Day Hiking in Colorado

So you wanna hike in Colorado?

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.  –Thoreau

Welcome to Colorado!  During your visit, you will have an opportunity to explore the mountains of Colorado. Hiking in Colorado is a wonderful experience; much beauty, rugged mountains, sublime views. But, it also involves some basic equipment and knowledge to have a pleasant hike. This document will hopefully answer some questions you may have and let your hike be an enjoyable one.

Please  Note: This document was written in mind for introductory type trips that I lead. If you go solo and/or take longer trips, trips that go above treeline, etc. you MUST take the items suggested for longer and more arduous trips (e.g. map, compass, long underwear, etc.) There is a good chance that a  short, stocky, Italian-looking guy will not be around to lead you on all your trips. 🙂


Day Pack

The easiest item! Sure you all have a school bag of some sort. Does not to be too elaborate. Just big enough to store water, snacks and extra clothing. As you hike more, you will want something with a hip belt, but for an introductory hike, the bag that hauled your Chemistry 101 book from freshman year of college will work fine.


When hiking in Colorado, you will want to wear “sturdy footwear”. What is sturdy footwear?  Sturdy footwear is simply a shoe that will provide adequate support for your foot as you amble along on the trail. For most people, a light-medium trail runner or light boot fits this bill. A heavy boot is excellent for mountaineering but overkill for most day hikes. Some people are very comfortable hiking in sneakers, but most novices prefer a bit more support. A light or medium weight trail running shoe seems to offer the best compromise between protection and support with a lighter weight. Keen hiking shoes seem to be a popular choice and work well for many people.


Generally speaking, you will want to avoid cotton clothing while hiking. Cotton clothing when wet will actually take away heat from your body and can cause hypothermia in adverse conditions. Because cotton will soak up much sweat, it can easily causing chafing when wearing cotton underwear or t-shirts and can cause blisters when wearing cotton socks. No fun!  On a day hike, you can easily get away with wearing a cotton t-shirt or shorts, but you may want to wear synthetic underwear, and you WILL want to wear synthetic or wool socks otherwise blisters can form.

Nylon running shorts are great for hiking and come with a built-in brief. Swimsuits also function well for this purpose. Outfitting or sports stores will also sell “hiking shorts” that are essentially swimsuits made with a bit sturdier material. Running shorts also make a fine choice. You can also wear synthetic long pants as well. Synthetic long pants have the added benefit of protecting your legs from the sun.  Under no circumstances should you wear blue jeans. Blue jeans soak up water like a sponge, can cause chafing and will literally suck the heat out of your body if they get wet.

Most sports stores will have wool or synthetic socks. Synthetic socks are made of polyester or wool-based materials. In general, a pair of socks for hiking costs about $9-$15 /pr.

If wish to hike in a shirt that will keep you a bit drier than a cotton t-shirt, you can pick up a synthetic t-shirt (made with such material as Coolmax or Duofold) for $12-$15 at discount stores such as Target or Walmart.

Now that we have the basic clothing for hiking you will want to carry some additional clothing to keep warm. A fleece jacket works well or even a wool sweater You probably have one of these two items in your closet.  Please do not bring a cotton sweatshirt. A wet cotton sweatshirt will take forever to dry, has no insulating value and will rob you of body heat. Though chattering up in the mountains may be romantic in a “braving the elements kinda way”, it is much easier to enjoy the trail when you are not shivering. 🙂

You should also bring some kind of a rain jacket. A simple nylon jacket will work great and does not cost too much money. Naturally, if you have a Goretex jacket you can bring that. It may be too heavy and overkill for a simple day-hike, but it will definitely work. A poncho is discouraged for most Colorado hiking for the simple fact that it can get windy above tree line, causing the poncho to become a big sail!

The exception to the no cotton rule is a bandanna.  A bandanna has many uses and will actually help cool you down due to cotton’s properties of taking heat away from your body. On a hot day, a wet bandanna is heaven. You may also want to wear a ball cap or some sort of hat for sun protection.

Optional clothing items to bring are a synthetic long sleeve top (a running jersey or long underwear top) and long underwear bottoms.

If you are reading this document you are probably new to the outdoors and will not be going on too long or arduous a hike. It will be easy to turn around if the weather gets really bad. But, these items are good to keep in mind.  You may also want to pack windpants as a lightweight clothing item that can protect you if the weather does take a turn for the worse and are susceptible to getting cold on your legs.

Finally, two MUST BRING items are a wool or fleece hat and gloves/mittens. The weather can turn quickly up in the Colorado mountains so it is good to have something to keep you warm in an emergency.

REI is the most well known outdoor retailer for this clothing and gear, but Amazon sells much of this items as well if time is an issue. Target and similar discount stores also sell some outdoor clothing that is less expensive and functionally no different than what is found at mainstream outdoor stores.

Sun exposure, sun protection, and hydration

These three topics are all intertwined. The sun and elevation will make you more dehydrated than normal if you are dehydrated you not do as well at altitude. If you get sunburned you will feel the effects of dehydration even more.

Keeping hydrated is very important. If you are dehydrated you will feel sluggish, get cold at night, and not enjoy yourself. Being hydrated is also important to help adjust to the higher altitude. A dehydrated body does not work efficiently and will have to work that much harder to carry oxygen throughout the body. Not good!   Drink plenty of water and drink often. You can carry water in something as simple as a Gatorade bottle or you can use a Camelbak type of hydration system that is popular with runners, bikers, and hikers. Whatever you choose to bring your water in, be sure to bring enough water to drink. For most people, a liter every five miles works well.  On a short day hike water treatment is not as critical.

Sun exposure is also a big concern. The UV radiation in Colorado, esp. at higher elevations, can be fierce. Slap on that sunscreen!  You should wear at least SPF 15 sunscreen.  A sun hat is also suggested for similar reasons. Long shirt and pants can substitute for sunscreen on your arms and legs. For similar reasons be sure to wear sunglasses. Do not need anything fancy. As long as they have 100% UVA and UVB protection. Even the $15 drug store glasses seem to offer this type of protection now.

The last word about altitude; besides drinking often be sure to take it slow and steady. No need to get to the top first. Just take it slow, enjoy the hike and not tire yourself out. Much more fun that way!  🙂


On a day hike, bring food that will give a good caloric punch and will keep you going all day. Hiking is not the time to diet.   You will also want to eat all day. Rather than stop for a long lunch, it is better to “graze” all day. Munch on your trail mix. Eat some cheese. Nosh on that bagel with peanut butter. This fact is more important on long hiking days, but it is still a good rule to keep in mind. Your body is a furnace. And it needs fuel to run. While backpacking, you will be burning a lot of fuel.  Stoke that furnace! As my Grandma Magnanti would say: “Mangia! Mangia!”

Misc. Gear

On an introductory day hike that is being organized by more experienced people, you can get away with letting others carry certain equipment (map, compass, first aid kit), but you should still take a flashlight or a headlamp “just in case”. Nothing fancy, even a keychain light is good enough for an emergency. A pocketknife is also a good item to take as well because it can perform many useful functions. I have a small Swiss Army knife that does all I need, weighs less than an ounce and costs $10.  Trekking poles, ski poles or a hiking stick is also good to use. You can find a good hiking stick near the trail and they help quite a bit on uphill and esp. on the downhills.

Suggested Gear List

A little confused on what to bring? Here’s a list of suggested items. Following this list will leave you equipped to go on introductory day hikes. Also noted are on the list are optional equipment that becomes a must have if you are on longer and/or more arduous day hikes.

Clothing – Worn

_Synthetic T-shirt or long sleeve shirt (cotton t-shirt is OK for a short hike below treeline, but a synthetic shirt is better)
_Synthetic Shorts or long pants (NO BLUE JEANS!!!)
_Wool or synthetic socks
_OPTIONAL: Sun hat, bandanna
_Hiking stick or Trekking poles (not absolutely needed, but does help on the uphills and the downhills. Can pick up a stick near trail)


Clothing – Packed

_Rain Jacket
_ Fleece Jacket, light puffy layer or even an old wool or synthetic sweater (no  cotton sweatshirts!)
_Wool or fleece hat
_Wool or fleece gloves/mittens
_Synthetic long underwear top and bottom   (optional; needed on long hikes)
_ Rain or Wind Pants (optional; good if your legs get cold easily)

Food – Water
_water in Gatorade bottles Nalgene bottles or Camelbak
_snacks enough for a day of hiking

_ …and a DAY PACK to haul it all in!!!

Other Equipment to Bring

***The following equipment is not super critical on an introductory day hike with a group leader, but you will need them on longer and more difficult hikes
_Pocket Knife
_First aid kit

If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact me.

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Louise Thompson
Louise Thompson
8 years ago

Thanks for the list of items most needed by beginning hikers. I have shared your list with others who like to hike and they found at least 1 item they had never thought about needing. Types of shoes and boots are 1st on their list of what they needed described in detail. They now have a better understanding of footwear. What weight shoe for teenagers to wear on overnight hike?

8 years ago

I attempted to hike Highland Mary Lake outside of Silverton, Co last year. My very first attempt at hiking PERIOD. I got a late start due to a couple girls that were even less prepared than myself. One thing I want to do better this year is stream crossing. We started off removing our shoes then decided to walk with soggy feet. I noticed LOTS of “sandal hikers”, but it was in the lower 40’s. Just not something I could do. Wondering if water shoes to help cross streams then putting socks and shoes back on is ideal?