Car Camping in Colorado

Here’s the deal: I love backpacking. In fact, I’d argue that backpacking will always be my true love. But I also realize it isn’t for everyone and sometimes, it’s nice to simply go car camping.

You see, there is far less pressure and planning required with car camping. Maybe you decide Friday morning you want to head out for the weekend? No problem. You don’t need to make sure everything is small and lightweight enough to fit in your backpack. In fact, I fully subscribe to the, “Chuck everything in your car and figure it out when you get to the campsite” method. Trust me, it works!

Car camping in Colorado is even easier since you aren’t required to stay in a campground. Sure, there are some beautiful ones out there, but I much prefer dispersed camping {Looking for dispersed campsites? Here are some of my favorites.} You get the serenity and quiet feel of backpacking with the ease of a drive-up campsite.

Sold!

Plus, I really think car camping is the perfect way to introduce beginners to the Great Outdoors. With less commitment and pressure comes more fun and enjoyment, especially if you’re just learning about this whole wilderness thing. I’ll always advise someone to try out car camping before going whole-hog with backpacking, yanno?

All that is to say that if you’re just starting out, you *still* need to know a few things. Otherwise, your first night of camping in Colorado is going to be uncomfortable! Here’s all the info you need to hit the hills for your first night under the stars.

Camping in Colorado

Car Camping in Colorado

Where can you camp?

As I mentioned above, the easiest place to start is a campground. You can find them all over the state: in national parks, in national forests, even on private land. These campgrounds typically cost money to stay there per night, but in exchange, you usually get the use of a bathroom and potential shower facilities.

Downside? They tend to cram campsites together so privacy and solitude are practically nonexistent. But again, if you’re just learning to camp, it’s not a bad idea to pitch that tent where there are a few other people around to give you a hand.

Suggested Campsites: Truthfully, I haven’t camped in a campground in years, so I’m not a ton of help. Here is a link to the Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s website that details the state’s campgrounds.

Camping in Colorado

What do you need?

Hands down, this is where first-time campers panic! What gear do you need? How warm of a sleeping bag do I need? Do I have to bring camp chairs?

There is a ton of gear that goes into the picture-perfect campsite, but you don’t need to run out and buy everything immediately. Let’s be real: camping gear is pricey and dropping thousands of dollars on a new activity does not a responsible decision make! But there are some essential items that you will need to ensure your first night under the stars is everything you hoped.

This post does contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you purchase the items. As always, I appreciate your support!

Tent

You have to sleep somewhere, right?! A tent will easily be one of your most expensive purchases but it’s worth it. This is your home away from home, the nylon walls that will shield you from Mother Nature’s wrath.

In particular, tents are broken into two categories: three season and four season. If you’re a beginner, there is a good chance you won’t be camping through the winter so a three-season shelter is perfectly fine. Then, you have to consider space. How many people will be sleeping inside? Do you have a dog? How about kids?

Since you don’t need to worry about carrying this sucker on your back, I’d suggest erring on the large side. Extra space always gets filled with pillows and clothing and other odds and ends!

There are two features I’d consider when shopping. First of all, I love tents that have retractable flies with mesh roofs. On a clear day, you can pull the fly back for fresh air and stargazing at night. Secondly, look for large vestibules! Vestibules house muddy gear, rainy clothes, and sometimes people during inclement weather. Extra covered space never hurt anyone.

Recommendations: Per usual, I can’t rec any tents since it is one of my sections for Backpacker. Thanks for your understanding!

Camping in Colorado

Sleeping Bag

There are two types of insulation: down and synthetic. Synthetic is cheaper but takes up more space while down is considered the ultimate insulation for its warmth-to-weight ratio. If you know you’ll be camping in a wet environment, synthetic will be your best bet. I’m a lover of down insulation but again, it is pricey!

In particular, I see camping beginners in Colorado make the mistake of opting for too light of a bag. Guys, I use a 20-degree bag when camping in July! You see, the evenings still get chilly in the high alpine, and it sucks to be cold. Consider your overnight temps before purchasing your bedding.

But you know what is great for car camping? Car camping-specific sleeping bags! Outdoor brands are learning that small mummy bags aren’t necessary for car camping so instead, they’re creating luxurious, roomy bags with niceties like sheets. I’ve tested a few and I’ll admit: they sure make sleeping in a tent that much more comfortable!

Recommendations: NEMO Symphony Luxury bag. It comes with a built-in sheet so that you can still have a light layer on warm nights.

Camping in Colorado

Sleeping Pad

Guys, a sleeping pad is almost more important than a sleeping bag! I remember camping as a kid, long before my family knew anything about sleeping pads. We’d sleep on the cold, hard dirt and I could never figure out why I was freezing.

Turns out, a sleeping pad keeps you warm AND makes you more comfortable. For car camping, I like to use a wider pad that isn’t focused on cutting weight like a backpacking sleeping pad. This gives me more room to roll around, along with a lot more cushion. {Or, you can use an air mattress too.} Always check the R-value on your sleeping pad, ensuring it will keep you warm. The R-value is the pad’s insulation level, or its ability to insulate you from the ground. The higher the number, the warmer it will keep you.

Recommendations: The Exped MegaMat is my FAVORITE! It’s four inches thick and thirty inches wide {seriously}. Plus, it comes with a little foot pump so you don’t have to get winded inflating it.

Camping in Colorado

Campstove

If you’re at a campground or a frequently-used dispersed campsite, there is a good chance you’ll have a fire ring. And if you have a fire ring, you can also cook over a fire. But sometimes, it’s nice to have a camp stove so you can boil your morning coffee water without starting a fire.

Car camp stoves are different than backpacking stoves since they don’t try to consolidate and save on space. This makes them easy to use and allows for more elaborate camp meals. It’s up to you as to whether you want a one burner or two burner stove; I’ve used both and tend to prefer a two burner.

Recommendations: The Coleman Signature Grill Stove works off propane and makes it easy to grill on one side while boiling water on the other side. Don’t forget your propane!

Water Jug

You may not realize it, but you’ll go through a lot of water at camp! Between cooking, cleaning, and staying hydrated, water will disappear faster than you realize. We all know that it is irresponsible to continually buy plastic water jugs at the grocery store, so bite the bullet and invest in a large water jug. You can fill it from the tap before you leave home so that you have plenty of water while camping.

Recommendations: If you simply want a cheap container that will hold your water, the GSI Outdoor Water Cube will do the trick. But if you’d prefer to buy a container that keeps your water ice cold for at least 24 hours, I’d recommend the Stanley Adventure Water Jug.

Camping in Colorado

Lantern

I’d always recommend bringing a headlamp for late-night bathroom adventures, but it can be nice to have a small lantern at camp. This makes it easier to play cards at night or while chatting in the tent. I don’t think you need to have a big one, but I do like having one that hangs from the ceiling of the tent. It provides  a little ambience while evenly illuminating the area for everyone to hang out and chat.

Recommendations: The Black Diamond Moji lantern is meant for the backcountry but I like it since it easily hooks to the peak of the tent {plus it’s cheap!} If you want a burlier lantern that will provide more light, check out the Goal Zero Lighthouse 4. You can charge it via USB or solar panels which makes them great in an emergency situation too.

Kitchen Accessories

How you handle your dishes is up to you. Technically, you don’t need to buy anything fancy for camp meals; you can use your dishes and pots from back home. But do you really want to do that?!

We have a large Tupperware container in our basement that has all of our camping kitchen utensils. We wash them when we get home and load them back into the container. This way, we don’t have to search around for dishes when we want to go camping; we just grab the Tupperware and load it into the back of our car.

What do we include? Personally, I’m lazy and I like to have a grab-and-go, all-in-one mess kit like the GSI Outdoors Crossover Kitchen Kit. It makes it easy and simple, especially if you don’t tend to do elaborate camp meals. If you have the gumption, you can also throw together cheap ladles, spatulas, forks, knives, and spoons from the dollar store too. Again, I’m just lazy!

Personally, I *always* include a coffee maker too. I can’t start my days without my coffee! If you’re a French Press lover, Stanley makes a great kit with their Vacuum Coffee System. I’ve also fallen in love with Alpine Start, a Colorado startup that makes quality instant coffee. I’m super impressed considering how flavorless most instant coffee can be!

Camping in Colorado

Cooler

Depending on what you’re cooking and how warm your campsite is, a cooler may be essential to keep your food chilled and unspoiled. Camping in Colorado usually means warm days and chilly nights, so a good cooler is worth it. As with most things, you get what you pay for!

Recommendations: Will and I were fortunate enough to be given a Yeti Hopper on a media trip and I can’t express how much I love this thing! Yes, it is freaking expensive and I feel kinda guilty even recommending it due to the price. But y’all, this thing is amazing! Yeti comes from a hunting background so their products were originally designed to keep raw meat cool until the hunter got back home. The Hopper is soft sided with a shoulder strap which makes it really easy to carry. I’ve loaded ice into this thing that has remained in cube form three days later!

Don’t care if you have the best cooler? I get it. The Coleman Xtreme 5 is a decent cooler too, and it’s definitely a lot cheaper than the Yeti.

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7 Comments

  • Reply Claude March 28, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Amazing how many stars are out in the night sky! Tally is a lucky Dog!

  • Reply Cynthia March 28, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    Talk about car camping – I do this quite literally! As a single woman out camping, it’s much safer to sleep on an air mattress in my car (back seats folded down), than to have nothing between me and the great outdoors but some nylon. I don’t care if you’re in the busiest KOA around, there are weirdos out there! For a 2-day trip, there isn’t much to bring – pad and bag (or blankets, or better yet, an extension cord and an electric blanket – or small fan – if I can score a site with electricity), a small cooler, a camp chair or two, clothes and toiletries – and my bike. And fishing gear. Maybe my dog, but she’s not much of a camper. If you know of any groups around the springs who do weekend camp trips, let me know!

    • Reply Stephanie May 22, 2017 at 9:02 pm

      I’m in the springs too! And am hoping to camp with my pup this summer.

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog March 29, 2017 at 5:59 am

    Perfect timing! I’m planning my summer Colorado trip right now. Last year I did airbnb while I hiked and climbed. This year I want to spend most nights car camping. Thanks for your advice on Grays/Torreys last summer, btw. You were spot on.

  • Reply Kate March 29, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    We camped in CO last year with our kids at RMNP. We usually prefer dispersed camping (and we did a second night of camping on a dispersed site), but the national park campground was fantastic because they had a ranger talk that evening. Kids loved it, we found it fascinating – definitely a bonus to campground sites. Same goes for our local state park campgrounds.

  • Reply Best Dispersed Camping in ColoradoJust a Colorado Gal April 14, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    […] Want more info on car camping gear and what I recommend? Check out this post detailing my fave car camping essentials.  […]

  • Reply Chris Guenther August 21, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Hey, this is actually a really good list I would recommend to others! Usually there are stupid items suggested like “iPod holding device, or drone”, but this has useful suggestions on it. Good info on tents, sleeping bags, etc.!

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