I sat high on a ledge above the treeline, watching a small mountain pond sparkling as wild trout jumped up to catch their lunch. It was the perfect end to a perfect hike outside of Vail, Colorado. Even so, I had one more addition to make the scene even more perfect.
I reached into my backpack for the small growler—one designed specifically for hiking—that I’d filled with Odell Brewing’s Isolation Ale before leaving Fort Collins. Alas, the lid had leaked while being jostled around, spilling valuable beer all over the inside of my backpack. Not only did I lose liquid, but I smelled like a drunkard all the way home.
This led me on a quest to find out what is the right way to drink beer while hiking. Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
First things first: It’s always a good idea to practice safe hiking habits, especially when alcohol is involved. Bring ample water, snacks, first aid kit, rain jacket and other lightweight basic survival gear. It’s also a good idea to let a friend know where you’ll be going and when you’ll be back, so if anything goes awry you’re not suck out in the hinterlands with nought but an empty beer can to MacGyver your way home.
Along the lines of safety, what type of transport vessel you choose is also important. Ed Sealover, veteran craft beer journalist and author of the 2016 book “Colorado Excursions with History, Hikes and Hops,” recommends cans. They’re perfectly contained within one unit, so there are no screw-on caps to leak as with growlers. Most importantly, if you break it, there are no hazardous glass fragments to worry about.
“The craft beer canning revolution has in part been led by people who want to take them back into the wilderness,” Sealover said. “Not just for a day hike, but for a backpacking trip, or even when they're going on a rafting trip.” With more and more craft breweries adopting crowler setups as well, it should be pretty easy to find decent can choices even from the smallest of microbreweries.
For example, try getting a fresh crowler of Enos Pils or Interference IPA—named after local historical figures and landmarks—From Rock Cut Brewing Company, before heading out to Rocky Mountain National Park. Bend, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing also makes the aptly-named Trail Beer, a widely-available pale ale that would indeed go well on any trail.
Pro tip: Wrap cans in aluminum foil before you head out. They’ll stay colder for longer, and won’t leak as much if they do get punctured or develop condensation. When you’re done, squash the cans on the ground by stepping on them to save space in your pack. Then, wrap them in that same aluminum foil to contain any potential spillage.
Next, consider what style of beer you want to bring. “My absolute favorite hiking beer is Colorado Kolsch from [Steamworks Brewing in Durango, Colorado],” Sealover said. “It's crisp, it's refreshing, it's got a good body. But it's exceedingly light on the palette and doesn't leave any residual heaviness."
In other words, this isn’t the time for your barrel-aged imperial coffee stout. You’ve got work to do and you’ll need something that’s light and thirst-quenching. Along those lines, another good choice would be a saison-style beer—after all, these were historically brewed with lower alcohol contents to appease farmworkers toiling under the hot summer sun.
Other options include session IPAs such as Oskar Blues’ Pinner IPA, pilsners along the lines Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest, pale ales including Deschute’s Mirror Pond Pale Ale, witbiers including Avery Brewing’s White Rascal and sweet-salty goses such as Sierra Nevada’s Otra Vez.
Now that you’ve got your beer ready, it’s time to head out on your hike. Don’t pop out your cans just yet, though—you don’t want to be sipping throughout your hike, lest you spill your beer. Instead, a better option is to wait until you’ve reached a good point, settle down for a break and then bust out the beer.
“I'm a big believer in celebrating when reaching a goal. If I'm going to go up a 14er for example, [one of the 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado], I always celebrate at the top with a beer,” Sealover said. “That said, I celebrate with a beer. I'm not going to break out a six-pack up there. Hiking can be tough and you should have all of your faculties with you when you're doing it.”
So, about that mountaintop kegger you planned—it’s probably better to scratch that idea. It’s too heavy to carry up the trail anyways, and the bill from a helicopter rescue will seriously cut into your beer fund. Instead, when you’re done with the hike, check out a local trailside craft brewery for another. This time, order a beer fresh from the tap to cap off your hike on a high note.