I went camping by myself at Shenandoah National Park Tuesday. I’ve been on lockdown with the family since March, and despite 1 summer trip to a river at a campground where we had a nice cabin, I’ve been going crazy staying inside all the time. As an extrovert, the lack of human contact has been hard, and going on my OneWheel with others and myself outside helps, but is often quite short. So I figured a longer time away from the house, in the wilderness away from tech would help.
I specifically picked Tuesday, December 29th because it was supposed to be the coldest night in weeks without any rain or snow. I wanted to test some of my new winter gear so needed it to get down pretty low. I used to camp at campgrounds with my dad when I was a kid. We’d also do a yearly “glamping” (glamorous camping, lots of heavy, comfy gear) trip outside a farmhouse with large amounts of friends near Thanksgiving so you’d get the cold fall weather sometimes. He worked for the park service in Wyoming so I guess he got it out of his system then and wanted easier camping with me as a kid.
However, we never did Backcountry camping. Specifically where you carry in by hiking all your gear and camp in the wilderness and not at a designated campground. While there was no power nor fire pit, and you’re not allowed to create fires of your own at Shenandoah, there is a stream nearby if you have the means to purify or boil the water.
I have no experience Backcountry camping, nor backpacking. I briefly did a couple trips doing hiking with the hiking group we formed back in college in Maryland’s countryside, and her majesty and I did a 4 mile / 6.5 km up in Nova Scotia, Canada for one of our anniversaries. However, there were not backpacks involved.
This all started when her majesty got one of her numerous Kickstarters that arrived at the house, called the Tammock. She bought it for the beach since it has a built in bug net + tons of ventilation, but can still block rain AND wind. As a kid in a guys body, I love forts and being in it felt like a comfy fort. But the hammock aspect was weird. It was a real hammock, not the westernized version that has the stick through it making it flat. I didn’t know this at the time. I spent about 2 hours one day coding & taking meetings from the tent. I noticed my legs started to hurt really bad after a couple of hours.
… so I googled… And that’s when the rabbit hole of learning began.
Hammocks Are Not Hammocks
First I realized all the hammocks I experienced growing up… weren’t actually hammocks, but bridge style. This guy has a 3 part series on How to Sleep in a Hammock and was pretty illuminating. You go 30 degrees… wat. You make it sag, but going 30 degrees makes it not sag… wat. There’s no pressure points so you don’t toss and turn… wat, how. So naturally I bought a hammock from him.
Some Western Hammocks Are Still Viable
Of course my next stop was YouTube. I accidentally found David Pearson as the first search, better known as Reallybigmonkey1 showing how to use a Jungle Hammock. I immediately liked him as he reminded me of a bunch of the guys and girls I went to high school with down in Cartersville, Georgia. Yes, they sound like him. The amount of terms he just casually dropped had me googling like crazy. Dry bag? Drip line? Paracord? Bridge style hammock? Pull hammock tight bad practice? Given it’s winter and I needed desperately to get out, he had another video on winter camping in both hammocks and tents. That’s where I learned about “Sleep System” being… a phrase. Like a programmer’s tech stack.
After fixing the leg pain problem by propping pillows under my knee, I then had another new problem: my butt and back were super cold while my chest was warm. It turns out if you squash things, they can no longer hold heat. So despite me sleeping on 2 blankets, it didn’t make any difference. From watching David’s videos, and others including a multitude of Rei ones, the solution is some kind of sleeping pad. They typically have an R rating: 1 = doesn’t store much heat whereas 5 = stores a lot. Some people will use them for both sleeping on the ground and in hammocks. Now, while I learned about sleeping bag temperature ratings, they don’t help here.
However, the more common fix by hammock fans is something called an underquilt. It’s basically a blanket under the hammock that you can’t squish, but still keeps all the heat. Like David shows in his video, you CAN use a sleeping pad, a blanket on top (sometimes called an overquilt), and even a hammock cover to help block the wind and retain heat inside like a tent does.
Save the Planet, Save the Tree’s
Hanging a hammock via ropes, however, is apparently bad for some tree bark. There is this Leave No Trace practice about respecting nature and apparently it’s pretty easy to fix. You get these hammock straps (which… yet another “system” called suspension system) which are thick. Not only do you no longer need knots, but they’re safer for the tree. Still you shouldn’t stay on the same tree or spot on it for more than 24 to 48 hours. Easy enough.
All my clothes are cotton. I’ve religiously shopped for cotton everything, mainly because it breathes. I’ve always liked cotton blankets. Most of the time I’m outdoors or just a high strung individual so I get hot a lot. Cotton breathes so it seemed a good fit. Come to find out polyester is THE best for winter outside because it moves the moisture from your skin, called wicking, and this ensures you don’t get cold. Cotton, on the other hand, keeps it there on your skin… which is helpful for the summer, but not the winter. So I had to get a wardrobe upgrade and get many layers including Merino Wool. Unlike other wool, it doesn’t itch. Lastly, I got some rain gear which helps block wind if you get cold. Kohls had some really good deals and Duluth Trading Company had some great clothing options, socks, and rain gear.
Backpacks are another, separate rabbit hole. I had already spent enough money, so briefly read an article about why frames rock, and just went to Cabellas and tried a few on and picked one with a decent built-in frame. It’s for women, but I love it. I fit all my gear including my 4 person, 7lb tent (yes, more on why that’s horrible in a minute).
Tent vs Hammock & Ultralight
Some people like tents. Some like hammocks. If you watch the debates on YouTube, they sound just like programming languages. “It’s complicated” (applies to both). “It’s simpler” (applies to both). “I sleep better in one” (applies to both).
Anyway, I didn’t want to spend like crazy, so just used the tent I had purchased 15 years ago. It’s made for spring, summer, and fall, and fits 4 people, and is reasonably strong and waterproof using the rainfly on top. I tested it with my gear in the backyard twice in 19F / -7C both dry and in the rain. After 2 days, the rainfly was soaked, but the inside was still dry.
Apparently, you don’t want your backpack to exceed 35 lbs / 15.8 kilos. The tent is often the heaviest part. Mine’s 7lbs / 3.15 kilos. Most good ones that are 2 person are 3.5 lbs, so… clearly I don’t need a 4 person tent for 1 person. If my family did come along, apparently it’s common for you to spread the tent weight around. i.e. I carry tent, someone carry poles, someone carry rainfly.
There’s also a … movement called “Ultralight”. Given how technologically advanced materials and construction has gotten in the past 50 years, there are now tents made with lightweight materials that are strong and super light. So you can get a good 2 person tent for 1 lb for example. People get obsessed with getting their pack weight as low as possible. After trekking uphill in 35lbs in 28F / -2.2C, I get why.
So I tested my tent on this trip, but next trip, I plan on doing hammock only. I DID bring my hammock along on this trip to practice tying it up in the freezing cold in some random place in the forest.
The debate on weight is also programming bs as well. “Hammocks weigh less than tents”. Well, wait, are you including the rain fly + under quilt + ties + over quilt + cover?
Down is Amazing & Compression Sacks
Down gets flack for allergies and losing heat when it gets wet. Beyond that, it’s great. Holds heat well, lighter than man made materials, and you can “squish it” to fit in your pack. After sleeping in freezing cold weather, I’m sold. I’m curious about getting a compression sack, a bag that has straps to help you compress what’s inside. Like a ZIP file, it can make it easier to fit more things into your pack.
So I had all my stuff, but was worried about the morning. While I wanted to rough it in the middle of nowhere, I’m not a savage; I need coffee. As a coffee addict, you get insane headaches if you don’t get your required caffeine and waking up is ROUGH. But I didn’t want a stove; they looked complicated, dumb, and expensive.
I was wrong. They’re amazing. In fact, there are all different kinds. I found one called the Jetboil. It’s basically a big metal cup that holds a stand and a stove with a lid + smaller cup. You only had to bring a fuel can. I tested it at home and had coffee in 2 minutes. I even tested the freeze dried meals, and had food in 10 minutes by just boiling water. I’m so glad I succumbed to my mom’s pressure of buying one, it was the right call. Waking up in 25 degree weather, putting on freezing clothes, before the sun had hit the valley, it was epic to have coffee to enjoy the alone time morning in the woods. Having chicken & rice after a long hike before bed was a great way to end the night.
It’s small enough that it fits in my pack, but now I’m all paranoid about how much fuel I REALLY have left because it’s not regulated. That means, it uses pressure: less fuel, less pressure, longer to boil water. So… do I just take the weight hit and bring more fuel? OMG it’s like Death Stranding.
Hiking vs Backpacking vs Bushcraft
So David’s videos led me to other videos that explained the difference between hiking “go in the woods”, backpacking “backpack full of gear while hiking assuming you’ll spend the night” and bushcraft “build your needs in the woods like shelters and beds and tools”. There is still so much to learn, I’m such a n00b.
Anyway, backpacking called to me because I already liked the woods as a kid and did hikes. Parkouring in the woods CAN be fun in some places. So being able to sleep there comfortably sounded rad. The idea of no technology, and having it forcibly be broken because no cell signal, seemed awesome.
So why Shenandoah? A, first thing that came up on google search. B, it’s super nearby, like 2 hours if I hit the northern entrance. While I can go to many other places, I like the idea of scaled difficulty levels, like gaming that includes exploring. However, upon hearing of my trip, many others who I didn’t know camped started telling me of all the places they go. Apparently this is a thing.
Why winter? Timing, really. I need to get out of the house, badly, and it’s winter. So… I had to learn winter camping.
Anyway, first night alone was fun, exciting, beautiful scenery, and a bit scary alone, but I loved it. The pictures don’t do it justice; the forest may be “dead”, but it’s still gorgeous with the snow, mud, and icicles. Hearing the roar of the stream in the valley put me right to sleep. Reminded me a lot of parts of Skyrim that didn’t have fir trees… however, I couldn’t run as fast uphill like I can in game.
The recommended winter trail I was on, Hickerson Hollow, had NO campsite. They said “look for a place to camp while you hike; you may not find any pre-existing sites”. Um, yeah, none. A few things, first off, you can’t camp 10 yards / 9 meters near the stream and 20 yards / 18 meters near the trail. Guess what’s on either side of those? A mountain. So like, if I had my hammock only, I’d be fine as there were plentiful trees. So I had to hike around, with my pack, and explore. I should have taken the pack off, used my compass to track my path so I could explore easier and farther. I think I found an erosion prevention trail made by the rangers that wasn’t an official trail. It was the ONLY place that didn’t have 20 billion big rocks and was only about 30 degrees; about as flat as I was going to get unless I was willing to hike another 200 yards away from the trail. I REALLY wanted to sleep near the stream so this was my best bet. At night I kept sliding off my pad despite creating a “flat terrace” using my pack and clothes at the feat. So I just ended up turning my sleeping pad sideways so I’d slide into the tent side. I setup the hammock nearby so I could view the stream and just enjoy the view when not sleeping.
Water is heavy. I should of taken their advice, and just run the stream, grabbed some water, filter it through a rag, and boiled it for a minute.
Also, black bears are active in the area so you’re required to store your food.
They don’t really hibernate this far south in the true sense, but they aren’t as hungry or active. Still, I followed the rules (and I wanted to the practice) so I rigged a bear bag. Rocks were plentiful nearby and I brought an extra bag. After 4 throws, I had 2 ropes on 2 trees that gave me an easy way to raise and lower my bag of all my food about 50(?) yards (45 meters) away from my camp. I’m pretty sure it was at least 5 feet away from either tree, so they couldn’t climb it and jump off to reach it. The briars were a nightmare, though, I should of planned that better.
I did it next to this log that fell over the drainage area as it made a nice place to sit and eat away from the tent and it had a good view of the valley and other mountains.
I can’t wait to go back, winter or summer.
Recommended Reading & Videos
I was blown away how much wonderful content there is out there, and how huge the community is. I’ve included below in random order the videos/channels I liked. Some were … just therapeutic to watch. There are many others too with various filming styles, I can’t include them all.
- Reallybigmonkey1 – David Pearson – gallons of knowledge, guy has great attitude about life.
- Messner – This Paul guy covers various camping gear in the UK and I like him.
- Nickolas Green Outdoors – this kid reviews various gear and his videos are calming.
- REI – Their design and content execution is top notch. They have articles AND videos allowing you to consume either. Their writers clearly know their stuff and speak from experience in a language I can understand.