Early Hiking Season: Gear, Footwear, and What to Pack

Originally Posted May 2020

Truth be told, there are days when I don't even take a pack with me right now! That's one of the nice things about the early season; you don't have to venture very far and you don't need to take much with you!

On the days when I forgo the pack, I'm hitting the trail in light layers (weather depending) and shorts with zipper pockets on each side (so the phone doesn't fall anywhere disastrous).

Unlike a lot of my mountain counterparts, I'm often rocking Under Armour, Nike, or Adidas for clothing. As a sports performance coach, I tend to have a lot of athletic wear, and I take full advantage of it during the summer season. Why buy something new when I have moisture-wicking, light layers that work perfectly well? Exactly.

I'm often asked about hiking footwear, and the truth is, it depends a lot on personal preference and needs. I've never been a huge fan of traditional hiking boots because I don't like having my ankles locked into a higher boot. I only wear a traditional, waterproof Columbia boots in the winter; but I will say, I love my current Columbia boots - I even got them during a Labor Day sale, so even better! In the summer, I have two types of Salomon Trail Running shoes that I like to hike and trail run in. I prefer the Salomon Speedcross series for trail running and a discontinued model similar to the Salomon XA PRO 3D series for hiking. I still have my first pair of Salomon trail running shoes from over 3 years ago, and I can't bring myself to throw them out. I replaced the laces, since they finally broke last summer (so sad!), but I still wear them around to run errands and take the dog for a walk. Mostly, I keep them for sentimental value, but I love the quality too; those shoes took me thousands more miles than they probably should have, and they did the job well!

Considerations with hiking boots/shoes...

  1. Get a shoe (if not a boot) with a reinforced toe; you WILL inevitably catch your toe on roots and rocks, and a reinforced toe can go a long way!

  2. Make sure you have enough room in the shoe. You want to consider different types of socks you might be wearing (weather-dependent) and enough space to descend downhill without your toes slamming into your shoe. Fit matters! You can lose some toenails if you're not careful here! My brother learned this lesson the hard way when he borrowed my dad's hiking boots on our 10 mile hike!

  3. Consider waterproof or water-resistant shoes/boots, depending on the terrain you're looking to hike.

  4. Traction matters! A lot of sports brands (think Nike, Adidas, UA, etc.) have been branching into the "Trail Running" and "Outdoor" market, but their shoe technology is definitely lacking, just look at the tread. This will of course depend on the types of trails you're looking to hit, but in general, you want a grippy shoe. Something that can hold up in mud, when you're crossing slick rocks, and on rocky trails. Invest in good traction, it can save your life!

  5. In addition to traction, you want to make sure you invest in a solid shoe because a poorly constructed shoe can lack stability and leave you sliding around OR you'll feel every single rock and point surface you step on. The problem is, you likely won't know this until you take a pair out for a test. So, do some research in advance and when in doubt, stick with common outdoor hiking/trail running brands. You can usually find some great deals on previous styles/models, so as long as you aren't looking for the latest design, you can save some money!

  6. You will need to break in your hiking boots! And, I don't mean just wear them around the house or for a couple of miles. I usually feel like I've fully "broken in" a new pair of trail running or hiking shoes/boots after about 20 miles. That might just be me, but when I'm trying out a new style of shoe (like my Columbia boots or my new Speedcross trail runners), it takes me about 20 miles to feel like they're a second skin to me. So, don't just buy a pair before a big hiking trip and expect to break them in during your trip. Plan enough time to log 15-20 miles in them to get your feet and body used to them.

In Colorado, you definitely want to plan for variable weather. In the early season, you're less likely to be hiking 14ers, so you probably won't need full gear. Also, in the early season, weather is slightly less likely to take a turn for the worse completely at random. You're likely going to be able to rely on the forecast for at least several hours at a time (my fellow Colorado locals will understand). If it's going to be sunny for the day, I often don't pack an extra layer. If it's cloudy or windy, I'll usually take a light pullover or long-sleeve performance shirt.

Now as for actual gear, you can keep things pretty light in the early season. As mentioned before, I'll often hike without a pack, especially if I'm going 5 miles or less. In the picture to the right, you can see my smaller CamelBak that I use most of the summer. It can hold a 2.5L hydration pack, and it still has a couple of front pockets for keys, insect repellent, and snacks. You can fit a light layer in there, but sometimes, I'll just sling the layer around my waist to avoid over-stuffing my pack. I think I got this particular CamelBak in 2011 when I was mountain biking; that's actually what the pack was designed for. I will say, the quality of their packs is outstanding; both of my backpacks are CamelBaks, and I've had them for over a decade. Solid investment. They used to be the primary hydration pack out there, but now you can find all sorts. If you're going to be trail running, I would recommend a vest hydration pack or a light backpack with a chest AND waist strap. If you try to run with a backpack, it'll bounce around and chafe the skin (I speak from personal experience). So, fitted is better for trail running. Also, the chest and hip straps make a HUGE difference on long treks. They keep the weight closer to the body and higher on the torso, so it prevents a lot of lower back pain/discomfort.