Backcountry camping at Tahoe-Truckee a great way to fall into fall
5 backcountry camping tips
Pack a first aid kit: Your kit can prove invaluable if you or a member of your group suffers a cut, bee sting or allergic reaction. Pack antiseptic for cuts and scrapes, tweezers, insect repellent, bug spray, pain relievers, and sunscreen.
Bring emergency supplies: In addition to a first aid kit, this includes: a map, compass, flashlight, knife, waterproof fire starter, personal shelter, whistle, warm clothing, high-energy food, and water.
Avoid areas of natural hazards: Check the contour of the land and look for potential trouble due to rain. Areas that could flood or become extremely muddy can pose a problem.
Inspect the site: Look for a level site with enough room to spread out all your gear. Also, a site that has trees or shrubs on the side of prevailing winds will help block strong, unexpected gusts.
Beware when encountering wildlife: To ward off bears, keep your campsite clean, and do not leave food, garbage, coolers, cooking equipment or utensils out in the open. Remember that bears are potentially dangerous and unpredictable — never feed or approach a bear. Use a flashlight at night, as many animals feed at night and the use of a flashlight may warn them away.
Source: Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit
As you nestle onto the ground, gazing at the vast star-lit sky, you pull off a bite of beef jerky and wash it down with a swig of water.
You’ll sleep under the stars tonight, you think to yourself, embracing the crisp mountain air that’s as still as the pine trees towering above you.
You could be at a campground, or even your backyard, for that matter.
But you’re not — you’re embedded deep in the wilderness, miles away from civilization.
You’re in the Tahoe backcountry.
That’s right, with Labor Day in the rear-view, there’s no better time for locals and visitors to slide into hiking boots, strap on a backpack, set out for the trails, and savor nature with backcountry camping.
“It’s an awesome time of year to get out and enjoy what we call ‘locals’ summer,’” said Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City. “School is back in session, the crowds are less, and the temperatures are amazing — crisp at night and warm during the day.”
WHAT TO KNOW
For those who plan to delve into backcountry camping for the first time, however, there are a variety of things you should — and need — to bring. Sure, a tent, sleeping bag, flashlight, food and water are basics any camper knows to tote, but what are some of the lesser-known essentials needed for settling for a night or two in the backcountry?
For Dave Polivy, owner of Tahoe Mountain Sports in Truckee, his top three tips to backcountry campers are wearing sturdy and comfortable footwear, being bear aware (bringing a bear-poof canister), and setting realistic destination goals.
“A lot of people try to bite off more than they can chew and think they can go further than they really can,” Polivy said. “It’s about having fun and not pushing yourself too hard. That will improve not only your safety, but also your enjoyment while out and about on the trail.”
“I would encourage people to know what they’re getting into,” he said. “Know that carrying 25-45 pounds is much different than hiking; you move at a slower pace.
“But anywhere in Tahoe is very attainable, that’s the beauty.”
And after you’ve made camp — pitched your tent, spread out your gear — and consumed a nutritious meal, be sure to store your food in a bear canister, which Polivy said is “super important” to bring with you.
“We live in bear country,” Polivy said. “It’s easy to have a bear bin and place it 100 feet from your camp, and make sure the food is not in your tent or backpack, or really anywhere near you, in order to provide you, and the bears, safety — to keep the wildlife wild.”
LEAVING NO TRACE
In terms of food, Polivy said dehydrated food is a good option because it’s affordable, lightweight and easy to pack. Moreover, “It’s really good, actually,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better than what people may remember.”
Campers should also bring layers of clothing as well as a map, said Polivy, adding that “cell phone coverage does not always exist, so don’t rely on your cell phones to get you where you’re going.”
With the Tahoe backcountry becoming increasingly busy, Madigan said it’s vital to “leave no trace” when you’re done camping. In other words, pick up all your garbage, and make sure your dishwater is properly disposed.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, campers must dispose of dishwater at least 200 feet from bodies of water, including both still and moving water.
“Things like that help preserve the land for everybody who loves it,” Madigan said.
In that vein, campfires are not allowed in many of the forests around Lake Tahoe, including Desolation Wilderness, Mokelumne, and the Carson/Iceberg areas.
If fires are allowed, you must have a valid campfire permit, which may be obtainable at the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor’s Office or the Taylor Creek Visitor Center and are issued free of charge.
WHERE TO GO
Madigan and Polivy both agreed that there aren’t any regions of Tahoe too extreme for first-timers to get a taste of backcountry camping.
The first area that both Madigan and Polivy recommended is Desolation Wilderness, 63,960 acres of sub-alpine and alpine forest, granite peaks and glacially-formed valleys and lakes.
Popular trailheads include Echo Lakes, Eagle Falls, Fallen Leaf and Wrights.
“Desolation is probably the most popular,” Madigan said. “It’s the most heavily used wilderness area in the country, in my understanding.”
Madigan said a “gem spot” in the Desolation is Dick’s Lake, which is only five miles from Eagle Falls trailhead at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.
Notably, in the Desolation Wilderness there are important regulations — campfires are prohibited, for example — and a permit is required for both day and overnight use.
Other backcountry camping destinations they suggested are the Velma Lakes on the Southwest Shore; Frog Lake, a mere mile hike from Conner Pass on the South Shore; Mt. Rose Wilderness, 30,000 acres situated between Tahoe and Reno; or simply making camp off the Tahoe Trim Trail, a 165-mile trail looping around Lake Tahoe Basin.
“A lot of people this time of year want to section hike the Tahoe Rim Trail,” Madigan said. “Camping in the middle of the leg — anywhere from the 14-mile to 34-mile [mark on the trail] is a pretty amazing way to spend some down time in the fall.”
Quite simply, no matter where you decide to venture into the Tahoe backcountry, you’re sure to feel a deep connection with the beautiful nature surrounding you.
“We have such incredible access to public lands,” Polivy said, “with trailheads all over the place and bodies of water — we have lakes everywhere, flowing rivers. You can go and camp next to a lake and you have all the water sources you need, and take a swim.
“It’s really alpine country around here and that’s what makes it so special. All the exposed granite makes it so breathtaking; it makes those views some of the best in the world.”
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.