Here is the thing about water. It weighs a ton. Well, maybe not a ton. But a liter of water does weigh 2.2 pounds. Compared to most of the other things I carry in a backpack, it might as well be a ton. Bottom line: I don’t want to carry any more of it than I need to feel hydrated and safe. A great deal of the nation’s water starts as snow in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, so you might imagine there is a considerable amount of water on The Colorado Trail, and you would be right.
In the old days, when we traveled in the mountains, we had to use something called a map to locate water. These days it’s much easier. Major trails these days all come with some kind of databook which will point out known water locations, along with possible campsites, trail mileage, maps of resupply towns, and other useful information. The current edition of The Colorado Trail Databook is an essential reference and one you should have in an accessible pocket at all times when you are on The Colorado Trail.
Icons in the Databook will give you information about the reliability of the water source. A cup filled to the brim is totally reliable. A cup half full is usually reliable. And a cup with an exclamation mark inside could mean extreme disappointment in a dry year. It won’t take you long to get a feel for what kind of water year it is on the trail and to create your own understanding of what the symbols mean in terms of water quantity. The water sources in the book are by no means the only water on the trail. In most normal years, the Databook might only identify a third or a half of the water sources you will find on the trail.
The terrain will dictate where water can be found. (You can look at a map, for example, to see how obvious this is.) You won’t find much on top of a ridge. You will often find a lot in the valley between ridges. What this means is that if you pay attention to the country you are walking through, you will have a good sense of whether water will be abundant or scarce. This, along with what your Databook is telling you and how fast you are traveling, will dictate how much water you need to carry. I travel at a moderate speed and only rarely do I need to carry more than about a liter of water with me. Usually, I carry less, but that’s because I prefer to be a little thirsty when I get to water than completely overburdened on my way there. You will have to develop your own water management strategy. It is way better to carry too much water than to carry too little. As part of my strategy to carry less water, I always “camel up” at water stops and drink at least a liter of water before I start walking. I want the tank full when I leave a water stop.
Your Databook will also warn you about a couple of stretches of trail where water is scarce. One such place is in Segment 2, through the fire burn. This can be hot, exposed 10 miles from the Platte River to the next water source. Try to walk this segment early in the day, if possible, and carry extra water. Another place I’ve been caught dry-mouthed a couple of times is the stretch between the Middle Fork of the Swan River and Breckenridge in Segment 6. The Databook shows water in this section of trail, but I’ve never located one source, and the other has been dry or nearly dry every time I’ve gone by there, contrary to its description in the Databook. (A word of caution here about your mother’s advice to not trust everything you read. She was absolutely right. It is your responsibility to look out for your own safety. Build a margin of error into your water management plan.)
Another fairly dry stretch of trail is in the cattle country of Segments 16-18. You will have to carry more than a liter of water in many places here, so check your Databook carefully. I have the capability of carrying about five liters of water at any one time. I sometimes load these plastic canteens up and walk a short distance if I intend to dry camp on the trail. Usually when I dry camp I carry enough water for dinner and for a drink the next morning. I’ll walk to the next water source in the morning to have my breakfast. Or, alternatively, I’ll eat dinner at a water source and carry enough water for breakfast the next day to a dry camp. In this section of trail, cattle have often trashed the water source, so you may have to search a bit for a good place to collect water.
The other notorious dry stretch of trail is on Indian Trail Ridge in Segment 27. There is a 22 mile stretch of trail here that does not contain any reliable water source. The past three years there has been a small spring with flowing water about half-way through this section, just past the Scenic Overlook, heading toward Durango. If possible, confirm this source with northbound hikers before committing yourself on this section of trail. Also, be aware that you can get pinned down by lightning on this section of trail all too frequently. Build a margin into your water plan for unforeseen events that keep you from the next water source, too. I have collected drinking water flowing off my tarp on more than one occasion!
There are fabulous water sources on The Colorado Trail, with crystal clear water. There are also a number of skanky water sources, most used by cattle and sheep. Some of the latter sources you won’t recognize until your second or third trip on the trail, unfortunately. You are strongly encouraged to filter or treat all of the water you drink on the trail. Is that necessary? Probably not always. One year I carried a mini-filter and it was so slow I ended up drinking directly from the streams about half the time. I didn’t experience any ill effects from doing so. On the other hand, friends who have contracted Giardia from drinking out of streams tell me that is something I do not want to experience, not even once! You definitely want to treat any source where cattle, sheep, or people have congregated.
Whatever water filter or treatment you use should fit into your water management plan. I like to camel up at water stops, so being able to treat and drink water immediately is a priority to me. I don’t want to wait a half hour or more for the water treatment to take effect. (I do carry and use Aquamira water drops on the trail, in addition to a filter, but these are used for convenience and to avoid excessive filtering and not for water I want to drink immediately.) My recommendation is not to use a filter that is too small and takes too much time to use. It will frustrate you into not filtering. Beyond that, carry something that is compatible with your water management plan. To finish the trail, you need to walk, not sit at streams fooling around with water. Whatever is light enough to carry comfortably and helps you do that is what you want.