My First Backpacking Trip: High Country Pathway
As March approached, I signed up for a weekend backpacking trip listed on a Facebook page. It began at a state forest campground, with a day hike on Saturday, followed by a short hike to a backcountry campsite, and then a longer hike back to the car Sunday. I figured I better start learning. I practiced my bear bag hanging skills, which was a lot harder than I expected. I set up my tent a few times. I hiked the local parks with a loaded backpack. I was feeling good, except for the prospect of spending the weekend with complete strangers. In fact, I had waited until another woman had signed up before committing to the trip, because I didn’t want to be the only girl. We ended up carpooling to the trip together, so after three hours in the car, I had at least one friend. She was planning to begin a through hike of the AT the following year and was training, as well as simplifying her life, so that she could focus on her hike.
I set up my tent with no trouble, and we went for a short evening hike with Steve, one of the others who had shown up early. We noticed huge elk tracks in our path, and Steve identified wintergreen berries growing on a waxy looking plant. He offered me some, as he popped a few into his own mouth. If he’s still alive in the morning, I’ll try them, I thought. As the sun began to get low, we headed back to the campsite, discovering that a few more people had arrived. I successfully made a pot of couscous for dinner and sat around a picnic table with the rest of the group, getting to know each other.
As it got darker, I got colder, despite the layers of clothing and my hat. Finally, it was late enough that I thought I could respectably head off to bed and warm up in my sleeping bag. My foam pad did not feel terribly comfortable, and I struggled to find a reasonable position and get the mummy bag adjusted without feeling as though I was suffocating. Headlights from late arrivals brightened my tent, and voices permeated my so-called sleep. I woke later, shivering, and it was quiet. Thinking of what to do to warm up, I was torn between getting out of my bag to get more clothes on, or staying in the relative warmth I had. I pulled my hat down more firmly on my head, cinched up the hood of my bag tighter, and stuck my hands in my armpits. Still shivering. After an undetermined amount of time, I grabbed my rain gear, and used it as a bivy around my sleeping bag, foot end of my sleeping bag stuck into the waist of my rain pants, and raincoat wrapped around my torso, with the arms tied to keep it in place. Still cold, but not shivering, I thought about how hard it would be to hike tomorrow if I didn’t get any sleep tonight. But somewhere, I must have fallen asleep, because I awoke the next morning when the sun began to come up. Not freezing to death had been a major accomplishment, I felt, but I was embarrassed at how ill prepared I’d been. I noticed I had left one of my bug net windows uncovered, which had probably let in cold air, even though the rain fly was in place.
I got my stove together, and prepared to make coffee and oatmeal, but my lighter wouldn’t light, and my fingers were freezing after a few efforts. “Try warming your lighter in your hands,” my carpool friend, Kris, suggested. I bundled my hands and lighter into my pockets for a few minutes, and had my stove lit and water boiling in no time. At least I had managed breakfast! After eating, I poured a bit of water in my pot to clean out the dregs of my oatmeal and noticed ice crystals forming as it swirled. I felt like a bit of a bad ass as I drank the chilly water from the pot, cleaning up after myself in the ultimate Leave No Trace technique. Word arrived that we’d be leaving for our hike by 9:00, and to have camp broken down by then. I packed up my tent, noting the layer of frost on the rain fly, and packed my daypack for the hike.
In the morning light, I could actually see the new arrivals’ faces, and met a few more people. Shortly, we carpooled off to our trailhead, and began the day’s hike.
Hiking in March is a lot nicer than one might guess. The trees were bare, so we could see for miles from the hill tops. There were no bugs, we didn’t get sweaty, and the trail was pretty much free of snow and ice. About midday, we hiked a hill steeper than anything I was used to, and I was proud just to keep up. At the top, we sat on downed trees and ate lunch–for me, a packet of tuna and a granola bar. All day, I felt good–keeping up, feeling comfortable with the group, even trying some of the wintergreen berries Steve found on the trail–the only thing I was worried about was staying warm at night.
Arriving back at the state forest campground, we began to make plans. Some planned to stay there, while others decided to hike three miles into the backcountry campground to shorten tomorrow’s hike–we’d meet at the backcountry campground in the morning and hike together back to where we’d left the cars that morning. After putting some athletic tape over a hot spot on my foot, I joined the group heading for the backcountry campground. This was my first actual backpacking–all of my gear, plus a few pieces of firewood that the group organizer had parceled out from the bundle he’d brought stuck into my exterior pack pockets. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and the fir trees’ green was bright against the blue sky. I was in tired heaven as I plodded along with the group, again feeling good about myself for not having to struggle to keep up.
The campsite was a pretty place, just along the Pigeon River. We set up our tents amongst the elk tracks that led from the woods to the river, watching as the sun began to slant lower. After making camp, we took a short walk to a bridge that crossed the river, took some photos, and just generally appreciated what a pretty place we were in. When it came time to make dinner, I realized I had left my spork in my daypack back in Kris’s car. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to eat my couscous until she offered me a stalk of celery, which made a reasonable eating utensil, in a pinch.
We made a fire using firewood we had all carried, along with a few bits we found near the campground. Stories of old trips, future trips, gear, and other hiking groups circulated. “I can always tell who isn’t really a hiker by how much NorthFace they wear,” one guy said. I wondered if this was in response to the NorthFace raincoat I had over my fleece, in an attempt to keep warm, or if he was just blathering. I’d noticed his Z-Packs backpack, and minimalist tent earlier in the day, and he clearly had some trail experience. Dude, I bought this at TJMaxx on clearance, not to be cool, I thought to myself. But other than that, the group was fun to listen to, and I mainly sat back and listened to everyone one up each other with tales of suffering on the trail.
That night when I went to bed, I took care to put on every item of clothing I had with me, carefully encased the foot end of my sleeping bag in my rain pants, and wrapped my raincoat around my torso section of the bag. Whether it was warmer that night, or due to my improvisations, I slept a lot better. In the morning, I made coffee and stirred it with a twig, warming my hands on my mug, and watched the river flow by. It was magical. No one else was awake, and I walked a path down along the stream to get away from camp a little, and not wake anyone else up. When I returned 20 minutes later, other members of the group were up, making enough noise that it was guaranteed that everyone else would be awake soon, too. I packed up my gear, and waited for those who were arriving from the other campsite to join us. It wasn’t long before they came marching through the woods.
I was glad to discover that the Keen hiking boots I purchased were indeed waterproof, as we tromped through flooded lowlands, icy and muddy. I had a good day, with one exception: We were hiking along a snowy stretch, kind of spread out instead of clustered together, and I did not realize that our path was actually a boardwalk, until I stepped off the side of it, one leg sinking thigh deep into the snow, the other leg kneeling on the boardwalk. I struggled to get back up–there was no bottom of the snow to give me any leverage, and the weight of my pack made it difficult to rise. No one is coming to help me, I realized. I need to figure this out. I put my hands out in front of me on the boardwalk, taking some of the weight off of my legs, in a pose that resembled a cat/cow yoga transition. With my weight more evenly distributed, I managed to pull my leg out of the snow, and place my foot on the boardwalk, where I summoned all of the strength I had in my quads, and lifted myself up. Got it! I thought.
By the time we returned to the cars, I was beat, but also happy. I’d survived my first backpacking trip–I’d even had a good time. I hadn’t frozen to death, no one had witnessed my fall (and I’d managed to get back on my own two feet without assistance), and I felt like I could do the whole thing again, probably a lot better, with what I’d learned over the weekend.
When I returned home, I did more research on my sleeping bag and discovered that it only had a 40-degree rating. No wonder I had been freezing! I bought a liner to use with it to get myself a few more degrees of comfort, and decided that trips with a chilly forecast were probably a bad idea unless I bought a different bag.