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Preparing for the Colorado Backcountry: Lessons from Sea Level to 11,000 Feet

If you're planning to explore the Colorado backcountry, especially if you're coming from sea level, this blog is for you. As someone who considers themselves young and fit, I thought a hike in the Rockies would be a breeze. I had done it so many times before. However, my body had other thoughts when I flew from the coast to Colorado and tackled a hike into the backcountry categorized as "difficult". Here's what I learned from my experience, and some advice to help you prepare better than I did.

The Reality of Altitude

Flying from the coast to the Rockies, I was excited to hit the trail. But as I climbed, I quickly found myself struggling with heavy breathing, frequent stops to catch my breath, and a constant need to drink water. This was a stark contrast to the ease I usually feel on hikes at lower altitudes. At 32 years old, I have always lived under the impression that I can tackle any challenge and face every obstacle, but the altitude doesn't discriminate by age or fitness level.

On my hike, which was just under 11 miles round trip with over 3,000 feet of elevation change, I carried 40 pounds of gear, including rods, reels, camping equipment, and food. The physical toll was significant. At the summit, I experienced a bloody nose, cracked lips, and a stomach ache—symptoms I had never dealt with before. The thin air and dry conditions at high altitudes can cause these issues, and they serve as a reminder of how crucial proper preparation is.

Lessons Learned and Advice

  1. Cardio Training: Before embarking on a high-altitude hike, engage in regular cardio workouts. This helps improve your cardiovascular system's efficiency and can make a significant difference in how your body handles the reduced oxygen levels.

  2. Hydration: No heavy boozin and start hydrating well before your hike. Dehydration can worsen altitude sickness, so drink plenty of water in the days leading up to your adventure and continue to hydrate throughout the hike. 

  3. Pace Yourself: Take it slow, especially in the beginning. Your body needs time to adjust to the altitude, so don’t push yourself too hard too quickly. Listen to your body and rest when needed.

  4. Pack Light: While you need to bring essential gear, try to minimize weight as much as possible. The extra pounds can add to the strain on your body and make the hike more difficult.

  5. Acclimatization: If possible, spend a day at a higher altitude before your hike to let your body adjust. This can significantly reduce the risk of altitude sickness.

  6. Monitor Symptoms: Be aware of the signs of altitude sickness, such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. If you experience severe symptoms, it’s crucial to listen to your body. Thankfully I did not get sick but I could feel my body worsen and was smart about it. 

  7. Protect Your Skin and Lips: The dry, thin air can lead to cracked lips and dry skin. Bring lip balm with SPF and a good moisturizer to keep your skin protected.

A Memorable Experience

Despite the challenges, every moment of the hike was worth it. The soreness I felt for nearly a week after returning was a reminder of the adventure and the beauty of the backcountry. While this hike may not be something I attempt at 60, for now, it remains a cherished experience I would recommend to everyone able.

In a follow-up blog, I'll dive into the fishing gear, flies, leader, and tippet I used. For now, take my advice to heart: if you're coming from the coast and heading into the Rockies, prepare beyond just your gear. Stay fit, hydrate, and respect the altitude. Your body will thank you, and you'll be able to fully enjoy the incredible experience the Colorado backcountry has to offer.

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