Those who choose to camp up high in an exposed location in the mountains are a rare breed. You may not find water, flat ground to sleep on or hospitable weather but the views, silence and solitude will make all of this worth it.
In the summer of 2010 my wife, Spring, and I began to learn how to backpack in the remote British Columbia backcountry for the first time. This province is vast, its mountain peaks highs; we wanted to be able to find out what they held in store for ourselves. We bought our first tent, supportive hiking boots, stove and sleeping bags. We began to research places where our newly purchased gear would allow us to sleep out in the wild. What we found, however, was that a lot of guides recommended hiking to a lake or meadow to set up camp and then taking another light pack above this camp to a summit nearby before dropping back down to the tents for the night. Right from the start this concept seemed odd.
Why not continue up and camp on the summit itself?
What, at the time, our limited knowledge and experience allowed us to do was see this activity with fresh eyes. We didn’t require a lake to swim in or a good supply of wood for a fire, we simply wanted to go somewhere amazing and stay there to witness it through the most beautiful hours of the day at sunrise and sunset. Added to this, on clear, crisp nights we would get to have unobstructed views of the Milky Way passing overhead. Moments like that, perched high in the mountains, with nothing but air around us made us feel small but also connected in an intimate way to the vast wilderness that we could see stretching out onto the horizon.
If you’re already familiar with camping then making the transition to camping in BC’s alpine is relatively straight forward. Below we’ve listed some important recommendations about how to go about planning your first summit camp:
We can’t emphasize this enough. If you pack it in then pack it out. Alpine vegetation takes a very long time to grow so please don’t damage it. Bring an extra puffy jacket instead of a hatchet to make a fire. If possible sleep on snow or rock so as not to damage the ground.
Choose a mountain you have already hiked to; BC has nearly 10 mountain ranges in the province so peaks are not hard to come by. Pick one that you could easily leave if the weather turns. Do not pick one that was difficult to get to. You will move about 25% slower with an overnight pack. Terrain that might have seemed challenging with a light day pack might become impossible with a heavy overnight pack.
Read the weather carefully. Temperatures in cities and towns might have no relation to the temperatures you will experience up high in the mountains. If you hear weather forecasters talking about an upcoming “inversion” then that might be your cue to head up higher. A weather inversion usually means that temperatures are likely to increase as you gain elevation. We love inversions! They usually mean we get to leave our tent at home and sleep out in our sleeping bags under the stars.
Outside of inversions, plan for it to be cold — even in summer. It can be 28 degrees celcius at the beach and close to 0 degrees celcius on the summit you are planning to sleep on. We’ve been snowed on a few times in the middle of August up high in the mountains. Plan accordingly.
One of the main reasons it is common to camp lower near lakes and meadows with streams is the access to fresh water. You’ll notice that in most of our photos there is snow. This wasn’t by chance. It is likely you won’t find water on the summits of most mountains, unless it’s solid. The best time to plan a summit camp is from the end of winter until the beginning of summer as there will likely still be snow around that you can melt for water. In late summer avoid snow with a red tint to it as ingestion might cause an upset stomach. Make a mental note of water sources that you pass en route to the summit and plan to arrive at your destination with a few litres of water. If you can’t find snow to melt you might need to hike back down to the last water source you passed but generally, even in late summer, you should be able to still find snow on shaded, northern aspects.
Apart from the previously mentioned benefit of providing water, snow can also provide shelter and somewhere flat to camp. Bring a shovel or ice axe to level out a flat section of snow to set up your tent on, you can also dig down into the snow to provide walls that will protect your tent from winds. Depending on the mountain there may be nowhere flat to camp near the summit if there isn’t a good amount of snow. This is where camping on summits you’ve already hiked to is important as you should have a memory of flat areas that are near the summit itself.
You’ve reached the top, you can’t go any higher! Enjoy your preciously short time in this place. These are some of the most remote, but spectacular, places in BC. Watch the skies until the sun turns to golden sunset to stars. Find out what time the sunrise will be at and plan to be up to watch it. This is why you came here right?
What really can’t be conveyed through text or pictures though is the intangible feelings that being exposed on a mountain summit evokes. Anyone who has witnessed the birth of a new day high up on an isolated mountain knows these feelings, when the sun first breaks the horizon and paints hues of pink and red across the world. It’s a feeling of belonging, of being connected to the natural world and the promise of all that can be contained within a new day. We’re lucky in BC to be able to experience many of these places within a stone’s throw of our doorstep.
If you can, we recommend that you plan to experience this for yourself.
Hiking, British Columbia
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