Camping and Backpacking are easily the best ways to experience the beautiful natural elements of the Rocky Mountains. However if you are new to the idea of camping and/or backpacking it can definitely be intimidating due to the types of knowledge that you may need. Also if you are an experienced camper/backpacker but are new to Colorado we have some tips below to help you quickly adjust.
Camping and Backpacking Overview
All of us love to go camping to get away from the bustle of the city, enjoy good times with friends, and experience different aspects of nature. For the most part camping and backpacking are relatively straight-forward activities that almost anyone can pick-up. However, most trips take us into the backcountry where we are not a cell-phone call away from help and being prepared with the right equipment and knowledge can make sure any trip is successful.
There are primarily two things you need when camping and that is proper equipment and the other is proper knowledge. Each trip is unique and will require different equipment and knowledge based upon the risks within the trip. For example if you are going on a 3-day backpack trip to desolate wilderness you are going to have to be more prepared then the ovenight car-camping trip that is 20 minutes off-of I-70.
- Proper Clothing: Colorado weather changes quickly. It is not uncommon to get snowed-on in the middle of the summer. Be prepared for all weather types when out in the wilds.
- Warm-weather clothing should be brought on every trip regardless of the time of year: basics like a ski hat/beanie, light gloves, long-underwear, and a fleece jacket do not take up much space and ensure that you will stay warm. Several pairs of wool socks are also essential.
- Rain gear/water-proof gear is essential. During the summer it is highly likely that it will rain in the afternoon and usually when the rain happens the temps drop quick.
- AVOID COTTON CLOTHING!!! There is a common phrase that “Cotton Kills” because in the high-country when you get your cotton clothes wet they stay wet and make you cold. Use other materials such as nylon, wool, and other synthetic materials instead of cotton.
- Pack enough clothing to make sure that you can stay warm without going over-board
- Invest in good quality clothing as it will last you for years and is essential in any trip
- Hiking Shoes: Tennis shoes will not work if you are backpacking as they do not offer the ankle support and durability that a good set of hiking boots will. The last thing you want is to be 8 miles from a trailhead with a sprained ankle because you didn’t think you needed them. Good sandals are also recommended for around camp to air out your feet. Make sure you break in your boots before hitting the trail, blisters will easily form.
- Tents/Shelter: Tents range from small single person tents to monster tents that can seemingly hold a disco party. While your application may vary there are numerous quality 2 to 3 person tents that are on the market that are reasonably priced ($100-200). For Colorado a 3-season tent should be more then what you need and 4 season is overkill even for most winter-camping applications.
- Backpack: A proper fitting backpack will make your hike that much easier and pleasant. Make sure you find one that works for your size and is adjusted to meet the weight of gear that you will be carrying. Generally for your first backpack you want something that has plenty of padding and will work for a wide-range of camping activities.
- Sleeping Bag/Pad: For Colorado a good sleeping bag is a must as it can easily get near freezing any time of the year. For general Spring/Summer/Fall we suggest getting one rated around 20 degrees. A sleeping pad is also key as it helps keep you warm at night by keeping you insulated from the ground; not to mention that it is called the “rocky mountains” for a reason and your back will thank us in the morning. Look for a good thermarest pad that can easily be rolled-up and carried.
- Other Important Basics:
- Sunscreen: This is Colorado, you will burn regardless of your skin color, be prepared to stop the burn.
- Multi-tool Pocket Knife: A good Leatherman or Gerber is worth it’s weight for having while camping
- Water-filter/Iodine Tablets: If you plan on staying over-night most likely you will not be able to pack in enough water for the trip. Be prepared with a water-filter or pick-up some iodine tablets as a good alternative.
- Map/Compass: More important then having them is knowing how to use them.
- Insect Repellent: Those nasty little buggers can get big enough to carry away small children.
- First Aid Kit: basics like moleskin, medical tape, and other essentials are required
- Survival Kit: Loud-Whistle, water-proof firestarter, emergency blankets
Car-Camping: Let’s face it when car-camping you generally do not need to be as prepared as you do when backpacking. You are right near your car, which hopefully is somewhat near a road, which will be somewhat near civilization so reaction time to fix a problem will be quicker. However it also allows for you to bring more equipment so you should be amply prepared. Weight is not a factor and if you are planning on only car-camping you do not need to invest into equipment that may be lighter (sleeping bags, tents, etc) and that will save you money.
Backpacking: The whole point of backpacking is to get away from it all. That means that generally you are not near other people, major roads or civilization. Additionally you will not be in areas that have cell-phone coverage and reaction times to accidents will be very slow. This means that you and your group will need to be fully prepared to handle any situation that happens to you. Generally here are things that you should be knowledgeable about when going backpacking:
- Planning and Preparing: Research your route and have a solid plan before going. Always tell someone that is not going your location, trailhead, and length of time in the backcountry. These steps will not make sure that the trip is planned well, it provides a blanket of security in-case something major happens.
- Group Preparedness: Always make sure you and your group have the proper clothing and equipment. If just one person is not prepared the whole group may be at risk.
- First Aid: Most likely you are hours/days from help when in the backcountry. Knowing how to deal with injuries like simple wounds, blisters, sprained ankles, etc could prevent a major rescue from happening. Additionally knowing the signs and treatment for Heat Stroke, Dehydration, and Hypothermia could save your buddies life.
- Climate Conditions: Lighting and big thunderstorms are common in the summer months. Make sure you are prepared for the weather that you will potentially be experiencing. Also make sure you are off mountain passes and other high-spots before noon as storms begin to develop after that.
- Navigation: A map and compass are worthless if you do not know how to use them. They are pretty easy to learn, but it is best to practice before the trip instead of trying to learn while you are lost.
- Survival Gear: While highly unlikely that a survival situation will happen to you it is best to be prepared to handle situations such as fire-starting without dry matches, building shelter, navigating without a map or compass, and varies other situations. Learning this is dependent on how remote you plan on being.
Cooking in the Backcountry:
The best part about food in the backcountry is that after finishing a long day of hiking through the woods, food always taste good. For meals you need to plan ahead and we suggest to keep things simple so that you spend more time having fun then sitting around the stove cooking up an elaborate meal.
Simple Menu Items that we generally like to have:
- Breakfast: Instant oatmeal with an apple or bagel
- Lunch: Sandwiches made at home using tortilla wraps
- Dinner: Beef and Vegetable Stir-fry with couscous
- Snacks: Trail mix and beef jerky
- Hot Cocoa/tea
All menu items should be based upon how much weight you are carrying, how many days the food needs to last, and the number of people that are on your trip. For long trips we suggest getting dehydrated food so that it lasts and is light-weight. You can dehydrate your own food in a dehydrator or buy pre-made meals at any backpacking store (although they can be expensive).
Cooking gear is also an important part of the process and you will need these:
- Stove: for backpacking you will need a lightweight gas or propane stove. For car-camping you can get away with any portable cooking stove. Always bring more fuel then you think you will need.
- Cooking Utensils: Try to pack as light as possible and only include what you need. A deep frying pan can serve as both a frying pan and a pot to boil water. Also many lightweight kits are available.
- Cooking tools: small containers of oil, seasonings, and eating utensils are necessary
- Bear Bag: You need a bag and enough rope to store your food in a tree while you are sleeping or away from camp. Always set-up some distance from camp as well. Most of the reason is to keep small critters from getting to your food.
- Water-purification system: either a water-filter or iodine tablets are needed for your daily water intake. For most meals you can boil the water, however boiling water for your drinking needs uses too much fuel.
Leave No Trace
Practicing Leave No Trace ethics when in the backcountry is the right thing to do. Please help preserve these wonderful areas by making sure that you pick up all trash, dismantle fire-pits, camp in low-impact spots, bury all waste that you cannot bring out with you, and overall be respectful of nature and others. Please check out the Leave No Trace website at: http://www.lnt.org/
Backpacking in Colorado is one of the reasons so many of us can’t leave the state. The enormous amount of trails and sights to be seen can keep you occupied for a good chunk of your life. We hope that you get out and spend some time enjoying the outdoors as much as we do. As always any Alpine Club officer is available to help you with any questions and the club hosts several trips a year. Happy hiking!
- Equipment: Wilderness Exchange has great deals on all camping/backpacking gear with a very knowledgeable staff. http://www.wildernessexchangeunlimited.com/
- US Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/