Nine Tips for Backpacking in Great Sand Dunes National Park

There is some beauty in the symbiotic relationship between writing and outdoor activities. For example, I’m not sure this trip would’ve ever happened had I not pitched the idea to an editor! But that’s how it goes: I wanted my editor at Gore-Tex to accept my story so I thought of the most bizarre backpacking trip in Colorado. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve easily makes that list. Once the story idea was accepted, the trip had to happen!

**For the whole Great Sand Dunes National Park adventure: You can now read the story over on the Experience More website.**

Great Sand Dunes National Park

PC: Will Rochfort

If you want to go:

  • Deliberately pack before your trip. Consider the fact that every.single.crevice of all of your gear will be filled with sand. This includes zippers, pockets, and earlobes!
  • Consider your footwear. I had a few people recommend snowshoes and skis to me before we left, and I seriously considered throwing in a pair of snowshoes. In the end, I grabbed both hiking shoes and Teva sandals. I wore the Tevas exclusively since it was easy to kick out the sand *but* I will say that the bottom of my feet got a serious exfoliation. I’m not sure everyone could handle that kind of abrasion while hiking.
  • Carry plenty of water! We only slept in the dunes for one evening, but we easily brought 4-5 liters per person. It is hot and dry out there; dehydration could be deadly.
  • Be aware that anyone sleeping in the dunes needs a backpacking permit. The park issues 20 per day and the backpacking office does not open until 9 am. We arrived at 8:30 so we had a good spot in line, but not everyone was as lucky. I don’t know for sure, but it was likely that some people got turned away since they ran out of permits. Plan accordingly.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

  • Your schedule will be the opposite of typical backpacking trips. Although you receive your permit in the morning, the park rangers suggest waiting until 6 pm before hiking into the dunes in order to avoid the heat. They also suggest hiking back out by 10 am the following morning. We spent the day lounging in some shade by the river before hiking in during the evening, and it really made a difference. The ranger told us the sand gets as up to 160-degrees Fahrenheit!
  • No dogs allowed for backpacking trips. They are allowed in the day use area and across the way at Mosca Pass, but not for backpacking trips into Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park says they did this for safety reasons; too many people were packing their dogs out there and returning in warmer temps, burning the poor pups’ paws on the sand.
  • Bring snow stakes. Regular tent stakes will slide right out of the sand, leaving your tent to bounce around the dunes! We brought our snow stakes and they remained in the ground through a burly wind storm; highly recommended.
  • Don’t forget your shovel for backcountry bathroom stops. A lot of places online say that the park prefers you to do your business on top of the sand since the hot sun breaks it down more quickly. However, the ranger we spoke with said the opposite: dig a cat hole just like every other backcountry camping locale.
  • Pack insulation. Just because it’s a thousand degrees during the day doesn’t mean those nights aren’t chilly!

Great Sand Dunes National Park




  • Reply Amy at

    These photos are amazing, I still haven’t been there but want to go next year. Happy I have these tips now!

  • Reply Leslie at

    We have some huge sand dunes here on the shores of Lake Michigan and it’s the same deal. That sand gets wicked hot! I’ve burned my feet on it before.

  • Reply Thomas at

    It looks an amazing trip. Working in an events promotion company in London, I attended many travel events or hiking events so started hiking a lot but I never did a trip in this kind of landscape and I really want to try!

    Thomas @

  • Reply Kristen at

    While this looks absolutely beautiful, the idea of sand getting….everywhere….particularly while I’m sleeping, does not appeal to me. I have a feeling this will be a daytrip kind of thing for me, at least for the time being 🙂 (Probably until I track down your forthcoming article and read about how amazing it is, at which point, I’ll probably reconsider!)

  • Reply Kimberly at

    I did not know permits were so hard to come by these days! My husband and I backpacked here during our honeymoon in the summer of 2014. We got a permit around 3 PM, and the ranger said we were the first ones to obtain a permit all day. Good to know for my next trip out there. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Rebecca at

    Great info, thanks.

    What did you do about your food? Thinking of bringing a bear cannister since bear bags don’t look to be an option. Thanks!

    • Reply Heather at

      In our experience, there really isn’t any large wildlife out on the dunes to worry about; the sand is SO HOT during the day that it burns feet! So, there were insects and whatnot, but that’s about it. That said, we just kept our food in dry bags; I really don’t think you need to worry about bear canisters. If you’re camping in the nearby hills, of course that is different!

  • Reply My Four Favorite National Parks -Just a Colorado Gal at

    […] between the ranges, collecting up against the Sangres and eventually forming the dunes. We did our first backpacking trip into the park last summer and the scenery was epic. No one else was out there and the sunset was […]

  • Reply Frodo Baggins at

    Every crevasse makes you think of snow. The writer meant crevice for where the sand got into.

  • Reply Tierney at

    Hi there, I plan to travel to the sand dunes at the end of December. Do you know what good winter hikes there are? Great post!

  • Reply Tina at

    I haven’t camped there but we went out at about 4am and just lied on the sand watching stars till sunrise and it was an out of planet, amazing experience. I recommend it highly! The night sky is what I really love about the place. It is definitely like being on another planet. I wish I get to camp there someday.

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