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Sierra Snow Camping Weekend



Written by Aidan Grundy-Reiner, Rentals Lead at Berkeley

FRIDAY

Sometimes the dates for you and your crew line up on a beautiful summer weekend, other times the gang is only able to line up time off in February, and when that happens, by golly you head for the mountains all the same. Friday obligations completed on one such weekend, three friends and I assembled at my house, did one last check over of our group gear, divvied it up, and started our drive towards real winter.

With the short winter days working against us (and possibly an In-N-Out stop), we got to the trailhead just before sunset, strapped on our (rental!) snowshoes, and got moving.

 

The plan was to head up a long, steep, continuously uphill fire road to an area that I had camped many times in the summer - the nighttime climb maybe not exactly ideal in terms of safe backcountry navigation, but for the weekend warriors among us, sometimes you just gotta do some exhaustive research and/or pick a place you know well, caffeinate, and send it into the darkness.

At times the slog up the mountain felt interminable, at times we cruised along through snow-covered meadows, our heavier-than-normal winter gear-filled packs barely even noticeable as we experienced the place in a way that few people do.

 

The starlight on the snow (and the conveniently placed snowmobile tracks) made following the road a breeze, and we arrived safe and sound at the top at an hour that some might even consider a reasonable bedtime. Snow shovels came out to level an area for our tent, and our group effort had camp made in minutes. With that, the four of us happily crawled into our sleeping bags and were out.

SATURDAY

It is difficult to describe just how magical it is to wake up and open the tent door to the snowy world at sunrise, with every ice crystal reflecting the orange of the sun as it begins to work its way up over the horizon and every east-facing slope painted that same brilliant color.

Add to that the novelty of seeing a summer camping favorite blanketed in an 8-foot layer of snow - it’s something that makes every mile uphill in the darkness worth it ten times over.

Our minds blown, the crew got to work digging out a truly world-class kitchen in the snowy slope near our camp, with counters, full-size benches (and recliners and footrests for the non-cooks), a dug-out “refrigerator”, and a million dollar view out over the peaks and valleys and frozen lakes below us. The running water and the microwave are ~supposedly~ set to be introduced next season… I’m not holding my breath.

And now, the food. On a winter camping trip your food is your fuel AND your heater, so you EAT! For breakfast was a giant pan of rehydrated hash browns with a healthy (maybe bordering on unhealthy?) amount of salami and cheese cooked in.

We all ate until we couldn’t even contemplate another bite, stuffed the leftovers into a bear canister in the “refrigerator”, and set out to create a sled/snowboard track that we hoped would break at least one of our tailbones.

Our trusty snow shovels came out again - I recommend at least one for every two people on a trip, or more if you are building-inclined as we were - and channeled our inner park skier to build a frightening snow track down to a monstrous jump. We eventually called it a day some hours later, with a world record achieved for longest horizontal distance flown on a plastic sled (30 feet!), the aforementioned sled broken 100% in half, and all of us sporting bruises and pains that would haunt us for weeks.  

The same rapidly setting sun from the previous night snuck up on us, and as the sun set we got going on some exceedingly hearty chicken and potato stew with biscuits baked right in the pot. Did I mention the food is a big deal?

Our bodies and souls fortified by protein, we turned in early just as the wind kicked up and proceeded to worsen all night, blowing 60mph gusts and howling around our tent as if it was going to pick us up and send us flying. Sleep was tricky but we stayed warm and safe from the storm thanks to some solid snow stakes and a bombproof tent (an SB rental: The North Face Bastion 4-person tent!). 

SUNDAY

Having flirted with sleep all night, we were up at first light, broke camp, booted up and packed our bags inside the tent to protect us from the still vicious wind and single-digit temps outside, and hightailed it down the mountain to a giant hot pancake breakfast and bottomless cups of coffee in town.

This experience, while clearly not all sunshine and rainbows, was one that we all would do again in a heartbeat. The incredible sunrise and the fun sled jumps were memorable of course, but it is the experiences that happen right at the edge of your comfort zone that really stick with you, and that make the best stories and memories. Are we already planning this season’s first trip? You better believe it. Though maybe on skis this time…

ESSENTIAL WINTER CAMPING TIPS

Hot water bottles at the foot of your sleeping bag will change your life. Make sure you use something that won’t leak and/or burn you (i.e. a Nalgene screwed tight).

Make sure your stove is up to the task. Many stoves struggle with below-freezing conditions, and your stove is not only your source of hot food but your water source for melting snow.

My go-to is an MSR Whisperlite Universal liquid fuel stove that has never failed me and never will, but many of the newer canister stoves can also handle it. Look for one with a pressure regulator like the MSR PocketRocket Deluxe.

SHOP MSR STOVES

Think through your sleeping setup, especially your pad(s). A zero degree sleeping bag will do nothing if the snow surface below you is sucking all the warmth away from you. Look for either a 4-season insulated sleeping pad or consider adding a foam pad underneath your existing pad for a more budget option.

I use a closed-cell Therm-a-rest pad (like the Z Lite Sol or a Ridgerest) under an inflatable Therm-a-rest, like a Venture or a NeoAir X Lite (though you could probably go with just the NeoAir) and have always been warm and toasty.

A WORD ON SAFETY

Winter camping is beautiful and absolutely an experience worth having, but the margin of error is also slimmer than summer camping. Be aware of avalanche risk, take an avalanche safety class if you can, and stay out of high-risk zones or just stay home on high-risk weekends.

Make sure you have the proper gear and that you know how to use it. This is not the place to try to go fast-and-light. The gear costs can add up, but we rent nearly everything you need, come on in to one of our stores and talk to us about it! Or consider signing up for one of our awesome winter camping SBO trips!

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