Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 2)

Read Part 1 first!

It was around 4 AM when I determined that the 30 degree comfort rating on my sleeping bag was woefully optimistic. We were 6 miles into a 23 mile backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest, about 2 hours east of Cincinnati, so picking up the 0 degree bag was going to be difficult.

The temperature bottomed out right around 30, so, while I wasn’t cozy, I wasn’t facing hypothermia either. The rain fly on my double wall tent was covered in condensation, but I had stayed dry. The ultra-light single wall tent of Bill’s captured the condensation and actually filled the interior with ice crystals. Per Bill, the design worked best on dry, breezy, warm summer nights. (In other words, when you don’t really need a tent at all.)

Bring on the cold!

Bring on the cold!

After a breakfast of freeze dried sausage, potatoes and eggs (good thing I brought a lot of gorp), we started on the day’s target distance of nearly 13 miles. I warmed up fast, not so much because of the sun, but due to the climb out of the camp area of approximately 350 feet in just over a quarter mile. It was just the first of four “epic” climbs that day.

The weather turned out great with a blue sky and temperatures climbing to 60. While most of the leaves had dropped, allowing for some great views, there were still a few oaks and maples holding on to provide a splash of color.

Shawnee tree

We reached Camp 2 of the North Loop by a bit after noon, were able to refill our water bottles, and broke for lunch. Immediately after passing Camp 2 we walked into what turned out to be the toughest climb of the entire hike. In his book, “Backpacking Loops and Long Day Hikes in Southern Ohio,” Robert Runchhoft describes the hill there as an “agonizing obstacle” and the climb as “grim.” Bill and I came up with additional descriptive terms, and most of those were four letters as well. It seems the trail designers had never heard of the term switchback because nearly every hill was attacked straight up.

Thankfully, after the climb, the trail stayed on a ridge for quite a while and we were able to enjoy great views and another perfect day. We also passed by the only other people we’d see on the entire trail, two squirrel hunters and a small group day hiking near a road crossing. With an hour of daylight left, we arrived at Camp 3, which had been moved from the top of a ridge into a hollow, and uncomfortably close to State Rt. 125.

We had time to set up camp and enjoy some freeze dried pasta primavera (just like mom used to make) before darkness and the temperature fell. Colder than the previous night, the fire became less about atmosphere and more about staying warm. Climbing into the sleeping bag later, I hoped wearing pants, two pairs of socks and three shirts would lower the comfort rating of the bag to match the temperature.

Backpack tip # 273  if you are using  a flashlight that fits on the bill of a ball cap, make sure you actually bring a cap with you. Otherwise you may find yourself in the woods wearing a less than fashionable cap from Dollar General.

Morning of day three arrived crisp and clear. The viewing window in my tent’s rainfly had frosted over and there were icicles hanging from the tent poles, but I had stayed warm enough for a good night’s sleep. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and Advil, I was ready to break camp and tackle the final 5 miles back to the car. By now, most of the food was gone and my pack was nearly as light as Bill’s was when he started, so hiking would be easier.

This final stretch is shared by both the North and South Loop of the Shawnee Backpack trail. Much of the route parallels State Rt. 125 and the vehicle noise detracts from the “wilderness feel” the rest of the trail provides. Despite the occasional sound intrusion, the trail remains scenic with stretches along a stream and views of Turkey Creek Lake before dropping out of the woods, to the car and the two hour ride back to Cincinnati.

Crunching through dry leaves, we didn’t spot much wildlife, though deer and turkey are prevalent and even bear are spotted on occasion. Traveling earlier in the season would have resulted in more wildlife sightings, but less of the grand vistas opened up by the leaf drop.

The Shawnee State Forest Backpack Loops are seriously challenging and should not be taken lightly. The trail is long, rugged, steep and secluded. Having potable water and a latrine at each camp area is a nice touch though. The trail is a great adventure unto itself, but could also serve as a good trial hike for those contemplating a significant mountain backpack trip. As the Guidebook mentioned before says, be prepared for a strenuous, arduous struggle. Bring plenty of gorp, it will be fun!

Ohio State brochure on the trail


Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 1)

In his book, “Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio” Robert Ruchhoft describes the very first hill of the Shawnee State Forest Backpack Trail, North Loop as a “lung buster.”  He continues with, “If you suffered real agony, feeling that this climb has pushed you over your level of endurance and you wished to God you were someplace else you’re probably not ready for this trail.” While there are several options for backpacking within a couple hours drive of Cincinnati, this could well be the most challenging.

“Sounds like fun,” was the consensus as Bill, a former co-worker and fellow hiking enthusiast, and I discussed trying this hike. About two hours east of Cincinnati, the area is nicknamed the “Little Smokies of Ohio” with good reason. Though not as tall as the famous mountains to the south, the hills have the same rugged beauty. This trail in Shawnee would also prove as difficult as any I’ve encountered in or around the namesake National Park.

Arriving at the trailhead on a Friday afternoon, we were prepared for 3 days of hiking with nighttime temperatures predicted to drop to the upper 30’s. Bill, a big fan of ultralight equipment, was carrying a pack weighing 20 pounds, plus two liters of water. I, on the other hand, apparently enjoy suffering and carried a pack that came in on the north side of 30 pounds, plus water, Gatorade and a huge bag of trail mix, or gorp. (I may have also had a flask.)


Despite my initial disbelief, the guidebook was indeed correct with the first “lung buster” hill climbing 300 feet in under a half mile. Looking ahead, there were multiple hills with descriptions that included words such as: very strenuous, arduous, struggle, exhaustive frustration, and other equally positive terms. However, it was a beautiful day and with most of the leaves on the ground, the views were amazing.

The leaves did hide the trail though, so keeping an eye out for the orange blazes painted on the trees was necessary. Also essential were walking sticks. With the steepness of the trail and the leaf covering, a third point of contact with the ground was often crucial. Without sticks, that third point would have certainly been a body part other than feet; most likely my back or face.

After four hours of walking through a gorgeous late fall afternoon and up a couple of “epic” climbs, we covered the six miles to Camp 1, which consists of a drinking water source, latrine and a couple relatively flat areas to pitch tents. We had just enough time before dark to set up camp and gather some firewood.  After a dinner of delicious freeze-dried beef stew and my daily allotment of nearly a pound of gorp, I settled in by the fire with some fortified hot chocolate. The temperature was dropping fast and it would be another 13 hours till sunrise. (To be continued.)

Backpacking tip #117  When setting your tent up under an oak tree, be sure to remove all the acorns from where you intent to lay. Cracking nuts with your hips and shoulder blades through the night tends to produce a less restful sleep.

Can’t wait to read Part 2? Click here!

Yea, I walked (on) the Appalachian Trail

Over 3,000 people attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year. Generally, only about a quarter of those actually finish the 2,000 mile hike from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa). About the same percentage give up by the time they reach Neel Gap, just over 30 miles from the southern starting point and home of the famous Mountain Crossings Outfitter. The reasons they quit are many, but often center on being poorly prepared, poorly equipped, or the hike “just isn’t fun anymore.”

The experienced staff at Mountain Crossings has saved many a thru-hiker by way of their pack “shakedown service.” Hikers that stagger the first 2-4 days from Springer Mountain with packs full of unneeded (like jars of mayonnaise) or overly heavy items (iron skillets) can get a new lease on their hike’s life when a successful thru-hiker goes through their load; getting rid of all non-essentials and selling replacements for poorly chosen gear. Each year, Mountain Crossings helps ship literally thousands of pounds of extra gear back to hiker’s homes while the hikers themselves continue north with a significantly lighter pack and wallet.Mountain Crossings

As I was considering a thru-hike in 2014, I thought a test run on the AT last fall would be a prudent idea. Rather than carry extra weight for any length of time, I thought I’d start my hike at Mountain Crossings. Packed for 4 days, I gave my 30 pound pack to Squirrel (not his given name) for inspection.

With the gear being fairly lightweight, Squirrel didn’t find a tremendous amount of weight savings. Rather than carry a 1.2 ounce fleece pillow cover, he pointed out that the hood on my rain jacket could be stuffed with extra clothes to make a nice rubbery pillow. Nothing lulls you to sleep like laying your face down on coated nylon. Squirrel thought he hit the mother lode of savings in the toiletries when he spotted a mirror. When I stated that I needed it to put in my contacts, Squirrel suggested Lasik as a weight saving procedure. Unfortunately, none of the staff there could perform the procedure on me that day, so I was stuck with the weight. He also pointed out that my 12 ounce Kindle was a “luxury” item, but with camping alone and over 14 hours of darkness each night, it stayed in the “essential” pile.

Squirrel did provide some excellent advice on packing. By splitting up my tent poles and body, the body could be compressed into a smaller size. In addition, with a new waterproof compression sack purchased for my sleeping bag, he shrunk it from the size of a volleyball down close to the size of a ping pong ball. Pretty impressive, especially if I’m able to ever get the bag back into the compression sack. Squirrel also recommended the purchase of a new pack rain cover.

Although I was carrying the lightest option for water purification, pills, Squirrel enticed me with a new, lightweight water filter. Water could be rendered safe much quicker than the pills, and with the add-on straw feature, I could drink straight out of a mud puddle if so desired. Sold! I finished the “shakedown” with my pack a few ounces heavier than when I arrived, but my wallet $100 lighter.

When the time came to stash my car at the parking lot ½ mile away, I received my first “trail magic.” Squirrel’s co-worker (Chipmunk?) offered to meet there and drive me back to Mountain Crossings to begin the hike without needing to walk along the road; a great start.

The day was cool, but sunny. Heading out the back of the outfitters, I followed a trail winding up the mountain, eager to start following the white blazes that would lead me as far as I wanted to go; all the way to Maine if I decided to.  Fifteen minutes later, eagerness was being replaced with apprehension as I had yet to see my first blaze. This certainly wasn’t what I was used to. At Zaleski State Forest in Ohio, there are spots where the markings are thick enough to see the next six blazes at one time. After seeing one faded blaze in the first half hour, I broke down and checked the location on my phone’s AT app. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) It only took half the battery supply in my phone to pinpoint it, but my location was indeed on the AT, and going in the proper direction.

The trail itself is rocky and regularly contains root tripping hazards. Since it was late November though, the perils were nicely covered by a blanket of fallen leaves; safely out of sight and out of mind. Once up on the first mountain, the views were absolutely amazing.Day 1 view

The topography was slightly different than Ohio as well. Guidebooks for Buckeye backpack trails describe 300 foot elevation changes as grim, epic or lung busters. In this area of the AT, it is not unusual, in a bit over two miles, to climb 1,000 feet, drop back down 1,000 feet, and be looking at another 1,000+ foot climb. A great workout for the calves.

First high view

A few miles into the hike I ran into a southbound thru-hiker. Weed n Feed was stopped for a snack with his dog, Blunt. His favorite part of the trail was the Grayson Highlands of Virginia, where there are wild horses living along the trail. He had a visible reaction when I asked about mosquitoes during the summer. His action plan during one stretch was to never stop walking during the day and immediately set up his tent when reaching a camp area. He’d then spend the rest of his waking hours in the tent, even cooking by just sticking a hand outside to operate his stove. It sounded less than fun.

By late afternoon the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping. I made Low Gap Shelter with about an hour of daylight left. I left my pack on the picnic table and quickly set up my tent. No mud puddles were to be found, so the filtered water had to come from a nearby clear creek. Once back to the pack to start dinner, I noticed a mouse had beaten me there, chewing through my food bag and a ziplock bag to help himself to some of my trail mix. Great. The remaining undamaged food was hung up in the trees for the evening.

By the time dinner, a lovely entrée of freeze dried imitation Alpo, was finished, the sun was down. Being as it was cold, dark and too windy for a fire, I retired to the tent with my Kindle and a flask. It was 6 PM. The flask was to last three nights, so there was some tough rationing ahead.

At 9 PM the flask was empty.  The Kindle became my sole entertainment. To stay in the hiking mood, the tablet was loaded with several books written by thru-hikers. Reading one book, I absorbed page after page of despair caused by hiking through continuous rain and flooding. It must have been extraordinarily tiring. I know I got tired of reading about it. Eventually, the warmth of the sleeping bag and the song of the wind (and possibly the contents of the flask) lulled me to sleep.

After a full night’s sleep, I lay in the tent, waiting for daylight when I heard the first drops of rain. As I crawled out of the tent, it was raining hard and a heavy, cold fog had moved in, reducing visibility

Day 2 View

to about 50 feet.

Stuffing my wet gear into the pack I thought, “This isn’t fun anymore.” I wonder, could you spot those wild horses from a car?