I grew up in Denver, and I’ve been to the mountains hundreds of times. Even so, my experience with hiking fourteeners and camping is lacking. I went camping a few times with my dad and brother when I was young, and I had only hiked two of the 53 fourteeners in Colorado—up until this summer, that is.
Two college friends, who are avid campers and hikers, invited my husband and I to join them for a weekend in Salida, where we would not only spend a couple nights car camping, but we’d also conquer one of the few fourteeners they had left to climb: Mount Shavano.
I was excited to stretch my camping muscles again, and eager for my husband to experience it, since he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and only pitched a tent in the safety and comfort of his backyard. He was also a rookie at hiking. Despite having more knowledge than him, I still felt unprepared as we packed up the car and headed to our mountain destination. I felt even more ill equipped when we reached our campsite and witnessed the elaborate setup our friends had.
We were lucky to have companions who basically have everything you could ever need when you’re car camping and scaling a large mountain. For those who enjoy camping and hiking, but may not have a lot of experience with it—like me—here are just a few quick tips and things to think about before hitting the trail.
Choose Your Mountain—Wisely
If you’re a first-timer or a semi-newbie to the fourteeners world, you do not want to go after the most difficult. Do your research and be sure to find a mountain with a difficulty scale that fits your comfort and fitness level. Mount Shavano is not the hardest peak to climb, but it also isn’t super easy. There are a lot of steep grades, and a bit of bouldering that may be tough for someone who isn’t used to altitude or more technical climbs. A great resource is 14ers.com, which lists all the peaks, trail routes, peak conditions, trail photos and weather.
Campsites in Colorado—and many other states—fill up quickly, especially if there’s no reservation system in place, which there usually isn’t when you decide to find a dispersed camp spot near the trail head. Get to your desired location early to get a good camping spot. It’s also helpful to get there before the sun goes down, so you’re not setting up your tent in the dark (like we did). This tip also applies to hiking. Start on the trail as early as possible. You’ll want to reach the summit before noon, because you never know when the weather will turn.
Get the right gear
It’s a really simple—and slightly obvious—tip, but having the right tools is essential for a successful hiking/camping trip. First, hiking.
- Be sure to have comfortable hiking shoes that you’ve broken in a few times. You don’t want to get blisters a few hundred yards into the journey. I recommend Keens, but here are a couple other great brands: Merrell, The North Face and Salomon.
- Walking sticks are super helpful, especially when you’re coming down the mountain to help stabilize you on steep downhills, and take pressure off your knees.
- A camelback is not a necessity, but I highly recommend one. You need to hydrate while climbing, and camelbacks make it easy to grab a drink at any point in the journey, because you don’t have to stop walking to pull out a water bottle, you just grab the tube, take a sip, and keep going. But make sure you have one that’s large enough to hold at least 24-32 oz of water – if not more.
- Layers are essential. When you begin at the bottom of the mountain, it will likely be somewhat cool, so have a long-sleeve shirt. As you climb, you will get hot, and the temperature will rise as it gets later in the day, so be sure to have a short sleeve or sleeveless shirt on underneath, as well as a hat and sunglasses. The sun can be brutal, so put on plenty of sunscreen ahead of time, and bring some with you in a backpack or fanny pack. The top of the mountain can get very cold and windy. Bring a winter hat, jacket and gloves to change into as you approach the summit. Rain gear is also helpful, in case the weather turns bad quickly, and you need to stay dry. We were lucky to have pretty decent weather the whole way, and it wasn’t too cold at the top. Still, you never know what elements await when you get above treeline, and it’s better to be prepared than to be caught without the right equipment.
Next, camping. This list is much longer, and will vary depending on the kind of camping you plan to do. You can pick and choose what will work for your desired trip.
- A large tent – this is great to have, especially if you’re camping with friends or family. It provides plenty of room to fit all your stuff, and you can move around comfortably—for the most part.
- Air mattresses or thick sleeping pads – if you didn’t know, camping requires you to sleep on the ground, and you can’t always find the most comfortable/smooth surfaces. An air mattress or sleeping pad will provide some comfortable insulation so you can get a better night’s sleep.
- Down Sleeping Bags – these are great for chilly mountain nights. Some people get really hot when they sleep, so finding the right level of warmth is important. You can go to any outdoor equipment store, like REI and speak with an expert about what will work for you.
- Earplugs – I highly recommend these. There are dozens of weird noises in the mountains, and it can be difficult to fall asleep. Earplugs can drown out some of those noises, and provide some peace and quiet.
- Lanterns/headlamps – super handy at night, when you need to navigate around the campsite for various reasons.
- Portable tables – these are easy to pack, set up and take down. Plus, super useful for eating. Or to just put stuff on.
- Water jugs – these are probably the most important things to have at your campsite. Staying hydrated is essential, but water jugs are also great to have when you need to clean dishware, or a toothbrush or your face.
- Folding chairs – you could sit on the ground around the fire, but folding chairs add a little more comfort to the camping experience, and keep you out of the dirt.
- Coolers – storage for food and drinks. Pretty simple and straightforward.
- Portable stove/cook top – you can’t cook everything on a stick over the fire. Having some kind of cook top or stove to cook on is nice for making burgers for dinner, or pancakes in the morning. You can have a gas stove top, or you can find one that hangs over the fire pit. Both are good options and work well, just depends on what you’re looking for.
- A few other suggestions: unbreakable dishware, french press, garbage bags, a tarp, and inflatable pillows.
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
It’s not always obvious at first glance what’s around your campsite. When we arrived at our spot, it was pretty late and we couldn’t really see. As a result, I stepped right into a patch of cactus. Needles stuck to my only pair of sweatpants (another suggestion—always have extra comfy pants), and I couldn’t shake them all off. The rest of the trip, we were all very conscious of the cactus patches that dotted the areas around our site.
Respect any Fire Bans
If you’re camping in Colorado, there’s a good chance you’ll come across fire bans. With our extremely dry climate and crazy weather patterns, it’s common for lightning to start fires. It is also common for people to start fires, either by not putting out their fires completely or being negligent with matches, cigarettes and other flammable items. Even when fire bans are going on, many people ignore them and still build campfires. Please do not do this. It’s those individuals that ruin it for the rest of us, and campfires are a quintessential part of camping. I was bummed Steve didn’t get to have a campfire on his first true camping experience, but I’m hopeful for next time.
Pack Easy-to-Handle Food
Salads are not your friend while camping. The easiest items of food to bring are ones that are easy to pack and easy to eat. Granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, bananas or apples, bread, cheese and deli meat. If you want to make something ahead of time, the best thing is PB&J sandwiches or turkey and cheese wraps. Lettuce is going to get dirty and soggy, as will tomatoes, so just leave them out. Hard-boiled eggs are great for breakfast, and the perfect protein boost before a long hike.
Accept the Fact that You’re Going to Get Dirty
Camping is not a hygienic activity. You’re sleeping in the wilderness, setting up tents, making campfires, and doing your business outside. Hiking gets you sweaty and dirty, and unless you’re spending the evening at a hotel afterwards, access to a shower is not an option. You can get portable showers if you’re really concerned, but these are more of a hassle than anything else, and they are not warm. The best recommendation is to have some face wips you can use to at least get the dirt and grime off your face. You can also use antibacterial wipes for your hands and feet. The shower will be there when you get home, and it will feel amazing.
Enjoy the View
The best part of hiking is the scenery. All along the trail you will see incredible landscapes and views of the surrounding mountain ranges. When you summit, there will be 360 degrees of breathtaking sites. This is the time to take it all in, acknowledge the accomplishment and snap a photo to document it all. One thing we didn’t do that I wish we had was to bring a sign with the mountain’s name and elevation written on it, and take a picture with all of us at the summit. This is a fun way to keep track of all the fourteeners you’ve climbed, and the varying heights you’ve made it to. Next time for sure.
Steve and I already have a few camping/hiking weekends in our future, and I can’t wait to add a few more 14ers to my list.