Backpacking in the Eastern Sierra is one of the most incredible ways to really immerse yourself in the great outdoors—with accessibility to world-famous traverses like the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, hikers from all over the world travel to the Eastern Sierra to spend nights under the stars.
The access to backcountry lakes, peaks and vistas within a few miles under the power of your own two feet is almost beyond comprehension. Whether you’re a grizzled old backpacker of newbie, it’s important to remember a few prime points.
First, leave no trace. This seven-principle philosophy are the bedrock of the “Leave No Trace” program. You can easily Google this philosophy to get deeper, but the principles are 1. Plan Ahead and Prepare (get your permit, know the regulations for the wilderness area you’ll be traveling in, make sure you pack a rain jacket!). 2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (those of you camped in a meadow next to a lake, this means you). 3. Dispose of waste properly (if you’ve ever had your dog eat human poop in the wilderness, you know how important this one is). 4. Leave what you find. 5. Minimize campfire impacts (and make sure you’re allowed to have a campfire in the first place. Many wilderness areas have seasonal and elevation restrictions on campfires due to ecological sensitivity and wildfire danger). 6. Respect Wildlife (don’t feed apple slices to deer, and don’t let your dog, if you backpack with him or her, maraud about the forest—if you need an incentive, remember there are porcupines in the Sierra). 7. Be considerate of other visitors (you might love jamming out to some Tom Petty on your bluetooth speaker while you set up camp, but remember that others camping in the vicinity might just want to hear the Mountain Chickadees).
If you really want to have a back-to-nature experience, I recommend checking your map and picking out a base camp that’s far enough away from the trailhead to get you out of the crowds. Lake Ediza and Thousand Island Lakes out of the Reds Meadow trailhead, are both pretty well known as backcountry hotels, so if it’s peace and solitude you seek, it’s probably best to avoid the John Muir Trail and PCT like the plague. Of course, many backpackers find comfort in seeing other tents on the landscape—it reminds them that, even though they’re far from civilization, they’re not too far from other humans should they need help.
The Sierra wind is also a huge consideration—a gorgeous vista on a granite outcropping may seem like a great idea to watch from your tent at sunset, but if the wind picks up during the night, chances are you’ll have a long night. I like to choose spots that are nestled near tree stands and take a stroll to catch the sun’s last rays. However, wind always does help tamp the mosquitoes down, which is something to be thankful for.
And on that note, I’m the crunchiest hippie there is, but I always pack DEET. There’s just nothing that beats it, especially if you’re hiking in the Sierra in the beginning of the season as all those little buggers are waking up to feed.
It’s also best to temper your backpacking to your ability and your gear—don’t get out there with brand new hiking boots. Trust me, I’ve done it when I was a beginning hiker, and nothing will ruin your trip faster than gnarly blisters.
Also, don’t underestimate the presence of bears. They are out there and they WILL eat your food. I worked in the Wilderness Office in Tuolumne Meadows for a summer, and the amount of people I encountered telling me they were planning on hanging their food was unbelievable. They’re wise to that technique, which is why bear-proof canisters are required. I know they’re heavy. I know they’re a pain. But use them.
Finally, get your permit! You don’t want to risk a fine for not having one, plus walking into a ranger station is a great place to get questions answered and learn about current regulations. Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation for information about wilderness permits in the Inyo National Forest.
Sarah Rea is a freelance dirtbag-turned-journalist who has been living in the Sierra on and off for twenty years, with eight spent in Yosemite National Park and five in Mammoth Lakes. She likes dogs, rocks, good food and jumping into cold water.