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)


  1. Props for being so adventurous. My right knee hurts just reading this. "Roughing it" for me is checking in to a Motel 6 or Econolodge. Thanks for detailing your adventures. --- Bill Zahren

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