Storm Chasing and Tent Camping
By Chris Maccini
Many skiers dream of the kind of extended ski trip that Paul Mignini embarked on last winter. Beginning at his home in Spokane, he spent five weeks traveling through Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Utah. He hit more than a dozen ski resorts across five states during one of the best snow seasons in years. But not many people would be willing to go the lengths that Mignini has in his pursuit of powder on a budget. He wasn’t staying at swanky mountain hotels or cozy AirBnbs during his trip. Instead, he spent his nights in parking lots, sleeping through snowstorms in a bright red tent.
Originally from Baltimore, Mignini first caught the skiing bug in his early 20s. During a trip out West, he stopped in Breckenridge, Colo., and ended up staying for two years. “I was broke, so I worked for Vail resorts one day a week to get my free season pass,” Mignini says. “I supported myself with a restaurant job at night and skied every day.”
After a couple of years of the ski bum lifestyle, he moved back to the East Coast to start a career, but the spirit of the mountains never left him. He made frequent trips back to Colorado over the next decade, but grew sick of saving up all year for a week or two in the mountains. A friend in Coeur d’Alene suggested that he consider relocating to the Inland Northwest. Mignini had never been to the area, but the promise of five ski resorts within an hour and a half drive was enough to convince him. Seven years ago, he moved to Spokane sight-unseen.
Mignini got to know the mountains around Spokane, and as he did, he noticed a skiing subculture that he hadn’t seen in other parts of the country. After a day of skiing, there’d be a collection of camper vans and RVs in the parking lot, preparing to stay the night.
“I saw this really unique community of weekenders that were doing big vans and skoolie conversions,” he says. “And the Pacific Northwest is really unique in that it’s got these mountains that will let you sleep overnight in the parking lot. Colorado doesn’t have that. Utah doesn’t have anything like that, but the Inland Northwest does.”
A new bug was planted. If he could stay overnight at the mountain, he could minimize his driving time and maximize time on the slopes. It would also allow him to explore ski resorts farther away if a storm system moved through the Cascades or southern Idaho. There was just one problem. He didn’t have an RV or camper van.
The Ski Tent Setup
Because Mignini didn’t have the cash to drop on a recreational vehicle, he began looking for more inexpensive options. First, he tried sleeping in his small SUV. But that proved to be a cold, uncomfortable experience. Plus, there was nowhere to cook a hot meal, especially if a snowstorm was raging outside.
Eventually, after falling down a few YouTube rabbit holes, Mignini discovered the world of pop-up ice fishing shelters. For a few hundred bucks, he could buy a sturdy, insulated tent built to withstand the cold, snowy expanse of a frozen lake—conditions not unlike those he might experience in a mountain parking lot.
Mignini bought a tent and outfitted it with a sleeping cot, a folding table, and a portable propane heater and stove. It seemed like a cozy, safe space to ride out a stormy mountain night. But there was only one way to truly test the setup. He had to spend a night on the mountain.
His first overnight ski trip with the tent was at Mount Baker. A big snowfall was in the forecast, and he set his tent up in the parking lot, hoping that it would withstand the storm. “I got everything I wished for and more,” Mignini says. “I have pictures of this thing in a three-foot dump next to the car, and the car’s buried in snow.”
The setup wasn’t perfect, he admits. That Cascade snow was heavy and wet, and Mignini got up every couple of hours to knock snow off the tent to keep it from collapsing. At one point, he woke up freezing because his propane heater had run out of fuel. But overall, it worked. And over the course of a few more weekend trips, he ironed out the kinks.
The Big Trip
Initially, Mignini hadn’t planned on an extended ski trip. His goal was to chase storms around the region, to hit places within a five- or six-hour drive of Spokane and not have to slog all the way home after a long day of powder skiing. But in January of 2023, a series of events aligned and presented him with an opportunity he couldn’t turn down.
First, there was the snow. A strong La Niña weather cycle led to storm after massive snowstorm pummeling the Western United States. Many ski resorts—especially those in California and Utah—recorded record-breaking snowfalls during the 2022-2023 season. Mignini watched storms roll in on the Open Snow app, and longed to chase them farther from home.
Then, Mignini found himself with some unexpected time off. He works in sales and is self-employed, and in January 2023, he closed the largest deal of his career. Suddenly he could afford to take a few weeks away from work.
“We were literally having one of the best snow years ever. If ever there was a time for me to take an extended period of time off and go on this trip, it was now,” Mignini says. “I had all the equipment. I’d done it as economically as possible. I’d tested everything. I knew it could handle it. And in mid-February, that’s when the trip kicked off.”
The next five weeks were the stuff of ski hill legends. Mignini had planned a rough itinerary, beginning in the Cascades, then south through Oregon and into the Sierra Nevada of Northern California. From there, he’d head east across Nevada, into Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and back up through the Sawtooths of southern Idaho. For the most part, he stuck to that plan, but he also kept an eye on incoming storms and made a few diversions to be in the right place for an epic powder day—such as the five feet of fresh snow he caught at Dodge Ridge, a small resort in the central Sierra. In total, he skied at 14 resorts across five states.
“Almost every single mountain I hit had fresh snow that day,” Mignini says. “And it wasn’t just fresh. It was a lot of fresh. I caught three and a half feet of blower powder at Mount Hood Meadows on a windless day. There was a guy at the bottom of the lift who came out of the trees in this head-to-toe neon ski suit from like, 1983. His beard was down to his belly. He dropped to his knees and said, ‘This is the best day we’ve had in 27 years!’”
Not every ski area would allow Mignini to set up his tent in their parking lot, however, so he spent several nights in sno-parks on nearby state or federal land. He splurged for a hotel one night near Lake Tahoe too. He needed a shower, and it was a difficult area to find a place to camp. But aside from that, he spent every night in his pop-up shelter.
While he doesn’t have another extended trip planned yet, Mignini is looking forward to the upcoming winter season, and he’s keeping his options open. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing a month-long trip,” he says. “But you can guarantee that I’ll be out there for long weekends. And I mean, if we get a perfect storm cycle that comes together, I’d have no problem doing it again.” //
Chris Maccini is a writer, audio producer, and skier living in Spokane.
Cover photo courtesy Paul Mignini