That First Unforgettable Backpacking Trip
I was 13 or 14 at the time. Sure, I had been hiking and camping but never backpacking. In fact I didn't even know anyone who had ever been backpacking. I guess it just didn't have the popularity that it does now. My Boy Scout troop had been working on a series of outdoor merit badges. We had already achieved the easy ones, you know, camping, hiking, nature, first aid, etc., so backpacking seemed like a logical next badge to pursue.
First things first, we had to get backpacking equipment. Now this was before the ultra-light revolution came along, this was even before you started to see the comfortable internal frame packs and hydration systems. After shopping around for a store that carried backpacks, I eventually found one. It was a brown external frame pack with shoulder straps and hip belts that looked similar to seat belt material. It didn't seal very tight at all, in fact there was no zipper on the main compartment, just a flap that folded over the top that could be tied down. It had more design problems than these but I would have to wait to find out what those were. I tried it on and it fit. It had to, because it was the only model available and just about the entire Boy Scout troop ended up with the same one. At least we would be able to give each other advice about how to adjust the straps to make the pack more comfortable.
The planning for the trip was done mostly by the adult troop leaders. They found the location and decided on the weekend. I'm not sure how they decided where to go. This was before the Internet so I guess they relied on the phone book, lots of long distance phone calls, word of mouth, smoke signals, whatever was the proper method for selecting a backpacking location in those days. Anyway, after several weeks of regularly scheduled Boy Scout meetings it was finally announced that our first backpacking trip would be an 11.1 Mile overnight loop on the Hickory Creek Trail in the Hickory Creek Wilderness within the Allegheny National Forest. All that was left for the rest of us to decide was what we were going to eat.
After much anticipation the weekend of the trip finally arrived. I had spent the entire week before trying to figure out what to take and packing and repacking my backpack. If I remember right it was spring, the end of March or early April, but my mom insisted that both my brother and I take our winter coats just in case. We didn't have much choice, it was either refuse and stay home, or accept the extra weight. Before that addition, my pack already weighed about 30 pounds. I had my large and bulky all cotton sleeping bag, a large foam pad, two days worth of clothes (we thought blue jeans were appropriate hiking pants), and my share of a 3 person tent. On top of that I packed my aluminum canteen full of water, my cook set, a first aid kit, a giant flashlight, compass, knife, and several other things I thought I needed but really didn't need. My share of the food wasn't even packed yet and the winter coat had now made my backpack tip the scales at 35 pounds. That's a lot for a skinny 13 or 14 year old.
We met the rest of the troop bright and early at 6am for the 3-hour drive to the trailhead. Before leaving, the food was divided up so that everyone had a fair share to carry and that somehow ended up to be about 5 pounds each for the overnight trip. We really could have benefited from some ultra-light advice. Another 15 minutes of rearranging and repacking packs to make room for the food and we were on our way.
When we finally arrived at the trailhead it was 9:30am, the temperature was in the upper 50s and it was sunny. A little chilly but it would warm up as we hiked. I remember thinking "thanks, mom, this winter coat will really come in handy with 50 degree temperatures". Not one of the other guys on the trip besides my brother and I had a winter coat but since our dad was one of the leaders on the trip we couldn't just leave them in the car, we were stuck with the extra weight tied onto our packs.
It took us a while to get going. First everyone had to get their packs on and adjusted. Since it was the first backpacking trip for all of us, this meant a 10 minute process of lifting the heavy packs onto our shoulders, complaining about the weight, adjusting the straps, complaining about the weight again, then taking it off to see if something was wrong before starting the process over again. Eventually we did actually start hiking but the first mile involved at least 3 stops to adjust packs and boots.
We were all in good spirits but the packs slowed us down to a crawl; 3 hours to go the first 3 miles to our lunch break. It was amazing how good it felt to sit down and take our packs off. It was also amazing how good a lunch of canned deviled ham, crackers, and easy-cheese tasted. I tried the same meal at home after the hike and couldn't get past the first bite. Backpacking has a mysterious way of changing the way your taste buds work.
The afternoon started out smoother, the packs went back on easier since they were already adjusted, our stomachs were full, and we were getting the hang of things. We were finally able to start to notice the world around us. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and by this point the temperature was into the mid 60s. We heard birds and other wildlife in the forest but we also noticed another sound, with each step we took our backpacks let out a squeak when the metal pins that held the cloth pack to the metal frame rubbed together. Sure, it was annoying at first but eventually we got used to it and even started using it to keep pace, it became no different than the constant ticking of a clock and like the ticking of a clock we were able to ignore it and focus on nature and conversation.
When we arrived at our campsite that evening we all wanted to relax but our leaders knew better and put us to work setting up tents, collecting firewood, and creating a fire ring. Before long the remote forest 6 miles from the nearest road felt like home. The fire was burning and dinner was started. As I recall it consisted of fried spam, instant mashed potatoes (made with powdered milk and no butter), and trail mix. Again, it's amazing how good otherwise disgusting food tastes when backpacking.
After dinner we cleaned up and settled in for a nice evening around the campfire. We were telling stories, laughing, and preparing to toast marshmallows when it started to rain. At first it was a light rain that we just tried to ignore but soon it started to pour. Since none of us had good rain gear we put out the fire and retreated to our tents. It was still early and there were 3 of us in my tent so we stayed up a while talking about the day's adventure. The funny thing is none of us mentioned the hardships of the day, just the good times.
Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up shivering. The rain was still beating on the roof of the tent and was now starting to leak in the sides. The foot of my sleeping bag and my socks were soaked. I pulled my sleeping bag out of the puddle on the floor of the tent so it wouldn't soak up any more of the ice cold water and then curled up in the mostly dry part trying to keep warm. By the time morning came only about a quarter of my bag was still dry and I was curled up into a tight ball. Not the most comfortable position but at least I was warm. Just about then things got a whole lot more interesting.
From outside the tent I heard one of the other guys shout "It's Snowing!!!" Of course I thought it was just an exaggeration of the cold, after all it was well into spring. But sure enough, when I opened the tent door the green forest we had been in all day yesterday was now completely white with snow. There must have been about an inch on the ground and it was still coming down hard. My mom didn't seem so crazy now for making me bring my winter coat.
None of us were prepared for this. How could it be snowing this far into spring? We struggled with our frozen fingers to find firewood to light fire for warmth but everything was soaked from the rain of the night before. Luckily someone had some fire starters in their pack; they would be able to keep a flame for a good 10 minutes while we all used our pocket knives to carve the wet outer layers off the firewood so it would light.
After warming up with hot chocolate, instant oatmeal, and a warm fire we started packing up our camp. I thought my pack was heavy yesterday but now I had the extra 10 pounds of frozen water added on that my sleeping bag and clothes had collected. It wasn't all that bad though. I guess I was getting used to carrying a pack.
The hike out was a real adventure. The snow was a thick wet snow that stuck to the trunks of the trees from the wind and covered the trail blazes painted on them. To make it worse, in some places the snow completely obscured the normally easy to recognize trail. At least once all of us had to fan out and brush the snow off the sides of the trees to find the trail blazes so we would know what direction to go.
Even with the extra effort this second day on the trail had some great moments. During one break somebody attempted to sit down but slipped off the back of the icy log landing on top of his backpack. We would have helped him up but the sight of him stuck on his back with his arms and leg flailing like an overturned turtle in the snow doubled us all over in laughter. It wasn't just the funny moments like this that made the day great; the landscape was transformed as well. The same snow that stuck to the tree trunks hiding the trail blazes also stuck to every branch and every pine needle and when the sun came out the forest lit up like the trees were made of diamonds.
It took us a good six hours to hike the 5 miles back to the parking lot that day. We were all glad to be back, take off our packs, and get into the comforts of modern society. We were exhausted, hungry, and cold. The trip had many challenges that we never expected and turned out to be much more difficult than imagined. You would think that a trip like this, with so many things going wrong would turn a group of young Boy Scouts away from backpacking for good. But that wasn't the case. Instead it just made us even more excited to plan our next trip. We had gone out into the wild natural world, endured hardships, and come back alive. When we later talked about the trip we never complained we just talked about it with pride.
It has been nearly 20 years since that trip. I've gone on many more backpacking trips since then. Many were much longer and to more scenic and exotic locations but my favorite backpacking memories are still from this first overnight trip.
Explore the Location of this Story.
Visit the Hickory Creek Wilderness.
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