On the Colorado Trail with Willow Belden

A few weeks ago I was at a birthday party and met Willow for the first time. Now, I’d known about Willow for a long time–she’s kind of a big deal in little ole Laramie but as we got to chatting I knew that I had to interview her for the website.

I was happy when she agreed to chat with me.

Willow is down to earth, educated, smart and you can’t help but want to go on an adventure with her. I hope you enjoy the interview. Be sure to check out her podcast, we think you’re gonna like it.

ON THE  COLORADO TRAIL

1. Last summer you hiked the Colorado Trail, why did you choose the Colorado trail?

Since this was my first thru-hike and my first solo wilderness trip, I wanted a relatively short trail – one that that would take only five or six weeks, not five or six months, to finish. I’d heard that the Colorado Trail was one of the most beautiful “long trails” in the U.S., and it was close to home, so logistics would be easy to navigate.

2. What was your most memorable experience on the trail?

The most memorable experience, on a personal level, happened during the last week of the trip. I’d just spent a mind-bogglingly beautiful three days above tree line in the San Juan Mountains, and I remember standing on the Continental Divide by the headwaters of a river one evening. The spot was spectacular. The meadow was blanketed in purple and yellow wildflowers. Red cliffs plunged thousands of feet into a canyon. And in every direction, the mountains rose serenely into the evening light.

Part of the reason I wanted to do a long hike alone was to process the grief about my mother’s death. She’d passed away five years earlier after losing a long fight with cancer, and ever since, I’d felt lonely and untethered. This particular evening, I thought how much my mother would have loved this spot. I wished I could show it to her.

Finally, I let myself cry. I’d cried plenty before, but this was different. No one was around, so instead of stifling the tears, I let them flow freely. They were tears of sadness, but also tears of gratitude. It seemed so very right to be there, in that beautiful moment, by myself. I was grateful that no one else was around to shatter the magic.

ON THE  COLORADO TRAIL2

3. Tell us about the gear you used. Was there one thing you packed but didn’t use or need? What was the one piece of gear that you considered essential?

I packed light, but not ultralight. Here’s what I took:

-Big Agnes Copper Spur tent. This tent was the most spacious – and also the lightest – one-man tent I looked at. Here’s a bit more detail: http://www.crosscountryconnection.org/employee-favorites/2015/3/9/big-agnes-copper-spur-tent-1

-Enlightened Equipment 10-degree down sleeping quilt (yes, a quilt, not a bag; I like to sprawl, and foregoing a zipper cuts weight). I brought a down hood (taken off a jacket) to wear at night, because quilts don’t cover your head.

-Big Agnes insulated air core sleeping pad. This pad was super warm and cushy, but it sprung a leak about 2/3 of the way through the trail. Next time I’d probably go for a Z-lite or something similar that can’t leak. On the upside, Big Agnes replaced the pad without any fuss.

-REI trekking poles with shock absorption. Trekking poles are crucial – they take strain off your knees, keep you walking at a steady clip, and make stream crossings much easier. Seriously, bring trekking poles; you’ll be glad you did.

-Osprey Exos 58 backpack. This is one of the lightest packs you can find that still has a proper frame. I loved mine. Don’t overload it, though – it carries up to 35 pounds well, but 40 isn’t too comfy.

Home-made alcohol stove. It’s very simple: the stove itself is an empty cat-food can (seriously, that’s it – just an empty cat food can). I made a pot stand out of hardware cloth and a wind screen out of aluminum flashing. The whole setup cost about $5 to make and weighs nothing. The stove uses denatured alcohol or HEET as fuel, which you can pick up everywhere.

-Titanium pot/mug (.75 L)

-Titanium spork

-Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter. It’s not the lightest filter out there, but it served me well. Many other thru-hikers used the Sawyer filter, which is smaller, or opted for Aqua Mira drops. I’d probably try one of those options next time.

-Trekking umbrella. Don’t laugh; I hiked through lots of rain and hail, and having a trekking umbrella made that so much less awful. My umbrella came from Go Lite.

-Clothing: Keen hiking boots, one pair long pants, one pair shorts, one tank top, one Smartwool mid-weight shirt, a fleece, a rain jacket, a down jacket, fleece hat and gloves, 3 pairs of socks (two to hike in, and one to sleep in), and long johns and a light-weight Smartwool shirt to sleep in.

Dirty Girl gaiters. These were amazing; they kept all the rocks and dirt out of my shoes.

-Electronics charger. This is a cylindrical device that’s slightly larger than a tube of lipstick. Charge it up while you’re in town, and then you can plug your phone or kindle into it when they run out of juice on the trail.

-Kindle. Having plenty of reading material is essential, and the kindle is small and reasonably light (compared to paper books). The battery holds up well when the wifi is off.

-iPhone. I used it as my camera, and was able to contact friends and family when I got to towns to resupply.

-Tiny tripod for iPhone. This was great; my selfies didn’t look like selfies.

-Journal and pens

-Compass

-Spot Tracker. Friends talked me into bringing this, so I could let them know that I hadn’t perished on the trail, or could call for help if something went terribly wrong.

-Head lamp (Black Diamond Spot) and extra batteries

-Extra tiny flashlight. You don’t want to be without light if you lose or break your headlamp.

-Bear spray. Probably not necessary (the CT doesn’t go through grizzly country), but it gave me peace of mind.

-Shovel for digging cat holes. (You could use a tent stake or a rock, but this is a lot easier).

-Swiss army knife

-First-aid kit

4. What tools did you use to plan the hike? 

I read loads of books and combed the internet for tips on lightweight backpacking. The best book out there for planning purposes is Yogi’s Colorado Trail Guide. If you only read one thing, read that. For the trail itself, get Erik the Black’s Colorado Trail Atlas and the Colorado Trail Data Book.

5. For you what was the most challenging section of the trail? What made it difficult?

The CT was full of challenging sections. On day two, the trail goes through an area that was decimated by a massive wildfire. There’s no water and almost no shade for 10 miles, and since it’s at low elevation, it’s brutally hot. My blisters also arrived that day, which didn’t help.

Several sections of trail were teaming with vicious swarms of mosquitoes, which were unimpressed by 99-percent deet bug spray and even bit me through layers of clothing. I’d hurry along, flapping my arms and swatting the bugs away from my face, but nothing helped.

The rain was also tough. I’d expected afternoon thunderstorms, but what I got was weeks of endless monsoon. Luckily, my little tent held up well, and my sleeping bag stayed dry throughout. But days of incessant rain are cold, wet, and demoralizing. And you miss out on beautiful views if everything is shrouded in clouds.

Emotionally, the hardest stretch was between Twin Lakes and Salida. The trail skirts the Collegiate Peaks, which should be gorgeous, but we almost never got above treeline. For days on end, you slog thousands of feet up through monotonous woods, realize there’s no view to reward you at the top, and then descend thousands of feet, only to repeat the process. In this section of trail, they also apparently forgot about switch-backs, so the climbs were grueling. I’d expected to reach Salida, which is the half-way point on the trail, feeling strong and triumphant. Instead, it took every shred of energy to hike the final few miles, and I arrived in town exhausted and demoralized.

6. What’s your next big outdoor adventure?

I’m hatching plans for a multi-week bike-packing trip (that’s just like backpacking, but on a mountain bike). Stay tuned; I’m hoping to do a podcast episode about it.

7. Tell us a little bit about the Out There Podcast and what inspired you to start it?

Out There is a public radio-style podcast that explores our relationship with nature – from recreation, to conservation, to science and wildlife. It’s a mix of stories, interviews, and essays – kind of like This American Life, but for the outdoors. Unlike a lot of outdoor journalism, this show is meant to appeal to a broad audience: city slickers just as much as dirtbags.

Before hiking the CT, I had been a reporter and anchor for Wyoming Public Radio. But a few days after coming home, as I was listening to Morning Edition, I realized I didn’t want to go back to reporting the news. Instead, I wanted to be a host – to be the voice of a show – to think about big ideas and curate a collection of stories exploring those ideas.

I’d been considering starting a podcast about the outdoors already before my hike, but I hadn’t had the time – or the guts – to pursue the idea. Then, after I got back from the CT, Wyoming Public Radio approached me about developing and hosting an outdoor show. I was thrilled, but the station’s timeline for raising money and getting the show off the ground was very long, and I was eager to get moving. So I ultimately decided to go back to my original idea and produce the show independently, as a podcast.

So far, the experience has been thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I never pictured myself starting my own business. I have zero business experience, and I’ve always appreciated the stability that comes with “real jobs.” But when I start to feel overwhelmed, I remind myself that when I started hiking the Colorado Trail, I was a novice too, and yet I succeeded in finishing it. The hike was difficult – even brutal at times – but it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself in years. I hope the podcast will turn out the same way.

8. Where can we find you online?

Out There is at www.OutThereShow.com. The blog I kept during my CT hike is at willowbelden.tumblr.com. And here are a few pieces I’ve written about the trek:

http://qz.com/257211/a-500-mile-solo-hike-put-an-end-to-my-loneliness/

http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/risk-made-me-happier

https://issuu.com/christiangreen/docs/tt_1026_low_res/1?e=5506357/11573248

Thanks for taking the time to tell us all about your experiences on the CT Willow! See ya on the trails.

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User Comments

  1. Great and informative article. I am planning to go on Colorado trail with my husband and 5mo daughter. Do you have any suggestions for hiking with the baby?

    • Rebecca |

      Hi Katherine, That’s a great question. We’ve actually camped and hiked with our babies a ton but never backpacked. But, let me put this question up to an Outdoor Family community that I’m part of and see if I can link back to some good tips. Stay tuned. Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Katherine,

      First off, that’s great. We started backpacking with our kids at 1 years old, but these will be similar tips.
      -Put the baby between you to sleep (zip your bags together, or have her in your sleeping bag)
      -Carry her in a front carrier. The waist strap works best under your belt, but the shoulder straps of the carrier often are more comfortable over top of the backpack ones. Try it out both ways though.
      -Bring her blanky or other familiar object. Because everything was new, our normally tolerant daughter would NOT sleep without having something of her own.
      -Your biggest load will be your diaper related stuff. Carrying dirty diapers was not fun. Bring
      -Cleanable washcloth for changing instead of wipes.
      -Trash compactor bag or zip lock for dirt diapers
      -Dehydrate foot (pablum is good) or bring those shelf-safe squeeze tubes.
      -Bring a mosquito net and widebrimmed hat, gloves and mosquito proof (tight weave) shirt. Columbia makes some. She’ll be miserable without some kind of protection from bugs, etc.
      Attach toys to a cord on your backpack or carrier. You don’t want to have to bend down when you drop them.
      -Use trekking poles. The stability will be essential to keep the bundle safe.

      Anyway, those are some quick thoughts from our experience.

      • Rebecca |

        Awesome, thanks for chiming in Paul!

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