by Joseph Sheeley
Back in the late 1990s I was a week away from moving out of California to a new job across the country. My wife and I had never been to Yosemite Park and decided now was the time while it was only four hours away. We would regularly camp in the Sierra Nevadas, so we decided to camp for this late September trip.
I called to reserve a campsite, but found all of those in the valley were taken. I found one at Toulumne Meadows, which is at more than 8500 feet elevation. It was a little distance from the valley, but I thought we could spend the day seeing the sights in the valley and then set up camp for the night.
That weekend we loaded up the car and drove out to Yosemite, arriving a little before lunch time. Unfortunately, it was wet and drizzly the whole day. There were low clouds, covering all of the rock features like Half Dome. We were able to see things like the river and one of the waterfalls coming off a ridge, but everything else was covered in clouds. We ate lunch at a dining area near the falls, tried to stop at the general store in the valley but found it was too crowded to park, so we drove out and up to Toulumne Meadows.
We got to the campsite about an hour before sundown and setup my old two-man tent. For dinner we planned to eat out, which ended up being going to a food trailer and buying some hotdogs. After selling us our food they were close for the season. We would have gone to bed hungry if we’d been a little later.
Speaking of food, we’d been warned about the bears before we got there. Because they’ve been fed for so long, the bears will actually break into your car if you leave any food, toothpaste, or anything else that has a scent. Mother bears actually teach their cubs how to break into cars, destroying the cars in minutes. Everything had to go into special bear boxes. They let us know that even if you don’t see them, the bears were always watching and waiting.
That night there was a ranger lead campfire program. Everything was wet and cold, so we weren’t starting a campfire, so we were glad to sit by one made with some dry wood the rangers had stored. There we met many of the campers, discovering that we were the only ones in a tent. Everyone else had a camper.
That night we discovered why. It was the first snow of the season. By 1 AM there were several inches on the top of our tent and I needed to knock it off the roof to remove the sag. My wife had taken my zero-degree Marmont Mountain down sleeping bag and I was using her cheap summer bag. As I listened to the generators of the campers around us, I wondered if I’d freeze that night.
The next morning, we awoke to a winter wonderland. Everything was covered in snow. The park ranger said that late September wasn’t unusual for the first snow even though it took us totally by surprise. The memories of the cold night before disappeared as I walked around the beautiful area, glad that I got to see the first snow of the 1999-2000 season in the high Sierras.
I’ve probably been camping over 100 times and spent 150 nights or so out in the backcountry. There were a lot of times when the weather was absolutely beautiful, but I don’t remember much from those trips. They all sort of blend together. The ones I remember most are the ones like the Yosemite trip when we got blanketed in snow. Another memory is when a severe thunderstorm rolled through on Good Friday that produced hail on us and a tornado about 50 miles away. Don’t let worries about the weather keep you home. Be ready for the weather, whatever it is, and go anyway. Some of the best memories come under dark skies.
Gearing up for camping
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I thought I’d talk about some of the gear I use for camping. If you’re getting out of the RV, you’ll need the right gear to be comfortable. Here’s some of the stuff I use.
Marmont sleeping bags:
The down sleeping bag I have is from the 1980’s but still works great today. They cost a lot, but will also last your lifetime. They’ll also make you comfortable even when it drops below freezing outside of your tent.
Wood burning stoves:
Most of the time I use a propane stove like the first one below or a liquid fuel stove, but the little wood burners like the second one shown are nice because you can fuel them with the little twigs you can find everywhere, even in the most picked-over campgrounds. My only dig is that they only burn for fifteen or twenty minutes, then you need to add wood and light them again (with a lot of blowing). They burn long enough to boil a couple of cups of water or cook a quick meal, but stop right about the time a larger pot of water is ready to boil.
MSR PocketRocket Ultralight Backpacking, Camping, and Travel Stove, PR 2: Ultra Compact Camping Stove Ohuhu Stainless Steel Backpacking Stove Portable Wood Burning Stoves for Picnic BBQ Camp Hiking with Grill Grid
Thermarest Ground Pads:
Whenever you’re camping in a tent, you need a ground pad. Not only does this little bit of air and material soften the ground a little, but it more importantly puts insulation between you and the ground. Without this you’ll be cold as the ground sucks out your heat. Thermarest is a great brand of ground pads.
Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Self-Inflating Foam Camping Mat, WingLock Valve, Regular – 20 x 72 Inches
A high-quality tent, if you dry it out when you get home and keep it clean, will last you for a decade or more. Spend a little more for a tent and it will last longer and be easier to use. Kelty makes great tents in the $150-$300 range. Always get a tent that is one person larger than the number of people you’ll have using it so that you’ll have a little room for gear. Note it will typically require one less people than the size of the tent to set up, so you’ll need at least three to setup a four-man tent, for example.