Shenandoah our first backcountry overnighter

1:34 a.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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(Link at bottom with a photo tour)

I was inspired by blackbeards report to share mine and my wife’s first backcountry overnight experience.
We have been die hard car campers for years, you know, back it up, dump it out, and set it up. It really is great when you are hauling three boys along all under the age of 12. We have had a desire to push a little deeper and challenge ourselves more. However you want to look at it, we are in the unfortunate, fortunate situation of having been previously married. I have 2 boys, 8 and 11 and she has one boy 7. The fortunate part of that situation is that we found each other and the children get along great and appreciate the stability of the new family. The boys other parents are still very involved in their lives. This gives us the chance every other weekend to strike out on an adventure of some sort or another on our own.

We have been gearing up for several months now and last weekend was the big day, our first back country overnighter.Some things I noticed right off the bat. We take way to much crap when we car camp. We had everything we needed, nothing more and maybe a little less. I was
excited to put my new Janesport Whitaker XLR to the test and Michelle was excited to test the fortitude of her Kelty Coyote. Both packs were tough and handled the gear well.


I burdened my pack with the Kelty Radiant 4 season tent (11 lbs) the Alps sleeping pads, my new down sleeping bag, 4 - 16oz water bottles, an MSR Firefly cook stove and canister. We also packed in a few servings of Mountain House meals. I had my water purifier and some clothes... a headlamp and it seems I must have momentarily lost sight of my pack because when I picked it up it felt like someone sunk in a number of large boulders. Michelle Carried another sleeping bag all the water, our titanium pots and pans, 2 books to read (she snuck in a people magazine) wet/dry matches and more clothing. She also carried our little "necessity" shovel along with some bio-degradable necessity paper. I ended up with a little more weight being 6’3 and 230 lbs and she was burdened with a little less at 5’4 and 115 lbs.

The second thing I noticed is that starting an 11 or 12 mile hike with a 1,000ft accent with a 50lb pack is knocking on deaths door for a 41 year old guy. Who needs fancy tests and wires hooked up to you to figure out if your ticker is good or not?

DAY 1:
At Noon we departed the Elk Wallow wayside on a trail to the north of the lot which in about .1 connected to the Appalachian Trail (.8) we crossed over Skyline drive left civilization and made the first rapid 400ft accent. My heart kept chugging along with no major complaints however my brain was thinking "you big wuss, you just started and you are already winded with 6 miles to go before you PITCH YOUR TENT" Truth be told, it was my first hike with a fully loaded pack and I had done ZERO training. We made it to the top of the ridge (.8) and made a turn to the right onto the Piney Ridge Trail (1.9miles), this trail was a welcome relief from the steep climb as it gently descend the ridge line toward the valley we were headed. Scenery was plentiful with scant wildlife; However the bears must use the trails as their woodland highways as it was littered with bear bombs, one of which is featured in the slide show below. We were excited about a potential sighting deep in the woods with all of this activity. We had been to the park many times and have seen and photographed as many as 7 bears in a 2 day period. It is a much more visceral experience to come into contact with a blackie in the backcountry.
We stopped for a quick lunch and the MSR was a champ boiling the water for our meal in 3-4 minutes. Lunch was needed sustenance for what lay ahead.
According to my altimeter we made a 1,400 ft decent into Thornton Hollow. We bore to the right and took the Fork Mountain Trail (1.1miles) where we connected with the Hull School Trail (We ran into 2 other hikers, our first sightings of a human since crossing skyline drive) (.7miles) and went right to the Thornton River Trail (2.7miles).
This is where it got interesting for a little while. We were feeling the weight of our packs after 6 miles of accents and descents and needed a place to pitch the tent. It was later in the day, around 5PM. We found ourselves in a steep river valley with limited or no feasible place to pitch the tent. It was getting dark as we were in a hollow with tons of tree cover. The terrain was rocky, densely covered with brush and not the least bit level.
( NOTE TO SELF: buy a topo map for the next trip and plan ahead on campsite) soooo what does genius do, the worst thing anyone could possibly do in the backcountry. I saw what looked like a flat area about 50 yards off the trail and we made our way up there. It turns out it was rocky, wet, and home to lots of noseeums. We made what we though was an about face and headed in the direction we came from....or so we thought... after a frantic 5 minutes of the wife panicking and me figuring out the solution to our predicament, I had he plant her behind on a fallen tree, I took off my pack and made several out and backs until I found the trail again. It just goes to show how easily you can become disoriented when tired and inexperienced. We were not far from the trail but in those 5 minutes the trail may have well of been on the other side of the state. We ended up finding the perfect spot, settled in, took a little rest and got to cooking dinner with my new favorite toy, the MSR stove. After a hot meal and some reading we were fast asleep, around 6 miles into the backcountry with not another sound or soul nearby.

DAY 2:
We woke and broke camp to some pretty sore muscles. Thank god we were more than halfway done and only had 5 miles to go...with a 1,400 foot assent ahead of us, uhg!! This day was great though, after we settled in and walked off the aches the pack felt like part of my body. We saw artifacts from the days when mountain men inhabited the area, we saw our bear, a yearling cub. The last part of the hike we continued along the Thornton River trail to a short (.3) trail across Skyline Drive reconnecting with the AT(2.1) We encountered so many Bear Droppings here, fresh, that we had a good feeling we would see another. It happened around another mile in. This was a mature bear looking to weigh around 400 lbs. quite exciting! This was some of the most beautiful open pine forest in Shenandoah, the forest floor was carpeted with emerald green grasses with some late summer flowers still in bloom. We continue on the AT for another .6 miles to complete our loop. All in all an excellent experience for our first. We encountered a total of 4 other trekkers on the trail which is pretty amazing for having covered 11+ miles of trails in Shenandoah.

We are in the beginning stages of planning a 3 day 15 - 20 mile trek in a couple of weeks.

Hope you all enjoyed reading about our adventure.
Click the link to see pictures¤t=a113c6ad.pbw

Greg & Michelle

9:39 a.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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Sounds like a great first trip, Greg. Thanks for sharing! Shenandoah's a neat park -- it's been a few years since I've been down there, but I remember being surprised how quickly you can get away from the crowds once you get off Skyline Drive and start losing a little elevation.

10:50 a.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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Thanks for sharing your trip report, Greg and Michelle. It sounds like it was a great success, especially if you're already planning your next venture.

Thanks for sharing pictures too. It's nice to put faces to names and see people outside enjoying themselves, which is what it's all about.

11:54 a.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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Great posting.

I felt a lot of familiarity from your story; things like getting lost, pitching camp at an unplanned spot, things like that.

I hope our stories help other first-timers.

12:04 p.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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I did not say what it was about your story that inspired me, It was your honesty.
I was not at all excited to tell of our follies on this trip but it was your honesty, and the response from members of this forum offering encouragement rather than criticism which brought me to tell the whole story of our adventure. Sometimes ego can get in the way of education and interfere with our ability to learn. I hope others will follow suit in trip reports and, ala Andy Roony, give us "The rest of the story"

Warm Regards,


12:06 p.m. on September 25, 2007 (EDT)
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I got a big kick out of your story. Tomorrow night, I give two sections of our high adventure backpacking course (3 weeknight evenings in town and a full weekend in the woods). As you noted, you made several of the standard beginner mistakes (no map, forgetting to look behind you when you went off trail, way too much weight, not looking at a map to see where the good campsites would be ahead of time, and setting off on an 11 miler as your very first ever backpack - we tell folks in the beginning backpack course to start with a known campsite within a couple miles.

Great story, and great discussion of the lessons learned. I can see that you will soon be providing helpful advice to other newbies, based on your experiences. As Alicia says, the great thing is you are already planning your next adventure.

5:48 a.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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Thank you for the very kind words.

I have found this forum to be one of those that help by helping. They seem to know when to follow the "If you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all" rules and when to really provide constructive criticism. I have asked some really stupid questions here, even though they aren't meant to be dumb and really are important to me to find an answer, and always get valid responses. These guys seem to be able to remember what it's like to be green.

They also seem to be able to relate to my 55 years of age. Now that's really important to me.


12:08 p.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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Steve said very kind words about all us "experts" and old geezers here, including


These guys seem to be able to remember what it's like to be green.

Hey, Steve, we preach being Green in the outdoors. Practice LNT always! Oh, maybe you meant "greenhorns", um, er, well ....

Actually, even after being in the outdoors for my entire life (being an official card-carrying elderly, unlike that Young Pup, Steve the Blackbeard - see, OGBO by my name means Old GreyBearded One), I am still learning, and on every outing, whether it be a dayhike or Antarctica. I find that I learn something new, or get reminded of something I should have learned years ago, or just plain forgot (there are 3 things that go when you get older, the first being memory, and .... um I forget the other 2 -- yeah, yeah, old joke, but oh, so true).

Steve also said


I have asked some really stupid questions here

Well, as I will be saying in my presentations to the High Adventure Backpacking course tonight, the only dumb or stupid question is the one that didn't get asked. If you don't ask, you can get in deep trouble really fast, and maybe even suffer a real disaster or die.

So keep asking and keep posting your experiences. That's how we all learn. I don't want to read some headline on CNN that says "the bodies of 3 hikers, named Blackbeard, Bigsmoke, and Michelle, were recovered today after a week of searching after making a series of tiny mistakes that added up to a major blunder. They left a note that said they were sorry they had been too afraid to ask some questions, because they might have looked dumb."

12:22 p.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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My point about the stupid question -

It's only stupid to people who already know the answer and forgot they asked the same thing long before. It only becomes obvious after it's answered. Most of the people on this forum seem to know this and treat everyone with respect that all people deserve. Anyone who makes the comment that I have asked a stupid question takes the risk of being embarrassed themselves, as the question usually leads to a train of thought not being considered, and results in a sometimes better-than-the-accepted solution.

Does that make sense?

BTW, how come you, Bill, get to do all the really neat stuff like Antarctica? That sounds great as I enter my second childhood-big kid stage.


12:45 p.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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In my experience, the person who knows the answer usually doesn't consider the question stupid; rather, the question is only "stupid" in the mind of the person who fears being considered stupid for asking it. I found that out the hard way long ago ...

We can relate to being 55 years old because many of us are 55 years old or older.

Look forward to reading your next trip report.

6:28 p.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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Steve asked


how come you, Bill, get to do all the really neat stuff like Antarctica? That sounds great as I enter my second childhood-big kid stage.

Well, Young'un, first off is I retired so I could do such things. Secondly, I never grew up, so there is no "second choldhood - big kid" stage. Thirdly, I skipped the mid-life crisis and am having an "elderly" crisis (ya know, the panic that sets in that there are "so many mountains, so little time"). I got Barb, my "constant companion" of 40+ years (who is still only 21) a copy of that book "1000 things to do before you die", and made the mistake of reading it myself. So now I am running in panic. OTOH, several of my climbing partners in Antarctica are in their 70s, and a couple of my more or less regular climbing partners are also in that age range. Beckey is, what, 80-something and still going strong?

The real answer is you have to choose your priorities. If you want to go places like Antarctica or do hikes like the Appalachian Trail, you can do it - it may be tough, but there is a way. One of Barb's parents' friends had polio as a kid, but hiked the John Muir Trail on his Kinney sticks during his 50s and 60s. He did it in sections, and with friends and family who helped carry the gear and food, but he did it. A friend of mine lost his legs in an accident in Australia (there is a segment about his accident and how he meets challenges that airs on Discovery Channel from time to time in the "I should not be alive" series). He has summited Kilimanjaro (where I am going in December). I think I mentioned previously the heart transplant patient who summited Mt. Vinson in Antarctica about a week before we arrived at Vinson Base camp. When I was on Rainier about 10 years ago, there was a guy 80-something who did the Camp Schurman to the summit and return to camp in about 8 hours - which took us 8 hours to the summit - said he had been doing Rainier at least once a year since he was in his 30s.

You want to do it? If you want to strongly enough, there is a way to finance it and a way to be strong enough in the right way to do it. And a big part of it is the support of family and friends.

10:58 p.m. on September 26, 2007 (EDT)
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Greg and Michelle, It sounds like a great trip. We could offer some critiques of your gear choices, but I think you may have figured out what worked and what didn't. There are a couple of UL (ultralight) backpacking sites if you want to start paring down the weight.

Like I told Steve-in spite of what you may see as mistakes, you got out, had fun, didn't get lost and came back in one piece-the true sign of success. I think 11 miles is pretty ambitious with such heavy packs, so good for you. I'm a lot smaller than you, so carrying a heavy pack is out of the question for me.

As far as getting lost goes, I spent at least 20 minutes last winter looking for my skis and pack after I left them by a tree at Dewey Point in Yosemite and walked a short distance from them. Next time, I'll bring a really long piece of string, or just carry them all the way, like I should have.

btw, Wasn't it Paul Harvey who used to say "and now the rest of the story"? I have a vague recollection of listening to him on the radio years ago with those little stories.

9:09 p.m. on September 30, 2007 (EDT)
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Take those boys to Grayson Higlands and Mt. Rogers next a bit further south in VA east of Marion. Read up about it. Make a nice not too strenuous loop hike on and off the AT. Beautiful terrain with meadows and views and great off trail places to pitch a tent. Guaranteed your kids will like this area. Wild ponies will greet you looking for hand-outs!

2:48 p.m. on October 1, 2007 (EDT)
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Nice writeup - you're a brave soul indeed (there's no way I'd post my wifes weight on a website!) - betcha you carry a lighter pack for the next trip - as for selecting a campsite from a topo map - great idea - but stay flexible 'cause sometimes what looks great on paper is awful in person!

Kids - man - take your kids backpacking - opens a whole new world up for them. Yeah, I know, you end up playing pack mule for 'em - but it's big time fun. Keep the walk short and try to find an interesting place to camp for the night - but kids are a lot easier to please than adults -

7:34 p.m. on October 3, 2007 (EDT)
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Fred, I am blowing my cover here, smart guys, (me not being so smart by saying this), lie about our wifes weight so when and if they see it they giggle and say thanks for saying they weigh less than they really do ;)

7:32 a.m. on October 18, 2007 (EDT)
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Having hiked on those trails many times, I really enjoyed reading about your backcountry adventure there. I can identify with your first-timer experience - my husband and I decided a backpacking trip on the AT in Virginia would be the perfect 10th anniversary getaway. I won't embarrass myself by posting all our foibles here, but unfortunately all our brand new gear landed in the garage until we dusted it off 14 years later. But this time we did our research and got some training - what a difference! I recommend books by Leonard Adkins and Johnny Molloy.

I echo Fred's sentiment to take the kids out with you. We received much of our training through the Boy and Girl Scout organizations, and it is so rewarding to get the kids out there. Just choose your hikes with them carefully so they'll want to come back - short and sweet. Keep their packs light, bring yummy snacks, and end your hike with a celebratory blackberry milkshake at Elkwallow Wayside!

Best wishes on your next hiking adventure!

11:14 p.m. on October 18, 2007 (EDT)
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Backcountry overnighter #2 is on. we are heading out this weekend for a 14 miler :) yes we are gluttons for punishment.

I hope I did not mislead anyone... we are avid hikers and so are the kids. They can handle 3 milers with decent elevation easy. I think our biggest challenge was Disappointment Peak in Grand Teton National Park. That was the most beautiful hike and quite the test of my endurance at altitude. I think we ended up starting at around 6,000 feet and maxed out at around 11,000+

Anyway... we had never done a backcountry overnighter and wow what a difference from a day hike. We are taking everything we learned and applying it our Mt Marshall overnighter this weekend. We will take more pics and post up the report next week sometime.

Cheers everyone, see you after the weekend.

April 2, 2020
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