What Learning to Backpack Taught Me About Colorado

Colorado hiker sunset
Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

Growing up in the Great Plains, my only exposure to camping involved an RV. When I moved to Colorado in 2014, I didn’t have a closet full of old gear like the natives, and my family doesn’t do hand-me-down tents. All I had was a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and determination not to let my new location on the Front Range go to waste.

But where to even begin when you don’t know anything about camping? I started at REI. In the spring of 2015, I had a few drinks and marched into Denver’s flagship store to try on gear. I was wearing leather pants and high-heeled boots at the time. The first thing I learned is that backpacks come in various sizes and the sizes are gendered. The first “women’s backpack” I tried on came with a plastic flower attached to it. Great.

The point is, I looked like a fool. But that day, I learned Colorado’s outdoor resources are so plentiful that simply showing up somewhere can teach you something.

Colorado mountains
Alicia M. Cohn/Thrillist

You have to start somewhere

The learning curve in Colorado can be as steep as its mountains. Colorado’s population has grown by more than 18% since 2004 according to the Census Bureau, and many of us migrants have never contended with tire chains or 7% downhill grade, much less bears or sleeping outdoors.

When it comes to camping in bear country, the “entry level” bar feels like it’s set pretty high. Unfortunately, most of my friends are fellow migrants, so step one was making friends with natives -- or non-natives who have at least camped a couple times before. Options for success included joining a Meetup group, Gociety, or another club designed around outdoors activities. As a woman, I benefited from education-minded meet-up groups like Bold Betties (men can benefit, too, if they’re OK being surrounded by women at most events).

And that’s what’s so great about living in Colorado: camping might seem like a daunting proposition to a beginner, but it’s the opposite. Because it’s such a common activity in the Centennial State, there’s no shortage of gear, knowledge, and/or entry-level trails to get you going.

You will learn from your mistakes

Planning for our very first camping trip, a friend and I spent a significant amount of time discussing our biggest fears for the trip. Hers was wildlife. Not only is Colorado known for rattlesnakes, but neither of us knew what to do if we encountered a bear and we had a very healthy fear of this. We’d read conflicting guidance for encountering different types of bears and didn’t think we’d be able to identify any of them in this terrifying hypothetical scenario -- although, for the record, I’ve since learned the only species of bear in Colorado is black bear. My biggest fear was getting cold. I hate being cold.

Cold is a legitimate fear for any camper, but especially in Colorado, where the nights dip into the 50s even in the summer -- and lower in the mountains, where higher altitude (and less cover) means huge temperature swings. As a non-native, I am still adjusting to how the mountains influence the weather here and what a difference 20 miles, or a 5,000ft elevation gain, can make. On my first mountain excursion, I didn’t take gloves or sunscreen... and I’ve never made that mistake again. I’ve also learned to take a sleeping bag rated well below the temperatures you expect (you will get cold), always take extra clothes (you will get cold), and invest in a lot of ways to carry water (you’ll perpetually be thirsty).

Colorado sunset
Susan McKenzie/Shutterstock

You have to be thrifty with the outdoors

Living in Denver, we often forget that there are directions other than west. Simply taking a different highway toward the mountains besides I-70 will save you time and gas money, and there’s some great camping in the directions of Buena Vista or Estes Park. Both are off the I-70 corridor and heading either direction will get you out of the urban areas and into camping options about 45 minutes from Denver (as opposed to three hours spent waiting to get through the pass).The Continental Divide or Rocky Mountain National Park are bucket list-worthy. Both are huge landmarks in Colorado with a wide range of scenic options (mountain overlooks, waterfalls, etc.) and incredibly accessible from the city.

In Colorado, camping sites go quickly. However, we’re lucky enough to be able to drive in almost any direction and find somewhere to legally park and set up. If you don’t want to leave it up to chance (and what beginning camper does), Colorado Parks & Wildlife* (CPW) maintains a staff of “reservation specialists” who can actually help you locate the campsite of your dreams at any one of Colorado’s 42 state parks. This is an incredibly convenient option for those looking for some adventure but don’t want to end up lost in the woods recalling episodes of Man vs. Wild and wondering if those berries are, in fact, edible.

When it comes to the equipment you’ll need, purchasing all of your own gear will definitely get expensive. This is where making friends who already own stuff (or going with a group) comes in handy. And, lucky for you, there are a lot of those people in Colorado. You can also rent gear at almost any sports equipment chain or independent store in the Denver metro area. Try both options to figure out what you like and to bide your time for an REI Garage Sale, or wait for the item to pop up at Wilderness Exchange.

You have to own your style

I’ve learned that camping doesn’t have to be a big production in Colorado. It’s more a matter of getting in the car and going every weekend. I like to take a book and a beer on my hikes and take as many breaks as I want. Others bring a crowd and party. S’more lovers prioritize fire-safe camping areas. And then there are those people who camp specifically to get up at 5am and climb a 14er before breakfast.

The great thing about camping here is that every time I go, I learn something. The more campers I meet, the more “secret spots” I hear about, efficient shortcuts I learn, and the more confidence I gain. From people I met on the Colorado River, I learned Green Mountain Reservoir is quieter than Grand Lake for camping (pro-tip!). From a trip to Grand Junction, I learned to set up my tent after the afternoon rain washes across the plateaus.

Eventually, my goal is to be the Coloradan with the closet full of camping gear to share. I’m proud of having a trunk full of extra water, jackets, headlamps, and camp sandals. In Colorado, this is normal. And although I may never be a true Colorado native, I’ll always be a true camper.

Sign up here for our daily Denver email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Alicia M. Cohn is a freelance writer currently living in Denver, where she climbs 14,000ft mountains both literally and figuratively. Follow her work at and on Twitter @aliciacohn.