The New Year has passed and, unfortunately, I was unable to spend New Year’s Eve as I really wanted–out on the trail. Monday brought 3 or so inches of snow and, not wanting to lose track of a trail I’m unfamiliar with, I chose to postpone the trip. Then I realized, frak, my friend Nixapotamos was headed here from the East Coast and would be here on Saturday. And the Neighbor is headed out of town on the 11th and I’ll be critter watching. Hmmm, my window of opportunity was shrinking. Quickly.
Instead of pondering this wee conundrum further, I opted for an impromptu overnighter at the Natural Bridge in Kaintuck Hollow. And when I say impromptu I mean I decided at 2:45 p.m. and was out the door by 3:30. This would work out well and be more of gear-test trip than anything. In recent weeks I’d accrued a new pack, larger cooking pot, a solid fuel stove, and a new sleeping pad. Might as well make certain everything was up to snuff, right?
I texted the Neighbor to let her know my plans and ask her to mind the critters for the evening and the following a.m. ‘Lo and behold, she was in the mood for a little light hike in the snow that evening. She decided to go with and so plans morphed from there. She would drive us (yay for AWD Hondas!) and pick me up the following morning. Perfect.
Since I’d already been prepping for several days on the trail, all I had to do was gather all the necessary things into the pack, check critter food and water, and head out the door. Sweet. Trail time!
Off we went. Kaintuck Hollow is just a few miles down the road and part of our local section of the Mark Twain National Forest. There are several trails within Kaintuck, but most online maps and information show the Acorn section located in the SE corner. The Natural Bridge is in the upper, N area about .5 miles from a small parking area. Like so much of the Ozarks, there are pine forests interspersed among predominant hardwoods. The approach to Natural Bridge is almost all pine changing to hardwoods as the trail continues on, up, and over the cave opening.
We hiked back to the Natural Bridge, but the lower area in front of it is a bit open and, at this time, was covered in snow. I wanted an easy overnight, so we hiked about halfway back down the trail to a pre-existing fire ring in amongst the pines. Nice. You could feel the temp differential between here and the front of the cave and, overall, it would be much warmer (relatively speaking) than out in the open.
Daylight was waning as the Neighbor and I agreed upon the next day’s meet-up time. I unshouldered my pack as she headed off and started in on fire making. When we’d left my place it had been about 27°F. Down in the hollow of Kaintuck the temp was probably around 24° and dropping as the sun set. We had a cold front headed in, with lows forecasted in the mid-teens. Perfect temps for testing cold-weather gear. Thankfully, in winter, there are rarely any fire bans in our area. There are some trails in the Ozarks which prohibit burning (if I recall correctly, the Ozark Trail section through Johnson’s Shut-ins is one), but for the most part you’re welcome to have a cheery fire at your campsite, even off-trail. Just don’t be stupid about it.
Problem was, it was bloody cold. Had been bloody cold, and wet, too, for several days. Mind, I’m not an amateur at fire starting and I knew I’d have a bitch of a time getting a decent blaze. But, I figured, meh, just get the frozen twigs and stuff thawed a bit and they’d burn just fine, right?
Everything was frozen.
I started off with lint soaked in hand-sanitizer and twigs. The twigs would burn for a bit, I’d add some slightly larger wood, then it’d all burn out. Damn. Next I tried dry fat wood with magnesium shavings. No dice. Finally, I tried Esbit tabs (solid fuel) and still nothing. Well, frak. Oh, well, hell with it, I had fuel for cooking, I’d just double up on hot nomz and go to bed earlier. And I turned to pitching my little solo tent before I completely lost light.
My Kelty Crestone 1 isn’t free-standing, so a bit of forethought is required when pitching it. Also, it’s small and can be a bit cramped for even my not-very-large 5’5.5″ frame–I can’t sit upright without my head rubbing the top of the tent. And it requires a number of stakes to get both the tent and the fly taut. But, I’ve had it for years, took it on The Flamin’ Texas Roadtrip of ’08, in fact, so pitching it is pretty old hat.
And I was excited, I would finally give the Big Agnes sleeping bag and pad a test-run in truly cold temps! A 15° bag, plus an insulated air core pad, and my trusty, cut-down blue foam pad.The R value of the two of them together is greater than 5! Dear Lord, I’d be sleeping in divine comfort on the trail, excellent.
So, I turned to my pack to grab the…oh.
Guess what I forgot?
Lovely. I am an idiot. Oh, freakin’ really? REALLY?! I’d have called the Neighbor but guess what? NO. CELL. SIGNAL. So I didn’t bring the phone. I brought the SPOT locator in order to let the Better Half know that I’m ok–but it only sends pre-designated messages. Ergo, nothing doing but staying put.
Ok, it was going to be stupid cold in a few hours. The ground was already cold. I couldn’t get anything to burn, but I had plenty of stove fuel and plenty of water and plenty of things to put in hot water to consume. In addition to the base layer and wool sweater I was wearing I had a polypro layer in my pack and–miracle of miracles–I’d grabbed both a package of hand warmers and a package of toe warmers. Also, extra wool socks. And a down jacket. And a wool beanie and puffy gloves. And a TurtleFur neck gaiter. I was stacked for cold weather. Except for getting up off of the ground.
Wait a minute. Ha! Garbage bag!
Ok, so many of you know I’m a survival skills nut. I’ve written before about Mors Kochanski, Les Stroud, and Cody Lundin–thing is, you don’t learn just from reading their books or watching their films. You have to get outside and practice the skills they discuss, using the items they recommend having with you, when you don’t need them. The which of the why, despite trying to be as lightweight as possible, I still carry an axe and multiple fire tools. And then other things–a mylar blanket, an emergency candle, and a 55 gallon trash bag.
I spent the next 20 minutes crawling around stuffing a 55 gallon garbage bag full of leaves and pine needles. It wouldn’t be as cozy as an insulated sleeping pad, but it would insulate me from the ground and provide some cushioning.
Now, Big Agnes bags do not have fill in the bottom, logic being that you’re going to be laying on it and crushing the loft of the fill material. No loft equals nothing to hold in heat, therefore you’re lugging around unnecessary weight. Of course, this makes it extra important to remember your goram sleeping pad, but we’ve covered my idiocy already.
Mylar blankets can save your hide, but they don’t breathe. Meaning moisture that you perspire and respire gets trapped. Over a shockingly short period of time you’ll find a remarkable amount of water dripping onto you from the mylar. So, to combat cold transference and puddling, I put the mylar blanket in the bag, but under me.
The last trick involved the hand and toe warmers. Key to staying warm is keeping your core and extremities warm. I layered the toe warmers between two pairs of wools socks. Holy cow that worked incredibly well! Toasty toes, oh yes. The hand warmers went between the baselayer and the polypro layer at my kidneys. Throughout the night, before I really fell into good sleep, I moved them back and forth between my kidneys and spine.
I crawled out of a very icy tent around 8 the next morning, the sun just then peaking over the ridge to the east and shedding some sunshine onto my campsite. It’s amazing how much moisture the human body sheds and I discovered, very quickly, that my little tent did not vent very well. Of course, it most likely would have helped had I openend the vent tunnel, but the dewfall had been heavy, even with the sub-freezing temps. Needless to say, there was a wedding cake crust of ice crystals all over the rainfly.
The Neighbor showed up about 9:30 looking amused at my camping hair; then stunned when I mentioned that I had managed to forget the sleeping pad. Apparently, the temp had dropped into the high single-digits and while I can’t say it was the most comfortable overnight I’ve ever spent in a tent, it certainly wasn’t the worst. That’s another story for another time.
So, to recap, I am, in fact, a dumbass who managed to leave the house without a sleeping pad for an overnight that got down to 9°F. Because of survival skills and survival gear, I was able to make the best out of a potentially dangerous situation and stay warm, if not comfortable.
Now, may the snarky comments and heckling commence.