Backcountry Camping in Colorado:
How to stay safe while traveling the backcountry in Colorado.
Backcountry Camping in Colorado presents unique challenges and rewards. While those of us who live and hike in Colorado are equipped to deal with both the physical and mental aspects of exploring our vast backcountry, it can be a daunting task for those either visiting the state for the first time, or for those locals who are finally decided to strike out on their own. Colorado is fortunate to be home to some of the most unspoiled wilderness areas in the country, and some of the largest. Our Weminuche Wilderness comprises over 500,000 acres and encompasses much of our famed San Juan Mountains range. If you follow the tips below you'll have a safer and more stress free time. So, let's dive into it!
1. Backcountry Navigation
Plan on using a backcountry navigation app like Gaia GPS. This is a great app to use that will use the GPS on your phone to find your location even when you're offline. With a backcountry navigator map downloaded to your phone you can see all sorts of detailed topographic information and all the trail information. Make sure to get familiar with whatever app you choose for your backcountry navigation.
Consider also using a handheld GPS for hiking that runs on AA batteries. There are a lot of great options out there so check them out. Take a look at options that use buttons rather than a touchscreen as these are easier to operate in cold weather or with gloves on and should be more durable over the years. These handheld gps devices are really handy. With many Garmin units, you can create or upload routes to send to your device and then follow your uploaded route while out in the backcountry.
Plan on also carrying paper maps and a compass and have some idea of how to use them. While handheld gps devices and a backcountry navigator app are really nice to use, they can break, your batteries can die, or Bigfoot might just come and snatch it to find his way to the nearest Jerky stand. There is no substitute for using paper maps and a compass.
2. Backcountry Packing List
Your backcountry packing list should look like you're headed to the airport and you're not entirely sure where you're going. Be prepared for all four seasons even when you're in the height of summer. Weather can turn on a dime when you're in in the backcountry of Colorado and especially when you're spending time in alpine zones above 10,000 feet. Make sure that you pack a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, a down puffy, and a good wool base layer. If you want to get fancy (and I suggest you do) pack layers for sleeping in, like a wool base layer top and bottoms. Your clothing should be chosen to cope with extreme swings in temperature, serious gusts of wind, and prolonged periods of rain, hail, or snow. You should also plan to pack an extra 24-36 hours worth of food should you need it.
Now when it comes to your backcountry packing list for shelter and sleeping, do not skimp on these items. These are the items in your pack that may just be the most important. For beginners, I think it's appropriate to use a tent that is more stout than the ultralight tents that are becoming more popular these days. A sturdier tent is going to weigh more but it is going to do a better job of protecting you from the elements should you either not get the perfect drum tight pitch on your tent or if you pick a sub optimal camping spot. For more advanced backcountry campers using an ultralight tent or a tarp is ok as long as you understand the best places to pitch your shelter.
For your sleeping bag, I'm going to only recommend that you use a 20 degree sleeping bag, preferably of the down fill variety. These down sleeping bags will compress extremely well and provide a ton of warmth for their weight. While synthetic sleeping bags do work just fine they are better suited to humid or wet conditions. They also tend to weigh at least double what a down sleeping bag will weigh.
3. Wilderness Medicine
We tend to be overly optimistic when we head out into the wilderness, thinking that nothing could ever happen to us. Well, most of the time we are correct! However, when traveling in the backcountry, whether in Colorado or the rest of the world, it's important to be prepared. You should pack the necessities that will, at the very least, keep you well enough to seek out safety should something go wrong. So, what to pack in your wilderness medicine kit? Here is what we tend to bring with us while backcountry camping in Colorado: Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Band-Aids, Gauze, Ace Wrap, Bleed Stop Kit, Floss/Needle (great for stitching up all sorts of holes, on your body or otherwise), Tweezers, Splint, and any other medication needed on a daily bases. Should anything go wrong, these items above should help to keep you safe enough while you signal for rescue.
4. Personal Locator Beacon and Batteries.Consider purchasing and using a Personal Locator Beacon for your backcountry camping trip in Colorado. While they are initially expensive, the peace of mind that a Personal Locator Beacon can provide is well worth the cost, and god forbid you should need rescue, you will be very very happy that you brought one with you. Our favorite is the Garmin InReach Mini, but anything that has a rescue beacon will suffice. Please be sure to bring battery back up to keep your personal locator beacon charged. A high capacity battery bank that can both charge your personal locator beacon as well as your cellphone, several times, is an important item to bring. While you most likely won't have cellphone service I'm positive you'll find yourself taking plenty of pictures and video on your trip. Should you find yourself in need of rescue AND you have cellphone service, you'll want to make sure your phone is juiced up enough to make the call and let rescuers know where you are and how to reach out. In fact, this is a main reason that we invented our West Slope Case. We wanted to make a product that can preserve battery life of your electronics so that you can know you'll be able to either signal for rescue or just check in with your loved ones back home.
5. Travel Smart
Travel Smart, whether you're a beginner or you're more advanced, travel smart and don't bite off more than you can chew. While you're backcountry camping in Colorado there are a multitude of factors to consider while planning your trip. Distance, elevation gain, class of terrain (will you be scrambling up steep slopes or traversing exposed ridges?) and weather all come in to play. Be sure to plan your trip with all of these factors in mind and, if it's your first time in Colorado, perhaps err on the side of caution.
6. Leave Your Itinerary With Someone You Trust
One of the most important things you can do to ensure your safety is to leave a detailed trip plan with someone you trust. Let them know where you're going, how long you plan to stay, where you plan to enter/exit the wilderness, and when you plan to be back home. Let them know who to contact (likely the local ranger district) in case they do not hear from you within 24-36 hours of your expected return date. If the absolute worst thing happens while you're in the wilderness this tactic will ensure that search and rescue will come looking for you. If you follow our backcountry camping tips, you'll be prepared to survive while they come looking.
We hope that this blog has taught you something new and helped you to feel more prepared for your upcoming backcountry camping trip in Colorado! We know you'll have the time of your life.