What I learned from winter camping


Photo By: Madison Schultz

A public campsite outside of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., with a view of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

Madison Schultz, Associate Editor

As a young adult living in the Tahoe basin, the need to travel has always been an essential in my life. However, when it’s the middle of the winter season, and spring semester at Sierra Nevada University is in full swing, it’s difficult to get trips planned that entail lengthy travel times.

As I was sitting in class on a Tuesday morning, I got a text message from my sister reading, “Will be in the Eastern Sierras this weekend, do you want to come?” I said yes almost instantly. Three days later on an early Friday morning, I found myself driving down Highway 395 towards Mammoth Lakes.

After spending three hours driving down the lonely highway, I found myself in the small ski town of Mammoth. I was quickly united with my sister, and we instantly went to the mountain to go snowboarding for the day. We had a great day of riding together, however, neither of us had thought about where we would be staying whatsoever.

We got back to our cars, changed out of our snow gear, packed our belongings, and we were on our way to scout a cheap place to stay for the night. To our dismay, every hotel room, even the Motel 6, was over $300 a night. We refused to pay that. Internally, I was thinking that I was going to have to drive back to Tahoe that night. That’s when my sister asked me, “Do you have a tent?”

I checked the trunk of my car, and there it was. I had my tent and tent stakes, as well as blankets, pillows, and an empty cooler from camping trips last summer. It was a match! The question was: Where were we going to set up camp?

We drove several miles south on Highway 395 and found a turnoff leading to a dirt road that weaved back as far as we could see. After looking online, we found that it was BLM land, also known as Bureau of Land Management land, and after finding a map online of places we could camp, we found it was safe for us to set up our site.

We drove down the dirt road for about 15 minutes, until we found a grassy clearing. We parked our cars on parallel to box us in, then set up my tent. We were incredibly excited! Though I have a passion for travel, I didn’t see myself ever camping in the middle of February.

After setting up our campsite, we left one car there, then drove back into town to get food, water, and firewood—which we definitely should have done prior to scouting a site at a new location. We were nervous leaving our car and some of our belongings in this unfamiliar place with nobody to watch over, but we took the chance and wound up safe. We arrived back to our car an hour later to find our “secret spot” had been untouched.

By the time we got back to our site, the sun was making a rapid descent behind the mountains, and the full moon was quickly rising high into the sky. We built a fire, for warmth and light, as fast as we could, then bundled up and began to snack on our grocery store finds of goldfish, grapes, and granola bars for dinner. After an early morning driving, then snowboarding for the bulk of the day, then finding our campsite, it was safe to say that we were tired. We both made our way back to the tent by 9 p.m., exhausted, yet still excited, for the following day.

I tossed and turned for the bulk of the night, but finally woke up at 6 a.m. the following morning to freezing cold winds. We both had a sleeping bag, as well as heavy blankets, comforters, and puffy jackets encapsulating our warmth, however I still woke up with an icy nose and a shiver from being so cold. What I learned from this mistake was to come much more prepared next time, winter camping was a lot different than summer camping, especially in the Eastern Sierra.

I woke my sister, and we decided to go on a walk before making our way back into town to the mountain. We walked a mile down the dirt road, to find a large bank of light blue, steaming hot springs that were running off into a fast-paced stream, full of rainbow trout, according to a nearby fisherman.

After our mini hike, we made our way back to camp, changed, and then were on our way down the long, dirt road to grab an actual meal, then be on our way up the gondola at Mammoth for our last day of snowboarding for the weekend. Again, we had a successful day at the resort, and enjoyed learning a new mountain and riding new terrain together. By 2 p.m., we were done with the day, and made our way to a small brewery and to the grocery store again, before trekking back to our quiet campsite down the highway.

Several hours later and worn out from a day on the mountain, we realized that we forgot to buy our number one essential: firewood. This was by far, the biggest mistake thus far on our vacation. However, considering how good everything had gone up until this point, we feel that it was almost necessary for at least one thing to go wrong.

Together, we both got back into the car to go down the highway, then found ourselves back at the grocery store. With it being Saturday, the store was slammed with visitors, and we got stuck waiting over 30 minutes in line just to buy a bundle of firewood. By 7 pm., we were finally back at our campsite, with firewood, ready to warm up around the fire.

We had a similar night to the one prior, and spent the night drinking, snacking, and staying as warm as we could, simply enjoying the company of one another after not seeing each other for several months. By midnight, the fire was dim and cold, so we made our way back to the tent, anticipating an early morning of packing, then going our separate ways.

We both awoke early on Sunday morning, packed our stuff, went to a small coffee shop in town for breakfast, then parted ways—my sister going south down Highway 395 and myself going north, back towards Tahoe. I was exhausted, but ecstatic that I was able to plan a trip with my sister on a whim.

What I learned from this trip was that things don’t always work in one’s favor. I had assumptions that we would find a cheap hotel room in town for our stay, however I am grateful that it didn’t work out that way. I saved my money and found a spot for free that I can always go back to, even in the summer months. Even during the mistakes that we had made on our trip, we learned from them, laughed at them, and moved forward, creating ever-lasting memories together, that no hotel room could ever give.

Although many SNU students have a familiarity with winter camping, it was a new thing for me personally, and going into it, I was incredibly nervous. However, I faced my doubts head on, and the entire experience was absolutely incredible, and something I’ll never forget. This quick trip down to Central California satisfied my need to travel in the middle of a warm, sunny February in Tahoe, and it’s a trip that I can’t wait to do again and again, winter or summer.