As a Colorado local, I’m always itching to spend the night under the stars. Backpacking in the high alpine takes a little bit of getting used to, especially to the uninitiated. Make your Colorado backpacking trip a smashing success with these tips for backpacking in Colorado.
I’ve lived here for over 12 years and scoured the state. Each year I combine my two favorite loves, backpacking and climbing, for an incredible Colorado backpacking experience. I’m dying to give you the inside scoop about how to make your backpacking adventure a smashing success, so let’s dive in.
About this Guide to Colorado Backpacking
This post is the place to find expert, local advice about Colorado backpacking. We’ll cover:
- When to backpack in Colorado
- The best backpacking trips in Colorado
- Colorado backpacking packing list
- Permit information
- Tips and tricks for backpacking Colorado
- Additional Colorado adventure travel resources
When is the Best Time to Backpack in Colorado?
One of my favorite parts about living in Colorado is that you can backpack Colorado year-round. That’s right! In the winter months, simply head out towards the desert areas of the Western Slope for year-round backpacking.
However, if mountain scenery is what you seek, then the best time of year to backpack in Colorado is from July through September.
Keep in mind, there is still plenty of snow in the mountains in June. Can you backpack? Sure, but you’ll want to stay at lower elevations to avoid camping in the snow.
Related: Best Time of Year to Visit Colorado
Where are the Best Places to Backpack in Colorado?
We are spoiled for choice when it comes to where to go Colorado backpacking. With seemingly endless mountains, beautiful canyons, and unbelievable desert scenery, there’s a lot going on.
For the best places to backpack in Colorado, check out these areas:
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Lone Eagle Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
- The Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness
- Colorado National Monument and surrounding areas
- South Colony Lakes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
What Items Do I Need to Pack for Colorado Backpacking?
Now that you’ve found the perfect backpacking trail, you’ve gotta get packing! Here are a few Colorado backpacking essentials you can’t leave home without:
- A three-season sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Odor-proof bags with a waterproof stuff sack to hang your food and trash.
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- First Aid Kit
- A bathroom kit. Shovel, sani-hands, and TP.
- WAG bags (for going number 2 above treeline)
- A trash baggie for your toilet paper
- Water filter and a reusable water bottle or water bladder
- Lightweight backpacking stove with fuel
- backpacking pot
- a spork
- Backpacking meals. DIY backpacking meals are simply the best.
- Plenty of high-calorie snacks for burning calories at altitude
- A hat
- Lightweight gloves
- Rain jacket and rain pants
- Non-cotton socks 2x pair
- Hiking clothes with convertible pants
- Fleece layer
- Puffy jacket
- Duct tape, blister kit, fishing wire, safety pin
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, sunhat
- Females: A Pee Funnel
Do I Need a Permit to Go Backpacking in Colorado?
The answer: it depends. Many of Colorado’s best backpacking routes don’t require permits, but there are quite a few that do.
Any national park requires a permit to spend the night in the backcountry. Other popular wilderness areas also require permits, so check by Googling your trail name and “permit requirements” to see if you need to snag something.
Permit systems in Colorado fill up super-fast, so plan accordingly. Weekends in the summer are particularly tough, and many of the most popular permitted routes will fill up by the 1st of the year.
Didn’t snag a permit? No problem! You can still enjoy Colorado backpacking. In fact, many of the best (and secret) backpacking routes in Colorado don’t require permits.
Tips for an Epic Colorado Backpacking Adventure
Get more out of your Colorado backpacking experience. Travel the trails like a seasoned local by following these Colorado backpacking tips.
Protect Your Food
Colorado is home to an amazing array of wildlife, but most of the mountain critters are particularly interested in your food. Sure, Colorado is home to black bears, and you want to keep your food away from them, but oftentimes the creatures that cause the most problems are of the small rodent variety.
Protect your food by hanging all stinky items (trash, food, toiletries) up in a tree at least 200 feet or 70 adult steps from your camp.
One time I left our food bag on the ground while I went to check out a nearby view. I figured it would be fine for 10 minutes, I had my stuff in odor-proof bags after all.
I returned to find that a small mountain rodent had chewed through my expensive dry bag AND the odor bag to invade my dog’s food supply. No fun!
The high alpine environment is super-sensitive. The lichen on the rocks takes eons to grow, thanks to harsh winters. Things really hang in the balance here, so try to camp on durable surfaces or previously established sites.
Don’t stomp through wildflowers or other vegetation. If you have to travel off-trail, fan out your group so you don’t destroy any delicate plant life.
Skip the Fire
There are often fire bans in Colorado, and forest fires caused by campers is a huge issue. If you’re backpacking in Colorado and camping in the high alpine, skip the fire unless you need it for survival.
First, there is very little wood and that wood is providing much-needed nutrients for the soil. Second, a fire in the alpine can quickly get out of control if a gust of wind comes by, so cook with a stove instead.
If you’re in the lower elevations, only have a small fire at previously established fire rings. Never build a new fire ring unless it’s necessary for your survival to avoid scaring the earth.
Watch the Weather
Mountain weather is unruly and pretty unpredictable. Storms can crash over mountain tops in an instant, and if you’re high on a ridge, this can spell disaster. Camp in lower-lying areas and try to stay in the trees for protection.
If you get caught in a lightning storm, assume the lighting position for safety and leave your tent immediately.
Lastly, pack for variable weather. It can be super hot during the day and dip into frigid temps at night while backpacking in Colorado.
Give Wildlife Space
Wandering through the wilderness and bumping into elk, moose, mountain goats or even a bear is certainly a thrilling experience. However, these animals are very skittish and certainly dangerous.
Give all wildlife a wide berth. If you encounter an elk or moose, try to put a large tree (or three) between you!
We were hiking in the Indian Peaks wilderness when we turned the corner to find a mamma moose and her two babies! It was incredible, but also unnerving to be around 30 feet from these creatures without warning. We ended up leaving the trail, talking calmly to the moose family and put plenty of large objects between the two of us as we passed.
If you’re coming from out of town, take the time to acclimatize properly before hitting the trail. The altitude here is real, and when you’re carrying a heavy pack, it feels even heavier.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine for your first couple of days and ascend slowly. If you feel sick from the altitude, remember, the only way to get better is to go down, there is no waiting it out. Everyone reacts to altitude differently. I’ve lived at altitude for nearly half my life and I still get AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) from time to time.
Take Your Time
Revel in the beauty of Colorado backpacking. Unless you’re going for an epic thru-hike, take your time on the trail! There is plenty of time to relax and soak in all the amazing views!
Don’t try to take on too many miles per day, unless you’re well-versed in high altitude travel. 12 miles in the alpine is a lot different than 12 miles in the hills or on flat terrain.
Check Road Conditions
Colorado has a lot of dirt and 4WD roads that lead to amazing backpacking. Before you hit the trail, make sure you know what conditions exist on the way to the trailhead.
Do you need high clearance? Is the road open and obstacle-free? Are you able to park overnight?
Lastly, keep in mind if you’re coming back towards Denver on a Saturday or Sunday there is almost always mountain traffic, especially on Highway 285 and I-70. Traffic starts to build around 10:30 am and stick around until 6 pm or later.
Follow All Regulations
Rules and regulations differ for backpacking in Colorado depending on where you are. Always follow all leash laws, waste disposal regulations, and drone restrictions. If you don’t know, check around by Googling the name of the national forest, park, or wilderness area and regulations.
Colorado’s unruly weather means you’ll want to pack plenty of layers. I never leave home to go Colorado backpacking without my fleece, a puffy, my favorite beanie, a Buff headband, and lightweight gloves. If I don’t end up using these items (which is never by the way), you can use them to make a cozy backcountry pillow or butt rest.
Bask in the Alpenglow
Want in on a local Colorado Backpacking secret? Get up for sunrise. There’s nothing more fantastic than basking in the alpenglow as you watch the mountain scenery come to life.
Now you’ve got a slew of local Colorado backpacking tips. So strap on your pack and hit the trail this season for an epic backpacking adventure.