Hiking in Colorado? Here's What to Pack

For the first year I lived in Colorado, I just couldn't get hiking right. I wore clothes that would get clammy with sweat as I crawled up the mountain, I chronically overpacked, and I wasn't eating right. Over time, I improved little by little - and now here we are. I didn't find a lot of guides online, so I put one together so you start out winning from the start. Colorado weather can be quite finicky, switching from sun one moment to thunderstorms the next. It makes for incredible hiking conditions, but can be hard to prepare for. After a few dozen hikes, I've got my routine down pat and never pack more than I need. 

Variants of this list will work for most hikes; my limit for a day is 8 hours so if you’re trying to do your Wild journey, you'll need to find a backpacker's guide for that.

 This is 100x neater than the typical pile I lay out the night before a hike.

This is 100x neater than the typical pile I lay out the night before a hike.

Packing List

In general, try to pack light with small samples of whatever you need. You’ll be carrying this pack on your back the whole day, so it’s worth the effort to invest in making it comfortable. 

  • Water. Can’t stress this enough - any hike longer than 2 hrs requires a full Camelbak (mine is 2L). It’s always better to get off the mountain with a little bit left than to beg water from friends who watch you in resentment as you drink their last drops.
  • 2 packs of PROBAR energy chews. I use these as an excuse to eat candy :D Seriously though, they make you feel invincible during hard ascents. I pop one or two in my mouth every hour. 
  • Granola Bars. Hiking up a mountain consumes hundreds of calories. Eat high-carb foods so your body stays fueled. You can't go wrong with trail mix with nuts.
  • Camera. I have a Fuji X-T2 with a 18-55mm lens, and keep it conveniently within reach with this Peak Design camera clip. I used to keep my camera in my backpack while hiking, and noticed I took it out less because I always had to swing my backpack around to the front to get my camera out. Overall my camera setup weighs a quarter pound compared to 2lbs for my old Canon Mark II. 
  • Sunscreen & Chapstick. Gotta be careful with that Colorado sun. I use Missha All Around Safe Block and it’s pleasant smelling and lightweight. Before I start a hike, I also use a spray-on sunscreen and leave it in the car. 
  • Collapsible Poles. These are really helpful when hiking on questionable terrain. I had to get down a mountain covered in scree once, and poles were a lifesaver in navigating the constant sliding my boots were doing. Get a backpack that can hold them - otherwise you'll have nowhere to put them if you need to use your hands.
  • Gatorade. On 14ers I tend to get some altitude sickness at the beginning when my body is acclimating, so I pack extra bottles of water and Gatorade to drink and leave them in the car during the hike. 

Clothing

I honestly didn’t know how to dress myself for hikes (especially in the winter) for the longest time. Last year I finally gave up, went over to REI, and asked a salesperson to walk me through everything I needed to buy. Here’s my list, so that you don’t also have to ask the outdoor gods what to wear. A good math tip to know how cold it is up on the mountain is to take the amount of elevation gain and multiply by a 5ºF temperature drop per 1000ft of gain. 

  • Base layer. This is usually a thin thermal top, and needs to wick sweat well since this is the layer right next to your skin. If you’re hiking with a wet cotton base layer, you’ll get cold quickly. I tend to wear Smartwool or Patagonia base layers.
  • Mid-layer. I usually wear my Patagonia (basically the uniform of Colorado) puffy jacket, because it’s lightweight, warm, and collapsible if it gets too hot during my hike and I want to take it off. 
  • Wind shield layer. This is my thinnest layer, and really only serves the purpose of shielding me from harsh winds, rain, snow, etc. Ideally the jacket you pick has Gore-Tex in it, and drawstrings around the hood and hands so you can cinch it real tight. I swear by this Arc'Teryx one. 
  • Leggings. I still can’t get into the hiking pants trend, so I continue to swear by my classic Lululemon leggings for hikes. Get ones with pockets on the side, so your phone is within reach for photos. 
  • Hiking socks. These are sweet. I feel like such a pro hiker wearing these
  • Hiking shoes / Trainers. I bought my first pair of hiking shoes this summer, after living in Colorado for 3 years. Trainers will take you a long way - mine carried me through three 14ers (Grays/Torreys/Bierstadt). This is completely based on your ankle strength - I’ve never twisted mine, so I assume they’re superhuman. The structure of my new hiking boots does make my feet feel good and cozy though. I asked an REI attendant for hiking boots that were light but would provide moderate protection and came away with these Oboz ones. Boots are the one item you should buy in stores. I had to try 5 different boots  before finding good ones, and REI had a fake rock structure that was incredibly helpful for simulating mountain conditions.
  • Sunglasses. The sun is bright AF here. 
  • Gloves, Beanie, Balaclava. Depending on how cold it is, I usually pack all of these and decide what to wear when I get out of the car at the trailhead. Always take less than you need, because you’ll work up a sweat during your hike. For gloves, I either take a lightweight pair if there’s no rain/snow in the weather, or my snow gloves if there is. I made the mistake once of wearing fabric gloves while hiking through a snowstorm, and they got so soaked I couldn’t bear to put them back on.
  • Baseball cap or safari hat in the summer, depending on how much tree coverage there is on the trail. 

Now that we've talked about outfitting yourself for hiking some Colorado mountains, we can talk about the hikes themselves! I'll be posting a list of my favorite hikes to take visitors soon, so stay tuned :)