I had been looking for a couple decent days in December to get out for “one more” backpacking trip. It was a combination of needing to test/review some new equipment and just wanting to get out again before winter really set in. The forecast wasn’t looking good, with the “pick day” of the week set to have a high temperature of 40 with overnight lows expected in the high 20’s. Not great, but the best of the foreseeable future, so I decided to head out on a relatively local overnight; the Backpack Trail at 4,900 acre East Fork State Park. The 15 mile lollipop loop has a couple official camping areas on it, including one at the most distant spot. That’s the one I was heading for.
You need a permit to spend the night on the trail so I stopped by the park office at around 1 pm. There are two official camp areas and I chose the more distant of them. The paperwork was painless and the permit was free. I also learned that I had the only permit given out for the evening. Apparently, everyone was smarter than me. There was no problem finding a spot at the trailhead parking lot and got rolling by 1:30.
I spent the afternoon hiking 8 miles out on the trail. With partly cloudy weather the temperature peaked around 40. With that I was comfortable wearing only hiking pants, a nylon t-shirt and a lightweight fleece pullover. The path was well constructed and well marked. A couple creek crossings involved rock hopping, but most gullies were bridged. For the first several miles, the trail was either flat or rolling, going to great lengths to avoid steep drops and climbs by skirting several of the creeks feeding Harsha Lake. (The lake was formed as a flood control measure on the East Fork of the Little Miami River.) Throughout the stretch there were some nice views of the 2,600 acre reservoir.
At a bit over 6 miles, I hit the loop part of the trail and grading changed significantly. The flat portions were still flat, but I climbed and dropped steep 100 foot elevation changes three times in the last mile and a half. The sun was setting by the time I arrived at Camp 2. There were plenty of choices to set up my tent and a few small buildings as well. One was a three sided shelter reminiscent of those on the AT. It seemed in decent condition. Two smaller sleeping shelters appeared to be significantly rougher and the two hole latrine was woefully short on doors. As the light was fading, I kept the inspection short and hustled to set up camp.
My tent was quickly up and I dove into it to pull on a Brynje shirt and long underwear that I was testing. Some hasty scrounging resulted in enough wood for a small fire just as the weak December sun dropped below the horizon.
I was pleasantly impressed with the instant warmth the “Thermos” provided. Rather than digging through the pack for more clothes through the evening, I was able to enjoy eating my Subway dinner and possibly (hypothetically speaking) drained a small flask in comfort. The full review of the base layer is over at TheTrek.co.
Through the night the wind rose and sleet would occasionally rain down. I was staying comfortable in the tent I was testing until I heard a loud pop underneath me. My immediate thought was, “Crap, my air mattress just blew out. I’m going to freeze my ass off.” However, a quick inspection showed that the mattress was still holding air, I had just lost some of the internal baffles. The mattress was now shaped a little less like a mattress and little more like a giant football. It took a little work to stay up on the cushion and off the frozen ground, but with careful positioning, it worked out fine.
Nights are long in Ohio in December and when I started breaking down camp at 7 am, it was still dark. It was also windy and I was getting hit by a light shower of ice pellets. With enough clothes, I was able to stay warm, other than my hands. My lightweight nylon gloves were no match for the cold. My fingers were frosty enough that breaking down camp became difficult and by the time I was ready to hike out there was no need for a headlamp. However, I was still early enough that I saw several turkeys just leaving their overnight roosts.
Continuing around the loop, it appeared most people went back out the way I had come in. The trail wasn’t quite as obvious and with everything covered in fallen leaves, I had to backtrack a time or two. It wasn’t long though, until I was back on the “stick” of the lollipop.
Despite the temperature in the 20’s and a biting wind, I generated enough heat by walking to stay comfortable. Unfortunately, conditions began to deteriorate and I was soon walking through a localized snow squall. The flakes stuck to my fleece, and while I was still relatively warm, I was soon going to be damp. Time to add the rain jacket. If nothing else, the slight snow cover made the walk out feel much less repetitive than it otherwise would have been. Several sightings of deer through the flakes also added to the interest.
I continued hiking and the weather eventually improved a bit. At around 11 am I got back to my car where my thermometer read 24 degrees. It wasn’t an expedition up Everest, but a good trip nonetheless. The East Fork Backpack Trail turned out to be a good option for quick overnight. New backpackers or those starting later in the day might also make use of Camp Area 1. It’s less than four miles in and is located before the steeper climbs. There are also a couple “unofficial campsites along the way. I asked one of the Rangers about them. Obviously they aren’t recommended, but if you run out of daylight or endurance and need to use one, he seemed fine with it.