Snow Camping in Tahoe

I apologize for my serious lapse in adventure posting recently. The last 2+ months have found me studying for hours after work nearly every day in preparation for my California special Professional Engineer exams. I’m taking the first of the exams in about 4 days and in order to keep from over-studying (which I’m still not convinced is a thing) I’m going to take a break to share a new experience I recently had! I’ve been giving myself one weekend off a month and in March it was to learn more about snow camping!

The Tahoe Rim Trail Association leads beginner hiking and camping courses, and in the winter they even host some snow camping 101 classes. On a whim I signed up and got my friend Kristen to come too. I’ve never camped in the snow and since we finally have a good snowpack and are expecting snow in the high peaks through June, I figured it was time to learn.

There were 8 “students” of varying experience levels and 3 instructors. We started with a few hours of talking about basic navigation, layering, sleep systems, and other basic concepts for being out in the cold, then we loaded into a couple of trucks and drove up to Tahoe Meadows, strapped on our snowshoes, and took off into the snowy woods. We estimated there to be 15-20 feet of snow under our feet and it was really amazing to be walking among the crowns of trees that would usually dwarf us. We were incredibly lucky with a 30 degree, sunny day.

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We didn’t hike more than 2 miles into the woods in case anyone had an emergency and had to be evacuated. On the last trip a woman was recovering from the flu and had to be brought out on a sled, so although I wish we had gone further in, I understand why we didn’t. Even so, we were definitely in wilderness and the fresh air did wonders.

The biggest thing that I learned (and the most work) was how to prepare your tent site. It’s very important to pack down the snow (tromping back and forth and back and forth with your snowshoes and your pack still on for the most weight) for 10-15 minutes, then you need to let it set and ice over for another 30+ before you should even think about setting up your tent. That way you end up with a nice hard surface that your elbow isn’t going to punch through when you roll over in the middle of the night.

After we packed down the site it was time to explore in the sunshine to give it a chance to set. Kristen and I hiked up to Chickadee Ridge for some beautiful views of Lake Tahoe, and spent some quality time with our new friends.

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The other cool piece of camp set-up was learning about digging cold-sumps around the tent, which double as a nifty place to sit and take off your boots. The idea is the coldest air that hits your tent will roll off into the sump (cold air sinks) instead of settling inside. I also ended up building a snow wall all the way around the bottom of the tent fly to keep out any drafts.

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Camping in the snow was so much fun because 1) you don’t have to worry about critters coming to eat your food, 2) you don’t have to worry about anyone sneaking up on you (crunch crunch crunch), and 3) you can build furniture! We all banded together and dug out a “kitchen”: basically a long bench and a long counter in front of it so we could all sit and cook and eat together. IMG_8007 IMG_8023

And now… the question you’re probably all asking…. did we stay warm?

I did, but I was one of the few. We drank some hot cocoa right before bed to get our metabolisms going and each put one of those 10-hour instant hand warmers in the bottom of our sleeping bags (which was magic). I brought two sleeping pads, which I think was key: my usual thermarest closed-cell foam pad and an additional lightweight inflatable pad on top of it. I didn’t even sleep with my down jacket on and I was perfectly toasty inside my 20 degree bag. Kristen was a little cold but said she probably would have been warm if she had gotten up and put on more layers. Almost all of the other “students” were cold. Breakfast found us swapping around toe warmers and shoving them in our boots to get circulation going again. But we were all super happy that we did it.

The last images I want to leave you with are of the truly incredible sunset/full moon rise over the lake. After dinner I hiked back up to Chickadee Ridge with two other campers to watch the sunset. We knew the moon was supposed to rise full that night but we did not expect it to happen at literally the same moment the sun went behind the mountains on the other side of the horizon. We whooped and howled and could not believe how beautiful the view was. IMG_8058 IMG_7992 IMG_7996 IMG_8001

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