This can only mean one thing …

Back on the trail after a seven-month break. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

After a seven-month break, I’m finally back on the trail with my last hike of 2019. This is going to be a shake-down hike, with lots of new gear to check and test, plus I need to get back into the swing of hiking and camping.  

Garmin InReach Mini
Backpacking Savior – Garmin InReach – A trip to ER with minor heart issues after a backpacking trip in May means I’ve treated myself to a little orange buddy so I can get out in the wilderness and keep in touch if I need to. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

This trip has been a long while coming. After ending up in ER following my last backpacking trip in May, the cardiologist advised me to stay off the trails for a while. Ginger and I decided that before I went out backpacking again, I would need to get a personal satellite locator/communicator to enable me to keep me in touch and call for assistance if I became disabled where there is no cell phone service, and I couldn’t ‘Self Rescue.’ A lot of research brought me to the Garmin InReach Mini, and just before Christmas the price dropped by $40.00, so I snapped it up. 

Another thing preventing me from getting out has been a lack of transport. Our minivan died just before we flew out to England in September, and we needed to think long and hard about what to replace it with. Finally, just before Christmas, we headed out to the dealers without a lot of hope of finding what we wanted. This was because our online research showed that our choice of vehicle was popular and sold fast. Our luck was in, and within four hours we had a new-to-us small SUV. 

Now nothing was stopping me getting back out on the trail. My plan was for a three-and-a-half mile hike along the reasonably flat Pilots (Tower) Trail at Hercules Glades Wilderness. We’d had a lot of rain the previous day, so I planned to camp near what I’ve named ‘Twin Falls Hollow.’ I’d be able to take another look at the falls, and setting up camp on the west side of the hollow would keep me sheltered from the predicted wind and in the early morning sunshine.

To make things more interesting, I have recently been going through my backpacking gear, reducing weight. I have got my backpack down to 21lbs with full winter gear, which should keep me comfortable down to around 10ºF /-12ºC. My front-pack weighs in at 5½lbs, including my camera, extra lens, mini tripod, phone, trail snacks, first aid kit, etc…

I’ve got rid of my emergency kit, mainly because most of it duplicated stuff I was already carrying, and some items I’ve re-distributed. I bought a Fancee Feest stove, and a peak shelf – a mesh shelf/bag that holds gear up in the head end of the hammock. Santa brought me a Vargo titanium cathole trowel and a Toaks long-handled titanium spoon. I wrapped paracord around the handle of the trowel, so I don’t need to carry the cord separately. The spoon should be great for getting into the bottom of food packets without getting my fingers caked in gunk. I bought some new hiking huaraches from Luna Sandals. These have much more rugged soles. Hopefully, they will help me keep up the pace, as it seemed that was the main difference between the faster pace I managed with my Xero Shoes trail running shoes, and my old huaraches. Finally, I’ve dropped the several small Nalgene bottles I used for carrying my stove fuel and replaced them with one 12oz soda bottle (Mountain Dew). I wrapped duct-tape around the bottle providing an emergency supply for repairs. All I need is some baling wire, and I’m set to deal with any Ozark’s emergency — just kidding, I don’t intend to carry baling wire – I have paracord and other odds and ends of Reflect-it line!

Day One 

I left late because I didn’t fancy spending a lot of time sitting around in camp with a cold wind blowing. After all the rain we had the previous night, I didn’t want to try lighting a fire, though maybe I should as it would have been good practice. Ah, the joys of hindsight! 

It was shortly after 1:00 p.m. When I signed in at the trailhead register. There were two vehicles parked at the trailhead, and two people had signed in on the Pees Hollow Trail. It was overcast, around 50ºF, with a cold wind blowing. My hunch about the huaraches was correct, I set off at a good pace, and much to my surprise I only got one stone trapped on the footbed during the entire hike — both in and out. I met a couple on the trail. If they were the people signed in to the Pees Hollow trail, they’d either missed the trail start (easily done) or extended their hike.

Gary on the Pilots Trail, Hercules Glades Wilderness. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Once past the Pole Hollow Trail junction, the trail turned into a mini creek in a repeat of my ‘Wet Feet Hike,’ On the flat the huaraches were fine. However, on inclines, the footbed tended to be a bit slippery. Some more aggressive texture on the footbed might be helpful. It was nothing I couldn’t cope with, and all in all, I’m happy with how they held up. It started to rain on a couple of occasions but quit before I decided it was raining enough to warrant getting my rain gear out.

Another ‘Wet Feet’ Trip. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
New gear testing – Luna Sandals – I’ve had these several months, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to get out hiking in them. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Juniper Berries by the trail – on the Pilots (Tower) Trail, Hercules Glades Wilderness. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Happy to be here. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
The trail was wet and it was a dull day – Hercules Glades Pilots (Tower) Trail. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

By 2:40 p.m., I was at the point on the trail where I needed to start bushwhacking to find a spot to camp for the night. Ten minutes later, I was wandering around looking for a couple of suitable trees without any nearby ‘widow-makers.’ On my way past, I noted that the ‘Twin Falls’ were running well and decided I’d get some pictures the following day (mistake). By 3:15 p.m., I’d found a good campsite close to a low rock face to the west that would shelter me from the forecast westerly wind. Dark clouds were gathering, and it threatened to rain, so I needed to hurry and get the tarp up.

I’ll admit that I’m out of practice, and it took me a while to get everything set up. The clouds lightened, and it never did rain. It was only after I’d taken some pictures that I noticed that I’d set the tarp up upside down, so I had to reset it the correct way up. I also messed up the tensioning but didn’t realize that until the next day.

Camped near ‘Twin Falls’ Hercules Glades Wilderness – It was only after I finished taking my pictures that I realized that I had set the tarp the wrong way up. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I set to making myself a hot drink and struggled with the titanium windbreak which I had shortened just before this trip. My idea for joining the two ends of the windbreak together worked on my desk, but not out in the real world. I’ve since sorted out a solution that involved folding over the two end edges of the foil so they lock together. The Fancee Feest stove worked well, but it is so light I was concerned that the wind was going to blow it away, adding some fuel weighed it down a bit. It wasn’t until I put my cookpot on the stove that I was sure it wasn’t going to whiz off in a gust of wind.

I sent my first satellite text message once everything was set up, and Ginger sent me back a picture of where I was located via WhatsApp. That’s another piece of equipment successfully tested. I should add that another reason why I picked this spot to camp was that there is cell phone service available here. I wasn’t relying solely on the untested Garmin InReach Mini.

Fairy lights in my hammock – and why not? Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Dinner was a Mountain House Pepper Steak meal, and a chance to try out the new Toaks titanium long-handled spoon, which was even better than I expected. Well worth getting. I’d set up a string of fairy lights along the hammock’s ridgeline, and they worked well, providing a small amount of background lighting. I spent the evening reading a book on my phone.

It was a windy night, and instead of shifting to the west, it kept blowing very coldly from the south, Not the direction I’d set up camp for. Every now and then, an icy blast would get between my underquilt creating a temporary cold spot. Overall though, I was almost too hot and had to vent my top quilt from time to time. Outside, the temperature dropped to 33ºF.

Day One Stats 

  • 3.45 miles
  • 59ft. Elevation Gain
  • 381ft. Elevation loss

Day Two

I woke around 7:00 a.m. to a lot of birdsong. There were a large number of birds looking for food in the trees. Because of the hollow’s high sides, it was nearly 9:00 a.m. before the sun reached the hammock. 

Breakfast was a Mountain House Breakfast Skillet. After I’d eaten that, I spent the morning taking pictures before packing up camp and heading back to the trailhead.

Camped near ‘Twin Falls’, Hercules Glades Wilderness – Looking south towards the falls. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
All packed and ready to go – Ginger say’s it’s just as well that she loves me regardless of my dress sense. It was not cold in the sun – 46°F (8°C), but the wind was cold. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Overnight the creek had lost a lot of flow, and only one of the falls was running. So good pictures of the falls were not going to be on the agenda.

Looking (north) down ‘Twin Falls’ hollow. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I was on the trail shortly before midday, and it came as no surprise to see that the trails had pretty much dried up overnight. The wind was bitterly cold, so I’d kept my base layer on. I hadn’t been hiking too long before I had to stop and get rid of it as I was overheating.

The main creek feeding ‘Twin Falls’ – this is where the trail crosses the creek. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I was keeping an eye open for a spot downhill on the northside of the trail where I could stop and eat lunch and make a hot drink. I didn’t find anywhere until I got back to the Pole Hollow Junction. That’s only a thirty-minute hike from the trailhead, but I decided to take a break anyway. I wanted to test the Fancee Feest stove out in the open, and it was windy! Despite the problems with the windscreen, the stove did its job, and I had a good cup of hot chocolate to go with a protein bar and some nuts and raisins.

Stopped for lunch – Hot chocolate to drink, a protein bar, and some nuts and raisins. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
Lunch on the trail – Hot chocolate to drink, a protein bar, and some nuts and raisins. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

I arrived back at the trailhead at 2:50 p.m., Ours was the only vehicle there. I sent my third and final ‘All okay’ satellite text message before driving home. It was a good ‘first’ trip, I need to keep an eye on the weather and calendar for my next opportunity to get out. Now we have a reliable vehicle I’m eyeing up some hikes further afield.

The only vehicle at the Trailhead – and it is where I left it. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.

Day Two Stats 

  • 3.7 miles
  • 499ft. Elevation Gain
  • 75ft. Elevation loss

New Gear

Another weight cutting exercise – Also new for this trip, Katie’s Sig weighs a lot less than my Beretta. Copyright © 2019 Gary Allman, all rights reserved.
  • Garmin InReach Mini. It worked very well. I’ve not quite got it set up the way I want it, so I’ll need to spend some more time personalizing the messages. But, for a small unit, the GPS was surprisingly accurate. At the trailhead, in the aerial view, it placed me at the rear of a vehicle in the correct parking bay just a couple of feet from where I was standing. Not bad.
  • Fancee Feest Stove. The jury is still out on this stove. I had trouble assessing exactly how much fuel to put in, which means a couple of times it ran out before it had boiled my water, and on another couple of occasions I put in too much fuel. I was also concerned that It would get blown over in the wind. I need more trips out with it to see if it’ll stay a part of my gear.
  • Toaks Titanium Long-handled Spoon. This surprised me. I expected the long handle to keep my fingers clean. What I didn’t expect was that the long handle and the angle of the bowl kept the handle clean too. Highly recommended, though, don’t forget you need somewhere to pack it that copes with the longer handle. The side pocket of my pack swallowed it with no problem.
  • Vargo Dig Dig Tool. The soil wasn’t as hard and stoney as I’ve met elsewhere, so more testing is needed. The saw-toothed edges are very sharp, and it requires a sleeve to protect the rest of my gear from rubbing against it. In use, the rolled edges on the end of the handle pushed uncomfortably into the palm of my hand. Some duct tape might help. Speaking of which…
  • Duct tape around the fuel bottle. This worked well, and I needed it to tape up the broken top of my water bottle. The water bottle is functional, but the rough broken edges were catching my clothes as I hiked. The duct tape fixed it.
  • Peak Shelf. It held a remarkable amount of gear — in fact, I put too much in it, making finding things difficult. I should be keeping more of my unused clothes and equipment in my pack.
  • Fuel Bottle. Worked fine, it didn’t get crushed in the side pocket of my pack (a concern). It did exactly what I wanted it to do.
  • Luna Sandals. I wore them both days, even though I’d brought my hiking shoes (that’s another 1lb I didn’t need to carry). Apart from the slipping issue when the footbed is wet, they were excellent. Despite the 46ºF temperatures and wet conditions, my feet weren’t cold.
  • String of Lights. I was skeptical about these, but they worked well and made finding my way back to the hammock in the dark a lot easier.
  • SIG Sauer P238. At 16.3oz, it weighs 20oz less than my Beretta and is a lot smaller too, so it’s much easier to carry. It doesn’t have the same firepower or capacity, but it makes plenty of noise. As I’m looking after this gun for a couple of years (while Katie’s working abroad), I think I’ll switch the handgrips for something more tactical and less decorative. 

Lessons Learned

  • If I had set out earlier I would have more time to just soak up some of the atmosphere. I need to allow myself more time.
  • Put the tarp up the correct way up to save having to swap it around!
  • I had forgotten how to secure the Tato Tarp Connectors, so they slipped and let the tarp sag in the wind. I need to remember to review things after I take a long break from backpacking.
  • I remembered to put the hammock in the contractor bag in my pack to make sure it keeps dry. Simple and obvious, but not something I’ve done before.
  • I switched around where I keep my gear in my backpack for this trip. Having the stove in a side pocket worked well. Having some heavy items in the top pocket didn’t. I’ll put them at the bottom of the pack in the future.
  • I opened up the inner divider of the pack, and that worked out well. I could still access the loose gear in the bottom of the pack using the lower zipper.
  • Do I need the stuff sacks for the hammock and tarp? Quite possibly not.

In Conclusion

So, that was my final hike for 2019. At the start of the year, my goal was to camp out two nights a month and backpack 20 miles a month. I knew that with work that was going to be a challenge. However, I didn’t plan on having to take a medical break and not having a vehicle for four months.

Partly my last trip out was to push up my numbers because even though I didn’t go out at all from June to December, with this final trip I managed to get out as many nights and hike further than I did in 2018.

201911 nights78.48 miles
201811 nights63.96 miles

Of course, that was nowhere near my target of 24 nights and 240 miles. Next year I’ll set some more modest targets.

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