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Hiking and Backpacking

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the Trail

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the Trail

This past July, I spent two weeks backpacking 100 miles the Colorado Trail with my pointer-mix Bella and my mother.  We spent the majority of the time hiking between Frisco and Twin Lakes, Colorado, and then drove South to complete three days in the beautiful San Juan Mountains outside of Ouray and Silverton, Colorado.

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the Trail

While what follows is a detailed description of the logistics we planned for and also faced while on the trail, the best moments were those that couldn’t be planned, bought or organized.  For example, spending four days leapfrogging the friendly grandmother and grandson llama-packing duo between Gold Hill Trailhead and Tennessee Pass. Reaching the top of a mountain range and looking back to the previous pass we crossed several days ago, while simultaneously taking in the expanse of the next section ahead of us.  Watching Bella get a case of the “zoomies” after a rainstorm, exuding pure bliss and contentment while dodging stands of royal blue, apple red, and golden yellow wildflowers. The twin pine trees that miraculously sheltered our tents completely during a drawn-out downpour, allowing us to all dine together for dinner in the storm.  The slow, orange fingers of a sunset that hit the cliffs above what our guidebook only described as “a long, elongated meadow” at the beaver ponds by our campsite. Discovering the secret, 100’ waterfall and mining cabin campsite while scouting for a private area to set up camp outside of Camp Hale.

We’ve taken the most common questions we’ve had on our trip and attempted to condense them down to the most important points, in hopes that our responses may help others glean information that could help them in their own dog-friendly, backpacking adventures.

Q:  What are your top tips for preparing for a trip like this with a dog?

We have more details and background on this question in our first part of this series, but here are some of our thoughts in retrospect after the hike. I never for a moment regretted the many hours of research, preparation, and gear testing that I put in previous to this trip.  “Winging it” and dealing with some of the unintended consequences for yourself is one thing, but I knew that Bella depended on me entirely to make this trip enjoyable and safe for her. Ultimately, this made the trip more enjoyable and safer for all of us.

Here are the top steps for preparation that we feel set us up for the best success possible on the trail:

Research

  • Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailWe researched segments of the trail and only picked those that had reliable water sources.  We also researched any possible dog regulations for resupply areas and trail segments. We settled on stretches of the trail with a combination of the best scenery, resupply accommodations for Bella, and water. While we originally wanted to hike entirely in the San Juan Mountains, after more research we realized that these areas were too remote for us to resupply comfortably with Bella.
  • I spent hours researching trail journals online that had advice on section and thru-hiking with dogs, including some specific to our region here in Colorado. This helped me settle on Bella’s nutrition and gear.
  • I tested Bella’s custom “trail food mix” on a few long weekend trips before hitting the CT to make sure it agreed with her stomach. I also weighed Bella before and after the trip to have an idea how I was doing with her calories and brought up the trip to our vet at her annual checkup to get emergency prescription medications, a Leptospirosis booster, heartworm meds, and flea and tick medications.

Organization

  • We created a detailed spreadsheet itinerary with our daily mileage, segments, possible camping locations, notes on areas above treeline, and the number of meals required each day.  We laminated a copy and brought this with us. This spreadsheet was TRAIL GOLD and we referred to it each day to help us keep on schedule. We also shared this sheet with our families and friends we had put in charge of transportation and resupply.
  • I completed our human- and dog-food shopping a month before the trip. We organized our resupply boxes, food, and packs starting three weeks before the first day on the trail, and shipped the resupply boxes out a week before we left.  Food prep and resupply box organization takes WAY longer than you might anticipate, especially with a dog. For example, even when we planned on having breakfast or dinner in a town along the way, I still had to  pack Bella’s meals for all nights, not just those on the trail!
  • I bought a small kitchen scale to keep our pack weights in check.

Navigation

  • Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailWe carried topographical maps and a small trail guide booklet specific to the Colorado Trail with detailed information on camping, water sources, and much more. I also purchased the AllTrails Pro Application on my phone and downloaded all of the maps along our route before heading out, for additional GPS tracking in real time.
  • We borrowed a Spot Satellite Messenger device from a friend to keep our families updated on our progress, and for us to have a way to get assistance in case of emergency. We spent some time learning how to program the device and setting up our custom messages a few days before the trip.  This offered great peace of mind for everyone!

Physical Safety

  • I made sure Bella’s paws were tough before heading out through consistent trail running and hiking and applied Joshua Tree Paw Salve every few days to prevent cracking. We carried dog booties for emergencies.
  • We brought well-stocked first aid and repair kits, for both humans and dogs, complete with prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories for Bella.
  • We spent a week acclimatizing my mom to the high altitudes of Colorado.  She flew out early to allow time for a few light hikes, leading up to a 13,000’ peak along our local Front Range.  On the CT, we started off with way fewer miles than we knew she was actually capable of for the first two days. We also packed Tailwind electrolytes and SaltStick Fast Chews for the humans to help stay properly hydrated and fueled up while hiking.

Q:  How many miles did you typically cover in a day?

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailBecause we weren’t doing a thru-hike and could be flexible with our planning, we chose to keep mileage relatively low….no more than 13 miles in a day.  We found this was quite easy for us to accomplish, but it kept everyone in a positive mood and well-rested. We didn’t plan any “zero” days for the entire trip, so I was initially concerned about burning Bella out.  Keeping our mileage light allowed us to hike for two weeks straight with plenty of rest as needed in camp. Some days had more elevation gain and challenging terrain, but these sections were interspersed with days of pleasant, rolling single track and milder grades.

Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced on the trail?

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailWhen looking at the trip as a whole, my mom and I both agreed that the greatest challenge over the two weeks was hands down the insects.  Mosquitoes were peaking in dark, blood-thirsty clouds, along with biting flies and many other maddening swarms of bugs. Some of our campsites were worse than others, and in the San Juans I was plagued by giant welts all over my legs from horse flies and deer flies that sucked my blood while I hiked. There wasn’t a single day that we didn’t face insect frustration at some point. We ended up combating this challenge by dressing in full rain gear in camp, complete with hoods and hiking boots. If it was too hot for rain gear in camp, we rested in our tents in the shade and waited for the temperatures to cool.  It was difficult to protect Bella from the mosquitoes…even with her rain jacket and a Dog Buff sprayed with natural insect repellent over her ears, they drove her nuts, targeting the skin around her eyes, nose, and ears. I settled into the routine of quickly setting up my single person tent immediately when we got into camp. We saved the shadiest spot in camp for my tent rather than my mom’s so that I could put Bella in and let her get some rest, while we filtered water and set up the rest of camp. We ate meals nearby so that Bella wouldn’t be nervous and could stay in the tent. In the mornings, we repeated this process in reverse and took down my tent last, so that she had the least amount of time to be swarmed by bugs. When we stopped along the trail for lunch or water breaks during the day, I covered Bella with one of my shirts to offer her some bug protection.

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailThe most nerve-wracking situation we faced (in isolation) was when I suffered a painful back spasm episode.  After a day of taking low-angle wildflower shots with my phone with my full pack on, I had greatly underestimated the impact this had taken on my body.  After getting everything in camp buttoned-up for an incoming thunderstorm, I reached for my water filter in my pack, and suddenly and an all-encompassing jolt of pain shot up my back….I couldn’t move. My mom, being familiar with severe lower back spasms, helped me awkwardly roll into my tent as it started raining, and she grabbed a fistful of ibuprofen out of our first aid kit that I quickly made disappear. Even the slightest movement was agonizing. We chatted from our separate tents while the storm passed over, neither of us willing to voice the reality that I might not be able to carry my pack, let alone walk, and the trip might be over. While my mom silently mulled over carrying extra weight or hiking out with Bella while I waited, I pictured hitting the “I’m-not-dying-but-send-a-ranger-soon-please,” button on my Spot Beacon Device. After two hours of literally not moving a single muscle while laying flat on my back in my tent, a deep tissue massage courtesy of my mom, an additional hour of stretching in the dirt at the campsite, I was able to start moving slightly. By the morning I was feeling only rare moments of excruciating pain but could move well enough with caution, and we decided that my mom would lift my pack for me for the next couple of days whenever I needed to put it on our take it off. I was also banned from future low-angle photography with a pack on.  It was humbling that out of all of the challenging scenarios I pictured in my mind, it was me, not my mom or Bella, that required the highest level of support while we were on the Trail. I suppose the lesson to be learned here is that no one is invincible!

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailFinally, staying safe in electrical storms during Colorado’s monsoon season was a challenge, but overall we had great luck with the weather, encountering only brief or at most 12-hour bouts of rain. That being said, most afternoons and evenings we experienced at least one thunderstorm.  We got up extra early and used headlamps (as early as 4:30 am) on long days above treeline, and got up relatively early (5:00 am) most days to get to our next campsite early and set up well before any storms. This also worked very well for Bella, because this strategy allowed us to hike during the coolest points of the day. Just when Bella would start to slow down due to heat, she was able to rest in the shade while we set up camp.

Q:  How did you handle nutrition on the trail for Bella?

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailAfter researching multiple trail journals by dog owners, consulting with our vet, talking to the knowledgeable staff at our local natural pet food store, and giving Bella time to try a few blends, we came up with our own perfect formula.  We try to follow real meat and whole prey feeding philosophies for Bella as much as financially possible, and I was determined to give her the best nutrition I could on the CT, even if it wasn’t something I could afford consistently at home. Here is what we fed her on the trail, and why:

Each meal for Bella consisted of:

  • 50%  Ziwi Peak Air-Dried Real Meat Dog Food
  • 25%  Primal Pet Freeze Dried Real Meat Nuggets
  • 25% Earthborn Holistic Kibble

We based percentage measurements off of each brand’s recommended measurements for a 60lb dog and divided her daily portion evenly for breakfast and dinner.

  • We chose to feed primarily Ziwi Peak food, because it follows a whole-prey feeding philosophy, has high-quality nutrients, is reliably sourced, convenient to hike with, and is easily digestible.  Air-drying the meat preserves nutrients very well. Because this food is so high quality and high in nutrients, you don’t have to feed your dog as much volume-wise, reducing weight and volume of the food (Added benefit? This means less dog poop to manage on the trail!).
  • The Primal Pet Nuggets also have superior nutrient value, and the freeze-dried form lightens each meal weight-wise significantly.  Feeding exclusively these nuggets would be prohibitively expensive for Bella, and would also be way too excessive in terms of volume we’d have to carry for a 60 lb dog…meaning, even though it may be very light, it wouldn’t fit in the space of her pack because we would have to pack so much of it.
  • We feed Earthborn Holistic kibble as Bella’s “base” food at home (she also eats some frozen raw with her kibble), so we knew it would make her food mix more economical, while also keeping some consistency in her diet. Earthborne Holistic kibble is high-quality and reliably sourced, and we already know Bella digests it well.

Additional calories and supplements:

I was extremely pleased with this diet for Bella on the CT. Even though she can have a sensitive stomach at times, she didn’t have a single digestive upset on the trail.  Bella carried all of her food in her pack, and I decided not to increase the items/weight she carried as she ate meals in order to lessen her load. We packed her food and treats into a bear-proof Ursack lined with a scent-proof Opsack along with our own food and toiletries every night and hung it from a tree. Additionally, she carried her pre-measured meals in two small, scent-proof Opsacks of her own while hiking to keep her pack from smelling like dog food and attracting wildlife at night.

Oh yeah…. and Bella’s weight when we got home from the trail?  Exactly the same as when we started!

Q:  What gear did you pack for Bella and why?

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailWe have detailed packing lists in the second part of our Colorado Trail SeriesI planned her gear carefully and only brought what I thought she would really need.  We experienced all types of weather, so I never regretted having a rain jacket as well as an insulated jacket to keep her comfortable.  Most of our nights dipped into the low to high 40s, so the extra warmth was important to keep her comfortable and save her valuable calories and energy. Ruffwear’s Powderhound Jacket kept her warm at night, while the Ruffwear Aira Jacket (not currently available on Ruffwear’s product site. The Wind Sprinter appears to be a very good new product option for backpacking, although we have not personally tested yet), while a bit heavy, kept her dry in the rain.

I knew that bringing Bella meant I would have to carry some extra weight…if I made her go strictly ultralight, I was worried she would be cold or uncomfortable. She was able to carry most of her gear and all of her food, although we had to plan to resupply every four days for this to happen. I carried Bella’s rain jacket and ultralight down blanket that I had customized with snaps, which in total ended up weighing about three pounds (this is a lot in the backpacking world!). My own pack has relatively limited space at 55 liters, so carrying extra items for Bella meant I had to be very conservative when packing my own clothing.

Other noteworthy gear included Bella’s custom, minimalist-style Groundbird Gear Pack.  Many sources will say that dogs can safely carry up to 20% of their weight, but when hiking long distances many thru-hiking circles encourage dog owners to reconsider and only ask canine companions to carry 10% of their weight.  Bella, who weighs 60lbs, never exceeded a 6lb pack…and oftentimes her pack weighed 4 lbs or less! I truly think that having a light pack contributed to her happiness and wellbeing on the trail. Bella’s custom pack held up well, never chaffed, and I loved that the blaze orange color kept her visible to mountain bikers as well as to me when we hiked in areas where she could be off-leash.

I bought a Gossamer Gear foam mat and cut it to a small size…this weighed only a few ounces, and Bella could easily carry it on her pack (this was a big hit with other hikers on the trail).  I put this under her down quilt at night, which helped her combat moisture and cold drafts from the ground.

Reflections and Takeaways from the Trail

Colorado Trail Part 3: Reflections from the TrailWhat was truly the most challenging aspect of this trip?  It wasn’t the excessive planning, or the mosquitoes, or the back spasms, or the thunderstorms…it was coming back.  While hiking on the CT, I had plenty of energy each day and the minimal food I packed felt like just enough…when I got home, all I wanted to do was to eat and sleep. I missed the daily unstructured and unlimited 1:1  time with my mom, who lives 2,000 miles away. I missed confining myself to a tiny, single-person tent with Bella each night under the stars. I missed the ebb and flow, the simplicity of our routines and life on the trail.

If you’ve read this far, chances are you may be interested in embarking on a similar quest with your own dog.  While there may be extra planning and considerations when taking on a section or thru-hike with a dog, the benefits far exceed the challenges.  Bella’s companionship and exuberance on the trail inspired and uplifted us, while she offered us protection at night when she warned us of approaching hikers with a low growl.

My mom will be 68 this fall, and her determination and physical fitness on the CT absolutely impressed me. Oftentimes, I needed a break before she did, and she could easily out-hike me on the uphills.  Spending two weeks hiking with my mom was an invaluable time. She taught me that age truly is a number and that it is never too late to challenge yourself and try something new.

So, if you have any interest in planning a section hike with your dog, our best advice is…stop putting it off, and start planning!

Follow the Entire Adventure

Thanks for reading part three, the final piece of our Colorado Trail Series! In case you missed the previous parts:

Interested in backpacking with your dog? Check out our pack list and crash course!