A Look Back: Backpacking Trials and Tribulations on the Massanutten Trail, Part 1

The characteristically rocky Massanutten Trail
in Central Virginia, circa March 2006. 
I started, then gradually stopped contributing to, a post series here called "A Look Back" almost two years ago. It was meant to help me reflect on trips I'd taken, relive memories, and share knowledge based on the mistakes I made as a beginning backpacker, camper and climber. While I was thumbing through an old journal, I found a trip report from a failed attempt at the Massanutten Trail in Virginia and decided it needs to be shared. 

The Massanutten Trail is a 71-mile National Recreation Trail located in the George Washington National Foresi. I was battling ITBS from running too much too fast after closing out my college swimming career in 2006, but my partner and crime and I had spring break plans, and no amount of pain was going to stop me. Our goal was to get through the 71 miles in six days, and it was my second backpacking trip ever. (This was the first!)

I wanted to get on the trail before dark, but it was close to 5pm by the time we found the "parking lot" at the trailhead on the first night. It was a glorified gravel pit, and I didn't feel comfortable leaving my car there for a week. We drove to a restaurant nearby with a large parking lot and they promptly, in a southern drawl, told us we couldn't leave the car there for a week either. Running out of options, we drove up the highway a bit further and found a "lodging" sign tucked away on the side of the road. It led to a little bed and breakfast establishment called Elbow Landing, owned by a wonderful, friendly couple more than willing to help us. Not only did they let us leave the car in their parking lot, the gentleman drove us back down the highway to the trailhead. Such kindness from strangers.

In our haste, we left the trail map in the car, but had no trouble finding the access trail. We threw the tent down at first sight of a decent place to sleep and I immediately jumped in to get warm. I had at least four layers on, and can't even remember if we had dinner or not because I was so cold. (It was my first night sleeping outdoors in freezing temperatures, and I had no idea how cold I was going to get. Hindsight is 20/20!)

The night passed slowly and I must've woken up at least ten times trying to warm up. By the time the sun rose on the second day, I was in much better spirits. I packed up camp and made breakfast while my partner in crime trekked back up to Elbow Landing to get the map out of the car. I couldn't believe that the Elbow Landing owners were willing to drive him all the way back to the trailhead, too. Such amazing people. A little time alone meant I had a chance to see exactly how much stuff I could fit into the three compression sacks we had. (I was fascinated by the fact that I could fit a week's worth of clothes into a fabric cylinder about 12" long and 4" in diameter.) We'd done all of our gear shopping at EMS, and I spent a lot on boots (which I still have and wear!) and a rain jacket. All so, so worth it.

This first real day on the trail was the day we took on the bulk of the hiking, and man was it tiring. We brought a ton of stuff, probably too much, and walked until late afternoon before searching for a suitable campsite. We hadn't covered as much ground as we'd hoped because of the late start. I'm not entirely sure what possessed me to think I'm in shape to carry a 50 pound pack at a ten mile per day pace, and I got the feeling we'd been a little ambitious in our plan. Three or four miles later, we decided to search for a suitable place to stop for the night. I'd estimate we covered 8-9 miles and I was exhausted. It was cold again, and my partner in crime gave me a full bottle of piping hot cocoa to take to bed with me. Boy did that make a difference in my quality of sleep.

On the third day, I decided to take care of pumping the water for a change (despite my lack of trail experience, I was determined to contribute!). I found a small pond a bit of a walk from our campsite, but it was so full of algae and goo that I only got two liters before the filter clogged. Naturally, I thought I'd broken it, but I refused to give up and kept pumping.

After performing some surgery on the filter and chatting about what we'd learned from our friends at Elbow Landing about an impending snowy night, we decided to cut our losses and backtrack a bit. We figured we'd have a leisurely day on the trail, and we'd be closer to civilization if we needed to bail at the last minute. I knew I wasn't physically or mentally prepared to spend the night in the snow.  Regardless, I felt like a big wimp, given we hadn't made our goal distance and now planned on turning around. We found our campsite a few miles from the trailhead, back the way we'd come, and ate our weight in delicious dinner.

"Are we having fun yet?"
That night, I was proud of myself because when I was frozen at 4:30am, I got up, set up the stove in the dark, pulled water from a nearby stream, boiled it and water boiling and made my own hot cocoa water bottle/heating pad all by myself. While I was sitting there in the dark, I found myself a bit disappointed because I realized despite the fact that we weren't going to reach our goal, it was amazing to be out there in the woods. Everything was so beautiful, and I'd hardly noticed.

 As the sun rose that morning, I sent a mass text to friends from my tent asking for a snow forecast for the following night. I barely had service, but managed to get the text out. Reports started coming in, and it turned out we were in for an even colder night. Choosing a spot in Virginia in March seemed like a good plan, but I later learned that the average high temperature that time of year is 55 degrees, with the low average just below 30. I was unprepared, without a doubt, and we had to make some decisions about what to do next. I'll share the outcome of the remaining days of the trip next week!

Have you ever gotten in over your head on a trip? Does any of this sound familiar? Leave a comment!


Heidi Henry said…
Oh boy. See, this is what my biggest fear is...not knowing what I'm getting myself into. But then again, that's the majority of the adventure, right. Thanks for sharing!
Heather Balogh said…
So...Alaska? I suspect that no matter how hard we try, parts of us will be in over our heads there :)
Katie said…
Ha! Yes :) I think in this case, we were just a little ambitious with this one, and I really had no idea what I was doing. Neither of us really did! But with the Alaska trip, we'll have the right gear and have done all of our research. I'm not worried :)
Katie said…
Yep! I think we just didn't do enough research, and didn't ask enough questions, nor did we pay attention to the weather forecast! I really had no idea what sleeping outside in 30º weather was going to feel like and wasn't prepared. I think there's a lot you can do to mitigate unpreparedness. If we'd packed differently and set a more reasonable itinerary, I think things would've gone much better!
Joshua Riggins said…
I haven't been in over my head...Yet..? Last year though, I went on an overnight Backpack trip and found that we brought too much stuff, should've just day hiked the entire thing. It was 20 miles with pretty much no elevation gain/loss. Then after we decided to finish the hike in 1 day, some of us dumped water cuz we hadn't used that much in the first 13 miles. Not knowing the last 3-5 miles was completely exposed and that is when you need the most water. Luckily, I was prepared and bailed my brother out... Cuz I wasn't carrying him out. Fun read, thanks for sharing
Shannon Wood said…
I love the set up you have in the tent area! I love camping more than anything
Katie said…
sounds like you're generally good at being prepared! your bro was lucky to have you on that one :) it's amazing how we can take things like water sources for granted!
Chris Wyerman said…
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