Backpacking 101: Experts share favorite trails and tips for multi-day hiking
Backpacking season has arrived.
Thanks to warm mornings, cool afternoons (if there's rain) and crisp, clear nights, July and August are prime months to hit the trail for two or three days at a time. Maybe it's been a while since you broke in your hiking boots, or maybe you just put a long backpacking expedition on your summer must-do list. To prepare and shake off the dust, we asked local hiking experts to share their favorite backpacking trails and give a few professional tips they've had to learn the hard way — so we don't have to.
Into the field
Longtime Summit County hiker Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of both "The Vail Hiker" and the "The Summit Hiker," has blazed the trail for backpackers in the area for decades, literally. Fun fact: It was Gilliland who found and named the popular Shrine Mountain Trail in 1987.
For beginners, Gilliland recommends the Cross Creek Trail in Eagle County, which starts 5 miles past Minturn off of U.S. Highway 24 along Tigiwon Road #707. At 14 miles, the hike takes two to three days depending on your pace. Cross Creek doesn't have much altitude gain, which makes it easier to carry your pack, and the shade of the forest keeps you cool. Gilliland said the trail has unusual terrain for the area, with a "canyon atmosphere" filled with "gem-like" lakes and giant rocks covered with moss, ending at Missouri Lakes.
For more of a challenge, Gilliland also recommends Red Buffalo Pass, which begins at the Buffalo Cabin Trailhead outside of Wildernest or can be accessed at the Gore Creek Trailhead in East Vail. On the roughly 11- to 12-mile hike, you'll see wildflowers galore and come across a bevy of babbling streams. Gilliland said on the trail you can also decide to camp and hike the additional 3 miles to the remote Gore Lake. Some folks turn the trip into a three- or four-day round-trip journey, but for a weekend excursion be sure to leave a second car at the Vail trailhead for a quick trip back to Summit.
PACKING THE ESSENTIALS
Will Elliott, head guide at Paragon Guides in Edwards, joked that his most essential backpacking item is "my llama, because then I can bring everything."
Elliott said the biggest mistake people make is carrying a pack that is too heavy. One way to lighten your load is by buying a new backpack if yours is outdated, which can shave off up to 5 pounds. Elliott said in the summertime one could skip the tent and just sleep under the stars, either on the ground or in a hammock.
"Luckily in Colorado, we don't have a lot of predators," Elliott said. "Sleeping out under the tarp can be wonderful. A tent is a lot of weight. Shaving weight by sleeping under a tarp can be a good way to lessen the load in (your) pack."
EXTRAS WORTH THE WEIGHT
Gilliland suggests bringing sturdy black garbage bags, which have multiple uses: You can cut a hole in it to make a rain poncho, use it as a tarp if the ground is wet and if you set up camp, then you can fill it with water, hang it up and let it sit in the sun. At the end of the day, you'll have a hot wash to scrub away all of the sweat and mud.
Dan Brewster, owner of Haute Route Gear and Apparel in Avon, said one thing people often neglect are trekking poles, which are much more common in Europe.
"I would say (poles) are an overlooked equipment accessory," Brewster said. "(They) do take some of the load off your knees and ankles."
Gilliland said a "backpacker's biggest woe is blisters," but there are ways to prevent your feet from killing you after only a few hours on the trail.
She suggests slathering your feet with Vaseline before you slip on your socks and shoes, and wear two sock layers, one thin and one thicker. Also put Vaseline on your skin right above your hip, or make sure to tuck your T-shirt into your pants. Doing this keeps your backpack and its straps from rubbing up against your skin the entire time, which is one of "the things that drive people crazy," Gilliland said.
Elliott said even though Colorado is dry, there are so many streams that run during the summer you really don't need to worry too much about your water supply, but make sure to bring some sort of purification system.
"Unless you're doing a high ridge hike or one of the 14ers, those are the places you have to worry about water a little bit more," Elliott said. "For the most part in the High Country, there's quite a bit of water for the whole hiking season."
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
In addition to the right gear, Brewster said one thing people don't think about before embarking on a challenging backpacking trip is carrying the right mindset.
"The attitude you bring is almost as important as the equipment," Brewster said. "If you're not with the right person, it can sometimes be pretty tough if they're not into it like you are. You want to make sure that everybody in the party knows what to expect in terms of their physical abilities."
It's not uncommon to hear stories of hikers who go missing in Colorado, reminding us that there are dangers to backpacking. Elliott said these incidents are more likely to happen with solo backpackers, so be wary of hiking alone and tell someone your route before you head out. Gilliland said especially during the early hiking season, if you come across a stream or creek with heavy runoff and need to go across, then take off your pack.
"If you were to slip on an algae-covered rock and the water's running high, that pack could submerge you into the water," Gilliland said.
NOT A BAD CAMERA ANGLE FOR MILES
Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain may be synonymous with great skiing, but those who only see this county as a map of ski runs are missing out on experiencing the mountains by traversing trails that wind, curve and take you to sights no gondola ride can match. Local hiking experts agree that with hundreds of acres of wilderness surrounding us, we really do live in a backpacker's paradise.
"(We have all) these splendid mountain ranges that are almost a stone's throw from us," Gilliland said. "Their proximity to one another is so great. No matter what trail you're on, you're going to have beautiful mountain views."