Colorado Backcountry Travel
Visiting the wilderness areas of the high rockies of Colorado can be an exhilarating experience. But there are dangers that can ruin or end an outdoor trip. There are also rules and guidelines that wilderness managers have implemented to ensure that future visitors will find the same scenic vistas you have enjoyed.
Leave No Trace Guidelines
Whenever you are in a national forest, park, or wilderness location, be sure to follow the “Leave-no-trace” guidelines below. Some public lands will have additional rules so be sure to check with the local authorities. The following are a few leave-no-trace principles.
- Human Waste
- Wilderness areas will have no restroom facilities. Dig a 6-8 in. deep hole 200 ft. from lakes/streams to bury the excrement. Do not bury any toilet paper, but pack it out instead. Some heavily used wilderness areas have further restrictions and require you to pack out all human excrement.
- Pack all trash out. This includes left over food and other biodegradable items. Animals will find the food and learn to visit campsites and become aggressive toward humans.
- Do not feed animals
- Bathing / Washing
- Do not allow soap, detergents, sunscreen (etc.) to enter streams/lakes. The detergents will kill fish and other wildlife. Even biodegradable soaps are not safe. Instead, use a bucket to transport water to your campsite for washing and bathing.
- Campsites Near Water
- Camping close to a lake or stream could allow human waste, urine, or trash to contaminate the water. Camp at least 200 ft. from all lakes or streams. Some highly trafficked areas have restrictions forbidding camping within a 1/4 mile or larger zone near to lakes/streams. Check with official sources to ensure you are not violating the backcountry rules.
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Campfires leave behind soot and blackened stones in fire rings.
- Use stoves if possible.
- Use designated fire rings.
Visit the Leave No Trace website and read up on the rest of their principles.
Backcountry Weather Dangers
Backcountry weather in Colorado is highly dependent on elevation. You can avoid much of the danger weather can bring by remaining alert, monitoring the sky for sudden increases in clouds or a drop in temperature, and wearing the proper protective clothing. Be aware that on the high peaks snow may occur at any time of the year and disorienting fog or mist can put you in a dangerous situation if you are not prepared.
Spring – Late April thru June
Spring snowstorms are very common at elevations above 7k ft . Thunderstorms with lightning become more common later in the season. Hikers will find deep snow at elevations above 9k. ft. Many streams can be difficult or impossible to cross when swollen with snow melt.
Summer – July thru early September
Summer brings milder temperatures with frequent thunderstorms. Thunderstorms bring lightning, hail, snow, wind, and large drops in temperature. Thunderstorms are deadly and the lightning kills hikers every year. Torrential downpours can bring the danger of hypothermia to the unprepared hiker.
Watch for dark clouds moving in from the west and listen for thunder or the wind picking up. This often signals an approaching thunderstorm. Move to lower ground before lightning occurs in your area. Avoid streams or creek beds during thunderstorms as flash floods may occur in low-lying areas. Do NOT make camp near a creek or in a dry creek bed/arroyo.
Fall – Mid September thru October
Fall can bring pleasant and cool temperatures to the rockies. Snow storms (along with frigid temperatures) become more and more frequent as winter approaches. However, thunderstorms can still occur well into October.
Winter – November thru April
Winter in the rockies is a harsh season with frequent blizzards and below freezing temperatures. Proper knowledge of winter camping/backpacking techniques and the right equipment can make the difference between a rewarding expedition and a miserable one. Avalanches present the biggest danger to visitors to the wilderness areas of Colorado. Do not venture into steep snow-covered terrain without avalanche training and an avalanche beacon.
For more information about backpacking in Colorado, check out the Colorado Backpacking Guide.