It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing . Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time. Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail. This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California. We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them. Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent. What the heck? Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps. Nothing. The light continued to shine, barely moving. Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on. A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out. The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.
Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent. Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death. That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.
If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites. Those are valuable resources. Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. It is an awesome resource. I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close. Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.
Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule. I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep. Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact. You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass. Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate. Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.
Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site. I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek. The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss. So, rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down. Rocks also are good lightning conductors!
When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour. Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch? Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball? In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.
Widow-makers: Those dead trees that are still standing. Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you. If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest. Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.
Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks. A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night. If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point. Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad. If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.
Some other tips:
Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent. Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance. If not you may get some late night company looking for food.
Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent. 🙂 At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.
For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent. The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher. Use a tent footprint. It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent. It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots. I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.
Invest in a good set of tent stakes. Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily. There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy. These are virtually indestructible. I usually find a rock and bang them in. I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy. Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.
Klingers: People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp. Don’t be a Klinger.
Lightning: No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry. During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following: If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack. If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.
In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower. If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail, use your camp towel to wipe it down. If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry. Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip. It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew. It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap. I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here: Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.
I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night. Hey, you’ll understand when you get old. But the most important thing is a site with a view. You will know it when you see it.
Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent? Please share them in the comments! Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.
I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound. What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck. Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me. I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift. This was now a chess game and it was my move…
It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT. I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety; well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence. Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task. Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop. The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin. My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime. Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful. The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.
Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras. It still looked like a desert, but with foothills. Eventually, there were some trees and shade. Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway. Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human. Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself. Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood. As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it. If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman. Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry. While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.
Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite. Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away. The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm. One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly. This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat. Add a little pita and it fills you up. As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean. Why would we call it Noodle noodles? Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through. Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area. After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.
Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue. I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake. It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee. No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban. Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires. I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls. At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day. Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.
When camping alone, I often hit the sack early. At home, seven hours of sleep is good. Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok. As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent. I listened intently. It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound. I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out. It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees. I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again. Ok, have to see what this is. I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent. Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby. I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush. As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away. The eyes were about two feet off the ground. The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!” It didn’t move. I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it. No good. Whatever it was didn’t move. I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?
I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here. Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature. Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing. I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was. My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion! It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end. This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away. I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband. Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.
Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent. This time it was to the left. Oh boy, this was going to be a long night. I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited. Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent. This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey. Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive. I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol. I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away. Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting. The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics. After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter. Here’s what I saw:
It was a long night after that. Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening. Chirp, chirp, chirp…… At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator. Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends. However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button. If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it. I can hear it now: “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty? Come on man!!!” The thought did cross my mind though.
Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise. After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion. I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest. I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.
Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming. My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me. I decided to pack up and hit the trail. After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂
If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs. While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare. However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras. She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger. The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up. While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey. In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise. Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack. When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
Tucked away on a mountain road near the eastern Sierra town of Big Pine is the entrance to one of the most amazing getaways. The Big Pine Creek collection of campgrounds, lakes and trails are magnificent.
This trip was a last-minute adventure. My wife was back east helping out with a new grandchild and I knew that I didn’t want to sit around over the long Labor Day weekend. The Sierras are only 4-5 hours away from San Diego, so I packed up my gear and headed toward the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get my backcountry permit. I researched a few areas to hike and was prepared to “settle” for whatever was available. Normally, this holiday weekend is one of the busiest up here. You should especially avoid Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne unless your plans are very flexible. One could write a blog on the best ways to get backcountry permits. The trails in the various areas are under the jurisdiction of the USFS or National Parks and traffic is controlled through the use of permits. About 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins, the rest can be reserved through recreation.gov for a small fee.
The visitor center was actually not that busy and I was able to easily obtain the permit for the Pine Creek North Fork trail. Another 40 minutes and I was in Big Pine. The sign on the road that takes you to the trail is fairly obscure and starts out as Crocker Rd. The road passes through a neighborhood and gradually climbs several thousand feet. The rocky, desert landscape starts to change as you approach the sub-alpine area where the campgrounds are. The aspen and Jeffrey Pines are abundant in the lower elevations and I imagine that this is even more beautiful as the deciduous trees change in the fall.
The overnight parking lot for the hikers comes up on the right. There is plenty of room, but I found out that the trailhead is almost a mile away. Oh well, I needed to loosen up a bit. I passed the pack-train corral and noticed signs for the various campgrounds and Glacier Lodge. It was fairly busy in the camps as people were getting in their last bit of summer vacation. The trailhead is well marked at the end of the road. There is limited day use parking at the end and I recommend to drop off your gear if there are two or more hikers.
The trail wastes no time in elevation change as the steep, short switchbacks get the heart beating. You cross the first footbridge and the creek is rapidly descending through cascades and waterfalls. Normally, this time of year many of the creeks in the Sierras are dry. Not here, the Palisade Glacier ensures a year-round flow. The trail meanders through the forest but stays close to the creek. The rushing water provides the assurance that you can follow it all the way up to its’ source.
After the second footbridge, the trail gradually climbs the canyon and then flattens out for a bit. The riparian environment changes to a desert landscape with some cactus hiding under the chaparral. The trail diverges from the creek, but never far enough to lose sight or sound. Occasionally, the sound of the cascading water is an indicator that you will be climbing again. The louder the water, the steeper the incline. I’m a simple guy, so I tend to associate simple things you know.
One of the things I love about hiking in the Sierras is the change in eco-systems as you ascend the trails. You can start out in an arid desert and pass through riparian areas to sub-alpine forests with deciduous trees, followed by alpine forests and end up in snow-covered peaks above the tree line. It’s so cool to see the flora change while you hike. This trail appears to dead-end in a canyon and one knows there is only one way out – and that is up. The path diverges from the creek and the long switchbacks quickly take you above 8,500 ft. Evidence of the pack trains litters the trail where their path emerges from the corral. Fortunately, the trail is wide enough to step around the mule doodles. The trail is well maintained with many man-made steps carved from the granite. You round the corner near a significant cascade and the view is impressive. Temple Crag comes into sight and the trail rises above the creek. During the afternoon, the wildlife was missing but imagine that this is a place where deer would hang out.
Due to my late start and occasional thunder, I started looking for a campsite. 100 ft. from water and trail, that makes it a bit harder. Well, that and a flat spot for the tent that isn’t in a wash or drainage area. I found a suitable spot under some fir trees and set up the tent quickly. The two-person Eureka tent has been a good one. Lightweight and easy to set up. The bugs were almost non-existent. Mosquitoes are bad here in early summer, but this was perfect. Dinner was a Mountain Home chicken and noodle- too much for one person. The housekeeping routine when you camp solo is a bit different. Normally, you split chores like setting up the tent, getting water and cooking but tonight it was all mine. Within 45 minutes, it started sprinkling and by 7 p.m. a steady rain ensued. Fortunately, the lightning was distant and the trees seemed to reduce the impact of the rain.
Combined with the drive and a couple of hours of hiking, the rain was a natural sleep machine. The pitter-patter on the tent was peaceful and the rushing creek was a great combination. I was asleep by 8:30.
Next: This place has it all
We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics. An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)