I have a really strange habit of deciding that I am more than capable of doing wild activities, whether or not there is any evidence indicating that this is in fact the case. So, when the opportunity came along to go on my first overnight backpacking trip I jumped on it.
The plan was to do 8 miles over 2 days, summiting Devils Courthouse, Black Balsam, and Sam Knob before setting up camp for the night and hiking out in the morning. You can see the vague plan on the path I tracked using the All Trails app (this is my faaavorite tool for finding the right hike for me AND for tracking my time, pace, and trip!)
A week before our hiking set date I planned out a couple of my meals and favorite snacks to bring along, figured out who I could borrow a tent from, and practice packed all of my gear. I’ve hiked 6 miles before, so I didn’t think 8 would be any big thing. I was wrong, but we’ll get to that!
When Saturday arrived, my alarm woke me up at 6 am and it was go time. I grabbed my pack which was ready to go from the night before and drove to meet the girls I was going to go hiking with. It’s worth noting that I did this trip 3 weeks into moving to Charlotte and the women I was hiking with had only met once before. To say I was a little nervous is a fair statement!
I got to our meeting spot; Jess and I piled into Danielle’s car with our packs and after a quick stop at Panera for breakfast (I had a bagel breakfast sandwich to load up on some carbs for the day ahead- and of course a cup of coffee!) we were Blue Ridge Parkway bound!
The drive up was easy and between still waking up, singing along to Danielle’s playlist and all getting to know each other the drive flew by and we were parked and putting on our gear by 9:45.
Backpacking Day 1
Our trek started on the Mountains-to-Sea trail and started off pretty flat before becoming increasingly more vertical about 15 minutes in. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like the first 45 minutes of a hike are always the hardest because my body is trying to adjust! Anyone else? I don’t think shouldering a 20lb pack helped much either.
We hit our first summit around an hour and a half in and it was beautiful! No one else was at the top of the summit which meant we got to enjoy ourselves and a hard-earned view. It felt amazing to put my backpack down for a minute and rest my shoulders which we killing me at this point (I realized another hour later that I just needed to adjust the straps on my pack and the issue was resolved… oops!). Despite how sweaty I was I actually ended up having to put on a sweatshirt since it’s colder up in the mountains. After enjoying the view and drinking some water we continued on to Black Balsam.
The hike to Black Balsam was smooth sailing until about 40 minutes out from the top. We all really wanted to make it to the summit before sitting down and enjoying lunch, but we really should have taken a snack break. The final stretch to get to the summit of Black Balsam is pretty straight up, and while it’s not a technical climb it does have quite a few false summits which started to feel really frustrating when my steps got clumsy.
It’s really easy for me to forget that just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should. Don’t get me wrong, our determination to get to the top and then take lunch was great, but if we were on a harder trail that kind of brain fog could have been really dangerous.
We summited Black Balsam around 2 and found a spot to spread out and eat lunch. I had a mix of things, but dessert was gummy bears because they’re my favorite trail dessert! And I find the boost of sugar in them to really help when I’m fatiguing.
Black balsam was my second favorite summit of the day and enjoying lunch for an hour and getting to kick back felt amazing on for my feet which were starting to feel the mileage at this point. My boots do this weird think where they start to hurt my toes when I hike downhill for too long. This probably should have been an indicator that I needed to tread more carefully, but again, I’d never been backpacking before and in about .5 miles I was going to be in uncharted territory for me.
We hit the trail again around 3 after soaking up some sun and listening to kids running around playing tag. It was really nice to see people that young getting out there and enjoying being outside, that’s what I want for my future kids. Sometimes I worry about what technology dependence is going to look like in the next 15 years, so even though I’m nowhere close to wanting kids this felt really comforting.
From Black Balsam to Sam Knob things started to go downhill for me (literally and figuratively). We took a wrong turn and went down a pretty sharp decline for about 15 minutes before checking AllTrails and realizing that we needed to turn around. By this point my toes were really starting to hurt and my right inner thigh near my hip was developing a slight pain. Going down and then back up such a steep, very rocky, trail ended up doing me in, in the long run but we’ll get to that later.
Despite my hip and toes hurting I finally had my backpack adjusted so that it was fitting to my body nice and snug and that felt like a big win, so our walk to where we decided to set up camp before summiting Sam Knob for sunset went by pretty quickly! This section of the trail was mostly downhill, so our time was much quicker than anticipated, and we got to the base of Sam Knob around 5:30.
We decided to set up camp before heading off to do our final summit for a couple of reasons. They were as follows:
- We found a great spot about a quarter mile from the base of Sam Knob
- It was getting later and quite a few people we had passed had already set up for the night, we didn’t want to have to search and set up in the dark
- None of us really wanted to schlep our packs up the third summit
At around 7 we grabbed our dinners and summit beers and headed up. The hike up should have been a breeze but after adding on an extra 3 miles to what was supposed to be a 6 mile day we were all pretty beat. The hike was quick though and when we got to the top around 40 minutes later we were greeted with my favorite view of the trip.
This was probably the first time on our hike that I really understood why the Blue Ridge Parkway had that name. I want to be more profound and talk all about how I felt a deep sense of peace in knowing how small I was in the grand scheme of things and how lucky I was to have met these two incredible women (who while I didn’t know it at the time have become two of my closest friends here) but honestly it was so windy at the top that all I could really think about was how cold I was and how much I wanted to go back down the mountain and be warm in my tent. We stuck it out and waited until sunset, which was amazing, but I’m not 100% sure it was worth it.
As soon as sunset passed we booked it down the mountain and made it down it what I would call record time. It was pretty dark by the time we hit the base and there was a small river that had to be crossed before we made it to our camp. I crossed first while jess help our food bag and empty cans. Once I was over she tossed me our stuff and her and Danielle took their turns. Unfortunately, about half way across Danielle took a misstep and her foot plunged into the stream. We were only 100 feet from camp, so that part wasn’t a big deal, but putting her wet boot back on in the morning ended up being a real downer.
Back at camp we decided to call it a night and all packed into our tents after brushing teeth and putting everything edible into our bear can. Carrying the can took up a lot of room, but bears are pretty prevalent around where we were hiking and you can get a pretty hefty fine if your caught without one. Because there were three of us we took turns carrying it throughout the day, and all of our food and toiletries fit perfectly!
I crawled into my tent SO ready for bed and I fell asleep for probably 2 hours before waking up from how loud the wind was and how cold I was. I know this next paragraph is going to sound pretty whiny, but I feel that it’s really important to be candid about the whole experience. Even when I was tired and hungry I was having an amazing time but being cold and not having a way to warm up was horrible. None of us had anticipated the kind of wind we encountered, and I think I got my best sleep from 6-8 am. I phased in and out of sleep and shivering violently from 11-6 when it finally warmed up enough for my body to relax a little.
Backpacking Day 2
I woke up to Jess and Danielle talking about how neither of them had slept very well either and we chatted about it while packing up camp. None of us said it, but I think we all wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. It was 40 degrees when we woke up, which was far colder than forecasts had anticipated and we all wanted to start moving so we could warm up. Taking down my tent was by far the worst part, because the poles were so freakin’ cold from the night before.
Breakfast consisted of strawberry Pop-tart slathered in Justin’s vanilla almond butter while Danielle and Jess ate variations of the same thing and then we got moving. Once we started I warmed up a lot and with food in my stomach everything felt a lot more manageable. About 5 minutes in I realized that the hip pain I had experienced during the latter half of our hike the day before was much more serious than I thought, and the flare up reared its head full force. I didn’t want to slow down or mention that I was in pain because I knew we were close to the end and the hike out was really flat. We covered the last 3 miles of our hike in 45 minutes which is crazy! The feeling of accomplishment was almost overwhelming, and I think the buildup of completing my first backpacking trip, 4 total hours of sleep, and still being pretty darn cold all caught up with me at once, because I found myself getting pretty emotional.
When we got back to Danielle’s car we hoped in and drove straight to Asheville for breakfast and then beer!
Takeaways From My First Backpacking Trip:
- Always be prepared for things to be 10 degrees colder than you think they’ll be. I went out and bought a sleeping bag liner 2 days after I got home so I’d never be that cold again.
- Have a little more faith in yourself, you’re capable of more than you think!
- Trekking poles aren’t an old person’s game. Get them. Use them. Thank me later.
- Backpacking is a really amazing opportunity to grow as a person and push yourself father than you think you can go.
- Not every second of the trip is going to go well, but you attitude will determine 99% of it!
Question: What’s one thing you’ve learned from backpacking?
What do you wish you knew before your first trip?