In Colorado, the weather is unpredictable. It’s just as likely to snow on the same day that starts out 65 degrees and sunny. You know this, I know this, we all know this.
For some reason, though, my husband and I decided to try our luck at camping, during Colorado’s more vulnerable and unpredictable seasons: autumn.
Other states might have the luxury of a very defined fall, where temperatures start to slowly drop and snow does not rear its white glisten until the winter solstice. The leaves might just have time to fall, gently, and at their own pace, if you don’t live in a place with seasonal reckless abandon.
While that’s simply not the case in Colorado, there are definite perks to the local autumn, including shoulder season emptiness (and the possibility of lower rates), a significant drop in temperature (sometimes a little too heavy handed, especially in the mountains), and, perhaps best of all, breathtaking fall foliage.
So, when Chad and I packed our bags for a fall-time camping trip, tent and all, we had to weigh out the benefits to ensure they beat out the unpredictability of the weather. Somehow, they did. We hit the road for Alamosa, Colorado, for a two-night stint nearby the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
While we were in the area, we explored the sand dunes and enjoyed sand sledding and sand boarding, while packing in quite the workout. We soaked our troubles away at the Sand Dunes Pool and enjoyed the luxury of heat in the geothermal waters. We had a delicious meal at Calvillo’s Mexican Restaurant in Alamosa, and admired the gorgeous scenery of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
And, we camped. We also shivered, a lot, as the temperatures dropped to below 40 degrees, but we still managed to have a great time.
When packing for your autumn camping trip, be sure to remember the essentials. You’ll thank yourself later, as you vow to book an Airbnb next time, while simultaneously loving the surrounding gifts of nature.
10 Things to Pack
1. Lots of layers
When you grow up in Colorado, you learn the value of layers pretty early on. Trick or treating? Layers. Sledding? Layers. High alpine hike? You better believe it comes back to layers.
The same thing applies for camping, especially in autumn. Make sure to have various levels of heat-keeping clothes, from light jackets to heavier duty, with several pairs of socks, leggings, pants, and various lengths of tee-shirts. Don’t forget a hat, while you’re at it. Unless you’re backpacking and trying to keep your pack light, you can’t really go wrong with over packing clothes.
2. Heavy duty sleeping bags
This packing item is essential. I recommend investing in a high-quality sleeping bag that can withstand low temperatures. When we went camping, the temps dropped to below 30 degrees at night. Thanks to our sleeping bags, we were mostly unaffected.
Do some research before purchasing. While Amazon is definitely convenient, places like REI or Sierra Trading Post will have various top-shelf options, as will local retailers and suppliers if you’d like to support a small business.
3. Sleeping pad
Even if you’re tough and think that sleeping directly on the hard ground is an easy task, the ground gets cold. A sleeping pad, while supplying a layer of comfort, also gives the gift of insulation. You’re elevated above the ground, which separates you from the cold.
Our inflatable pads were easy to pack, and helped to keep us warm at night when the weather had other ideas. Amazon has a ton of easy options to check out, including this affordable option.
4. Tent it up
Here’s the honest truth: a tent will do very little to keep you warm. It’s a piece of fabric, so try not to entirely depend on it to keep the cold out.
While keeping that in mind, it’s also good to note that a tent is a helpful shelter, especially when you don’t own a camper or van or RV variation. We recently bought our first tent off of Amazon, and really enjoy it. It’s lightweight, super easy to put up and take down, and has enough space for gear and our inflated sleeping pads (we opted for a three-person tent rather than a two). You can check it out here.
5. Tent tarp
In addition to bringing a tent, it’s also a good idea to have a tent tarp. This is the slip that goes over the tent, and gives an extra layer of protection from the elements. Fall brings unpredictable changes in weather, sometimes leading to wind, rain, and even snow. A tarp helps to protect the tent and the valuable cargo (you) that’s inside.
I recommend the Madera tent tarp, made from a company that supports the environment, available here. You can also spin the discount wheel for a special deal, or you can use the code MADERA30 for 30% off your purchase.
6. Easy food, accessible booze
When we went camping in the cold, we made one major mistake. Both of us were trying out an alcohol detox—abstaining for about 80 days to get into better shape and help our bodies out. You know what would have warmed both our spirits and our bodies, if only just a little? A splash of peppermint schnapps in a warm drink. Next time, that’s a must, cleanse or not.
On the other hand, we packed a great assortment of snacks. It’s important to pack food that is easy to prepare; the last thing you want to do when your hands are cold and your stomach is grumbling is make something that takes a lot of time and patience. Chad made us burritos beforehand—it was as easy as warming them up on the fire, and peeling the foil down to reveal a whole meal.
Bring blankets. You can use them while you sit around the campfire on your camping chair, if you decide to hang up a hammock, and while you try to get some rest in the tent. Also be sure to bring more than one; when falling asleep, you won’t want to have a sleepy struggle over the covers with your significant other. Nobody wins.
Beware: with an extra layer of warmth, you may never want to leave the comfort of your sleeping bag.
8. Playing cards
When it’s cold and a little windy, a fire helps but often not enough to keep you outside. You might want to spend more time wrapped up in your blankets and sleeping bag in the tent, cuddled up and cozy. When you hang out in your tent, playing cards is a great way to spend time with your tent-mate.
Whether you play rummy (my go-to with my husband), go fish, war, or a solo game of solitaire, you’ll be glad you brought along that deck of cards.
I’ve learned that one of the first steps during a camping trip should be to gather wood for the fire, plus small twigs and sticks to help get it going. But, if I’m being honest, having the firewood beforehand eliminates a large portion of this struggle.
I’d heavily recommend bringing your own firewood. Also, keep other easy lighting materials on hand, like paper products that can get things going if you don’t have lighter fluid. Don’t forget your lighter or matches!
10. (multiple) Flashlights
The fall season brings shorter days with it. Be prepared for a thick and heavy layer of darkness by bringing more than one flashlight. It’s unwise to depend fully on your phone’s illuminating powers, and naive to think that a campfire will help you when you want to get inside your tent.
It’s also fun to have a flashlight when you are hanging out inside your tent (most tents have a hook at the top for one), so that you can see easily.
I ordered ours off of Amazon, and got a two-pack “Amazon Basics” option. Keep in mind, they are small. I liked the small size and weight (easy to carry), plus the string that we hung from our tent and from my belt loop when I was walking around the site after dark.
Bonus item: a good attitude
Yup, you’ll need one. If it’s cold and windy outside, you’ll need a positive attitude and the ability to see the bright side.
Happy fall camping!
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