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.

My Gear List for the Emigrant and Hoover Wilderness Trek

Prodded by Scoutmaster Jerry’s post “So what’s in my backpack?”, here is what I carried on our eight-day trek in the Hoover and Emigrant. My base weight (not counting food and water) is on the lightweight side at under 25 pounds, but with at least five pounds of gear that other people might not bring, mostly the camera and Crazy Creek chair.

I’ll list the gear by category in decreasing order of weight, but first, a photo of everything that went into my pack laid out on my groundsheet, taken on day 7 of the trek.


Now, everything packed, but before I clip the Crazy Creek chair onto the back.


I carried some crew gear, but that varied day-to-day. Usually one or two fuel canisters and/or a stove. Call it two pounds.

Food: 10 pounds. The common food for our 8-day trek was 7 pounds per person. We required each person to bring 3 pounds of their own choice of trail food. The weight requirement was based on NOLS recommendations (see NOLS Cookery) and was pretty close, with maybe a half-pound safety margin. Used a heavy-duty stuff sack, 50 feet of line, and a tiny S-biner for the PCT bear bag hang.

Water: 5 pounds (typical). 12 oz. of gear, plus 2l of water. The Platypus reservoirs were for treating extra water and storing extra for cooking. Quite handy, but you can’t fill them from a lake, they just stay flat when you put them in the water. We used the Calistoga bottle or the milk jug basin to fill them. The Calistoga bottle was also useful for treating an additional liter mid-day. The Aqua Mira drops sound fussy, but were a delight to use. You mix drops form the two solutions then let them sit for 5 minutes, then add them to the dirty water, then wait 15 minutes. It always takes five or more minutes to fill the water bottles, so mix, then fill, then treat, then go do something else. Also about 4X to 5X cheaper than Katadyn Micropur tablets. One limitation, you need to mix separately for each bottle and the kit only includes on mixing cup. We brought all our cough syrup measuring cups from the back of the bathroom drawer, so we could treat water bottles and hydration system for a dozen people in one shot.

  • CamelBak 2l hydration bladder (finally found a shutoff valve for this at the excellent Peak Sports in Corvallis)
  • 2 Platypus 2+l collapsible bottles (1 oz. each)
  • 1l plastic bottle that held Calistoga sparkling water
  • Aqua Mira water purification drops (also at Peak Sports)
  • extra mixing cups

Sleeping: 4 pounds. My sleeping gear is the heaviest category in my base weight, but I’ve tried lighter pads (borrowed my son’s Z-Rest, tried a Gossamer Gear TorsoLite) and they just were not as comfortable as my full-length not-quite-the-lightest model of Therm-a-Rest. I love this sleeping bag. It is really expensive, but it is light and I totally trust it. On our coldest night (30º), I slept without a tarp, only the bivy, and never closed up the hood. I took off my fleece cap in the early morning because I was too warm.

  • 20º down bag (Western Mountaineering Alpenlite)
  • Therm-a-Rest Prolite 4
  • eVent compression stuff sack
  • small fleece pillowcase (stuff with fleece jacket)
  • a few feet of rubber drawer liner to keep pad from slipping

Essentials: 4 pounds. All that little stuff, mostly the ten essentials, but I put the raingear, extra food, and insulation in other groups. The mountain men called this a “possibles pouch” because it was the stuff you might possibly need. That might be a more accurate term than “essentials”.

  • crew-sized first aid kit (1.5 pounds)
  • Sam splints
  • Yaesu VX-7R ham radio (0.5 pounds, for emergencies, but the canyons blocked all VHF and UHF, dang)
  • Tom Harrison maps of Emigrant and Hoover
  • Silva Ranger compass
  • Petzl Zipka headlamp (not only small and bright, but cute!)
  • trowel and toilet paper (take a full roll for a week-long trip!)
  • sunscreen
  • insect repellent
  • signal mirror
  • Bic lighter (and a spare)
  • blanket pins to attach wet socks to outside of pack
  • 50 ft. of light cord
  • tiny bottle of campsuds
  • toothbrush and toothpaste
  • travel-size alcohol hand sanitizer (doubles as fire starter)
  • basin cut from bottom of milk jug

Camera: 3.5 pounds. Most people could cut a lot of weight out of this area, but I’m just not satisfied with the results of small digital sensors. It was worth it to me, check out the results and decide for yourself.

  • Canon EOS-50D digital SLR
  • Canon EF-S 17-55/2.8 zoom
  • two size 5 S-biners to hang camera from my pack instead of my neck
  • spare battery

Clothes: 3 pounds. I threw in the PrimaLoft vest after the last shakedown because my pillow was too small with just the fleece. Stuffing the vest in there made it the right size. The vest was also an emergency extra layer for me or anyone else (Scoutmaster habits die hard). The nights were a lot colder than expected (down to 30º), so I wore it around camp. The long underwear are used as PJs.

  • ancient Helly Hanson lightweight polypro zip-neck top
  • generic midweight long underwear bottoms
  • fleece jacket, swag from work
  • REI PrimaLoft vest
  • 2 extra pair underwear
  • 2 extra pair wool socks
  • separate stuff sacks for clean and dirty socks and underwear
  • homemade fleece cap (was a troop project using 200-weight fleece from Outdoor Wilderness Fabrics)
  • fleece gloves (only put them on to watch meteors, could have left at home)

Pack: 2 pounds. My pack is a Starlite from Six Moon Designs. It was completely stuffed at the beginning and not especially comfortable over 35 pounds (its advertised upper limit), but was just fine from the 3rd day on. My good ol’ Lowe Expedition carries weight better, but it weighs 6 pounds and carries almost twice as much (95l instead of 55l in the main bag). Not really worth it.

Shelter: 2 pounds. I would have shared the one-pound tarp, but my tarp buddy walked out with our AMS victim on the first day. Dang, I had a big tarp all to myself. The grip clips were another last minute addition and were a good idea. These are a modern, much improved version of the old Visclamp, just right for adding side tie-outs to a tarp pitched as an A-frame. Hint: attach them before you pitch the tarp or get a friend to help. The Ptarmigan bivy is from Titanium Goat (love the name). It has a breathable, tightly-woven nylon top with a DWR finish to repel water. I rarely zip it all the way up. I mostly duck under the the hood to dodge the gentle nighttime breeze that steals so much warmth.

Luxury: 1.5 pounds. My Crazy Creek chair. Even when I was a kid, the one thing I really missed in the backcountry was a place to sit down and lean back. This isn’t light, but I tried the Crazy Creek Hexalight (half the weight) and stays busted through the fabric after three days at summer camp. Wasn’t as comfortable either. The padding on the original chair is stiff enough to turn a pointy rock into a sittable spot. It also does a good job of leveling out your sleeping spot when slipped under my Therm-a-Rest. It doesn’t fit in my pack, not even the Lowe, but works fine clipped on the back.

Reading material: 1 pound. OK, maybe should be in Luxury, but I carried a paperback SF/Fantasy book (Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell) and poetry (Mountains and Rivers without End by Gary Snyder), both in a small dry sack that I got for Christmas (thanks Mike!).

Raingear: 13 oz. Includes a windshirt that repels light rain and breathes a lot better than raingear. The windshirt was perfect for lunch stops above treeline and the very windy campsite at Bonnie Lake. My Tilley LTM6 hat rounds out the raingear, but that was worn, not carried.

  • GoLite Wisp windshirt (got this at half-price, used it almost every day)
  • DriDucks jacket (blew out the pants snow camping)
  • ULA rain wrap (actually got the Etowah version because ULA was out hiking for six months)

Kitchen: 4 oz. This would be lighter, but the Sierra Club cup is just right for tea.

  • Orikaso XL bowl
  • Lexan spoon
  • Titanium Sierra Club-style cup

What did I wear?

Things I didn’t take and didn’t miss:

  • camp shoes, I hike in shoes that are comfortable
  • gaiters, I have a tall pair for winter camping, but the Sierras are dry in the summer
  • liner socks, I stopped using these years ago, no blisters
  • water pump, heavy, requires regular maintenance, and doesn’t stop viruses

Things I maybe should have brought:

  • Body Glide would have helped when I had some chafing.
  • Some plastic to hang over the camera when it rained.
  • A bright laser pointer would have been really useful for pointing out constellations on those clear nights.
  • I would have used a timer for my SLR to take 30 minute exposures of the Perseid meteors (but I ain’t payin’ $150 for a Canon TC80N3, geez).
  • I might have used sandals or water shoes for river crossings, it took a bit took long for my trail runners to dry out. Luckily, we only had two soak-your-shoes crossings.

I take very similar gear on a weekend campout, with the addition of a small aluminum kettle, a Super Cat stove, windscreen, and some alcohol fuel. That is enough to rehydrate food or make tea.

Fighting a Wildfire with Milk Jug Basins

On our Boy Scout trek in the Hoover and Emigrant Wilderness Areas, about half the crew brought basins made from the bottom of a plastic milk jug. Cut it just below the handle, and you have a free, ultralight basin.

The original idea was to use it to keep the freezer bag meals from falling over while they were rehydrating, but we kept finding new uses.

The least-expected use was for a bucket brigade to fight a single-tree wildfire that we found. The initial containment and a satphone report were done by Troop 959 from San Diego, but they needed to move on to evac an ill crewmember. Our crew (Troop 14, Palo Alto) took over and spent most of an hour putting it all the way out.

Since we had forgotten to pack a Pulaski or a big crosscut saw or even an Indian pump, we had to improvise.

Here is a photo of the fire when we took over.


Here is our bucket brigade, getting water from nearby Cascade Creek. The milk jug basin is being passed up. We also used two cooking pots, but an extra five basins made a big difference.


Once we knocked down most of the fire, we used the basins to attack the remaining hot spots.


Also note: one of the 100 uses for a bandana.

As far as we could tell, a campfire had lit a tree root under the fire circle, and that had smoldered through the root system, eventually consuming the major roots on one side of the tree and lighting the core. The tree fell after the roots on one side were destroyed, opening it up for more fire. This photo shows the original campfire ring along with the surface area that was burned to ash above the destroyed roots.


The incident number for this fire is HTF-952 EK1P, according to the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch and the WildWeb website (check out August 2009 fires and look for the wildfire labeled “Walker Creek”, even though it was Cascade Creek).

That list shows it as a false alarm, probably because we had the smoke knocked down by the time that a helicopter and an airplane flew over to check (we saw them). Maybe I’ll call them up and correct the report.

The rest of the fire photos are at flickr, tagged with HTF-952.

We found plenty of other uses for the milk jug basins:

  • put one the bottom of a food stuff sack to give it some shape and help it stand up
  • scooping water out of lakes and creeks to fill water bottles
  • washing socks and underwear
  • an especially silly hat

Overall, it was the best innovation of the trip and by far the cheapest. A couple of Scouts said they would take one on every trip from now on. For me, it is right up there with a bandana for a multi-use, lightweight item.