantage of the Kakwa is that you can buy one ready-to-go today without any lead times; however, there is no customization available. The Kakwa is an affordable ultralight option coming in at 27 oz and costing a low price of only $250.
Gossamer Gear - Mariposa 60L
Another pack I had in my shopping cart for a few days was the Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60L. What drew me to this pack, other than the numerous glowing reviews of it that exist online, was the fact that it had a longer side pocket, which seemed rather ideal for my tripod. The larger carrying capacity was appealing and I thought that their multiple pockets for organization offer a lot of ways to keep things where they belong. I also think that the integrated pad that can be removed and used as a seat seem like a great idea too. What steered me away from getting one was the slightly higher weight - it comes in at 31.2 oz. For those looking for an off-the-shelf option that checks a lot of boxes, I don't think you can go wrong with this pack, and I saw many happy hikers using one on my trip. A new Mariposa will run you $285.
Zpacks - Arc Haul Ultra 40L
Zpacks is no stranger to the ultralight backpacking scene, offering a plethora of ultralight gear on their website, including sleeping bags, backpacks, and tents. Having had some first hand experience using one of their sleeping bags, I know that they make a decent product; however, I've read heaps of reviews on their Arc Haul Ultra 40L backpack that say there are some durability concerns since they use Ultra100 fabric. Knowing that my hiking tendencies often take me off-trail into some pretty extreme terrain with lots of tree branches and rocks, I didn't want to chance damaging my backpack, so I steered away from getting a Zpacks bag. If you're looking for the lightest of them all and don't have concerns with durability, I think you can't go wrong with their Arc Haul Ultra backpacks. A medium sized bag weighs just 20.5 oz and will set you back a high price of $400.
If your pack does not have taped seams or you prefer not to use a pack liner, a pack cover can be a good option to help keep your pack dry. I personally don't like them because you have to remember to put them on, which also takes time, but to each their own. If I were to use one, I'd opt for the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Lightweight Waterproof Backpack Cover.
In my opinion, a pack liner makes more sense because you never have to worry about it and they can be much lighter than rain covers. The only drawback to them is that they can be a bit cumbersome to deal with when you are packing or unpacking your bag, but I have not found this to be that big of a hassle once you get the hang of it. While you could just get a trash bag for this, I think a more durable and lightweight option such as the Cuben Fiber Pack Liners from Mountain Laurel Designs are a safer bet. The large size fit my LiteAF bag perfectly.
Ultralight Backpack Organization
If you're like me, and you're used to a backpack that has lots of integrated pockets and a brain on the top of the pack, you'll quickly realize that most ultralight backpacks are just giant tubes with no great way to organize your gear. Fret not, as great solutions exist, and I actually found this to help with keeping my gear dry, organized, and right where I expect it to be at all times. For my needs, I decided to buy quite a few lightweight bags to help keep my gear dry and organized on trail I always knew where everything was at all times, which is something my old brain apparently needs. I opted for the Mountain Laurel Designs Ecopak bags to organize my clothing, water filtration system, and my battery pack. I also saved weight by removing the metal zipper pulls. To organize my toiletries, cables, and other electronic devices such as camera batteries and sound recording gear, I used two DCF stuff sacks from Packback Designs. Since I had two different colors of bags, I always could find what I was looking for!
I also opted to purchase two hip belt pockets from Superior Wilderness Designs - one for my daily snacks, and one for my backpacking bidet, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, lip balm, my hiker wallet, and multi-tool for easy access. As a caveat, SWD makes some great backpacks as well that are worth considering!
To keep my phone dry and easily accessible, I added a Shoulder Pocket by Hyperlite Mountain Gear, which is also where I stashed my sunglasses! This pocket is nearly waterproof and I had zero issues keeping my phone dry even during huge downpours.
Selecting a lightweight, durable, and easy-to-set-up shelter is perhaps one of the most crucial considerations for a comfortable thru-hiking experience. While many great options exist, my selection was based on my preference for a roomy interior, the need for a fast set-up, low weight, durable materials, and the availability of space inside of the vestibule for storage of my backpack. I also think that a pole tent makes the most sense, but many will opt for a classic free-standing tent.
Colorado Trail Tent & Shelter Recommendations
Durston X-Mid Pro 2
Weighing just 19.6 oz, the Durston X-Mid Pro 2 offers spacious comfort, easy set-up, and protection from the elements. The X-Mid Pro 2 is of similar design as many popular tents that utilize trekking poles for stability and set-up. It uses no poles and therefore weighs much less than other 2-man tents. I'm a fan of the off-set design and the magnetic door toggles. In my opinion, the Durston X-Mid Pro 2 is the best ultralight thru-hiking tent on the market. The fact that it's commonly sold out is a good indicator that I'm on to something with that statement. I was lucky enough to buy one on the used market via the backpacking light forum. The only downside to this tent is that it does take some practice to get it to set-up correctly, but even when its not pitched perfectly it works great. In high wind, you'll want to make sure you add heavy rocks to the stakes to keep the tent from blowing over, which did happen to me twice on my thru-hike, but that was entirely my fault. While Durston also sells a 1-man version of this tent, the weight savings (4 oz) is so minimal that going with a 2-man almost always makes more sense to get the extra room. The X-Mid Pro 2 has an expensive price and will run you a cool $679.
Zpacks Duplex Tent
The Zpacks Duplex Tent is a solid contender in this field, offering a spacious design for two hikers in a lightweight package, coming in at 18.5 oz. The tent is very similar to the Durston X-Mid Pro 2, except for the straight-on rectangular design, which makes it much more prone to wind, which is something you will certainly encounter on the Colorado Trail. Similar to the Durston X-Mid Pro, Zpacks offers a 1 person tent, called the Plex Solo Tent, which weighs 13.9 oz. The Duplex will set you back $669.
Tarptent StratoSpire Li
Tarptent has been a long-term player in the cottage ultralight shelter community and offers a huge variety of shelters (some would say probably too many). When I was conducting my research I kept coming back to the StratoSpire Li tent as offering something that I would find quite useful for the Colorado Trail. It hits the sweet spot for weight, durability, construction, and storm-worthiness. In the end, I decided not to get one because all of their tents use struts to help provide stability in set-up, which makes them pack down to a taller, narrow size, which simply wouldn't work with my backpack since I use one half of my pack for my tripod. Otherwise, this is a great tent. It weighs in a bit heavier at 29.6 oz; however, the tent can be used without the floor and pack down to just 15.2 oz. Tarptent also offers several 1-man alternatives that are worthy of your attention.
Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL
Another perennial contender in the ultralight tent arena is Big Agnes, offering some fantastic tents at interesting price points, including the Copper Spur HV UL, which comes in 1-man, 2-man, 3-man, 4-man, and even 5-man varieties, each weighing 18 oz., 27 oz., 56 oz., 84 oz., and 110 oz. respectively. Their tents are also almost always commercially available so if you are on a time crunch they are an excellent choice. Big Agnes tents set-up very quickly and are a popular choice amongst thru-hikers.
While most tents ship with great lightweight takes, if you want to push your weight to even lower numbers like me, I highly recommend picking up a set of Vargo Titanium Shepherds Hook Stakes.
Your sleep system includes either a sleeping bag or quilt and a sleeping pad. There are loads of pros and cons for going with a sleeping bag versus a quilt, and there are pros and cons to the variety of pads that exist. Regarding sleeping bags and quilts, bags will typically be a bit heavier but warmer and slightly less comfortable to sleep in than quilts. Regarding sleeping pads, foam pads are more durable but heavier than traditional open-cell air pads such as the Therm-a-Rest; however, in all of my years using a Therm-a-Rest, I've only had one fail on me while in the backcountry, so I think durability concerns are over-rated unless you are clumsily sleeping on sharp rocks.
Colorado Trail Sleeping Bag / Quilt & Sleeping Pad Recommendations
Choosing a sleeping bag or quilt is one of the most crucial decisions you'll make as it relates to backpacking, and it is easy to get something that won't keep you warm enough or that will be way too warm and weigh too much. If your primary use of the sleeping bag or quilt is to use it for a Colorado Trail hike (and that's why you're here, right!?), then you probably don't need anything warmer than a bag that is rated to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Complicating this is the fact that there's not really an accepted standard among manufacturers as to how to measure this rating; however, most of them explain it that the degree rating of the bag is the lowest temperature you'll be comfortable in (whatever that means). For my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I used my tried and true existing sleeping bag, but I did find myself jealous of those that employed a quilt, which offers much more comfortable sleeping for those that roll around on their sides a lot. Since then, I've picked up a couple of quilts and have enjoyed using them.
Western Mountaineering Megalite 30 Degree Sleeping Bag
The Western Mountaineering Megalite Sleeping Bag has been my go-to for a few years now, offering warmth, comfort, durability, and packability in a lightweight package. Western Mountaineering has set the gold standard for sleeping bags and I think they are the top choice for backpacking sleeping bags. The 30 degree bag weighs just 24 oz. and packs down to a very small size. They also offer a 20 degree bag as well as a 10 degree bag for those that sleep cold or if you expect colder conditions earlier or later in the season. I also always recommend that you purchase a water-proof cuben-fiber roll-top dry bag from Zpacks to go with your sleeping bag. The dry bags are a comfortable fit and can be compressed smaller by squishing the contents and rolling the top down more.
Enlightened Equipment Revelation Sleeping Quilt
If you don't find sleeping in mummy bags comfortable, I highly recommend trying to use a sleeping quilt. While they can be a bit colder due to drafting and fit on the sleeping pad, I've found this to mostly be mitigated using the straps that are included with the bag that tether it to the sleeping pad. For the sake of comparison though, you can pick up a 20 degree quilt from Enlightened Equipment that weighs just 19 oz., a full 5 oz. less than the 30 degree equivalent from Western Mountaineering.
The key considerations for a sleeping pad for a thru-hike are to find one that offers a balance of comfort, durability, weight, warmth, and packability. Since most people are thru-hiking the Colorado Trail in the summer months, warmth is probably the least important factor to consider.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite NXT
My top recommendation for a sleeping pad is the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite NXT. I personally went with a wide version because I enjoy the extra room to move around a bit. This pad weighs just 16 oz. and offers a lot of warmth and packs down incredibly small.
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
A much less expensive alternative to the NeoAir is the Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad, which weighs just 14 oz. The downside to the Z Lite is that it is not nearly as warm and it is a clumsy size and hard to pack efficiently. I personally don't like a lot of stuff hanging off the sides, bottom, or top of my backpack, and that is a requirement if one is to use the Z Lite system. One nice advantage to the Z Lite is that you can use it as a pad at stops along the trail for breaks or meals or as a nice sitting pad at camp since it isn't easily damaged on rocks. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to cut off a section of a Z Lite pad to use as a sitting pad at camp!
Therm-a-Rest XTherm NXT Max
For those looking for maximum warmth at the lowest weight, look no further. The Therm-a-Rest XTherm NXT Max offers a warm 7.3 R-value, making it great for colder conditions. It weighs 23 oz., a bit heavier than the lighter NeoAir, but it might be worth looking at if you plan to use your pad for fall or winter as well.
While some backpackers prefer not to use a pillow (those savages!), I prefer to bring a light pillow for more comfortable sleep. I've really only tested one pillow and have enjoyed it for many years, and can recommend it. It is also still one of the lightest pillows you can buy - the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Inflatable Pillow. This pillow only weighs 2.8 oz. and offers flexible comfort since you can control the amount of inflation. Alternatively, you could just use your extra clothes as a pillow.
Hiking the 486 miles of the Colorado Trail puts a lot of wear and tear on your feet. Choosing a comfortable pair of shoes or boots is critical for long-term comfort on the trail and the difference between a good pair of shoes and a bad one could mean not being able to finish your thru-hike. Interestingly, over the years, the preference of the hiking community has shifted towards the use of trail runners as opposed to hiking boots, mostly due to concerns around comfort. While I've always been a fan of solid leather hiking boots for my mountaineering adventures, nothing beats a nice pair of trail runners with grippy tread for ultimate comfort on the varied trails you'll find on the CT. Plus trail runner shoes look cool!
Colorado Trail Footwear Recommendations
Trail Running Shoes / Hiking Shoes
I will preface my recommendation with the fact that I've long been a huge fan of Altra Running Shoes. I love the zero drop design for comfort and muscle recovery. They are the most comfortable shoes you can own, and I currently own over 8 pairs of them.
Altra Lone Peak Trail Running Shoes
The knock on Altra shoes is that they are not very durable - a problem the company has been trying to fix for a long time. I think they finally fixed the problem for the most part in the Lone Peak 6 shoes, which is what I wore for more than half of my hike. In fact, once I realized the Lone Peak 6 was more durable than the Lone Peak 5, I bought a ton of them on eBay at a reduced price since they are no longer made. I even figured out that the women's version is identical except it is 1.5 sizes bigger, so I have a few pairs of women's Lone Peak 6 as well! People rave about the Lone Peak 7 as well, so I think you can't go wrong. You will absolutely want to buy after-market insoles though, because the stock insoles of the Lone Peaks are not very thick and your feet will suffer! Halfway through my hike, I transitioned to a pair of Altra Olympus 5 Trail Running Shoes, which have a much thicker sole. I found them even more comfortable, but far less durable. By the end of two weeks of use, the lugs of tread on both shoes of my Olympus were falling apart. Fortunately, Altra replaced them at no cost to me - they really do back their products with a guarantee.
Topo Athletic MT-4 Trail Running Shoes
While I have not personally owned a pair of Topo Athletic Trail Running Shoes, they are reviewed very highly by other thru-hikers. I think they will be the next shoe I will try out for backpacking.
Before I started the trail, I tried out some SOLE insoles, but I found them to be very uncomfortable, so, when I started my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I left home in my stock Altra Lone Peaks. After a few days of big miles on trail, my feet were really sore. When I arrived in Breckenridge, my only purchase was a pair of Tread and Butter insoles, which were amazing. In fact, I'm still wearing them today!
Camp Shoes (Optional)
I personally did not bring a second pair of shoes for my hike; however, I did find myself jealous on occasion of people I camped with who had sandals to change into. Not only is it comfortable to have camp shoes to slip into once at camp, it can also be useful for navigating wet environments like lakes and streams when you want to keep your socks and shoes dry. As such, if I were to bring a pair of camp shoes, it would probably be a pair of Xero Z-Trail Shoes. They are versatile and lightweight.
Most people don't find the need for gaiters on the Colorado Trail; however, I actually quite enjoyed using my Altra Trail Gaiters that fit with the Lone Peak shoes. They help keep debris, rocks, and other nasty objects from getting into my shoes and they offer a bit more protection in areas with thick brush.
What kind and how many clothes should I bring for the Colorado Trail? Not surprisingly, this is one of the questions that comes up the most from people preparing for the Colorado Trail. In fact, if you ask 10 people, you'll probably get 10 answers. This is because we all have various degrees of comfort levels for being hot or cold, and some people just don't mind getting a little wet. To each their own, I suppose; however, my goal in choosing clothing for the Colorado Trail was to pack as light as possible without risking freezing to death or being extremely uncomfortable. I should also mention that if you plan on leaving later, such as September, you may consider bringing warmer clothing for those cold autumn nights.
Colorado Trail Clothing Recommendations
I personally debated what shirts to bring quite a few times and finally settled on bringing one short sleeve synthetic shirt and one long sleeve sun shirt for the Colorado Trail. While I brought a nicer NRS sun hoodie for my thru-hike, the Amazon Essentials Tech Sun Hoodie is surprisingly good and quite affordable. The strategy for me was to have one dry shirt at all times and to have the option to switch to a short sleeve shirt if it was really hot or if I felt like wearing sunscreen (that's a whole other topic of debate)! Having a clean short sleeve shirt also makes for a nice sleep shirt, which also helps to keep your sleeping bag cleaner and free from oils.
Hiking Pants & Shorts
I started out the trail with convertible Prana Zion pants, thinking it would be great to have the flexibility to switch between shorts and pants; however, I found the Zions, which I wear almost daily, a bit too confining and sweat-inducing for a long day of hiking, so I switched over to Patagonia Baggies Shorts and never looked back. They are incredibly comfortable, have huge pockets, and offered a lot of breathing room "down there." Plus, who doesn't want an awesome tan line from hiking shorts?
It's probably important to not over-complicate your choice of underwear as long as it is synthetic and not cotton. I personally went with two pair of Under Armour Tech Boxerjock. Having an extra pair you can change into is pretty important for fairly obvious reasons.
I'm a big fan of the Darn Tough Light Hiker socks for their durability and comfort. I've yet to find a better sock for backpacking. I brought three pair for my thru-hike, ensuring I would always have a dry pair. To prevent blisters its important to keep your feet as dry as possible so always having a dry pair of socks available was important for me. I also used clothespins to affix wet socks to my backpack to let them dry in the sun while hiking.
Gloves and Hat
I didn't wear gloves very often but they were handy on occasion. I went with a pair of Kuiu Strongfleece 220 gloves, which only weigh 1.3 oz. I personally found myself wearing a knit hat almost every night at camp and so I think you'll want to make sure you have one packed.
Rain gear has two distinct purposes on the Colorado Trail - the first being obvious - protection from rain storms to keep you dry. The other purpose of rain gear is to wear it when you do laundry while in town! Rain pants and a rain coat are perfect for wearing to the laundromat while you wait for your other clothes to get clean and dry. As such, I did bring rain pants which is an item a lot of thru-hikers leave behind. And let's face it, a solid rain jacket is a great investment for anyone who spends a lot of time in the outdoors. I know a lot of people recommend the cheap and fragile Frogg Toggs, but I think they look cheap (like they were showcased in the Derilicte runway show!) and their lack of durability makes me nervous. To keep the weight as low as possible, I opted to bring a Montbell Versalite jacket, which weighs only 6.4 oz, as well as a pair of the Montbell Versalite pants, which weigh only 3.2 oz. Keep in mind these have a high price tag, but I think it is worth it.
Perhaps one of the most important pieces of kit to consider for your thru-hike is a puffy jacket. Being a mountain climber, I've owned quite a few puffy jackets over the years; however, I opted to go as light as possible for my thru-hike while maximizing warmth and therefore opted to bring a Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer/2 Hoody (men's) (women's). This puffy jacket is the perfect combination of weight, functionality, and warmth for a thru-hike in Colorado.
Camp Base Layers
While most nights in the Colorado backcountry in summer are warm enough to not require the use of warm base layers, I did decide to bring a lightweight set in case I found myself in really cold conditions. I did end up using them a few times after wet rainy days and don't regret carrying them due to how light they were! After reading a review, I decided to pick up the lightweight Kuiu Peloton 97 fleece base layers. The pants only weigh 5.2 oz and have full zips, making them easy to take off and on and make for great sleep bottoms.
Sweat Wicking and Sun Protection
I used a Buff CoolNet UV wrap under my hat every day to help keep the sweat out of my eyes and to offer more sun protection around my ears. I think Buff makes an awesome product and it has multiple uses on trail, such as filtering really dirty water!
I'm a bit embarrassed to recount how much time I spent thinking about sun protection for the Colorado Trail. My research took me deep into the internet, where arguments for and against sunscreen have been waging for years. The conclusion that I made is that the best protection against the sun is to keep it from hitting your skin as much as possible and to avoid burns. Repeated burns are apparently what causes skin cancer, and some exposure to the sun isn't a bad thing. Even still, since I was wearing shorts, I made sure to use some sunscreen on the most vulnerable parts of my legs, including the backs of my knees, while almost always wearing a sun shirt.
Colorado Trail Sunscreen and Protection Recommendations
For sunscreen, I opted to get a mineral-based sunscreen because its apparently better for you and has less harmful chemicals. For this, I used one tin of Badger 40 SPF Zinc Oxide sunscreen and paired it with Badger 15 SPF Lip balm.
While it probably isn't worth it for most folks to think about ways to reduce pack weight in the sunglasses department, I was on a mission to reduce my pack weight as much as possible. As such, I went ahead and picked up a pair of Umbraz Tetons on sale which use a fabric cord instead of the classic arms to secure them to your face - which reduces weight and also prevents them from falling off of your face.
While I personally did not use an umbrella for sun protection, I saw many hikers who had one and swore by them. I can see how they might be a great addition to your lightweight hiking list to provide hands-free protection from both the sun and the rain. Gossamer Gear sells one through Garage Grown Gear, which is the version I saw on trail.
Colorado Trail Cooking and Bear Bag Recommendations
There's nothing quite like a hot meal at the end of a 20-mile day or a fresh cup of coffee in the morning while on trail. In order to facilitate cooking, one needs a pot and stove, or a Jetboil set-up. When I started my own research into how to reduce my own pack weight, I had been a long-time user of a Jetboil, which is convenient, albeit somewhat heavy. As such, I switched to a much lighter and packable pot and stove combination which I honestly have been raving about. It was a true game changer for my backpacking experience. While I would still recommend a Jetboil for newer backpackers, I think my latest set-up is much better.
Having a durable and extremely lightweight pot that is small for packability is crucial for a thru-hike. I decided to go with the TOAKS Titanium 750ml Pot, which I found to be an incredible investment. The smaller fuel canisters fit perfectly inside, and there's still enough room to put your stove and lighter inside. It's honestly an awesome set-up! Pair this with a LiteAF Round Bottom Pot Sack for ultimate weight savings. Instead of bringing a separate bottle or container to mix my protein powder in, I just used my 750ml pot and a silicone lid.
Get ready to have your mind blown! For $18 you can get probably the best and lightest camp stove around. The BRS-3000T Titanium Stove was an incredible addition to my ultralight kit, and it only weighs .88 oz. This is an amazing little stove!
I couldn't be happier with my Sea To Summit Aluminum Spoon which weighs a whopping .4 oz. Look no further.
Since resupply on the Colorado Trail is easy, I made sure to keep a fresh lighter in every other resupply box and opted for the smaller and lighter Bic Mini.
Bear Bagging Kit
Do I need a bear canister for the Colorado Trail? This is perhaps the most controversial question that gets frequently asked for those seeking to do the Colorado Trail, and if you ask 10 people you'll get 10 answers. In all of my years backpacking in Colorado I have never once encountered a bear. In fact, my only negative encounter with a bear was at a car camping site where my friend left all of his food out overnight. The fact is, the best deterrent to bears is to keep a clean camp, ensuring you leave nothing out for bears to smell and to try and cook at least 50 feet away from your tent if you can. Prevention is the best medicine here. That's not to say one should be careless about bear bags. There are lots of outdoor experts that say that using a bear bag is ineffective, including the legendary Andrew Skurka, but I still use a bear hang for my food every single night. This is because I feel like a bear hang is still the most effective and lightest option which buys you time to deal with the bear if it does get attracted to your food. The reason bear hangs get a bad reputation is because most people don't do them correctly. Black bears are notoriously afraid of humans and loud noises, and that's what we have in Colorado. Also, it's incredibly rare to have a negative bear encounter in Colorado. In fact, there have only been 90 bear attacks in Colorado since 1960! Keep in mind your bear bag requirements on the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail may be quite different!
With all of this being said, you have essentially five options here for protecting your food from bears (and rodents).
You can do nothing and keep your food in a sack in your tent. This is perhaps the worse possible option and I highly recommend you NOT DO THIS.
You can store all of your food inside of an Opsack (which I do recommend) as a bear bag liner, but decide not to hang it or keep it in a bear canister. This is probably the 2nd worst option but one many hikers choose to do (and let's face it, sometimes there are no bear hanging options at higher elevations, although bears are rarely found there).
You can hang your food lazily by tying it to a tree using an Ursack Major. I personally wouldn't trust an Ursack tied to a tree to prevent a bear, but it's fine for rodent protection.
You can keep your food inside of an Opsack, and also inside of a bear bag such as an Ursack Major, an Ursack Minor, or a lightweight cuben fiber bag from Zpacks, and then hang this bag in a tree (the right way). This is what I did, by the way!
You can keep your food inside of a bear canister, which is heavy but can also be used as a seat at camp. They are also somewhat unwieldy and hard to pack into most backpacks, so make sure one will actually fit before you go this route. While this is probably the safest way to go, it's also the heaviest! Most folks use the BearVault system, but those with a little extra money to spend can go with the much better and lighter Bearikade system.
Lastly, I opted to use Lawson Ironwire for my bear hanging rope, as it has much more tensile strength than paracord.
A note on Ursacks: There are three kinds of Ursacks - the Ursack Minor, the Ursack Major, and the Ursack Allmitey. The Minor is not rated to withstand a bear attack but it is great for rodents. This is what I use in Colorado all of the time. It is lighter than the Major and Allmitey and when paired with an Opsack I think it is a fine deterrent to bear encounters and more importantly keeps mice out of your food. The Allmitey is good for both bears and rodents but weighs more. Keeping in mind our goal to reduce weight, I think the Ursack Minor is a fantastic option. I personally used the Ursack Minor for the 2nd half of the Colorado Trail since there's more likelihood to not have any trees to hang my food from at the higher elevations found in the San Juan Mountains. The Zpacks bear bag was great for the 1st half of the Colorado Trail and much lighter.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from folks is around water and water filtration. Most sections of the Colorado Trail offer ample and frequent access to water in summer months, with variation year-to-year due to snowpack. There are a few sections of the trail that go through cattle and ranching land which makes for dirtier water and often harder to locate sources of water. For these sections, you may consider bringing some Aquamira drops to help purify your water. I brought some but never used any because I was able to find clean water. Prior to hiking the CT, I was a long-time user of water pumps, most notably the Katadyn Hiker Pro. While there's nothing wrong with pump filters, they do weigh quite a bit more and require a lot of work to get your water. There's a better way!
Colorado Trail Water Filtration Recommendations
I am a huge fan of the Sawyer Squeeze system. It has the perfect screw filter size for Smart Water bottles, which weigh almost nothing, and makes for easy water filtration at a low 3 oz. weight point. To keep larger debris out of the filter, I replaced the stock seal with one of these. Make sure to also get the Sawyer SP150 Coupling to screw your bottles onto the clean end. One thing to keep in mind for the Sawyer Squeeze is you'll want to backflush it regularly (every other day or so). Most people use the included syringe for this, but I have a lighter recommendation! Assuming you bought the SP150 Coupling system, you can use clean filtered water in a Smart Water bottle or a back-up reservoir such as a 2L Evernew Bottle to backflush the Sawyer in the field.
I opted to bring three clean water bottles and one dirty bag to collect water with, as well as one extra back-up reservoir for storing water on days where it might be needed. For my water bottles, I had two 1L Smart Water bottles and one 700 ML Smart Water Bottle with the Sports Cap, which I used for my electrolyte mixtures. I kept this smaller bottle in my water bottle pouch on my shoulder strap for easy access. For my dirty bag for collection, I opted for the HydraPak Seeker 4L, which made it easy for me to carry lots of water when needed. To use this with the Sawyer Squeeze system, you'll need to get a 28mm plug and play adapter and a 42mm adapter from HydraPak. My only regret with this was the fact that the opening to this reservoir is small, making it difficult to collect water from lakes or small streams. In this case, I would have opted to bring a CNOC Vecto 3L Water Container, which has a wide mouth opening for easier water collection.
Here's the added genius of using this set-up - you can tie some extra Lawson Ironwire or paracord to your dirty reservoir and suspend the bag with your Sawyer and Smart Water bottle attached and use it as a gravity system - enabling you to set-up your tent or cook while filtering water at the same time. I'm a fan of working smarter, not harder and this set-up was really useful for my thru-hike. For added awesomeness, I was able to use my camera tripod for this gravity system.
I had to laugh when people critiqued my ultralight checklist for having so much electronic equipment on it, but I personally think having these tools will make for a much more enjoyable experience and it will enable you to stay connected with your friends and family while giving you the ability to monitor your location on a GPS system. This was all incredibly helpful for me and my style of hiking, which includes a lot of off-trail mountain climbing and route-finding. Also, as a professional landscape photographer, I needed to carry quite a bit of gear to help keep my batteries charged for my camera and sound recording equipment.
Colorado Trail Electronic and Battery Recommendations
A trust-worthy headlamp that can be recharged in the field is of critical importance. I can't tell you how many times I've ran into people that use headlamps that use AAA batteries that ran out of power and had no way to get new batteries. Having the ability to recharge your headlamp on trail is really important! There's a few schools of thought as it relates to headlamps for a backpacking trip. Having a headlamp that has various settings for light intensity is good so you can preserve your battery. You'll also want a headlamp that can become bright if needed, and of course something that doesn't weigh a ton. I have two recommendations that pass both tests, with one being the obvious choice for those looking to shave ounces.
My top recommendation would be the Nitecore NU25 400 UL Ultra Lightweight Headlamp, which shines at an impressive 400 lumens while only weighing 1.6 oz. It charges quickly and will last multiple days before running out of power.
My second recommendation would be the Fenix HM50R v2.0 Headlamp. I've been a huge fan of Fenix headlamps for a long time, because they are rechargeable, last forever, and are extremely bright! It can run for 42 hours on the lowest setting and only weighs 3 oz.
As someone with many devices on trail, I need a reliable and powerful way to keep my devices charged. I've done heaps of research and landed on my favorite battery bank for backpacking, which is the Nitecore Carbo 20000 or the smaller Nitecore NB10000. The only difference between these two power banks is their rated power capacity. Both offer industry leading weight-to-power performance at an affordable price. Both have been rigorously tested and have proven to be the best you can get for backpacking.
Some may argue there are better solutions that exist for GPS and communication; however, I'm a huge fan of the Garmin InReach Mini. It pairs via Bluetooth to my phone and makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family. While on the CT, I opted to up my subscription to be able to send unlimited texts and updates every 10 minutes automatically, and it was fun sending group messages to update everyone on my progress. I wouldn't underestimate how nice it was to be able to talk to loved ones for added moral support while hiking. You can also use it to send messages to other Garmin users which was handy to be able to coordinate with other hikers about campsites and plans while off-grid.
Some hikers prefer silence while hiking, but I personally found it quite helpful to be able to listen to podcasts or books from Audible for mental stimulation while on trail. In fact, I have fond memories of listening the Stephen King's The Stand while hiking. What a trip! As such, I highly recommend the Apple AirPods - they are easy to recharge and last 30 hours at a time. To make them last even longer, I opted to use one at a time, which also allowed me to also be able to hear my surroundings.
One of the most important things you'll want to do while in towns for resupply days or zero days is to recharge your battery and equipment as quickly as possible. Through research, I determined that the best charger around is the Anker Elite Dual Port 24W Wall Charger. It provides fast charging with two USB-A ports at a fast rate. Another tip I have for you to reduce your overall weight is to use charging adapters instead of bringing a ton of different cables. Not only does this help you save weight, it gives you many ways you can charge various devices. Pair them with shorter USB-A cables and a short USB-C cable for added weight savings.
Most people won't find a need for a solar panel but if you're like me and you're charging camera batteries, your Garmin InReach, your phone, your watch, and your headlamp, having a solar panel is a nice addition to your backpacking list. I opted to get an Anker Powerport 21W solar panel. They are REALLY hard to find though. I found mine on Ebay. An equally great alternative, although slightly larger and heavier would be the BigBlue3 Solar Panel. Pro tip: I used some industrial strength Velcro to create a way to fold it over so the pouch holds your gear inside while hanging from a tripod or a tree.
First Aid and Toiletries
First Aid Kit
I like to make my own first aid kits to reduce pack weight. For starters, I kept all of my first aid supplies in a small First Aid Zipper Pouch from LiteAF. Inside, I keep some a variety of normal Band-Aids, some 4x4 gauze sponges for bigger wounds, and some Compeed Blister Pads for blister care.
Trowel and Toilet Paper
While I personally didn't use my trowel very often while opting to use sticks to dig holes instead, I did bring a TentLab Deuce Trowel, which weighs only .6 oz. I also did not opt to bring any toilet paper (more on that below), but did always have some travel baby wipes with me to clean my face, body, and "down there" when needed. These are a life-saver, so don't leave home without some!
Sometimes you need to wash your face, so for this I used Lavender Dr. Bronner's soap and Zpacks Ultralight Lightload towels, which come in a 3-pack. I just made sure to include one in every other resupply box so I could replace them as needed.
Call me a convert! I decided not to bring any toilet paper on the Colorado Trail and instead used a backpacking bidet. The best on the market is the Holy Hiker Backpacking Bidet. This thing only weighs .24 oz. and you'll love yourself for getting one. It does take some getting used to and I would highly recommend watching the owner's entertaining videos on it, which also answer your burning questions about contamination and having a wet bottom. Trust me, just get one.
Backpacking Toothbrush and Toothpaste
I'm still not fully convinced that switching over to toothpaste tabs to save weight is a great idea, but it is what I did for my thru-hike. I used the free toothbrushes that Garage Grown Gear nicely includes in orders from them, which only weighs .1 oz. but I think this is probably an area most ultralight backpackers over think things. Just get a brush that works for you and that you're used to using. Just be warned, if you use a toothbrush with tabs that you're not used to, you might develop some gum bleeding like I did, because I was brushing way too hard.
A lot of people feel the need to bring bear spray on the Colorado Trail. I personally think it is completely unwarranted; however, if you're going to get bear spray you might as well get this one.
For navigation on the Colorado Trail, I highly recommend you get two apps for your phone, keeping in mind you can use them both while in airplane mode to save on battery life for your phone (don't forget to also put your phone in low power mode).
I can't stress enough how awesome Gaia GPS is for backpacking. I use this app more than any other app on my phone and have found it to be an amazing way to always know where you're at! You can download maps ahead of time (I recommend the base Gaia Topo layer), and it just works! I've even put together a tutorial for you on how to use it.
Next, I highly recommend downloading and paying for the Colorado Trail add-on for from FarOut. Not only does FarOut have a great topo map of the trail, where it shows where you're at, it also allows you to click on many pre-loaded watering locations and camping areas to tell you how far away you are from them. Better yet, it shows you almost every place you can get water, and you can download and also provide your own comments about the status of these locations. It's a fantastic resource that I would recommend anyone hiking the Colorado Trail obtain.
Trekking Poles / Hiking Poles
My requirements for trekking poles were based on the need to have them be highly adjustable to fit my tent. I was not overly concerned with finding the lightest poles possible, and I knew I didn't want carbon fiber poles since they are prone to breaking more easily than heavier aluminum poles. As such, I opted for the Black Diamond Trail Cork poles. They are certainly not the lightest but the price point is nice and they are backed by a brand I trust.
Pocket Knife / Multi-tool
I did a ton of research for the best multi-tool to bring with the least amount of weight and fortunately for me I determined that the one I already had was perfect - the Leatherman Juice S2. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it is being sold any longer, so you may look at the Leatherman Wave as a solid alternative. And yes, you will find yourself using it at least once on the trail!
You never know when a hailstorm will put a hole in your Dyneema Cuben Fiber (DCF) tent or when you brush up against some trees that put a huge hole in your expensive down puffy. As such, I always bring a roll of Tenacious Tape and a roll of DCF Repair Tape.
Laundry Solution for thru-hiking
While most people do laundry at town stops, it is also nice to be able to do laundry in the field! I certainly loved having clean socks and underwear at all times and so should you! In order to do laundry on trail, I employed a washing method using stream or lake water, a 2-gallon ziplock bag, and Lavender Dr. Bronner's soap. As a bonus, you can use this soap at laundromats too!
Photography Gear for the Colorado Trail
I fully recognize not everyone is as crazy as me and may not opt to bring a camera on the Colorado Trail. After-all, the latest iPhone is an amazing camera and will probably serve the needs of most backpackers; however, as a full-time professional photographer looking to make photographs to sell as prints and to include in a future book, I felt compelled to bring my camera and equipment to make the most of my time in the field. For the sake of brevity (hah!), I won't bore you with every single option you can choose from as a photographer looking to thru-hike, but I'll happily link you to another article I wrote that might help you make these decisions.
As such, here is the list of gear I decided to bring for my Colorado Trail hike:
Camera: My main camera is a Sony A7RV which, in my opinion, offers the best balance of weight, size, and features.
Tripod: Leofoto LS-224 + LH25 ballhead. This is the lightest possible backpacking tripod I could find and I was not disappointed at all.
Camera Bag: I loved having easy and fast access to my camera while keeping it all super dry in a lightweight bag. I opted for the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod, which is made from cuben fiber. It is not super durable though, so be warned!
Sound Recording Equipment: I had a goal of recording lots of video while on trail and so I had to bring my sound recording system, which is the Rode Wireless Go. I'm a big fan of this set-up when paired with the Rode Lavalier mic.
Battery Charger: As a Sony photographer, I use the Newmowa Dual USB Charger for Sony NP-FZ100. It is small, light, and charges two batteries quickly and easily.
Luxury Items for the Colorado Trail
Here's some items that are probably not necessary but oh so nice to have:
Down Booties from Goose Feet Gear. These were awesome on cold nights.
Pad for journaling. While some people I met were writing in a journal, I opted to use the Notes app on my iPhone; however, there is something appealing to using a nice journal to write down your thoughts!
The Colorado Trail Guide from CMC Press. While I didn't find this quite as useful, it is a handy tool to help you plan your trip.
Hopefully you found this guide helpful and it will help you select the best lightweight gear for the Colorado Trail. Don't forget to check out my free backpacking gear planner and guide tool!