John Muir Time in Ohio

It ain’t cheap.

Let’s get this out of the way, first and foremost. Missouri spoiled me. Thousands of Conservation Area acres and no fees? Mark Twain National Forest? State Forests? I have to admit, the opportunities to hike and camp, for free, were practically endless.

Now that we are in Ohio and things are…a bit different. State parks here, as I’ve thus far seen, have a LOT of infrastructure. Bike and canoe rentals, basketball courts, restaurants, interactive centers, you name it. In order to support these amenities, the camping costs an average of $20 per night. Hiking, of course, costs nothing (please note that I’ve yet to visit a site that imposes a day use fee).

What all this infrastructure and fees structure tells me is that these parks are pretty darn busy during the summer months. By ‘busy’ I mean ‘full of people’ and, for me, the entire point of hitting the woods is to get away from people.

To my ever-frugal mind, $20 a night to string up a tarp and use a fire ring is exorbitant. For now, until I’ve done a bit more digging around, I just deal with it.

The point is…

If you have kids, Ohio parks are great. There’re lots of things for them to do and interact with while there. But, if you’re out to experience nature in all its silence and cacophony, it’s difficult.

That’s my conundrum. I really don’t want to only be able to experience the out-of-doors here in winter to avoid the crowds (although I do love winter camping and hiking). Mind, by ‘crowds’ I mean pretty much anyone at all. I realize to some this sounds incredibly selfish–public lands are for everyone, after all–but the joy of wilderness, for me, is the absence of both human infrastructure and humans. And, okay, yes, trails and such are human infrastructure, I get that. Perhaps I should more accurately say modern infrastructure? Spaces designed for folks in RVs, with electric and such, just ain’t my speed. Hearing someone’s radio blaring and generator roaring into the night kinda kills my Muir buzz.

What the hell is “John Muir time”?

Who’s John Muir? Pretty much the absolute antithesis to John Galt (Google it, it’s an Ayn Rand thing). The simplest explanation is that he was the father of our public lands. More specifically, he was the father of public wilderness. An avid nature writer, he regaled us all with his tales of exploring flora and fauna on his travels across America, California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. He thought of wilderness as Church, the closest humans could get to God’s creation–but he wasn’t a bible thumper. Part hermit, part theologian, part naturalist, he sought serenity in wilderness.

I, too, seek out the serenity in the wildest locales of God’s creation.

I go for the stillness of a sunrise as the birds slowly wake up and announce the day and the various critters either go to bed or start their morning routines. I go to listen to the trees, to see the fungi and mosses, observe the orb web weavers do their thing. I go to be a lightly treading part of that world–the world that is so different from the daily grind of traffic, work, technology, and too much noise.

Tar Hollow State Park, Laurelville, OH

As I’ve previously mentioned, winter camping and hiking are great because NO PEOPLE. The flip side of that is the weather can be problematic. The old saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate gear” is exceptionally apt in this instance. The fact is, going camping and hiking unprepared in winter is not only uncomfortable, it can kill you. God knows I’ve goofed a time or two myself. 

With the craziness of the past few months (buying a house, relocating all our belongings and our herd of six dogs and seven cats, unpacking, planning a renovation, etc.), I was beyond getting itchy for some outdoors time, I was about to crack. So, in January, I set a date for the weekend of February 17th to get outside–hell or high water, snow or ice, I was going camping for this three-day weekend.

And then, global warming stepped in. Highs in the mid-60s (F) and no rain in the forecast for my camping weekend.

What. The. Frak?

It’s terrifying that the current weather is so wonky but, hell, I’ll take it.

Sweet Pea the Hiking Dachsie and I loaded up into Maude the Mad Mazda Friday afternoon and headed East to the Appalachian foothills and Tar Hollow State Park.

Despite the Spring-like temps, there was but a single family camping in the lower campground. I, however, chose the walk-in sites high atop a ridge. The sun set shortly after I finished pitching the tarp and collecting deadfall for firewood. It was blissfully quiet, no other sound than the breeze in the pines and the occasional reminder from Sweet Pea that she hates being on a tie out.

As I unpacked the kitchen gear (I’d recently purchased a cheapy wood burning camp stove and was eager to test it out), it became obvious that my favorite orange lighter was NOT snuggled into the Ti camping mug where it was supposed to be. Really? A quick search through all the gear revealed that, yep, I had managed to hit the woods sans lighter. I did, however, have my emergency fire kit in my daypack that I’d left in the car. WIN! Matches and a LMF Swedish Firesteel. Leaving the matches for a true emergency, I used the firesteel for the weekend.

I whipped up a quick batch of Camping Fideo (brown SPAM (or any sausage, really), saute vermicelli (or any super thin noodle) in butter, combine and add Rotel or diced tomatoes, bring to a boil and eat when vermicelli is soft. NOM!) and settled down with my Kindle for the night.

 

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Of course, I’m going to play with the headlamp for a selfie.

 

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool, but clouded over as the temps warmed. In no time it was alternately dreary and sunny. But, a few clouds weren’t going to keep us out of the woods.

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The view from my rack Saturday morning.

 

After depositing our fee (self-register at THSP after December), the dachsie and I hit the Ross Trail–a “moderate” 3.5-mile loop. It was lovely. Quiet. No one else out there and so, for us, perfect. Until the last half mile.

Let’s back up here for a moment and fill you in on some background details:

  1. I’m currently out of shape and overweight
  2. I’m disabled (long story, just call me Gimpy)
  3. Getting into shape is challenging when you’re disabled
  4. I started my cube farm job 10 months ago
  5. No, I didn’t keep up the daily walking habit I’d gotten into with my previous job
  6. We recently bought a house and made multiple trips to move our belongings and critters
  7. Stress and the ready availability of delivery food, in addition to Shiner Bock, may have had a bit to do with the weight gain
  8. Working onsite (as opposed to the remote, work-from-home l did with my previous job) is exhausting for everyone–it’s debilitating when you’re disabled
  9. I hadn’t been hiking at all since last summer
  10. I recently restarted walking daily (or, as I call it, “walkwarding”, walking plus gimp-glorious awkwardness equals walkwarding)
  11. I am a slow walker–I’ve really only the one gear so I’m basically a human fixie
  12. Did I mention I’m out of shape?

As you’ve probably surmised by reading the list, hiking (much less walking) is…challenging. Factor in the weight gain, the sedentary months, the foothills topography, and you have a recipe for PAIN.

Frankly, I did really well pacing myself. We started the hike before noon, I guesstimated a four-hour window for the hike (hey! it only took three and a half!). I frequently stopped to rest, drank plenty of water, took my time navigating rough spots (trekking poles are absolute life savers, folks), and basically did everything the smart way.

Hover over or click on an image for its caption.

 

And then we came upon the last half mile of the trail.

Ross Trail went from a pleasant trek of good, packed trail up and down a few hollers to ankle- and knee-twisting terror. Invisible ankle- and knee-twisting terror because, while fallen leaves are beautiful and make that cool swoosh-swoosh sound as you hike along, they also covers things over: holes to lose a foot in, tree roots to slip on or fall over, and fist-sized rocks that roll as soon as you put any sort of weight on them.

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The trail from hell is barely visible on the left side of the image.

 

The last half mile of Ross Trail was my worst hiking nightmare. It transited a 45° hillside and was so narrow that I had to walk sideways. I’m fairly certain someone cleared every rock from the first three miles and deposited them all on this last bit of trail. It was rough enough that I had a few flashbacks to hiking in the Ozarks and even Sweet Pea was having a tough time. Seriously, when your dachshund, who’s three inches from the ground and has two more legs than you, is stopping and starting in order to navigate a trail, it ain’t good.

Fortunately, we made it off the hillside and down into the parking area without incident. I gotta tell ya, I was thrilled to see Maude the Mad Mazda.

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My bum of a sidekick snuggled into her coat and relaxing on my bed while I work to feed us.

 

We got back to our camp and, quite frankly, I was as ready as the dachsie for a nap. But I had deadfall to gather and dinner to cook and, since the dog is completely useless in the kitchen, I got busy.

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El cheapo wood-burning cook stove did a fine job.

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Since I was car camping, I brought along a cooler full of tasty nomz to cook rather than the more usual Freezer Bag Cooking technique dried options.

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It was a fine evening for a woodsmoke bath.

 

Your mind wanders, amusing thoughts…

I can tell you where, relative to the map of a given trail, I saw a piece of trash. But, I can’t remember the Latin name of a plant (much less the plant name half the time) to save my frakkin’ life.

Realized somewhere along the trail that Friday was Sweet Pea’s birthday. Happy 6th, my adorable pain in the ass! You’re getting a camping/hiking trip and then spayed!

Gear Notes

If you’ve made it this far through this post, you’re probably one of those folks who almost always asks me, “What do you carry with you?” I’ve included links to the products (or closest to) those I personally use. But, please understand that what I’ve linked are in no way the only places to find these items, nor are they representative of the amount of money you need to spend to get kitted up for camping. The majority of my gear I’ve purchased either used, dented, on clearance, or on closeout. And I researched, extensively, every item I own. Yes, I’m aware that sounds completely anal retentive. Thing is, I prefer to buy things once, and I most definitely opt to buy from companies with awesome warranties whenever I can. And, yes, I most definitely try and stick with the Made in America ideal.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the gear you ever need–it is a list of what I took with me for this particular jaunt taking into consideration the weather, location, and length of trip. For instance, in the summer I prefer to use a stupid cheap hammock stiffened up with a short piece of closed-cell foam, covering up with a silk sheet and/or RayWay quilt and putting a mosquito netting head cover over my bean.

Additionally, I brought a 3-gallon jug of water with me on this trip. Ohio’s parks site noted that some parks turn off their water in winter. When backpacking, cycling trips, or camping where water may be iffy, I haul around a Katadyn Hiker Pro water purifier. It’s heavier and bulkier than the straws but it’s reliable.

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Eno ProFly tarp

Light and waterproof and seriously easy to configure. Put it up high for good air flow, down low to minimize airflow and rain splash.

Eno Twilights

These are the pink/purple variety. They’re great because you can see enough to not break your neck but they don’t mess with your night vision.

Thermarest Ultralight cot

I’m on the fence about the usefulness of this particular item. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to assemble. For car camping, I’m debating just picking up a cheap, low-to-the-ground metal cot.

Big Agnes Q-Core sleeping pad

This is actually the wife’s sleeping pad. Mine is also a Big Agnes product but smaller (not as thick). I like hers for when I’m not worried about weight and packability.

Big Agnes Lulu sleeping bag

Got this in a trade with a friend. I’ve yet to have a truly comfortable night in it and so it’s about to go up for sale.

Black Diamond trekking poles

Best. Product. EVER. Really, these things have saved my ass so many times I’ve lost count. This pair is at least five years old at this point and show no signs of failing.

Osprey Aether Women’s hydration pack

I highly recommend Osprey packs. Great product, great company, great warranty. My first version of this pack took a header off a scooter at 60 mph. It didn’t fare well but Osprey replaced it, no problems.

Snow Peak 600 mL Ti cup

Scratch and dent special from Backcountry.com several years ago. If you want to boil water in your camping cup, you have to stick to single wall. I love this cup.

Snow Peak 1400 mL Ti pot and skillet

Like the cup, simply bulletproof quality.

Tobete Woodburning Camp stove

Stainless steel and not stupid heavy. It’s definitely going into my OhShit! kit.

Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel 2.0

Forget about those chunks of magnesium with a striker strip. For one thing, the US has been inundated with Chinese made ones that use lousy magnesium that doesn’t reliably ignite. Go for a firesteel, you won’t regret it.

Morakniv 4.1″ Carbon Steel knife

The only knife you really ever need. Really. Holds an edge, easy to sharpen, good grip, full tang. Mors Kochanski’s go-to blade.

Gerber Gator Combo axe

Always, always, always carry an axe (or something similar) in case you need to cut wood larger than what you can break by hand or baton through with your knife. ALWAYS.

Tyvek sheet

Literally a scrap of Tyvek (housewrap) from a construction site.

Sweet Pea’s wool coat

Pricey? Yup. Worth it? EVERY. PENNY. This dog coat is as indestructible as they come. The best part? It attaches like a horse blanket. If you’ve ever seen a horse roll on its back while wearing a good horse blanket, you’ll get why that’s a big deal.

 

A little John Muir time is in order

Oh, the joys of camping and hiking. I’m a sucker for being out of doors, for cooking with fire, and not seeing another human being for days on end. The better half, on the other hand, thinks it’s silly to sleep outside: “I live in the country; why would I sleep outside when I have a perfectly comfortable bed in my house?!” Fortunately, she both indulges and accepts my odd need to be outside.

Yesterday REI had their big “winter sale”. For those of you unfamiliar with why this is any sort of a big deal, REI sells a lot of their returned merchandise at very steep discounts. Reason being, REI has an incredible return policy. You can return pretty much anything, even if it’s been used. For example, I purchased a not inexpensive pair of hiking boots a couple of years ago. Due to my rather serious orthopedic issues, the boots became almost impossible for me to walk in about a month after they were purchased. I was able to return them and use the credit for a different pair of boots–a pair, I might add, that have remained comfortable and usable.

At any rate, lots of good things are returned, many not even out of the original packaging. So, usually, the big REI sale is a fun party if you like or need gear. Unfortunately, yesterday’s sale was, initially, a bit of a bust. The neighbor and I rolled out of the boonies at 6:30 a.m. in order to make it to St. Lousy by 8:00 a.m. The roads were slick and snowy, so we arrived late. Not a big deal, right? Meh. Apparently there had been 200 people queued up before the store even opened. And all of the good used stuff wasn’t in bins–it was simply scattered throughout the various departments. Ugh. And who the hell do manufacturers base the cut of their pants on? Really? Not everyone is a 5’8″ skinny/muscled Amazon. Hiking pants SUCK for this very reason.

After wandering about looking for a good deal and not really finding anything (I was looking for a watchband and an altimeter), I was ready to head out with just a couple of items: Esbit tabs, a neck gaiter, and a spare compass. However, the neighbor says, “Hey, did you see that Osprey pack that’s half off?” Oh, crapapotamos. Of course it was a medium, of course it was a 50L bag. And, of course, there was actually NOTHING wrong with it–it had been returned because of a “broken zipper on the inside”. Turns out, the zipper wasn’t broken, it just didn’t have a pull–and it’s not supposed to have a pull. My other Osprey bag, a Manta 30, has the identical zipper with no pull. Duh. So, yeah, I left with a new pack.

Now, reasonably speaking, I did, in fact, want a larger bag for winter camping. The Osprey Manta 30 is positively perfect for most of my camping because I carry a hammock, tarp, RayWay quilt, TiCup, and SuperCat alcohol stove in warm weather. Super, super-light gear. But in winter, well, staying warm simply requires more stuff. More stuff just won’t fit in the Manta. Ergo, new bag.

Last night turned into a “gather all the things!” kind of evening. Out came the 15° BigAgnes and 2.5″ insulated core sleeping mat. The REI Halfdome 2 was packed in and, ugh, just too heavy. Called the neighbor, “hey, you coming down tonight? Would you bring the Kelty?” The neighbor had been experimenting with it over the summer and turns out she didn’t much care for it. Ok, so the Crestone 1 was packed in. Ahhh, much better. Drybag of spare winter clothes (wool socks, base layer, down booties), first aid kit, hiking kitchen, weather radio, SPOT locator, map, compass, beanie, neck gaiter, etc. It holds ALL THE THINGS!

Today has been “reducing all the weight”. For those of you who hike and camp in multiple seasons and for multiple reasons, y’all know how varied some of your kit may be packaged. But for three or four days of rough backcountry you really want to keep your gear as light as possible. Honestly, the vast majority of my hiking and camping has been either car or scooter based. Car camping means you can carry all sorts of comfort items: chairs, coolers, etc. Scooter camping has to be light, but not ultralight. There’s room for a dual fuel stove and a 2-person tent and a camp chair and decent groceries. But on foot? Nope, you cannot carry all the things. You have to reduce things down to the barest minimum. Add in cold weather and that task becomes even more challenging.

Now, so many people seem to equate GEAR with SKILLS. Allow me to scream at you this simple fact: GEAR ≠ SKILLS! SKILLS > GEAR. Period. Bear with me for a moment as this is my most favorite rant. Skills keep you alive. But acquiring skills requires practice. Bear Grylls may have been a boon for testosterone induced reality TV, but much of what he does on camera would result in most of us being either very, very injured or very, very dead. So, no, Bear Grylls isn’t teaching anyone about skills. You want to watch skills in action, watch Les Stroud (Survivorman). To learn what skills you need, you really need to read. Yet there are so many survival skills books out there that you’d be crazy to try and read all of them. But, I will recommend two:

Mors Kochanski’s Bushcraft 

Cody Lundin’s 98.6 degrees: the art of keeping your ass alive

These are two very different books written by men with vastly differing viewpoints, the which is the why of the recommendation. I enjoy Lundin because he emphasizes not relying on specialty gear and Kochanski is all about practicality. What they both emphasize, however, is the importance of a) knowing yourself and b) knowing your environment. You have limits that your hiking partner or buddy or life partner does not and vice-versa. But understanding your limits is of utmost importance.

I’m a gimp. I possess a number of physical limitations. I was a gimpy kid, too. Surgeries with the Shriner’s Hospitals, braces, special shoes. Bladder surgery for double-collecting ureters. Then a spinal stroke in 2002. Being able to walk, much less hike, is a proverbial miracle–one that I am quite thankful for each and every day, btw. But physical motion, the conscious effort of watching where each and every step goes, takes its toll. And so an ideal hiking day for me tops out between 5-7 miles on rough trails. You may be a 20 miler on a bad day, but I have to work with my limitations rather than against them–and that enables me to get out there and DO. So, self-awareness, understanding personal limitations, and skill acquisition have been crucial to my ability for enjoying the outdoors.

With all this in mind I’ll quote Mr. Kochanski, “The more you know, the less you carry.”

Which brings us back around to my previous blog post, Going light, even in winter sharing PMags’ Lightweight Backpacking 101 post.

It’s easy to cut down the heavy weight items: smaller tent, lighter sleeping pad, smaller hiking kitchen. Shedding ounces, however, can be difficult and oftentimes expensive. But ounces add up quickly. So, since I have ALL THE THINGS right in front of me, I’ll go through and provide an overview of what I carry. Mind you, there are a couple of items I carry that most may not: a SPOT locator and a weather radio. For me, adventuring alone especially, these are indispensable safety tools.

Item

Description

Weight (lbs.)

Pack Osprey Aura 50 3.000
Tent + poles Kelty Crestone 1 4.000
Sleeping bag Big Agnes Lulu 15° Petite 3.200
Sleeping pad Big Agnes Insulated Air Core 20x66x2.5        R-4.1 1.500
Ground insulation Blue close-cell foam, cut down                            R-1.4 0.400
3L hydration bladder Osprey Hydraform reservoir 0.560 empty2.800 full

Kitchen

Cup SnowPeak 600 Ti Cup w/silicone HotLips 0.200
Pot SnowPeak Trek 1400 sans skillet lid 0.300
Stove Esbit Ti folding stove 0.025
Fuel Esbit solid fuel cubes3pk x 4
Silverware LightMyFire Spork Little 0.017
Tea/coffee infuser TheTeaSpot Tuffy silicone tea infuser 0.125
Bowl Guyot silicone 500mL 0.170

First Aid

Meds, Ibuprofen, Super glue, 2% iodine tincture, VetWrap, 4×4 gauze, band-aids, Moleskin, Q-tips, Neosporin ToGO, QuikClot, Dental floss (floss only), Hand sanitizer, WetWipe, Toothbrush & paste 0.210

Tools

Shovel Army surplus folding pocket shovel w/case 0.250
Axe Gerber Gator Axe II w/Saw 1.625
Trekking poles Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Fiber poles 1.075
Knife Morakniv Companion Heavy Duty MG 0.250

Fire Starter

Lint based Drier lint + hand sanitizer (highly flammable!) 0.250
Fat wood based Fat wood shavings + magnesium shavings 0.125
Matches Strike anywhere matches in waterproof container 0.125
Fire starter Magnesium + striker 0.125

Electronics

Radio Eton FR160B solar/handcrank weather radio 0.700
Emergency locator SPOT satellite GPS messenger 0.325

Clothes

Columbia hardshell, Marmot 800 fill down jacket, Sierra Designs wool turtleneck, Polartec base layer, wool socks, quick-dry undies, Wrangler rugged wear ripstop cotton cargo pants, insulated rubber palm gloves, Columbia winter gloves, Bula wool beanie, TurtleFur neck gaiter, Sierra Designs down booties, Patagonia P26 hiking boots. 6.000 total2.000 in pack

Total Pack weight

22.800 less food & clothing on person

And a word about “brand names”. In the course of determining the weight of various items, it’s very helpful to know exactly what an item is, who makes it, etc. In order to comprise this list I was able to Google most of my gear and find the manufacturer’s listed weight. Which was helpful since my kitchen scale is off in the better half’s kitchen and not here. Also, I’m really not much of a brand whore, more an incredibly cheap heifer. Over time, though, I’ve become rather talented at buying things on clearance and post-season and used.

Mind, companies who make outdoor gear, most of the time, really do make good, quality stuff that’s suited to a particular activity. So, if you can find what you need on clearance, who cares if it’s from two seasons ago? Lighter is lighter and it’s good to find the right item for a given task. I’ll probably write more on this particular topic when I get back, in addition to a trail report and a discussion of FreezerBagCooking.

I’ve not spent nearly enough time out and about the Missouri backcountry of late–ready to get out, get on the trail, and enjoy the flora and fauna. And ignore people for bit.

Until the future, there is a mess in my living room!

Assorted gear before packed into backpack.

Click image for larger view.