Out in the cold
Camping season doesn’t have to end when the snow falls
I’ve always been more of a camping parent than a Disneyland-and-Cabo parent. I first took my son camping during a mild Northern Nevada spring when he was four months old, almost 16 years ago. It went off without a hitch. Since then, I’ve set up a tent at every canyon, creek, beach, lake, redwood forest, aspen forest, sand dune, and far-flung desert vista I could find.
When my son was 5, another family invited us to Yosemite National Park for our first winter camping excursion. The forecast predicted overnight lows in the 20s. I wasn’t ready to invest in winter-rated sleeping bags and an all-wheel-drive vehicle. But I really wanted to give winter camping a whirl. It was clear that waterproof coats, boots and gloves were essential. I read up and learned that a thick layer of sleeping pads and our big, down blankets from home would keep us warm enough.
A light snow fell as we set up camp. The overnight low was 28. Half Dome and El Capitan looked dreamy in winter coats, and the icy lakes and waterfalls were otherworldly. We were hooked.
After all these years, I’m still pretty much an entry-level winter camper. I still don’t have a 0-degree bag, and instead of bracing for blizzards, I check forecasts obsessively and only camp when the roads are OK and the temps are above 25.
But camping safely in lower temperatures is doable. One local expert is Dave Stroffe, a Boy Scout leader.
“As an outdoorsman, I think teaching our children how to survive under the barest of circumstances is important,” Strophe said. “We live in one of the most beautiful places in America. There’s never a time you have to stay indoors.”
Inspired by the Klondike Challenge, an event from the 1940s, Stroffe started a local version, the Yukon Challenge.
“We have snowshoe races,” he said. “We do injured person extractions. We’ve done crash-through frozen lake rescues. … I try to bring an element of extreme, extreme conditions to the challenge. One day we were up on Peavine. It was 20 to 25 below zero. With the right gear, right support, even 20 below can be fun.”
Packing like a pro
Karinn Kelley-Bateman works for REI and is the mother of a teen and a preteen. She knows camping gear inside out, and she listed a few rookie mistakes people tend to make as they graduate from summer camping to winter camping.
An all-season tent—designed to protect campers from snow buildup, ice, hail and high winds— is “an absolute must,” she said. So is an insulated sleeping pad, which will keep you a lot warmer than an air mattress.
And here’s her list of small things to remember:
• Layered clothing: “Bring more than you think you might need.”
• Waterproof gloves
• Nikwax, a waterproofing agent that can waterproof, or even re-waterproof, gloves and clothing.
• A packable snow shovel—both for emergency conditions and snow fort making.
• Sunscreen and lip balm
• Wool socks, not cotton.
And for all of the above, Kelley-Bateman cautioned, test out your gear before you hit the wilderness.
Put it in park
Our two nearest national parks are motherlodes of fun winter activities. In winter, Yosemite National Park is an oasis of sparkling forest, snowy cliffs and rivers that can look like they’re flowing from a Slushee machine. If you’ve ever waited a half hour in summer for a parking spot in busy Yosemite Valley, you’ll be pleased to learn that, while park visitorship peaks in August at 600,000, from December to January, it’s closer to 100,000.
Four of the park’s 13 main campgrounds are open year-round. Winter activities include skiing and snow-tubing at Badger Pass Ski Area, ice skating in a rink at Curry Village, and all the cross-country skiing and icy waterfall gawking you can imagine.
Weather conditions range from mild to brutal. You could gear up to the hilt, master winter survival strategies, and travel in a storm-worthy vehicle. Or you could do what I do: keep a close eye on the forecast and plan to camp when the weather and the road conditions are a good match for your gear.
Tioga Road, the park’s main thoroughfare, is usually closed due to snow from fall through late spring. This means if you’re traveling from Reno, you’ll need to use the park’s western entrance, which is farther from home.
In January 2016, Lassen National Park’s Southwest Walk-In Campground was open, but we couldn’t see the tent sites or fire rings. They were buried under nine feet of snow. Tent campers camped right on top of the snow. Car campers camped in the adjacent parking lot, and a small army of Boy Scouts dug snow caverns and made igloos. Their leader, a Silicon Valley urbanite, said he’d learned the craft of igloo building on YouTube. The scouts welcomed us to explore their ambitious dwellings—some complete with two snow beds—by flashlight in the evening, and the experience made my list of Top 10 Most Surprising and Wonderful Camping Moments Ever.
Lassen offers short snowshoe tours on winter weekends, accessible to beginners, in which rangers talk about the park’s ecology and how animals cope with heavy winters. (Plot spoiler: The deer herd migrates downhill to Susanville.)
In winter, the main road through Lassen is likely to be closed to vehicle traffic, which cuts off access to summer highlights, like the bubbling, volcanically active mud pits of Bumpass Hell, but opens up a whole new world of glorious snowshoe trails. Families can find slopes to sled on, with runs of just about every length and steepness. Backcountry skiers can explore to their hearts’ content.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley Visitor Center
9035 Village Drive, Yosemite Valley, California
Lassen National Park
Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center
21820 Lassen Peak Hwy., Mineral, California
For beginners who want to stay close to home in case something goes wrong, or for anyone who wants an easy-to-reach campsite for testing out new gear, two Nevada state parks are a stone’s throw from town.
Davis Creek Regional Park’s sun-dappled forest is so quiet and beautiful when it’s covered in snow that it’s easy to forget you’re within commuting distance from home. It’s a great basecamp for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing.
At Washoe Lake State Park, the sites are no-nonsense flats—not the type of site you’ll want to while away the day in. The draws here are low-key but worth exploring—a sand dune on the lake’s eastern shore and hikes in the adjacent Virginia Range with good views of the lake and Washoe Valley. (For an even easier outdoor adventure, on Dec. 21, the park hosts a guided winter solstice hike from 4-6 p.m.)
Davis Creek Regional Park
25 Davis Creek Road, Washoe Valley
Washoe Lake State Park
4855 East Lake Blvd., New Washoe City
Snow and a soak
For cold-weather camping and a warm-water soak, Grover Hot Springs State Park in Markleeville, 70 miles south of Reno, diverts naturally occurring mineral water into a hot swimming pool that’s open year-round and popular with families. Check the website for weekly pool closures and other important details.
Grover Hot Springs State Park