SO YOU WANT TO BE A BACKPACKER?
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
A sudden shake woke me from the deepest of sleeps.
"Matt, my phone says there is a severe thunderstorm approaching, what should we do?"
I popped up from my sleeping bag, still in a daze, mind suddenly racing.
Where am I? Who is this person? A thunderstorm? Does that mean a tornado? Holy crap. Am I gonna die? What is happening?
"What are you talking about?" I asked, as the fog slowly lifted from my thoughts. The shadow of a person, outlined only by the blue-green glow of a phone screen and the occasional flash of lightning, I soon came to realize was my girlfriend, Tessa.
"An alert just came across my phone saying that there is a severe thunderstorm approaching Custer, South Dakota, in the next 20 minutes," she said. "It said there will be heavy rain, lightning, hail and damaging winds. What should we do?"
With a mind operating at less than optimum levels, I started to piece together the puzzle.
I'm on vacation with my girlfriend. We're in a tent. We're in the middle of Black Hills National Park in western South Dakota. It's 2 a.m. A severe thunderstorm is bearing down on us. What do we do?
At first, it didn't seem like there was much we could do besides gather everything inside the tent, ride out the storm and hope for the best. So that's what I started to do.
The day before, after 20-plus miles of hiking, I remembered that we stopped at an equestrian campground to fill our water bottles. I recalled it had a concrete restroom. That campground couldn't be more than a mile or so away and the lightning seemed fairly far off.
We tore down our camp in a flash and made a made dash for it. Despite wearing pajamas and flip flops, the trek took only minutes.
As we entered the campground, there were several people scrambling to secure their tents and horse trailers. One man said he and his family were packing up completely and heading home. He didn't help to calm my already frayed nerves.
With rain starting to fall and the wind picking up, Tessa and I ducked into the ladies room, filled our sleeping pads and pillows with air, and listened to the storm rage before finally catching a few hours of shuteye on the second night of, what was supposed to be, a two-week backpacking trip.
For years, I dreamt of completing a long-distance hiking trail. I watched television shows and YouTube videos, and read everything from books to blogs about backpacking.
But it wasn't until this past summer that I finally had an opportunity to tackle the task.
Over the winter, Tessa and I talked about taking a vacation for the first time in nearly 15 years together. Her only stipulation was that it wasn't anything too physically demanding. After a few months of pondering, I asked, "So, how about a 130-mile backpacking trip through the Black Hills?"
She looked at me like I was crazy and even got a little bit mad at me for suggesting the idea. Eventually, though, she started to warm up to it and we started the most important part of any successful backpacking trip — planning.
We were going to hike the Centennial Trail — a 130-mile trail that ran along the eastern edge of the Black Hills, from Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs, to Bear Butte National Park near Sturgis.
The first step in planning our trip was trying to set a reasonable average distance for each day. Neither of us are experienced backers and we're fairly average in terms of physical health. I thought an average of 10 miles per day seemed achievable, so it would take us about 13 days to complete the trip.
I found a map of the Centennial Trail and started plotting points along at 10-mile intervals that looked like potential places to camp. I made sure to note potential water sources and opportunities to resupply with food along the way. I contacted local park offices about regulations and fees. I talked to local outfitters about shuttle services to and from the trail. I found several social media pages dedicated to hiking the Centennial Trail and Black Hills trail maintenance.
The more I planned, the more doable the trip seemed.
In terms of gear, through research, I came to learn that every backpacker is different.
Some folks are ultralight backpackers who carry very little in terms of comfort items. This allows them to cover more miles in a shorter amount of time. Others carry a ton of gear and really enjoy their time in camp, but cover very few trail miles throughout each day. You just have to figure out what type of hiker you want to be and adjust accordingly.
I figured Tessa and I would wind up somewhere in the middle — and we did. My pack was about 30 pounds fully loaded. Tessa's pack was right around 20 pounds.
We both carried own down sleeping bags, inflatable sleeping pads and pillows, extra clothing, toiletries, food and water. I carried our tent and cook kit. We didn't have "the best of the best" gear, but it did the trick.
Tessa did switch out her shoes when we finally made it into town after a few painful days on the trail. Her feet, which had swollen considerably after a couple dozen miles, were much happier from that point forward. Lesson learned.
Every backpacker's favorite subject is food.
The key is to carry as many calories as you can while making sure it is lightweight and in a small package. Most backpackers plan for between 1.5 and 2 pounds and 3,000-5,000 calories of food per day.
Commercially available freeze-dried foods are excellent in almost every category, so that's what we planned to eat for each dinner. We bought meals from several different sources. All of them were good, but were a bit expensive.
For breakfast, I relied heavily on bars and coffee. Tessa opted mostly for bars, oatmeal and tea. Our lunches consisted of tuna and chicken packets, a couple of tortillas, and some crackers or chips. I really liked Fritos.
For snacks, we had some more bars and trail mix — which we got sick of eating VERY quickly. That is the one thing I would caution anyone about, don't overdo it on the trail mix. However, you can never have too many Snickers.
To make an extremely long story short enough to fit these pages, we completed only about half of the 130 miles of our trip.
Bad weather played a major factor, as severe thunderstorms rolled through the Black Hills nearly every evening. That made for several uneasy nights, including the aformentioned stay in a public campground restroom.
The trail itself was also not very conducive for a thru-hike. There was very little water, very few suitable camping options and even fewer resupply options.
After 60 miles and several days, it just became too much of a grind, and we decided to get off the trail. It was the right decision.
We spent the last week of our vacation doing day hikes to Little Devil's Tower, Black Elk Peak and Bear Butte. All were incredible. We also spent some time wandering through Custer, Hill City and Rapid City.
Although we didn't complete our original goal, we still met some awesome people and saw some unbelievable views. With a little more planning and a little more preparation, maybe you'll have better luck on your first backpacking trip.