Most of my life I've had a long distance love affair with backpacking. Until this weekend I hadn't been for more than 30 years when I was a Scout. Through a fit of passion, lots of reading and spending I took my 12 year old son, Justin, backpacking on the south loop of Zaleski State Forest.

A few weeks back I was shopping for pants at my local outfitter shop. I like to wear hiking and climbing pants every day because they are stretchy, light, super comfortable, and look nice. Another reason is when I shop for these pants I also get to browse the backpacking gear. This trip I decided to ask one of the sales guys about packs. His first response to was to ask me about what I had for sleeping and shelter. Of course, I had neither. So we started talking about shelter. I guess I had resisted going backpacking as an adult because I thought I had to spend a lot of money on a light weight tent.

That's when he introduced me to hammock camping. He showed me the ENO Double Nest hammock for less than $100. That gave me the idea that I could gear up to go backpacking for not a big investment. I ended up buying an ENO DN and slept in my backyard. Yep! I could definitely sleep all night in a hammock. After a bunch of research I ended up returning the ENO and ordering a Hennessy Hammock for me and my son.

That's where things turned expensive. My wife likes it when I spend one on one time with our kids. Justin showed a lot of interest in backpacking; so I thought this might be a good activity for us to do together. We both got new packs. We both got Hennessy Hammocks. We both got titanium cook pots. We both got new Merrell hiking boots. You see where this is going… I didn't get us new sleeping bags; or hiking poles; or expensive rain gear; or stoves. I ended up making a "super cat" alcohol stove for each of us. I also made a cozy for our cook pots.

I had been doing research on where to go close by: Shawnee State Forest, Zaleski SF, Archer Fork Loop in Wayne National Forest. Shawnee seemed too aggressive for a first time out. I'd heard Zaleski was crowded which turned me off. That left Archer Fork Loop.

My schedule was such that I pretty much only had one weekend opening up for a while. Spring was coming to Ohio and I was anxious to get out. I'd bought stuff. I'd read stuff. I was ready to go. Except I wasn't. It was the Friday for us to leave and I hadn't made a menu. I hadn't packed. I hadn't printed maps. I'm literally cutting out cozies from reflective car sun screens while my wife is buying me some groceries.

A few days before, my oldest son decides to go to a Youth Retreat. That throws a wrinkle in my plan as my wife didn't want to take him. So I need to get him to his camp at 6:00 on a Friday night, get to the trail and setup camp, hike on Saturday, then home on Sunday for a lacrosse game in the afternoon. It's a tight schedule. The reality is I couldn't fit it all in. Archer Fork Loop is almost three hours from my oldest's camp. We headed that way somewhat discouraged. I hadn't realized it was so far.

About half way there we happened to drive by Zaleski! It's 7:30 at night and we're anxious to get started. I'd looked at the maps and such, but hand't printed them. We decided to go for it anyway rather than drive another hour or more to Archers Fork.

So we start hiking at about 7:30 and have 2 miles to cover before we get to the first camp site. I'm not sure how long it took, but it felt like we hiked a full hour in the dark. The temperature was dropping and the wind was blowing. It was raining off an on.

When we got to the site, there was a another party there with tents and a nice looking fire. I said hello as we walked past, but didn't stop. I wasn't sure how close or far away we were supposed to camp. The park's rules are that you can only camp in the designated areas. I wasn't sure exactly what that meant. So we ended up only a couple hundred feet from the other group. We were close enough to see their fire and hear them chatting. Both Justin and I were jealous of their fire. It was really getting cold.

We got the hammocks hung without too much trouble. I thought about building our own fire, but didn't relish the idea since it was already dark and wet. I was tired and thinking of just going to bed. Justin was hungry (and also disappointed we didn't have a fire). So we got our cat stoves out to boil some water and make dinner. Unfortunately, his stove didn't work very well; but mine did. We made some ramen noodles and put tuna fish in it. I was studiously avoiding looking at the clock on my phone, but I feel like it was probably 10:00 by the time we ate. Those noodles tasted so good!

The next struggle was actually getting into our hammock. I'd had some nice CCF sleeping mats from previous car camping. They roll up nice, but don't stay rolled out very well. So the challenge was to get into the hammock, unroll the CCF mat, and then get into the sleeping bag on top of that. Remember the Hennessy has a bottom entry! You can't actually unroll the sleeping mat until you're already in the hammock! With a lot of wiggling I got on top of the sleeping mat, but didn't bother to get into the sleeping bag. I zipped up my feet, but left the rest open on top of me.

The forecast said it was going to get down to 30°F. I was wearing wool socks, long johns, hiking pants, a thermal top, another long sleeve shirt, a light down coat, and a wool cap. I didn't really get cold. If I left my face out, it would get terribly cold. So I spent most of the night with my sleeping bag pulled over my head. I woke fairly often, but always managed to go back to sleep quickly. Oh how the wind blew! It was howling through the trees.

Before I fell asleep I spent probably 30 minutes doing something I don't often do: stop and list all the things I'm thankful for. I started with my kids and thinking about how good they are. My wife is so patient with me. I know I don't do enough to show her my appreciation. I'm so thankful for my job and business. God is blessing every aspect of my life. He's leaving nothing out!

Come morning, Justin and I slept in (again, avoiding looking at the clock). It was quite chilly out and very warm in the hammock. Justin commented how hard it was to crawl out into the cold. Again, our neighbors had their fire going and cooking breakfast. I suppose I could have built a fire at that point. However, I wasn't planning on staying in camp very long. I didn't think I had enough water to really put the fire out and didn't want to wait on the fire to die down. So, we didn't build a fire.

The choice was continue the 8 miles to finish the south loop or head back 2 miles to the car. I guess secretly I was wanting to head back to the car; which is why I asked Justin what he wanted to do. It wasn't until he said he wanted to head back to the car that I realized I didn't want to head back to the car. I made a short attempt to talk to him about it, but the second time I asked he said the same thing. I was sensitive to him having a good time and not pushing him too far. He was spooked from having to hike in the dark the night before. Most of that trail had been uphill and hard work. I am fairly out of shape and found it quite challenging. So, we packed up to head home.

There were quite a few groups we saw hiking both while we were packing and while we were hiking back to the trail head. One of the guys stopped while we were packing to ask about the hammocks. He was a hammock camper too and wanted to know how we faired in the cold and wind. He said he had an under quilt but that the wind kept him fair cool all night. It's possible I slept warmer than he did. It was nice chatting with him.

Before we left, we made some hot water for coffee and hot cocoa. I used a friend's Aero-press for coffee. It tasted so good: rich and smooth with no terrible after taste. Breakfast was just some trail mix we had brought along. We didn't bother to make the oatmeal I'd packed.

The hike out was delightful. I might have set a pace too fast for Justin, but I couldn't help it. Most of the trail was downhill. Lots of green little leaves, but not many flowers. The ground was wet but not sloppy; soft to hike on. The forest was nice and open with good views from the hilltops. We passed several streams and ponds. For the most part I enjoyed the quiet and didn't talk.

I checked the clock before we left camp. We got back to the car in almost an hour straight at noon. I wasn't sure the best way to get home because I certainly hadn't gotten to Zaleski by the most direct route. We wandered around some old country roads until we found a little town and got cell phone coverage. That let me get my GPS to map me home.

It certainly wasn't the backpacking trip I had fantasized about. There's no doubt though it was a success. We hiked. We slept in hammocks. We had fun. Even with all the "crowds", I would still go back and try to do the whole trail.

Here's the list of things I learned:

  • A headlamp is much better than a flashlight for setting up camp. I got Justin headlamp, but thought I try to go without. I did most of my chores with my little flashlight sticking out of my mouth.
  • Matches are better than a lighter. When your fingers are cold and the wind is blowing is surprisingly hard to light an alcohol stove with a zipo lighter.
  • Side or top entry hammocks are better than bottom entry.
  • CCF sleeping mats are nice for hammocks
  • My sleeping bag is crazy heavy and takes up about 3/4 of my pack
  • Don't push it. Hiking in the dark isn't fun.
  • I've heard the tarp that comes with the Hennessy hammock isn't that great. I didn't have any complaints about it at all.
  • Using a camelback bladder as the sole means of carrying water isn't cool. It's hard to fill pots with water from it. It's hard to clean pots with it. Not sure what the right thing to do here is.
  • My Merrell shoes did great.
  • I clearly packed too much food. I was actually hoping to stay two nights out and brought enough food to do so.
  • Overall, I would like to have had 5 - 10 pounds less weight. My base weight was about 23lbs and my skin out weight was probably 30.
  • Cooking with the alcohol stove wasn't great. I'm not sure I ever got a good boil
  • I wish I had brought something to sit on in camp
  • I wish I had used something as a pillow
  • My titanium spork doesn't pack well in my cook kit or anywhere else. The "S" shaped curve makes it hard to fit anywhere.
  • Justin's mug is slightly too large and makes packing his cookware not work.
  • I need to get in better shape for going up hills