After two days in the workshop, there was no sign of the intermittent starting problem we’ve been experiencing with our van. If I was going to spend a few days in the wilderness I decided I had better pick a trailhead with easy access for a tow truck. The Tower Trailhead at Hercules Glades fitted that bill nicely. Fifty-ish miles from Springfield and just off HWY 125 with an access road in good condition, lots of room for a tow truck to maneuver in the parking lot, and a good cell phone signal.
I’ve visited Hercules Glades several times this year. It would be nice to be going further afield and checking out a new location, but there are some advantages to going somewhere you know. Especially when trying out new gear. This trip I was also checking out how well I’d cope with backpacking in colder conditions. To keep it interesting, I thought I’d try and mix it up a bit with the route and places to camp.
I haven’t been out hiking since July, so I’m out of condition and practice, which also means everything will take longer. I was expecting to be tinkering with my gear, hiking slowly, enjoying the trail, and seeing how I cope with some less than ideal weather.
The weather was going to vary from warm sunny days to a high probability for rain and snow, and nights with temperatures around freezing. Quite a mixed bag. Day one — Thursday — was going to be chilly. I decided to layer up with a thermal base layer, shirt, fleece, down jacket, and my huaraches. I was tempted to wear a utility kilt, but the lower temps decided me to opt for pants instead.
I planned on a drinking a lot of hot drinks to keep my core temperature up on the colder days. Mysteriously I also thought I’d want lots of hot drinks on the warmer days too. I’ve no idea why I thought that. I ended up lugging around loads of weighty hot drink sachets for four days.
My main meals were Mountain House freeze dried dehydrated meals, and I also took two dehydrated breakfasts. I had my standard almonds and raisins for lunch/trail snacks, and again packed far more lunch/snacks than I ate. More unnecessary weight to be carried.
With rain/snow in the forecast, I packed my poncho, gloves and shockingly for me, socks(!).
I’m kitted out for stealth camping; most of my gear is camo or earth/vegetation colors. My trip coincided with the last few days of the November deer hunting season so I took a blaze orange vest which I wrapped around my backpack when hiking and hung it over the tarp’s ridgeline when I was camped. Blaze orange is a very visible and effective color, even in low light conditions.
I’ve been having difficulty getting to my water bottle while I’m hiking. Hydration bladders and tubes are not an option. We’ve had too many problems with them leaking, and it is very difficult to judge how much water is left.
To date, I’ve been keeping a one-liter Platypus soft bottle in my pack’s side pocket, but I cannot reach it without half taking my pack off, which is a right pain. My old stainless steel Outdoors Products’ water bottle has a neoprene belt hanger, so I dug it out of the ‘no longer used gear’ bin and found that it fitted perfectly on the hip belt of my backpack. Now I can easily reach my water without taking my pack off. It’s a pity that this water bottle is no longer available to buy, I’d better not lose this one! While I was out on the trail I discovered another advantage of having a stainless steel water bottle, which we will come to later.
There wouldn’t be any water available for my first night so I also took along a Platy 2-Liter Ultralight Collapsible Water Bottle. which actually holds a bit more than two liters, so I would have around 3.5 liters in total.
My packed weighed in at 27lbs including food and fuel — I packed a lot of fuel (14oz) in anticipation of all those hot drinks.
My pack was fairly full, but not in ‘extended mode’ (which gives an extra 10 liters of space) — which was lucky as we shall see — My 0°F sleeping bag is heavy and huge, taking up a lot of space even when fully compressed, but everything fitted fine. I strapped my rolled up fleece wrap (an old Bass Pro fleece sleeping bag I use the keep the cold off my back while sitting around the campfire) onto the outside of the pack.
Day One – Thursday
I left my packing until the morning and consequently was late leaving.
I arrived at the trailhead shortly before 1 p.m. The only other vehicles there were a car and a big trailer. It was around 44°F nice and sunny but with a cold wind blowing from the west. As the predicted wind chill was in the low to mid-twenties, I wore all the layers I had. I hadn’t thought about where I’d keep all those extra clothes on the hot day(s) that were predicted, so I was going to have some pack space challenges ahead.
From the trailhead sign-in sheet I saw that there were two people on the Pees Hollow trail, and that was all in the direction I was heading.
There were a lot of leaves across the trail and I had great fun crunching and crackling my way along the leaf-covered trail which was crisscrossed by shafts of pale but bright sunshine. It was a good day to be out. I had hoped that there would be some vestiges of fall color to photograph, but any leaves that were still on the trees had mostly browned off, leaving things looking a bit subdued.
I quickly realized that hiking was going to be challenging in places. It’s been a while since I’ve hiked a leaf covered trail, and I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to hike the rocky parts of a trail when the trail is buried in leaves. I had to tread carefully and slowly in places as I could not see where the rocks were. Wearing huaraches makes feeling and assessing the stability of the rocks a lot easier, but the lack of visibility slowed me down.
Despite the leaf covered trail, it didn’t take long to get to the Pete (Pole) Hollow Trail junction where I stopped to take off my jacket — I wasn’t feeling the wind chill — and have some lunch.
As I had started late, I was rethinking my plan to hike around five miles today. With stops for pictures and exploring, I typically average 1.1 miles an hour. Sunset was around 5 p.m. (and probably earlier behind the hills and in the hollows). I wanted to be camped well before it got dark.
There are a couple of old forest roads heading north from the Tower (Pilot) Trail, with the first being somewhere near the junction with the Upper Pilot (Devil’s Den East) Trail. I decided to see how things went, and if it was getting late, one of those might be worth investigating, especially if I could find a spot on the east side of a ridge where I’d be sheltered from the wind.
For my first
I found a very obvious forest road less than 200 yards west of the Upper Pilot (Devil’s Den East) trail Junction. I took the road, following it for two-three hundred yards before I started looking for a suitable spot to bushwhack off the road in search of a spot to camp. I went to the right (east) side of the ridge. I ended up around a quarter of a mile from the Tower (Pilot) Trail and a good distance to the east of the road. As usual, Goldilocks (that would be me) spent quite a while circling around looking for a camping spot that was “Just right.”
Suitable trees found, I set up camp and gathered wood for my campfire. With the huge amount of piled dried leaves on the ground and a gusty wind, I decided that it would be wise to make a fire ring to stop my campfire getting out of hand.
As soon as I had some wood ready, and a fire laid, I attended to the other chore that’s best sorted out while there’s light — finding a place to hang my food bag. Luckily I quickly found an excellent tree to hang the bag from, with a suitable branch around 25ft up. Much to my surprise, I managed to get the line over it quite easily.
I cannot write enough good things about stowing line in a figure of eight. Since I’ve followed this tip I’ve not had any problems with my lines getting knotted or tangled. It really is worth doing. If you haven’t tried it yet, give it a go.
When the sun set the temperature started to drop rapidly reaching 35°F, which was the predicted low for the night, and it kept on falling. I had the fire lit before 6 p.m. Dinner was a Mountain House Italian Style Pepper Steak, which has to be my favorite Mountain House meal to date. I turned on my phone and was surprised to find that I had full cell and data service. I posted a couple of pictures on Facebook, but it felt like cheating, sitting in the wilderness chatting on social media, so I soon gave that up.
I find that my first night out in the wilderness is always a little unsettling. Sitting by the fire, with the forest around me bathed in moonlight, it was disconcerting to hear a couple of packs of coyotes nearby performing their ethereal yipping, yapping, and howling. I challenge anyone not to feel a little bit discomforted by that sound, especially when solo backpacking.
I kept the fire going for a few hours before deciding to turn in, and here’s where my stainless steel water bottle came in handy. I filled it up and left it by the fire to warm up. By bedtime, I had a nice hot water bottle to warm my bed ready for me to get into.
Later on, snuggled up in the hammock I spent a while reading. I put on gloves to keep my hands warm while holding my book. I also wore a buff as a balaclava topped off with my beanie. Between them they kept my head nice and warm. I only managed a few pages before I put my book down and went to sleep.
Getting up in the middle of the night, the moon had set, and the sky was brilliantly clear. Without my glasses I can’t see the stars, but I was deeply impressed by the dark sky punctuated by an exceptionally bright, if blurry, starry display. It was far too cold to hang around stargazing for long though.
Day Two – Friday
It was still dark when I woke up at 6 a.m., so I turned over and snoozed for a while. When I next surfaced I could see blue skies and the sun was catching the tops of the trees. The temperature had dipped to 26°F overnight, I was surprised to see that there was no condensation or ice on the inside of the hammock cover. I’ve read that this can be a problem. But so far, it has not been an issue for me.
I have the huge ‘Sidecar’ pocket set up on the left, head end, of the hammock. This was to be the first time I attempted the hammock camping holy grail of making a hot drink while still in my hammock. I had thought that the sidecar might get in the way, but it didn’t, and I was soon enjoying a cup of hot chocolate.
I didn’t see any reason to hit the trail before the temperatures had risen. While I sat and enjoyed the rising sun I reviewed my plan for the day, which was to hike to Rock Spring and camp there. My reasons for stopping there were simple:
- It’s a spring, there’d be water.
- It’s a long way away from Long Creek, it’s not well known or marked on any of the popular maps, so there’d be no people.
- The next day I could take the Middle (Cedar) Trail out towards the Pees Hollow loop where I planned to camp Saturday night.
However, my slow progress on the leaf-covered rocky parts of the trail the previous day, made me think that I might be better off making more progress towards my planned campsite for Saturday. I decided to hike down the Upper Pilot (Devil’s Den East)
In March I’d discovered a wildlife trail or maybe it was an old hiking trail on the north side of Long Creek. I reckoned I knew where it would meet the Long Creek Trail, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere on that trail to set up camp on the north side of the creek. If that plan fell through I could always stop where I spent the night in March. Water wouldn’t be a problem, as I knew from my earlier visit where there were some fairly big and healthy pools nearby on Long Creek.
After breakfast — Mountain House Scrambled Eggs with Bacon — I packed up camp and headed back to the trail. The weather was warm, so I had to find space in my pack for all my cold weather clothing. Fortunately opening up my backpack’s extra ten-liter collar gave me enough space, and with all the water, except that in my water bottle, gone my overall pack weight was still lighter than yesterday.
Hiking back to the trail I somehow missed the forest road at one point. I wasn’t concerned as all I had to do was keeping bushwhacking south and I’d meet the Tower (Pilot) Trail. But I soon found the road in the leaf litter and soon got back to the trail.
Back on the main trail, I headed east and turned south onto the Upper Pilot (Devil’s Den East) Trail. I’ve hiked this trail before, but the reality of it didn’t match my memory at all. It climbs up over the shoulder of the Pilots and crosses several glades before making its way down to join Long Creek (Rock Spring) Trail. The hiking was easy, the trail clear, and it was very pleasant in the warm sunshine. The trail wound through some densely wooded areas that I couldn’t remember; for a moment I thought I’d wandered off the trail. Being lazy I just took a quick peek at the GPS, and sure enough, I was on the trail, it was just my memory that was wrong.
The trail joins Long Creek (Rock Spring) Trail at what we call ‘Sheep Frog pond’ It’s an old, almost dried up stock pond that’s home to a load of Sheep Frogs — so called because they sound just like sheep. — Don’t believe me? Here’s a short recording we made at this pond in 2012.
This old stock pond lies to the north of Rock Spring where there is a spring box and a building built, presumably, over the source of the spring. I’d already decided that Rock Spring wasn’t going to be my destination so I carried on east along Long Creek (Rock Spring) Trail. This trail is popular and quite eroded in places, especially on the descents, which makes for harder hiking.
Once I got down to Long Creek it was only a matter of following the trail east until it came to the crossing by a set of impressive shelves in the north bank. There’s a good pool of water just west of here, and it was also where I expected, and found the wildlife/old trail heading up along the top of the shelves.
It didn’t take too long to find a spot with a fairly clear outlook. The creek wasn’t visible as it was 80-100ft below, but with luck I’d have sunshine fairly early in the morning.
A great thing about hammocks is that you can camp on the side of a hill, no problem, just don’t roll out of bed and down the hill! I set up camp and then went down to the creek to get water. Stocks replenished I sat in the hammock watching the light on the south-eastern side of the hollow as the sun went down.
Once again I found an excellent tree for my food bag, but only 15-20ft high this time. It took a few attempts to get the line over the limb, which is much more like my normal form.
I didn’t bother with a fire. I heated a Mountain House Beef Stew for dinner — that’s another good one — and read my book once it got dark. The moon was bright again, and the only coyotes I heard were a long way off. I did hear a deer nearby huffing and puffing. It was probably upset with my being there.
Day Three – Saturday
The night’s low was 29°F. I took my time getting started, waiting for the temperature to rise. I’d woken at around 6 a.m. to the sound of a horse crossing Long Creek. Whoever it was must have had an early start to be down by the creek at that time. It wasn’t even fully light.
I made a hot drink and ate some cereal before packing up camp. I took a few pictures of the packing up process, and still managed to be on the trail by 10 a.m. I had just the water in my water bottle to see me through until I got to the creeks on the Pees Hollow trail.
The day was hot and windy. The warmth wasn’t at all welcome as I climbed the 500ft up out from Long Creek. The hardest part of this trail to follow is at the Long Creek end. The trail seems to run along a small creek for a 100 yards or so, and then I had difficulty picking up the trail where it climbs up out of the hollow. Taking my time and looking around got me on the right path after a couple of false starts.
Once I was on the trail heading uphill I didn’t have any problems keeping on trail. I was just a hot slog. I was very happy when the trail started to cross the glades at the top of the ridge where there was a nice cooling breeze.
I stopped for lunch in one of the glades. I sat and enjoyed the view while I made and drunk a cup of hot chocolate. Given that the temperature was now in the 80s° I’m not quite sure why I bothered with a hot drink. It was windy on the ridge, so the exercise did at least prove that the new titanium foil wind screen works well in gusty conditions.
Taking advantage of having a cell phone signal, I checked the forecast for Sunday. It was looking a bit dismal, with rain and/or snow starting mid-morning. I began thinking that it might be worth camping further along the Pees Hollow Trail, to lessen the distance I had to hike out. If I didn’t stop at ‘Cab Creek’ (our name for the two creek branches whose confluence is where the old truck cab campsite is), the next point with water would be around a mile further on at Brushy Creek.
Lunch finished, I hit the trail again and was soon heading back east along the Tower (Pilot) Trail, and the temperatures slowly started to drop.
I briefly toyed with the idea of cutting out my last day and heading straight back to the trailhead. But decided I’d regret trying out my bad weather gear, and there was another night in the woods to be enjoyed too.
The Tower (Pilot) Trail was another uphill hike. I thought I’d got to the Pees Hollow Trail and was disappointed to find that I was mistaken and I still had a fair way to go. Once I got to the real Pees Hollow trail, I headed down the ridge. The whole area was heavily covered in leaves and I immediately lost the trail in the leaf litter. At this point that is not much of problem as the trail runs down the ridge, so all I did was head down the ridge until the trail became obvious.
I started thinking about where I was going to stop for the night. I needed water, and time to set up camp. I decided that if I got to ‘Cab Creek’ before 3 p.m. I’d keep going. I arrived at the Cab just before three, so I marched straight past it and kept on going towards Brushy Creek.
The hike to Brushy Creek was easy, the trail leads through what used to be farmland, and it’s since grown in with a lot of tangled undergrowth, not particularly suitable for a hammock or a tent.
At Brushy Creek I immediately set to work filtering water. Filling the ‘dirty water’ bottle from a spring box is much easier than having to dip the bottle in a creek or pool.
By the time I’d filtered 3.5 liters of water I had less than an hour before it got dark. Time to find somewhere to set up camp. I took the easy, but cold, route to the northern side of the creek – by walking along the creek. I’m not surprised it felt cold, I noticed some ice in places.
Brushy Creek is very brushy, and a good spot to hang a hammock (or put up a tent) was not forthcoming. After a lot of searching, I saw one promising spot and then noticed the orange tape all around. I’d obviously walked into someone’s hunting area. I didn’t fancy setting up camp anywhere near there. I bushwhacked west along ‘Cab Creek’ for a while (spotting what might be some nice falls to visit when the creek is running) before I gave up, and headed back across the creek.
With darkness drawing in, I ended up back near the trail at the only two suitable (and safe) trees I could find. I’ve set up camp in the dark before, but the conditions this time were far from ideal. I found a small tree to hang the food bag on — probably less than 10ft. off the ground. I decided if some animal ran off with my food or ripped it all to shreds it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. I’d just have to hike out hungry.
I decided to forego a fire, made a hot drink and ate another Mountain House Beef Stew for dinner — The overnight temperature was supposed to be in the mid-thirties, but it was damp which made if feel a lot colder. I spent the evening in my hammock reading my book.
Day Four – Sunday
It was a very quiet overcast night and nothing disturbed me. I woke to a dismal, grey, cold, damp day. The temperature was 39°F, but it felt a whole lot colder. A hot drink and a hot breakfast soon cheered things up.
As I was breaking camp I heard some people in the distance. They were very loud and discussing Bigfoot. I knew I’d set up camp near the trail; just how near I didn’t realize until they went past some 20-30ft away. There were three backpackers, and the first two were busy talking and totally oblivious to my presence. Just as I thought they had all passed by without my being noticed, the third, apparently the quiet one of the group, looked in my direction. I raised my hand and said nothing. He grinned and waved back, also saying nothing.
I continued to hear them for several minutes as they noisily got lost crossing Brushy Creek. I heard them backtracking before finding the right spot and carrying on up the hill and out of earshot.
Those were to be the only people I saw on the trail.
I took my time packing up camp as I wanted to give the backpackers a chance to get well ahead. They were young and hopefully moving a lot faster than I would, so my chances of catching up with theml were minimal.
I was on my way by 10 a.m. and starting the long climb back to the trailhead. The grey damp weather felt much, much, colder than it actually was — somewhere in the mid-forties. I didn’t bother wearing my down jacket as I knew I was going to get warm hiking. I did take the unusual step of putting on socks, to keep my feet warm. Despite the forecast, it only tried to rain once, and there was no sign of snow.
The hike out was uneventful, though because I am out of condition, I stopped to catch my breath a lot more times on the climbs than I would care to admit to.
I reached the trailhead by midday. I arrived just as a couple of people came up Long Creek Trail on the other side of the parking lot. They were dressed in camo, blaze orange, and carrying rifles. I think my decision to wear the blaze orange was a good one.
Trip Totals: 16.87 miles, 2,689′ of elevation.
I need to plan to find a campsite at least an hour before sundown at this time of year. Saturday night messing around in the cold and dark was not nice.
I also need to plan much shorter hikes because of the reduced time or be prepared to get up and start out in the dark. Full light was between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. If I am going to be finishing my hike after dark, it will helps to know the area where I’ll be camping.
I must not forget that my pack may have to store more of my gear than I started with. Fortunately, my pack extends by ten liters, so I had plenty of room for all the cold weather gear I didn’t need on Saturday.
- Titanium pot stand. Worked a treat, saved a load of pack space and some weight.
- Titanium foil
wind screen. Worked fine. I was expecting problems with it blowing around when I stopped for lunch on Saturday, but I didn’t have any. Saves weight and pack-space.
- Tarp sock. This is a great time saver. All the tarp tie-downs just roll up in it. It makes setting up and taking down the tarp much easier.
- Ridgeline Organizer. There are plenty of pockets and it holds all my small bits and pieces. It easily held my book, phone, journal, glasses, lighter, knife, headlamp, and the recharging pack for the phone and camera. In warmer conditions, I could keep my water bottle in it too. It saves an awful lot of lose clutter rolling around in the hammock. I recommend one for anyone camping with a hammock that is fitted with a ridgeline.
- 10° under quilt. Worked fine, but I’m getting a couple of minor cold spots and I’m still trying to find the best fit.
- Sit pad. This really inexpensive item was great. Not only did I use it to stop the edge of the hammock cutting into my legs, but it made a great kneeler when cooking or tending the campfire. I also used it as a sit pad when stopped for a few minutes on the trail.
- Sidecar. The fact that I could push my 0°F sleeping bag into this says a lot about the amount it will hold. Apart from the very real problem of putting so much stuff in it so that finding things becomes a problem; it is great and keeps loose clothing and gear from becoming a problem in my hammock. However, I do think it encourages me to be a bit lazy and not put unused gear in my backpack. We’ll see how this one goes over time.
- Winter Cover. This kept the cold wind off me and the warmth inside the hammock. It turns your hammock into a swinging tent. I didn’t think to check the inside temperature to see how much difference it
makes;but it is very noticable. I was surprised that there was no condensation or ice on the inside.
Things I took and didn’t use
- The Emergency Packs and Gear (always a good thing!).
- Rain Poncho.
- The fire steel and Fire-starters.
- Lots of hot chocolate sachets.
- Trail lunches and snacks — I’m still taking too much.
- New gear. It all worked as well or better than I hoped. So far I’m very pleased with what I’ve added.
- Buff and shemagh. both helped keep the cold wind off me. I used the buff as a balaclava and around my neck. I used the shemagh as a scarf and in conjunction with the sit pad for an even more comfortable seat.
- Butane lighter. I’m mentioning this as a lot of people complain that butane lighters don’t work in the cold. They do if you warm them up.
- Deuter Backpack. Overall, it’s been working very well. Being able to extend it from 55 liters to 65 liters was very useful on the hot day when I needed somewhere to keep all my cold weather clothes. My niggles with it are: the inaccessibility of the side pockets, and that the zips on the hip belt pockets are really hard to use. They should work easily one handed.
- Down Pillow. When I bought this I thought it might be a bit frivolous. But it’s proved to be great. It just pushes into any spare space in my pack and works great when I’m side sleeping.
- Outdoor Products stainless steel water bottle. I’ve had this for years, and my current one is a replacement for an identical one I lost while out on a farm cutting wood. The neoprene holder fitted my backpack hip-belt, and now I can easily reach my water and take a sip without stopping. Unfortunately, I don’t think they make this particular version anymore.
- Spares pack. The batteries ran out on the GPS in the middle of my hike on Saturday (I wondered what the beeping noise was, I thought it might be my phone!) Carrying spares meant I could still use the GPS the next day.
- Trangia stove. It worked perfectly regardless of the temperature.
- Ultrapod tripod. This was great for getting pictures of me breaking camp. On the last day I used it on a very small branch and the camera was moving around a lot. I’m assuming that’s why the pictures came out a bit blurred. Not the Ultrapod’s fault — operator error.
I love my 0°F sleeping bag but it really is too big and heavy for hammock camping. I need to raise funds for a low-temperature top quilt.
I’m still struggling to find the best way to load my pack. Constantly changing how I pack brings its own problems because I can’t remember where things are from one day to the next. I started out with the sleeping bag in the main compartment, but I found things went a lot better with it stored in the bottom. More experimentation (and confusion) is required.
Ground sheet. This one is interesting and almost borders on aesthetics. I’m going to try putting it away when I’ve finished setting up camp. I really don’t need it until it is time to pack things away again. That huge white blob under my hammock looks really intrusive
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