Beginner’s guide to staying warm on winter runs

I’ve been over (and under) dressing for winter running for years. It takes some trial and error, some sweaty days and some numb fingers as you dial in what layers to wear when.

This beginner-friendly (and slow-runner friendly) guide will help you get a head start so you won’t freezing your booty off this winter!

Note: This guide is based on my personal experience. It also contains affiliate links, which cost you nothing extra but earn Outdoor Beginner a small percentage commission if you do make a sale. Any links to REI, Amazon, or Under Armour are affiliate links. Other products linked are carried by my employer, Runners Roost, but I don’t get a commission or any other reward for posting them here. I’ve just tried them at work and really like them!

A good rule of thumb is dress like it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is.

If you’re dressed right, you should be uncomfortably cold for just the first few minutes of your run before warming up and feeling good. If you’re wet with sweat, you’re overdressed.

Other factors to consider:

How windy or precipitation-ey it is on your route. If you’re running in a more open area, it might be windier (particularly if you are on an exposed hilltop like a mesa). Windproof or rain-proof layers trap body heat, so you may need to only wear a light long-sleeve shirt or t-shirt under your jacket.

How sunny it is on your route. Running in the sun will be hotter than running in the shade or cloudy weather. Keep in mind if you’re in the city, the shadows of tall buildings may keep you in the shade the entire time. Same goes for a trail run in a heavily wooded area or canyon.

Whether the sun is coming up or going down. It’s going to get hotter as the sun comes up, and also significantly cooler once the sun goes down. And, you will likely need to add reflective gear or a headlamp to stay safe in the dark.

How hilly your route is. For most beginner runners, hills are both very hard but also typically walked. Consider whether you might get chilly while walking a lot of uphills (and add another layer if so). Or, if you’re doing a harder workout or know you’ll be running uphill a lot and exerting a lot of effort (see below), dress lighter.

How much effort you’re exerting. If you’re pushing yourself, that means less clothing is needed. The last thing you want is to get wet with sweat and stay wet; that’s a one-way ticket to being miserable. Note: Pushing yourself doesn’t mean that you’re running ~really fast~ or pounding out 10 miles. It could just mean you’re going to try to run all the way around the block with no walk breaks for the first time.

Layers are your best friend.

With all those factors to consider, there will be some trial and error in the beginning (or if you’re like me, at the beginning of every single winter). You’ll get the hang of things eventually! The most important thing to keep in mind is to dress in layers.

Start with a long-sleeved base layer

This is the piece of clothing closest to your skin. You’ll be fine in cotton if you’re just starting out and aren’t outside for very long (ie you’re just trying to run a few blocks without barfing like I was). You might be a little uncomfortable, but you’re not going to have some catastrophic consequence (this is why I hate the saying “cotton kills” that I see on all the time).

If it’s possible to purchase a base layer, look for something thin and highly breathable. Yes, thin! The layer closest to your skin is what wicks the sweat off of you and keeps you dry. Cotton isn’t particularly good at this, because it just stays wet, so you’ll feel chilled. Again, this isn’t an issue if you’re just trying to get around the block.

A thin base layer will not only keep you comfortable, but is also a really versatile piece of clothing you can put on over a t-shirt or under a waterproof layer.

My favorites are:

Add a light jacket on top as needed.

Once you’ve considered the 10-degree rule and the running conditions we’ve talked about already, decide whether you need another layer on top of the base layer.

This can be a hoodie, a fleece jacket, puffy vest, pretty much whatever you’re comfortable in or already have.

A very windy day that I was grateful to be wearing a raincoat on. But I definitely regretted the multiple thick layers underneath – it was a cold and cloudy day, but my raincoat trapped so much heat I was DYING. And yes, I run with trekking poles, don’t @ me (do the kids still say that?).

You probably won’t ever need a winter coat to run in – but if you’ve driven somewhere else for your run, it can be nice to keep that in the car to warm up when you get back!

Experiment with different combinations.

Some people can run in shorts no matter the temperature, but my joints get very upset if exposed below 45 degrees. I also get really hot and sweaty on my upper half, so having more layers up top has been a one-way ticket to being both hot and freezing at the same time.

Switching to pants and short sleeves when it’s in the 40s has been a game-changer. If you’re wondering what took me so long, it was my preference for how shorts and long sleeves looked together.

I know I sound like a broken record, but this is another really helpful thing to experiment with as you learn what layers work best for you.

Use what you have.

Are cotton leggings not meant for sporty activities ideal for running? No. Did I wear the ~fashion~ leggings I already had from LOFT for most of my first runs? Absolutely.

I am in no way insisting that you have to go buy ALL THE THINGS. Technical fabrics are pricey, and I know everyone can’t just go buy a whole new wardrobe of things to sweat in. When you’re just starting out, use what you have and build slowly from there.

REI Venturi fleece jacket (two years old, they've changed the design a bit), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band.
REI Venturi fleece jacket (similar here), Gap Outlet puffy vest (using what I have!) and Outdoor Research Ear Band (similar here).

If you buy one thing, buy good base layers. 

Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, technical fabric base layers are the best investment I’ve made. They make winter running so much more pleasant – getting (and staying) too wet and sweaty is SO much more miserable then just being too cold from under dressing.

Here is the link to my favorite one more time.

Springing for leggings is the next best investment.

I rocked those LOFT leggings for a long time because I maxed out at half a mile and wasn’t actually outdoors for very long. Once I got too cold and didn’t want my favorite leggings to get gross, I gutted up and spent $50 on insulated running tights. This seemed like a lot of money to buy something to sweat in, but they’ve lasted for years of near-daily use (I don’t run that often, I just wear leggings as pants a lot).

Leggings are harder to fit then shirts, so the best brand to get is the brand that fits you the best. I have two rules of thumb: Go for a name brand and get a pair specifically for cold weather. Normally, I love Target for cheap active wear. But in my experience, cheap leggings don’t stay up and I’m constantly pulling them up while I run.

Insulated/cold weather leggings will also make a big difference in staying warm, too. This doesn’t have to mean bulky – running clothing technology has come a long way (and that’s why we pay so much for it)!

UnderArmour makes tights that are both really thin and very warm (with pockets). However if you trail run often, they aren’t particularly durable. I’ve ripped two pairs easily; once by just sitting down on a rock to re-tie my shoe (yep had to run with a hole in the butt of my pants) and the other time for a minor fall on a very smooth trail. If that’s not an issue for you, here’s their current selection.

If you do trail run and are looking for more durable options, try North Face or Salomon!

Don’t forget your head, hands, and feet.

Gloves are important. Your hands will be numb and you will probably be hating life pretty soon if you go out with your hands uncovered. I wear gloves if it’s under 40 degrees. You don’t need anything super thick – I love these thin, but wind-resistant, ones. If you do need something warmer, try a glove that converts to mittens!

For your head, an ear warmer or Buff is less hot than a hat, plus they accommodate a high pony or bun. I like using a Buff as an ear band when I’m running longer (for me, that’s four miles) or fast (for me, a 10-minute pace). For windy or below freezing conditions, a more substantial ear warmer or hat can be helpful!

All the layers on a sub-zero morning. I was so thankful for the windproof ear band, and used the Buff (linked above) as a neck warmer. Going up this giant hill obviously made me really hot, but going down it I would get really cold again, which made it tricky to dress for.

Non-cotton socks will keep your feet dry. Even if they get wet with snow! You can find synthetic material socks anywhere from Target to local running stores and REI. The latter will be more expensive, but will also last longer. My cheap socks from Target lasted about a year and a half, while my pricier Darn Tough socks are still going strong nearly a decade later. Feetures and Balega are other great options.

Consider higher socks (like a crew or “mini crew” height) for days under freezing or if your leggings aren’t long enough to cover your ankles.

The bottom line.

Dress like it’s warmer than it is. The 10-degree rule is a great starting point to figure out what works best for you.

Wear plenty of layers and don’t be afraid to experiment. There will be trial and error. If possible, invest in a moisture-wicking base layer shirt that isn’t cotton. Upgrade to non-cotton leggings next.

Don’t forget your extremities. Gloves, ear warmers, and synthetic socks are your friend!

One last thing: Safety.

It’s important to wear something reflective besides your shoes. Cold weather means shorter days, which means cars have a harder time seeing you. Consider a reflective vest like this one.

Consider a headlamp. If you live in a well-lit neighborhood, disregard this message, but the combination of questionable lighting and extremely questionable sidewalk quality in my neighborhood has made me a devotee of running with a headlamp. I run with a Black Diamond headlamp.

Best of luck with your trial and error! I mostly learned how to dress for running in the winter by wearing way too many clothes and getting too sweaty. That might happen you, too, but don’t worry – you’ll get to the happy medium eventually! Have fun out there.

Beginner’s Travel Guide: Leaf Peeping in Crested Butte

Leaf peeping in Crested Butte totally lives up to the hype. But the options can feel a little overwhelming, the lodging expensive…and the trails a little steep. Crested Butte’s beauty is the result of a lot of big mountains erupting straight up out the valley it’s situated in. I was worried about finding beginner-friendly hiking with the views I was after. But I was wrong!

It’s also warm enough to still eat outside (as long as you bring a jacket), and most restaurants downtown greatly expanded outdoor dining to help folks be more safe during the pandemic. My partner and I visited at the end of September for four days and were able to travel responsibly, enjoy stunning scenery, and have plenty of date nights, too!

Purchase a detailed four-day itinerary with:

  • Local tips and tricks
  • Turn-by-turn trail guides
  • Road trip stops
  • Clickable packing list

Once you purchase the guide through PayPal, you will immediately receive an email with a link to the pdf.

Getting to Crested Butte from Denver

Crested Butte is in the southwest corner of Colorado. There is an airport in Gunnison, which is 40 minutes south of Crested Butte. Driving there from Denver is a little over four hours.

It’s a beautiful trip, particularly over Cottonwood Pass. Most of the drive is on two- to four-lane highway. It’s paved the entire way, but does involve driving over a few mountain passes that are steep and curvy. Take your time and you’ll be fine!

Where to stay in Crested Butte

By the end of September, the nights are getting close to freezing, which is too cold for me to want to camp. Gunnison is a bit too far to be making daily trips into Crested Butte so I wouldn’t recommend staying there.

Crested Butte lodging is bananas expensive, so your best bet for more affordable lodging is Crested Butte South. You still have to drive into Crested Butte, but it’s a very manageable 15-minute drive. There’s also a bus that runs between CB South and downtown Crested Butte.

When to go to Crested Butte for leaf peeping

The “peak” of the aspen trees changing color is typically at the end of September, but varies each year depending on the weather. This year, September 17 – October 1 is predicted to be Crested Butte’s peak.

If you can go during the week, DO. Crested Butte is a world-wide destination for its enormous aspen groves. It is packed on the weekends. I went during the week, though, and the trails were nearly empty. Town was a bit busier, but we only had trouble finding a spot for dinner on Thursday night.

Best beginner-friendly leaf peeping trails

There are so many options for hiking in Crested Butte it can feel kind of overwhelming. Plus, a lot of trails are super steep or tricky to get to. These three options are very beginner-friendly in distance and hilliness:

The Snodgrass Trailhead in Mt Crested Butte is the best bang-for-your-buck trail for leaf peeping close to town.

Kebler Pass is what gets all the fuss. Try the Three Lakes Trail. It”s one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, but confusing to navigate. Buy my complete itinerary for a turn-by-turn guide (with pictures).

Purchase a detailed four-day itinerary with:

  • Local tips and tricks
  • Turn-by-turn trail guides
  • Road trip stops
  • Clickable packing list

Once you purchase the guide through PayPal, you will immediately receive an email with a link to the pdf.

The Brush Creek Trailhead is an easy stop before or after dinner, depending on how early you eat.

Complete Four-Day Itinerary

If you’re interested in detailed trip-planning information, download my detailed four-day itinerary for just $15. In clickable pdf form, you’ll have an easy-to-understand, beginner-friendly guide to making the best of your leaf peeping trip to Crested Butte.

Worried about how hilly the trails are in Crested Butte? I’ve got pictures. And turn-by-turn directions! What happens if you accidentally miss the Jack’s Cabin turn-off? I’ve got you. Where do you get an early but quick breakfast in Crested Butte? You guessed it, in the guide!

Purchase a detailed four-day itinerary with:

  • Local tips and tricks
  • Turn-by-turn trail guides
  • Road trip stops
  • Clickable packing list

Once you purchase the guide through PayPal, you will immediately receive an email with a link to the pdf.

Questions?

Contact outdoorbeginner at gmail dot com! I want to make sure you’re totally comfortable with the guide. Purchasing the guide comes with text messaging support as well.

How to take a baby on a camper van trip

My husband was incredibly lucky to have Summer 2020 off for parental leave. I was staying home with Baby OB, and at the beginning of 2020, we had lots of grand travel plans for this once-in-a-lifetime time off.

Then the pandemic threw a big wrench in that.

Once it was less dangerous to leave home, we started considering how we could travel locally without exposing ourselves to other people. Enter the camper van: self-contained sleeping, eating, and transportation.

We dove headfirst into #vanlife with Baby OB, renting a very vintage VW Eurovan before upgrading to a Dodge Ram conversion. We learned a lot along the way, including that vacation with a baby isn’t *quite* a vacation. (Yes, this may seem obvious in retrospect but we are new parents with no idea what we’re doing!)

But it’s also not not a vacation…so even though doing anything with a baby is hard, I hope you’ll give it a try too! We went on two trips with a seven-month-old, non-crawling (but rolling) baby.

How do you know if the car seat will work in a campervan?

Test it out ahead of time. Surprisingly (maybe not to non-parents) “people with a baby” aren’t exactly the van rental companies’ target audience (that would be “single people maybe with a dog”).

Most conversions aren’t done with a car seat in mind, so we had to eliminate several rental companies solely because there was nowhere to safely put one. The best way to test this is to bring your car seat with you and try to install it when you take a peek at the vans.

Testing car seat installation yourself is especially important if the staff doesn’t have kids. This isn’t a judgment, non-parents just probably won’t know how car seats work (I didn’t know this either before having a kid). One company said the jump seat in the van would likely work with a car seat, but once we got there and tried it ourselves it clearly wasn’t going to happen.

We were referred to Rocky Mountain Campervans in Lakewood, CO since none of the conversion van rentals were working with a carseat. The owners, Boyd and Erin, have extensively campervanned with their kiddos. If you’re in the Denver area, they are incredibly wonderful people and SO helpful! Their passion for camping with kids is infectious.

Our car seat worked in the Eurovan Full Camper, but it had its own challenges which I’ll get into shortly. As of 2021, Rocky Mountain Campervans also has more modern, non-VW vans which I would definitely check out next time! For our second van trip, we were able to find a converted Dodge Ram through Outdoorsy (get a $25 credit using my link) from people with kids.

Where should we go for our first family campervan trip?

Close to home! Seriously. We were way too ambitious the first time out and ultimately realized that being within two hours of home was ideal.

How do we feed the baby and ourselves while camping?

I was dead set on the idea that bottles and formula were going to be way too difficult. Fortunately, I was wrong.

By the time our second trip rolled around I had stopped breastfeeding. I only ran into trouble trying to make formula in the middle of the night with ice cold water. The formula wouldn’t dissolve because the water was too cold, Baby OB was screaming, I had to shove the bottle under my clothes to warm it up. It was a little bit of a mess but ultimately fine. So par for the course for life with baby!

Most scenic place a baby has ever nursed. I assume.

The biggest challenge is not having a place to put a baby in a van (except for their car seat). For our first trip, we fed Baby OB in our laps which got very old very quickly.

For the second trip, I found the Hiccapop Omniboost Travel Booster Seat. I like it much more than the very-popular Summer Pop because the Hiccapop’s straps are are better designed. I also liked the Hiccapop better than the Ciao Baby, which has an even more poorly-fitting, awkward strap situation.

The Hiccapop isn’t a very rigid chair, so it only worked for us because Baby OB could already sit up on their own and wasn’t flopping over anymore.

baby sits in a bright blue travel high chair while their mom sits in front of them, smiling. she holds a spoon dipped into a mason jar of baby food.

The Hiccapop came in handy for a place to park them while we fed ourselves, too. We didn’t have enough room to bring a pack n’ play, but that’s an option to consider if you do have the room.

Dinnertime for Billy and I was tricky. Once Baby OB was in bed at 6:30, the van was off-limits. We had to either eat super early (but then get hungry before our bedtime) OR think through everything we needed for dinner ahead of time.

We settled on one person being in charge of baby bedtime and one person in charge of pulling everything out for dinner. Generally, dinnertime was less of an issue at campgrounds with bear boxes where we could store food outside of the van for the entire time we were there.

How does baby sleep in the van?

We didn’t co-sleep, so we got a PeaPod for Baby OB to sleep in on the floor. Leading up to each trip, we acclimated Baby OB to the PeaPod while we were still at home. By the time we left, they were already napping and sleeping in it for at least a few days.

Note: at the end of our trips, I found a warning label that PeaPods aren’t meant for children under one. We didn’t have any issues but I am in no way a professional or guaranteeing that’s the case for your kiddo. PeaPod at your own risk!

Overall, I was shocked at how well Baby OB tolerated the cold, particularly because they were too little to wear a hat while they slept (at least for our comfort level). We dressed them in well-fitted layers without a hood under a fleece sleep sack.

We did our normal bedtime story/bottle/song in the adult bed part of the van, and then put Baby OB in the Peapod while we gingerly stepped over them and tried to quietly shut the door. There was some crying involved, but it was brief and we were comfortable with letting them fuss for a few minutes.

Check to make sure the van comes with some sort of black-out curtains for the windows. Bring your own if not. We didn’t have a white noise machine because there was no way to plug it in. This ended up not being an issue, even when we had to keep the windows and vents open during the day when it was hot.

What about naps while you’re camping?

Baby OB was taking two naps a day when we did our trips. We decided to make Nap 1 “on the go” so we could actually get out and about during the day. We would hike in the morning and Baby OB would nap in the backpack. Or, we would be on way to our next stop and they would nap in the car while we drove.

For the second nap, we did the same thing we did at bedtime and hoped for the best. Typically, we did get at least 45 minutes of a nap in. It wasn’t as long as normal, but we did our best and chalked it up to being on vacation.

Take some downtime for yourself and also rest for at least one of the naps. We were all getting up WAY earlier than normal and not sleeping as well overnight, so we were eager to also nap with Baby OB. If we didn’t want to also lay down, we’d read in camping chairs outside the van. Similar to dinner, we made sure to grab everything we needed since the van became off-limits once Baby OB was down.

I was very anxious about Baby OB not getting enough sleep during the day, but ultimately I decided I would rather go on this trip and have things not be perfect than to just stay at home (where, spoiler alert, things are also not perfect).

That sounds very nice and breezy, but this was VERY hard for me. I didn’t do it perfectly. I had some panic attacks about their sleep. But looking back months later, I am SO glad we went for it and did these trips.

Obviously, sleep is a Hot Button Issue for parents. I’m not saying what we did is THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT. It’s just the way we did it, and hopefully the context is helpful for you.

Which van was better for a trip with a baby?

man and woman standing in front of a campervan with their baby

Five Days in a VW Eurovan Full Camper

I’m not going to lie, there was a VERY steep learning curve of the Eurovan. Coupled with the learning curve of camping with a baby for the first time, this was a difficult first few days. There were multiple times when I was on the verge of tears and THISCLOSE to telling Billy we had to go home. But I think it was still easier than tent camping.

Hardest part of the Eurovan with a baby

The biggest challenge is the main thing that makes the Eurovan cool – it’s retro and quirky. However, the quirks became very anxiety-inducing once we were in the thick of trying to make things work.

For example, the bed needs to be put away if you’re going to use the kitchen. You pull/push the bed out but it’s quite rickety and tricky to do. I tried doing it with Baby OB in one arm, but the panel around the handle that I was yanking on suddenly flew off. We both fell over, I dropped Baby OB (they were okay), and we both immediately burst into tears.

Not having a place to put Baby OB down was tough. It was easiest to put them on the bed, but we couldn’t keep the bed set up and make food. It did feel exhausting for one of us to constantly be holding or supervising them.

Driving the Eurovan

This van isn’t particularly tall or long, so it’s very maneuverable. However this is an old vehicle (obviously). We were flooring it up mountain passes and going like 30 miles per hour.

It was initially stressful, but then I really got into the forced slower pace. I noticed so much more of our surroundings, even on the part of 70 that we’ve driven a million times! Plus, the whole point of vacation is to just be together. I really enjoyed the extra time to just hang out with Billy.

Sleeping in the Eurovan with a baby

If you’re co-sleeping, it would be a tight fit for two adults and a baby in the bed. The van rental company suggested sleeping one adult and the babe on the bed, and then having the other adult sleep in the pop-up top. We ended up using the pop-up for storage (we probably packed too much) so this didn’t work for us, plus we weren’t co-sleeping.

If you’re not co-sleeping, there isn’t enough room on the ground for a pack n’ play once the bed is pulled out. That’s the other reason we went with a PeaPod (at our own risk).

Kitchen and amenities

I think it would’ve made more sense to ditch the full camper model with the fridge/kitchen and propane tank. The propane tank makes the van lower clearance, and we could’ve gotten the model with a bed out out all the time instead.

A normal camp stove and no fridge would’ve been totally fine, which is the main difference. We didn’t need a real kitchen after all! Our combination of AO Cooler and Yeti ice pack kept everything much colder than the propane fridge.

If you cook a lot of complicated meals (you probably aren’t camping with a baby?) the sink could be worth it, but we didn’t use it enough to justify having the whole kitchen area.

Charging phones turned out to be really tricky because the adapters and plugs the rental company offered didn’t work. We should’ve brought our own or had a back-up solar charger.

Three days in a 22-foot Dodge Ram conversion

A converted van is a van that used to be something else, like a delivery van, and then was “converted” into a camper van. You may also see them referred to as “custom conversions.”

The van we rented from Outdoorsy was significantly bigger and more modern than the Eurovan. This made everything easier, including packing. Not having to shuffle furniture around was also a game changer. The bed was always a bed (and it was really big) and the kitchen was easily accessible.

Hardest part of the converted van with a baby

The doors are heavier and much harder to discretely close without startling a baby. The electricity panel also was super bright at night and we had to get creative to cover it up so we could all fall asleep. Honestly, that’s it. I loved the converted van.

Driving the converted van

22 feet is a LOT OF FEET. Parallel parking this bad boy on our street in Denver was a little anxiety-inducing. But I drove it from Commerce City to Denver in rush hour traffic and got the hang of it very quickly.

The power of a modern, diesel engine was really nice. There was no issue getting up any hills, which did give me more peace of mind than the Eurovan.

Driving perhaps also felt like less of an issue because we just didn’t go as many places. We drove to the campground and then stayed there for multiple nights. This trip was also all paved roads, and very tame compared to the Forest Service “roads” we went on with the Eurovan (and survived!).

Sleeping in a converted van

The van was bigger, so the bed was bigger. The queen bed was WAY comfier for us to sleep on. I actually slept through the night several times, which is unheard for me when camping. If you’re co-sleeping, this is a more realistic fit for two adults and a baby.

Kitchen and amenities

We had a basic DIY-converted van, so it wasn’t anything Instagram-worthy (which was totally fine). The kitchen was a camp stove with no running water. We were right about not needing a fridge or running water – this basic set up was all we needed.

I also loved that we had solar electricity in the van. This made charging electronics a breeze. We probably could’ve also figured out how to bring our white noise machine, but we didn’t bother.

In conclusion

Camping with a baby ain’t easy. But let’s face it, nothing is. Just like having a baby, though, it’s worth the hardship! We may not have been super well-rested at the end of either trip, but we were mentally restored and so glad that we went.

It’s also okay if you want the nice, big, custom conversion van. I didn’t think I was “that kind of person” and then I very quickly realized that there was absolutely no problem with being a Big Van Person. Or maybe just a Modern Van Person? I’d love to check out the smaller, but more modern options available at Rocky Mountain Campervans now. But I’d also happily re-rent the big 22-footer!

I know this is a lot of information, but it’s all information I was desperately looking for when we were planning our trips. I hope it comes in handy, and don’t hesitate to let me know if I missed something!

Beginner’s guide to your first backpacking trip

Editors Note: This post was written by my partner, Billy. I’ve yet to go backpacking, mostly because the initial start-up cost of gear is significant. *However* his beginner’s experience taught me that backpacking is a lot more beginner-friendly than I had assumed, and I thought it was important (and helpful) for him to share it!

So you’ve decided you want to go backpacking but you don’t really know where to begin. It can be intimidating and everyone who does it seems so advanced that you could never do it too. I felt that way, too, so I’ll share my own experience and some tips for how you can get started. I hope you’ll make the leap, because views like this await, miles from civilization.

Amazing view from a lookout point along the Goose Creek Trail in the Lost Creek Wilderness

Buying all the gear you need for backpacking can be pretty expensive, so I’d recommend renting the first time. There are several companies that have full backpacking rental kits, including REI and Outdoors Geek. These kits will come with most, if not all, of the equipment you’ll need for your first time out. You’ll likely still need to augment the rental package with food, clothes, and a couple other items.

What do I need to bring?

Here’s a basic packing list:

  • Backpack (50-60L capacity is great for beginners)
  • Tent, tarp + groundcloth, or hammock (the size of your tent should be the number of people + 1, so if you have two people, get a 3 person tent unless you like getting *really* cozy)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Cookset (stove, fuel canister, pot – if you’re buying one, this Soto is a great cookset)
  • Utensil (plastic spork works great)
  • Water (reservoir with hose or water bottles), ~2L per day
  • Simple water filter (Sawyer Squeeze is great)
  • Food bag (Ursack bear bag or bear canister if in bear country)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Basic first aid kit (here’s one I like that’s already pre-made)
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Food (2,500-3,500 calories per day)

Optional additions:

  • Trekking poles (we love the Black Diamond Distance Z, but less expensive ones will also work just fine)
  • Trash bag liner for keeping sleeping bag and clothes dry inside backpack
  • Lightweight camping chair (Helinox chairs are expensive but great, REI Flexlite chairs are a less expensive alternative)
  • Toilet paper or wipes + Ziploc to pack them out
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Physical map (Nat Geo maps are the gold standard, but AllTrails app on your phone can download maps for offline use with the Pro version if you don’t have a map)
  • Headnet for mosquitos

Here’s what my gear looked like all spread out prior to packing up my backpack.

Prior to packing my backpack, here’s everything laid out

I had to do quite a bit of research to feel comfortable with what I was getting into, so I’ll try to address some of the things I was more uncertain about to help give you a bit better starting place.

How do I figure out where to go?

The most important thing for your first time backpacking is to have a good experience and learn something while you’re at it. There’s no need to push the limit of what you think you’re capable of this time around.

Keep it simple and scout out the trip ahead of time so you know a bit about what you’re getting into for preparation and peace of mind. Go somewhere within an hour or two drive from your home if possible just to lower the pressure. And make sure you’re going at a time of year when the weather is reasonable. Ideally, you want highs no warmer than 85 or so, and lows no colder than 40.

For my trip, I chose Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness because it’s at slightly lower elevation (8k-10k feet) and less difficult terrain compared to many other backpacking options in Colorado. The trail also crosses at least two creeks, so water was relatively plentiful. And I chose to delay my trip by two days due to an abnormal early season snowfall. As I mentioned before, your goal should be to have a good experience, not to win the Olympics of suffering.

There’s a ton of information and trip reports available by just googling “best beginner colorado backpacking trip” and substituting your state or area for Colorado. Then you can cross reference whatever trail you’re considering with trip reports and websites like AllTrails and Google Maps. There, you’ll find reviews of the trail and useful information like the best season to go and whether the road to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle.

How far should I go each day?

When you’re scouting out your trip, try to plan for a realistic amount of hiking based on the elevation, terrain, and elevation gain/loss. A reasonable rule of thumb for most people is averaging 1 mile per hour uphill, 2 miles per hour on flat, and 3 miles per hour downhill.

Be sure to leave plenty of margin for the mileage being somewhat off or taking more breaks than you expect. Nobody wants to be setting up camp at 9pm in the dark after 12 hours straight of hiking. And if you plan overly conservatively, you can always set up camp early and then go for a short afternoon or early evening hike to explore the area before dinner with a lot lighter pack!

What food should I bring backpacking?

Packing food was one of the things I was least confident about ahead of time. It’s a tricky balance to figure out how to keep your pack weight (and size) down while also ensuring you’re getting enough calories to keep you going in the backcountry.

A good rule of thumb is that you want to consume 2500-3500 calories per day. But you’re limited in what kinds of food you can realistically bring, just because a lot of food is heavy and doesn’t pack down small enough to fit in your backpack.

I had good luck with a combination of dehydrated meals for breakfast and dinner, and bars and summer sausage for snacks. To keep the size down, especially for longer trips, you can repackage two or more of the same dehydrated meal into a larger Ziploc bag, and only bring one of the original foil packages to use for re-hydrating each meal.

For lunch and snacks, I decided to try to find the highest calorie per size/weight thing I could find. I opted for Range Meal Bars, which are 700 calories in a bar that’s quite small, and Pro Bars, which are 380-410 calories in an even smaller package. Both of these taste pretty decent, especially the Pro Bars with fruit. My favorite Pro Bar is “Wholeberry Blast,” which doesn’t taste like cardboard like many high-calorie bars out there. Snickers bars also make a great mid-afternoon pick-me-up during a grueling hike, so consider throwing a couple of those in.

In packing food, be sure to segregate your food bag from the rest of the contents of your pack, especially overnight, and put any toiletries or other scented items in your food bag also because they can attract bears and critters.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to use an Ursack bear bag even from reading the description, and this video was really helpful. If you’re a beginner backpacker, please do not try to hang a bear bag. It’s impractical, really challenging to do correctly, and potentially dangerous. Ursack bags have decent resale value as well, so if you aren’t able to find a good option to rent, consider buying one and then resell it on eBay or Craigslist if you don’t plan to use it again.

How do I take care of the environment while I backpack?

Check out the Leave No Trace principles ahead of time and read up on wherever you’re headed so you know what to expect. It’s worth reading through each of the 7 principles ahead of time, but the biggest things I found useful are understanding how to poop in the woods, learning what kinds of wildlife are in your area and what to do if you encounter them, and practicing fire safety especially in fire-prone areas.

The bottom line

Regardless of how much you plan, you’re almost certainly going to forget something or wish you were better prepared at some point along the trail. So just try to lean into that uncertainty, know you’re not alone in being worried about it, and get out there and enjoy yourself and appreciate the opportunity to get out into nature.

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Devils Garden at Arches National Park

I’m not going to lie, Devils Garden tested me. Not so much my physical strength, but my willingness to get out of my comfort zone and push my boundaries. The hike to Double O Arch is absolutely doable for beginners (or it wouldn’t be so popular) but if you have a fear of heights, it will push you.

That being said, I whole-heartedly encourage you to let this hike be a way to get out of your comfort zone in a safe, exciting, and stunningly beautiful setting. Hiking Devils Garden is challenging without being overwhelming and doesn’t have the huge crowds of Delicate Arch.

How do I get there?

Devils Garden is in Arches National Park, located outside of Moab, Utah. There’s a campground at Devils Garden, so if you’re planning a trip, reserve your campsite early (like six months in advance) and stay right in the park!

If you’re driving from Denver, it’s five and a half hours without traffic. Stop in Fruita for a pick-me-up before you cross into Utah! Moab is just under four hours from Salt Lake, but I’ve never driven that direction, so I can’t give you any pointers.

If you’re coming from Colorado, it’s a different story! Make sure to take the scenic route instead of I-70 the entire way. After you get into Utah, take the Cisco exit and follow Highway 128. This will at first seem like a very sketchy road that will definitely not take you anywhere – it’s not paved and it can be rutted out. But after a few miles, the pavement returns, the red rock canyons surrounding the Colorado River open up, and it’s just gorgeous.

Where do I go?

You gotta drive alllll the way through the park to the end of the road. But there’s only one road so it’s hard to get lost. It’s paved the whole way and driving through Arches is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. You feel like you’re on another planet!

There are two beginner-friendly options for hiking around Devils Garden (honestly, why do they call it this? It sounds terrifying). The hike to Landscape Arch (pictured below) is just under two miles round-trip, is very flat, and is all on smooth, gravel or sand pathways.

You can add on mileage with side trails to see other arches, but there’s a ton of scenery from the main trail so don’t feel like you’re missing out. If you want to get really wild, you can opt for the primitive trail back from Double O that puts you at just over 7 miles. You may also want to opt for another blog because that level of adventure was not something I was looking to get into.

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Landscape Arch, the first stop on the trail. If you’re looking for a shorter distance and totally tame trail, you can go out to Landscape and then just turn around.

The other beginner-friendly option is the hike to Double O Arch. This is technically listed as “strenuous” on the national park website. It’s 4.2 miles with a few steep sections. The most strenuous part is that you have to climb up on the rock fins. Like I said, it’s doable. But a little bit outside my comfort zone!

The first mile of Devils Garden is super tame, but once you pass Landscape Arch there’s a lot of “trail” that’s actually just slick sandstone that you’re climbing up and over. It was a little intimidating, but definitely something beginners can handle (see below).

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The part that I thought was a fun challenge since there was no immediate way to fall to your death. Also this was NOT considered the primitive trail, which is how I knew I did not want to do the primitive trail.

But then you get to the “rock fin” about two-thirds of the way in.

This was when my fear sweats kicked in. You’re on a four- to five-foot-wide “fin” of rock that comes out of the ground and takes you up and over to Double O Arch….with a nice big drop-off on one side.

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The photo doesn’t do it justice, but there are drop-offs on each side of Billy. The right side is particularly…exciting to look over.

I know my fear of heights is a ridiculous trick my brain is playing on me, but part of the phobia that sets in is vertigo, which only increases my fear that I’m going to plummet to my death.

I was comforted by the fact that I could look to the left side (on the way out, right side on the way back) of the rock fin to a much more tame drop-off. The north side is the doozy, although literally thousands of people do it every day and don’t die or fall off.

That is the comforting mantra I soothed myself with as I baby-stepped my way across. I may have looked like a drunk baby horse learning to walk thanks to my white-knuckled grip on my hiking poles, but I did it!

Could you skip the rock fin and just turn around? Yes, and you could still have a nice hike up to Partition Arch that may be less intimidating.

But SO.MANY.PEOPLE. do this trail and are totally fine. I wanted to push myself and not wimp out. I suggest you do the same because the pay-off at the end (Double O Arch) is pretty great, in addition to the feeling of badassery you will have. HOWEVER, do not be ashamed if you can’t do it. Just trying is brave, and you should be proud of yourself for trying something at all that scares you, no matter how far you get.

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Lunch at Double O Arch at the end of the trail.

What should I wear and bring?

There’s essentially no shade. There will be some shadows among the rocks in the morning, but once the sun gets nice and high, it also gets nice and hot. This is manageable when the high is 71 (like it is in April). Not so much when it’s 107 (like it is in June).

If you go in springtime, it will likely be chilly in the morning and you’ll be inclined to wear a bunch of layers. Learn from my mistakes. Don’t do that. Especially if it’s sunny. You’ll end up jamming them all in your backpack and cursing yourself for wearing two long-sleeved layers on a hike through the desert.

I ended upwearing a light long-sleeve shirt, capri-length exercise leggings, a hat, and sunglasses. I also wore trail running shoes for the hike, but I wish I had worn my hiking boots and had a little bit more support on the uneven rocks later on. I saw all kinds of footwear out there, though, so wear whatever is comfortable and a little grippy!

I would highly recommend bringing at least one liter of water with you. It’s super dry in the desert, and I’m always surprised by how much water I end up drinking. Double O Arch is a great spot for lunch, so pack some food to enjoy there, too. Remember to bring everything back out with you, including all of your trash.

Is it crowded?

Being an iconic national park, Arches is also super crowded. We got to the trailhead by 10, which I honestly was worried was going to be too late. In April, it wasn’t, but by the time we were done hiking, the parking lot was packed and there was a line of cars waiting for spots.

The campground around the corner from the trailhead was closed for construction when I did this hike. That was generally a bummer since we couldn’t camp in the park, I think it helped with the number of people getting an early start on the trail. Now that it’s back open, it’ll probably be even more busy.

Anything else I should know?

It costs $30 per car to get into the park, and if you’re planning on visiting five or more parks in one year, it’s more cost-effective to spring for the annual pass. If you’re planning on going to Canyonlands as well, then you could opt for the Southeast Utah Parks Pass, which is valid for one month and gets you into Canyonlands, Arches, and Natural Bridges as many times as you want for $55.

If you’re planning a long weekend in Moab, check out my travel guide and itinerary >>

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Double O Arch, the pay-off at the end of the hike.

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Hiking Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument was the first stop during my summer 2016 road trip, and I quickly realized that this area of Colorado is best visited at literally any other time of year than when I went in June with my husband. (Ok, August is even hotter, I went back with my parents at the end of summer 2018)

But the scenery? Totally worth the 6 a.m. wake up call.

As always, please recreate responsibly. Follow all CDC and local guidelines for traveling. Wear a mask if you’re going into the visitors center. And if you haven’t gotten vaccinated already PLEASE do so before travel (not a public health official or medical professional, just want to keep our communities safe).

How do I get there?

Colorado National Monument is in between Fruita and Grand Junction on the Western Slope of Colorado.

From Denver, it’s a four-hour drive across the state on I-70. If you’re coming all the way from Denver, I recommend camping at Saddlehorn the night before so you can get an early start. This obviously isn’t a day trip from Denver, and spending a night under the stars in Saddlehorn is a great road trip stop!

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Admission is $25, or included if you have an annual National Park Service pass (aka the America the Beautiful pass). You can pay by credit card or cash at either entrance. If you are entering the park before rangers are manning the entrances, please make sure to pay on your way out!

The hiking options covered in this guide are closer to the West Entrance outside of Fruita. If you spent the night in Grand Junction or Palisade, you can make it a day trip to Fruita by driving in the East Entrance, hiking along the way, and then getting breakfast or lunch in Fruita. My breakfast go-to is Best Slope Coffee and you have to stop at Hot Tomato Pizza for lunch!

Where do I go?

The most beginner-friendly option is taking several short hikes at different points around the monument. Each of these hikes are half a mile one-way (or less!), with only one involving any sort of descent/uphill hiking.

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Stop 1: Window Rock Nature Trail

Starting at the West Entrance, begin at the quarter-mile (one-way) Window Rock Nature Trail. You get incredible views of the monument and sweeping panoramas of the Grand Valley.

Stop 2: Visitors Center and Canyon Rim Trail

Next, hit up the visitors center (for gifts or for guidance). This is a great place to fill up your water bottles and make a pit stop at the bathrooms. The Canyon Rim Trail leaves from the back of the Visitors Center and follows the rim of the Monument.

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Stop 3: Otto’s Trail

Hop back in the car and drive to Otto’s Trail, which takes you out on one of the rock formation you can see from Canyon Rim. This trail also has incredible views at the end, but the overlook is a doozy if you’re afraid of heights. It’s completely safe, and in my opinion, totally worth pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

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View from Otto’s Trail

Stop 4: Upper Monument

Next stop is the Upper Monument Trail parking area. This trailhead will take you to the Coke’s Oven area. It looks like a straight line on the map but is actually pretty switchback-ey at first, descending pretty quickly into the canyon. You don’t get to the floor, and it flattens out after a few minutes.

Don’t panic, you won’t accidentally ending up on the super long trail that goes down to the bottom of the monument (I totally didn’t panic about that. TOTALLY). The trail is still manageable for beginners – the climb back up on your way out is short and very doable.

Coke’s Oven was also the best trail for viewing the monument’s most plentiful wildlife, the collared lizard. I couldn’t get any good photos of them, but they were everywhere! In a cool way, not in a make-your-skin-crawl kind of way. And this is coming from someone with a pretty big reptile phobia.

Stop 5: Ute Canyon Overlook

Those four trails took Billy and I about an hour and a half. If you have one more scenic view in you, stop at the Ute Canyon Overlook on your way back to the East Entrance. (Or, if you’re starting at the East Entrance, stop here first!)

The views are incredible, and just a short walk from the car (you can almost see the overlook from where you park).

One of the views from the Ute Canyon Overlook, featuring my dad!

What are the trails like?

Each of these trails is no more than a half-mile in length (one-way). With the exception of the Coke’s Oven trail, they’re all also completely flat. You can see the Coke Ovens from the Overlook just west of the Upper Monument Trail parking area if you don’t want to do any hills.

The trails aren’t paved, but they aren’t rocky either. You either hike along fairly even dirt, or on smooth rock (like in the above picture from the Ute Canyon Overlook). The Canyon Rim Trail at the Visitors Center is the only one that’s tricky to follow. Since everything is the same color in the desert, it’s not always super obvious where the trail is. Keep an eye out for a slightly more worn path. Luckily, you’re always between the canyon rim and the road, so it’s not nearly impossible to get lost.

What should I wear and bring?

Above all else, sun protection and water. There is no shade anywhere and it is extremely dry (you’re in the desert, after all!). Here is what I bring every hike >>

If you have them, binoculars are also a great companion. There is a ton of bird life in the Monument, plus binoculars can help you explore the rock formations from afar.

Is it crowded?

Not particularly. Colorado National Monument is still a hidden gem, so you won’t have to contend with many crowds (especially compared to Front Range trails near Denver).

Anything else I should know?

We visited for the first time in June, which in retrospect was not the best time of year. The highs were in the upper 90s, so we were on the trail by 6:30 a.m. It turned out we not only needed to beat the heat, but also the insects. The early wake-up call was totally worth it – by 8:30 a.m. it was blazing and the bugs were out in force!

Spring or fall are much more mild times to visit. I’ve since been back to the Monument in April, which I think is the best time to go. You get a little break from the chilly winter! Fall would also be a lovely mild reprieve before winter really sets in!

In both shoulder seasons (fall and spring), snow is a possibility on your drive from Denver. You have to drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel as well as over Vail Pass. Check the weather across the state before you leave. It can be snowing on one part of your drive and perfectly sunny on another!

If you’re looking to spend more time in the Grand Valley, Palisade has wineries, vineyards, and of course, peach orchards (the best time of year for peaches is the hottest, though). Grand Junction’s Main Street is very cute and Fruita is a renowned mountain biking destination. The Colorado River meanders through the entire valley and has a flat, paved path along most of it, making it a prime spot for beginner-friendly fun!

Beginner’s guide to saving money on outdoor gear

Outdoor gear is effing expensive. There’s almost no getting around it. Well, almost. Fear not, my fellow sticker-shocked outdoors beginners – there are ways to save some cash while gearing up.

First, a word on getting ALL THE STUFF

If you want to go on a hike for an hour or two, you do need to be prepared. You do not need Fancy Shmancy Gear. Do your homework on what the trail is like, bring some water, don’t wear flip-flops, be careful. But other than that, you probably already have everything you need to go hiking. I hike with my normal, non-hiking backpack all the time. I wear cotton t-shirts hiking and it doesn’t kill me.

There are other outdoor activities where it’s a little harder to get by without gear, like camping. So if you’ve decided you do need some gear, but don’t want to break the bank, you have options besides buying everything new (obviously the most expensive way to do it).

Deciding when to splurge and when to save

Always *try* the cheaper brand. More generic brands like REI’s Co-op brand continue to get better and better, and REI most often has sales and coupons for its own brand. I have their knock-off of the Patagonia Nanopuff and see no difference between it and my husband’s actual Patagonia. My running shirts from Target are my favorite ones, and I paid $12 for each of them.

Decide what features are non-negotiable to you. Patagonia and SmartWool will always have cooler colors and designs and more features. There will always be a fancier model. But if you aren’t camping in extreme conditions, or doing a higher-risk activity like rock climbing, you can probably get by with a less expensive brand.

One argument for a name brand is that they can last longer, so they can become more cost-effective over time.

For example, Darn Tough socks are double the price of REI’s brand. But I wear them all the time, and after six years of use they are still in excellent condition, so I haven’t bought hiking socks in six years.

On the other hand, my husband went for the way-cheaper REI sleeping pad for an upcoming backpacking trip because he’s just dipping his toe in the backpacking waters.

If you’ve tried the less expensive brand and it doesn’t fit as well, doesn’t have features you’ve decided are non-negotiable, or if reviews clearly show it’s not as long-lasting, it can be time to splurge. And, if you’re in time crunch and can’t wait for a sale, you may have to pony up.

BUT if you can play the long game, you may not have to pay full price.

Buy last year’s model

Trail running shoes are a splurge for me. I have found the ones I like, and I only run in those (Brooks Cascadia if you’re curious). I bought a pair for full price at the beginning of the year, but I also know that I will only run in these shoes for the foreseeable future. So I check for sales regularly.

Low and behold, Brooks has come out with the Cascadia 15 and is now dumping all the 14s. I love the 14s, so I kept watching the price until I saw them at REI for 50% off this month. I don’t need another pair yet, but it’s rare to find this good of a deal, so I snag them and they can live in my basement until I need them. (I personally haven’t experience a degradation in materials like some shoe snobs claim happens over time.)

Wait for sales and discounts

I know everyone needs another email newsletter like they need a hole in the head, but it’s a great way to get free shipping and first dibs on sales items.

Retroactive price checks

Even if you’ve already bought your item, keep an eye on what goes on sale. If something you bought goes on sales within 14 days, you can get a refund at REI for the price difference. I’ve retroactively saved between 20-30% on items I paid full price for just by flipping through the sale catalog that came to my house. Other brands may have similar policies.

Online flash sales

For those of you that have a penchant for flash deals, I highly recommend you check out Steep and Cheap. It’s a flash sale site specifically for outdoor gear. Unlike many mainstream flash sale sites (I’m looking at you, Zulily), you can return any product you get on Steep and Cheap within 30 days, no questions asked.

Places that aren’t REI

Backcountry is an online site that has full price gear, but also has great sales. They also have a pretty robust influencer marketing program, so almost any ~outdoor influencer~ on Instagram will have a discount code for your first purchase (my personal favorite is @themirnavator).

MooseJaw is another online option with killer sales.

Buy second-hand or used gear

This option has the added benefit of being earth-friendly since you are recycling and reusing gear! It’s most helpful if you know exactly what you’re looking for, otherwise it can get a little overwhelming to peruse shops and online forums.

Local shops

Right now it’s harder to shop in person thanks to coronavirus. There’s a local shop in Denver called Wilderness Exchange that I highly recommend for normal times (I’m personally not comfortable shopping indoors at the time of writing this, so I can’t in good faith tell you to do that).

A quick Google search can tell you whether you have a used gear shop near you, and many shops have pivoted to online sales to make it through coronavirus.

Navigating the Interwebs

The Internet has made it infinitely easier to find used gear. Poshmark (for clothes), Facebook, and good ol’ Ebay and Craigs List can be treasure troves of used gear.

Facebook Groups and Marketplace

Groups such as Patagonia B/S/T on Facebook are helpful to peruse regularly even if you don’t have your eye on something specific. You can also search the group for an item you want. I bought a hat there for Baby OB that was in great condition and was half price!

I also see posts all the time for giveaways/used gear in my local moms group and the huge trail running women group I’m part of. You can also find new gear at a discount. A lot of people would rather resell something online then deal with the rigamarole of returns. I don’t personally understand this, but I will happily benefit from it. Don’t forget to search Facebook Marketplace, too!

Instagram Consignment

I also recently found @isellaoutdoor consigment on Instagram. Isella is specifically working to combat this toxic culture of “have all the nicest best new things or get made fun of,” which I LOVE. They are based in Washington state but will ship anywhere in the U.S. All buyers and sellers are welcome!

REI Used Gear

REI recently created a used gear site where you can find second-hand camping and hiking gear, along with clothes and shoes. By the time you add shipping, sometimes the deals aren’t all that great compared to what you can get a new item on sale for. But if buying secondhand is really important to you values-wise, this is another option.

Kids Gear

WildKind is a new, membership-based website for information about getting outside with kids. I think their $70/year membership is fairly priced for the library of information you get, but you also get discount codes for gear. WildKind also offers scholarships for free memberships if you’re unable to pay for one.

They also are launching WildKind closet, which is a free gear loaner library. Outdoor Beginners with kiddos can find out more here.

Is an REI Membership worth it?

If you’re already shopping a lot at REI, it can be worth it to become a member. It’s $20 for your lifetime, and you do make that back very easily in your annual dividend.

However, there are a lot of exemptions, so I don’t think it’s quite as necessary as I used to. For example, you don’t earn a dividend for anything on sale. And I buy 90% of my stuff on sale, so in the last few years my dividend has been less than $10. There’s also exemptions for a lot of expensive items, so my splurges (like a running stroller and a new North Face jacket) didn’t count toward the dividend either.

That said, you get more codes for sales as a member, so it probably evens out.

You also get discounts on gear rentals, ski and bike repair, and REI trips and training classes. The benefit of this also depends on your local resources. In Denver, there are tons of local shops with gear rentals often half the price of REI (or at least cheaper than the member discount). That hasn’t been the case with bike repairs and cleaning, so I have benefited from that discount.

One member-specific benefit is the REI Garage Sale, which is currently suspended due to COVID-19.

But for normal times, everything at the garage sale has been used and returned, so it’s all heavily discounted. The key is going with specific items in mind and getting there early. The sale is just a giant room of stuff that’s loosely organized by category, so it’s easy to get distracted or overwhelmed. However, this is an investment in your time that you may just not be able (or willing) to make.

How to get cash back on full-price purchases

If you’re going to be paying full price, consider an Active Junky account, which is a free way to earn cash back on your purchase. They have hundreds of partners, including Cabela’s, REI, Nike, and a bunch of other big brands. The percentage you get back varies with the brand, but since it’s completely free there’s no reason not to try it out. There are no hidden fees and it’s free forever!

The Bottom Line

Even generic brands aren’t all that cheap. Outdoor gear involves an investment, but fortunately more options are emerging for used and loaner gear. Even if you aren’t investing as much money, time is involved in watching for deals and discounts. There’s no way around it.

Get out there in what you have. You can wear jeans hiking if you want to. You can wear whatever you have in your closet for a few hours (or less), no matter what Instagram says. Rent what you don’t have instead of buying everything new. Just get out there and try it!

Beginner’s Trail Guide: Easy Trails in Leadville, Colorado

Leadville, Colorado is an awesome escape from the summer heat, and is a totally overlooked leaf-peeping destination. But 10,000 feet of elevation makes hiking and trail running a LOT more difficult, particularly if you’re trudging up the side of a mountain. I used to think the only beginner-friendly options were simply running around town (which is honestly still quite hilly). That is, until I got some local insight (thanks @scoutycowdog!).

Interlaken, Turquoise Lake, South Elbert, and parts of the Colorado Trail near Camp Hale are lovely, rolling paths with beautiful water and mountain views. Interlaken and Turquoise Lake can get busy on summer weekends, but overall, you’ll have way less crowds than many places in Colorado.

I spent about two hours hiking each trail, one with an 18-pound baby in a backpack, and covered between two and five miles fairly easily (my legs were tired afterward but the hikes themselves were manageable!).

This blog was originally written during the coronavirus pandemic. Please follow local and CDC travel and safety guidelines to be respectful and stay safe. I am not a public health official, but I do urge you to get vaccinated, particularly if you are traveling. Vaccines are safe, effective, and the best way to prevent more people dying from COVID-19.

Are Interlaken and Turquoise Lake basically the same hike?

Yes and no. Both are (relatively) flat trails along a lake that is bordered by stunning mountains. They are both out-and-back trails, meaning you walk to a certain point and then turn around and come back the same way.

(Turquoise Lake is technically a loop, but it’s more than 10 miles around, so I assume you’re not doing the entire loop!)

There are differences between the two trails, though, which is why I enjoyed doing both of them.

Turquoise Lake Trail

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Views of Turquoise Lake from the Turquoise Lake Nature Trail

Turquoise Lake is almost totally flat. There is easier beach access. It’s basically right in town. You will see more people because the trail goes along some campgrounds and crosses the parking lot for the boat ramp. The road to get there is significantly easier to drive on. This hike is pick-your-own length. Just walk as far as you want to go and then turn around!

Interlaken Lake Trail

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Views of Twin Lakes from the Interlaken Trail outside of Leadville and Buena Vista, CO

Interlaken is 20 minutes outside of Leadville. It’s hillier. The access road requires a higher-clearance vehicle (our Forester was fine). There’s a very cool historic site that you hike to (the old Interlaken resort). And just beyond that is a meadow with absolutely stunning views of the surrounding peaks (the featured image at the top of this post is from that meadow). If you walk to this meadow and back, it’s just under five miles. It took us just over two hours.

What are South Elbert and Camp Hale like?

Both trails are excellent leaf-peeping spots, but their panoramic mountain vistas would make them great options year-round, too.

Both trails are great options for choose-your-own adventures since they go on for miles. The Colorado Trail goes all the way to Denver, after all! Simply hike as far as you want to and turn back when you’re tired or the trail gets too steep. This has come in handy for trips with in-laws traveling from sea level as well as letting Baby OB (now toddler OB) learn to hike on their own. (When a melt-down happens, we can just turn back for home!)

South Elbert Trail

Looking west from the parking lot for the South Elbert trail.

Mt. Elbert is a “14-er,” or a peak that goes over 14,000 feet high. Mt. Elbert is actually the second-highest peak in the continental United States, so I’m obviously not recommending you hike all the way up. The southern trailhead is across Twin Lakes from Interlaken and takes you through a large aspen grove with multiple panoramic views of the mountains.

Colorado Trail at Camp Hale

This portion of the Colorado Trail is almost completely flat, although if you want to hike up one steep hill (wouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes if you take multiple breaks) you get a bananas pretty view of the nearby 10 Mile Mountain range.

If you don’t make it to the overlook, you still get great views (above) and a waterfall that’s flowing almost year-round. My friend’s nephew made it to the waterfall in socks and sandals, so it’s family-friendly too!

How do I get there?

Turquoise Lake Driving Directions

Turquoise Lake can be accessed from multiple points around town. We drove to the south end where Matchless Boat Ramp is, which was a 12-minute drive from in town. The road is paved the entire way and very easy to drive on. If there are parking spots available along Routes 4, you can also park there to access the trail.

If you’re leaving from the boat ramp, head to the north side (to the right if you’re facing the lake) and you’ll see the trail heading out from that end of the parking lot.

Interlaken Driving Directions

The Interlaken trailhead is 20 minutes outside of Leadville in Twin Lakes. The drive is on paved, flat roads until the last half-mile when you get off of the main road into Twin Lakes. The road gets very hilly and rocky, and I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a car with low clearance.

Alternatively, you can add a half-mile onto your hike and park in the lot on Route 25, which is easily accessible by any car (but still requires driving a short distance on a dirt road).

South Elbert Driving Directions

The South Elbert Trailhead is a 25-minute drive from Leadville on both paved and unpaved roads. Highway 24 is almost completely flat, and County Road 10 is a well-maintained gravel/dirt road that does not require four-wheel drive or a high-clearance vehicle. It’s an easy drive!

Camp Hale Colorado Trail Driving Directions

You’ll drive up and over Tennessee Pass on paved roads before taking well-maintained dirt/gravel roads through Camp Hale. Tennessee Pass doesn’t have any steep drop-offs, and like South Elbert, this is an easy drive in any vehicle! This trail is about 30 minutes north of Leadville. Navigate here >>

Where do I go?

Turquoise Lake Trail Directions

Turquoise Lake has just one trail that goes around the lake, so it’s not hard to find or stay on. Because of all the beach access, there are a lot of meandering social trails down to the shore, but they all hook back up to the main nature trail.

The only point that was truly confusing was when there was actually a sign for the trail near the campgrounds. It pointed away from the lake but said that the nature trail continued that way. We walked a short ways in that direction before realizing it was definitely the wrong way. Maybe it led back to one of the campgrounds? Regardless, when in doubt, stick close to the lake and you can’t go wrong. Here is my route >>

Interlaken Trail Directions

The Interlaken Trail runs along the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, so there are a few intersections along the way. There’s only one way to go from the parking lot, so getting started is easy. There are a few forks for the Colorado Trail or Continental Divide Trail, but stay to the right and you’ll be headed the right direction. This is also considered the Collegiate Peaks East segment, so follow signs for that when they pop up.

Make sure to keep walking past the first historical building you see. This is the Dexter Cabin; I thought it was the actual hotel and was ready to turn around. Not only is the second site where the Interlaken Hotel is very cool, but if you walk just past that, you hit a meadow with absolutely spectacular views (see the image at the beginning of this blog post). Don’t turn around early and miss it! Here is my route >>

South Elbert Trail Directions

There’s only one option from the parking lot, which makes it easy! The only junction in the first two miles is a fork shortly after you start the trail; make sure you stay straight on the right side of the fork. It’s a very straight-forward, obvious trail to follow. Turnaround whenever you’ve had your fill! Here is my route >>

Camp Hale Colorado Trail Directions

This trail is super easy to follow since it’s the only one for miles. The waterfall is a little less than one mile from where you park. If you continue past that point, there is a fork toward another parking area (you can also start here if you’d like for a super shorty hike).

We hiked up the one steep part to get to an overlook, but if that’s too much for you, just skip it! Here’s my route >>

The overlook at one mile into the Colorado Trail near Camp Hale.

What is the trail like?

Turquoise Lake has almost zero rocks and very little elevation change on a wide, dirt path. There’s one very small hill just south of the boat ramp, and one or two spots with some roots sticking out. There were two downed trees across the trail as of August 2020. One that you had to limbo under and the other that you had to step over. Both were manageable, although I had a baby in a backpack on, so limbo-ing required some guidance from my husband and liberal use of my hiking poles to stay upright!

Interlaken has three hills that are steep but short. Even if you take a lot of breaks, they wouldn’t take more than 3-5 minutes to get up. You’ll be hiking up them on your way back, so you’ll be going downhill on the way out. The hills are the rockiest parts, and otherwise the trail is quite smooth. There are a few points where one side of the trail steeply drops off and slopes down into the reservoir, but the likelihood of you tripping, falling, and tumbling down the hill is slim to none.

The steepest hill on the Interlaken Trail in Twin Lakes, CO

South Elbert is a bit rockier, but still mostly dirt. The trail is wide enough to walk next to a toddler, but just barely. You’re hiking slightly uphill for the entire time out, so pace yourself!

Camp Hale is the narrowest of the trails, known as “singletrack.” You’ll be walking single file, except for the shmancy new bridge at the waterfall (see below). The hill up to the overlook I’ve mentioned is mostly rocks and loose gravel, so take your time going up and down!

The bridge and waterfall on the Colorado Trail near Camp Hale.

What should I wear and bring?

Plenty of water! You’re at 10,000 feet, so it’s very very easy to get dehydrated or forget to drink enough water. I would define “plenty” as one liter per person.

I also recommend a hat, sunglasses, and liberally applied sunscreen. The sun doesn’t mess around at 10,000 feet! You’ll burn faster than you would at lower elevation. Find safer sunscreen on this website. I like this sunscreen from Thinkbaby (for adults and kids). If you have darker skin, it does leave a pretty significant cast, but I have heard good things about Black Girl Sunscreen.

I wore trail running shoes for all of these hikes, which was perfectly adequate. You can of course wear hiking boots if you have them! If you don’t have trail shoes, just regular sneakers will do but be careful going downhill since you have a little less traction. At no point will you be getting your feet wet, so don’t worry about that.

For more information on what you should bring hiking no matter what trail you’re on, read my previous post here.

Is it crowded?

You will definitely see other people and you won’t be by yourself. Interlaken and Turquoise Lake are significantly busier than South Elbert and Camp Hale (where seeing six people is considered SUPER busy).

The later in the day you go, the busier it gets at the more popular trails. When we hiked Interlaken, the mountain bike traffic also picked up significantly around 10:30 a.m.

Anything else I should know?

None of the trailheads have maps at them, so an app like AllTrails can be useful in keeping track of where to go. The paid version is less than $20 per year and lets you track where you are and download maps to reference offline, which I think is totally worth it to keep you from getting lost.

Turquoise Lake is the only one with a bathroom, which is at the boat ramp of Turquoise Lake. Try to hold it if you can, because you’re quite close to water sources at all the hikes. Leave No Trace ethics recommend getting at least 200 feet (half a football field) away from water, which is pretty difficult to pull off.

We didn’t see any wildlife while we were out, but being Bear Aware is always a must in Colorado. There are also people backpacking throughout the Colorado and Continental Divide trails, so if you stumble upon anyone’s campsite, be respectful!

Beginner’s guide to your first road trip with a baby

This post was originally written before the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. It was updated when we traveled locally in our state, taking every precaution we could. Please travel and recreate responsibly based on your local area’s restrictions as well as guidelines for your destination. This website is a great resource.

By the time Baby OB was two months old, I was getting stir crazy. But jumping in the car when a newborn seemed intimidating. Fortunately, my husband was game to jump in and just try it. Since that first trip, we’ve driven across the country (thanks COVID) and gone on a camper van trip around Colorado. Here are my tips and tricks for getting on the road with baby in tow.

Route planning

First, decide how far you want to go. This depends a LOT on your baby’s sleep and feeding schedule, plus your tolerance for turning around and going home if thing turns into a sh*tshow (literal or figurative). Always give yourself some buffer time for how long you will actually be in the car.

At two months old, Baby OB could care less where or when they slept, so it made the road trip pretty smooth even though we ended up driving almost double our planned amount on the first night.

But by seven months old (our second road trip), Baby OB was adamant about not being in the car close to bed time. We left Denver hours after our goal departure time thanks to some rental van snafus, so we were still cruising down the highway an hour from the campground when the screaming started. Fortunately, my husband getting in the backseat worked out. Make sure this is an option for you too! In our regular car, we do have to shuffle things around a bit to fit in the backseat, but in a campervan we could just pop into the backseat without even stopping!

First of all, be okay with breaking your routine/schedule because it will likely all go down the toilet. The first trip, we left home right around bedtime and tried to get back home by bedtime. It went pretty smoothly, but that could’ve been luck and certainly was helped by the fact Baby OB loved sleeping in the car at the time.

What time to leave

For our first trip, we left in the evening, but before Baby OB’s bedtime (8:30 pm at the time). They were car-sleeping champs, plus we couldn’t leave any earlier because my husband had worked that day. Baby OB slept in the car for hours and it was actually really nice time for my husband and I to catch up!

For the second trip, this was not going to fly. Baby OB had recently decided that being in the car past 5 pm was reason for a major meltdown. We aimed to leave between their two naps, around mid-day. We ended up leaving WAY late and were still in the car at 5 pm. This meant my husband was climbing into the back of the van to entertain Baby OB until we got to the campground. He was pretty wiped out at the end, because it was basically nonstop singing/clapping/toy swapping.

If you have an older baby, I would recommend trying to leave between the two naps. Unless your baby can sleep in the car well, it’s not worth trying to nap or do bedtime on the road!

Where and how does baby sleep?

Naptime

I’m going to say it again. This is not the time for schedules/keeping to your normal routine. You can certainly endeavor to stick to them as closely as possible, but at least for us, it was less stressful to just go with the flow and feed/put down for naps based on Baby OB’s cues.

At two months old, naptime looked like Baby OB sleeping in the carrier and car all day, and that was okay with us. They had almost no routine or schedule anyways.

At six months old, this looked like a morning (short) nap in the backpack while we hiked and then a normal length nap at some point in the afternoon when they started yawning.

Bedtime

Our second trip, Baby OB was up two hours past their normal bedtime and still rocking on the day we left. Naturally they did not sleep in two hours the next morning, but a couple days in and they were back on schedule (for bed time at least).

I will also acknowledge that this isn’t easy. The first trip, I had a really hard time breaking from the routine we had started to build because I was worried about being a bad parent/not giving Baby OB what they needed. From what I hear, that never really goes away, but this was really good practice in following Baby OB’s cues instead of worrying about all the “what ifs” without even trying. It was hard, but good.

Ok, so where do you put them at bedtime?

We don’t co-sleep, and haven’t attempted co-sleeping while camping or road tripping. No judgment if you do, but just a head’s up that these suggestions don’t include co-sleeping!

If you’re staying in a hotel

Our first trip was only one night in a hotel, so we just brought all of our normal stuff with us since we had room in the car. During the day, all the naps were happening either in the car seat or the carrier because this was possible for us at two months old.

We don’t use a travel crib/bassinet, we just have an all-in-one that I love. The Guava Lotus Crib + Bassinet packs down into a backpack, is super light, and takes about five minutes to break down or set up.

I am well aware that the $300 price tag looks steep, but we sprang for it because that’s the only bed we’re using. We don’t have a separate bassinet, crib, or pack n play. The Guava does all of those things!

We set up the Guava in the far corner of the hotel room, plugged in the white noise machine we use, and that was it…except that Baby OB is a SUPER noisy sleeper. My husband and I had already kicked them out of our room at home, so having to go back to sharing a room resulted in very little sleep for both of us.

In retrospect, I might’ve put the white noise machine right next to us instead of right next to the bassinet so that we could’ve drowned out his snoring a little better. I also would’ve packed ear plugs!

If you’re camping

We’ve yet to pilot sleeping in a tent, but I can give you some advice for a campervan that could translate to a tent if yours is big enough (our tent is not, which is why we haven’t tried it!).

Baby OB spent five days sleeping in a Kidco Peapod, however on the last day of our trip I found the tag that said this product is not supposed to be used for children under one year. So use at your own risk!

A week before we left, we started putting Baby OB in the Peapod for naps, bedtime, and then ultimately every time they slept. In my mind, this made sure it wouldn’t be a big shock when we pulled out the Peapod away from home.

The Peapod lived on the floor of the van in front of our bed, so once again we were all sleeping in the same room. Fortunately, Baby OB was quieter overnight by this age (eight months). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how early they actually woke up. At home, we don’t hear them until 7 am. Apparently they actually wake up at 6 and just babble until then! We had a lot of early mornings camping.

We put up blinds all around the van to help keep it dark (they went to bed more than an hour before sunset). By the time we were going to bed, Baby OB was so zonked they didn’t even hear us come in the back of the van (or noisily shut the door).

I was very worried about Baby OB just *not* going to sleep. I was prepared to pull out all the stops that we don’t at home – rocking to sleep, nursing to sleep, holding him, singing forever, whatever it took! Fortunately it didn’t come to that, and there was only one night that he took a little longer to settle down.

Both trips it only took 1-2 days at home for them to catch up on sleep and be back in their normal routine.

How to navigate eating

There isn’t a convenient way to feed an infant because they are ALWAYS eating (or at least it feels that way). Feeding on the road was all over the place and on-demand, which was outside our normal routine too.

For both trips, breastfeeding was still working for me, so we decided to not bring any bottles or my pump to cut down on how much stuff we had.

I mostly nursed Baby OB in the car or van. I personally find it easier to wedge an elbow on the door handle or car seat to help support them instead of having them just in my lap in a restaurant. If you’re feeding in a restaurant, though, make sure to ask for or snag a booth for more privacy (if you want it). I wasn’t a fan of whipping out my boob in the middle of this one very small, open coffee shop, but then managed to sneak into a booth. No one even noticed!

Note: our first road trip happened before the coronavirus became a pandemic in the United States. If you are reading this during the coronavirus outbreak, I do not recommend eating in restaurants even if they are open and particularly if you have traveled there from a different community.

For the first road trip, I packed the Boppy. I only used it once or twice, and it ended up being more of a pain in the car then I thought it would be. I would skip it!

Even with the Boppy, there were times that Baby OB wasn’t totally comfortable. During our first road trip, they definitely didn’t eat as much as normal. But by the night we came back, they just had a big meal before bed and then were totally fine. Plus, the only way to get them comfortable eating on the go is…eating on the go. By the time we went out at eight months, eating on the go was pretty easy for them.

I’ve quit breastfeeding ahead of our next trip, and I realize that my initial concerns about formulas and bottles being in convenient was totally unfounded. It’ll be easy to pack one bottle and make that work all day, plus the formula container doesn’t take up much space. Just bring lots of potable water!

If your baby has started on solids, I personally have found that making food ahead of time has been more convenient. We brought four mason jars of homemade baby food for a five-day trip. We kept them in a cooler the entire time and it ended up being way less messy than pouch purees, plus it was more cost-effective. I was also pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take more than 30 minutes to blend up a bunch of stuff at home and pack it.

I would’ve loved to have a travel high chair once Baby OB was eating solids. This could’ve also been a useful place to park him, which we didn’t really have in the campervan since he kept rolling and bonking his head on the hard walls of the van.

The Ciao Baby chair a friend handed down to us didn’t really work unfortunately. Baby OB was always slumped over in it, and getting their chunky legs in and out of the poorly placed (in my opinion) straps resulted in so many curse words at home that I never even brought it on the road with us. I want to try this one next road trip.

How to navigate rest stops

Depending on how long your drive is, and your baby’s personality, they may want a break. After spending all day in the carrier or the car seat, Baby OB got very sick of being in the car seat during dinner (before coronavirus). I finished eating first, so I just held him in my lap while my husband finished up and that was fortunately all he needed.

All that time in the car seat did end up irritating Baby OB’s sensitive skin, though. We didn’t know they had ezcema before we left, but we certainly did by the time we got home! Our pediatrician prescribed some steroid cream that cleared it up.

We didn’t pick noisy restaurants (before coronavirus) on purpose, but it ended up helping a LOT because no one notices a crying baby in an already noisy restaurant.

In the coronavirus world, we’ve made the most of town parks and other outdoor places to stop. Bring a picnic blanket with you to make sure you’ve got somewhere to set them down! When we drove to Illinois (7 hour days in the car), just 15-30 minutes of tummy time/sitting time in a park would rejuvenate Baby OB for several hours!

But what are they supposed to do for all that time in the car?

At two months old, Baby OB wasn’t super interested in toys and pretty much just slept any time they were in the car. We decided to throw the sleep schedule out the window for the two days we were gone, and it worked out totally fine for us. I like to think it was helpful in making Baby OB a bit more flexible!

When Baby OB was less than two months old, having one of us in the back wasn’t helpful at all. It didn’t do anything to stop the crying, so we decided on that road trip to both stay up front.

Now that they’re older, though, one of us usually ends up getting in the back at some point, even if it’s just to keep them company! We bring 6-8 toys (I especially love this Bug Jug since you can fit lots of toys inside it), 2-3 books, and reserve teething biscuits for a special car treat.

It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it! Drink lots of coffee and enjoy the immeasurable happiness that comes from the good moments. Take a deep breath in the bad moments.

What to pack

Clothing

  • Double the clothes you think you will need (in case of poosplosion) and plenty of layers.
  • Our first road trip was an overnight in February in Colorado, so I brought:
    • 4 onesies (long sleeve with covered feet) – these were their base layer for every outfit
    • 2 hoodies
    • 2 pairs of pants, to layer on top of onesies with the hoodies as needed
    • 2 pairs of slippers (we use these instead of socks)
    • Beanie/warm hat
  • Our second road trip was five nights in July in Colorado, and poosplosions were no longer a problem, so I brought:
    • Four light-weight, long-sleeve, footed onesies
    • Two short-sleeve bodysuits
    • One sweatshirt
    • One pair of sweatpants
    • Warm hat, slippers, and fleece bunting for the cold mornings

Bedtime

  • Bed + fitted sheet that smells like home OR Peapod
  • White noise machine (ours is a plug-in, so we left this at home for camping)
  • Sleep sack (fleece for night and sleeveless for daytime if you’re camping)

Eating

  • 4 mason jars of homemade baby food
  • Bib and baby spoon
  • 1 box of teething biscuits for driving (if your baby is old enough)
  • 1-2 bottles (if you’re using them, I would only attempt this for formula)
    • Bring a travel size dish soap and some extra potable water to rinse out
  • Travel high chair

Supplies + Gear

  • Diapers and wipes
  • Portable changing pad
  • 2 burp cloths
  • 1 muslin blanket (use for extra layer, wiping drool, shielding from the sun, etc)
  • Baby carrier (we brought a stroller frame just in case but it would’ve been a major pain everywhere we stopped and we never used it)
  • For hiking, we brought:
    • Thule hiking backpack, but you can also just use a carrier!
    • Baby sunscreen
    • Mosquito net for the backpack/carrier

First Aid

  • Baby Tylenol
  • Snot sucker/Nose Frida
  • Lotion
  • Cortisol ointment for any random rashes
  • Thermometer

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