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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?

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

I just returned from a lovely stay at the North Fork campground, located, appropriately, on the North Fork of the Quinault River.  It’s a primitive campground, which means there is no potable water and just pit toilets (or in this case, a porta-potty).  Even with only nine sites, it didn’t fill up on either Friday or Saturday night.  I observed a number of cars drive in, turn around, and leave.  Maybe they were looking for access to the river, which the campground is next to, but not on, or maybe they didn’t relish the thought of living without a sink for the weekend.  Either way, I didn’t mind, as I quite enjoyed the solitude.

A more detailed description of the campground will be up soon.  In the mean time, enjoy some pictures:

North Shore road

North Shore Road is about 15 miles of gravel.

The road had recently been re-graveled, which lead to low traction and a little fish-tailing when I met a car coming the other way!

The campground is half a mile from the end, where the North Fork ranger station waits to welcome visitors.

Our campsite, from the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were there at the perfect time for harvesting salmon-berries.  Their flavor varies as much as their color, but we got a few good ones.  There were also blueberries and red huckleberries to be had in small quantities.

In addition to centipedes, banana slugs, and rabbits, I also saw elk, frogs, tadpoles, snakes, ravens, and a hummingbird.

bridge to Irely Lake

On the way to Irely Lake.  The trailhead is 1/4 mile from camp.

bacon wrapped marshmallow

They say everything tastes better with bacon.  I think they’re right.

Kalaloch

On the way home, we stopped by Kalaloch beach.  The tide was out and the wet sand was steaming in the sun.

Starflower

These cute little guys just got through blooming around here.  I never took much notice of them until this year, when I suddenly started noticing large swaths of them in the yards of multiple friends of mine.

The flowers, which are about the size of a penny and come in white or light pink, are held above their leaf whirls by an impossibly skinny stock, making them look like they are just floating above a sea of dark, shiny leaves.

They are perennials, and I hear the roots are plump and edible.

Friday morning saw camping-buddy Lavon and myself heading out to the Olympic peninsula for a weekend of camping.  The plan was to spend two nights at the Hoh rainforest, with a roughly six mile hike up the river as our Saturday activity.  First things first, though; Friday was also an eventful day for our little town: the grand opening of our very own Trader Joe’s.  We stopped in on our way out of town and experienced live music, hula dancers, and something I’d never seen in a grocery store before: lines 15 people deep in which every person was cheerful and smiling.  We picked up some of Joe’s Spicy Chai Latte just-add-water mix, which turned out to be quite tasty and an excellent thing to take camping because it meany we could have chai without bringing along milk.

It’s 160 miles from my house to the Hoh, so we made a couple of stops along the way.  The first, at Hurricane Coffee in Sequim, is a stop we make nearly every time we pass by.  The place has a really nice atmosphere and some pretty delicious coffee and bagels.  Later, we had a picnic lunch (falafel with olives, capers, tsaziki, and tomatoes in pita) at La Poel, a small peninsula that sticks out into Lake Crescent, which, I learned on this trip, used to contain a truck stop with cabins and a tavern, but now just has picnic tables and fire pits.  No overnight camping is allowed at La Poel, but it makes a tranquil mid-day retreat.

As we passed through Forks, Lavon and I started planning an imaginary Twilight themed ice cream shop.  We had fun thinking up flavors to go with books we’d never read until we came to the turn off to get to the Hoh…  where we were stopped by a ranger.  He informed us that there was a mother elk that had just given birth and was charging at people, so they had to close the area.  There went that plan.  We turned around, made our way back through the Twilight Zone–I mean, Forks–and headed to the coast to camp at Mora, right across the Quillayute River from La Push.

There appears to be some force in the universe that is constantly driving me towards Mora.  I have camped there four or five times, yet only one of those times was intentional.  When other campgrounds are full or close, Mora is where I end up.  And I don’t mind, because Mora is actually my favorite campground of any that I’ve been to.

So we snagged site 31 at Mora, a cozy little site with a tent pad set back in what Lavon called a grotto made of vine maple and elderberry bushes.  Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent mapping out the campground, which took quite a while as there are nearly 100 sites between five irregularly shaped loops.  Loops C and D were closed because the campground wasn’t very busy, and A hardly had anyone in it, so we got to walk into a whole bunch of the sites to really get a feel for them.  #18, in loop A, had this really cool stump in it:

For dinner we had sausages with sauted onions and mushrooms and polenta (perfect camp fare: hearty and delicious), after which we went a mile further down the road to its end at Rialto Beach, where we watched the waves under a darkening grey sky.  Back at camp, my home-made fire starters worked reasonably well.  I wish I had taken the time to fill them up further with wax so they would burn longer, but they got the job done.

Sleep that night should have been easy.  There was a lovely chorus of frogs, and while our neighbor did snore, he was far enough away not to be a nuisance.  The rain that started around 11:30, on the other hand, was a problem.  Our lovely little tent grotto sent large drips hammering down on the tent’s rain fly, making a terrible racket.  The noise, along with my constant worry that all our stuff would become soaked as it touched the edge of the tent, kept me awake, though I know I did get some sleep, and probably more than I thought.

The rain was still going come morning, though by that time it was more of a heavy mist.  After breakfast, when we had saturated a towel mopping up small puddles in the tent, we decided to cut our losses and pack up.  When I lifted my sleeping pad off the tent floor, I discovered a small lake waiting underneath.  By some miracle I had remained dry for the night, but I doubt I would have remained so for a second one.

We made our way home, tired and damp, but still glad we had gone.

After a long foray into the land of Photoshop, with a stop at the island nation of Learning-a-ton-more-about-Photoshop, I have emerged victorious with a map of the Staircase Campground!  (Click on it to see a larger version.)

Staircase Campground sits on the inside of a bend in the North Fork of the Skokomish River.  It used to have 56 sites, but that number is down to 50 because the southern waterfront sites were washed out by the river.  These washout sites are listed in parentheses on the map.  Site 14 has a semi-circle of benches set up in what’s left of it.  The remaining waterfront sites are 1-7 (except for 3) and they are the most spacious sites in the campground.  If you don’t mind sleeping next to loud, rushing water, try to grab one of these.  You’ll have room to spread out and a nice view of the river.

I’m always a sucker for walk-in sites at campgrounds.  They give you just the tiniest taste of hike-in camping (alright, it’s more like a smell than a taste.)  I enjoy the larger, wilder nature of walk-in sites, as well as the guarantee that I won’t have an RV for a neighbor.  Staircase’s 5 walk-in sites are all well set up with fire pit and bear-box, but the ones towards the back give a little more cover, and are near the river to boot.  #24 is my choice for the best walk-in site.

If you’re camping with a larger group than will fit in a single site, there are a couple of good options for you.  44 and 45 are close together, and when I visited the campground there was a large family using them as basically one site.  10 and 11 share the same parking strip, and if you combine them with 46 and 48 behind them, you have a very spacious, relatively open area to share.  If you have younger kids with good imaginations, I would suggest snagging site 51, which has a large hollow cedar stump in it, perfect for a castle or fortress.

I would not recommend sites 32-41.  These are up-hill from the rest of the campground, next to the road.  While they are sheltered among denser trees, these sites are quite small and not very flat.  They also have to longest walks to the bathrooms, which are both located on the lower level.  42 and 43, while on the upper level, are much larger and flatter than their neighbors.

Now for some miscellaneous details:

Site 46 is a designated handicap spot: very flat, next to the bathrooms, and with a larger tent pad.

Camping fee is $12.  Checkout is at 11:00.  Collecting firewood is prohibited in the area.  Standard campground quiet hours are 10:00-6:00.

The nearest RV dump station is down the road at Lake Cushman and there is a $5 fee.

And finally, the Lavon award for best campsite goes to #31, a medium-sized, flat site tucked in the corner of the campground, sheltered by several evergreens, with one particularly nice western hemlock providing a canopy over the picnic table and tent pad.  Thanks, Lavon, for assisting me in my survey.  Hopefully we can stay at site 31 some time.

While I work on my map making skills so I can show you all some more results from my trip to Staircase two weeks ago, let me tell you how excited I am about my next planned camping trip–and it’s not even in the Olympics!

Next weekend I’ll be chaperoning somewhere between ten and fifteen junior high students from the church youth group on a “Rock and Roll” trip, meaning we’ll be going rock climbing and river rafting.  I’m going because I know how to belay.  (I’ve actually taken a group of junior highers camping and rock climbing in the same spot we’ll be going to when I worked for a summer at Tall Timber Ranch.)  The other half, the river rafting, I’ve never done before, and I’m both excited and a little nervous to do it.  It’s not that I think I’ll drown, I just don’t want to get wet and cold.  I know, I’m a sissy.

It is my plan to be thoroughly over prepared for this trip.  Most of the gear will be provided by someone else, but I still intend on bringing most of my camping supplies–just in case, right?  And anyway, when you’re responsible for a bunch of younger teens, it never hurts to have some extra stuff, which is why I’m bringing two sleeping bags and three waterbottles, as well as extra sweaters.

Those extra sweaters might turn out quite handy, if I am to believe one of the ladies who went on the trip last year.  Apparently all the guys were warm, but the gals, who were informed by one of those guys that it wouldn’t get too cold on the trip, were all freezing.  I’m not surprised.  Staying warm is always my biggest problem on camping trips, which is why I fell in love with wool last year.

Wool is amazing!  I don’t understand why it’s gotten such a bad rap.  It’s warm, durable, doesn’t hold odors, and isn’t even itchy if you get stuff that’s been handled well.  Last spring I bought myself a set of wool/synthetic blend long underwear and it pretty much saved my life when we were camping in Yellowstone in June and the temperature dropped to around 25 degrees every night and it snowed half of the days we were there.  I recently knitted myself two sweaters out of 100% wool, and let me tell you, they are warm and comfy and not scratchy at all.  I have a feeling they will come in quite handy next weekend.