Wednesday, August 24, 2016

P.S. Chigger Bites.

I've counted around 120 of them on my body. Super fun. Turns out they don't show up and bring the itch until a couple days post-ambush. "Surprise!"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Backpacking overnight #1: Stephens State Forest (southern Iowa)

August 23, 2016

A few days after dropping off the youngest at college (related lamentations here), we decided it was a good time to get lost in the woods and try out a backpacking/overnight combo for the first time. We headed to Stephens State Forest in southern Iowa, about an hour south of Des Moines, with gear in tow.

Stephens feels somewhat remote (getting there required an exception to my "no-gravel-roads" policy). We passed through the tiny hamlet of Woodbury and continued a little further south on the country road before arriving at a small, grassy parking area and nearby trailheads of the two separate hiking loops (each of them about 3 miles long).

We hiked the entire east loop first, before coming back to the west loop to find a campsite for the night. There are 5 primitive campsites total (first-come, first-served, no fees), the closest site being a one-mile hike from the parking area. No running water, no outhouses, no electricity. The campsites do have fire rings and picnic tables.

White Oak campsite, on the east loop: 

Bottom Oak campsite, where we set up, on the west loop:

The trail was pretty much what we expected for a forest trail. It was easy to identify and follow. There were a few points where we questioned it a little, but never seriously worried about getting off track. Some areas were a bit overgrown, but I thought it was pretty well maintained overall.

There are several creek crossings. I was relieved (and just a little disappointed) they were dry. 

Some things we learned: 

• Long pants were a great idea. Our legs would have been ripped up if we had tried this in shorts. 

• Know the trail. We brought printed trail maps which we looked over ahead of time, and still consulted regularly during the hike. These trails weren't difficult to follow, yet I don't think I'd want to rely solely on trail signage, which can be hit-or-miss. 

Side note: we only saw two other people on the trail all afternoon. But, about an hour after dark, when we were already in our tent for the night, a flashlight beam came into our campsite...  a fella approached (don't I seem backwoodsy calling him "fella"?) and asked if we knew whether there was another campsite nearby. The closest one (0.4 miles away) apparently was occupied. The next closest one was two miles away, on the other trail loop. Who knows what they ended up doing, but I wouldn't want to be in that position, walking around the woods after dark, wondering where the campsites are.

• Even on a night without rain, prepare for everything to be wet in the morning. Hello, heavy dew. I was happy we packed a lot of things in ziplock bags.

• The most important thing we learned: One mile of hiking with a 20+ pound backpack, on hills and uneven terrain, is not the same as just walking a mile. We ended up doing about 4.5 miles on Saturday, and it was way more tiring than I expected. Each mile took at least a half hour. 

"Next times": 

We had some trouble starting a fire with our foraged wood. We took along dryer lint as a fire starter, but still had trouble getting the wood to catch fire. Trevor gave us the tip to use our utility knife and add wood shavings on top of the lint. Next time. 

I really wished I had other shoes to wear around the campsite. My feet were tired and wanted out of the hiking shoes. Next time I'll throw in a lightweight pair of flip flops. 

Honestly, we got a little bored after dinner. Next time we'll bring a book, or playing cards, or something. 

Added to the wish list:

- hiking stick/pole. I found a long, sturdy walking stick on this outing, and used it a lot for leverage and balance. Especially in and out of those creek beds. 

- higher top hiking boots. I didn't realize the combination of carrying a heavy pack and walking on uneven ground would wear out my ankles so much. 

- I really missed having camp chairs for sitting around the fire. Need to look into whether there are any good, small, lightweight options. I'm intrigued by hammock camping. Maybe if we get hammocks and ditch the tent and sleeping bags, I can justify chairs. 

It's such a balance of wanting to bring everything you need, but not wanting to carry any more weight than you have to. The quest continues. 

A couple more pics:

Until next time! (perhaps Yellow River State Forest in NE Iowa, which comes highly recommended)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inaugural use of the tent!

Aug 7, 2016

We have now spent a couple nights in our new tent. Not a backpacking venture -- a music festival. Whatever. Baby steps.

Here's our tent, next to others for scale comparison:

It's the "tiny house" in the middle. Our campground neighbors were amused. For some reason I felt compelled to tell them our other tent has two rooms and a sun porch. I don't know why. In the future, there will be no apologies.

The tent goes up super quickly and easily. It's a Himaget, with entrances on both sides, which is a pretty nice feature, so you don't have to climb over your tent mate if you want in or out. The tent structure itself is mostly mesh, and the rainfly covers the whole thing but can be tied back, so you can make it as airy as you want. Our overnight temperatures this past weekend got down in the lower 60s (ahhhh!) but it stayed pretty warm inside the tent, even with the rainfly open. I guess that's the thing about close quarters.

We opted to save a little money and got this tent from Amazon, for 90 bucks. The thought is that we're likely to have more of an opinion about what we want after we get a little more experience, so that might be the point to upgrade to a more expensive tent. This one weighs about 5 pounds and seems like it'll be just fine. We'll find out eventually how it does in rain or wind.

We slept pretty well, and broke in more new equipment, all of these purchased from Amazon as well:
- Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp sleeping pads (~$57) -- these are self inflating, and just take a few extra puffs of air to fill more completely. Easy to inflate and deflate, and they each weigh 2 pounds. Surprisingly comfortable! I'd say they're about 2" thick when inflated.

- Outdoor Vitals OV-Light 40-degree sleeping bags (~$40). These were comfortable and pack down really tightly in their compression bags. Each of them is about 2.5 pounds. It's hard to know how well these will do when it really does turn chilly overnight.

Our main issue was that the bags are somewhat slick, and so are the pads... and our tent really did seem to be on level ground, until we hunkered in for the night... and then experienced an *almost* imperceivable slow slide toward the lower end.

Last but not least...
- Therm-a-Rest compressible pillows (about 0.5 pounds and $12 each). We got the small size, which is 12" x 16" and rolls up pretty tightly. When unrolled, these puffed up and were surprisingly comfortable. When we start backpacking, if we end up needing to ditch things for space, these might not always make the final cut.

Spending the past two nights in the tent has given confidence that we're ready to do a legitimate backpacking overnight. Two weeks from now is the plan!

Oh, and here's last night's headliner, Willie Nelson! Big fun in the rolling hills of southern Iowa.