The camera is focused on a team of people, armored head to toe in layers of bright synthetic fabrics, standing triumphantly atop a snow-capped mountain. As the camera zooms out, we see a precipitous drop on either side of the trail, highlighting the fact that these people are standing on the edge. This is no ordinary mountain top. Not only are these trekkers standing on the edge of this particular mountain, they are poised on the edge between the heavens and the earth, between life and death. The view is breathtaking, the hikers’ expressions triumphant. If this is a documentary, there is probably some epic music playing. To most people, this is what it is like to hike and camp at high altitude.
Climbing to the top, where land meets the sky, takes physical strength, but it also takes knowledge and camping know-how. To reach the top, you need to know what to bring, how set up camps, and how to stay healthy as you make your ascent.
What to Bring
Camping at high elevations requires a different kind of tent than the one most people have stashed away in their basement that they use for the occasional summer outing. High altitude tents come equipped with a full coverage fly, aluminum poles and the framing needed to withstand winds and blowing and drifting snow. A good high altitude tent has framing that pushes the fly and tent material out against the wind. Only use frames made of aluminum poles which are less likely to break at low temperature. Camping high in the backcountry often requires different stakes because of snow conditions. Tools like snow pickets and ice screws, and stakes like snow stakes and deadman anchors used in deep snow conditions, become invaluable for keeping your tent in place. Additional line and guy outs can be of great help tightening things up, and preventing your tent from turning into a poorly designed kite. High altitude tents often have less venting than a standard tent. This makes them heavier but tougher, and you will need tougher since you are camping at the same altitude at which people elsewhere are flying planes.
Warm Sleeping Bags
Choose a sleeping bag rated lower than the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter. Staying warm is top priority. You can always unzip your bag a little or take off clothes if you get too warm. Also, be sure to pack a foam pad with an R rating over 3.5. There are inflatable sleeping pads that have higher R ratings, but only choose inflatable pads with R ratings 3.5 and up for high altitude winter camping. You do not want to thaw a spot beneath or around you on the mountain.
High Altitude Camping Stoves:
Changing air pressure that occurs at higher altitudes often creates surprises for inexperienced campers. Water boils at different temperatures depending on altitude. At sea level, water boils at 212°F or 100°C. As you go up in altitude, the temperature at which water boils lowers. For instance, at 14,000 feet water boils at 185.9°F, that is a 26°F temperature difference. The fuel choice for your stove may be affected by cold weather as well. Fuels, like isobutane, can develop problems in temperatures below 20°F. There is an advantage though, in using isobutane at higher altitudes. You can lower the effective range of an isobutane stove by 2°F for every 1000 feet. At 14,000 feet you could use isobutane close to 0°F. If you will need to use a stove beyond the range of the pressure requirements for the pressurized fuel used, you may need to resort to multi-fuel stoves that use liquid fuel and can be pressurized through pumping.
To date, the outhouse at the highest elevation in the United States is a throne perched atop Mount Whitney, at around 14,494 feet. Doing your business anywhere at high altitude, without such a luxury, can be tricky. Frozen ground and harsh conditions mean it may take decades, if not centuries, for your digested GORP to become one with Mother Nature again. Be sure to bring some biodegradable, odor neutralizing waste bags to minimize your environmental footprint.
Setting Up Camp
When setting up camp at high altitude, it is smart to use the surrounding terrain to your advantage whenever possible. Try to set up camp on the lee side (the side of the mountain opposite to where the wind is strongest) and use natural formations for cover. Be sure to avoid ravines that can act as wind tunnels and are susceptible to avalanches. Familiarize yourself with avalanche safety. A good resource is the US Forest Service.
Altitude Sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness), or AMS, is unpredictable and affects everyone differently. I know from personal experience that every trip above 10,000 feet is different. I hiked to 15,000 feet in Nepal and only needed a few minutes to catch my breath. On the other hand, I was laid level for three days at 12,000 feet in Ecuador, so it is best to come prepared.
If you have a history of difficulty with altitude, the drug acetazolamide may help. If you are going to take acetazolamide, remember that it should be taken before symptoms occur, and won’t do much good if you are already halfway up the mountain. Plunging into higher altitudes without acclimatizing often results in AMS. Taking a few days to allow your body to adjust to altitude is a good practice.
Eating and Drinking
It is also important to remember that as you climb higher, the amount of atmosphere protecting you from the sun’s damaging rays decreases. Bring sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses or glacier glasses that protect from the sun’s rays when camping at high altitude.
If you have any other tips or tricks for camping at high altitude, be sure to include them in the comments below!