New to the Rockies, seeking guidance

Shtinkypuppie

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Jul 26, 2017
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Howdy,

I'm a reasonably experienced backpacker who just moved to western Colorado for obvious reasons. Nearly all of my previous experience has been on the West coast, where afternoon thunderstorms are rare if they happen at all. Now, I'm just back from a trip in the Uintas where I got soaked repeatedly and was pretty miserable on several days. I've also had some trouble finding campsites in less used areas (never a problem in the Sierras). So, I'm wondering if some more experience people out here could give some advice on:

- Dealing with thunderstorms. Not only the rain, but the electrical activity. Particularly, what do you do when you have significant mileage above timberline, or just no timber on your route for days? In what sort of areas do you/don't you camp? Do you ever try to shelter through the afternoon rain, or just don your gear and keep moving?

- Campsite selection. With much more undergrowth and rockier terrain than the Sierras, as well as a habit of putting established sites out of site of the trail, any tips on finding campable flat spots is appreciated.


Thanks for suffering the dumb questions of a newcomer.
 

Rockskipper

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Jun 11, 2017
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Welcome to Western Colorado, and is there really such a thing as a dumb question? If so, I've asked my share.

Sounds like you hit the Uintas during the start of monsoon season. I have a good friend who lives in the Sierras and once told me she missed the Utah/Colorado monsoons, and this was the first time I realized the Sierras don't have our weather patterns. She says thunder and lightning there are rare (she's in Twain Harte).

Before mid-July, you won't see much electrical activity in the Rockies in general, it's mostly just when the monsoons come in (usually mid-July). Pre-monsoons is a good time to climb/hike/camp, especially in Colorado's San Juans, as they're very conducive to lightning because of their iron content. But a lot of the big peaks everywhere get real dicey during monsoon season, so most climbers will start out before dawn and are off by noon or thereabouts, as the storms usually move in by mid-afternoon. I've been in some pretty interesting electrical activity (hair standing on end, humming sound), and the best thing is to be down at treeline in the forest, not under lone trees or even sheltering in the rocks, until the storm passes.

Once it starts raining, you're generally OK, it's usually just the front of the storm when the lightning's bad (in general, not always). Usually by late afternoon or evening it will clear off and you'll get glorious sunsets. Once the monsoons are over (usually early Sept.), you won't see much lightning activity and IMO, this is the best time to be out.

There are much more experienced people on this forum who can add to this. My experience is in the Colorado mtns, not the Uintas, and where I've been in these ranges, campsites aren't that hard to come by, depending on where you are, often you can just step off the trail a short distance. Proximity to a large city will make things harder, as you'll see more people. There are also more and more people discovering the good places, so the further out you get, the better.

Once fall comes, head to the magic of the desert.
 
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Artemus

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Jun 25, 2012
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4,414
Hi Shtinky,
Speaking for myself I don't head into the high mountains if there is a forecast low pressure and extended rainy period. If that makes me a fair weather hiker then so be it. Luckily my favorite local ranges (to my home in Park City, Utah) the High Uintas and the Wind Rivers often have long spells of decent to great weather. Not as predictably good as another favorite - the Range of Light or the High Sierra. When we are in Monsoon there is more chance of long rainy spells so I will cancel a trip quicker then. And my experience in many Colorado Ranges - especially the San Juans is that it can set in to long periods of mild to heavy rain for days and I have wasted trips there several times.

But part of the reason we (you and I) moved to the mountain west was so that these places are local so that if we have to bag a four day trip due to weather forecast we can easily reschedule it to next weekend :).

On the lightning front, it is nothing to mess with and you have to learn your personal comfort zone how much risk to take and I don't take much. That said, traveling the high and wild you are exposed to the possibility often and I have definitely changed my route in-situ to accommodate lightning risk. I believe there are full threads here with multiple opinions about traveling near lightning risk. Be safe out there. I believe lightning is the biggest single natural cause of outdoor fatalities.
 

LarryBoy

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Jan 4, 2015
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Welcome! I think both problems can be solved at once - camping near treeline. I enjoy camping just below treeline because it's very pretty, the trees are spaced out enough to allow for easy camping, and the camp provides easy access/early starts for the next day to beat the weather.
 

Shtinkypuppie

New Member
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Jul 26, 2017
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Thanks everyone. I'm headed back to the Uintas tomorrow with some more robust rain gear to give it another shot.

Rockskipper, I see you're in Glenwood. I work there, and live right down the road in Rifle!
 

Rockskipper

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Better head for the high country to avoid Bridge-ageddon!
 
Last edited:

andyjaggy

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Dec 2, 2013
Messages
932
I always camp right below the treeline. I feel much safer and have a more enjoyable experience than camping up above the trees. If there is no rain forecast I might sometimes throw down above treeline, but it's rare. It might take a bit more planning but it's worth it from a safety standpoint.
 

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