The necessary considerations for a safe, enjoyable backpacking trip are slightly different everywhere you go. While there are certainly many “backpacking fundamentals” that every interested outdoor enthusiast should know before tackling a multi-day adventure, location dictates a lot about how you prepare for a backpacking trip.
The Sierras are my home mountains. They’re where I grew up. My longest trip (to date) is 26 days on the John Muir Trail. Having also lived in Colorado, Southern California, Texas, Hawaii, Reno, New Jersey, and Costa Rica, I can tell you that there are many things that make the Sierras unique. In this article, we’re going to cover five simple tips for backpacking in the Sierras.
Like in many other mountain ranges, the weather in the Sierras can change rapidly. During the hot days of Indian summer, even I like to think I can get away without packing a rain jacket. But I’ve seen too many people regret that choice. When backpacking in the Sierras, you should always pack layers so that you’re prepared for anything Mother Nature throws at you.
The Sierras can sometimes be a maddening place when it comes to regulating your body temperature. My hometown experiences some of the largest daily temperature swings of any place in the country, and those swings only become more drastic as you ascend in elevation. As Franz Kafka said, “Better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have.”
Bring a Bivvy
When we were hiking the John Muir Trail back in 2014, we were hit by several unexpected thunderstorms. We were fortunate, in these cases, to have a bivvy that was really easy to set up and large enough to fit all 7 members of our group underneath.
If foul weather moves in on you rapidly and unexpectedly, you might not have the time to completely set your tent up and crawl inside before you’re soaked. And once you get soaked, it can be difficult to completely dry everything out when it spends the bulk of the day stowed away in the confines of your pack (where there’s ZERO air flow).
That’s why I recommend bringing a bivvy that’s easy to set up at a moment’s notice. The Hex Tarp from Ultimate Survival Technologies is a useful choice to get you started if you don’t have any existing gear.
But, depending on the type of tent you have, you may be able to simply keep the rain fly accessible as a bivvy alternative. Ideally, your bivvy should have strings already attached to its corners so that you can quickly tie it between several trees. If you’re hiking above treeline or there aren’t any trees around, you’ll want to know how to use rock tie-downs or your hiking poles (like the picture above) to create a weatherproof lean-to.
Protect Yourself From the Sun
A lot of folks that come from lower elevations to vacation in the Sierras say to me, “the sun is just different up here.” While I’m sure it’s the same sun, it definitely feels different and affects your body differently at a higher elevation. We commonly don’t think about covering up all the way when we’re doing a strenuous physical activity like hiking, but it’s important to protect yourself from the Sierra sun.
Personally, I’m a fan of a lightweight, synthetic shirt as my primary means of sun protection. I don’t like to use a ton of sunscreen, so I find a long-sleeved synthetic to be a great alternative. In addition, think about getting a full-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face and neck.
If you’re a baseball cap wearer through and through, think about pairing your cap with a Buff or handkerchief. This is a great way to keep the sun off your neck and you can also dip it in one of the Sierras many chilly mountain streams when you really need to cool off.
Plan to Camp Near Water
Certain areas of the Sierras boast more water than others, and accessibility is always dependent on the previous year’s rain and snowfall totals. That being said, one of the amazing perks of backpacking in the Sierras is that it offers so many rivers, streams, and lakes to camp nearby.
For my money, camping near a water source is a no-brainer. Although it can sometimes mean fighting off more mosquitoes (especially in the spring), it’s always worth it when you can walk two minutes to refill canteens and collect water to boil for morning and evening meals.
Another reason to plan to camp near water in the Sierras is the opportunity to fish! The waters of the Sierras are filled with a variety of different types of trout (rainbow, golden, brook, and brown, to name a few), as well as the native cutthroat trout. Stopping to camp near water gives you the opportunity to bust out the fishing rod and see if you can catch a little supplement to those dehydrated meals you’ve been subsisting on!
Stop and Enjoy the Grandeur!
John Muir didn’t refer to the Sierras as the “Range of Light” for no reason! When the sun hits the trees and those massive slabs of granite just right, it’s no mystery why Muir wrote that. The Sierras offer some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet, and it’s important that you stop to take in that scenery as you’re backpacking.
I know from experience that it can easy to become a “head-down hiker” when it has already been a long day and you’re just trying to make your allotted mileage. But the Sierras will force you to look up, stop moving your feet, and breath their magnificence in deeply!
If you’re interested in learning more about backpacking in the Sierras, I highly suggest you check out the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website. It is chock full of incredible resources for hiking in John Muir’s favorite mountain range!