Introduction to Backpacking in the High Sierra, Tahoe National Forest, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13125A, Backpacking


  • Explore the Sierra Nevada in all its glory
  • Learn how to become a confident backpacker
  • Split your nights between a cozy lodge and camping near beautiful lakes


  • Good camaraderie and adventure while learning basic backpacking skills
  • Three nights of food, lodging, and showers in a rustic lodge
  • All meals, group cooking gear, and water purification tablets while backpacking


DatesJul 14–20, 2013
Difficulty2 (out of 5)
StaffSusan Elsner

This trip has already run. Here are a few others you may enjoy:

To search our full lineup by destination, date, activity, or price, please visit our Advanced Search page. Or give us a call at 415-977-5522 to find the trip that's right for you.

Trip Overview

The Trip

If you are a strong day hiker who wants to try backpacking, this is the trip for you! Our trip is based at the Clair Tappaan Lodge, the Sierra Club's own mountain home on a forested hillside near Donner Pass, roughly 35 miles from Lake Tahoe. We plan to spend the first two nights at the lodge. These days will be filled with backpacking tips on a variety of subjects, including: how and what to load into your pack, how to adjust your pack for greatest comfort, wilderness safety and etiquette, and meal preparation. We will do a "shake-down" day hike, wearing partially loaded backpacks and practicing tent set up. This will also give your body an opportunity to adjust to the altitude.

On the third day, we will distribute group food and gear, and depart on a one-night backpacking trip to a nearby alpine lake, returning the following afternoon to the lodge, where we will spend the night and have a chance to shower. The pristine lake will be cold, but refreshing, particularly after a day's hike with a loaded backpack. The final two nights/three days of our trip will be spent backpacking through pine forests, verdant meadows, and open granite basins while we marvel at views of mountain peaks and lake-filled valleys. We will camp at another alpine lake for the two nights, and enjoy a day hike from our camp on the second day before returning to the lodge, where a trip-end shower awaits.


Please keep in mind that we will do our best to keep to the itinerary as outlined, but factors beyond our control, such as trail conditions, permits, and weather, may require us to change or modify the itinerary for the safety and enjoyment of the group.

Day 1: Arrive at Clair Tappaan by 4 p.m. to get settled into the lodge. We will meet at 5 p.m. to get to know each other before dinner at 6 p.m. We will have an orientation after dinner.

Day 2: After a visit to a local museum to learn about the history of the area, we will drive to a nearby trailhead for a day hike to a glacier-formed granite lake, where we will have an opportunity to practice setting up tents and to take a swim. We will return to the lodge for a hearty dinner and evening presentation. We'll all pack our backpacks in preparation for our departure tomorrow. Extra belongings will be stored at the lodge while we are out backpacking.

Day 3: We will drive to a nearby trailhead and begin our backpacking adventure to another glorious lake. We will spend the night away from the lights of town, reveling at where our legs have brought us.

Day 4: After our first backpacking breakfast, we will hike back to our cars to return to the lodge. This evening we will visit the petroglyphs near Donner Lake.

Days 5-6: After breakfast we will drive to yet another trailhead for our two-night/three-day backpacking adventure. After hiking to a pristine lake we will set up camp and spend two days in this location. There will be an optional day hike the second day.

Day 7: Our final hike returns us to our cars, and from there we'll head back to the lodge to collect our belongings and enjoy a shower while reveling in our accomplishments of the week. The trip will be over by 2 p.m.



Getting There

Clair Tappaan Lodge is located at an elevation of 7,000 feet in California's Sierra Nevada, 48 miles west of Reno, Nevada and about 12 miles west of Truckee, California. Participants flying into Reno airport will probably need to rent a car or make carpooling arrangements with other trip participants. A roster of trip members will be provided before the trip to facilitate carpooling. Due to insurance regulations, the leaders are not allowed to arrange carpools either before or during the trip. You will need to share cars to get to the trailheads, which are 20 miles or less from the lodge.

Additional information can be found at:

Accommodations and Food

Though not a luxury lodge, Clair Tappaan is cared for by a small, friendly staff and has a spacious living room, an enormous fireplace, a cozy library, and a large communal dining room. Wholesome family-style breakfasts and dinners are prepared each day at the lodge by professional cooks. Before breakfast, trip participants will pack their own lunch to take on the day's adventure. There are vegetarian options for all meals. In keeping with the cooperative spirit of the lodge, each guest pitches in by doing a simple chore that requires, at most, 30 minutes each day.

Sleeping accommodations are bunk beds with mattresses and pillows. Guests must bring their own sleeping bags or bedding, towels, and toiletries. Rooms vary from very small two-person cubicles, to family rooms that can accommodate 5 to 12 people, to the larger men's and women's dorms. There are two men's and two women's bathrooms, as well as a hot tub. The staff at the lodge will be making the room assignments based on the occupancy during the week that we'll be there.

All luggage has to be carried or pulled by cart from the unloading zone to the entrance of the lodge. There is no parking close to the lodge and there are no valets. The road from the loading area to the entrance is not smooth, making rolling suitcases difficult to manage. Keeping your belongings to a minimum makes it easier. While we are backpacking, extra gear and luggage can be stored at the lodge.

On the backpacking portion of the trip, lodging will be in your tent! Meals will be prepared and cleaned up by a rotating cook crew of trip members. All food for meals, a small bag of snack mix, water purification tablets, and all group cooking equipment (known as the commissary) will be provided, and each trip member will share in carrying part of this load when we are backpacking. Everyone will share in cooking and cleanup of our meals, which may be vegetarian or fish-based protein. Meals will include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an evening dessert. Water will be obtained from lakes and streams and then purified with sodium chlorite tablets or a water purifier, which will be provided. Please discuss food restrictions, dislikes, or concerns with the leader before signing up for this trip. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 2 (Light/Moderate). While required daily distances are never more than six miles, it is never easy carrying a 35- to 40-pound pack over rolling to steep terrain. We will be hiking at altitudes of 7,000-8,000 feet, which will greatly affect your cardiovascular ability if you live at lower altitudes. Personal gear in your pack should weigh no more than 25 pounds; the shared commissary that you will be carrying will weigh as much as 10-12 pounds and take up the space of two one-gallon milk jugs.

This trip will be most enjoyed if you have at least a moderate level of physical fitness. Our limited daily mileage allows us to move at a leisurely pace, but descents can result in very sore muscles if you are not prepared. Training before the trip should include day hikes of up to six miles on hilly terrain while wearing the hiking boots you plan to use on the trip and carrying your partially loaded backpack. You should plan to be walking, running, or biking at least four days per week during the two months leading up to the trip.

Equipment and Clothing

For packing purposes, it may help to think of this as two trips combined into one: the lodge portion, where casual clothes like jeans and T-shirts are appropriate; and the backpacking portion, where you will take very little besides what you are wearing, plus warm clothes to layer. A sleeping bag works well for bedding for both parts of the trip. For the backpacking portion, must-haves include a backpack, sleeping bag rated to 30 degrees, sleeping pad, tent, eating utensils, broken-in hiking boots, and a raincoat or poncho. A comprehensive list of recommended equipment will be sent to each person who registers, along with information about where some of the major items can be rented. The Sierra Club will provide all cooking pots and utensils, stoves, fuel, water purification, and food.



  • USGS maps of Norden, CA and Soda Springs, CA.
  • A link will be provided to a web site where you can print your own map page of the area.


  • Long, John, The Complete Hiker.
  • Sorer, Tracy I., Sierra Nevada Natural History.
  • Blackwell, Laird R., Wildflowers of the Tahoe Sierra.
  • Powell, Margie, Donner Summit, A Brief History.
  • Townsend, Chris, The Backpackers Handbook.
  • Beffort, Brian, Joy of Backpacking: Your Complete Guide to Attaining Pure Happiness in the Outdoors. 



Your volunteer Sierra Club leaders are dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of the outdoors. Our hope is that you will become strong believers in the need to protect our wild places. We will be practicing Leave No Trace wilderness principles throughout the trip to minimize our impact on the environment.

The Donner Pass area is very popular for winter and summer recreational users. As more and more people come to the area they contribute to a growing environmental problem of how to handle the influx. Logging practices have threatened the ecosystem over many acres of the Sierra. We will also be discussing how to enjoy the wilderness while leaving the smallest footprint. The leaders will be sharing information on how trails are maintained and how we can assist in keeping the trails in good shape, as well as on local Donner Summit and Lake Tahoe conservation issues.



Susan Elsner is a life-long resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who likes to be outdoors, hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing as often as possible. Her passion for spending time outdoors began as a need to bring balance to the demands of her professional life in Information Technology and has developed into a deep appreciation of the natural environment that continues to grow with each additional year she spends in it. An experienced hiker, she has been involved in many Sierra Club Outings, first as a participant and then as a leader, and she looks forward to sharing her enthusiasm for the outdoors and the 'Outings experience' with you.

Assistant Leader:

Don McBride has been a Sierra Club member for 35 years. He got back into hiking when he retired from a career as a telecom information technology manager. He has participated in Sierra Club outings from the Sierra Nevada and Appalachian mountains to Tibet. He worked at Lake Tahoe renting kayaks, serving burgers, lifeguarding and leading hikes with friends while in college. He has lead hikes around Donner Summit for the last six years. He is also a local Sierra Club Group leader in New Jersey.


Penny Pan

Contact the Staff

Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.

Try Another Trip

By Date