The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Ask a hardcore backpacker what type of person might enjoy sleeping on the ground and they’ll likely say, “Anyone!” The answer would probably be the same when asking a dedicated RVer about spending the night in a tricked-out van.
There may be some truth to that idea. Even the person who hates catching some shuteye in the dirt could conceivably have a good time backpacking. And someone who gets a thrill out of waking up in an isolated mountain meadow might enjoy themselves in an RV park.
But if we are being honest, each of us are predisposed to some kinds of camping more than others. To help you determine your personal preference, we asked experts to break down five types of camping common along the Front Range.
Important to know: Keep an eye on campsite opening dates, book ahead of time whenever possible, and always respect the signage (especially regarding where you can and can’t camp).
Who is it for? For those who really want to get away from it all.
What it is? A cross between hiking and backcountry camping, where you carry everything you need in (yeah, you already guessed it) a backpack.
What should you expect? While there are many ways to get away from technology, the beauty of backpacking is that it also allows you to escape the constant thrum of humanity, says Garett Mariano, marketing director for backcountry gear manufacturer Big Agnes, which is based in Steamboat Springs: “You typically have a set destination to get to, like a lake, a summit, or a valley with a view. It [provides] the opportunity to turn off our phones, take a huge breath in, and soak up the natural surroundings.”
That’s not to say backpacking always involves heading deep into the wilderness. You might just head a mile into an idyllic backcountry campsite. And that counts! The process of setting up camp (beyond just getting out for a day hike) helps adventurers relax, slow down, and, if you bring some buddies along, connect with friends.
Insider tip: “Test your gear before you go,” Mariano says. “Set it up in the backyard to make sure you have everything you need and that it all works right. Oh, and don’t forget a puffy jacket. Evenings, mornings, and summits can be cold even in July and August.”
Campsite suggestion: A little over three miles in from the Huron Peak trailhead (between Buena Vista and Leadville), Lake Ann is a pristine, high alpine body of water with views of Huron Peak and the Three Apostles. Look for dispersed camping sites around the lake.
Who is it for? For those who want to sleep in the dirt, but also appreciate having a few amenities on hand.
What it is? Camping in a spot that allows you to drive your car up next to the area where you stake your tent and make camp.
What should you expect? With car camping, you’re still sleeping outside, but since you don’t have to haul everything on your back, you don’t have to be as discerning when it comes to packing. That 20-pound cast iron skillet? Bring it. A case of craft beer? Sure. Tent that can be mistaken for the Taj Mahal? Why not? “You could have more of the extras like the speakers, better food, more games, and more blankets,” says Torie Palffy, marketing manager for Boulder-based outdoor brand Kelty. “You get a taste of the backpacking experience, but you’re not compromising as much on comfort.”
Palffy also points out that car camping sites are often large, allowing for bigger groups to gather, share food and drink, and swap stories across the campfire. Sites also tend to be located near prime outdoor adventure destinations, so you’ll wake up within walking distance from the trail, lake, or bouldering problem you’ve been planning to conquer.
Insider Tip: “People often overlook having shelters and gathering spaces in case weather rolls in,” Palffy says. “When everyone has to go sit in their cars or tents, it’s not nearly as fun as if you have a tarp or awning set up.”
Campsite suggestion: Located at the base of the mighty Mt. Evans, Echo Lake Campground is a great starting point for tackling the fourteener or for just taking in the views.
Who is it for? For those who abhor the thought of leaving their bike at home.
What it is? Basically backpacking, except you ride rather than hike the trail. You also carry all your overnight gear on a bike (often a mountain bike) rather than in a pack.
What should you expect? Bikepacking is all about hitting the backcountry and enjoying an evening under the stars with your favorite two-wheeled toy. “There’s usually a destination and a starting point, and you just ride your bike from one to the other,” says Justin Simoni, who has a guidebook on how to bikepack to all the Colorado fourteeners that debuts this summer. And because you’re a bi-pedaler, not just a biped, “you get to travel through a large swath of area quickly,” he says.
Keep in mind, however, that you’ll need some specialized bikepacking bags to hold your gear and supplies. Most of these bags are made with durable fabric designed to lash directly onto the bike frame. Avoid racks and panniers, which are more likely to snag on bushes or get knocked off by a tree. Simoni adds that his “personal opinion is the lighter you can pack, the more fun it is because your bike is going to be more lively and will work better.” His own sleep system (bag, pad, and bivy) weighs in at less than four pounds.
Insider Tip: “For your first bikepacking trip, you don’t have to go across the country,” Simoni says. “Plan something easy and simple so you’ll have fun and will want to do it again. The next time it can be something a little more substantial.”
Campsite suggestion: Start at the mouth of the Colorado Trail at Waterton Canyon in Littleton, slowly gain elevation as the singletrack winds about 40 miles into the mountains, and set up camp at the popular Buffalo Creek Campground in Pine. Keep rolling on the Colorado Trail the next day or meet up with buddies to snag a ride home.
Who is it for? For those who want the ability to shut out the elements.
What it is? Parking your recreational vehicle (RV), usually in a designated campsite, and sleeping in the vehicle’s living quarters.
What should you expect? Though RVs range from small pop-up campers with a basic kitchenette and primitive sleeping quarters to luxurious motorhomes with multiple rooms and full bathrooms, nearly all come with basic amenities like a furnace and refrigerator, as well as a true bed. Jessica Black, owner of Colorado Camper Rental, notes that RVs provide a camping experience where users are “just close enough to nature, but you still have some of the creature comforts.” She adds that they’re also ideal for those who want an extra layer of security, whether you’re keen to lock your belongings in or if you want to ensure nature stays out.
When road trips replaced air travel last summer as the COVID-19-friendliest vacation option, RVs stole the spotlight. “They’re a hotel room on wheels,” Black says. “You can go anywhere with it.” She encourages people to take advantage of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas that offer no-cost, reservation-free campsites.
Insider Tip: “Most people aren’t comfortable backing up with a trailer because the camper goes the opposite direction you’d think it would,” Black says. She recommends either taking time to hone your skills before your trip or maybe just avoiding the hassle entirely and opting for a campsite that allows you to pull your rig through rather than having to back up into it.
Campsite suggestion: Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park positions you perfectly for a hardcore hike the next day or a casual waltz around Bear Lake.
Who is it for? For those who want to sleep in a tent, but on a full-size bed.
What it is? Glamorous camping, complete with fabric tent and full electricity.
What should you expect? Glamping is all about having your cake and eating it too, explains Ben Sack, general manager of Cañon City–based Royal Gorge Cabins, which has eight luxury glamping tents on site. “It’s for those who love the idea of getting outside, experiencing nature, sitting around a campfire, and enjoying the stars, but they want a few more comforts,” Sack says. “These campers also want a comfortable bed, wifi, electricity, and screened windows to keep the bugs out.”
Another key upside to glamping is the ability to leave those linens and sleeping bags at home given that these campsites include a bed, and often some end tables and a desk too. (Antler chandeliers optional.) And though you have the niceties of modern life at your fingertips, you can still sit around the campfire before bed and hear the crickets chirping through the tent walls as you fall asleep. “Glamping is as easy as staying at a hotel,” Sack says, “but it still feels like you’re immersed in nature.”
Insider Tip: Many glamping sites have options to cook on your own. “Bring a cooler of your favorite food and try cooking over the fire, just to shake it up and get the full experience,” Sack says.
Campsite suggestion: Royal Gorge Cabins located in Cañon City offers single-queen and double-queen glamping tents.