Chillorado: Winter Camping Spots You've Got to Try

December 13, 2016

True Coloradans love to camp. Sitting around a fire, roasting marshmallows, basking in the glow of a hundred thousand stars on a moonlit night in the Rockies… what could be more outdoorsy than that? Well, what if we mentioned that it’s well below freezing and you’re out there in January? Yes, camping is no longer confined to the conventionally comfortable months of late spring to early fall. With a few pieces of gear, (potentially) a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and an unwavering spirit of adventure, you too can take on the elements and have a seriously great time doing it.

Why cold camping?
First of all, let’s state the obvious: if you don’t enjoy camping in 75 degree weather, you’re probably not going to enjoy camping when it’s 25 degrees out. If, however, you’re up for the challenge, there’s untold fun and beauty in store to those with the fortitude to face the bitter cold head on.

One of the most appealing aspects: say goodbye to the crowds. Anyone from the Denver Metro area who’s tried to enjoy the “solitude” of the wilderness the past few years can tell you it’s been harder and harder to find a quiet spot to camp that’s at least somewhat close to town. It’s a different story when the temps drop. Though not all campsites are open during the winter, the ones that are will be sparsely used.

Not only will you likely be alone (or virtually alone), but the landscape is totally different. If you’re looking for spectacular views, what could be better than a layer of freshly fallen snow on a cloudless night underneath the full moon? Take a few pics and you’ll have more Insta <3s than you’ve ever had. (We’re not guaranteeing this but give it a shot.)

What to bring (or, how not to die)
The outdoor adventure experts at REI have some great tips, the most important of which being: plan out your trip. Having a plan, and leaving it with someone so they’ll know where you’re going, will set yourself up for success.

Also: this seems like a no-brainer but bring friends! Camping alone is typically not a great idea, but cold camping alone—especially if you’ve never done any cold weather expeditions—might be dangerous.

To truly avoid danger, bringing the right gear when you camp is crucial. The right gear becomes even more important when you know the temperature will linger at or around freezing. For starters, invest in a below zero sleeping bag (plus liner and pads), tent, and stove to maximize the fun—and more importantly, minimize the chance of hypothermia.

Where to go
Here are some spots we’ve found that offer a great experience, relatively easy access, and are doable for somewhat experienced warmer weather campers who’ve are new to winter camping:

  • Rocky Mountain National Park
    The only RMNP campground open year-round is Moraine Park, but the unique, open portion of the park won’t disappoint. Just a few minutes away from a number of snowshoe-able trails, it will give you a chance to experience the majesty of RMNP without the need for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you’ve always wanted to see the ice-encrusted Rocky Mountains under the light of the moon in person—complete with frozen nostrils and a steaming thermos cup of hot toddy—this is your dream fulfilled. Campsites are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, so you may want to call ahead just in case.
  • State Parks (take your pick)
    Colorado’s state parks are incredible no matter which time of year you choose to visit (seriously, follow them on Instagram @coparkswildlife for some gorgeous pics on the reg). Not only are the state parks well maintained, but their online campsite reservation system couldn’t be easier to use. They have cabins and other structures in case the thought of braving the elements gives you (wait for it) cold feet. If you’re in the Denver Metro area and looking to narrow it down a bit, Golden Gate Canyon State Park is a good bet (but beware: no cell service).
  • Brainard Lake Recreation Area
    Located a short drive east of Boulder in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Brainard Lake is a popular (as in, get to the gate an hour or two early to get a parking spot popular) destination, especially for fishing, in the summer months. During the winter, it's much less crowded. Cool tip: bring your skis!
  • San Luis Valley
    One of the most unique geographic features in Colorado, the San Luis Valley is huge—about 8,000 square miles—and dramatically framed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the East and the San Juan Mountains to the West. Camping is great near Great Sand Dunes National Park (actual camp sites inside the park are closed November through March, but the park is open year-round). If you’re not quite ready to truly rough it, the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & Campground has cabins available for rent—just keep in mind the pool is closed on Thursdays during the winter. They describe it as “a glamping experience” which is marketing speak for no running water or indoor plumbing.

So what do you think? Are you up for some cold camping this winter? Are you an expert sub-zero adventurer who thinks we totally missed the mark? Let us know in the comments!