What to pack for a safe and comfortable hike on one of the most unique backcountry routes in the US.

Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado is home to one of the most unique backcountry experiences in the country. Lucky hikers have the opportunity to climb the tallest sand dune in North America and set up camp in a seemingly endless dune field surrounded by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

As night falls, the dunefield turns into a whole new world – the crowds of day hikers rarely make it to the backcountry camping area, and most backpackers find their own cozy nooks to set up camp between the dunes. This allows for the feeling of being completely alone in the dunefield, with stunning stillness and millions of stars overhead thanks to the lack of night pollution in the area.

Have we piqued your interest yet? Before heading off to grab your backcountry permit, there are a few key differences to note about backpacking in the dunefield as opposed to a traditional backpacking route. Hikers need to be mindful of what types of gear to pack, ways to stay comfortable and safe in this unique landscape so they can ensure the trip is one for the books.

Photo by Colleen Goldhorn

Tent and Shelter

Setting up camp in the sand is a different beast than camping in dirt – a free-standing tent is a must have as there is no solid ground in the dunefield; semi-freestanding or non-freestanding tents are near impossible to keep stable throughout the night. For staking down your tent and expanding your vestibule, we recommend bringing a handful of sand (or snow) stakes, as traditional stakes have little to no traction in the sand.

Although the air temperatures can hover in the 80s and 90s throughout the summer months – and the sand in the dunefield can climb to upwards of 150°F – nighttime temperatures drop considerably lower, sometimes into the 30s and 40s. Due to this, a warm sleeping bag and a puff jacket are recommended even in the warmest parts of the summer.

Photo by Colleen Goldhorn

Hiking and Misc Gear

Although it looks soft and inviting, hiking in the sand is far different than a traditional trail. The sand in the park is loose, dry, and constantly moving, which makes backpacking in the dunefield no small feat. Traveling in the sand is quite literally one step forward and two steps back at times as your feet sink and slide when making your way up the dunes. These conditions make trekking poles essential for keeping yourself stable on steeper dunes. Poles are a game changer in helping tired legs reach camp at the end of the day.

Part of what makes the dunefield so amazing is the seemingly never-ending hills of sand that stretch until they hit the base of the towering mountains that surround the dunefield. However, this also means that the dunefield is just that – a field of sandy dunes lacking any sort of trees, water, or features. This makes finding any privacy while using the backcountry bathroom a challenge, and makes digging a proper cathole all the more important. Loose sand will not hide human waste very well if a hiker digs a shallow hole, and in an effort to keep this space beautiful for generations to come, it’s essential to bring a proper backpacking trowel and dig a deep hole at least 6 inches deep.

Finally, the lack of anything but sand in the dunefield means there is no access to water in the backcountry. Because of this, it is recommended to bring more water than you think you will need, and around 1 gallon per person is recommended by the NPS. In my past trips to the dunes, I have previously packed in two 1 liter water bottles, as well as a few soft bladders with additional water. These worked well because you can easily pack them away and use them to refill your water bottles throughout your trip.

Photo by Colleen Goldhorn

Clothing and Apparel 

When it comes to clothing, your packing list will once again vary from a typical camping trip because of the conditions in the dunefield. The biggest consideration is footwear – as in, whether you choose to bring it or not. In my three times backpacking into the dunefield, I have experimented with trail runners, sandals, and no shoes at all, and have come to the conclusion that wearing only a pair of durable wool hiking socks is the best move. Socks will protect your feet from both the heat and roughness of the sand, but they won’t become heavy as sand piles up, which it tends to do in trail runners. Additionally, I found sandals to be a tripping hazard because they frequently got caught in the loose sand. No shoes is definitely the go-to move for a safe and enjoyable hike!

If you’re hiking in the  early to mid-summer months, you will also want to be mindful of mosquitoes that fly into the dunefield from the neighboring Medano Creek. These little guys can make for a pretty unpleasant evening, and mosquito netting is recommended to make your trip more enjoyable while cooking dinner or watching sunset.

Finally, with the intense heat – and little shade – the dunefield gets, a long sleeved sun shirt is essential to protect against sunburn. The shirts also help if (or when) wind whips the sand around, which can be exceptionally painful on bare skin. Sunglasses are also recommended to shield against both the intense sun and any wind-blown sand.

Photo by Colleen Goldhorn

Backpacking in Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must-do experience for backpackers looking to challenge themselves with a once-in-a-lifetime trip through some of the most unique terrain in the United States. Although there are a few different factors to consider when packing for your trip, bringing the proper gear will ensure a safe and memorable experience as you travel through this otherworldly landscape.

Have fun, be safe, and please follow the Leave No Trace principles as you explore this extremely beautiful and special place.

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