A Winter Backpacking Trip


There aren’t a lot of things that can get me to willingly wake up before 10:00 A.M. (or later) on a Saturday, but a camping trip just happens to be one of them.

After taking a couple months off from hiking to let my body heal from the miles I put on it after completing the NCT Hike 100, I was a little apprehensive that I would be more out of shape than the rest of the women in the group I would be hiking all 17.5 miles of the Potawatomi Trail with that weekend, but I was confident that I could get through the miles.

Since this was my first winter backpacking trip, I spent the better part of last week obsessing over what to pack.  Did I want to bring a sleeping bag liner or an extra quilt?  Would I need my bigger sleeping pad with the slightly higher R-value?  What about my ice spikes?

When all was said and done, the weekend forecast called for highs in the 40s and 50s and lows in the 30s, so I decided to save myself from carrying any extra weight and just go with my usual backpacking gear setup.

(Side Note:  If you’d like a peek at my gear checklist, you can find that here.)

I arrived at the trailhead just after 9:30 A.M. so I could have a little bit of time for a bathroom break and any last minute gear adjustments if I needed it.  Once I had everything situated, I met up with the rest of my hiking group.

This was my first actual hike with a group, so to be quite honest, I wasn’t really sure to expect.  Would everyone else be super fast and ditch me?  Would nobody else know what they were doing?  Would it end up being stressful or annoying to hike with a group?  I had no idea!

After having a chance to make a little small talk with the other girls while we were waiting for the rest of the group to show up, I quickly realized that it was all of us shared the same fears, which was definitely a relief.

We hit the trail at about 10:00 A.M.  The weather was perfect for a winter hike: around 35F and sunny, with a high of 45F in the forecast.

I started out in a warm, long sleeve baselayer with a vest, but within the first mile or two I was already ready to ditch the vest.

The trail was pretty clear for the first couple of miles, and because it was closed to everyone except for backpackers due to spring thaw conditions, we only saw a handful of other people hiking it.

We stopped for a quick snack break at Hiland Lake, watching the swans float on top of the partially frozen water before making our way to a tall, wooden footbridge and continuing on with the rest of our hike.

The next part of the trail was a series of rolling hills that took us into the woods, past houses, and eventually another lake before curving back around and heading in the direction of camp.

We stopped for another quick break around Mile 6.  Thankfully, I was still feeling good (and blister free) six miles into the hike.  I took the time to drink some water and stretch my legs and feet out a bit.

At the road crossing around Mile 7 we came across a rotted deer carcass laying next to a pickup truck, which was…sort of creepy.

This section of the trail had a lot more mud, as well as patches of ice and snow, so things got a lot more interesting.  Being clumsy, I decided to slow my pace a bit.

The trail eventually made its way through the woods and to another steep, wooden footbridge overlooking Halfmoon Lake.  We stopped to take a couple of quick photos and drink some water before pushing on through the rest of the way to camp.

After crossing the bridge, the trail made a long, steep, icy climb up a hill that seemed to never end.  Having hiked this trail before, I was totally dreading this part of the hike.  I slipped and fell once on the climb, but other than that, it wasn’t actually too bad.

After the long climb, the last mile or so until camp was pretty uneventful.

After nearly 11 miles of hiking, we made it to camp and met up with one of the girls who arrived late and ended up taking a shorter trail to the campsite.

All in all it took us about 5 hours to do the hike (breaks included).  While the spring thaw conditions along the last few miles of trail definitely added an element of challenge at times, I was relieved that overall the hike seemed quite a bit easier for me than it did last spring.

(I’ll credit completing my NCT Hike 100, plus giving my hand injury a chance to heal for the difference in difficulty level.  It’s amazing how much a little extra practice and overall not being miserable can impact the quality of a hike!)

I arrived at camp feeling good, but ready to be off of my feet for a bit.  After setting up camp, I took a few minutes to sit in my tent and enjoy the view from the comfort of my sleeping bag.

After getting our camp set up, we decided to build a fire.  Some of the girls in our group gathered dry wood and kindling from around the campground while one girl used her foldable saw to cut logs and I used a machete to chop them.  #teamwork

Once we finally had a fire going, it was time to start getting ready for dinner.

I had pesto walnut pasta, chili, dried mango slices, and hot chocolate for dinner.  It was kind of a huge meal, but it was heaven after a nice, long, cool weather hike.

At camp I was surprised to find out that I was not the only vegetarian backpacker on the hike.  Most of the other girls were either vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian, so we spent some time swapping meatless backpacking meal ideas.

One thing I enjoyed most about going on a group backpacking trip was that all of us had so many different experiences, gear items, and tips to share with one another.

We sat at our table beside the lake until after dark getting warm by the fire, enjoying our food, and sharing our hike bucket lists with one another.  Within a few hours the campground was lit only by fire and the brightness of the full moon.

Eventually we all began to grow tired, so we decided to call it a night.

I went to my tent, took off a layer, shimmied deep into my sleeping bag, and pulled out my phone.  Being a bit of a night owl, I had expected to spend hours lying awake in my tent reading, but surprisingly I drifted off to sleep pretty quickly.

I awoke a few hours later feeling a bit cold.  I also REALLY had to go to the bathroom.

After making a midnight outhouse run, I decided I was more comfortable with my extra layer on, so I crawled back into my sleeping bag with it still on and fell back asleep serenaded by the sounds of owls and coyotes.

After adding the extra layer, I slept like a rock until the next morning.  In typical Kristy fashion I was the last one awake, and the last one to break their camp.

After a quick breakfast and some coffee, we were ready to hit the trail again by around 10:00 A.M.  Most of the other campers around us had already packed up and headed out.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning with a forecast of 55F in the afternoon, another great day for a hike.

The hike out was about two hours through rolling hills.  My feet were a little bit sore from the previous day’s miles, but overall I think making the switch from hiking boots to trail runners last year helped quite a bit.

The last couple miles of trail were pretty much a huge sheet of ice and snow.  I slowed my pace quite a bit, and I don’t regret it, because I didn’t fall AT ALL on the second day of the hike.  For me, that’s an achievement!

Stone Fireplace

After navigating a tricky patch of ice on a downward slop at the end of the trail, we finally made it to the parking lot.

We sat down at a picnic table near the trailhead to talk about the hike and wrap things up.

I was feeling Dark Side of the Moon on the drive home, so I turned it up, put on my cruise control, and just coasted comfortably along the highway as the golden late winter sunshine flooded my car.

I came home to a nice, hot pot of homemade soup cooked by Luke and two dogs who were very happy to have me home.

All in all, the hike was a great experience and I was definitely glad that I decided to do it.  It was definitely worth the sore legs and epsom salt baths over the next few days!

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out my How to Hike in Winter and Fall Hiking 101 posts for some cold weather hiking tips.  As always, if you have any winter hiking, camping, or backpacking tips that you’d like to share, let me know in the comments below! 

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