Colorado camping 101: From picking a site to getting the gear, here’s how to get started


This article first appeared in The Denver Post on June 3, 2018

The crackle of the fire, the crisp night air, the sheer space between you and the city far, far below. It’s hard not to romanticize the act of spending the night outdoors. But if you didn’t grow up camping, fishing or hunting, where do you begin?

Choosing a campsite

Most beginning campers start at an established front-country campground. In Colorado, there are hundreds of options with over 13,000 combined campsites – some are small, primitive sites at the end of a long dirt road, providing nothing more than a tent pad, picnic table, fire pit and composting vault toilet. Other campgrounds are like little villages with all kinds of services and activities, complete with the hustle and bustle.

For this reason, more practiced campers avoid front-country campgrounds altogether.

To find your own private spot in nature, you can either (1) apply for a back-country permit and hike in, which requires a different skill set and gear than car camping, or (2) locate designated “dispersed camping” on public lands in your area. In general, you cannot just pull over somewhere and set up camp. But you can seek out dispersed sites where it is permitted. (Note that you’ll likely need to bring in your own drinking water and pack out all your trash.) Then again, you don’t have to make reservations six months in advance or put up with neighbors firing up their noisy generators with the sunrise.

Getting the gear

The absolute basics you need include:

  • A sturdy tent, or at least a tarp to sleep under;
  • Sleeping bag and pad;
  • Torches and lamps, plus extra batteries;
  • Camp stove, cook kit, utensils; and
  • Water purifier and extra water.

For clothes, be prepared for extreme temperature ranges, from freezing at night to hot and dry in the afternoon. Bring a base layer that manages moisture, a middle layer for insulation, and an outer layer that protects you from wind and rain. (Wool and polyester are best; do not pack anything made of cotton, which cannot keep you warm when it gets wet with sweat or rain). Have a look at getting a budget bushcraft knife too in case you need to cut your way through something in an emergency. This could be a rope your ankle has become caught in, or a branch that’s stuck in your leg (leave the branch in, but cut it as close to your skin as possible. Removing the branch will lead to uncontrolled blood loss, and whilst it might be painful, it’s better to cut it at the base and leave the stump in until you reach medical help).

Before investing in new camping gear, consider borrowing from a friend or renting. Plenty of places rent camping equipment in Denver and there are online services that can ship to your house, making it easy. (One of them is OutdoorsGeek.) And, of course, there is a mountain of used equipment for sale across the state and many, many shops waiting to sell you the shiniest new gear as well.

Impact: Leave No Trace

No matter what kind of camping you’re into – whether you’re planning your trip, selecting a campsite, building your camp, or dousing your fire – all campers should be familiar with Leave No Trace (LNT) principles to have as little impact as possible when spending time in the outdoors. They offer detailed guidelines, like only hike and camp on established trails and campsites, or on durable surfaces at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.

The Colorado Tourism Office partnered recently with Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, an international educational program based in Boulder, to create this customized list.

For a pocket-sized, weatherproof card that lists the Leave No Trace principles, contact them at 800-332-4100 or Download the new “Are You Colo-Ready?” brochure from Colorado Tourism Office and LNT; it includes packing advice and tips on how to travel like a local, including instructions on how to operate that bear-proof trash can.

MORE: Campground courtesy: 8 rules to follow so you’re not “that person” when camping (by Dan Leeth, fellow “Around Colorado” columnist)

Joshua Berman is the author of Moon Colorado Camping: The Complete Guide to Tent and RV Camping. His website is and he is on Twitter at @tranquilotravel

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