Backpacking Colorado's Wilderness

Colorado's Wilderness - American Sportsman Outfittersby Seth Peters • March 23, 2012

Colorado holds a little more than 3,390,635 square acres of designated wilderness area.  That designated wilderness is unpaved, untamed, and unbelievably beautiful.  Translation: Colorado is to a backpacker like cake is to a fat kid.

Where and When to go

There are obviously many wilderness areas in Colorado to choose from.  The choice of which area to visit depends on many different factors, one of which is time of year.  Lately, winter wilderness hiking has become all the rage.  In some wilderness areas, there are even some rustic, low-maintained shelters (kind of like cabins) that winter hikers can use. So if you’re looking to pick up a pair of snowshoes and hit the wilderness trails, I’d recommend an area with less rigorous topography, such as the Lost Creek Wilderness.  That way, more of the actual wilderness area will be accessible and you won’t need to worry as much about avalanche dangers.  For beginner and intermediate backpackers, however, I would recommend trying a new adventure during June and July.  The weather is usually clear and warm, ideal for hiking/camping.  As for all your choices, here is a comprehensive list of all of the Colorado wilderness areas and their respective size (in acres), and  national forest:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 15,599 – Gunnison

Buffalo Peaks 43,410 – Pike & San Isabel

Byers Peak 8,913 – Arapaho, Routt

Cache La Poudre 9,238 – Roosevelt

Collegiate Peaks 166,938 – White River, San Isabel, Gunnison

Comanche Peak 66,791 – Roosevelt

Dinosaur National Park 210,000 – (none)

Eagles Nest 132,906 – White River

Flat Tops 235,035 – Routt, White River

Fossil Ridge 31,534 – Gunnison

Great Sand Dunes National Park 33,450 – San Isabel

Greenhorn Mountain 22,040 – San Isabel

Gunnison Gorge 17,700 – Gunnison

Holy Cross 122,797 – San Isabel, White River

Hunter - Fryingpan 81,866 – White River

Indian Peaks 73,291 – Arapaho, Roosevelt

James Peak 14,000 – Arapaho, Roosevelt  

La Garita 128,858 – Gunnison, Rio Grande

Lizard Head 41,193 – San Juan, Uncompahgre

Lost Creek 119,790 – Pike

Maroon Bells - Snowmass 181,117 – Gunnison, White River

Mesa Verde 8,100 –San Juan

Mount Evans 74,401 – Arapaho, Pike

Mount Massive 30,540 – San Isabel

Mount Sneffels 16,565 – Uncompahgre

Mount Zirkel 159,935 – Routt

Neota 9,924 – Roosevelt, Routt

Never Summer 20,747 – Arapaho, Routt

Platte River 23,492 – Routt

Powderhorn 61,510 – Gunnison

Ptarmigan Peak 12,594 – Routt, White River

Raggeds 64,992 – Gunnison, White River

Rawah 73,068 – Roosevelt, Routt

Rocky Mountain National Park – 210,000 Roosevelt

Sangre De Cristo 226,420 – Rio Grande, San Isabel

Sarvis Creek 47,190 – Routt

South San Juan 158,790 – Rio Grande, San Juan

Uncompahgre (Big Blue) 102,721 – Uncompahgre

Vasquez 12,986 – Arapaho

Weminuche 492,418 – San Juan, Rio Grande

West Elk 176,172 – Gunnison

My Packing List

When it comes to backpacking, I’m a minimalist.  I believe in (1) quality, lightweight gear and (2) packing only what you need, and not what you “think” you might need on some rare occasion.  Packing this way helps me to be most efficient on my adventures and ensures that I’m not carrying any unnecessary weight.  You’ll probably find that it’ll take multiple trips to perfect your own list, so for now, I’d recommend you use mine as a starting point and begin to create a “perfect” packing list as time goes on.  In any case, here’s what my adventure gear looks like (not including food):

  • Backpack (3,000 to 7,000 cubic inches)
    Sleeping bag (rated to 20 to 50F)
    Sleeping pad
    Two-person tent

  • Hydration H2O bladder
    MSR water filter
    Stove and fuel
    Waterproof matches and lighter
    Titanium Cup
    Multi-tool or utility knife
  • Trail-running shoes or hiking boots (broken in and waterproofed)
    Sandals and fleece socks or lightweight camp shoes
    Wool socks
    Synthetic long-underwear bottoms and tops
    Synthetic shorts or convertible pants
    Synthetic/wicking t-shirt
    Rain/wind jacket and pants
    Wool or fleece jacket (or vest if warmer)
    Wool or fleece hat*
    Wool/fleece gloves or mittens*
  • Directions, trail map, or guidebook
    Toilet paper in Ziploc bag
    Plastic potty trowel
    Extra Ziploc/trash bags
    Lip balm
    Hand sanitizer
    Toothbrush and toothpaste
    First-aid kit (Band-Aids/bandages, Aspirin, antiseptic wipes, poison ivy treatment such as CORTAID® Treatment Kit, moleskin, tweezers)
    Pack rain cover or garbage bag
    Bear-bagging cord
  • Trekking poles
    Sun/rain hat
    Journal and pen
    Camera, extra memory cards
    Duct tape
  • Women: bring a few tampons even if you don't expect to need them; backpacking can do weird things to your cycle.
    Contact lens wearers: bring solution and back-up glasses

What are you waiting for?

With so much natural beauty in Colorado’s backcountry, I have but one question: What are you waiting for?

—Need gear for your next wilderness adventure?  Rent it from us!