Coloradans love to go camping. Most of us live amid the traffic, noise and relatively cramped conditions of Front Range cities, where the serenity and beauty of the Rockies is tantalizingly close.
On summer weekends we flock there in droves.
Whether you’re pitching the Taj Mahal of family tents in a campground or backpacking with a bivvy tent in the wilderness, your gear can make or break the trip. What’s right for camping with the kids usually is impractical for that solo adventure on the trail.
We offer these tips for choosing the right gear for your next foray into the wilderness.
Since sleeping in the open under the stars in the brisk mountain air would be uncomfortable for most of us, the type of tent you pick is perhaps your most important gear decision.
If you’re simply throwing a tent down near your car, why not go big? Multi-room tents are a great way to take the whole family camping yet still have some semblance of personal space.
But huge tents aren’t for every occasion. Winds can shred large tents, so if you’re going to be exposed or camping above timberline, take something with a lower profile. Backpackers must balance the needs for protection, space and weight. Most backpacking tents weigh 2 to 5 pounds. Typically, the lighter the tent, the more expensive it is, but this is one area where you may want to splurge. Your back will thank you.
A good rule of thumb is to get a tent sized for one person more than you’ll have along, since they’re designed for a snugness many find uncomfortable — especially when camping with someone who isn’t a spouse or significant other.
You’ll see tents rated “3-season” and “4-season.” Three-season tents, usually consisting of a mesh canopy and a rain fly to cover it, are almost always fine for Colorado camping between late spring and early fall.
Car campers can disregard this item, though you’ll want a good daypack capable of holding lunch, water, emergency and first-aid supplies, and a couple of extra layers of clothes for your day hikes.
Backcountry campers, however, need to think hard about how they enjoy the trail and how many luxuries they carry. Bigger packs carry more gear, but all that weight will slow you down.
As a general rule, packs with a capacity of 50-65 liters offer enough room for 1- to 2-night trips; try 65-80 liters for a few more days. Longer outings require more room.
If you’re taking kids along or expecting cold weather, or if you enjoy extra luxuries in the wilderness, it’s better to err on the side of caution and have too much room in your pack than not enough.
A growing number of backpackers are going ultralight, sacrificing creature comforts for lightness on the back and the feet. Each season new ultralight gear is available — at a price. Packs smaller than 50 liters are designed for this kind of backpacking.
Consider taking a class in ultralight backpacking, such as the ones offered at your local REI or independent outdoors store, before spending money on a lightweight pack. You’ll get some real-life feedback, and most of the classes are free. You could get out there and decide you miss that camp pillow.
Backpacks are not one-size-fits-all, so make sure the pack you buy fits your body dimensions and is adjustable.
Other things to look for include a pocket for a CamelBak, a detachable compartment to use as a day pack and an attached rain cover.
If your pack doesn’t come with a rain cover, spend $30 on one. When the monsoon descends and you’re still miles from camp, you’ll be glad to have dry clothes waiting for you.
There’s a dizzying number of options, but picking the right sleeping bag is vital.
Bags are rated by temperature. Theoretically, the number you see on the bag is the coldest condition the average person can tolerate comfortably. But these ratings are notoriously unreliable. Buy a bag that’ll keep you warm on a night that’s colder than you plan for; you won’t be sorry.
For summer camping in Colorado, a bag rated for 15 or 20 degrees is usually good enough. You can always unzip if you’re too warm. It’s not fun to try to enjoy yourself or set out for the next day’s hike after a night spent shivering in the cold.
You’ll also have to choose between synthetic and down bags. Goose-down bags are lighter and more compact, but more expensive. Consider how often you’ll use your bag and how much you want to spend.
Mummy bags used to be specialty gear, but now nearly all mountain sleeping bags have the drawstring that lets you cover your head and face. That’s a good thing. Spend a night at 12,000 feet and you’ll see why.
One word: GoreTex.
The water-resistant lining is the gold standard for hiking boots, and in Colorado’s unpredictable climate, with thunderstorms that can come out of nowhere and drench you to the bone, you’ll want the protection.
Long-distance hikers will want a stiffer boot for the heavier weight on your back. And you’ve probably heard it before, but don’t break in new boots on a long hike. Your feet will thank you.
A second, lighter shoe or sandal is often a good idea for relaxing around camp and crossing the many creeks that lack bridges.
If you’re heading out for a weekend car camping trip with family and friends, why not prepare a feast?
The two-burner propane stove (probably the same one or same style your parents used on car camping trips), is still the easiest way to cook up camp food, and it folds neatly for packing.
Backcountry users have a lot of options for compact, lightweight cooking stoves, like the MSR PocketRocket, that really will fit in your pocket. The isobutane/propane fuel canisters are tiny compared with the giant propane canisters of old.
FIND YOUR PLACE UNDER THE STARS
Don’t wait for summer to reserve your campsite, especially if you’re looking for something near the Front Range on a weekend. Avoid being the family with cranky kids trolling campground after campground in the dark on Friday night by reserving your site today. Spots are already filling for weekends at popular campgrounds.
Most U.S. Forest Service campgrounds open Memorial Day weekend and accept reservations, which can be made at recreation.gov. A reservation fee applies.
State park campsites are reservable at www.parks.state.co.us/Reservations.
Backpackers planning an adventure in a national park or special area that requires permits, such as the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Denver, should get their permits ahead of time.
FIND A DEAL ON GEAR
Sticker shock can be a serious side effect of gearing up for the season. But you don’t have to drain your bank account to get outfitted for camping. Check local gear stores’ sales. Most companies have liberal return policies if you don’t like what you buy.
Check sierratradingpost.com and backcountry.com. Steepandcheap.com usually offers deeper discounts, but only one at a time, rotating every 15 minutes, so you might have to wait a while for what you need.