Camping at high elevations is kind of my thing. Big views, cool air, and generally, fewer people. High elevation brings numerous challenges that either have campers bailing out during the night, or avoiding the experience altogether. Here are some tips to get you through it.
1. Choose your campsite wisely
The first thing you need to consider when trying to camp above tree cover is where you will actually camp. This sounds as simple as plopping down a tent, but it really isn’t. There are several unique factors you should be keeping in mind when choosing a high elevation camp site.
One thing to keep in mind is the soil condition, if there is soil at all. The soil on peaks or ridges tends to be thin, loose, or non-existent. Try to find a place that will actually allow you to stake your shelter out, and trust me, you will need to. Generally, if you don’t have at least two inches of soil, you’re going to have a bad time. Stakes will pull up, and your shelter can actually fail. Sometimes, you can tie your tent to rocks, roots or bury lines in the snow if there isn’t any soil present, but it is generally best to target spots that are ready for tents to begin with. The last thing you want is for your tent to rip loose while your sleeping, or worse, away from camp.
Another thing to keep in mind at high elevation is that the ecosystem can be fragile. If there are plants growing, they could be easily destroyed by a tent, rare, or even endangered. Try to avoid putting your tent on anything that could be considered fragile plant life, especially if you’re not familiar with what it is. Mosses, lycan, and anything you’re not seeing at lower elevations should be considered precious and rare. Even certain grasses at higher elevation can be fragile or unique species that can’t be found anywhere else, even if it just looks like grass.
Consider the wind direction. You don’t necessarily want to camp on the side of the mountain that is facing into the wind. The wind will hit harder, longer, and likely prevent you from sleeping at night. Sleeping just off the peak, even with a small knee high windbreak can make all the difference. Also keep in mind that wind direction can and will change. If the wind shifts, will you suddenly be in a bad situation? Think it through before setting up camp.
2. Reinforce your shelter
Unlike traditional camping, there is little room for laziness when setting up camp in the peaks. A properly pitched and taut shelter will be strong, stable and quiet. A wobbly, poorly pitched sack of nylon and aluminum will not only keep you up all night by flapping about like a chicken on caffeine, it will sooner or later fail altogether. The recoil of a tent snapping back into shape can be devastating, and having the fly slide around on poles will tear it. Every guy line connection on your tent should be used and on its own dedicated tent stake if at all possible. A typical tent should have 6 or 8 connections, plus at least 4 additional guy lines coming off of it. If it didn’t come with enough stakes and lines, buy more. The lines should be tight, and the stakes should be embedded in the ground at roughly a 60 degree angle, facing away from the tent so they can’t pull up out of the ground. The high winds that can roll in unexpectedly can and will destroy a tent given the chance. It can even rip it off the mountain, tossing it hundreds of feet away, even while completely filled with gear. So, stake it out, add more attachment points and guy lines if you need, and make sure everything stays taut. Use those little Velcro tabs that attach the fly to the poles if you have them too.
3. Consider the temperature change
As you go up, temperatures go down. A warm day in the valley can be snow at night on the top of the mountain. Temperature falls about 3.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you climb, so keep this in mind. Even going from 2000 feet to the 6000 foot peaks I have locally, I expect a 15 degree F difference, and I always plan for 20. Too many people dress for the weather at their home and get to the top of the mountain shocked that the rain has turned to snow and their light layers or shorts are providing about as much protection as a wet napkin. Having a warm sleeping bag rated for weather below what you calculate will happen will ensure a cozy night’s sleep and not a long dark shiver fest. Also note that weather forecasts are generally for the valleys of their locations, and even if they say otherwise, don’t believe them. Expect the worst case scenario and do remembe that the weather man hates you.
4. Be ready for moisture
Adiabatic cooling is the cooling effect that happens to air when it moves up a mountain to higher elevation. Warm, moist air will blow from the valley, up the mountain (where it cools) and it will then condense into clouds, rain or snow, all at face level. The result? Everything you own will get wet, even on clear nights. What makes this worse is your tent can’t even save you, not entirely. This hyper moist, cold air will come in through your vents, under your fly, and stick to the inside your tent, causing the inside of your tent to get wet. If your tent is getting blown around, it can even shake it loose, effectively creating rain inside the shelter, despite there being no rain outside. I’ve woke up with my tent holding inches of water inside, even though it was entirely waterproof. So, bring changes of clothes, a microfiber cloth for wiping things down, and a warm, water resistant (or proof) sleeping bag. Water resistant down (like Dridown) or synthetic bags are highly recommended here. And, always pack a rain jacket, waterproof boots and pants as you’ll likely have to hike exposed to this wet, cold, moist air. A double walled tent is also a necessity, as the inner body will provide protection from a soggy rain fly. Otherwise, your sleeping bag will rub against the wet walls, wetting it out.
5. Prepare for unexpected weather
Weather does pretty much whatever it wants at high elevation and it isn’t predictable. Forecasts don’t factor in the fact that you may be climbing a peak when the 3 p.m. rain shower is supposed to hit. Instead, always assume the worst. A sunny valley forecast doesn’t mean a thing on the mountain. Expect rain, snow, wind, hail, and even lightning when the forecast is otherwise completely clear.
6. Reconsider your cooking options
With everything else I’ve said above, it shouldn’t be a leap to assume that you may be spending long hours inside your tent. If you plan to rely on a stove to cook your food, you may want to think again. If the wind picks up or the rain sets in, you may not be able to cook at all. Don’t feel sly and attempt cooking inside your shelter either. A strong gust can get under your tent, flipping your stove over by lifting the floor. The fumes themselves can kill you, or you’ll just burn a hole in your tent as the wind buffets the fly in. You could even set yourself on fire, which I promise you will not be fun. The pressure and temperature differences render many stoves useless at higher elevations anyway. So, plan at least on food that can be soaked and eaten cold, or just bring along something that can be enjoyed as is, with no prep required. It is a pretty good excuse to pack in chocolate though, so it’s not all bad.
Don’t face off with lightning.
If you’re camping high up and you see lighting in the distance, you are not safe. If you can hear thunder, you are also not safe. Lighting can travel much farther than you can see or hear it, and no it doesn’t have to be striking or making noise to be a threat. Even silent lightning gently flickering in the clouds can put you down without notice. If you see or hear any of these things, you should pack up immediately and move out, getting downhill as quickly and as safely as possible. Many mountains have iron cores or even exposed iron ore on the peaks, and literally become lightning rods with even the slightest charge in the air. If you feel tingling, static or the hairs on your arm moving, don’t even pack. Have your group spread out and get downhill without delay. If you’re caught in a lightning storm with strikes coming down around you, again, spread out, get to a low point. Crouch on your pack or other non-conducting gear until it passes. This will somewhat insulate you from the ground. Don’t tempt lightning, the statics are not in your favor.
7. Be O.K. with bailing
Finally, and honestly this is the most important tip I can offer. Be O.K. with jumping ship. Sometimes, the conditions can become so bad or unpredictable that the only realistic option is to get out of there. Even strong shelters can be flattened by powerful storms, poles can snap, rain flys can tear, temperatures can drop to surprisingly low levels, or you could just be soaking wet due to no fault of your own. Sometimes, the best bet is just knowing when to escape and always have a plan in place for doing so. Maybe the wind is just keeping you up all night. It’s O.K. to leave and find rest somewhere else. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth suffering through in my opinion. So, use your brain, making the smart decision, and know when to get out of there. We’re not meant or built to live on the peaks, and sometimes the peaks just want us to go. We should listen.
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