Create Your Own Adventure! The Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking

Gear

Gear can be overwhelming!

Where do I Start?

A friend of mine and follower of this blog recently reached out to me to ask if I had advice for getting started in hiking/backpacking. He wanted to know if I had considered publishing some articles as a “Getting Started Guide.” I hadn’t really considered it, but thought it was a great idea.

Knowing what to bring on your first wilderness trek can be extremely overwhelming. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and have had the privilege of a very outdoorsy father to help me learn the art of the outdoors. So keep an eye out for the next series on getting started in the outdoors to be published in the coming weeks.

If you have other ideas, questions, or articles you would like to see, email me at Alex@AtlasAlex.com

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Everyday Adventures: Bait and Switch

  • The Everyday Adventures series focuses on the adventures we have on a day-to-day basis, not necessarily out on the trail or climbing a mountain. Life is an adventure!

Tree down and path

The Bait

In my previous Everyday Adventures post, Manly Gardening, I wrote about a visit to my parents’ farm for a work day. That was a long job and it was well after dark when we finished. What I didn’t mention was that we technically only completed half of the job. The front yard had three more areas with rotting timber retaining walls that needed to be torn out and replaced. Since we were unable to finish the front that same day, my father contacted me a couple weeks later asking if I could come out for another Saturday to help finish the job. “It’s all in the dirt this time instead of on concrete. It will be much easier; probably only a couple hours.” he promised.  With my brother back at college my parents didn’t have anyone else to help on the farm. I had plenty of things on my To-Do List at home, but reluctantly agreed to go help for “a couple hours.”

The Switch

The next Saturday was hot and sunny. When I arrived around noon, my father was already outside getting things ready. He greeted me with a hug and said, “Glad you’re here! Let me grab my chainsaw.”

“Chainsaw?” I responded quizzically. I wasn’t sure how that was going to help us remove rotten timbers.

“Yes, we had a big wind storm recently and it took down a bunch of trees. I need your help cutting them up and moving them.” he said as he walked into the garage. I chuckled to myself and followed after him.

All I could think of was a scene from Die Hard (one of my favorite movies) as John McClane, dirty and in pain, crawls through an air vent and sarcastically quotes his wife’s invitation to visit, “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…” Except in my head it went, “Come out to the farm, it’ll be an easy job, only take a few hours…”

Getting ready to chainsaw

Even my dog wanted to help.

The Job

In the backyard, the wind had blown one tree down into another tree. They were blocking the path into the woods so they both had to go. Neither tree was very large so my father made quick work of them with the chainsaw while I hauled and stacked the logs and branches. The next task was a medium sized pine tree that had fallen out of the pine woods towards the pond. The challenge with this one was that it was covered in poison ivy and surrounded thorn bushes. That tree took a little bit longer, but we made a good team. We had the tree cut up as well as all the brush cleared in about an hour and a half. The last tree was the real job. It was a 50+ foot oak that had gotten struck by lightning.

Cutting down the huge oak

A perfect cut so it didn’t hit the dam or the fence behind the tree

This tree had a ton of limbs to cut off. Not to mention, each cut piece of the main trunk weighed over 100 pounds. We worked the rest of the afternoon cutting limbs off of the tree, hauling the smaller branches into brush piles, and stacking the cut logs. It was exhausting work and I couldn’t help but tease my father about his comment about how easy this weekend was going to be doing landscaping timbers.

Logs Everywhere

Logs Everywhere

The Conclusion

To my father’s surprise, we were able to completely cut up the tree and stack everything before dark. He admitted to me later that he thought he was probably going to spend the next week or two having to finish the job. We went inside, had a wonderful dinner, and ended the night with a board game. We were exhausted, but we felt accomplished. It’s a feeling that can be hard to come by in today’s society. We are being pushed to get the next job at work, the next car, the next must-have item. Putting in a hard day’s work to accomplish a difficult task is a great way to take a step back and be satisfied with something. So what did you accomplish today?

Chainsaw and brush piles

Just a glimpse of the huge brush piles we created and a few of the smaller logs we moved

Word of the Week: Wanderlust

Alex on the trail

Wanderlust

/ˈwɒndəˌlʌst/

noun

1. a great desire to travel and rove about

What is it?

I’ve always liked the word wanderlust. It conjures up images of mountains, forests, and adventures. As I’ve mentioned in my previous articles, I was very hyper growing up and had a vivid imagination. This caused me to frequently fantasize about new adventures and exploring the world. I have an eight to five job and typically sit behind a desk five days a week. With each passing day my wanderlust grows stronger. It feels like my inner-caveman is crying out; telling me that I must be active. I must get outside. I must travel and rove about!

What do I do?

Your life is busy. My life is busy. We’re all busy. That’s just the way life is and it doesn’t get any less busy (until maybe after we all retire). This just causes the wanderlust to grow and grow. So I make time to explore the world.

This doesn’t always mean flying across the country to climb a volcano (although, I have done that). I often stay close to Ohio, but I make sure that I adventure. I hike, backpack, and rock climb as often as I can. I also work around my house and visit my parents to help out on their farm. I can settle that inner-caveman and sometimes even the wanderlust with a good, hard day of physical labor.

I also try to keep my mind sharp. We can all adventure through books, movies, magazines, and other forms of media (I suggest reading instead of digital entertainment to satisfy that wanderlust). Even if you don’t have time to sit down and read a huge novel, quick, short stories and articles can be great. Maybe you can even write some yourself! My good friend Tiffany Metzger has some great prompts and short stories to get you started on her site. You can check out her blog here! (I’ll be featuring more about her in a later article about why I write).

Just Do It!

If you are anything like me, you have a list of things that you wish you could do. Write those things down and attach timelines to them. Then just get out and do it! I did this a few years ago and it has really made a difference. You won’t be able to cross everything off, but focus on the things you can. This year, I finally started taking Martial Arts classes. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid, but never had time for. Make time for the things you want to do! Especially things that can build you up or make you a better person.

So whether your wanderlust drives you to climb a mountain or just curl up with that book you’ve been meaning to read, take some advice from Nike© and “JUST DO IT!”

Lifting a tree

Want to lift a tree? Just do it!

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 3

A Beautiful Tree in the Rain

We stopped to enjoy nature’s beauty even in the rain

*This is the third entry in a series.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.

Thoughts of a Wet Zombie

I am thoroughly convinced that the human body is not designed to be wet for extended periods of time. For ages, mothers have told their children that they will catch a cold or get pneumonia from being in the rain. We build houses and garages to keep the elements out. We carry umbrellas and wear raincoats to keep it off of our bodies, but in this situation the rain found its way in. Our bodies were completely saturated. Our skin was soaked causing our fingers and toes to become pruny, shriveled blobs. It’s also extremely taxing on the mind. The trail was still beautiful, but we longed to be dry. It seemed like all I could think about. I was also fretting that everything in my pack would be wet and I would spend the whole night in wetness. Was I doomed to be wet forever? We plodded along the trail wondering how much more we could take…

Rainy Path

Our rainy path

Refuge

As we passed campsites that had turned into ponds, my mind started to wonder how we would get dry tonight. How would we put up our tent in the rain? How would we keep our gear dry with mud and standing water everywhere? Was there a dry change of clothes waiting for me in my pack? Was my sleeping bag wet? Were we going to be able to build a fire in this rain? Would we even want to, since it would mean staying outside? Just as the last bit of our strength started to fade, we spotted a sign for the “Great Cave.” It was exactly the morale boost we needed. Kevin almost sprinted down the large hill we were on. About fifteen minutes later, we spotted the cave. It had three waterfalls running over it and a creek below. Never in our lives had we been so happy to see a cave. We rushed down to it and threw off our wet gear.

View from the cave

View from the cave of the saturated earth

Dry

Inside the cave, previous visitors had built us a firepit (complete with a dry cardboard box) and had pulled in a large pine tree to sit on. We rejoiced at being blessed with dry firewood. Thankfully, we both did have a dry change of clothes in our bags. We changed and had never before been so happy about putting on a dry shirt. I used the conveniently leftover box to get a fire started as Kevin broke out my saw and started cutting up the tree into logs.

Wet, but safe in a cave

Exhausted, wet, and blurry, but safe in a cave

Grateful

The rain continued to fall outside, but nothing could dampen our spirits. We had a fire crackling, warm, dry clothes on our bodies, and were getting ready to prepare dinner. Upon unpacking my bag, I found that my sleeping bag was indeed wet. I set it on a rock near the fire and went back about my work preparing dinner. For dinner we had a feast! Dinty Moore© Beef Stew is one of the most amazing meals a backpacker could possibly enjoy. It’s such a treat, but because it comes in a can and is heavy, most people skip it. This time, it was totally worth it (especially since Kevin carried it the whole time). As we sat in front of the fire eating our stew and drying our socks, we both realized how happy we were. In that moment, there was nothing else we wanted out of life. It didn’t matter what kind of cars we owned, how nice our houses were, what bills needed to be paid, or the sizes of our bank accounts. All that mattered was that we were warm and dry. We were beyond satisfied; beyond content; beyond just happy. We were grateful. It was a good night.

Drying our feet around the fire

Drying our feet around the fire

Day 3

The night before, we had not set up the tent and opted instead just to sleep around the fire. We each took turns throughout the night adding logs and tending to the fire. So it was still burning in the morning.

Waking up in a cave

Waking up in a cave

That morning, I woke up to the sound of waterfalls, birds singing, and the wind in the trees. The bright sun lit up the cave. It was one of the most spectacular things to wake up to. We took our time getting up; still so grateful at being warm and dry. The warmth of the sun felt foreign to us.

My view upon waking up

My view upon waking up

Breakfast

We finally did get up and started making breakfast. More coffee, oatmeal, and Poptarts© were on the menu today. In my adventures, this is the first time I have woken up in a cave. It’s also the first time I spent all morning in a cave pondering life while sipping fresh coffee. As usual, the breakfast tasted amazing. At first, we talked loudly and laughed about our adventures from the day before. Our favorite saying became, “Remember when we were wet?” As we ate, we both grew quiet and introspective.

Cooking in a cave

Cooking in a cave

The sound of the waterfalls provided the perfect amount of white noise for us to get lost in our thoughts. Kevin found a nice thinking spot in between the three waterfalls. He sipped his coffee as he watched the water fall from the waterfalls and meander down the ravine until it twisted around a bend and went out of sight.

Kevin pondering life

Kevin pondering life

I sat by the fire feeling its warmth combined with the warmth of the sun. It felt as if we had been on the trail for weeks and that this life was normal now. It would feel weird to be back in society with modern amenities again soon. We spent about an hour in silence, alone with our thoughts. When we finally started to pack up it was after 11am.

Bros in a cave with coffee

Bros in a cave with coffee

Saying Goodbye

The cave felt like home after just one night. It had been our refuge from the storm and we were both reluctant to leave. We procrastinated by making another pot of coffee. Then, to pay it forward, we pulled sticks and logs out of the dead-fall in the pool into the cave. If any future hikers ever ended up in this predicament, maybe this cave and these logs could provide them the amazing relief that we had experienced.

Waterfall pool with dead-fall

Waterfall pool with dead-fall

Kevin went back to his thinking spot to soak in the view a little bit more. I sat in the cave and journaled about some of the things that I wanted to remember. We would soon be back in “normal” society and in the fast-paced buzz of life, it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be truly grateful.

Alex journaling in a cave

Alex journaling in a cave

On the Trail Day 3

The hike out was very steep, but it wasn’t long. We stopped above the cave to take a few pictures and say our goodbyes. I am always fascinated by nature, but it’s not often that I feel the level of gratitude towards a piece of nature that I felt towards that cave. By the names etched onto the walls, I know that we were just two of the many people that had been there and we would not be the last, but it would always be a special place to us.

The cave that was our home

The cave that was our home

Heading “Home”

It didn’t even take us a full half-hour to reach the trailhead. The truck was just as we had left it except the bed was full of water; a reminder of the rain the day before. We took pictures with the trailhead sign and climbed into the truck. As the truck pulled away from the trailhead, we knew that this would not be an experience that either of us would soon forget.

Completed Archer's Fork TrailThank you for joining me on this adventure. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and refer your friends to http://www.AtlasAlex.com

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 2

Purple trees in the woods

*This is a continuation of a previous article which can be found here.

Day 2

The next morning I naturally woke up around 7am. The tent was chilly and I could hear rain lightly tapping against the rainfly. Today’s forecast had a 65% chance of rain and only called for light, intermittent rain until the early evening. I rolled over and went back to sleep, opting to wait out the early morning rain rather than try to get an earlier start on the trail. At around 9:45 am the rain eased up and I could just hear drops falling from the trees above us. I waited for most of it to stop before waking Kevin. We made a delicious breakfast of instant oatmeal and Poptarts © complete with hot coffee. True to my style of always carrying too much gear, I had a backpacker’s French Press coffee maker with me. The delicious coffee was worth it.

Breakfast

On the Trail Day 2

We had a pretty leisurely breakfast and then decided to break camp. Kevin cleaned up the breakfast dishes while I cleaned up camp and starting packing up our gear. We disassembled the tent and finished packing all of our gear. The temperature was still only in the upper 30s. So we had on most of our warmer gear. This freed up a lot of space in our packs. It wasn’t until almost noon that we finally got on the trail (one of the latest starts I’ve ever had on a backpacking trip). I wasn’t concerned though, since we only had about 10 miles of hiking to do today and we didn’t need to leave until Sunday.

The Creek

For this being his first trip, Kevin continued to surprise me with his quick pace, especially with his large pack on. Soon we reached Archer’s Fork Creek and needed to cross. The frequent rain had caused the water level to average between two and three feet deep and it was about fourteen feet wide.

Archer's Fork Creek

Archer’s Fork Creek

I found a small island and hopped out to it. From there, I was able to walk through a couple shallow points and utilize some larger rocks to help me get across. Kevin didn’t trust the waterproofing on his boots quite as much as I did. So he spent some time traveling up and down the creek looking for a place to cross. Meanwhile, I sat on the other side of the creek and relaxed while I snapped pictures of the creek and Kevin’s dilemma. We lost a bit of time with this creek crossing, but still weren’t concerned. Finally, he was convinced that I had found the best place to cross. I tossed him a large stick that I had found to help him vault from the island to the other side.

Kevin vaulting the creek

Kevin vaulting the creek

Once he made it across, we had to backtrack along the creek to find the trail again. We located the blazes after fighting our way through a thicket of thorn bushes. The trail quickly climbed from the lowest point on the trail to almost the highest. It was about a 500 foot climb and we had to take a few breaks on the way up. Of course I claimed that it was to take pictures, but my quads were on fire and my fifty pound pack felt like a hundred.

Kevin Hiking on Archer's Fork

Rain

We made it to the top of the hill and thankfully, the trail leveled out for a bit. Kevin opened a bag of beef jerky and we enjoyed it as we walked along a wider than usual path side-by-side. Our discussion turned to growing up and how we both had similar backgrounds as very hyper children. The path soon turned and headed back down into the woods. Just about this time a light rain started. We decided to press on without stopping to put on rain gear since the trees now mostly protected us from the rain. Once we reached the bottom of the hill that we had just struggled to climb, we found a nice camping spot and decided to stop for lunch. We sat under some pine trees and feasted on the most amazing tuna and crackers we had ever tasted (everything tastes better on the trail).

Lunch on Archer's Fork

Lunch on Archer’s Fork Trail

More Rain

At this camp site, we took the time to put our rain covers over our bags and don our rain jackets. The rain didn’t look like it was letting up so we wanted to be prepared. With the temperature in the low 40s, getting wet could quickly mean hypothermia.

Rain Gear

The path quickly took us back into an uphill climb as the rain continued to come down. It grew in strength and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight (so much for light, intermittent showers). We trudged on through the rain in steep elevation. The rain made the paths muddy and slippery. It also sapped our strength, but even so, there were still some great sights to see and we kept our spirits high.

The trail winding around a cliff

The trail winding around a cliff

Wet

Although, the weather was still cold, our added rain gear and constant movement caused us to sweat. Rain continued to come down and soon we were completely soaked. The trail continued with multiple PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs) leaving us completely exhausted. We had been on the trail for about three hours since lunch and the rain still had no end in sight. We stopped to refill some of our water bottles from a creek for dinner. If we ever found a good campsite, we would want hot meals. An hour later found us at the top of yet another peak huffing and puffing for air while every inch of our body was saturated by a combination of rain and sweat. I was wearing premium rain gear, but even it could not stand up to the hours of steady wetness. Our bodies cried out for rest and we both collapsed on a log without taking our packs off. Kevin leaned forward onto his hands and promptly fell asleep despite the continued rain. I stared at my soaked, pruny fingers and wanted nothing more than a towel to dry them off with. I leaned back against my pack for support and let the rain fall against my face. My mind pondered the events that had led us here and everything we had been through. Never had I been so completely saturated on a backpacking trip and I silently wondered if Kevin was regretting being talked into this. Despite the conditions, I had no regrets (except maybe not upgrading my rain gear). I was happy in the moment with nothing else on my mind.

Alex and Kevin Wet

Wet

Wet Zombies

After about a half hour, Kevin woke up and I urged us to continue on to prevent hypothermia and to try to find a suitable campsite. The nap must have done him wonders, because he continued down the path with renewed speed. Even so, it was still slow going with the trail conditions combined with the elevation changes. We passed a couple possible campsites, but due to their locations, most of them had standing water. It was almost 6:30pm. Our strength had faded; sapped by the pouring rain, the hills, our packs, and the fact that we hadn’t stopped again for food. We didn’t want to risk our packs getting even more wet. I’m sure we would have looked like a sorry bunch if there had been anyone around to see us. As we trudged on we entered a state that I’d refer to as “zombie-mode.” There were no thoughts going on in our heads. We weren’t looking around. We weren’t talking. We were simply putting one foot in front of the other… over and over and over again. If any thoughts did cross our minds, it was usually us wondering if we would ever be dry again…

Featured Adventure: Archer’s Fork Backpacking Trail – Part 1

Us ready for the trip

Ready for the 2.5 Hour drive to the trailhead

The Trail

Archer’s Fork Trail is a beautiful and moderately challenging loop trail in Southeastern Ohio, deep within Wayne National Forest. It is located near the Ohio River and the West Virginia border in between Marietta, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia. The challenge of the trail comes in the elevation change, which is somewhat unusual for Ohio trails. This is due to the trail being near the Appalachian Mountains. Elevation on the trail ranges from around 700 feet to about 1,200 feet. These elevation changes occur frequently taking adventurers from river beds to high hilltops and back again. The trail itself is between 11 and 12 miles, but has many side trails and sites to see that can extend the trip. These include a Covered Bridge Trail and connectors to the North Country Trail as well as a small diversions to see the Natural Bridge and the Great Cave.

Path the to Archer's Fork Trail

Day 1

The trail head is a little over a two and a half hour drive from Columbus and even the drive can be a bit of an adventure. While most of the trip is on the highway, the last half hour is through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on back country roads. The twists, turns, and hills were so intense that they had me wishing for my motorcycle. My friend Kevin accompanied me on this trip and was kind enough to drive. He had quite a fun time maneuvering his 5-Speed, 1998 Ford F-150 with it’s 8-foot bed through the curvaceous hills. The challenging roads made the time pass quickly as I white-knuckled the passenger handle and pumped my imaginary brake pedal. Finally, we arrived at the trailhead, safe and sound

Getting geared up at the trailhead

Getting geared up at the trailhead

The trailhead is located near a small, well-kept cemetery at the top of a hill. It was about 5:30 pm when we set out on the trail for the day and we immediately were heading back downhill into the woods. This trip was actually Kevin’s first experience with backpacking. So my plan was to take the first day very easy. We would hike in about a mile or two and find a nice camp. This would give us some time to setup and allow for Kevin to learn the basics of camp and my equipment. The fact that both of our packs weighed in at over 50 pounds also influenced the decision to take the first day a little easy.

Day 1 at the Trail Head

Day 1 at the Trail Head

There were a couple dayhikers heading back to the trailhead, but it looked like we would be the only backpackers in the woods tonight (unless more were to arrive later). Since this was actually my second time on the trail, I decided to hike the loop in the opposite direction that I had hiked it previously.

Natural Bridge

We kept a good pace and quickly arrived at the first site to see: a natural bridge that had been formed by a waterfall flowing through the weaker portions of the rock. It was a fascinating site to see and we explored the area for a few minutes. Mayflowers covered the hill and surrounding areas and the setting sun gave everything a beautiful glow.

Kevin on the Natural Bridge

Kevin on the Natural Bridge

We set back out on the trail and headed through some large rock formations. We continued to keep a good pace and covered a little under a mile from the Natural Bridge before we found our first potential campsite. The sun was still shining and the site was not cleared very well. So we decided to press on. The trail wound down the large hill we were on and eventually crossed a stream. There was an old, abandoned shed and pumping station along the creek that we quickly explored before moving on.

Hiking through the forest and rocks

Hiking through the forest and rocks

The trail twisted up a slight slope about ten feet above the creek bed and then followed parallel to the creek into a pine forest. Shortly after passing into the pine forest, we found an excellent campsite. It was already cleared and had some rocks that formed a firepit as well as a few pieces of firewood. It was close to 7:30pm so we decided to camp there for the night.

 Night 1

It was a cool evening with almost no wind as I taught Kevin how to setup our backpacking tent. It had been a couple years since I had used this specific tent and it was a different setup than my others. Even I had to think for a few minutes to remind myself how to set it up.

Archer's Fork Day 1 CampWe finished that up and I started building a fire as Kevin scavenged for additional firewood. Soon, a beautiful fire was roaring and we unpacked our backpacking stove to boil some water for dinner. Our delicious freeze-dried meals consisted of Mesquite BBQ chicken and a lamb vindaloo. Both were delicious for freeze-dried trail meals.

Kevin and I sat around the fire on our camp mats relaxing and letting our meals settle. With absolutely no social pressure, no worries, and no further responsibilities for the night, we were able to completely let loose and talk about anything and everything. Before we knew it, my watch showed 1am. We turned in for the night and quickly fell asleep as temperatures plunged into the 20s.

Relaxing around the fire

Relaxing around the fire