If you’re new to Denver or are simply new to camping, one look at the Rockies’ distant peaks might leave you feeling daunted. Don’t worry! Much of Colorado’s protected land lies within easy reach of the metro area, with camping opportunities for every skill level and preference. Car camping is one of the easiest ways to dip your toes into the lifestyle, since you’ll use your car to carry all of your gear and to access your site (rather than putting everything on your back and hiking in); you just have a few simple decisions to make.
Would you prefer an established campground or a more primitive wilderness experience?
Think of it this way: Would you like to have neighbors, a fire ring, a picnic table, a level place to pitch your tent, and public restrooms? Or would you like to pitch your tent wherever you feel like it, avoid the neighbors and find a good tree when nature calls? Colorado camping runs the gamut, from full-fledged campgrounds to dispersed, no-services campsites scattered across public land.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking dispersed camping is the way to go, you’ll have to check — some areas allow you to camp wherever your heart desires. Others, if they’re heavily used, have designated sites (usually identifiable by a fire ring). Portions of the Pike National Forest — the South Platte Ranger District, in particular — lie within easy reach of the Denver metro area. If you want to enjoy dispersed camping in the national forest, especially along the uber-popular Guanella Pass road and in the Buffalo Creek area, keep your eye out for official fire rings. Staying in designated campsites helps limit the impact on the surrounding wilderness.
Do you have a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle, and are your tires in good shape?
Take a good look on a map to see where your chosen camping area lies. While many backcountry aficionados tell amusing stories of taking ill-suited sedans, sportscars and even family minivans to the top of mountain passes or along old mining roads in the high country, it’s not advisable.
Many of these locations don’t have decent cell service if you get stuck, and poor road conditions can mean trouble even in the middle of summer — never mind in the shoulder seasons, when snow is a real possibility.
Outdoor gear retailer REI is an excellent source of guidebooks and maps; you also can check with the appropriate ranger district to find out more about local road conditions.
If you have a front-wheel-drive car, focus on camping areas that are easily accessible by paved road or graded, novice-level gravel road. If you do have a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle backcountry driving, make sure your tires are in good condition. You don’t want to be skittering around the corners on narrow mountain roads, nor do you want to be spinning your wheels if gravel and dirt turn to muck.
Where are you planning to sleep?
Are you planning to bring a tent, or will you sleep in your vehicle? The best thing about car camping is that, unlike the intrepid backpacker with 35 to 40 pounds of only essential gear on his back, you can bring along all the extras for a more comfortable camping experience. A few tips:
- If you’re accessing your campsite by car, don’t bring a backpacking tent. They’re meant for backpacks, where the primary concerns are size and weight. There’s no reason to select a small, cramped tent when you have your vehicle at your disposal. Instead, invest in a decent-sized tent with space for everyone; consider one with plenty of headroom, lots of opening windows and a vestibule for discarding muddy shoes and clothing before climbing into sleeping bags.
- If you’re camping with kids, consider a large tent with a divider to separate sleeping spaces.
- Bring a good rain fly for your tent. Seam-sealer or waterproofing spray will help repel water from condensation or rain, but without a good rain fly, you’re probably going to get wet in a downpour.
- Inflatable or foam mattress pads can keep you from feeling every pebble and tree root underneath your back. Large inflatable beds are great, too; if you have the storage space in your car, they’ll be well worth it (as will an air pump that runs on power from your vehicle).
- Don’t even think about sleeping in your vehicle unless you have a sizable hatchback (think SUVs and some station-wagon-style crossover models) and rear seats that will fold down. Crack the windows, and lay down an inflatable or foam mattress pad. Make the “way back” feel as much like a bed as you can, otherwise you’re looking at a long night.
How high are you going?
This is a critical question in Colorado. If you’re going to camp somewhere on the plains or at lower elevations, you can look at the season and plan accordingly. Summer? No problem—wear T-shirts and shorts, flip-flops, and light pajamas.
Summer in the high country is a totally different thing. Temperatures may drop into the 30s at night, which means you’d better bring a warm jacket, hat, mittens and long underwear. (You’ll likely sleep in all of them, so don’t worry too much about PJs.) Make sure your sleeping bags are rated for lower temperatures, and consider bringing a thick down blanket to wrap around your sleeping bag. Those inflatable mattresses conduct cold surprisingly well, and down will add extra insulation.
Once you have a basic plan for where to set up camp, how to get there and the essential supplies, you might consider filling your trunk with creature comforts, such as a screenhouse, extra tables, lounge chairs, gas grills, equipment for making s’mores and yard games.
Family Travel Colorado offers more tips for family camping with kids, and Elevation Outdoors has a list of the state’s 10 best spots for car camping. But don’t take anyone else’s word for it. Get out there, find your own perfect spot, and start making memories!
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