First, a word about skunks.
There are few pleasures in life keener than snuggling into a warm down sleeping bag, out under the stars on a chilly winter night in the mountains, with just the tip of your nose exposed to the brisk, clean air.
By the same token, there are few experiences more unnerving than waking from a sound slumber in the same situation to find a skunk under your cot. It is the sort of thing that makes some outdoor excursions vivid and memorable.
Actually, it wasn't just one skunk: it was mommy and two rambunctious offsprings. For the sake of warmth, comfort and access to a well-appointed barbecue grill, my camping companion and I had broken with long tradition and decided to spend an evening at one of the appointed campgrounds in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest.
The skunks had this area staked out. And the smell of grilled sirloin drew them like blood draws sharks.
Besides the fact that striped skunks do not properly hibernate during cold weather, as so many other self-respecting critters do, they are bold, fearless, curious and seemingly always hungry; and they know what campgrounds are for, especially if there are picnic tables in the area. It's there that the cold-weather camper is most likely to run into them, which is one reason why I rarely sleep in established campgrounds, if it is legal to camp elsewhere in the park.
So I just thought I'd mention them first, lest I be accused of being remiss in omitting vital cold-weather camping information.
Cold-weather camping, which in Southern California generally means camping in the mountains above 3,000 feet between the end of October and early April, offers unusual rewards to free spirits and outdoors types.
There are several areas just a day's drive or less from the metropolitan areas: San Bernardino National Forest (areas like Big Bear, about 7,600 feet) and Lake Arrowhead (about 6,000 feet), Mt. Baldy (about 10,000 feet) in the Cucamonga region--or in the Angeles National Forest (Alamo Mountain, about 7,000 feet)--or in Los Padres (Frazier Mountain, about 8,000 feet). Whatever the chosen area, the autumn landscape offers an austere beauty that rivals or surpasses anything the warmer months have to offer.
It's during the autumn and winter that the dense purple-gray clouds seem to lean wearily on the shoulders of the mountain peaks or, caught by sudden high gusts of wind, shred spectacularly on the jagged tors. At times the clouds resemble carded wool on the spiky, deep-green conifers or tumble slowly down the mountain sides. High in the subalpine regions, when the first snows lay brilliantly on the tallest peaks, a solitary hawk or eagle soaring on the chilly airs looks wilder and more remote than ever.
While most of the nastier beasties such as rattlesnakes and hornets have retired for the year, beware of mosquitoes. Take along plenty of repellent such as Cutter's or Deep Woods Off! Cold weather means nothing to these pests.
Cold-weather camping has its particular hazards.
First and foremost among the dangers is hypothermia. It is probably responsible for more deaths among camping enthusiasts than any other factor. It is also one of the most preventable, if precautions are taken before setting off on a trip.
First of all, a properly insulated down or synthetic material-filled sleeping bag, designed specifically for cold weather, is an absolute must. These are usually marked as such, and can be purchased at virtually any camping goods store and some department or mail-order stores.
Second, a good cold-weather tent--those marked Hillary or North Face are generally pretty reliable. But there are many brand names that will fill the bill. A small tent with two people in it makes for pretty cozy sleeping, especially if the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
Third, a gas stove of some sort (I prefer any of the Coleman's stoves; they're reliable and sturdy). For fast cooking and heat, a good portable gas stove is indispensable.
Last, though it may not be obvious in cold weather, bring lots of water--and drink it. Just as in extremely hot weather, water is a necessity during cold weather, especially when the hiker is exerting a lot of energy in windy conditions. While the proverbial nip of brandy can be effective to ward off the evening chill before retiring, don't overdo it. Alcohol only accelerates dehydration.
Another danger facing the cold-weather camper is frostbite--although I do not advise you to undertake a trip in weather bitter enough to cause this. And after the first of November, it's possible to become suddenly snowbound, even within a 200-mile radius of Los Angeles.
You can check with the L.A. office of the National Weather Service (213) 209-7211 about likely weather conditions above 4,000 feet at any given time, but it is sometimes impossible to accurately predict the snowfall very far in advance. (Another weather information service is Sport Chalet's snow report for skiers (818) 790-0344.)