A few years ago my wife, son, and I took off on a weekend camping trip during late June to the Eastern Sierra. Temperatures where I live had been between 96-101 for the past week so escaping to the cooler mountains sounded like a pretty good idea.
Breaking from the rules my dad had taught me about outdoor survival, we packed only minimal clothes for summer and a mid-weight jacket each. At 4,500 ft the campground was significantly cooler than back at home. We set up the camp, spent some time playing by the creek and taking pictures, then made dinner.
As the sun dropped behind the peaks on the west the wind that had been blowing most of the day settled down and the temperature began a drastic drop. Not wanting to have sparks flying everywhere in the wind we had decided to forgo a campfire.
My wife and son turned in early to snuggle inside their warm sleeping bags (0 degree and -10) in the safety of the tent. I, on the other hand, decided to sit up a while and write on my laptop.
The temperature dropped and dropped some more. I decided that 8 o’ clock was never too early to turn in and planned on getting an early start to try to catch the first rays of dawn striking the eastern Sierra.
The night was cold. We huddled inside our sleeping bags pressed close together for warmth. I’d thought to throw in a couple of extra blankets “just in case”. Though the sun wouldn’t be up for a few more hours yet I crawled out of my sleeping bag and headed for the car.
The car’s heater felt good on my freezing legs. Even through thermals, pants, wool socks, t-shirt, polar fleece, jacket, gloves, and a baseball hat I was cold.
On my way to take pictures I drove through the nearby town. As I passed a local doctors office I took note of the lit sign showing the current temperature, 5 degrees. I thought it must be wrong. It must be celsius. But the celsius number flashed well into the negative side of the scale.
I got to the spot I wanted to take pictures and set up the tripod. Knowing the cold would affect the cameras battery life I waited as long as I could before mounting it to the tripod and even then made sure to take it down quickly and stick it back inside my jacket.
Returning to camp I made a large, hot breakfast and filled up with steaming hot coffee. The chill seemed to dissipate almost immediately as the rising sun made it’s way across the glacial moraine we were camped in.
There’s an important lesson or two to learn from this story.
The Sierra are a dry range. The humidity that traps heat in other mountain ranges like the Adirondack or the Cascades is very low.
As in all arid climates, the days are sunny and hot while the temperatures at night can drop dramatically. Be prepared for unexpected shifts in temperature or weather. Thunderstorms blow up in minutes, not hours over the Sierra.
Beware the sun. Loose fitting long sleeve shirts and pants will do you better than the best sunscreen. Long clothing will help keep an insulating layer of moisture close to your skin to help keep you cool. Though you may be tempted to don lighter clothes, at 4,500 ft the air is thin enough that even a few minutes of exposure can equal a very painful sunburn. Just because you don’t “feel hot” doesn’t mean you’re not feeling the effects of the sun.