If you’ve hiked much in the Rocky Mountains, you’ve probably found yourself in a beautiful location – maybe a crystal blue mountain lake or a stunning vista – and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to spend the night up here?” With the right gear and knowledge, you can. And it’s easier than you think. Backpacking in Colorado is the best way to penetrate Colorado’s deepest, darkest corners, and given the long distances and lack of roads, it’s often the only way. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The size and volume of the backpack is the most important gear decision. With the help of a knowledgeable gear store employee, you can find a pack that fits your personal dimensions. Plan to carry a lot and take longer trips? Go bigger on volume. Want to emphasize mileage and speed? Pick a smaller pack. And be sure to pick up a water filter, because unless it’s a desert trek, there should be a creek or lake.
Where You Should Start
Having 40 pounds on your back completely changes your hiking speed, so start small. Pick a trail that’s five-miles or less, and rather than trying an ambitious loop, plan to establish a base camp at a pretty lake or other destination and spend some time deciding how much of the gear in your pack you really needed, and what you wish you’d brought. (Hint: The answer might be a hammock).
Best Beginner Backpacking Trip
Trailhead: North Cottonwood Creek
- Day 1 — It’s 4.2 miles to this beautiful lake nestled among the Collegiate Peaks. You’ll have company for the first two miles, since this is also the route to climb the fourteeners Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. Turn left at a trail junction for Kroenke Lake, also a good spot for lunch or a snack as the trail gets steeper from here. Mount Yale gradually comes into view to your left as you approach the lake.
Campsite — You’ll find ample camping along the lake’s south and west shores. Relax and enjoy the views, catch some fish, or if the weather is good, take a side trip up to Browns Pass, one mile and 500 feet above the lake with amazing views of the Collegiates.
- Day 2 — Pack up camp and make the easy 4.2-mile hike back down to the North Cottonwood Creek Trailhead.
Weight should be the number one thing in your mind when choosing gear. You don’t want a pack that’s more than 30 to 35 percent of your body weight, so select your gear carefully. Carry a down sleeping bag, a smaller tent made of lighter materials and a compact, light sleeping pad. Lighter gear tends to cost more, but when you’re humping it all on your back, you’ll be glad you splurged.
Once you’re on the trail, choosing a campsite is the most important decision you’ll make. If nobody has camped in a spot before, there’s probably a reason.
- Don’t camp without a water source (unless you’re in the desert, of course).
- Don’t camp where you see signs of bear activity, such as scat or tree markings.
- Don’t camp where it’s not allowed, which is typically within 100 feet of lakes.
- Don’t camp above timberline in thunderstorm season, as there will be no protection from lightning.
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Odds are you won’t have a cell phone signal to call for help, so bring everything you need. A first aid kit should have an array of bandages, gauze, and antiseptic for injuries, moleskin or Vaseline for blisters, tweezers, ibuprofen, and insect sting treatment. You can buy a pre-packed kit or build your own.
“The ten essentials” is the commonly used phrase for things you should always have a on a trip. They are map, compass, sun protection, extra clothes, flashlight, first-aid kit, firestarter, matches, knife and extra food. Learn it. Live it.
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