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April 01, 2024 4 min read

Colorado's San Juan Mountains are top on many people’s list of backpacking destinations. With soaring jagged peaks, azure alpine lakes, hidden waterfalls, and verdant green valleys, even a single overnight can be a memorable experience.

Spending the night in the mountains can significantly elevate the experience–especially if you are well-prepared. While setting off from the parking lot and hiking into the mountains for a night or two or more can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. A small amount of good gear will keep you safe, warm, and comfortable.

Can I buy used gear to backpack?

When buying gear for backpacking in Colorado you do have to weigh price against quality. The best gear available will be light, smartly designed, tough, and good-looking–but it may cost a small fortune. Big box store gear may be dirt cheap, but leave you wet, cold, or limping from excessive weight. The sweet spot is used gear. Aused gear store in Durango like Durango Outdoor Exchange can get you set up with quality used gear at a fraction of the price of new. While it can be tempting to buy gear online, think twice before doing this–fit, feel, and quality are critically important when backpacking, and in many cases, buying online just doesn’t make sense.

If you are unsure of where to start, stop by theused gear store in Durango, Durango Outdoor Exchange, to talk to enthusiastic staff about what you need to backpack in the San Juans. Here’s a list of gear the experts at the best gear store in Durango recommend:

What do you need to backpack in the San Juan Mountains?

  1. Backpack

Your backpack is your mobile home in the wilderness, carrying everything you need for your journey. Choose a pack that fits comfortably and distributes weight evenly to prevent strain. Opt for a size appropriate to the length of your trip, with enough capacity for all your gear and provisions. A one-night pack should be around 35 liters, with multiple-night packs 40 liters or more.


  1. Tent

In the San Juans, weather conditions can be unpredictable, ranging from brilliant sunshine to sudden storms. A reliable shelter protects against rain, wind, and cold temperatures. Consider a lightweight tent or a durable, weather-resistant hammock for backcountry camping. Remember to pack a ground cloth or footprint to protect your shelter from moisture and abrasion. Tents are likely the most expensive part of your kit but also where you can save the most weight. Keep in mind that a “three-person” ultralight tent may not always fit three people comfortably. Buying a used tent from a gear store in Durango can be a great option since most tents are only used a few times a year.


  1. Sleeping bag and pad

A quality sleeping bag and pad are essential for restful nights under the stars. Choose a sleeping bag with the appropriate temperature rating for the season and elevation of your backpacking trip. A lightweight, compressible sleeping pad provides insulation from the cold ground and adds an extra layer of comfort for a good night's sleep. Expect nights in the San Juans in midsummer to be in the 30s and 40s, with 20s common in late summer and early fall. Ask staff about what temperature ratings on bags mean.


  1. Clothing

Layering is key to staying comfortable in the variable mountain climate of the San Juans. Pack moisture-wicking base layers to keep sweat away from your skin, insulating mid-layers for warmth, and a waterproof shell for protection against rain and wind. Don't forget to include extra socks, gloves, and a hat to stay dry and cozy in any weather.


  1. Footwear

Your choice of footwear can make or break your backpacking experience. Invest in sturdy, supportive trail shoes with good traction for navigating rocky terrain and steep slopes. Break them in before your trip to prevent blisters and discomfort on the trail, or buy used and let someone do the breaking in for you. Consider packing lightweight camp shoes or sandals for relaxing around the campsite after a long day of hiking.


  1. Navigation tools

Remote wilderness can be challenging to navigate without proper tools. While most trails are well-marked, not all are. Bring a detailed map of the area and a reliable compass or GPS device to stay on course. Familiarize yourself with your route before setting out and be prepared to adjust your plans based on trail conditions and weather forecasts.


  1. Food and water

Fuel your adventures with nutritious, lightweight meals and snacks that provide sustained energy on the trail. Choose dehydrated or freeze-dried options to minimize weight and space in your pack. Water is plentiful in most of the San Juans, but a filter is essential. New squeeze filters are foolproof and lightweight.


  1. Cooking gear

A compact backpacking stove and cookware are essential for preparing hot meals and beverages on the trail. Choose a lightweight stove fueled by isobutane or white gas, along with a durable pot or pan for cooking. Don't forget to pack utensils, a lighter or matches, and a food storage system to protect your provisions from wildlife. Bear canisters are recommended for the San Juans since high-alpine areas won’t have any trees and subalpine areas tend not to have trees that permit hanging food bags from.


  1. Emergency essentials

Pack a basic first-aid kit with supplies for treating minor injuries and ailments. Carry a multi-tool or knife for emergency repairs and other tasks. Consider bringing a personal locator beacon or satellite communicator for emergencies where cell phone coverage is unavailable. All of these items are available at Durango’s used gear store.


  1. Leave no trace (AKA how to poop in the woods)

Pooping in the woods is done in one of two ways–in a hole or in a bag. For a hole, use a trowel or stick to dig a hole 8 inches deep. Alternatively, buy a poop bag–these handy bags have everything you need to poop, including an alcohol rub and toilet paper, and sanitary stuff to keep the stink away. They are cheap and can be bought at a camping store in Durango.


The Durango Outdoor Exchange has everything you need to backpack in Colorado this summer. Stop by Durango’s best camping store and talk to the pros about what they recommend. 

Chase LaCroix
Chase LaCroix



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