Sorry in advance - kinda long
Friday night after work I decided I was ready to test out my hammock (an ENO Doublenest) in the woods for the first time. The Mid State Trail is only a couple of miles from my house and I know the area pretty well, so I thought I would run up to a place called the Indian Steps to set up camp.
I'm exploring the idea of "fastpacking" where you run trails from place to place rather than hike. The idea is that I should be able to cover in 3 days what would normally take about a week by running a fair amount during the day, but still be able to stop and enjoy the surroundings and have a fairly traditional ultralight camping experience in the evening and night.
From my memory, there was a campsite at the top of the mountain at a place called the Indian Steps with a good view over the rolling hills of Stone Valley. I thought that would make a pretty good run of about 5 miles and would work as a great location for a first hang. My intention was to run to the site, camp overnight and then run home in the morning. A simple overnighter to test my setup and see if I would actually be comfortable sleeping solo in the woods.
I tried to pack pretty light, but my novice knowledge led to me overpacking anyway. I was only using an Osprey Talon 22L pack and by the time I had my hammock and straps; an Army poncho to use as a tarp; an old, light quilt to wrap around me; food and the rest of my gear, the bag was pretty much stuffed to the limit. I now know I really didn't need a large amount of what I packed for such a short trip, but then again, that's why I did this test-run: to learn.
By the time I was packed, the sun was already low enough that dusk was setting in. I decided to ask my wife to drive me to the trail head at Jo Hayes Vista so I could run in on flat ground along the ridge line rather than climbing the mountain to get to my campsite. I figured that would cut my run distance down to about three miles and the time down to about 45 minutes or so.
She dropped me off at about 7:15 and I headed down the trail. As I ran into the woods, I could already tell that it was going to be pretty dark by the time I got to the Indian Steps. Each time I would break into a clearing or someplace where the trees were more sparse, I would feel encouraged by the available light, but as soon as the trees gathered back around me, it became harder and harder to see.
After about 20-25 minutes, I passed Campbell trail and a primitive campsite. I knew that I was only about half way there and considered for a moment if it would be smart to just hang my hammock there to test everything out rather than risk running in the dark. But, the vision of sleeping next to a tremendous view and my natural inability to resist a goal kept me moving into the woods.
After about another 10 minutes, the rocks and roots were blending into the darkness too much and I had to stop to put on my headlamp out of fear of taking a nasty fall or twisting an ankle. I immediately regretted not having put it on earlier. It's been a while since I ran trails at night and I forgot how well my headlamp lights the way in front of me. My confidence was restored and I continued into the woods at a renewed pace.
I passed by two wonderful views on the way to the Indian Steps, but kept my goal in mind and continued on. In about 15 minutes, I finally reached a large pile of rocks I had forgotten about and realized I was at my destination. The Indian Steps trail was marked down the hill to the east. Unfortunately, my memory had betrayed me, because there was neither a view nor a campsite at the top like there was in my mind's eye. I was a little bummed, but then I remembered that I was not limited to a traditional campsite anymore and headed back to the closest of the two views I had passed.
When I got there, I found two trees perfectly spaced so I could hang with my hammock parallel to and above a boulder field. It took me no more than 5 minutes to get set up. Since it was a clear, starlit night, I nixed the tarp and just strung up the hammock, threw my quilt inside and settled in for the night.
Truthfully, I had a really hard time falling asleep at first because of the incessant cicadas and katydids. They were so LOUD! and all around me. So, I pulled out a book and read by the light of my headlamp until I got used to the sound and felt tired enough to drift off.
As I layed there, I turned off my headlamp and looked to the left into the forest. It was pitch black and I couldn't see anything further than a couple of feet away. When I looked to the right, the starlight provided enough light that I could look over rolling mountains dabbled with specks of light from sparse camps below. Far in the distance, there was a dome of light over the town of Huntingdon, but it was far enough away that it didn't interrupt the feeling of isolation or my view of the stars. When I looked back into the woods, I felt lucky to be able to hang my hammock where I could see the stars and mountains instead of being holed up in a confining tent with walls around me and no visibility, even if I did step outside, without the artificial light of my headlamp.
I drifted in and out of sleep for the next two hours. At around 12:30am, I turned on my headlamp and looked into the woods toward my backpack laying on the ground. There was an adorable yellow-spotted salamander slowly climbing up the rocks and a 3-inch long millipede working its way along the ground. Then, I noticed the steady stream of large, black ants coming from deep in the forest directly to my backpack and then back into the forest. It looked like a scene from a jungle movie. The ants must have gotten a whiff of the oatmeal packets in the front pocket of my pack.
I just laughed and felt lucky once again to be able to observe all of these natural phenomena while basically floating above and out of the way. I reached down, picked up the backpack and swept the ants off of it before bringing the pack into the foot of my hammock, where it stayed for the rest of the night.
At this point, I finally fell asleep for the rest of the night. I assumed that I would wake up with the crack of dawn, but I slept so soundly that I didn't open my eyes until around 7am! I was pleasantly surprised and felt very well-rested. I laid there for a while just admiring the view and feeling the cool breeze across my face before swinging my legs around to sit up and look over where I was and absorb the natural surroundings.
This was the first time in my life that I had woken up alone in the woods with uninterrupted nature surrounding me and it felt, in a word, amazing. I built a small fire, boiled some water for a cup of tea and some oatmeal to eat with an apple and relaxed for a bit before calling my wife and asking her to meet me at the drop-off point.
My run out of the woods was much easier in the daylight than it had been the night before and I had enough time to stop by an MST trail register to write a small note about my first overnight on the trail.
All-in-all, I couldn't have been happier with a quick trip that was poorly-planned, poorly executed, but completely successful and entirely enjoyable. I guess that’s another blessing of the hammock - it is so adaptable that if you screw up like I did and can’t find the campsite you thought was there, your options are practically unlimited and you might just end up in a better situation than the one you had planned!
Thanks to everyone on this website that encouraged me recently not to “go to ground!”