My First Backpacking Trip – Part 2 –   The trip begins.

Where/When: Hemphill Bald, Great Smoky Mountains, NC – Oct. 2007

I did my own research on the proposed trip. The Boys selected a trip to Hemphill Bald in the Cataloochee area on the North Carolina side of the park. The following link proved most beneficial to me:

The plan was for some of us to leave the Northern Kentucky area on Friday morning. The  remaining overachievers would work a half day and join us for car camping on Friday night at the Cataloochee campground near the trailhead. We then planned to hit the Caldwell Fork trail (4.5 mi., 700ft elev. gain) early on Saturday and setup base camp at campsite #41.  Sunday we would do a 13.8 miles day-hike loop up Double Gap to Hemphill Bald and then on to Polls Gap and take the Rough Fork trail back to the campsite. This direction there is a 2,000 foot elevation gain in first 3 miles, but we figured we would get that out of the way early when it was cool and be able to enjoy a mostly downhill hike the rest of the day.  We would hike out on Monday morning and be home that evening.

The preparation continued.  My physical preparation had been well underway since August. By the beginning of October the regular walking was beginning to pay off. I had also started to get a gear list together and took stock of what I had and still needed to get. I had a couple of sleeping bags to choose from at home. I had gotten a 30 deg. mummy bag and a 0 deg. rectangular bag from Dick’s Sporting Goods (Quest brand) about a year before for my son and I to use on scout campouts. They were inexpensive and also heavy and bulky. (I told you I was a newbie at this right?) I’d make do with one of these; I didn’t want to invest a great deal on this first trip. I had a lot of other basic camping gear, like pads, water bottles etc.  Here’s what I did purchase specifically for backpacking/hiking:

Clothing: boxer briefs, long under shirt and pants, undershirts, liner socks, hiking socks, rain parka, fleece jacket, convertible pants (zip off).  All of the undergarments were synthetic moisture wicking.

Gear: folding camp chair, backpacker trowel, platypus 2-liter reservoir, polar pure water purifier (backup), Petzl headlamp, 32 oz Nalgene wide mouth bottle, day pack, cutlery set.

I just pulled out the invoice and I spent a little over $300.  The most expensive items were the headlamp ($35) and the rain parka ($50).  I don’t regret either purchase. I’ve gotten a lot of use from both.  Most of the items came from Campmor and one item came from Sierra Trading Post. I’m sure I picked up a few more things at the local Meijers too.  I made my own hiking stick from a sapling that had died during the drought that summer; I just didn’t want to spend any more money at this point. 

The week of the trip, I laid out all of the gear in the basement.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to get all of this into the pack. The pack I borrowed was an Everest 8045DLX (, measuring 12”x7”x28” according to the tag.  The biggest problem was the sleeping bag. It is huge. Even in its stuff sack it took up the bottom compartment and protruded well into the middle section of the bag.  Clearly this will have to be addressed before the next trip.  I packed and repacked several times trying to get everything that I needed crammed in and in an accessible location.  I finally had to draw a small diagram showing each compartment with a list of the major items in it - a ‘cheat sheet’ if you will. It came in handy the first day of the trip until I got the hang of things. Nobody gave me any grief over using it.

When Friday arrived, I loaded up the minivan (that my poor wife graciously surrendered for the weekend) and drove over to Mooch’s house. Four of us left early in the day so we could reserve camp sites and scope things out.  The other five should get there about dinner time. It was about a 350 mi., 6 hour drive.  The last 8 miles were on a winding, one lane gravel road that traversed a mountain via too many hairpin turns. Not for the faint of heart, especially when someone comes barreling around one of the curves pulling a pop-up or in a motor home!

The weather was perfect. But, you can’t have everything go according to plan can you? Our first obstacle confronted us when we arrived at the Cataloochee campsite.  It is a small campground and the last two sites had been reserved shortly before we got there. Fortunately, our fearless leader had done his homework. He knew this was likely to happen and had some backup plans - Mooch really does a great job with the planning.  There were two alternate campgrounds that we could try.  One was a small campground at Big Creek and there was a larger one at Cosby, both of which were also off of I-40. Instead of backtracking to I-40, we decided to take another one-lane gravel forest service road directly connecting Cataloochee to Big Creek. We made it, but I wouldn’t recommend that route to anyone. I believe it took us longer than it would have had we gone back to I-40, and it was a bit stressful for the driver, to say the least. As luck would have it, Big Creek was full too. We dropped back to I-40 and made our way to Cosby.  We were able to reach the rest of our group, via cell phone, to give them an update on the destination.

That night we enjoyed some great food and stories around the campfire. Some of the guys left for an hour or two to catch a UK game on TV and to sample some locally produced libations at a camp store.  I’m sure we were some of the last to crawl into tents at the campground that night. I’m a light sleeper, so I was up early and decided to take a short loop hike in the campground area. This was my first trip to the Smokies, and I was just a bit concerned I might run into a bear out there by myself.  I had read the warnings, and knew it was not a good idea to hike alone, but it was a short trail and I wouldn’t be gone long.  It was just a nice morning and was a rather pretty forest. Besides, we hadn’t seen or even heard much wildlife in our travels the previous day. In fact, as a running joke, we had been keeping a count of the big game we had seen. I think we were up to about 4 or 5 squirrels at most. I was quite disappointed in the lack of wildlife in the park so far and that held true for most of the trip. I see more deer in my backyard on a daily basis. The areas we traveled in the park on this weekend seemed to be almost devoid of any bird life, at least from what we could hear.

It took us a while to get packed up and on the road in the morning.  We barreled down I-40, sandwiched in the rest of the traffic flow, which was much more frightening than the trip on the narrow forest service road the previous day. Thank God it wasn’t in bad weather. We finally make it to the Caldwell Fork trailhead at Cataloochee, which was almost an hour’s drive from Cosby. We just barely made Mooch’s self imposed deadline of being on the trail by noon.

Finally, I’ve strapped on my pack and am about to embark on my first backpacking adventure!