To camp above treeline...or not?

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WasatchWill

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Ok everyone...I just posted this question to a Uintas group on Facebook but want to get some feedback here as well. To camp above treeline or not? I've done quite a fair share of backpacking over the years but have often opted to stay below treeline or right along the edge of it because there is usually more shelter from wind, it's easier to hide from other trail traffic, and more importantly, it's deemed safer in storms with lightning. However, I've seen lots of pics and have encountered others in person who've opted for the bigger views that can come with setting up in the corner of some basin above treeline. My question is what's the real risk factor with storms and lightning? Have any of you camped above treeline or out in the open in an upper basin and had a close enough lightning strike during an afternoon or overnight storm to make you hesitate to ever do it again?

Everything I've read makes it sound much riskier to do that when there's any threat of lightning, but there are definitely some areas above tree line, especially in a number of Uinta basins I'd love to pitch my little tent for proximity to passes and/or select lakes for fishing. I've got a couple of trips coming up between this week and next month where such could be an option but also don't want to be stuck in crouch mode if a long lasting lightning storm comes through in the middle of the night.
 

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Wanderlust073

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I camp above treeline routinely. I maintain awareness of the weather, and I would run like hell if I saw a thunder/lightning storm moving in, but I also don't time things so that I'm up there pitching my tent during prime storm hours either. Usually I'm setting up early evening when the risk or storms is mostly passed, and up and out long before they circle back around next day.
 

WasatchWill

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I camp above treeline routinely. I maintain awareness of the weather, and I would run like hell if I saw a thunder/lightning storm moving in, but I also don't time things so that I'm up there pitching my tent during prime storm hours either. Usually I'm setting up early evening when the risk or storms is mostly passed, and up and out long before they circle back around next day.

I'd definitely be following the same pattern myself when hiking from site to site. There are trips where I've base camped in a site, when up and did some ridge walking for the views, but was thankful to come back down to a camp in the trees when the afternoon storm rolled through. There was more peace of mind while laying out to read, watch some videos and nap a bit in my tent for a few hours. I've also been camped down in the trees when a surprise storm rolled through overnight once and dropped quite a bit of lightning. Was wondering then if it it was a good thing I wasn't up above treeline.
 
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I camp above treeline pretty regularly nowadays, but I find that normally there is some sort of shelter or wind-break available. It's been very rare that I get up to a basin and realize there's nothing viable at all. Obviously some nights are more comfortable than others, but I've always felt safe.

I find it more important to stay off of ridges or other prominent spots. They may be pretty, but are just so bad during a storm. One of the biggest mistakes of my backpacking "career" was refusing to drop down and setting up camp on a ridge in the Alaska range... every single item I owned was soaked to the point of ending the trip early. I learned a lot on that trip, to say the least. (Also had to deal with swelling rivers forcing a significant route adjustment.)
 

Dreamer

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I also regularly camp above treeline. Ideally I choose nicer weather, but have had some ripping good storms too. Make certain those stakes are well placed. Never had a super close lighting strike. There is definitely more risk and possible discomfort that must be accepted. Two seasons ago I got caught just after a late lunch by a strong thunderstorm at 13,000ft on a saddle north of Downs Mountain. It lasted around three hours of hail, wind and some lightning. After that it was too late to move plus the lichened rocks were all wet and slippery. It was too windy to set my shelter so I found a crevice in the rocks to cut the wind and threw down there in the open. At around 5:30am it started to shower. I burritoed with my shelter until it ended then got up, ate, packed and moved out. Not the most relaxing night.
293C3D39-A49D-4CB8-A93A-737992B0D560.jpeg
 

WasatchWill

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I find it more important to stay off of ridges or other prominent spots.
Yeah, I definitely wouldn't ever consider camping right up on an expose ridge. But down in an upper basin with wide open views nestled in between some small bushes and trees or big boulders...that's what can have a lot of appeal to me.

I also regularly camp above treeline. Ideally I choose nicer weather, but have had some ripping good storms too. Make certain those stakes are well placed. Never had a super close lighting strike. There is definitely more risk and possible discomfort that must be accepted. Two seasons ago I got caught just after a late lunch by a strong thunderstorm at 13,000ft on a saddle north of Downs Mountain. It lasted around three hours of hail, wind and some lightning. After that it was too late to move plus the lichened rocks were all wet and slippery. It was too windy to set my shelter so I found a crevice in the rocks to cut the wind and threw down there in the open. At around 5:30am it started to shower. I burritoed with my shelter until it ended then got up, ate, packed and moved out. Not the most relaxing night.
View attachment 90104
Wow! I don't think I'd have slept much at all myself in that situation. I've also read that taking shelter in the cavity of a rock or small cave opening can be one of the most dangerous places to wait out a storm with lightning because the charge can actually arc and jump the opening and go right through you if you're in the way. Obviously it worked out well for you though. Sometimes that's all you can do with all the alternatives being even more risky.
 

b.stark

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I regularly camp above treeline. I try to get "sheltered" spots but in the end there's more risk camping up high no matter what. That risk is fine for me, but not to others, and that's fair. There's really nothing like a good camp high above the trees, to me.
 

OldBill

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"Hike high, camp low" is what I try to follow but most of my big trips are mid-late Sept in the Winds. A few degrees of extra warmth and less convective heat loss makes a big difference in a good night's sleep for me. Have to admit that most of it's right at treeline though which is why I'm debating adding the weight of an Ursack.
 

gnwatts

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I also regularly camp above treeline. Ideally I choose nicer weather, but have had some ripping good storms too. Make certain those stakes are well placed. Never had a super close lighting strike. There is definitely more risk and possible discomfort that must be accepted. Two seasons ago I got caught just after a late lunch by a strong thunderstorm at 13,000ft on a saddle north of Downs Mountain. It lasted around three hours of hail, wind and some lightning. After that it was too late to move plus the lichened rocks were all wet and slippery. It was too windy to set my shelter so I found a crevice in the rocks to cut the wind and threw down there in the open. At around 5:30am it started to shower. I burritoed with my shelter until it ended then got up, ate, packed and moved out. Not the most relaxing night.
View attachment 90104
A very cool camp spot. Probably worth the risk.
 

Outdoor_Fool

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Can't really add much to what has been said. Definitely keep an eye on the sky. In 40 years of backpacking, I can only remember a handful of times that a thunderstorm/thundersnow has rolled in at night, but it does happen. Always have a Plan B.

When I worked in RMNP, my co-worker and I would regularly hunker down within the large boulders of the Never Summer Range. Lightning popping everywhere. We did better than some of the elk whose skeletons we found occasionally on the high ridges. The summer before, our boss saw an elk hit by lightning on Specimen Ridge, IIRC.
 

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OldBill

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Can't really add much to what has been said. Definitely keep an eye on the sky. In 40 years of backpacking, I can only remember a handful of times that a thunderstorm/thundersnow has rolled in at night, but it does happen. Always have a Plan B.

When I worked in RMNP, my co-worker and I would regularly hunker down within the large boulders of the Never Summer Range. Lightning popping everywhere. We did better than some of the elk whose skeletons we found occasionally on the high ridges. The summer before, our boss saw an elk hit by lightning on Specimen Ridge, IIRC.
Wow! Roast Elk.

(sorry, couldn't help myself)
 

RyanP

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I'm kind of in the same boat. I generally avoid camping above treeline for safety reasons, but I admit that the few times I have done so have been among my all time favorite campsites. But I definitely think it's more dangerous than some other overrated fears such as wildlife, drinking contaminated water, etc. I've certainly seen some tents above treeline that were not anchored well and wouldn't survive strong winds at all
 

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