Backpacking in Colorado: Tips & Trails

Ultralight Backpacking in Colorado: A thru-hiker traversing the arid plains of Colorado

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Backpacking in Colorado amazes with its rugged and dramatic mountain scenery, diverse ecosystems ranging from wildflower-filled meadows to high alpine tundra, abundant wildlife, jaw-dropping vistas around each bend, and trails catering to all difficulty levels.

You can enjoy stunning spots like Emerald Lake or push your limits on a 14,000-foot peak. The trails promise breathtaking views if you’re prepared for the changing mountain conditions and altitude.

In this article, we’ll check out the world of backpacking in Colorado, giving you important info for your next outdoor journey.

We’ll showcase the best 5 trails in Colorado, divided into two types: day hikes under 30 miles and multi-day trips with water resupply options every few days.

Key Tips for Backpacking in Colorado

  • What to expect: Be prepared for high altitudes that can lead to altitude sickness. Even in summer, anticipate cool temperatures at night and in the morning, so dress in layers. Be cautious of afternoon thunderstorms and use bug spray for mosquitoes and flies until early July.
  • Essential gear: Bring lightweight layers, including shorts, pants, shirts, fleece, and a rain jacket for unpredictable weather. Pack a hat, gloves, and water filtration tools like a filter or tablets for hydration from streams and lakes. Include a bear canister for storing food safely. Carry a well-stocked first aid kit and a reliable GPS device or a map and compass for navigating mountainous areas without cell service.
  • Wildlife: Colorado hosts various potentially risky wildlife. Be wary of black bears, more active in spring and summer; mountain lions, usually avoiding people but a potential risk for solo adventurers; various rattlesnake species, thriving in drier parts and most active above 60°F; moose, displaying aggressive territorial behaviors; and disease-carrying ticks in warmer months. While bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, and prairie dogs may be on trails, they typically don’t directly threaten hikers.
  • Wild camping: You can camp freely in many Colorado National Forests and Bureau of Land Management areas, but it’s usually not allowed in National Parks, State Parks, and some protected zones. Even in permitted areas, there might be rules about where to camp, following Leave No Trace guidelines, and restrictions on campfires, especially in dry conditions when bans may apply. If you plan to wild camp, research the rules for your chosen area and get any needed permits in advance.
  • Best times to go: The prime backpacking season in Colorado is from mid-July through September when daytime highs are warm but not sweltering and dramatic thunderstorms are less prevalent. The crowds thin out a bit in June and October as well. Whenever you go, be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms by getting an early start and stay below tree line in the afternoon. Spring has access issues due to mud and snow at high elevations.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 30 Miles)

Here are the top day hikes where ultralight gear truly enhances your experience:

  1. Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge Trail (8.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Mount Bierstadt Trail (7.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Quandary Peak Trail (6.3 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Herman Gulch Trail (6.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Grays and Torreys Peak (8.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Top multi-day trails in Colorado with water resupplies every two days:

  1. Colorado Trail : Segment 6 (31.3 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Kenosha Pass to Lost Creek Wilderness (30.3 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Cub Creek Trail (33 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Monarch Crest Trail (31.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Elk Park Train Stop to Needleton (37.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

Colorado’s weather can vary widely depending on the region and elevation, so it’s important to consider the specific location and time of year:

  • Spring: Snow melting at lower elevations opens some trails, but mud, wetness, and snow make for difficult hiking at higher elevations. Unpredictable weather.
  • Summer: Warmest temps and most accessible trails, but afternoon thunderstorms likely especially July-August. Busiest season with most hikers.
  • Fall: Cooler temps, fewer bugs, aspens changing color. Snow possible above treeline. Crowds decrease after Labor Day.
  • Winter: Very cold temps and deep snow necessitate technical gear like snowshoes. Avalanche risks on some trails. Best for expert backpackers seeking solitude.

Before making your gear selection, take a look at the weather statistics for Colorado (Colorado Springs):

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High °F444754616980848175645244
Low °F202329364453585749382821
Rain/Snow (D*)12357610105321
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.

FAQ

Can I have a campfire while backpacking in Colorado? 

While backpacking in Colorado, you can have campfires, but there are some important regulations. Fires are only permitted in established fire rings in designated campgrounds. Outside of campgrounds, fires are banned when the local fire danger is rated as high or extreme – you must check with local officials on fire restrictions. 

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Colorado?

Check the weather before and during your trip, especially in higher areas where conditions can change quickly. Bring waterproof layers, extra food, and supplies in case of delays. Use a map, compass, or GPS for navigation. Inform local rangers of your route and return date. Hike with at least one person for safety. Carry first aid and communication devices. Bear-proof scented items and store food properly at night. Be cautious of lightning during afternoon thunderstorms—seek low, open areas away from water and tall objects if a storm is coming.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Colorado?

Use bear-resistant food containers and never keep food in your tent to avoid black bears. If you encounter a bear, make noise and back away slowly. Cougars rarely attack, but stay close to kids and don’t run if one is nearby—make noise, appear big, and back away slowly. Watch for rattlesnakes, give them space, and be cautious where you place hands and feet. Moose, especially females with calves, can be aggressive, so keep a distance and retreat if they display aggressive behavior. Other animals like deer, elk, coyotes, and birds usually pose no threat, but maintain a safe distance and avoid feeding them.

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