Tarp Camping in the Sierras

Summer in the Sierras is probably the best place to try tarp camping, since you would do fine with no cover at all most nights in our dry California summers. Still, there was hail the week before we were up, so it is worth getting your shelter dialed in. Here are some moments from our eight day trip through the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness Areas.

What does it weigh?

  • 8×10 silnylon tarp: 14 oz.
  • Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy: 6.5 oz.
  • Gossamer Gear polycryo groundsheet: 1.5 oz.
  • assorted tent stakes: a few oz. (mostly titanium skewers, plus a few grippy stakes for loose soil)
  • tent poles are my trekking poles, so the weight doesn’t count against the shelter account

Total weight is around a pound and a half. Size, about as big as a Fosters beer can.

Second night, a nice open A-frame pitch at Lower Long Lake. Check out the Sierra Designs Grip Clips pulling out the sides to make a lot more space in the A-frame. These are the modern evolution of the Visclamps that you might have read about in The Complete Walker. Nice lake, too.


Third night, at Middle Emigrant Lake, a really windy spot. This is the tarp setup for the other two adults, pitched low in a nasty crosswind. They borrowed my long Easton stakes to hold the ridgelines in the sandy soil. I used them a couple of times, too. This is a Tundra Tarp from Cooke Custom Sewing, with more tie-outs than mine. Nice tarp.


I laid out my bivy in a narrow spot between two big rocks. The wind was blowing across this spot, so I was nicely sheltered. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo until I was packed up, so you’ll need to imagine a bag and bivy laid out here. You can also imagine the marmot scat laid on a rock shelf by my head. With the wind and the cold, I didn’t notice the smell until the morning.


I slept without a tarp a few nights. This is my spot at Snow Lake, where it was 30º in the morning. Most of us slept under the stars because this was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. My bivy is drying out on the shrub behind my sleeping bag. There was significant internal condensation on those clear cold nights, but I was toasty. You can see the reassuring Michelin Man poofyness of my Western Mountaineering down bag.


Bonnie Lake was even windier than Middle Emigrant Lake, and it didn’t let up all night. It was only in the 40’s, but it was the coldest evening of our trip. Here is a creative tarp pitch, using every tie-out on the tarp and borrowing trekking poles from several Scouts. Buckminster Fuller would be proud.


My more conservative pitch, I call this “the cave”. I learned the pitch from this YouTube video about pitching an 8×10 Etowah tarp. I don’t pitch it exactly like the video — I use a front guyline and throw a clove hitch around the top of my trekking pole. Still, it is easy for a single person to set up. If you look carefully in the photo, you can see that I’ve used my other trekking pole to pull the center tie-out up and make more room. A lot more room, it turns out. My tarp is an Integral Designs Siltarp 2, an 8×10 tarp. In bad weather, a 10×10 tarp would provide a more coverage. Or you could pitch a poncho over the open end. At Bonnie Lake, I was more worried about dew (34º) and wind (the stiff breeze all night).


A nice stealth A-frame pitch for the other two adults, on the West Walker River. We camped in the area that used to be called Lower Paiute Meadows, but it is so overgrown that they’ve renamed Middle Paiute Meadows as Lower. This is now an unnamed wide forested area on the West Walker River.


And my cave pitch at the same spot. I tied off the center tie-out to the deadfall instead of a trekking pole. You can see the space made by the pullout in this photo. When it works, I like pitching next to big fallen trees. They make a nice windbreak.


That’s it. Seven nights in the Sierras with a tarp. My tarp buddy went home after the first night, escorting one Scout with acute mountain sickness and one with equipment problems. After that, I was stuck carrying my pound and a half of roomy shelter all by myself. Dang. I’m pretty happy I didn’t plan on splitting a tent with my buddy.

Is it obvious or is it the wrong abstraction?

Lovely observation from Katja Grace:

Things can be obvious if they are simple. If something complicated is obvious, such as anything that anybody seriously studies, then for it to be simple you must be abstracting it a lot. When people find such things obvious, what they often mean is that the abstraction is so clear and simple its implications are unarguable. This is answering the wrong question. Most of the reasons such conclusions might be false are hidden in what you abstracted away. The question is whether you have the right abstraction for reality, not whether the abstraction has the implications it seems to.

Abstractions are essential to understanding, but we must keep in mind that abstractions ignore information. Essentially, they are storytelling, organizing raw data into actors and relationships while leaving out the irrelevant stuff. When too much stuff is deemed irrelevant, the narrative becomes obvious, but the abstraction may become mostly fiction, too removed from the raw facts.

I still remember my freshman physics professor at Rice warning us that real atoms were not anything like the Bohr model of the atom, but that the model gave great answers for a useful set of questions.

With humans, it is all storytelling.

Via a post on Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution.