It’s 12 degrees at Brainard Lake. The wind is gusting up to 25 mph, and tiny snowflakes fall from a moody early February sky. Yet György Kereszti isn’t cold. Neither is Matt Silveira, who’s not even wearing gloves. Both are instructors for Colorado Mountain Club’s Winter Camping School, which I keep reminding myself I voluntarily signed up to attend as my body involuntarily shivers.
Kereszti is the director of the school and has been teaching the course—which entails three classroom sessions, a bit of homework, quizzes, and three trips into the field—since the late ’80s. At the moment, he’s helping students light camp stoves, few of which seem eager to ignite in the freezing air. When he gets to me, he sets aside my MSR PocketRocket ministove and goes digging into his well-worn pack. I assume he’s going to show me a better gear option, but instead he hands me a thermos. “You are too cold,” he says as he pours me a cup of hot, sugary Earl Grey. “Winter camping is only fun if you stay warm.”
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The tea didn’t thaw my toes, but it did buoy my spirit, as did the rays of sunshine that eventually poked through the clouds that day and gave me a glimpse of how magical snow camping can be under more ideal conditions. Kereszti likes to say there is “no bad weather, only uncomfortable weather.” I think of it like this: As with any other Colorado wintertime pursuit, being choosy about when you go can mean the difference between enjoying the experience and realizing hell has actually frozen over and you have pitched your tent there.
Weather, though, isn’t the only consideration for the winter-camping curious. That was the primary reason I’d sought out the expertise on tap at Golden’s Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), an organization dedicated to adventure, recreation, conservation, and, most crucial to me, education. The secondary justification for spending seven hours in a ground blizzard in the Indian Peaks Wilderness was this: As much as I love summertime camping, it’s become more and more challenging to find a secluded spot to revel in Centennial State splendor as Colorado’s population has grown. Even after a five-mile hike, you’ll likely still have neighbors if you’re camping in July. Not so in winter.
One could reasonably say, “Of course there’s no one out there then; it’s freezing and wet and miserable!” Yes, the upsides of sleeping in the snow may seem minimal, but ask those who do it and they will give myriad reasons why they treasure this often comfortless pastime. For some, it’s entirely about the isolation. For others, it’s the wildlife or the scent of pine or the allure of a frosted landscape. Still others find it’s the challenge they crave. For Kereszti it is, in part, about “the beauty of the moon and snowy mountains, the craziness of it.” Before you go in search of your own motivation, though, I suggest setting yourself up to love it—or, at the very least, not hate it. How? Following the advise of experts like Kereszti should help you warm up to winter camping.
CMC’s next Winter Camping School begins in February. $100 plus a one-year membership fee of $75; cmcdenver.org
Are You Prepared to Winter Camp?
Not everyone is hardy enough to hack winter camping. This quiz will help you decide whether you should stick to warm-weather tent-pitching or possibly give the fourth season a try.
In general, would you say you like camping?
A: Sure, if camping involves a king-size bed, an en suite bathroom, and room service.
B: I’m always down for putting my feet up on a log, listening to some tunes, and hoping I don’t miss a fish strike while I nap.
C: I don’t really even need a tent. I am one with nature.
When you do actually camp, do you like to be near others?
A: Yes. I want to have someone to ask for directions when I get lost trying to find the vault toilets.
B: I take some comfort in having other humans nearby—like on the far side of the valley—just in case.
C: If I see other people, it just means I haven’t hiked into the woods far enough.
How important is a fire?
A: S’mores are life.
B: I’d prefer to have one, but the smoke kinda hurts my eyes, so I can take it or leave it.
C: Stripping the environment of organic materials and pouring particulates into the air just isn’t necessary to enjoy nature. Plus, it’s a lot of work.
Alcohol is a vasodilator, which decreases your body temperature. That’s not a great thing in the winter. You cool skipping the whiskey?
A: Hell, no. Booze is my coping mechanism for sleeping on the ground.
B: I mean, I do like to have a brewski now and again.
C: Happy to skip the hangover so I can get up early and see the sunrise.
Would you willingly give up fire and firewater to avoid bears?
A: Bears scare the crap out of me, but still no.
B: Be nice not to have to do that whole toss-a-rope-up-in-a-tree thing.
C: Bears scare the crap out of me, so yes.
What’s your preferred hiking distance to find a primitive campsite?
A: Hiking? Primitive? Um, hard pass.
B: I don’t mind earning my dark chocolate bar, so a lengthy trek is fine.
C: I don’t have a preference on hike length as long as we find a beautiful spot.
Camping sometimes can be frustrating—is patience your virtue?
A: I melted down when my jacket zipper got stuck the other day.
B: I have a pretty long wick before I go boom.
C: I read the Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon, twice while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Do you have the packing skills of a Marine?
A: I can’t bring a suitcase?
B: No, drill sergeant.
Are you one of those people who wears shorts when it’s 32 degrees out?
A: Only if that’s in Celsius.
B: I mean, I don’t see anything wrong with some pants when it’s chilly. Maybe a hat, ya know?
If you chose mostly A’s…
Let’s be honest: You probably need to skip primitive camping altogether, but since campfires are far too much effort in the winter, booze can lower your body temperature, and you’ll more than likely have to drop trou in the snow to pee, we’d highly suggest you avoid winter camping. For a story on local shopping, please see our holiday gift guide.
If you chose mostly B’s…
We believe in you. You would get used to the solitude—maybe even grow to love it. And while you don’t have to choose shorter treks, remember that in winter, hikes feel longer because you’re trudging in snowshoes. You’ll have to learn to be a more precise packer, but your above-average patience will come in handy for that.
If you chose mostly C’s…
You were born to sleep in the snow. And with the bears in hibernation, you can feel safe waking up at dawn to snowshoe or cross-country ski all by your lonesome. We do, however, recommend you bring warmer clothes than shorts.
Getting to Your Campsite
The journey to your campsite—whether it’s a one- or five-miler—sets the mood for the rest of your getaway. Here, three ways to make the road less traveled far more enjoyable.
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See If The Shoe Fits
First-time snow campers will likely want to use snowshoes (as opposed to alpine-touring skis, which are more challenging to use) with trekking poles as their mode of transportation. For those who don’t already have a pair, flat-terrain models are easy to use, fairly inexpensive, offer good flotation, have simple bindings, and are effective on a rolling landscape. Before you get on the trail, try on your snowshoes with the snow boots you’ll be wearing. Walk around in your backyard. Can you manipulate the bindings? Are you tripping because the snowshoes are too wide for your gait? Does the setup feel so tight on your feet that circulation could be affected, causing cold toes? “You don’t want to find out you have a problem a half-mile into the hike,” says CMC’s György Kereszti.
Pack It Up
Carrying 35 to 45 pounds on your back while walking in snowshoes and wearing enough clothing for snowmageddon can be a little awkward. Knowing how to fill your backpack for ease of use, comfort, and stability on the trail can stop frustration before it begins. “Packing in the right order helps immensely,” Kereszti says. He recommends placing your sleeping bag, tent, and down booties at the bottom; sliding your sitting pad down the back for extra padding along your spine; putting heavier and cooking-related items on top of the sleeping bag; and then placing extra clothing, first-aid kit, backup batteries, thermos, and food next. At the top of the pack, likely in a separate pocket, you’ll stash sunscreen, toilet paper, sunglasses or goggles, a compass and a map, a headlamp, lighters and matches, a whistle, and a multitool. The outside of your bag will host a snow shovel, snow probes, and sleeping pads.
Walk This Way
Breaking trail in deep snow is a lung- and leg-burning task. If you’re hiking with a group, divvying up time as the lead post-holer lets everyone share the burden—and get a breather. To do so without having to stop and ask whose turn is next, try this: Form a single line on the trail. The first person in line is the trailbreaker, tromping through the powder and making it a little bit easier for everyone behind her. When she tires, she simply steps to the side, allows the second person in line to begin breaking the trail, and as the line moves past her takes the rear position. When the second person gets winded, he jumps aside and does the same thing. And so on—until your group reaches its destination.
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Recreationists need to be aware of two weather-related conditions: hypothermia and frostbite. Both ailments are caused by exposure to the cold. Hypothermia sets in when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, dropping body temperature to unsafe levels (95 degrees or lower is a serious emergency). Hypothermia can present as shivering, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. If you notice these symptoms in others, it’s imperative you get them to a warm shelter, remove wet clothing, and heat up the center of the person’s body with blankets, clothing, or skin-to-skin contact. Frostbite is an injury to the skin caused by freezing; it’s common in extremities, such as the nose, ears, fingers, and toes. Early signs of frostbite include redness or pain but can change to include a grayish-yellow coloring of the skin, numbness, and skin that feels too firm or looks waxy. If medical care isn’t available, get the person to a comfortable shelter, put the affected body part into warm (but not hot) water, and resist the urge to rub the area, as that can cause more damage. Severe frostbite may require amputation of affected body parts.
How To Stay Warm
It’s far more difficult to warm back up after getting chilled, so winter campers need to corral body warmth with clothing, gear, and good habits.
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Don’t Sweat It
Insensible perspiration is the constant evaporation of water through the skin that we can’t help and don’t notice. It causes us to lose roughly 20 percent of our body heat. However, sensible perspiration—when you can feel and see that you’re sweating—is the bigger issue during winter camping because it can mean losing up to 85 percent of your body heat. When you sweat, the clothing next to your skin gets wet and makes you feel cold. Move slowly and steadily, and try not to exert yourself so much that you start to drip. When you are working hard, adjust layers as necessary. Wear moisture-wicking clothing with easy-access ventilation, like armpit and leg zips.
Build A Barrier
Through the process of conduction, up to five percent of body warmth can be lost when you touch a colder object: sitting on a boulder or standing or sitting on the snow, for example. Veteran cold-weather campers never go anywhere without a sitting pad. These inexpensive squares of foam impede heat transfer as you stand on one while cooking dinner or sit on one to eat.
We lose about 10 percent of our heat through respiration. Wearing a snorkel hood and/or a buff or balaclava can help retain heat by warming and humidifying the cold, dry air before it reaches your airway.
Keep It All Inside
To combat forced convection—aka wind blowing through your clothing—you need duds that are insulating, waterproof, and windproof. If not, you could sacrifice up to 15 percent of your body heat. Trapped air is the best insulator, so you’ll want to wear thicker materials, like wool, that have tiny pockets that keep warm air next to your skin. It’s also a good idea to tuck in clothing tight, and a water- and windproof shell is a must.
At least half of your warmth is forfeited to radiation, a process in which heat moves away from the body (at temps lower than 68 degrees), usually from the head and neck but also from any other exposed skin, like wrists and ankles. Wrap up—without sweating—using hats, gloves, scarves, and high socks.
Guide To Good Sleep
Tuck yourself in using these tips for a decent night of zzz’s.
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Even the most novice winter camper likely knows she will need a sleeping bag with a lower-limit temperature rating (0 degrees is a reasonable choice); warm, loose-fitting clothes (made of wool or synthetic fabrics) to snooze in; and a self-inflating air mattress for cushiness. What newbies might not know? A foam sleeping pad that goes on top of your air mattress to reduce conduction from the snow is first on the list of requirements.
“Make sure it has a high R-value, probably well above four,” says Ed Schaefer, a CMC Winter Camping School instructor, who explains the rating represents how well the insulation restricts heat flow. A wool skull cap for sleeping and a bottle insulator to keep your nighttime drinking water from freezing are also musts. For extra comfort before bedtime, Kereszti recommends two things: a warm beverage for an emotional lift and a stainless-steel bottle filled with hot water to cuddle with.
Setting Up Your Tent
A lot more thought—and effort—goes into selecting and setting up your home base when snow serves as the foundation.
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After a short hike, you’ve found a scene straight out of Frozen, minus the annoying snowman, that’s perfect for your overnight. At least, upon first glance. Before you throw down your pack, you should do a safety assessment. Ideally, you’ve done some research to ensure the area where you’re hoping to camp isn’t prime avalanche territory. You don’t want your site sitting on or below an incline with a slope angle of more than 30 degrees. (If you’re not sure, hopefully you’ve brought along an inclinometer, a handheld gadget or an app on your smartphone, which, yes, measures the incline of slopes.)
Advanced due diligence with a good map can also sometimes tell you how to avoid creeks that might be hidden by drifts—until you fall into one—but it’s still smart to eyeball the surrounding terrain to make sure your home away from home isn’t plopped on top of a water hazard. Trees are a different dilemma, though. Until you’re standing in your prospective spot, you can’t examine what CMC Winter Camping School senior instructor Garrett Pettingell calls “widowmakers,” or dead trees or limbs that could fall at any time.
Safety concerns satisfied, other quick evaluations could save you time and energy—read: frustration—or perhaps make your stay more enjoyable. Pettingell suggests using a snow probe to check for big rocks or downed trees that might be located right under the surface of where you thought you were going to set up your tent. He also recommends examining how protected (or not) you might be from the wind and considering if there are enough nearby open areas to manufacture a kitchen, a bathroom, a quarry for cutting snow blocks, and as many tent platforms as you need (see snow shoe necessities below).
“Preparation and assessments,” Pettingell says, “are much more important in the winter than in the summer. If you do it right, winter camping is all about sitting around, drinking coffee, and talking.”
Here’s how to do it right.
- Dig a foot box at the opening of your tent, under the vestibule. This gives you a more comfortable, benchlike setup for putting on your boots and for heating up morning coffee without having to fully leave your abode. This is also where you can keep your pack during the day for easy access.
- Always choose a tent size that’s one person bigger than the number of people that will be sleeping in it: If you have two people, you’ll want a three-person tent. Winter gear is bulky, and storing most of your equipment in the tent is preferable, even when you need to be in there too. Additionally, tent walls collect condensation so you’ll want room to maneuver without bumping the sides.
- It’ll be a little cramped, but storing your vital gear—batteries, cell phone, lighter, fuel canister, boot liners—in your sleeping bag with you while you sleep will keep it from freezing and/or losing battery power.
- Build a windbreak by either piling snow high enough to block the breeze or by cutting snow blocks and constructing a wall. Keep in mind that building snow structures takes effort and should only be done when necessary for comfort.
- No droopy tents in the winter. Guylines should be taut enough that the fabric walls and roof have zero give when poked.
- This was your favorite water bottle—until you set it down and forgot it. The quickest way to lose something is to lay it down flat in the snow.
- Metal tent stakes don’t work in the snow; instead, tie your guylines to small fallen branches or rocks and bury them to make strong deadman anchors. Pro tip: Use slipknots above the snow for easy retrieval of your guylines.
- Your three-season tent can be souped up for winter, so long as it doesn’t have too much ventilation mesh, especially on its lower half, and it does have a decent-size vestibule. You’ll want to place one tarp between the tent and the snow and possibly one tarp over the tent for heat retention. You could consider buying snow flaps to prevent wind from blowing under the tent.
- Set up your tent so that the opening faces away from the wind.
Snow Shoes Necessities
Delineate your campsite using the tantrum-throwing skills of a toddler.
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Traipsing through powder in a snow globe is why you decided to try winter camping. It’s invigorating and beautiful—and really exhausting. So, while it’s fun to go for hikes in untrammeled snow, you’ll want to groom your site. Often called “cementing down,” the process of using snowshoes (skis work too) to compress powder into hardpack allows campers to craft flattened areas that freeze into hard platforms.
“You’re just stomping around in the snow to create ‘rooms,’ ” CMC’s Pettingell says. It’s also helpful for designating an area for the latrine and for pitching a tent, in which case you’ll want to trample an area two feet larger than its footprint. Getting all your frustrations out to create a kitchen is smart too. Instead of leveling the area, though, you’ll fashion walkways around areas of fluffy snow that you’ll forge into a table and benches.
The other reason to get your Hulk-smash on is to make a quarry, from which you can harvest snow blocks to build structures. March it out as soon as you arrive; it takes a few hours for the snow to set up hard enough for you to be able to form all the white Legos you’ll need to assemble a windbreak wall or even an igloo (see below).
How To Build an Igloo
Get that school’s-closed-so-let’s-build-a-snow-fort vibe by constructing an igloo. CMC’s György Kereszti helps out with this step-by-step guide.
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Step 1: Check the snow. Can you easily make a snowball? If so, continue to step two. If not, you might have sugar snow, which means your construction material isn’t going to stick together. Save the igloo-building for another day.
Step 2: Stomp down an area larger than your imagined igloo. Mental note: Igloos larger than eight feet in diameter are not recommended for beginners.
Step 3: Draw a circle. First, put a ski pole or probe into the snow where you want the center of your igloo to be. Tie a piece of string to the pole that’s equal to your desired radius—that’s half the diameter—and walk in a circle while holding the cord to trudge out a guideline in the snow.
Step 4: At a nearby snow quarry (hopefully located uphill from your igloo so you are carrying your blocks downhill), you’ll begin cutting blocks that are roughly 18 inches long, eight inches wide, and eight inches tall. To make blocks, you’ll shovel out a place to start in your quarry, likely a couple of feet down into the snow.
Once you’re down in the hole, use your snow saw to cut blocks from the snow face in front of you. Cut the block on all sides, using diagonal cuts on the ends to create a trapezoid for easy removal. You’ll see the block shift when it’s loose. Then slide your saw down the back of the block to wiggle it out. Hand it to your friends, who will straighten the diagonal edges and begin the first row of blocks along the line you traced. This first layer won’t lean inward and will be a full circle; you’ll dig an entrance later. Smooth the surface and fill cracks from the inside.
Step 5: To create a spiraling effect that helps with stability, shave the tops off of the first several blocks you laid to make an angled ramp of sorts. For the second layer, start on the sloped blocks and move your way around. Beginning with this layer, you will lean the blocks inward. Clean cuts and good snow will allow the snow blocks to stick to each other, even as they’re leaning in.
Step 6: Continue stacking blocks, making sure they are staggered from the blocks below them, and leaning in farther with each row. Depending on snow quality, you’ll add another three or four rows, continuing until there is a less-than-two-foot opening. Blocks should be made shallower, about four inches deep, as you get toward the top.
Step 7: Cut the final block so that it is slightly larger than the oculus. Push that block up through the opening from the inside, shaping as necessary to fit it tight.
Step 8: Once the top has been closed, the person who is now stuck inside the dome will use the snow shovel she has with her to dig a tunnel under the snow wall. Campers on the outside will dig down to make the tunnels meet. Although you can carve some of the bottom blocks away to allow for easier entry, doing that also allows cold air to come in, defeating the purpose of the heat-trapping structure.
Step 9: On the exterior, fill in cracks with snow. Leave a couple of three-inch-wide gaps near the top for ventilation.
Step 10: These structures can fail, and you can be buried; however, the real danger is icing, which happens when the warmth of human bodies melts the interior walls, which then refreeze into an ice sheet. That sheet can close up ventilation holes and cause suffocation. So long as the inside walls are still snow—not ice—you should be fine. If they’re icy, sleeping in the igloo is out.
If you’ve ever camped in the summer in Colorado, you likely already have some of the equipment you’ll need, like an air mattress and a larger internal frame backpack. Still, there are a few items you might consider acquiring before you and your friends venture into the back of the snowy beyond.
Item… Camp stove with fuel canister
What it does… Brings the heat for boiling water
Summer version OK? Your summer camping setup should work just fine; however, liquid-fuel-compatible stoves are more reliable than typical fuel canisters in very cold weather.
1. All-in-one cooking systems, like New Hampshire–made Jetboil, are fast, user-friendly, and light easily.
2. If you go with typical fuel canisters, get the larger ones (around 230 grams) because they’re less likely to freeze.
3. If you don’t want to deal with liquid fuel, an inverted canister stove—like the WindPro II from Seattle-based MSR—works great in colder weather.
What it does… Delivers protection from the elements
Summer version OK? Many three-season tents can be modified for winter, but a double-wall, all-season tent with an extended vestibule is the gold standard.
1. Double-wall, all-season tents can be heavy and pricey (often more than $1,000)
2. Steamboat Springs–based Big Agnes’ Shield 3 (with optional vestibule) tent is a single-wall, lightweight option that’s slightly less expensive at $799 but still effective.
Item… Extendable-handle snow shovel
What it does… Uh, shovels snow
Summer version OK? Your cathole spade will not suffice.
1. Although cementing down your tent platform is easily done with snowshoes, a snow shovel can be helpful.
2. Snow shovels can be lifesavers if you have to build an emergency shelter.
3. They’re also necessary for building windbreaks and other snow structures, particularly in your kitchen area.
Item… Large-tooth snow saw
What it does… Chews through cemented-down snow to create snow blocks
Summer version OK? The smaller teeth on a saw you use to cut firewood will work, but very tiny teeth won’t do much in the snow.
1. Larger teeth—like on the Snow Saw Guide from Utah’s Black Diamond Equipment—carve through hard, icy snow more ably.
2. Always stick the saw vertically into the snow; laying it down flat is a sure way to lose it.
Item… Snow probe
What it does… Determines snow depth, checks for objects under the snow, and—in an avalanche—locates victims
Summer version OK? No, your fly rod is not a good substitute.
Unless you plan to venture into known avy territory, a seven-foot probe will get the job done for most winter campers.
Item… Pair of down booties
What it does… Keeps your feet warm and means you don’t have to wear snow boots all day
Summer version OK? Flip-flops are a no-go.
1. These booties—made with insulated down, a light outer shell, and rubberized soles—will change your life, especially if you toss some toe warmers inside them.
2. There are several brands, but longtime campers can’t say enough about Seattle-based Feathered Friends Down Booties.
What Food To Pack
Your body is working overtime during snow camping activities—requiring as much as 4,500 daily calories to stay fueled—yet elevation can be an appetite suppressant. Plus, frigid fingers and food prep challenges can get in the way of a good nosh. It can be difficult to force-feed yourself that many calories, so we spoke with several CMC instructors to glean the following tips.
- Leave at home any foods that have high water content. Fruits, veggies, eggs, and things like tuna in water will freeze solid.
- You’ll want about 50 percent of your calories to come from simple and complex carbs (think dried fruit, bread, candy, and cereal, which you’ll burn quickly); 25 percent from proteins (like beef jerky and nuts, which burn more slowly); and 25 percent from fats (butter, cheese, and pepperoni, which burn very slowly).
- Dehydrated meals—like those from Boulder’s Backpacker’s Pantry—are tasty enough on their own to sustain life, but don’t be shy about bringing additions or condiments that might gussy them up enough that you’re actually excited to eat them.
- Candy bars and Clif Bars become tooth-breakers in cold weather. Store them in an inside pocket of your jacket, close to your body. The heat you generate will keep them soft.
- Your hands will go numb trying to cook without gloves. Hand coverings made out of synthetics are highly flammable, though, and will melt right onto your skin. Get a pair of thin merino wool gloves, which are less apt to catch fire, to use for cooking.
- When prepping at home, cut food into bite-size pieces so it thaws more quickly when heated.
- For a super-easy warm meal on the first night, make a batch of chili at home and put it into a high-quality, double-insulated thermos. It’ll still be hot come dinnertime.
- Classic Bic lighters are very reliable for firing up your camp stove. Pro tip: Get one with see-through plastic, so it’s easy to tell how much fuel is left.
- Don’t bring anything you’re not willing to eat cold. Cold cheese? Yes. Cold mashed potatoes? Maybe. Cold meatloaf? Not so much.
- A long-handled titanium spoon with a polished bow is the must-have camping utensil for scooping straight out of dehydrated meal bags.
- There’s no such thing as too many fixings for hot beverages. Coffee, hot chocolate, tea—don’t skimp.
- Organizing your meals can make cooking much more efficient. Put components of each meal into large zip-top bags and mark each bag (e.g., Day 1, Lunch).
- Two times you might not think to eat but should are right before bed and in the middle of the night, if you’ve become cold. Your body needs calories to stay toasty. Being chilled at 3 a.m. calls for making a bathroom run—your body burns energy trying to keep urine warm—and then munching on a high-calorie bar.
- Winter nutrition is often a little bland. A tiny bottle of hot sauce—Tabasco comes in ¹⁄₈ fluid ounce bottles—is an easy remedy.
The Best Campsites for Beginners
Four beginner-friendly places near Denver to call basecamp.
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1. Grizzly Gulch Trail | Arapaho National Forest
Distance from Denver: 51 miles
With easy access from I-70 (you’ll take the Bakerville exit just past Silver Plume), a decent amount of parking, and a forest-service-road-like trail, you likely won’t find a winter camping location much better-suited to rookies than Grizzly Gulch. Although the trail is a 7.9-mile out-and-back, you don’t have to go too far to pitch your tent. After about a mile, the trail splits; take the right fork. Snowshoe for another quarter-mile, then look for open areas with room between the trees for tent platforms. Avy danger doesn’t come into play until farther up the trail, and the path should be relatively quiet, save for other snowshoers. No permit or fee required
2. White Ranch Park | Jeffco Open Space
Distance from Denver: 21 miles
This 3,953-acre park has 21.7 miles of trails, many of which are great for snowshoeing. For winter campers, though, the fact that this metro-area park near Golden allows winter camping at its Sawmill Campground—which has semi-primitive, tent-only, walk-in sites—makes it the coolest option around. Yes, you’re in a county park, and yes, you’ll probably see other folks, but the sites aren’t too close to one another, and there are plenty of trails to carouse on right from your front vestibule. Bonus: Temps are often less frigid in Golden than at higher-elevation sites. Permits ($12 per night) must be obtained seven days in advance; jeffco.us
3. Brainard Lake Recreation Area | Roosevelt National Forest/Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
Distance from Denver: 53 miles
Located at the western end of Lefthand Canyon Drive, this lake-dotted landscape looks like a summer paradise—until you leave the ample parking lot and hit any of the snowshoe trails that crisscross the area. It might not seem like you can be only 23 miles from Boulder and sink up to your waist in snow, but that’s exactly what you’ll often find as you seek out your site. Almost any flat spot in the trees is fair game, so long as you’re a quarter-mile from trailheads, picnic areas, and any developed campgrounds. No permit or fee required between November 15 and April 30
4. Second Creek Trail | Arapaho National Forest
Distance from Denver: 58 miles
Although parking is sometimes limited at the trailhead, getting to this Berthoud Pass path early should secure you a spot. A moderately strenuous two-mile round-trip trek, Second Creek is often used by hut-trippers headed to Broome Hut, part of the Grand Huts Association. For those looking to rough it in a tent, the hut can serve as a landmark for finding a good site to throw your pack. There are good winter camping sites in the First Creek basin to the west of the hut near timberline. Plus, the hut has a day-use room. No permit or fee required