We woke before the sun and threw our stuff in the back of my buddy’s Dodge pickup. It was October, and the temperatures in Georgia were just starting to dip down into the 40s and 50s at night.
I came down to spend a week with my best friend and we had decided to get out for an impromptu three day backpack trip on the Appalachian Trail. The trees were turning bright orange, yellow, and red, what could be better than living on the trail and sitting around the fire for a few nights?
We planned our route to be a three day out and back hike. We didn’t have the logistics ability to do a through hike, and we weren’t familiar enough with the trail system to try to do a loop.
Mark had been in the military for four and a half years. Served as an army ranger with the 3rd battalion. While he was trained as an infantry soldier and sniper, he hadn’t done much backpacking. But it all translates. And while I had grown up camping multiple times a year with my family, I was used to throwing everything you could ever want in the van and camping with luxuries like bacon and eggs cooked over an open fire.
How hard could it be?
If we were going to make it three days on the trail we would need basic shelter, food, and water. Outside of that, a lighter for fire, sleeping bags for staying warm at night, and maybe a dry bag in case it decided to rain.
Besides our packs we had pretty much nothing. We decided we could make due with a 8’ x 10’ tarp for shelter. Confident we could rig up a shelter of some sort with a bit of cord. I picked up a cheap sleeping bag because there were some things you couldn’t do without.
For water, we could either spend the money on a water filter, use water purifying tablets and deal with the bad taste, or buy a case of water and haul it. Well, the case of water was $5.95, and it would get lighter as time went on. So we made the obvious choice.
For food, we’d get by without a stove and stick to a staple diet of tuna (in a pouch) cliff bars, and apples with peanut butter. We were backpacking after all, can’t expect to eat like kings on the trail.
As you can probably tell, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. I’m sure the park ranger we asked for directions was a bit concerned as he saw us plunge off down the trail. Hoping he wouldn’t need to I.D. us later that week concluding a search and rescue party.
Regardless, with our bags packed full of water and a small bit of gear, we set out for our first day. My pack was slightly larger, so somehow Mark talked me in to carrying most of the water. I think I was pushing 60 pounds. The first segment of our hike was up springer mountain. For those concluding the Appalachian Trail through hike from the north, Springer Mountain marked the end of the line. For us, it was the beginning.
Being a mountain, it consisted of a lot of uphill sections of trail. Which normally wouldn’t have been too bad, but considering the load I was carrying, it was quite taxing. After a few hours of hiking, we made it to the top, where we would spend our first night. We had planned on staying in the temporary shelter that was set up by the national forest service, but upon arriving we discovered it was already full.
But, due to our resourcefulness, we had a tarp we could use as shelter. Only, it turned out that our 8’ x 10’ tarp was really only a 5’ x 7’. And I wish I was kidding. We were slightly confused and dismayed at our mistake. Somehow we had managed to grab the wrong tarp size.
Not to be discouraged by our lack of fortune, we still managed to rig something up. As you can see. Clearly a sufficient shelter. Notice the rocks holding down the bottom, very high speed.
We heard someone walk up, and as we turned to see who it was, we saw a small-framed-lady wielding a stick as a sword. “Oh, I thought you were a bear!” Tightly gripping her stick as if ready to strike. Mark and I looked at each other wondering, what were you going to do if we were?
In her defense, there were bear postings everywhere. This didn’t make us feel great about our poor excuse of a tent we had rigged up. And thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure we slept with the tuna packets tucked away inside our packs, right next to our heads. Not exactly the smartest backpackers you ever met.
We attempted to make a fire that night, which didn’t last long as everything was pretty damp. Eventually we gave up and decided to turn in. As I slipped into my sleeping bag for the first time, I discovered I had made another mistake. I’m about 6’1”. The sleeping bag was intended for someone about 5’8”. I stuck out of the sleeping bag from my shoulders up.
Early in the night it began to rain. All things considered our shelter held up pretty well. Until at 3am that is. My half of the tarp had come loose (i.e. the wind blew off the rock) and left me lying on the ground getting poured on. Turning on my headlamp, I discovered we were caught in the middle of a cloud, visibility was about 5 feet. I managed to secure my half of the tarp and dive back into my sleeping bag. If we didn’t get eaten by bears, we’d probably die of hypothermia.
When morning came, we were feeling pretty deflated. It wasn’t raining anymore, but the fog continued to hang in the air. We weren’t even 24 hours into our hike but we were miserable. Neither of us wanted to say what we were both thinking. It felt too lame to give up this early in our trip.
Finding solace in the fact that it had stopped raining, we broke camp and decided to stick it out.
Since we were doing an out and back hike, we would pass our camping spot early in the day. Like the original plan for the first night, we planned to stay at a constructed shelter the second night. An hour in to our hike we passed the shelter, it was a little sign of hope of what we had to look forward to that night. At least a dry place to sleep! *(I have no idea why we didn’t drop some of our gear since we’d be coming back, maybe we were concerned about someone stealing our water?)
Shortly after passing our campsite for the night it started to sprinkle. Nothing much, but just enough to know that it was raining. An hour or so passed and the rain steadily increased. We were getting close to our turnaround and we were anxious to get out of the rain. As we kept going we felt that we had for sure been hiking too long to have not hit our turnaround point. Coming to an unexpected shelter we consulted our map discovering we had overshot our turnaround by a couple of miles.
Now it was raining hard. Like, soak you to the bone kind of rain. Neither of us had rain gear, even if we did, I’m not sure it would have been much help. We were soaked, our packs were soaked, our feet were wet and squishy. We had been hiking in pants because of the cooler temps, but we decided to go down to shorts because we were so wet it didn’t matter.
I don’t have much memory of the hike back to our camp that night. Other than, if you’ve ever hiked with a x-army ranger you know they have two speeds. Standing and basically running. We didn’t just hike back to camp, we marched double time.
What was supposed to have been a 16 mile day, turned out to be a 20 mile march in the pouring rain. Pulling in to camp we were cold, soaked, and pretty miserable. And there would be no fire tonight and no hot food. The only solace I was able to maintain was the fact that I had for some strange reason packed a dry bag, in it I had put my camera, a set of clothes and wools socks, and my sleeping bag. So no matter how wet we were, I knew that I would at least sleep warm and dry that night.
As we rolled out our sleeping bags, a few other weary hikers trickled in. They fired up their camping stoves and cooked up some warm dinner. We picked away at our cold, bagged, tuna. And licked the peanut butter container clean.
But, we were dry, and we didn’t have to pull out our sorry tarp again. So that was good. Only, neither of us thought we would need sleeping pads. Ya know, the ground is soft, there’s giant beds of moss that will make a perfect spot to lie down. Unlucky for us, the temporary shelter didn’t get the memo about stretching out the moss futon. It was a nice elevated platform of 2 x 6’s.
Have you ever tried sleeping on a wooden floor? Before this trip, I had never given thought to it. And since this trip, I’ve never cared to try again. It was terrible. I lay awake in 15 minute increments. Laying on one side then rotating to another position for the whole night, every 15 minutes. I don’t remember sleeping. At one point I looked over and Mark had propped himself against the wall hoping to sleep sitting up because he was so miserable. I don’t think he had any luck.
As bad as our sorry-little-lean-to was the first night, at least we slept. Even while getting rained on we slept. Nature was slapping us around and getting a kick out of it.
Around a quarter to six, neither of us could stand it any longer. It wasn’t quite light out yet, but we didn’t care. We packed up our soaking gear, put on our wet boots, and hiked the hell outta there.
Nothing could be further from the vision of backpacking we had in our mind and what we experienced the last two days. We almost couldn’t believe how miserable we were.
Clearly we had no idea what we were doing which only added insult to injury. You could say our friendship was tested, but it ultimately was a shared experience that we’ve often laughed about. From carrying 20 pounds of water to buying the wrong size tarp. Sleeping on solid wood and hiking in torrential rain, it was a trip of a lifetime. Just not one we’d ever plan to repeat.
When we finally got off the trail, we drove straight to chick-fil-a and feasted. From there, we drove to lifetime fitness and sat in the hot tub for hours. It was the best part of our three day backpack.