While snowbirds flock away to warmer climates this winter, some of us can’t wait to zip up, throw on some skis, and catch some fresh powder.
But let’s face it, lift passes can be pricey! And shelling out the dough for that expensive resort lodging can definitely break the bank. Why sacrifice what could have been a few extra days on the slopes? Give winter camping a try!
Winter camping in Colorado may seem daunting at first. But with the right gear and proper knowledge, it can be a great way to get in touch with the Centennial State’s natural beauty.
If winter camping in Colorado sounds like your next big adventure, we’re here to help. Read on for some tips and tricks on how to properly prepare for those chilly Rocky Mountain nights.
Picking a Site
There are a number of important factors to consider when determining where to set up camp in winter conditions.
Mountain precipitation is unpredictable all year round in Colorado, and navigating a snowstorm is no joke. When you first arrive at your destination, it’s important to identify several landmarks near your site that will remain identifiable even after heavy snowfall.
Tall rock formations and unique trees can be your friends when white out conditions blur your vision.
When selecting the location for your tent, be strategic in utilizing your environment. Be wary of setting up camp under anything that is at risk of falling under the weight of accumulating snow.
Though trees and surrounding foliage can be helpful in protecting you from strong winds, overhead branches pose a risk to anyone standing below.
Additionally, setting up camp in uncovered locations allows for more sun exposure, keeping your tent a bit warmer on breezy winter days.
Setting up Camp in the Snow
Before setting up, it’s integral to take the time to pack down any snow underneath the perimeter of your tent. If this important step is missed, you may wake up to find yourself in a person-shaped hole after your body heat melts the snow beneath you!
Once you’ve packed the snow down, you’re all set to pitch your tent.
Make sure your tent opening is not facing the direction of incoming wind. If there is limited protective coverage around your site, prioritize facing the entrance of your tent towards anything available.
If all else fails, you can always use the one resource you’ll have plenty of… snow! Many winter campers find that building a snow wall around their tent can be a great way to break up strong winds.
You’ll want to make sure you’re keeping your tent firmly pitched into the ground. If there is a fair amount of snow coverage, normal tent stakes aren’t going to do the job. Snow stakes are built broader, longer, and lighter to help keep your tent securely planted into the snowy ground.
If you’re looking for something affordable and effective, we recommend the Co-op snow stakes from REI to get the job done.
In addition to securely anchoring down your tent, it’s important to keep the walls of the tent itself as taught as possible in order to prevent them from being weighed down by falling snow.
Finally, make sure to store vital gear such as phones, batteries, fuel, and lighters in your sleeping bag to prevent them from freezing. Though it may seem a bit strange, cozying up with these important items in your sleeping bag overnight is a great way to keep them safe.
Winter camping in Colorado calls for a very specific set of gear. To ensure you’re properly protected from the elements, check out some of our recommendations for winter camping gear:
A four season tent is highly recommended as they are equipped with studier poles and heavier fabrics to help insulate heat and combat heavy winds.
If you don’t feel ready to invest in a four season tent just yet, your current three season tent can be muscled up by throwing a tent footprint underneath your current tent’s base. This will help prevent any snow melt from leaking into the flooring of your tent as well as provide some insulation from the cold ground.
A weather shelter or tent tarp can also be helpful in fighting off breeze and snow.
Keep in mind that winter camping requires sturdier gear and thicker clothing, which may call for more storage space than typically needed in the summer months. We recommend taking along a 80 liter backpack at minimum.
If you plan on taking skis or snowshoes, a backpack with lash points will be particularly helpful. We like the ALPS Mountaineering Red Tail 80 Pack from REI for its durability, lightweight design, and practical rain cover.
A good rule of thumb with sleeping bags is to pick one rated 10 degrees lower than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. Generally speaking, the Rocky Mountain region drops down to an average of 13F at night during the winter months. For winter camping in Colorado, your best bet is a 0F rated bag. That said, if you tend to feel on the warmer side overnight, a 15F rated bag may do the trick as well.
Liquid fuel stoves are generally preferable to canister stoves as they perform better in cold temperatures and are overall more efficient.
Just ensure that you place the stove on something solid rather than on top of fallen snow, as to avoid melting the snow below. An unstable stove could lead to a cooking catastrophe!
Maybe an elderly loved one has told you this one before, but we’re here to remind you… Dress warm! Three layers of clothes are recommended for winter camping in Colorado.
Any light sweater, hoodie, flannel, and sturdy pair of pants paired with some long underwear can provide a perfect base layer.
A good middle layer consists of insulating clothing, preferably with high maneuverability. A lightweight down jacket can work wonders while keeping you warm without feeling stiff.
Your outer layer should be focused on the function of waterproofing and windbreak. A good waterproof insulated jacket will serve you well when you’re caught in heavy snowfall and strong winds. If your middle layer is on the heavier side, or is highly insulated, you may be able to get away with just a simple, sturdy waterproof jacket on top.
You can’t be too safe when it comes to winter camping! Weather can be unpredictable in the mountains and white out conditions can often show up without warning.
A hand crank radio can always be an asset when caught in a sticky situation. Knowledge of incoming weather can inform whether it’s safer to head home or temporarily seek shelter. Moreover, park rangers always have their receiving radios on hand, prepared to respond to any emergency communications.
If you’re venturing far away from camp, having a distress signal tucked away in your daypack may provide some peace of mind in case of an avalanche. In the event that you get caught underneath the snow, or lost on the trail, this will make you easily identifiable to search and rescue teams.
Emergency Heat Source
Whether you’re caught in a storm or just on a long hike, HotHands warmers are always useful to prevent frostbite as well as keeping your fingers nimble in freezing temperatures.
The Best Spots for Winter Camping in Colorado
It’s difficult to boil all of Colorado’s stunning winter camping locations down to 5 spots, but we did our best to provide a list of our personal favorites.
While it would be an understatement to say we love these locations, you might find a nook and cranny of Colorado that we haven’t discovered yet! If you have any spots for winter camping in Colorado that you love that we may have missed, feel free to shoot us some suggestions.
1. Glacier Basin
With stunning views of Longs Peak and the surrounding mountains, the always clean and well-maintained Glacier Basin Campground features spotless bathrooms with plumbing.
Campsites at Glacier Basin are far more spacious than commonly dense campgrounds around the Rocky Mountain region. This rings particularly true during the winter months when campgrounds are less populated.
At this time of year, camp staff tend to be quite accommodating, particularly when placing you in the most coveted spots the campground has to offer.
Glacier Basin is very close to both the Bear Lake and Glacier George trailheads. Additionally, the campground is just a short drive to the charming little town of Estes Park. (Just in case you’re hoping to warm up inside one of Estes Park’s many cozy coffee shops.)
2. Flat Tops Wilderness Area
Right on the Rio Grande, South Fork Campground offers amazing access to all the Flat Tops Wilderness has to offer. Strewn with volcanic cliffs and alpine tundra, this region is a geology enthusiast’s dream.
Tucked between the White River Plateau’s flat topped cliffs, campers can enjoy over 160 miles of trail and nearly 100 miles of fishable streams.
This well wooded campground is chalk full of amenities such as: wi-fi, clean bathrooms, a shower house, and full hook-ups for RV campers.
3. Eleven Mile State Park
Listen carefully fishermen! Eleven Mile State Park hosts one of Colorado’s largest reservoirs, boasting award winning trout, pike, and kokanee fishing. (Just remember to check on the Colorado State fishing regulations before you go emptying out the whole lake!)
The reservoir is excellent for iceboating whilst enjoying sweeping views of the surrounding boulder formations and distant mountain views. Although the open reservoir can get relatively windy, nearby campgrounds are often well wooded and protected from winter gusts.
If you’re looking for a water activity focused camping experience, Eleven Mile State Park is an underrated gem. Overlooked by many tourists, this area never fails to have open camping spaces, particularly in the winter season.
4. Arapaho National Forest
Tucked away in Arapaho National Forest, Denver Creek Campground is sunny and sprawling. Campsites are large and offer plenty of space between you and your neighbors.
As a first come, first serve campground, many campers are often hard pressed to find open sites during the summer months. So winter camping is a wonderful way to see what the Arapaho National Forest is all about.
You’lll find excellent backwoods hiking nearby as well as great fishing at Willow Creek.
That said, don’t be afraid to hop in your car and explore a little further outside the campground. In the Arapaho National Forest, there are no wrong turns. Every direction offers spectacular, sweeping views for a stunning Sunday drive.
Just don’t forget to check out some of this national forest’s incredible hiking trails before wandering too far out from camp.
5. Navajo State Park
With 150 miles of shoreline, you’ll struggle to get caught in a crowd on Navajo Lake. The lake offers some incredible fishing and spectacular opportunities for wildlife spotting. The area is practically teeming with foxes, deer, and turkeys.
We’ve heard that bald eagle sightings in the area are even more frequent in the winter months as these incredible birds seek to warm up at the sunny, open lake.
Though there are 118 campsites throughout the park, we highly recommend Rosa Campground Loop which offers direct lake views as well as full hookups and pull through spots for RVs. That’s pretty rare for a public campground!
Looking for something a bit more challenging? Dispersed camping can be a great way to experience the incredible tranquility winter camping in Colorado has to offer.
Dispersed camping, by definition, is any camping that takes place outside of a designated campground. This means no bathrooms, running water, premade fire pits, or trash removal. This is really roughing it, folks!
Colorado is an ideal area for dispersed camping as you are completely free to camp in any of Colorado’s 11 national forests:
- Arapaho National Forest
- Rio Grande National Forest
- Grand Mesa National Forest
- White River National Forest
- San Juan National Forest
- Gunnison National Forest
- Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest
- Pike National Forest
- Roosevelt National Forest
- San Isabel National Forest
- Uncompahgre National Forest
While there is a wonderful amount of freedom in being able to camp nearly anywhere you like within any of Colorado’s astonishing national forests, there are still some import regulations to keep in mind before setting up camp.
Dispersed camping is not permitted within a 1 mile radius of any campgrounds, trailheads, or picnic areas.
It’s highly recommended that you stay 100 feet away from any natural water sources and within 150 feet of a nearby roadway. This is for both your safety, and for the preservation of the wildlife around you.
If you’re worried about setting up camp where you shouldn’t be, we recommend dropping into a nearby ranger station. Park rangers are always friendly, helpful, and may even have some great suggestions for stunning little spots around the area.
If you intend to try out dispersed camping, please be aware of the Leave No Trace Guidelines set by the US Forest Service to help keep our national parks safe.
Looking for something a little more comfortable without having to empty out your pockets for a cabin? Spending the night in a car or an RV can be a great way to experience winter camping in Colorado.
Beyond providing a little extra protection from the elements, vehicular camping will keep you mobile. Without the hassle of setting up a tent, you’ll have the opportunity to explore even more of Colorado’s beautiful wilderness.
Believe it or not, preparation for winter car camping isn’t so different from that of tent camping. If anything, it can even be a bit easier!
However, don’t overestimate how much your vehicle can protect you from freezing temperatures. Though you may not need to worry about wind and snow as much as you would in a tent, the interior of your vehicle can still reach freezing temperatures overnight.
For this reason, we recommend the same gear we mentioned above to keep you safe and warm while camping in the winter season.
However, the addition of a few insulation panels placed on your vehicle’s windows can help to preserve heat and provide some extra privacy.
If you’re just getting back to camp after a long day of adventuring, we recommend blasting your car’s central heat for a little while before heading to bed. Just make sure to turn off your vehicle before falling asleep. Leaving your vehicle’s engine on overnight can be hazardous.
If you don’t have proper snow tires, Colorado’s slippery mountain passes can be hazardous. Ensure you have all season tires installed on your vehicle for those wintery drives.
As far as car camping goes, with the exception of walk-in only sites, you are free to camp in any campground a tent would be permitted in. This leaves you with a lot of options when compared to camping in a larger vehicle like an RV.
RV camping has the potential to be an even more comfortable option than car camping during the winter. However, the luxuries that come along with an RV call for some more necessary precautions in order to properly protect your vehicle.
When not actively running the engine, ensure that you empty all of the water tanks, drain the water heater, water lines, and disable onboard plumbing to avoid bursting pipes. Many campers find that leaving a source of water lightly running throughout the night can also provide protection against bursts.
Just like in your car, leaving your RV’s onboard heating on overnight is neither safe or practical. If you’re at a campsite where you can hook up to electricity, an electric heater is ideal. If not, a small propane heater is your best bet.
Insulation is essential in larger vehicles such as RVs given the extra heat necessary to keep a larger area warm. It is recommended that you leave window shades closed throughout the night or when outside of the vehicle to preserve heat.
If you have slide outs, foam insulation boards under the slides will help heat from escaping.
If you don’t have your own RV, we love RV Share’s affordable and comfortable rentals. You can easily choose between a wide variety of their different vehicles located in Denver if you want a quick and easy option for mobile winter camping in Colorado.
Of the above spots mentioned, RV camping is available at the following locations: Glacier Basin, South Fork Campground, Denver Creek Campground, as well as Navajo State Park’s Rosa and Carracas loops.
It’s important to recognize that Colorado’s stunning wintery mountainscapes come with some risks. Although it’s unlikely that you will find yourself caught in an avalanche, it’s always best to be prepared for the worst.
The best way to ensure your own safety is to avoid putting yourself in dangerous circumstances in the first place. You may not realize it, but most avalanche survivors triggered the very disasters they themselves became victims of.
That being said, it’s important to keep an eye on your surroundings during mountain hikes or trips down the ski slopes. A good way to spot danger areas is to identify any evidence of sliding snow or areas where trees and foliage have been torn down.
A good rule of thumb when hiking in heavy snow is to stay near heavily wooded areas and ridge tops where snow is more stabilized by the surrounding environment.
If you get caught in an avalanche:
- Do not panic. Try to stay calm.
- Tightly hold on to the closest rock, tree, or solid object.
- Keep your mouth closed.
- If you begin to move downward or get caught in the snow, use a swimming motion to stay on the surface while trying to move yourself to the side of the avalanche’s wake.
As the avalanche slows and stops:
- If possible, push yourself towards the surface.
- Make an air pocket in front of your face.
- If you cannot dig yourself out, relax your breathing and conserve energy.
- Only shout when you believe rescue is nearby.
Wrapping up Winter Camping in Colorado
Though winter camping may present a few more challenges than in the warmer months, winter camping in Colorado can be rewarding and splendidly serene. Witnessing Colorado’s stunning landscape under a blanket of fresh snow is unbeatable.
The best part? Colorado’s quieter winter months draw out its abundant wildlife in droves. A special treat for nature lovers willing to tough it out in the ice and snow.
So strap on those snowshoes! We’ll see you out there.
Having a tough time choosing your first four-season tent for the upcoming winter season? Check out our post on The Best Winter Tents for Cold Weather Camping.