The True Meaning of Trail Family

After a series of mistakes left her dehydrated on the Colorado Trail, our writer learned that making it on a long trail is about more than guts or skill.

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Patricia “Blackpacker” Cameron is thru-hiking the Colorado Trail and chronicling the experience for us. Read part 1 of her trail diary.

There are things you learn while you’re preparing for your thru-hike, and there are things you can only learn from experience once you’ve hit the trail. And the most harrowing experience I had in my first week on the Colorado Trail was running out of water on a day so hot, it felt like the sun was personally attacking me.

This is a dry year for Colorado—not necessarily surprising to those of us who are here year-round and spent a good portion of the lockdown watching the dry spring unfold. By the time I arrived at the river at the end of segment one through Waterton Canyon, I was again prepared to carry my full 5-liter capacity of water in the form of a 3-liter bladder and two 1-liter Smartwater bottles. Carrying more than a couple liters of water gets heavy: Each liter weighs 2.2 pounds, which is a lot when you’ve cut your base weight to the bare minimum.

I started my second day on the trail in a thru-hiker campground by the South Platte River Trailhead, following the largely paved section through Waterton Canyon. It’s easy to be optimistic after one day on the trail; still, I overheard other hikers whispering about the impending climb, a 5-mile uphill in an area with little to no shade. Segment two pushes through the scar from the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire, which that burned 11,875 acres near Pine, Colorado. The well-prepared of among us got an early start, but I was not in that group. It wasn’t until nine in the morning when that I found myself leaving camp and filtering water for the day. By then, it was already getting uncomfortably hot.

During the previous day’s walk through Waterton Canyon I was spoiled by having a river alongside me all the way. That luxury and a near 100-degree day out of Denver helped me develop a habit of pouring water over my body to help cool down. Unfortunately, I carried that habit with me into segment two. As I plodded on at about one mile per hour, the day grew hotter and my energy into the stifling heat around me. I poured water over my face to cool down, and for a while, it worked. But by midday, my water was too warm to bring comfort. I wasn’t a fan of the weight either, so I drank water to lighten the load on my back. I wasn’t even halfway through the burn scar when I began to feel dizzy and lightheaded I realized that I was running out of water.

News travels on the trail. Most of the time it is word of mouth. Hikers that passed me in clear distress carried messages forward to my hiking buddy, Vanessa. When I finally rounded a corner and we could see each other again, she left her spot in a gloriously shaded area to come down and help me get to what would become our camp. After eating, we made the decision to stay the night instead of pushing through to the next exposed area of the burn scar—I had already lost too much energy to continue that day.

Staying the night meant a dry camp without a water refill. Knowing this, we committed to an early morning start to hike the rest of the incline in the coolest part of the day and arrive at the next water source. By six in the morning we were back on the trail, pushing through 2.5 more miles of a steady climb through a shaded area. Down to less than a liter of water each, we didn’t have time to celebrate getting to the highest point of the segment.

Then came the nosebleeds. Again, Vanessa heard from passing hikers about her partner: Blackpacker was bleeding out from her face and just might need some help. She hiked back to find me sitting cross-legged under a tree on the side of the trail listening to the Hamilton soundtrack with blood on my face, teeth, and hands while singing “Satisfied” from Hamilton.

Everyone was in the same position on the trail that day: running low on water and miserably overheated. Still, multiple hikers offered me what little water they had left. Thru-hikers Staten Island and Didgiree both stopped and spent some time talking to me and reassuring me that my improper rationing of water wasn’t an uncommon It was their water and their support that helped me finally push the last two miles to finally arrive at the Buffalo Creek fire station, which had a spigot around the back for thru-hikers to fill up and rehydrate.

Days later, when I arrived in Breckenridge, a few of my buddies from those first days had already called it quits. The first few segments are trying and are early enough to really make a hiker question their desire to continue for 400 more miles. As for me, I’ve learned a lot about myself, my ego, and my tolerance for discomfort, but I’ve learned more about the people that make up our trail family. I have the utmost faith that as long as I am willing to give the Colorado Trail my best effort, no one out there will leave me behind.