Backcountry Camping Guide

Download a printable Backcountry Camping Guide with map (2.6 M pdf).

The first step in planning your trip is to obtain a Rocky Mountain National Park topographical map to choose your destination and route. Use the guide map, or the Trails Illustrated Topographic Map, to select backcountry/wilderness campsites.

As you plan your trip, take into consideration the physical condition of the least experienced member of your party, and the distance and elevation gain from the trailhead to your destination.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a high elevation park. If you live at sea level, it will take you several days to become acclimated to this elevation. Most trails begin above 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) and climb abruptly higher. If you are not acclimated, you can get high altitude sickness. Rangers recommend that you spend at least one night at 7,000 or 8,000 feet (2,000 or 2,500 meters) prior to setting out. This will allow your body to begin to adjust to the elevation.

When you visit the park, discuss your plans with a ranger. Find out whether snow has melted from the trails and destination where you wish to hike. Check the weather forecast before starting on your trip. Be aware that mountain weather changes very quickly. Within just a few hours, bright sunny skies may give way to raging storms. High winds often occur in the high country. Wind chill accelerates the lowering of body temperature which can result in hypothermia. Proper clothing is your first line of defense against cold. Dress in layers so you can regulate your temperature by bundling up, or peeling down. Be sure to take rain and storm gear. Remember, you assume complete responsibility for your own safety and that of your group while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

In addition to reading this guide, we recommend you read the following free publications: High Country Headlines and Fishing. These are available at Rocky Mountain National Park visitor centers. You may also call 970-586-1206 for general information about the park or to request specific brochures.

You may order any of the following publications by phoning the Rocky Mountain Nature Association at 800-816-7662: Trails Illustrated Topographic Map of Rocky Mountain National Park; Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, Dannen.

How to get your permit
You must have a backcountry/wilderness permit to camp overnight in Rocky's backcountry/wilderness. You can pick one up at the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center Backcountry Office or at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.

To minimize impacts on the park's resources, the number of permits issued is limited. You may obtain day-of-trip permits in person year round. You may make reservations online or in person anytime after March 1 for a permit for that calendar year.

Summer hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
TTY: (for those who are hearing impaired)

For all reservations:
There is a $26 Wilderness Administrative Fee for each trip reservation (not for each night/not for each person) fromMay 1 through Oct. 31(non-refundable and non-exchangeable). This fee does not include the Park entrance fee.

Online reservation requests are available through the Wilderness Campsite Reservation Request Application. Although campsites are reserved and paid for by you, it is considered a courtesy and kindness if you are unable to use your reservation, to call and release those campsites for other campers.

Walk-ins to the Backcountry Office may also get permits for $26 for each trip, payable with credit card, check or cash (in exact amount only).

During the winter and early spring when the backcountry/wilderness is not as frequently used, you may self-register at the Wild Basin Winter Trailhead, Sandbeach Lake Trailhead, Longs Peak Ranger Station, Dunraven Trailhead, and Fall River and Beaver Meadows Entrance Stations.

How to use the permit
Your permit is a contract between you and the National Park Service that you agree to treat the backcountry/ wilderness with respect and you will take care of the wilderness.

You will see backcountry/wilderness regulations on the back of each permit. Read, understand, sign, and obey them. Attach the permit in plain view on the outside of your backpack. When you reach camp, attach the permit to the outside of your tent. The permit indicates the number of people in your party, and specifies a campsite for each night you are in the backcountry/wilderness. You must stick with your planned itinerary so that campsites do not become overcrowded and overused.

Permit parameters
Individual parties consist of one to seven people. Each party is assigned one campsite. Each camping area has one to six sites. We recommend you travel in small parties because fewer people per site leaves less impact on Rocky's fragile resources.

Groups consist of eight to 12 people. They must camp at special group sites. Due to impacts caused by group interaction in and between sites (site spread, social trails etc.) groups over seven persons may not camp in neighboring individual sites but must use group sites or split up and camp at least one mile apart.

Between June and September, campers may stay in the backcountry/wilderness for a maximum of seven nights and no more than three consecutive nights in one camp area. Between October and May, campers may stay in the backcountry/ wilderness for a maximum of 14 nights with no more than a total of 21 nights per year.

Setting out on your trip
Always tell someone at home your trip itinerary and when you will return. Allow plenty of time for your trip. Consider the distance you plan to travel, the elevation of the trailhead and your destination, the amount of weight you are carrying, your physical condition, current and forecasted weather, and the hours of daylight remaining.

  • Properly display your permit and vehicle dash tag.
  • Read the trailhead bulletin board.
  • Plan to be below treeline during the afternoon when thunder and lightning storms most often occur.
  • Streams, lakes and waterfalls can be dangerous and deadly at any time of year, especially during high runoff in May and June as well as after thunderstorms. Keep your distance from stream and river banks. Powerful currents exist. Provide proper supervision for children. Use caution in winter.
  • Pets and vehicles (including mountain bikes) are not allowed in the backcountry/wilderness.
  • Possession of firearms must comply with state and federal laws.
  • Don't forget insect repellent to fend off mosquitoes. Check frequently for ticks.
  • Be considerate of others and the resource.
  • Set a pace that is comfortable for all members of your party.
  • Stay on the trail and hike single-file. Resist the temptation to walk off the trail when it is muddy. Mud will flake off your boots much sooner than trampled plants will grow back.
  • Never short-cut switchbacks.
  • Pick up litter you find along the way.
  • Horses and llamas have the right-of-way. Step off the trail on the downhill side and stand quietly until the stock passes.
  • Never leave food unattended. Properly store your food.
  • Never feed animals.
  • When you pause to rest, sit on rocks or clearings rather than on vegetation.
  • Do not disturb any flowers or plants.

There are pit toilets at many backcountry/wilderness campsites. When a pit toilet is not available, do the following:

  • Urinate in rocky places that won't be damaged by animals who dig for salts and minerals found in urine.
  • Dig a hole, six inches (15 centimeters) deep, for fecal waste using a small trowel or pack out waste and paper.
  • Be sure that you defecate at least 70 adult steps (200 feet/60 meters) from water or trails.
  • Do not bury sanitary napkins or tampons. Dispose them in an airtight container and pack them out.
  • Wash hands with biodegradable soap. Giardia and other diseases are frequently spread by unsanitary habits.

Please respect the fragile tundra
Alpine tundra vegetation is hardy. These plants survive extreme cold, strong winds, intense ultra-violet radiation, and very low humidity. Yet, as tough as these plants are, they cannot withstand repeated trampling. It takes 100 years for many alpine tundra plants to grow an inch.

Where there are no maintained trails and in undeveloped places, you may walk on the alpine tundra, but do not walk in single file. Spread out, so that your footprints are not concentrated on a small area, and rock-hop rather than stepping on vegetation.

At camp
When you arrive at your destination, you will see trail signs that show where to find campsites. Pitch your tent in designated areas. Don't pitch your tent on undisturbed vegetation, and never dig or trench around a tent.

There are no grizzly bears in Rocky Mountain National Park, but black bears do live here. Help park rangers keep bears and other animals (including mice, marmots, martens, porcupines, and deer) from becoming a problem, by taking precautions with your food and garbage.

  • The best method to secure your food and scented items is to carry and use a portable food storage container.
  • Bear canisters are required at all backcountry campsites below treeline. These are the carry-in/carry-out style. Bear canisters are available for rent or for purchase at many sporting goods shops including shops in Estes Park and Grand Lake. There are also sources available on the internet.
  • Keep a clean camp. Seal uneaten food scraps and all garbage in airtight containers or storage bags and carry all garbage out of the backcountry/wilderness.
  • Refrain from packing greasy, smelly foods into the backcountry/ wilderness.
  • Keep all scented items out of your tent including soap, deodorant, and toothpaste. Store them with you food.

Deer, bighorn sheep, porcupines, and other animals are attracted by sweat and urine. These animals can destroy campsites, clothes, boots, and camping gear in search for salt. Hang your gear and use proper backcountry/wilderness sanitation. Bear and mountain lion encounters can be potentially dangerous and can occur anywhere in the park. Ask for park information regarding proper wildlife interaction procedures. Keep your group close together, protect small children by picking them up. Never run.

Preparing meals at camp
Cook meals with a portable stove. Do not plan to build a fire. Fires are comforting and aesthetically pleasing, but they cause considerable impact on the backcountry/wilderness. Wood is better used for habitat for wild creatures than as fuel for campers whose lives do not depend upon forest resources. Campfires have potential to get out of control if not well tended. For these reasons, fires are allowed in only a few designated campsites which have metal fire rings. Never take food in the sleeping area. Separate where you eat from where you sleep.

Drinking water
Always purify the drinking water you get in the backcountry/wilderness by using one of the following methods:

  • Filter water with a portable water filter system that eliminates Giardia.
  • Boil water for one minute, and add an additional minute for each 1000 ft above sea level (example: 10,000 ft = 11 minutes).
  • Use water purifying tablets or drops that eliminate Giardia

Wash water
Carry water at least 70 adult steps (200 feet/60 meters) from a lake or stream to wash yourself or your dishes. Use biodegradable soap. When disposing wash water, first filter out all food scraps with a small screen. Pack the food scraps into an airtight container to be carried out later. Then toss out the wash water by throwing it over a wide area.

  • Never wash directly in a lake or stream.
  • Do not scatter food scraps in the water or on the ground.
  • Do not throw food into pit toilets.
  • Pack out all food scraps, trash, and uneaten food.

Leaving the backcountry/wilderness
If you end a trip early, notify a ranger to cancel the permit, so other backpackers may take your place. Please report all unusual wildlife sightings, trail conditions, or incidents to a ranger. Pack out all your garbage and that of others less considerate. If you see any violations of rules and regulations, please report them to a ranger as soon as possible. You can find showers and laundry facilities in Estes Park and in Grand Lake.

Crosscountry areas
Crosscountry areas are the least traveled and least accessible places in Rocky Mountain National Park. Stock are not permitted to travel in these areas. Those who travel here must be skilled with a map and compass and must be proficient at Leave No Trace camping and hiking techniques.

Crosscountry areas are remote areas characterized by rugged terrain, dense forests, icy streams, and wet bogs. These areas are below treeline. Fires are not allowed. There are no developed campsites, no developed trails, and no pit toilets. The following regulations and guidelines, in addition to those listed above, apply to crosscountry area campers.

  • Have no more than seven people in your party.
  • Plan more hiking time to get to your destination than if you were on a trail.
  • And carry a portable stove for cooking.

When you choose a campsite you must:

  • Stay within the boundaries of the crosscountry area.
  • Camp at least 70 adult steps (200 feet/60 meters) away from any water source.
  • Be out of sight and sound of any other party.
  • Move your camp at least one mile (1.6 kilometers) each day.
  • Stay no more than two nights in one crosscountry area.

Sprague Lake Accessible Camp
This is a special wheelchair accessible backcountry campsite near Sprague Lake. It is half a mile (one kilometer) from the trailhead to the campsite.

This camp accommodates 12 campers including a maximum of five wheelchair users. If you are hearing or sight impaired and have a certified assistance dog, your dog may accompany you to this or any other campsite or trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. To make reservations please read the section above entitled How to get your permit.

To fish in Rocky Mountain National Park you must have a Colorado State fishing license. You may purchase licenses at local sporting goods stores. Check at Rocky Mountain National Park visitor centers for fishing regulations. Ask for the Fishing brochure.

Packing with horses or llamas
There are special stock campsites and rules for overnight camping with stock. Some trails are closed to stock use. Call 970-586-1206, or 970-586-1242 for information about packing with stock. Ask for the Horse and Pack Animals brochure.

Climbers and bivouac camps
If you plan to bivouac during a technical rock climb, you must obtain a bivy permit. You can make reservations as described above for backcountry/wilderness permits. The following rules apply for bivouacs:

  • You may have no more than four people in your party. All in party must climb.
  • The climb must be four or more technical pitches.
  • You must bivy in the area specified on your permit.
  • Bivys must be on rock or snow.
  • Bivys must be broken down by sunrise.
  • No tents or erected structures are permitted.
  • Fires are not allowed.
  • Helmets are advised for climbing.

For your safety and protection of the park resources…

Be prepared with appropriate gear

  • Sleeping bag/tent with appropriate seasonal rating.
  • Snow sealed or plastic boots.
  • Storm gear, gaiters, cap, gloves etc.
  • Sunglasses (check UV/IR), sunscreen (check SPF).
  • Topographical map/compass.
  • Supplies to purify all water.
  • Bear canister if camping below treeline.
  • Camp stove.
  • The "Essentials".
  • Signed permit (Please verify correct camp areas and dates on front of permit before leaving the Backcountry Office).
  • Dash tag required for each vehicle at the trailhead.
  • Snowshoes or skis seasonally.

Check upcoming weather before departure. Remember, conditions can change quickly!

Backcountry Camping Rules and Regulations
A backcountry use permit is required for all overnight backcountry use and must be displayed on the outside of your pack while hiking to your campsite and on you tent at the campsite.

  • The permit is valid only for the dates and camp areas listed.
  • A displayed "dash tag" is required for overnight parking.
  • Pitch tent(s) as close to the indicated site as is safely possible out of potential hazard from standing dead trees.
  • Use pit toilets where provided, otherwise dig a 6" deep "cat-hole" at least 200' (70 adult steps) from water, trails and campsites.

General Regulations
In order to protect park resources and minimize impacts, the following are prohibited everywhere in the backcountry:

  • Pets and vehicles (including bicycles)
  • Fires (except at specific sites with metal fire rings)
  • Recreational use of firearms
  • Hunting, feeding, approaching or disturbing wildlife
  • Removing or disturbing natural features
  • Trenching around tents and camps
  • Shortcutting between trail switchbacks
  • Littering or leaving trash in sites or pit toilets
  • Washing dishes or bathing within 200' (70 adult steps) of water.

Special Regulations
Designated Sites:

  • Pitch tent(s) as close to the indicated site as is safely possible out of potential hazard from standing dead trees.
  • Use stoves only. Fires prohibited, unless staying in a wood fire site with visible metal fire ring (using dead and down wood only).
  • Party size is limited to seven at individual sites and 12 at group sites.
  • Due to excessive impact, groups over seven persons must use group sites or split up and camp at least one mile apart.
  • If the designated site has more than 4" of snow, follow the "Winter Regulations" below.

Crosscountry Areas:

  • Camp must be established. . .
    1. within the designated cross-country zone.
    2. at least 200' (70 adult steps) from water.
    3. out of sight and sound of trails and other campers.
    4. below treeline and out of meadows.
    5. and moved at least one mile each night.
    6. no more than two nights in one crosscountry zone
  • Party size is limited to seven people.
  • Fires prohibited. Use portable stoves only.
  • Stock prohibited.

Stock Sites:

  • Camp must be established in "stock camps" only.
  • Party size is limited to six people and eight stock at individual sites.
  • Party size is limited to 12 people and 16 stock at group stock sites.
  • Use stoves only. Fires prohibited, unless staying in a wood fire site with visible metal fire ring (using dead and down wood only).
  • Grazing is prohibited. Carry complete feed.
  • Loose herding is prohibited. Tie stock to hitchracks.
  • Ask for the Stock Use brochure for more information.

Bivouac Areas:

  • A bivouac is defined as a temporary, open-air encampment.
  • Permits are issued only to technical climbers.
  • The climb must be four or more technical pitches and three and a half or more miles from the trailhead.
  • Party size is limited to four people and all members must be climbing.
  • A bivouac must be established. . .
    1. within the designated bivy zone, or at the base or on the face of the climb.
    2. at least 200' (70 adult steps) from water.
    3. with camp set up at dusk and taken down before dawn.
    4. without the use of erected type shelters, tents or supported tarps.
    5. on rock or snow only, not on vegetation, and out of meadows.
  • Fires prohibited. Use portable stoves only.
  • Stock prohibited.

Winter Areas:

  • If the designated site has more than 4" of snow, camp at least 200' (70 adult steps) away from the site. Do not camp in the site.
  • Party size is limited to 12 people.
  • Camps must be established. . .
    1. within the designated winter zone.
    2. at least one mile from the trailhead.
    3. at least 200' (70 adult steps) away from water.
    4. on snow or rock only -- never on vegetation or in meadows.
    5. out of sight and sound of other campers and trails.
  • Fires prohibited. Use portable stoves only.

Enjoy your trip
A trip into the backcountry/wilderness can be an adventure of a lifetime for you and those who follow. It is up to you to preserve these precious resources for future generations.

Did You Know?