July 19  |  Our Communities

A Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking in Northern Colorado

As a Colorado resident, it’s likely you’ve experienced a few of our thousands of meandering mountain trails. But beyond these busy hiking routes and into the high mountains lies a totally different experience — one that requires a bit more grit and energy, and a lot more preparation.

Backpacking allows you to enjoy spectacular mountain views with a bit more seclusion. While car camping is certainly all that and a bag of chips, the grounds can get overbooked easily, and you’ll be sharing a wooded space with neighbors. When you can fit your life onto your back, the world suddenly opens up a whole gauntlet of routes and options.

Prepping for a backpacking trip can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never tried it before. After all, you’ll be living on only the things you brought in your pack — and heaven forbid you leave your warm socks at home. We’ve compiled a list of helpful tips to get you started, the essential gear to buy from your local outdoor provide, and some great routes for beginners. So gear up and get ready! It’s gonna be in(tents).

Planning Your Routes

Conundrum Hot Springs

Conundrum Hot Springs | Photo courtesy of Jake Wheeler via Roots Rated

You should decide on a few things before choosing the perfect backpacking route. Think about how much time you have, how much elevation and distance you can handle, and your overall fitness level. If this is your first time tackling the trails, you’ll want to opt for something a little simpler than you think you can handle. After all, hiking gets a big more difficult with a 40-pound load on your back!

We recommend an out-and-back or a loop for your first venture. There are many through routes in the Centennial State, and it can certainly be satisfying to have a destination for your hike, but you’ll have to stage a car beforehand (or rely on the kindness of a stranger at the trailhead). This is doable, but will likely take a bit of extra time before the actual hiking begins. On your first trip especially, you’ll want to make sure everything is as easy as possible and that you have ample time to reach camp before dark!

A few of our favorite hikes include:

Conundrum Hot Springs

Conundrum Hot Springs is one of our favorite hikes in Colorado, and it’s not tough to see why. If you’re willing to hike eight or so miles on well-maintained trails with views of rugged peaks and sprawling meadows (life is rough), you’ll be rewarded with a soak in a series of natural hot springs overlooking Conundrum Peak Valley. While you’ll want to jump in immediately, we recommend finding a campsite first — during the weekends it can be slim pickin’s.

Rogers Peak & Heart Lakes

This hike is actually doable as a day trip, but the lakes are so beautiful, we’re sure you’ll have a tough time turning around when you see them. Do yourself a favor and pitch a tent next to either Rogers or Heart Lakes, which are very close to one another. You’ll reach the first after a quick four-mile hike, which should give you plenty of time to scope out a good spot! After you’ve made camp, you can sit back and relax, or perhaps tackle one of the steep climbs to the nearby summits.

Sandbeach Lake

You’ll find fewer crowds at the nearby Sandbeach Lake, but this is not to say that the views are any less beautiful. In fact, it is quite the opposite! Reach the lake after just over four miles of easy hiking (you’ll enjoy stunning views along the way). There, you’ll find dispersed backcountry camping with opportunities to fish and hike — just make sure you get a permit first!

Once you have these down, check out these incredible Colorado backpacking experiences that should be on your bucket list.


Packing for Your Trip

We spoke to the team at our favorite local outdoor gear provider, Jax Mercantile, to see what they products they recommended for a beginner. Here, you’ll find 10 essential products for every backpacker, including the price, a few details and the weight. For convenience, we’ve included links so you can purchase everything from the comfort of your own home!

Alps Mountaineering Rimrock 4 Tent 
11 lbs
Durable, but nothing too fancy. A great beginner tent!

Osprey Packs Ultralight Dry Sack
1 lb
This is something a lot of people don’t think about, but you need something waterproof to keep the contents of your pack dry!

Therm-A-Rest RidgeRest SO-Lite Sleeping Pad
0.8 lbs
Foam sleeping pads are important for comfort and warmth. This particular one is very light and durable.

The North Face Aleutian 35 Sleeping Bag
2 lbs
This is a two-season mummy bag designed for warmth in temps down to thirty degrees. It’s great for beginners who are only backpacking in the warmer seasons!

Katadyn Hiker Water Filter
0.7 lbs
Unlike regular camping, while backpacking it is much easier to filter water than pack it! Good for 1-2 people while backpacking and easily folds down to fit in any pack.

Adventure Medical Blister Medic
0.25 lbs
Even with the most comfortable shoes blisters are likely to happen, so these will come in handy for getting beginners back on the trail!

Black Diamond Spot Headlamp
0.3 lbs
Waterproof, low-profile and one of our most popular headlamps for everyone from beginners to experts. It comes in four different colors, too!

Jetboil Mightymo Stove
1 lb
This is a universal camp stove that is ultra-compact and powerful. Less expensive than some of the other options, this is good for people who are just starting out and need something simple and easy.

Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Liquid Soap
$17.99 for 32oz bottle (we would recommend putting some in a travel-size bottle for your pack!)
Carry about 0.375 oz
This soap is the best because you can use it for everything — face, body, hair, dishes, pets, you name it! It is also made with all organic ingredients, so it is safe for wildlife and nature.
Unavailable for online purchase. Visit your nearest location!

Adventure Medical Ultralight Watertight First Aid Kit
1 lbs
This pack includes bandages, wound care, after bite wipe, medication and more. Always backpack with a basic first aid kit!


Staying Hydrated

Water bottle

Water is perhaps the trickiest thing to plan for when it comes to camping. Invest in a portable water filter so you can replenish your stock when you reach a river or pond. If you’re backpacking to a dry spot, you’ll need to carry that water on your back. We recommend bringing at least two liters of drinking water per day in a water bladder or in bottles. (For more information on how much water to bring, check out this article).

Picking a campsite near a water source is also very important, especially for multi-day trips. Which brings us to our next section…


Picking a Campsite

Camping in Colorado

The hiking is done, and now you get to do the fun part — choosing your campsite! When selecting your spot to settle in for the night, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Research in advance where you can pitch your tent on your chosen route. This way you’ll avoid breaking any laws, and be more prepared to get the best spot as soon as possible.
  2. Get to your destination 1-2 hours before sunset, or even earlier if possible. By the time twilight hits, you’ll want to be relaxed and enjoying the view — not running around completing last-minute chores in low light.
  3. Try to camp near a water source if possible (just make sure you’re situated at least 200 feet away). You’ll need the water for cooking, cleaning and filtering into drinking water.
  4. Try to find a shady spot if you’ll be leaving your tent set up for day trips.
  5. It’s courteous to camp in a spot that has already been occupied so to not disturb plants and wildlife. If you can’t find one, camping on smooth rock or bare ground is your next best bet.


Preparing for Weather Conditions

Colorado Storm

Storms hit quickly in the mountains! Sometimes it can be impossible to predict when or where lightning will strike, but doing your research before you hit the trails might save you some grief down the road. If you see rain in the forecast (and even if you don’t), make sure to pack warm, waterproof layers and a fly and footprint for your tent — nothing is worse than waking up in a soggy sleeping bag.

Open Summit is a new app that will keep you in the know about weather conditions on your upcoming trip, including hourly lightning strikes, summit temperature, and wind forecasts for almost every mountain in Colorado.


Planning Your Meals

Campfire cooking

Believe it or not, you don’t have to survive on nuts and berries or dried grub when you’re in the mountains. Cooking over a campfire (or bringing some pre-prepped meals) can actually result in some excellent dining experiences. And what’s better than dinner under the stars?

We recommend creating a kitchen kit for convenience and easy packing every time. Our go-to items include:

  • A lightweight camp stove or cooking system (Jax recommends Jetboil! See “Packing for Your Trip.”) 
  • One mug and bowl per person
  • One spork per person
  • A stirring spoon
  • A small bag of spices (ladies, old makeup jars are great for this.)
  • A paring knife
  • A small sponge to clean up

As far as food goes, make sure you bring enough! Dieting in the wilderness is never a good idea — you’ll need all the energy you can get for your hike. Carrots are a wonderful option for a quick, fresh snack that will stay good for several days without refrigeration. Otherwise, pack what you like! If you pack smart, you’ll be eating like royalty in the mountains.

Here are some of our favorites, but feel free to improvise:

  • Pasta: An easy, light, and flavorful option that can be prepped with minimal ingredients. This is most convenient if you are camping near a water source.
  • Instant Oatmeal: Once mixed with boiling water (and maybe some berries you find along the hike if you’re lucky), oatmeal makes for a hearty start to the day.
  • Breakfast Bars: These little bars pack a nutritional punch with little to no clean-up.
  • Snacks: Small dried fruits, nuts and jerky will keep you satisfied throughout the day.
  • Ramen noodles: Thought you left these bad boys back in college? Think again! Ramen is incredibly satisfying and easy to pack.
  • Instant soups: For shorter trips, instant soups in cans are easy and delicious. Just heat them over the stove and you’re good to go!


Considering Bathroom Basics

We’re sure you’re not excited to read a section about bathroom basics, but it’s important nonetheless. Without the convenience of a campsite bathroom or porta-potty, you’ll need to follow a few rules of thumb:

  • Always make sure you’re at least 200 feet from a water source. (That’s about 70 steps).
  • Leave no trace — in other words, don’t leave your TP buried under a rock.
  • Plastic bags are super handy for packing small quantities of toilet paper in and out — just make sure you bring two of them. Pro-tip: Line the bag with foil for higher discretion.
  • Bring wet wipes. They will definitely come in handy!

Enjoy Your Adventure!

What would you add to this list? We’re always looking for recommendations for great trails and easy camping foods. Let us know what has worked best for you in the comments section!


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