Everything You’ve Ever Needed To Know To Go Winter Camping in Colorado

Categories: Hike & Camp

It’s 12 degrees at Brainard Lake. The wind is gusting up to 25 mph, and tiny snowflakes fall from a moody early February sky. Yet György Kereszti isn’t cold. Neither is Matt Silveira, who’s not even wearing gloves. Both are instructors for Colorado Mountain Club’s Winter Camping School, which I keep reminding myself I voluntarily signed up to attend as my body involuntarily shivers.

Kereszti is the director of the school and has been teaching the course—which entails three classroom sessions, a bit of homework, quizzes, and three trips into the field—since the late ’80s. At the moment, he’s helping students light camp stoves, few of which seem eager to ignite in the freezing air. When he gets to me, he sets aside my MSR PocketRocket ministove and goes digging into his well-worn pack. I assume he’s going to show me a better gear option, but instead he hands me a thermos. “You are too cold,” he says as he pours me a cup of hot, sugary Earl Grey. “Winter camping is only fun if you stay warm.”

The tea didn’t thaw my toes, but it did buoy my spirit, as did the rays of sunshine that eventually poked through the clouds that day and gave me a glimpse of how magical snow camping can be under more ideal conditions. Kereszti likes to say there is “no bad weather, only uncomfortable weather.” I think of it like this: As with any other Colorado wintertime pursuit, being choosy about when you go can mean the difference between enjoying the experience and realizing hell has actually frozen over and you have pitched your tent there.

Weather, though, isn’t the only consideration for the winter-camping curious. That was the primary reason I’d sought out the expertise on tap at Golden’s Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), an organization dedicated to adventure, recreation, conservation, and, most crucial to me, education. The secondary justification for spending seven hours in a ground blizzard in the Indian Peaks Wilderness was this: As much as I love summertime camping, it’s become more and more challenging to find a secluded spot to revel in Centennial State splendor as Colorado’s population has grown. Even after a five-mile hike, you’ll likely still have neighbors if you’re camping in July. Not so in winter.

One could reasonably say, “Of course there’s no one out there then; it’s freezing and wet and miserable!” Yes, the upsides of sleeping in the snow may seem minimal, but ask those who do it and they will give myriad reasons why they treasure this often comfortless pastime. For some, it’s entirely about the isolation. For others, it’s the wildlife or the scent of pine or the allure of a frosted landscape. Still others find it’s the challenge they crave. For Kereszti it is, in part, about “the beauty of the moon and snowy mountains, the craziness of it.” Before you go in search of your own motivation, though, I suggest setting yourself up to love it—or, at the very least, not hate it. How? Following the advise of experts like Kereszti should help you warm up to winter camping.