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Camping in Colorado: Your Complete Checklist

Checklist for Camping in Colorado

There’s nothing like heading to one of Colorado’s countless campsites for a relaxing weekend (or longer). It’s a great way to slow down, take in the fresh air, hike and even enjoy some stargazing

Of course, before you can gather around a cozy campfire and roast marshmallows, you’ll need to plan and pack for your getaway. Now, we’re not talking about dispersed camping in some remote location in the wilderness (aka boondocking), but good old car camping at a campground.

If you’re reserving a spot online (highly recommended), first view the campground map and check out Campsite Photos to determine the right spot and even what to pack. Look for:

  • Location of the nearest water spigot, bathrooms and/or shower facilities
  • If there’s a fire ring and grilling grates, a picnic table, and shade structure or tree cover
  • Amenities such as a swimming pool, beach, dock, playground, or dog park
  • If firewood is available to buy, and a convenience store is on-site or nearby
  • Access to nearby trails, as well as water access for SUP, canoeing, boating, and fishing
  • Rules regarding fire bans, number of people allowed at a campsite and the pet policy
  • Check wildlife warnings/protocols such as using a bear box for food storage

If you’re planning a more advanced-level camping excursion, there’s a lot of extraneous gear listed here. So, don’t try to stuff an air mattress in your backpack—but do have a look at some of the tips below for ideas that just might level up your next outdoor adventure.

Shelter & Sleeping Without Sacrificing Comfort 

From a tight, two-person tent that rolls up and fits in your pocket to a full-on air mattress, camping accommodations can vary greatly based on your needs as well as available space in your car. 

  • A Reliable Tent – A three-season tent should be suitable for Colorado's varying weather. Look for one with a rainfly and good ventilation. Look at actual dimensions, not just the number of people it fits—typically that count reflects how many people you can cram into the tent sardine style. 
    • If you’re taller, consider going with a larger, cabin-style tent with straight, vertical walls over a dome-style so that you don’t have to hunch over inside. It gets tiresome quickly.
    • Don’t forget your footprint (a tarp that goes on the ground under your tent) stakes, and perhaps a mallet and stake puller to make set up and breakdown easier. 
    • Another great upgrade? Moving blankets to lay down like throw rugs. They can add great insulation and muffle the cruncha-buncha noises of your tarp and tent. 
  • A Cozy Sleeping Bag – Pack a sleeping bag rated for the lowest expected temperature. If you tend to sleep hotter or colder, or want to camp well into the fall, adjust accordingly.
    • For a cushy-comfy feel, you could opt for a sleeping pad to go under your bag. These come in all varieties, from foam to self-inflating, insulated, two or one-person size. Typically, they roll up tight for easy packing.
    • In your glamping era? You could also bring an air mattress if you have the space. And unless you want a leg workout, go with a battery-operated pump or one that will plug into your car instead of a foot pump. 
    • A camping pillow is not an absolute necessity when car camping. But if you have a lot of people, food and gear to fit in your vehicle, these small, lightweight pillows might be the best option for you.
  • A Pop-Up Canopy or Screened Tent – If your campsite doesn't have a shade structure or any tree cover, a pop-up canopy will provide protection from the sun as well as rain. A fully-screened cabin tent can be a great spot to hang out in the evenings without getting eaten by mosquitos or bugs. A less bulky option is to bring paracord and a tarp with grommets to hang cover from trees—or pick up some telescoping tarp poles.

Cooking & Eating When You’re Away from Home

Want to fall in love with your kitchen? Go camping! Not having instant running water (much less hot water), a big prep island, a dishwasher, a refrigerator, and all your gadgets easily within reach can make camping truly feel like you’re roughing it. Pre-trip prep can help make a big difference.

Start by planning a simple menu—no-cook options, ingredients that overlap, meals that can be cooked on the grill (or over the fire), or only require you to bring one pot and one pan. Before you go, clean and chop all fruit and veggies. Marinate meats. Add all spices for a meal to a single, labeled container. Aim for no leftovers.

When it comes time to pack the cooler, label and put all items for a meal together (like a kit) so you aren’t digging around in the ice for dispersed ingredients. Just make sure raw meat is fully separated. Make sure everything is cold before it goes into the cooler, frozen if possible, especially when packing for longer trips.

Also, check to see if your campsite has a fire ring and grill grates. This may eliminate the need to bring a grill. Of course, getting a fire ready for cooking takes time, so if you have the space, just pack a compact grill and/or camp stove (a two-burner propane model is great). Don’t forget your fuel, as well as matches or a lighter. 

Your camp kitchen supplies may also include:

  • Cooking pot with lid
  • Frying pan
  • Pot holders and lid lifter
  • Coffee making gear (options)
  • Cooking utensils
  • Cutting board and knife
  • Bottle/can opener/corkscrew
  • Aluminum foil/pans
  • Paper towels and wet wipes
  • Trash/recycling bags 
  • Resealable bags/containers for leftovers
  • Sponges and a quick-dry dish towel
  • Biodegradable dish soap
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • Collapsible wash basin
  • Collapsible/refillable water jug
  • Plates, bowls, cups and eating utensils*
  • Tablecloth and clips to keep it in place
  • Lantern/lighting
  • Prep table (check to see if your site has a picnic table, many do)

Pro-Tip: Two smaller coolers, one for food and one for drinks, can be easier to maneuver and help prevent food spoilage caused by constant opening and closing which lets in warm air and causes the ice to melt faster. Smaller coolers are also more versatile for non-camping use!

More food planning and packing tips here, here and here.

*It’s not ideal but paper plates and utensils are fine, eco-friendly if possible. Remember that you’ll be washing dishes in a basin or under a cold water spigot. If you can bring tossable plates, do it.

Clothing & Gear for Happier Campers

Temperatures in the mountains are likely going to be cooler than in the city, especially overnight, so you’ll want to check the forecast and pack accordingly. 

  • Layered Clothing: Bring moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers like fleece or down jackets/vests, and waterproof outer layers, especially if there’s a chance of rain. 
    • Go with non-cotton as wet cotton clothes can make you cold and miserable even if the weather is mild. At colder temperatures, it can even be dangerous.
    • In summer, bring a hat, sunglasses, water sandals, swimsuit, and UPF clothing. 
    • Bring a warm coat, gloves, a beanie, and lots of extra socks—preferably wool.
    • Even if you don’t plan to hike, sturdy boots will help you keep your footing around camp, when walking pets, or when you have to venture to the bathroom at night.
  • Basic Gear: Here are a few things to consider packing for everyone in your party.
    • Camping chairs. Go with something lightweight and foldable/compact.
    • Flashlights are always handy, however, headlamps actually free up both of your hands to cook, chop wood, or eat s’mores! Don’t forget extra batteries.
    • For the adults, a multi-tool ensures you’re always ready to crack open a bottle or cut a length of paracord.
  • Personal Hygiene: Don’t forget all your toiletries, but keep them paired down to the basics.
    • Toothbrush and biodegradable toothpaste
    • Biodegradable soap and shampoo
    • Brush or comb, extra hair ties, bandana
    • Any prescription meds if needed
    • Advil/Tylenol, Tums/Pepto and allergy meds 
    • Sunscreen, lip balm and bug repellent
    • Toilet paper (campgrounds sometimes run out)
    • A small, lightweight, quick-dry camping towel

Storage Totes and Crates for Packing and Organizing

So, where the heck do you put all this stuff? Instead of cramming multiple bags and loose items in your car, pack related items together into totes or crates with lids. You might have one for kitchen equipment, snacks/pantry items, and general gear. If you want to keep organized, print out a list of the contents so you can easily find what you need.

Here’s some of the miscellany that can go into one of your totes (and hasn’t been covered yet):

  • Duct tape and paracord
  • Tent repair kit
  • First aid kit
  • Small broom and dustpan (to sweep out your tent)
  • Long roasting sticks/skewers
  • Flashlights/lanterns/batteries
  • Multi-tool and firewood axe
  • Matches/fire starter
  • Pet supplies
  • Games, a deck of cards and books
  • Field guides and star charts
  • Binoculars and compass
  • Backup charger for your phone
  • Clothesline and pins
  • Solar lights—hanging/ground
  • Portable speaker for music

Final Tip: Test Drive Your Camping Gear

This checklist is pretty comprehensive, and your needs may vary. So, before you head out for a week in the woods, test out your setup in your backyard or at a campsite close to home. If you’re in Denver, Cherry Creek State Park might be a good option for you. 

Use this “shake out” to learn how to set up your tent, cook without a kitchen, and test out any cool, new equipment. See how well you sleep, if you’re too hot or too cold, and if that air mattress is actually necessary. Be sure to keep a running list of the things you didn’t use, as well as what you might be missing. 

It may take a little time to tighten up your packing list, but once you do, your camping trips will be the ultimate getaway!

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