In September, I was preparing for a trip to Olympic National Park in Washington State, known for its rainforests and glaciated peaks. A landscape that couldn’t be more different than my usual backpacking territory of Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Instead of rattlesnakes and heatstroke, I’d have to mind the mountain goats and hypothermia. It was over 100 degrees in Tucson as I packed for my trip.
I made a call to the trip leader, to ask about gear and find out his recommendations for staying comfortable. He told me temps would likely be down to freezing and we’d probably be wet. Said to leave the down puffy at home in favor of fleece, bring a dry bag for my sleeping bag with an extra set of clothes and that my beloved hiking umbrella would be used for rain; not sun as usual.
I was trying some gear for the first time- a Q-Twinn Cuben Tarp, a foam insulation pad called the Thinlight paired with an Inflatable Air Beam Sleeper in Regular, and a Sawyer Mini water filter. And then there were things that I hardly ever carry in the desert: rain pants, fleece, neoprene socks, two pairs of gloves, extra clothes.
Gear for the Olympic Mountains
Despite extra clothes and gear for the wet and cold, my Mariposa backpack seemed so lightweight. Of course- only a 20 ounce bottle instead of 4-6 liters of water!
The four of us did a 35 mile, 4-day loop from the mossy green rainforest up into the alpine, where we were greeted with a gorgeous display of red, orange and yellow fall colors on the hillside.
At camp, my usual habit of cowboy camping under the stars wasn’t going to work. Low, misty clouds had rolled in and it was time for the backpacking tarp. It was nice to have someone to help with the first-time setup, it definitely takes a little know-how to set the poles and get a taut pitch that won't rustle in the night. (I will admit here that I didn’t set it up at home beforehand, as is advised) Not a fan of the claustrophobic feel of a tent, the Q-Twinn tarp had plenty of room, great airflow and beautiful views.
Alpine ultralight tarp camping in autumn
Temperatures got down to freezing and I wondered if the ⅛ inch Thinlite with the Air Beam Sleeper would be enough for my cold-averse self, but I stayed toasty warm all night. Previously, I’d been using a much heavier down-filled mat for winter camping in the desert.
Although my preparation was for wet weather, we were pleasantly surprised by spells of blue skies and warm temps for our explorations over the next couple days.
Exploring the Olympic Mountains during our good weather window
The last night, it was raining as we set up camp near yet another stunning lake and the next day’s forecast was for 100% chance of rain. I was comfortable in my bag- that is until a mouse decided to investigate and ran into my sleeping bag in the middle of the night- talk about a rude awakening!
We got rained on, enough for the umbrella, as we traveled along an exposed windy ridge.
The trail dipped down back into the rainforest and we stopped at Sol Duc Falls; a triple cascade into a moss-lined slot canyon. We made it to the car just in time for the rains to really start. A wonderful trip in an environment so unlike my own, I look forward to coming back to the pacific northwest to explore more!
Article and photography by Sirena Dufault