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Archive for August, 2011

We think of summer days as being sunny and warm (and sometimes they even are!), but when it comes to summer nights, things can get mighty chilly.  Even in the summer, nighttime temperatures in Olympic National Park can get down in the lower 40s, even below freezing.  Out by the coast, fog can blanket the land in chill damp for days at a time, and higher elevations mean you’re that much closer to the freezing void of outer space on a clear night (and the stars are that much more beautiful because of it).

No matter the reason, not being prepared for a cold night can lead to uncomfortable, fitful sleep, and potentially cranky campers the next day.  Here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way that can help ensure you have a warm and cozy night.

Use an appropriate tent—  For camping in the summer, you shouldn’t need anything more than a three season tent, but which tent you have still matters.  Try not to use on that’s bigger than you need.  Your body heat will keep your tent warmer than the outside air, and the smaller the space to heat, the warmer it will get.  Also keep in mind your tent’s construction.  The tent I use for camping has great ventilation–the top couple of feet underneath the small rain fly is netting–but that also means all my body heat goes right out the top of the tent!  Not very cozy when you’re camping in Yellowstone and it snows in June.  Such a situation is not hopeless, however: draping some towels or a windbreaker over the netting makes a huge difference, or if you’re really ambitious you can knit yourself a tent-cozy.

Wear appropriate pajamas—  Here’s a good rule of thumb: if it came from a plant, don’t wear it to bed.  Cotton and linen are very light and comfy–and horrible at retaining heat!  Synthetic fibers are good at keeping you warm, and great for keeping you dry.  Animal fiber, be it from sheep, alpaca, goats, or rabbits, is even better for warmth, but not as quick-drying (you’ll be warm, but you might also feel a little clammy.)  Also, tighter fitting pajamas keep you warmer than loose ones.  And, no matter how counter-intuitive it seems, wearing multiple layers inside your sleeping bag will actually make you colder because your body heat will be soaked up by the clothing instead of being held by the insulation on your bag; in a mummy bag, you’ll actually be the warmest if you sleep naked!  My camping pajamas are the only pieces of clothing I have bought specifically for camping: a set of wool-synthetic blend long underwear (which I also use for layering when I’m not sleeping.)

Get off the ground— Aside from being hard and often lumpy, the ground is also cold.  In the same way a down jacket insulates you from cold air, a foam or inflatable sleeping pad traps air that is heated by your body and insulates you from the cold ground.

Fill up empty space— A snug sleeping bag is a warm sleeping bag.  Mummy bags are so warm in part because they are so skinny and hug your sleeping body.  I, unfortunately, do not have a mummy bag.  What I have is a hand-me-down, well made, rectangular REI bag that used to be my father’s (which means, since he’s a good 7 inches taller than me, that it’s bigger than I need.)  Even when I zip it up all the way and cinch the top drawstring tight, there’s a lot of empty space inside, meaning a lot of air to heat.  I fix this problem by bringing my wool sweater and sometimes my next day’s clothes into my sleeping bag with me.  I don’t wear them, I use them to fill up the empty space.  Then, in the morning, or if I have to get up in the night, I have a nice preheated sweater to wear.

Preheat—  Speaking of preheating, it always helps to warm yourself up a bit before hopping into a cold sleeping bag.  Take a walk around the campground, or drink some hot chocolate (but not too much, unless you want to be forced to go look at the stars at 3am).  If you have a fire, rake out the coals–it helps put out the fire faster and also releases a lot of heat you can soak up.  I always put on my long-john pajamas under my clothes an hour or two before bed, then all I have to do is take off my outer layers and I’m still nice and warm.  Consider eating a small snack before bedtime so that your metabolism can keep you toasty.

Hopefully these tips can be useful to you in your cool weather camping adventures.  What other ways have you found to keep warm at night in the great outdoors?

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As I write this post I am relaxing in the Hurricane Coffee Company, in Sequim, drinking a delicious iced raspberry mocha and enjoying their complimentary wi-fi.  Camping-buddy Lavon is off at a family get together elsewhere in town, giving me the perfect opportunity to reflect on our just-completed camping trip to Deer Park.

I have heard Deer Park called “the most beautiful primitive campground in the state,” and I believe it.  It’s 16 sites are located 5,400 feet above Port Angeles, where sub-alpine firs give way to barren alpine meadows on Blue Mountain.  Choosing a site (if there is much choice left when you get up there) can be difficult: do you want an open site on the west side of the campground, exposed to icy winds but with incredible views into the interior of the Olympic Mountains, or would you prefer a site on the east side, bordering a lupin-filled meadow and sheltered by fir trees?  Our choice was made easy: when we arrived at 2:00 on Thursday afternoon there were four sites left, two of them walk-in, all among the trees.  We took the one with the most level tent pad, site 14.

As soon as we had set up camp, the clouds, which had been obscuring our view of the mountains around us as we drove up the gravel Deer Park Road, began rolling over the ridge we were on.  Aside from giving the place a mysterious air, they also made it frigid, the damp kind that goes through everything.  I never got warm in my sleeping bag that night.  Before bedtime, though, we drove to the very end of the road at the top of Blue Mountain–or, almost the top.  We walked the rest of the way to the summit on a loop nature trail.

There are few benefits to being unable to sleep.  One of them, though, has to be getting to see the sun rise, and to watch it rise on a perfectly clear morning over a sweep of mountains from on top of a mountain yourself is a magical event.

The weather remained clear for the rest of the day.  At nine o’clock we hit the trail that runs along the ridge-line between Deer Park and Obstruction Point. (The latter is accessed via a dirt road from Hurricane Ridge.)  The trail immediately drops 400 feet to a saddle, then climbs for 3.5 miles and 1,000 feet past an impressive variety and number of wild flowers, through high forests and meadows, to a large meadow and a barren ridge below 6,434 ft Maiden Peak, where we turned around.  It was one of the most worthwhile hikes I have ever taken.

High meadow below Maiden Peak

From this barren ridge you can look into Maiden Peak's cirque and out over the Strait of Jaun de Fuca

Lavon points to our destination, visible from the trailhead

We returned to the campground around 2:30 and spent the rest of the day relaxing.  Despite the sun, the air at that high elevation was a chilly 58 degrees in the middle of the afternoon.  I wore my wool sweater for the rest of the day, but, thanks to some tent rearranging, spent the night warm and comfortable and woke up the next morning well after sunrise.

More information on the campground, as well as tips for camping in a primitive campground are to come.  In the mean time, enjoy some wildflower pictures:

stonecrop on top of Blue Mountain

lupin in the meadow behind the campground

columbine along the trail

lupin and bear grass in the high meadow

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