How and where to rock a cold-weather camping adventure this winter.
THERE’S SOMETHING HUMBLING about spending the night enveloped by the profound, soft silence of snowfall or a luminous blanket of white under the stars. It’s a sensory joyride—but winter camping should never be undertaken on a whim. It takes fortitude, mental clarity and a heck of a lot of preparation. So, we asked local experts how to stay warm, dry, and safe when the sun dips and the mountains become their rawest selves. Plus: where the heartiest souls can click into some skis or snowshoes and pitch a tent in northern Colorado during the chillier months.
Essential cold-weather gear aside (yes, you’ll want waterproof everything, first aid supplies, Smartwool and layers galore, a four-season tent, and a sleeping bag with the appropriate degree rating), check out these winter camping tips, courtesy of experts including Search & Rescue, the National Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Do: Invest in your warmth. Consider extras like the Crua Cocoon ($299, cruaoutdoors.com)—a standalone lightweight, insulated tent that can be used inside most regular tents. Think: puffy jacket in shelter form.
Do: Fill your water bottles with hot water and put insulated covers on them before leaving home. Try storing them in a cooler in the car to prevent freezing, and always store them upside down in your pack, as the water at the top of the bottle—now the bottom—will freeze first, giving you more time to drink.
Do: Have tools on hand—think shovels, winch, ropes and boards—in case your car gets stuck. Forest service roads can be tricky in snowy conditions. In a pinch, vehicle floor mats are a good source of traction for spinning tires.
Do: Bring three different ways to light a campfire (where permitted). Matches and a lighter are not good fire-starters by themselves due to short burn times; try cotton balls soaked with a bit of Vaseline, which will stay lit for awhile.
Do: Pack out your waste. All of it. You may not be able to dig down and bury your business if the ground is frozen or under feet of snow. Be kind to spring hikers: Let it freeze and bag it up.
Don’t: Rely on energy bars for food. Stashed in a pack, they’ll quickly freeze into bricks. The military recommends up to 5,000 calories a day to replenish energy stores from exertion in extreme cold; Google “military cold weather meals” for inspiration.
Don’t: Ignore your extremities. Devise a good layering system, like removable liners under your gloves and Gore-Tex outer-layer mittens over them. “If you need hand and foot warmers,” says seasoned winter camper Ben Watson, “you have the wrong gear.”
Don’t: Go to bed cold. Before sleeping, eat fats and carbs and drink hot water or cocoa. Top off your (leak-proof) water bottles with hot water and slide them in your sleeping bag for extra warmth.
Don’t: Think it won’t happen to you. Always check avalanche conditions; call the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (303-499-9650) or visit avalanche.state.co.us. Carry a shovel, beacon and probe regardless of the forecast, and consider a backcountry travel/avalanche safety course or clinic (coloradomountainschool.com).
Where to Camp Now
About 65 miles west of Fort Collins on CO 14 before you reach Cameron Pass lies Joe Wright Reservoir. Across the highway from the reservoir lot, look for the Joe Wright Trail (a figure-eight route) or, slightly farther down the road across from the Zimmerman Lake parking area, the Cameron Connection (a two-mile route that links Cameron Pass and the Zimmerman Lake lot). These are “easy cross-country ski trails close to the road but far enough away to enjoy the winter’s night silence,” says Mary Bollinger, visitor information specialist for Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests and Pawnee National Grassland. “You’ll find reliable snow at this higher elevation, which stays throughout the winter.” Though the trails are designated easy, don’t be fooled: Elevations above 10,000 feet add an extra degree of exertion.
Lory State Park
Camping here is backcountry only: Six first-come, first-served primitive sites (no water, restrooms, or tent pads) require a minimum two-mile uphill snowshoe—we’re talking 1,000 feet of elevation gain. (The sites almost never fill up, says seasonal ranger Kayla Jones.) Take the Arthur’s Rock Trail from the park’s southernmost parking area for killer views of Horsetooth Reservoir and the Front Range; campsite No. 1 is the closest to the summit. Or, take the Timber Trail from the Timber Group Picnic Area near the Visitor’s Center (where you’ll pick up your permit and park pass) and wind your way through meadows and forest to the camping areas. Note: Campfires are off limits—don’t forego a small backpacking stove.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
When the day-skiers and ’shoers beeline for home, overnighters can enjoy breathtaking winter sunsets in relative solitude. About two miles west of Ward on CO 72, you’ll reach the Brainard Gateway Trailhead, where you can access several trails and the blocked-off Brainard Lake Road—the best choice if you’re hauling a gear sled. Most people set up camp (prohibited between October 15 and November 15) within the first two or so miles on the trail system before reaching the lake. Note: You must be a quarter of a mile away from developed sites and facilities. You can start a campfire, but the rules change—no fires—if you hike farther west beyond the lake into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which opens for camping December 1. Quick tip: “Check the weather; that road [to the gateway] is not a priority for the county to plow,” says Elaine Wells, visitor information specialist with the Boulder Ranger District.