Colorado Trail Thru Bike (2018)
My girlfriend, Beth, and I completed a self-supported thru bike of the Colorado Trail ("CT") on July 19, 2018. We started on June 30, 2018, with 17 riding days and three "zero" days. We left from our front door in the Denver Highlands and rode to Durango (aka "southbound" or "SOBO" for the hip kids). From the Highlands to Durango via the Colorado Trail and requisite wilderness detours, the totals were roughly 575 miles of riding and 80,000 feet of climbing. This blog post will summarize some of what we encountered during the trip. I'm going to put together a much more comprehensive Colorado Trail Notes page on the site later this summer.
I want to emphasize that this post (and, eventually, the longer Notes page) are just my own view of what I experienced and not any hard and fast rules to follow (despite my impassioned prose). Even though I have this trip and a couple of overnights under my belt, I have a lot more to learn about bikepacking before I can really start waxing poetic. Per usual, be sure to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out the info on the Colorado Trail Foundation website. They have all the books and maps you need to do the trail. If I were doing it again, I think I'd buy the CT Databook and the North/South National Geographic maps. We didn't have the maps. These provide a ton of info.
- Riding the CT is an amazing experience and I highly recommend it. It's the best! And it'll change you.
- I'm already scheming on next year's trip.
- Do your best to throw away any expectations, ego, etc. on your first trip. This will make the trip much easier and enjoyable.
- Mileage and elevation gain do not fully describe the trail. Every section has completely different terrain and requires a different outlook. The altitude you ride at is also a significant factor as the CT spends a lot of time above 11,000 feet.
- You're going to walk your bike a good bit, maybe as much as 100 miles of the total trip. Do a 14er or two with your fully loaded bike (and shoes you'll be riding in!) before you begin your trip.
- Test your gear on at least one overnight ahead of time to make sure you have at least the minimum of right stuff.
- Do a full service of your bike (including fork and shock service along with a brake bleed) a couple of weeks before you begin. Also replace all your wear items before the trip: front and rear tires, chain, front and rear brake pads, and front and rear brake rotors.
- The CT is an amazing resource. I feel very lucky that I live in a time and place where something like this exists. Because it certainly doesn't have to. Again, check out the Colorado Trail Foundation and give them some love if you have the time and/or cash to do so.
Biking southbound there are three CTs. The first one runs from Denver to Buena Vista, the second from Buena Vista to near Lake City, and the third from near Lake City to Durango. Each of these three parts is very different from the next in terms of altitude, terrain, bailout-ability, weather, and familiarity, among others.
Denver to Buena Vista
Denver to Buena Vista is the part of the CT which made me believe bikepacking and riding the CT was everything I ever thought it would be. This is the part of the CT that we Front Rangers are familiar with. Most avid mountain bikers living near the Front Range have probably done at least some of the CT before. For example:
- Buffalo Creek
- Kenosha Pass
- Georgia Pass
- Many of the trails around Breckenridge
- Searle Pass
- Twin Lakes
Because of the relatively heavy use from mountain bikers, these trails are well maintained sections of single track that are typically very easy to ride. There isn’t a whole lot of hike-a-bike, just a few small sections here and there (i.e. going over Peak 6 in Breckenridge). Furthermore, because you’ve probably ridden these sections before, you feel confident on these trails, which makes the CT easier.
This is without a doubt the easiest section and by the time I got to BV (with nearly half the trail miles under my belt), I thought I was a real bikepacker.
Buena Vista to Lake City
Buena Vista to Lake City is the part of the trail that shattered my bikepacking expectations. It made me realize bikepacking is a lot more like bringing your bike along for a backpacking trip rather than bringing your backpacking gear along for a mountain bike trip. (Side Note: We ended up skipping Section 15, Fooses Creek, and rode up Route 50 to Monarch Pass and the CT West so we could ride as much of the Crest Trail as possible. I highly recommend doing this.)
The trails around the Princeton, Antero, Shavano, and Tabeguache are definitely geared more towards hikers, so they are less rideable and certainly not so much fun to ride. Once you cross Route 50, you have at least part of the Monarch Crest Trail to ride (which is sweet!) but as soon as the Crest Trail turns down Silver Creek to return to Salida, the CT becomes a chossy, rocky, hike-a-bike jeep road mess for the next 30 miles (with some exceptions, of course). Once you get out of the Cochetopa Hills (aka “Hell Hills”) and onto the dirt tracks of Segment 18 and the La Garita Wilderness detour, the going is smooth, although it’s more like a gravel ride than a mountain bike ride.
This is the hardest part because it is where you realize that you are going to be walking your bike a good bit because the surface conditions of the trail are so difficult. The metrics of mileage and elevation gain become frustrating because they don’t begin to tell the story of how difficult a trail segment will actually be. This part is also a little boring compared to the others, just less fun. Finally, because you are kind of in the middle of nowhere after you get off the Monarch Crest Trail, you begin to feel less confident about being able to bailout (or even about where the hell you are in the state of Colorado!). This section was a significant mental challenge for me (as well as physical, let’s be honest).
Lake City to Durango
This is the best part of the CT. The best! By the time I got here, all of my CT expectations had been completely erased and I was a blank slate ready to soak in the full experience of the CT.
Which is good timing because this section is the most physically challenging, but also the most beautiful. There are plenty of riding opportunities on nice trail and the hike-a-bike sections have more to do with topping out on high elevation saddles with beautiful views than they do trudging up some chossy hill in the woods (i.e. Hell Hills). You’re up above 11,000 feet for the vast majority of this part and very often above 12,000 feet. Because of the high elevation it is physically demanding. You’ll find that you are even hungrier on this section then the others.
I don’t want to summarize this section too much, because words simply can’t describe it. It’s just awesome in ways that I, with my mountain biking perspective, never expected. It changes you.
What I Brought
I'll list the stuff I brought for the trip along with some of my opinions about said stuff. You'll see by my list below that I'm an anxious person. That said, we had no flats on our trip and the biggest mechanical issue we had was my broken shoe.
Here are the things that were actually attached to the bike. I would make a few changes for sure, namely smaller bags and more water bottles. My advice (and everyone else's is to go as small as possible.). What I really need to do is to give a little more thought to effective water bottle cage mounting; after the CT trip I bought a Bedrock Bags Honaker Nalgene bag to try out on my next trip. This winter hopefully I can find some time to build a frame which has the bells and whistles I want. More on that in a later post.
- Pornstar Spank My Brass 001: This bike worked great. It is a hardtail, which I did certainly notice at times. However, with the 140mm of travel and 27.5+ tires, it did really well. It would have been nice to have a full suspension for some parts of the trail, but I never really needed one. The hardtail also allows you to store more stuff in a full frame bag rather than the partial framebags they make for full suspension bikes. The choice is completely up to you, just bring something that you're comfortable with and that is trail worthy. It's pretty rough out there.
- Revelate Designs Sweetroll (Medium) front roll bag: I kept my sleeping bag, bag liner, clothes, and sleeping pad in here. It worked pretty good, but was a little too big. The size led to rubbing on the top of the fork and to more cumbersome handling. For the next trip I'm going to get a small Sweetroll. To cut down on stuff, I'll leave the liner and most of the clothes at home and then get a smaller, more packable sleeping pad.
- Revelate Designs Periphery Pocket (front pouch): I used this for snacks, bowl/fork, and my camera. I think I need to find better uses for it in the future.
- Revelate Designs Visacha rear seat bag: I kept food and my stove in here. It worked pretty good and there was plenty of room for the long stretches where we were out for five nights. That said, it is a bit cumbersome since it is so large. It also doesn't readily let you use your full dropper post. I used a Lizard Skins chain stay protector on my dropper to protect it and allow me to use an inch or two of travel. This worked okay, but there are other solutions out there (I ended up buying a Bedrock Bags Black Dragon after the CT trip to test out on my next trip.)
- Revelate Designs Ranger (small) frame bag: I kept spares and tools in here since they were the heaviest pieces I had. It works great! I wouldn't change a thing about it. Except...I'd make the frame triangle a little taller so I could put a medium sized bag in there.
- Revelate Designs Gas Tank top tube bag: I kept loose snacks like jellybeans and gummies in here. I'd like to keep my camera in here for easier access, but the velcro only version I have flops around a good bit even with light stuff in it; I'll have to try it out. Revelate does make a bolt-on version of a similar bag that would work better. I'd need to put some braze-ons on the frame to make it work, though. We'll see what I end up doing with this one.
- Handlebar-mounted water bottle holder: This is the only water bottle I brought. I did have a 3 liter bladder in my pack. Usually this water bottle was a mix of water and Gatorade powder. I really liked having the handlebar mounted bottle and will bring one again in the future. That said, the way it was positioned definitely pushed my front roll downward on the left side of the bike, making it rub on the top of the fork (and, consequently, unthreaded my air spring top cap somewhere along the trail). I'd like to get a bottle holder that sits more upright on the bars.
- Light (and charging cable): For when you plan (or don't!) on riding after dark. I never had to use it, but it is nice to have along. Also good for scaring animals away at night (theoretically, anyway).
This is what I brought along in case my bike broke. Make sure you know what specific things on your bike are likely to break and bring those. One essential thing I forgot to bring is a derailleur hanger, so make sure you bring one even though it's not on the list! Also, I think I'd like to have a rear hub that is more readily serviceable (like a DT Swiss 240) rather than a Shimano XT. I had no problems with the Shimano, but it does require a full freehub body and a 14mm hex wrench to fix it if there is a problem with the freehub. Food for thought.
- Tubes (2 per rider): Bring these.
- Patch kit: Really for emergencies only. If you're not good at patching tubes, I recommend that you practice before expecting to simply open up the patch kit and have it magically work for you. Also, buy a new tube of rubber cement before you head out if you have a patch kit that has been sitting around for more than a year.
- Brake pads (1 set): I've seen some crazy stuff happen with brake pads, so bring an extra set just in case. Also, make sure you start with brand new pads on both the front and rear of your bike.
- SPD cleat hardware (1 shoe's worth): I bring the cleat, front plate, two screws, and backing plate just in case. A busted cleat is surprisingly aggravating given its small size and forgettable-ness.
- Chain (1 per rider): If you and the other people in your party are riding the same drivetrain, you can probably get by with one chain for every two or three riders. Beth and I had different drivetrains, so we had a chain each. Also, replace your chain with a brand new one before you start.
- Shifter cable (1 per rider): Bring this.
- Quick link (2 per rider): Bring this.
- Spokes: Bring at least one for each size you need on your wheel.
- Zip ties: Just in case. Remember that these will always work less well than you anticipate.
- Duct tape: Essential. Wrap it around a water bottle, pump, etc.
- 2 ounce tube of Stan's: In case you need to re-seal your tubeless tires. Also bring a small tube and a presta valve core remover so you can get the Stan's into your tire without having to take it off.
- Chain lube: Bring a smaller (2 ounce) bottle or half a botle. You'll definitely need it.
- Spare tubeless valve: More of a talisman against breakage, but it also seems like a good thing to take along. Especially since it is so light and small.
These are the tools that I had in my pack. Again, make sure you know what specific tools you need for your bike and bring those. The one thing I did not bring that I should have was an external BB tool to remove my front centerlock brake. I ended up looking all over Lake City (which doesn;t really have a bike shop) for someone who had one so I could swap my front and rear rotors because I was worried I had worn the rear one past its minimum thickness (which can lead to melting on stainless-over-aluminum Shimano IceTech rotors). I ended up finding
- Frame pump: Do not just bring some mini pump. Do yourself a favor and get a frame pump. It'll keep you sane.
- Tire levers (2): Can't do without these.
- CO2 "pump" (with 3 cartridges): I would leave these home for the nest trip. You're going to have plenty of pumping capacity if you bring a frame pump.
- Toe strap: Indispensable, for both bike and bag repairs. I oly brought one, but I'd bring two next time.
- Rag: For lubing your chain and pretty much every other repair task.
- Hex wrenches (full set): I figure if I can fix my bike in the shop with a full set of wrenches, I can fix it on the trail, too. I'd advise against just using a multi-tool. Battling with a multi-tool to make a critical repair (or just a regular repair) could push you over the edge and ruin your trip.
- Chain tool (Park CT-5): I like having a separate chain tool. The Park CT-5 mini chain tool packs a lot of capability into a small tool.
- Spoke wrench: Bring an actual spoke wrench that matches the spoke size (double check!) of your wheels. This is way easier to use than the spoke wrenches on a multi-tool.
- Adjustable wrench (8"): This was a purchase I made during the trip to go along with the cassette tool. An adjustable wrench is amazingly handy at so many things (i.e. turning any number size of bolts, fixing bent stuff, prying things open or apart, etc.). However, it is also pretty heavy, so I'm going to leave it at home next time. I'm bringing the Wolf Tooth Pack Wrench, instead, next time.
- Chain whip: Another on-the-trail purchase. I'd definitely bring this again, despite its weight. You can't really replace a spoke unless you can remove your cassette.
- Cassette tool: Another on-the-trail purchase. Good for both the cassette and rear centerlock rotors.
- Presta-Schraeder adapter: Allows you to fill up your tires (or set up tubeless) at a gas station. As much as you want to store this on your valve stem, I recommend just keeping it in your toolkit. It'll make topping off your tires on the trail much more tolerable (ask me how I know).
- Brake bleeding tools (for Shimano: funnel, tube, 7mm wrench, brake block, fluid): I wouldn't bring these again for the CT (maybe a longer trip). Just make sure you get a solid bleed on both brakes before you head out.
- Bit driver (with flathead, phillips, and T25 Torx bits): This was pretty much useless for me as nothing on my bike uses these tools. That said, it could have fixed other people's bikes and that's always something to consider for karmic reasons.
This is the stuff I brought and would bring on pretty much any backpacking/bikepacking trip. Hopefully, your camping gear list is a result of spending some time using it. If not, go do that before your trip to make sure everything works well.
- 2-person tent with fly and ground cover (Beth carried this): I like an actual tent because it gives you a secure place to rest, read, sleep, etc. Most importantly, the mesh screen keeps the bugs out.
- JetBoil stove (with fuel, etc.): I love this thing. But use whatever stove you like. That said, with the fire bans this summer, certain stoves are not allowed in the backcountry; so check on that before you head out.
- Foldable bowl: Perfect because it unfolds completely flat and takes up pretty much zero space.
- Fork: This is all I need to eat. Anything I needed to cut, I used the Swiss Army knife (see below). Spoons are useless (in my opinion).
- Coffee mug (titanium, rigid): Probably overkill and became difficult to store. I'll just use the cup on the bottom of the JetBoil in the future and leave the mug at home.
- Sleeping bag (30 degree F, 800 fill down): This was more than enough warmth for me on this trip because the weather was so warm. I also run fairly hot, so I don't need as much insulation as some people. Make your decision based upon expected weather and your own needs.
- Sleeping bag liner: I brought this along for extra warmth, but the weather was so warm during the trip that I ended up sleeping primarily in the liner with the unzipped bag on top. That said, the liner is probably overkill and I wouldn't bring it on my next trip as it isn't very compressible.
- Sleeping pad: I have one 4" thick Big Agnes fully-inflatable pads. It's pretty awesome and stores fairly small. However, Beth has one of the newer Big Agnes pads that packs down super small. I was jealous the whole trip and may invest in one of these for my next outing.
- Swiss army knife: Fills a lot of needs, I recommend this (or a Leatherman-type of thing) over a large single-blade knife (if you're a knife person you can always bring both).
- Compass: Just in case (wait, how do I use this?).
- Headlamp (with extra batteries): For reading and peeing in the middle of the night.
- Water filter (and accessories): You'll spend a lot of time pumping water, so be sure to choose a good filter and to practice. Make sure you understand how to use it and fix it when it breaks.
- Water purification drops: Bring these even if you have a filter. They're good for an emergency or for those nights where you really (really!) don't feel like pumping with the filter.
- 10 liter water bladder: For water at camp. I like the large 10 liter size for multi-person trips because you just pump water once when you get to camp and you're all good. I'd leave this at home for a solo trip.
- Bear bag line (Beth carried this): For hanging your food bag in a tree to keep it away from bears and to keep the bears away from you. Also great for keeping rodents (which are way more prevalent than bears) out of your stuff.
- Book: If you're a reader, don't forget to bring a book. Somehow I overlooked this and was miserable for the first part of the trip until I bought one.
- First aid kit: make sure it has at least some band-aids, larger bandages, athletic tape, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, antibacterial cream, hand sanitizer, and moleskin. NOLS has some pretty good kits.
- Toilet kit: This is a large plastic bag that contains a roll of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and little bags for used toilet paper (dog poop bags work well). Leave No Trace is your new manta. Make sure you dig holes to poop in and carry out your used toilet paper.
I brought way too many clothes. I kept waiting for that moment where I'd actually use some of the stuff but it never came. Consequently, I'll take a lot fewer clothes next time. One thing to consider, however, is to take enough that you have something to wear in town when you do laundry.
- 26 liter backpack: I think anything between 20 and 30 liters would be okay depending on how much you want to carry on your back and how much extra space you want (for the occasional beers, etc.). That said, try to get as much stuff on you bike and off your back as possible.
- 3 liter water bladder: I'd certainly bring the bladder again, however, I want to try and get more water in bottles on the bike rather than on my back.
- Short sleeve jersey: I wore this every day.
- Long sleeve jersey: I never wore this.
- Bibs: These worked fine but were annoying any time I needed to go to the bathroom on trail. I'll use shorts with a chamois next time.
- Shorts: I like having baggy shorts rather than just the spandex (vanity?).
- Riding gloves: Essential.
- Riding cap: This has become essential for me.
- Helmet: Essential. Duh.
- Sunglasses: I spent a surprising amount of time riding without sunglasses, but they are definitely essential.
- SPD shoes: I like riding SPDs. Certainly there are plenty of arguments out there for riding flat pedals and non-SPD shoes. Go with what you like. That said, definitely do some (a lot of!) hiking in your SPDS beforehand to make sure they are comfortable. As a side note, the front, right sole of my Shimano SH-ME700s cracked in half (across the shoe) during the trip. These shoes were comfortable to hike in and were good shoes at the end of the day. I ended up getting a pair of FiveTen Kestrels with about 150 miles left (ad a lot of hiking). I like these shoes, too. I think the Shimanos were a little better to ride in and the FiveTens a little better to hike in, but both performed admirably.
- Socks (3 pairs): I'd cut it down to two pairs next time.
- Gore-Tex shell: Essential.
- Synthetic down zip-up jacket: I like having a zip-up insulation layer. I'd definitely bring it again.
- Boxers (2 pairs): I'd just bring one pair.
- Long sleeve base layer: I wore this once or twice, but I'd probably leave this at home next time.
- Long underwear: I never wore these. I would like to get a pair of tights, instead, for next time. But I'm not sure I'd wear those, either.
- Bathing suit: I liked having this extra pair of shorts for town days and for swimming.
- T-shirt: I did not start out with a t-shirt and ended up buying one on the way. Once I had it, it's pretty much all I wore when I was off the bike. I would recommend making sure your t-shirt is more synthetic than cotton so it dries faster.
- Long sleeve button down shirt: Not necessary if you have a t-shirt.
- Baseball cap: Pretty essential.
- Camp beanie: I never used it, but I would never not pack it.
- Camp gloves: I never used them, but I would never not pack them.
- Flip flops: These are really all you need as far as extra footwear goes. I can't remember ever wishing I had regular shoes. You come to realize that you can walk really long distances in your bike shoes.
I wanted to take a lot of photos and video of the trip , so I could share it with you all (a little video short of the trip is on its way). Consequently, I had to bring some technology along with me.
- GoPro Hero 5 Black (with 5 batteries and 8 64GB micro SD cards): The GoPro worked great, mainly because it was so unintrusive. Most of the time I just had it mounted to my helmet (so I looked like an asshole the whole time, but hey) and hit record whenever I felt like it was a good idea. Mostly I recorded one to two minute videos. This worked out really well in terms of getting good videos, not using up too much battery, and not using up too much storage. We also used the GoPro for daily check-ins to get a mood of the trip. Kind of like a video journal. This worked great and we really got some awesome footage.
- GoPro battery charger: nice because it allowed me to charge two batteries at once and also store those batteries in a safe place.
- Canon G9X (1 battery and 1 64GB micro SD cards): I'm no photographer so I ended up with a point-and-shoot camera. But, I still wanted something that could take really nice photos. The G9X was a great choice. I wouldn't change a thing about it.
- EziPower 10,000mAh battery chargers (2 of these): I bought these on Amazon (currently they are unavailable) mostly because they were cheap ($20 each) and 10,000mAh. I'm always a bit dubious about the longevity of batteries, so I dind't want to buy a 20,000mAh battery and have it break. I also wanted something bigger than 6,000mAh. They worked great for the trip, not sure how long they'll last afterward. I rarely used more than one of these batteries to charge all 5 GoPro batteries, two phones, and the camera during the three to five day stints we'd be away from town.
- Other stuff: I had three micro USB, one GoPro, one mini USB cable (for my bike light that I never used), and one wall-outlet-to-usb adapter. These were more than enough to keep all my stuff going. I kept my SD cards in this little plastic holder, it was stupid simple and worked great. I also brought a variety of GoPro attachments. The only ones I really used were the helmet mount and the handlebar mount.