by Sarah Chabaane
SCDNR Aquatic Education Coordinator
The idea was simple. Three colleagues, who happen to be female minorities in the Natural Resources field, would backpack 18 miles, while closely documenting the trip (and my first experience with spam).
I love camping and hiking. I love hiking so much that I have traveled to other continents in pursuit of fabled trails. I love camping to the point that one of my earlier childhood memories was playing in a tent my mom set up in the yard. Having a deep appreciation of both activities, I have never put them together until relatively recently. Backpacking always seemed like the logical next step, but it held its own set of challenges and barriers with an intimidation factor holding me back. I wanted to believe that I was capable, but needed a gentle introduction. When a colleague suggested that the three of us, Alix, Keya and myself, undertake a trip to document the basics of backpacking for social media purposes, which would help increase our photo and video resources, I utilized the rules of stand-up comedy by responding “Yes and…” We included our video and social media staff member, Taylor, set a date a few months out and like most good intentions, didn’t start planning for it until the week before.
We were three women, with various aptitudes in outdoor experiences, ranging from having spent four days on the trail, to not having hiked more than five miles.
We were three women, with various aptitudes in outdoor experiences, ranging from having spent four days on the trail, to not having hiked more than five miles. We had quite a lot in common, coming from non-traditional user groups, a love of the outdoors, eagerness to learn, and desire to prove that a group of three women could hack it on the trail as beginners. After consulting with Diversity Outreach Volunteer and Appalachian Trail through hiker, Brian, he helped us choose a trail that could serve as a loop. Brian taught us to select a trail with easy access to water that we could filter, which can help keep your backpack weight down and reduce stress of planning and finding viable water sources. He also pointed out tips and tricks on reading a topographic map, estimating mileage, and developing an emergency action plan. Brian passed along veteran knowledge on gear and packing lists, in addition to outfitting a member of our party with the basic combination of crucial supplies: backpack, tent/shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and stove. We all met over coffee to review the map, make shopping lists, prepare a social media plan, and try to calm any last-minute jitters. We also determined a few basic skills that we needed to practice before hitting the trail.
Two days before the trip we met after work at my house to practice hanging food, using the two types of stoves we had, setting up our tents and making a menu. This is when it started to feel real! Imagine the five of us standing in my front yard practicing hanging food on a dogwood tree in downtown Columbia. We got some funny looks, especially when we had to fetch the ladder to retrieve an errant toss! After ensuring we were all capable of suspending the food bag, we moved on to getting familiar with the tents as each were different, then we polished off the evening with learning how to situate the gear into our packs.
Through our practice session I realized that I either needed a new, larger backpack or a smaller sleeping bag. This is when things hit a low for me. My backpack was a gift from my family in 2010 when I took off “backpacking” in Europe. It was a smaller pack designed for clothing, not for toting gear. My sleeping bag was also of that nature, but even older, clocking in from 2002. It was bulky and heavy, taking up half of my pack. A sinking feeling set in that I was going to have to bite the bullet and spend money for upgrades. Choosing both items is very personal and can take a lot of time in research, which I didn’t have. Buying both a pack and sleeping bag began to feel like a commitment I wasn’t ready to make; what if I didn’t love backpacking and had just invested in new gear I wouldn’t use? Alix assured me, “You’ll love it, don’t worry.” After a last-minute trip to Mast General Store, with guidance from helpful staff, I was set and ready for the trail!
We spent the evening before our hike distributing food, reviewing maps, packing our bags and weighing them to ensure a balance of weight was distributed based on experience and overall comfort levels. I later learned after reading articles on backpacking that your pack should be approximately 10 percent of your body weight, which mine ultimately was. We ensured our loved ones knew the details and emergency contacts were set into place using helpful online tools to build the plan. Oh yeah, and the cursory carb-loading dinner!
I spent a little extra time reviewing the map. Remember those barriers I mentioned holding me back? Well, my sense of direction is less than adequate, but I can interpret a map! I had a lot of apprehension when it came to not getting lost. I heard a saying once, “You’re not lost, you’re just not where you’re supposed to be.” Which for its shaky logic can be oddly reassuring. Our loop route was relatively simple, and Brian’s advice was to “always make a left.” The plan was to park at the top of Walhalla Fish Hatchery and walk 3.3 miles on the Foothills Trail towards Sloan Bridge, where our co-worker Taylor would leave us. It was a beautiful short hike with small creek crossings and three waterfalls to enjoy. We would take advantage of the picnic table for lunch and rustic bathrooms for the last time. From Sloan Bridge, we’d pick up the trail through Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area for approximately 7.5 miles. After passing through the wilderness area we would hike down the Chattooga River Trail about a mile, find a campsite for the night and then continue for three miles to Burrells Ford area where we would hike the Foothills trail back to the Walhalla Fish Hatchery for another 3.9 miles. Our goal was to do more than half of the miles on the first day, a common practice to knock out high mileage early on while everyone is still feeling good.
A wilderness area is a lot of what it sounds like. There isn’t much signage or evidence of people, but the trail is well defined. There were a lot of trees down on the trail, all which required unique methods of overcoming the obstacle. Sometimes we could fit under, sometimes it was an awkward scramble over the top, others we had to scale the side of the hill to get around the root ball of the tree. For a few, we even had to take packs off and weave through trees and pass our bags over to each other. Talk about team building with your colleagues! We enjoyed a snack break of peanut butter and Nutella about halfway through the Ellicott Wilderness Area.
After reaching the Chattooga River Trail, we encountered the first pair of hikers of the day. A mid-western couple living in their RV traveling for a year. He mentioned not being able to find the historical Ellicott Rock. We leaned over the map and narrowed down the area where it could be. Had we done better research, we might have been able to impart the knowledge that it is actually in the river. It has a neat historical significance in dividing the South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia state lines. At this point, it was an hour or so to sunset and we needed to find a campsite. On average, I would have been game to find the rock, but I was feeling a very primal need to find shelter. It’s a funny feeling that kicks in, when you spend extended time outside, our basic survival needs are still within demand respect.
We found an amazing campsite along the Chattooga River right as it was starting to rain lightly. Keya and I set up our tents while Alix scouted for suitable trees to hang our food bags. There are some locations that require campers to hang their food or even use bear proof canisters- always check before you head out on the trail. We suspended our food, stove, eating utensils, dishes, toiletries, and trash using the “Pacific Crest Trail Method.”
It’s recommended to locate a tree 200 feet away from your sleeping and cooking area that is ideally down wind. Some resources mentioned that 100 feet would be sufficient in areas with less bear activity. The tree will also need to have a limb 15 to 20 feet off the ground that has a clearance of 6 feet away from the trunk. There should not be any additional brush or limbs that an animal can jump from to gain access to your food bag; it’s not just bears that can find their way to your vital morning coffee.
Finding a suitable tree in a forest full of mountain laurel, tulip poplars and damaged Eastern hemlocks suddenly became the hardest thing we had to do on the trail so far, including hiking 13 miles with a 19 lb. bag! One tree was perfect, although the first limb would be a challenging toss, but it just barely met the 100-foot distance from camp minimum. The other tree was a good second contender height wise, though the limb looked too weak to support the weight of the food bag. Despite our gut feeling, we decided to give this tree a try. We decided to go ahead and get the ropes situated before dark, so all we would have to do is pull the bag up at the end of the night after dinner. Due to neither tree being truly suitable, the food and stoves were split into two bags with the hopes that one of them would make it through the night. It was a decent plan, but it took longer than you would think. The real-life conditions were not as ideal as my front yard dogwood tree. Keya and I focused on getting the line situated while Alix set up her tent. After many discouraging moments and team encouragement, we managed to get the two lines set before dark. With the easy access to the river, it’s a perfect opportunity to take off your boots and soak your feet in the nice cool water which can help reduce swelling and soreness. It’s important to let your feet air out and spend time out of stifling boots.
After a brief relaxing riverside break, we utilized our small camp stove to cook up a cheesy pasta dish adding our protein of choice to mix in. We had tuna packets, chicken and spam. I was extremely apprehensive of spam, having never given it a chance before. Maybe it was the exhaustion or hunger talking, but I actually liked it! We were treated to a lovely light show by the fireflies along with our dinner. We reflected on the day, our accomplishments, plans for tomorrow and capped it off with some good old-fashioned giggles. With the dishes washed and our teeth brushed, it was time to hang the food bags. The tree close to camp went up like a dream. We went as a team to hang our food on the tree with the weak branch. At this point it was starting to rain heavier and as the line was being pulled to hang the food, the limb snapped. We let out a collective groan of frustration and disappointment. We’d have to find another tree at 10 p.m.! This was the lowest moment of the trip for me. Luckily with teamwork and creativity we were able to find a good alternative, it just happened to be in the middle of the trail.
Finally, it was time to crawl into my tent, check for ticks and do some stretching in hopes of preventing delayed onset soreness. I tend to do basic stretching every break that I take with my pack off. Never underestimate the power of stretching! A gentle rain continued throughout the night and I found a small, slow drip in my tent, but it didn’t do much harm. I fell asleep quickly with the sounds of the river and the silence you can only get in the backcountry as my lullaby.
Alix woke us up after retrieving the food bags that survived the night. We enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast and of course, coffee! I took the time to refill our water bottles using our filter and we all carried 2 liters of water to refill periodically throughout the day. I also instituted a mandatory mile water break every mile to prevent dehydration.
My dad once asked me, ‘Why do you like hiking so much even when it hurts, and you get lost?’ I answered him, ‘Because there is no easy way out. Once you start down the trail, you finish it strong and proud.’
After packing up camp with our damp gear (which made the bags slightly heavier), it was time to continue down the lovely section of the Chattooga River Trail, stopping every now and then to plan future swimming and fishing trips. The trail ended at the Burrells Ford Road access area, where we saw a few folks camping and fishing. We had a little bit of trouble finding the Foothills trail, but a hilly walk up the gravel road and we found the access point in a parking lot with rustic bathrooms and trash cans. It was a great place to stop, empty some weight into the trash and use a real toilet! We enjoyed a quick lunch and snacks before embarking on the final section of the trip. This was the only moment of the trip when we almost made a wrong turn. It took reviewing the map, doing some math and recalling the advice of Brian to always make a left turn (even though it didn’t make sense in this situation). Had we taken the wrong trail, it would have been a four-mile mistake and a phone call to our emergency contacts to come pick us up. Fortunately, three heads were better than one and we managed to get it figured out before making a big oversight.
From studying the topographic lines on the map, we knew this would be the most elevation gain we would have on the whole trip. It would be a tough last few miles. The scenery changed completely as we walked ascended and hiked a 3,100-foot ridgeline. The mountain laurels were gone, and the tulip poplar forest opened up and we tackled the climb with frequent stops to hydrate and catch our breath. I had to gently remind myself, “remember this is supposed to be fun.”
At some point on the trail, one decides what they are walking for. I find that it is similar to a yoga session where you come in with an intention and set your goal. Some are food motivated, looking forward to the reward of a milkshake and making up for the thousands of calories burned over the last few days without inhibition. For others, the hike might be training for something bigger and longer. It always represents a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that you can rely on yourself to overcome anything. The immediate feeling of elation and relief of seeing the end of the trail and your car, knowing that you did it, is an amazing feeling! All of the aches and pains you felt previously, but ignored, suddenly make themselves loudly present, which is a stark reminder of your body and mind’s capability to power through.
My dad once asked me, “Why do you like hiking so much even when it hurts, and you get lost?” I answered him, “Because there is no easy way out. Once you start down the trail, you finish it strong and proud.” It’s an amazing feeling to accomplish something that you’ve been planning and working towards and it’s hard to find that in day to day life. It’s good to come out of your comfort zone and experience self-sufficiency. The accomplishment uplifts my spirit with the power of being capable and the modesty in respecting nature and what it can provide. It was a collaborative effort, with contributions of many to help us along our way.
Our hope is to be a source of encouragement for women and minorities, that they can find accomplishment and inclusiveness in the outdoors. The trail is never going to judge you based on your gender, skin tone, body shape, or the language that you speak. We don’t all have a Brian to help us plan a trip and loan gear, but chances are, you know someone who would love to help introduce you to the outdoors. Start small, join our diversity outreach team on their nature hikes, choose well marked trails, plan a long hike, rent camping gear from local stores or buy it used, try a weekend at a campground close to home and use the amazing web resources of those that have many helpful tips to learn from.
Backpacking, like most activities, does have an investment cost when it comes to acquiring gear. We estimate the introductory cost of purchasing new gear being in the range of $500 depending on the items you choose to splurge on. This is similar to the cost of a weekend vacation in Charleston. For your basic set up you would need:
• backpack that is at least 50 liters in capacity
• tent: either a single or double capacity depending if you and your hiking buddy will be sharing the small space, keeping in mind the weight and size if you’re carrying it alone
• sleeping bag that is rated to the average temperatures you’ll likely to experience. In South Carolina, you’ll probably be okay with 40F for most of the year (weight should be less than 2.5 lbs.)
• sleeping pads come in many shapes and varieties, its best to go test them out and determine what will work best for you
• camp stove if you intend to enjoy any hot meals. Luckily there are some great tutorials out there on how to build your own lightweight stove with a recycled soda can
• water filtration system. We used a simple soft sided water bottle with a filter in the lid, you can drink directly from the bottle or squeeze it through to another bottle
• lightweight or collapsible mug that can double as a bowl
• eating utensil and knife
• waterproof storage bag for food and at least 40 feet of rope with a carabiner
• flashlight or head lamp is necessary for nighttime and safety
• first aid kit with band aids, moles skin, tape, gauze, antibiotic, antiseptic, ibuprofen and antihistamine, tweezers (this is very basic)
• combination whistle, compass and signaling mirror
• lighter or strike anywhere matches
• paper maps
• personal items usually include sunscreen, hand sanitizer, lip balm, toothpaste, toothbrush and wet wipes, toilet paper, camp shoes/flipflops and small microfiber towel
• clothing usually includes wool socks, synthetic shirt (no cotton!), rain jacket or poncho, flip flops or camp shoes, and convertible zip off pants (even though these fashion forward hikers aren’t a big fan, they are a logical choice). The amount you pack is personal, but a spare pair of socks is necessary.
For more information visit foothillstrail.org or dnr.sc.gov.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.