Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Backpacking Raccoon Creek State Park, July 2, 2011

Here's a trip report from a camping trip earlier this summer (my first in a while!).  I also have some reports queuing up for the second camping trip, some orienteering, and some discussion of lightweight camping gear.

Planning for this trip came about suddenly, when it became clear we would celebrate Baby's first birthday next weekend, not the same weekend as the Fourth of July. Luckily, I've been experimenting with how to cram enough stuff for an overnight trip into a ridiculously tiny backpack, and I was already pretty much packed up to go.

I considered trying a longer trip at Oil Creek State Park, or on the Laurel Highlands trail, but I thought, given the short prep time, the long gap since my last trip, the hot temperatures, the experimental gear, and the fear of shirking from my parental responsibilities, that I would stick with the well practiced itinerary at Raccoon Creek State Park.

The main goal of my trip (after the main purposes of exercise, solitude, and exposure to trees and fresh air) was to test out my best try at lightweight backpacking. I started that with my trip last year, trading in my tent for a poncho and a bivy sack, but I did my best this time to really minimize my equipment. The three biggest changes from my trip last year were to my backpack, my water, and my shoes.


The back pack I used was an REI Flash 18 day pack. The "18" is for the liters of volume it can contain. Using such a small bag makes bulk almost as big of an issue as weight, but it was an important concession because the other backpacks I have are more than five pounds and way too big for what I need. I got the Flash 18 on the theory that I might be able to get enough into it for an overnight, and if I couldn't it would still be useful as a day pack or a holder for a water pouch (and it has been serving those purposes admirably). After a little testing earlier this year I got it to work. Almost.

I couldn't quite get everything I need IN the pack, but with a little tinkering I was able to get it ON the pack. I know, I know, it's bad form to have stuff lashed onto the outside of the backpack, but it's the best I could do. The items attached to the outside were (1) a ditty sack with my cooking pot and its contents, (2) my poncho, and (3) two water bottles. I'm particularly proud of the water bottle holders that I fashioned, passing some velcro straps through the daisy-chain loops on the backpack. I also strung the daisy chain with elastic cord which I used to cinch down the poncho. The ditty sack was held under the elastic, but secured by a carabiner to a loop.


For water bottles I used two one-liter gatorade bottles. They're tougher than most plastic water bottles, but not as heavy as nalgene. They have a nice wide mouth, not too hard to fill up at a hand pump, and enough shaping to the body that they won't slide out from my home-made holders. I was worried about whether this would be enough in the heat. The first time I went out on this trail in the heat of July I really suffered carrying just two liters of water. On some subsequent trips, carrying the water pouch and two bottles I've been able to get through 10 liters per day! So I was a little worried about that, but I knew that water would be available at the halfway mark on both days, and there are lots of streams I could use for water (after treatment) if I really needed to. Luckily, I didn't have to. Temperatures were 85-90 degrees and the humidity was moderate but not stifling. I didn't have to work as hard, carrying a lighter load, and I've been doing some running so I'm in a little better shape than on past trips. In fact, I only drank one liter per day on the trail (more in camp).


I skipped out on hiking boots this time and wore my beat up running shoes. I've been wearing them for orienteering, and they're not perfect, but I figured if I could wear them running through open woods I could wear them on the trail. They worked just fine. I wore some light smartwool socks with them, also fine. There was one misstep where I got close to twisting my ankle, but no harm done. I was slipping a little on the muddiest sections of the horse trail. Also, I did damage the shoes when I kicked the pointy end of a stick. It went between the sole of the shoe and the fabric of the toe and poked me pretty hard, but didn't break the skin. The verdict is that they worked, but probably aren't durable enough for extended or repeated abuse. Hopefully there is a pair of trail runners or lighter hiking shoes in my future. I've gotten a bit of use out of the last pair of hiking boots, but I may have to promote them to general purpose winter footwear if they aren't going to be dedicated adventure gear.

On the trail

It worked! Carrying a little under 14 pounds, including food and water, I really bounced along. I even jogged on some of the downhill sections. The day was warm but not humid. Thunderstorms were forecast, and one passed nearby but all I got was a nice breeze and a few big raindrops coming through the canopy. Actually, I didn't spend much time on the trail. I skipped along for nine or ten miles and got into camp well before dinner, and not completely exhausted.

In camp

I had a tricky time finding two trees exactly where I wanted them for the tarp, and the length of cord I had was probably a little too short. When I got the tarp up it was probably a little too low. I didn't get much breeze underneath, which was too warm late in the evening, but helped when the rain came later on. I propped up one edge with a stick, which helped keep things ventilated. I ate dinner early, lay down early, read for a few hours, and went to sleep. I woke up to the sounds of incredible thunder and deafening rain coming down on the tarp. After determining that everything was staying dry under the low pitched tarp and inside the bivy I listened to the storm and then fell back asleep. A few hours later and several hundred miles away, lightening from that same storm would injure five Civil War reenactors camped out at Gettysburg

At 4AM I woke up again, a little sore where I had been laying on my hips, needing to pee, and completely rested and awake. Having strong motivation to get up and no need to stay asleep I decided to pack up and hit the trail early. Another nice thing about not having too much stuff is that it's easy to pack. Less than an hour after waking up I was up, packed, and on the trail.

Second day

The only trouble I had hiking in the dark before dawn was finding the trail the first time. The little paths around the tent camp site are not well used, and actually a tree had fallen across one of them so I had pretty much just been picking my way through the bushes. I actually made a point coming back from the pump to be able to locate the campsite relative to the camping shelters that were on a bigger path and were easier to find. After a few minutes I couldn't find the trail I wanted, so I got out my dinky emergency compass, and headed in a direction I thought would take me to the trail, with the idea that if I didn't see it right away I could turn around and come back. Luckily I found it right away.

Hiking at dawn was a lot of fun. The leaves, covered in rain or dew, looked like little pieces of foil scattered across the ground. Mist rose up through the trees and morning light slowly brought color to everything. The dampness and fog in one of the ferniest sections of the park gave a much more ancient and exotic feel to the Pennsylvania woodlands, which have begun to feel a little "back yard" to me.

After the early start I had no problem getting back to the car well before lunch, and was back home before noon. All around it was a very quick, but very satisfying trip.  The gear worked, the running helped, and the short duration of the trip made it very easy to fit into a busy schedule.  I also feel like I'm outgrowing Raccoon Creek and I feel like I've built up enough experience to consider trying some more challenging locations.

Stay tuned for details from the follow up trip I made to this same location two weeks later, and for photographic evidence that I own camping equipment.

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