Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Yosemite High Camps - Helpful Packing Tips and Miscellanea

[How to keep your pack weight down, enjoy yourself and still be comfortable.]

Last time I was at the Sierra High Camps was around twenty two years ago . Seeing as I can’t remember exactly where I went, when I went to go this year, I needed some updated information. Here are a couple of notes from my trip this year, mostly on things I wished I didn’t bring, or did bring.

When writing this I found myself thinking about ‘spoilers’. One if the things I like best about back-country is it is one of the last places in the States where a person has to rely on their own judgement and have their own experience. There is no one out there to tell you, ‘Hey, climbing up that sheer rock face in your slippers is a really bad idea.’. I believe this is a good thing. Self-reliance and good judgement are not fostered in environments where everything is signed, proscribed and wavered. There are no surprises. Because of this, I don’t want to write about all of the amazing experiences that I had, and how you can have them too. I want you to have your own experiences, your own adventures.

So the following are tips that won’t keep you from having your own experience. Rather, these are little tips that might make your own adventures more enjoyable.

Save Your Napkin

Sounds funny, but the napkin they put in your lunch is also a pretty good map. Endless hours of enjoyment, or frustration, depending upon whether or not you are lost... The picture of a map at the beginning of this blog is actually a piece of it.

Camp Voice, Earplugs and Drugs

Most of the High Sierra Camp Tent Cabins are in very close proximity to each other. While the white canvas tent is an effective visual barrier, it does nothing for sound. Auditorially you are effectively living in one large room where sound carries extremely well - with 35 other people. So they don’t feel the need to eliminate you in the morning or visa versa, use your ‘camp voice’. Additionally, if you feel the need to complain bitterly about the obnoxious people you met on the trail, do it really really quietly; those same obnoxious people are probably sleeping, or not sleeping, next door. Lastly, take earplugs. If the conversations next door don’t put you over the edge, the slamming cabin doors, snoring, and squeaky mattress's probably will.

If you don’t know if you have a hard time sleeping at altitude or not, bring drugs for sleeping. Or, if you really want to make friends, bring sleeping drugs even if you don’t need them - someone will. There is nothing worse than hiking all day through stunning terrain and not being able to enjoy it because you were up counting sheep or praying for someone to knock you unconscious. I have seen people try everything in their arsenal to no avail so bring something you are sure will put you out.

Your Weight Problem

You look beautiful just the way you are. Really. But, you are going to gain 20 to 35 pounds in the form of a backpack, that you will be carrying with you at almost all times. The difference between carrying 20 pounds and 35 pounds will quickly become apparent. Here are a couple of tips that might help you keep the weight down without making you any less comfortable.

  • If you are traveling with other people, combine, combine, combine. Do each of you really need your own bottle of bug spray which contains enough Deet to make you unattractive to bugs for an entire year? Probably not. The small bottles of creams, salves, balms and ointments really add up in weight. Consider pooling shampoo, conditioner, anti-itch ointment, bug spray and any and all first aid. If jointly you can bandage every toe, ankle and heal you all have every day, twice a day, you probably have too much.
  • A note on moisturizer and skin creams - you will be so dirty that you will not want to look at your legs after a day on the trail, let alone smear lotion into the dirt to form a paste that can not be removed. Bring less than you think you will need -- you will probably only use it after showering, which occurs infrequently.
  • Bring a sleep sack, you will not want the army issue wool blankets next to your skin. The silk ones are worth it. They are much lighter and less bulky than cotton. You can slip into them easier than into cotton.
  • Rain Gear. You will hate taking things you don’t use, because you have to carry them. Rain gear is one of those items. If you want to keep weight down, take lightweight rain gear (do not bring the two pound plastic poncho from the drug store - you will rue the day). You can use your rain gear as part of your layering system for cold weather. I bring a down jacket and put on my rain jacket over that when it gets really cold. You can use long underwear and your rain pants for warmth on the bottom half.
  • Pair down the clothes to a bare minimum. Here are my preferences: For hiking, boots, 3 pair of hiking socks, long johns, one pair of shorts, rain gear, two t-shirts (luxury), one long sleeve sun shirt, a mid-weight wind-proof , non-bulky fleece and down jacket should do it. When you get so scummy you can’t stand it, you can wash your shirt, shorts, etc at some of the camps. For swimming, and you must swim every day, bring something you can get wet in and not have to hike in later. Alternatively, skinny dip. It weighs less but might freak out other hikers. For in camp, sandals (or ‘crocks’ which are really lightweight) are a must. Your feet might refuse to get back into boots and you will be trapped on your cot in your tent for lack of comfortable footwear. Also a ‘must have’ is one outfit for the evening. This is one pair of socks (warm), one shirt, and one pair of pants that you do not hike in. Your table-mates at dinner will thank you and it will give you the illusion of being clean, even if you are not.
Random Miscellanea
  • Bring a Sarong. This is a very lightweight tight weave piece of cotton. It can be so many things. It’s a towel for drying off or sunbathing. It’s a pillow if you need one. It’s a satchel for carrying items. It is a picnic table.... or a sun shade; a football for a quick pickup game. Lastly, it can be used for it’s original purpose of wrapping around your waist and legs should you rip or lose your shorts.
  • Cold weather gear. Sunrise and Vogelsang can get really cold. You will appreciate a warm hat, neck warmer, and lightweight gloves if you are going to spend time there. They do have small pot-belly stoves in the tents. Bring someone with fire-making skills or befriend them and get them to put logs on every couple of hours throughout the night.
  • Boots. Make sure they fit. If you are solid and are sure they fit, you might be able to get away with not bringing a second pair of hiking shoes. This gets rid of a lot of weight.
  • Pee cup. Someone has to say it. The bathrooms are usually far away and no one wants to get up in the middle of the night and trudge all the way down there. Some sort of tupperware can be used and emptied in the morning. All the cool kids are doing it... you can too.
  • Water purification. If you have a water purification pump or tablets that you feel comfortable with, using them can be a great way to bring down water. There are streams and lakes all over the high country. Make sure to ask folks which streams are running before you set out.
  • Flashlight with red light. Probably a luxury item, but your tent mates will thank you. When you are rooting around in your backpack for your [insert your item here] at 3 am, a nice mellow red light is much less jarring than a blinding white beam. They are also great for star-watching and general night vision.
That is all I have for you from this trip. Have a great time.

- Stephanie Left.

One more thing, this might be a bit of a spoiler but I have to talk about the lunch sacks. It is old school and some camps might not do it, (and if they don't they might be called slackers by members of the camps who do), but if you are lucky you might get your lunch sack illustrated.

This one was done by a wonderful young man at May Lake who will be going on to art school. I liked it so much I had him sign it.


  1. The high camps are one of the magical places beyond explanation- with secret little swimming holes, peaks begging to be climbed and meadows to be explored. Thanks for sharing this:)
    P.S. I never leave home without a field guide- be it plants, animals, natural or cultural history. It is always fun to know how that 50 lb. drill bit arrived at a 10,000 foot lake.

  2. OK. I'll bite... How did 50 pound drill bit arrive at a 10,000 ft lake?

  3. Good advise about keeping the weight down. When I used to hike in full gear with a ten day supply of food each pound that was shed was a blessing. On the last day with twenty pounds less food on your back you felt like superman.
    Do you remember that you and drove up that back side of the Sierras and then hiked to Vogelsang. Going up the Hill to Yosemite we played Motzart's horn concerto. It seemed to fit the winding road and the beautiful day. Then through the valley and on to Berkely. I'd like to think that you got part of your love for the out of doors from your dad. I can't think of a better thing to pass on to your children.

  4. Pee cups and Sarongs? OKI know this is the woman's perspective now! LOL Seriously, great Blog! I thought my bag was good from May Lake, but that's friggin' frameable ain't it?
    For the time being, here are my pics on flickr...
    Tim Dougherty (

  5. May I point out Tim that Sarongs are used in many parts of the world by both men and women. Don't knock it till you try it!

  6. I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

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  14. I think Yosemite is one of the largest and least fragmented habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada, and the park supports a diversity of plants and animals.

  15. I suppose that in North America and Europe, hip wraps are worn as beach wear, or as a cover-up over swimwear. The wrap is often made of a thin, light fabric, often times rayon, and may feature decorative fringing on both sides.

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  20. Hi, any chance you have an image of the full napkin map? They discontinued the napkins when Yosemite changed concessionaires, and I would love to print it out.

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