We’ve done pretty much every “outdoorsy” type adventure you could name - summited multiple mountain peaks, 15+ mile day hikes, sunrise kayaked in the ocean, camped in the snow in 10 degree weather…but there was one thing on my list that I had yet to take the plunge on - backpacking! I had been wanting to get our first trip in last year, but timing never worked out. COVID pushed our plans back from earlier this spring to later in the summer, but I’ll be darned if it messed them up any more than 2020 has already managed to! We planned an impromptu trip with our friend Amanda and her two boys, Finn and Kavick (@thehikinghuskies) earlier this month, and it did not disappoint!
I had been hoping to see the rhododendron blooms over along the TN/NC border mountains for going on three years - but they only bloom for about a week at a time, and it’s unpredictable every year when they’ll finally pop. Our foggy camping trip from our last blog post was our first attempt at seeing the bloom with just an overnight camping trip, but no such luck. So we planned to head out again two weeks later and decided to turn it into a backpacking trip!
We chose a portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Pisgah National Forest - one with wide open balds, stellar ridge views for most of the hike, and a solid camp spot away from most of the crowds (or so we thought). The beginning of this hike is a hugely popular trailhead, because it’s a super simple .5 mile hike up on a well worn path to some beautiful views. We planned to go about 5 miles past that, across two balds and hit the top of the highest point along that specific ridge line. The weather forecasted thunderstorms all week, so we were holding our breath the entire time that it would clear up! Mountain weather is so unpredictable- it can say total sun yet be rainy and foggy up in the mountains, or it can say thunderstorms and instead be totally sunny the whole time. We wouldn’t want to get caught on a ridge line in a thunderstorm, so the trail we planned had an offshoot for the AT thru-hikers that takes you back below the treeline, just incase storms hit. With a consistent 30% chance of rain forecasted, we decided to risk it and head out there and let nature play her game with us!
My backpacking packing list is pretty similar to what I bring when we camp, with some slight differences to accommodate for much less “cargo” space in my backpack compared to my car trunk. Here is our list!
Extra set of clothes
Two pairs of socks (just incase!)
Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated meals!
Drip coffee plus a Hydroflask mug - have to have some boujee comforts
Marmot 2 person backpacking tent
Marmot Eco 20 women’s sleeping bag
Sea to Summit sleeping pad
Osprey Packs 60L pack
2L water bladder plus extra 4L water pack
Inflatable camp pillow
Patagonia sweater, rainjacket
First aid kid, extra energy chews, trail mix bars, personal protection, and any other odds and ends to survive some extra unplanned time in the wilderness
Camera plus GoPro of course :)
For the dogs:
Kurgo Baxter backpacks for each
Primal Pet Foods freeze dried raw nuggets plus Ruff Food backpackers mix
Collapsible food/water bowls
First aid kit
Their normal flat collars with ID tags, and ecollars
Snacks and treats of course!
*Amanda brought the JetBoil to warm water up for our meals, so that was one thing I was glad to be able to share!
I won’t even go into detail on how long it took me to pack everything in - let’s just say it was hours spent practicing all sorts of tetris-like combinations that won’t work before landing on the winning recipe of packing jigsaw. Now I know for next time, at least!
The hike in
We headed out of Nashville around 7am to hit the road for the 5 hour drive to the mountains. We’re used to making this drive often (i.e. almost every weekend) and it’s quite a familiar one. The drive out felt super quick, and we got to the trailhead around 1pm factoring in the time change. We figured it would be busy, but it was SUPER busy at the trailhead. The dogs stayed on leash of course until we got through the crowds, and we started out on our trek! The first bald we hit was just a half mile in, so that’s where most of the crowds gather. We could tell some rhododendrons were blooming based off some bushes closer to the trailhead, so we were super excited to see what was further on!
Once we got past the masses, we were able to let the dogs off leash - always under voice control, backed up with ecollars when necessary. Our dogs earn their off leash freedom, and I’m very thankful to have the training instilled in them to be able to hike like this, in line with our hiking path on the trail, and let them still have the mental freedom of being off leash. Ivy can roll to her heart’s content in the soft grass, and Sierra can bounce around ahead of us as much as she wants - she probably did at least triple the distance as we did with how much she turned back to us and continued on ahead!
The second bald we reached was a bit higher elevation, and a pretty brutal hike up with so much weight on our backs. It was absolutely stunning though, surrounded by rhododendrons and the views were unreal. We stayed here for a good while, soaking in the sights and documenting with pictures while we still looked somewhat human.
We continued on and the weather held out perfectly for us - slightly overcast alternating with sun, and zero rain in sight! Most of the rest of the hike was through some denser foliage coverage, with the mountain ridges peaking out between the bushes and tree cover every so often. We were surrounded by the Smoky Mountains on one side, and the Blue Ridge mountains on the other - this national forest land is the absolute best hiking spot with how expansive all the views are!
Setting up camp
We reached our campsite after a few hours of hiking - sadly, we weren’t destined to have it all to ourselves. It was actually far busier than expected, and some of the best campsites were already taken. Obviously, with social distancing and such still a thing, we chose to set up far away from anyone else and ended up right next to a big rock outcropping at the point of the trail. We had some friends hanging out there the whole night, but we didn’t mind - everyone was incredibly warm and friendly towards each other. But, as I was setting my tent up, disaster struck.
Sierra, the mischievous little punk she is, decided that now was the PERFECT time to start a habit of rolling in whatever-species-it-may-be-sort-of-excrement she found in the midst of the tall grasses. She has never rolled in anything in her entire life, so I didn’t think much of it until the gears all clicked in my head. It was like slow motion, I slowly put two and two together and realized that the brown spots appearing all over her body were in fact more than likely something I did not want all over me for the rest of the trip. Low and behold, it was indeed some sort of feces - my guess was bear scat, but it very well could’ve been human. I didn’t really care to dwell on where it came from, the only thing I cared about was getting it off her! Thank goodness for good friends who bring extra water, because we were nowhere near a water source to rinse her off. I used up majority of my extra water rinsing her rotten stinky butt, and Amanda was kind enough to let me bum some water off her to make my food for the night!
You would think I learned my lesson about watching her, but turns out she reallyyyyy wanted to be stinky for the night and take on the full meaning of “nature”. A few hours later, I turned my back for not even 30 seconds and she managed to find ANOTHER, different pile of excrement. Same thing, but thankfully she didn’t roll as much in it. I was able to clean her off reasonably well using water from a puddle gathered on the rock faces, but don’t think I didn’t consider making her sleep outside the tent that night. She’s lucky I love her!! (For real, I would never do that. But I definitely did contemplate the option).
We settled down for the night with some stellar hot chocolate and marshmallows courtesy of Amanda, and watched the sun set from our campsite. The mountains had this beautiful haze around them, which created a stunning pink hue across from where the sun was setting. We were joined by a deer friend, who seemed pretty perturbed we disrupted his sleeping arrangements for the night. He slept about 50 yards away from our tent - always up for the challenge of managing four high prey driven dogs with their version of a snack in their viewpoint! We ended up getting a slight rain drizzle, which was our cue to turn in for the night. It didn’t seem to rain much throughout the night, and it was an uneventful sleep aside from the AT thru-hiker than decided singing a tune while walking 15 feet from our tent at 3am was the best course of action… but! Aside from that, I was out like a light. Who knew carrying your life on your back was so draining?!
We had already planned on waking up before the sun came up to catch the colors in the morning, but with it being the summer solstice the sun rose at an absurdly early hour. Nevertheless, we aren’t ones to miss a sunrise (like, ever) so up we rose and started to watch the pink and orange colors emerge over the mountain peaks in the distance. This was honestly one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve seen my fair share of them. The sky was lit up with orange and pink and red and yellow hues all over, and the sun rose in this massive ball of glowing orange light. The dogs were frolicking in the dewy grass, and life stood still in an absolutely perfect moment.
We packed up camp after watching the sunrise, and headed back down the trail to wrap up our trip. Just one short night, but it was packed full of the best experience. Our hike back was decently simple and uneventful, with no more poop-rolling from the Sierra punk on this go around. The dogs were refreshed after their night in the tent, and handled the return trip like pros! They didn’t carry too much weight on this trip, but it was definitely the most they’ve ever carried and the first time for an overnight hike with packs on, so I’m incredibly proud of them!!
If I could choose to do anything differently, I think you can all guess what that would be! Hint - not let Sierra roll in poop :) Seriously though, I will definitely have to keep an eye on her from now on since that is not about to be a frequent occurrence in this household! Aside from that, I would’ve brought even more extra water - you can never have too much water! I would probably have brought another Rumpl blanket as well, because the girls love to curl up on them in the tent when we camp - it’s lightweight enough to not weight me down, and easy to pack along with us. I will be getting them bigger packs to start having them carry more for our longer trips in the future, but all in all this was the best first backpacking experience I could have asked for!!
I’m already looking forward to our next trip, and I haven't even planned it yet. We will probably hit up another part of the AT, or head over to the Virginia highlands which is a killer trip Amanda has done for the past few years. Either way, I can’t wait and I know the girls can’t either!!