Thursday, November 29, 2012

Trip Report: Black Forest Trail, PA

I don't post nearly often enough. This year has proven much harder academically than any before and I'm busy every day every week with little spare time, so it's hard to get myself to sit down and do more work when I finally do have that free time (if I even remember about the blog). However, given that it's been a while, I have a lot of new material and should be getting a few (!) posts up within the next month as classes wind down, finals are finished, and I go home for a short break before next semester.

I've only managed to go on two trips since the last one in May, and both were in Pennsylvania. About a month ago, Nic and I went to Antietam Shelter a bit north of PenMar and did an out-and-back continuing from where we had left off for our last hike in Pennsylvania, totaling for about 20 miles. The trip was short and sweet, only 2 days, but it made me realize how tired I am of hiking in the same type of scenery all the time. Northern Virginia all the way through mid-Pennsylvania looks pretty much the same during the late-fall or early-spring months, and those are the times that any longer trips are limited to. Also, the out-and-back made me realize that hiking ten miles out and then the same ten back the next day is stupid. The scenery was pretty and we always knew what was around the next corner, but it just took a lot of excitement out of the hike, made us feel like we covered a lot less ground, and turned the second day into a "let's try to get to the car ASAP so we can get some good food" day instead of allowing us to really enjoy the trip.

I began once more to look for longer-distance (40+ mile) loops within a reasonable driving distance. I'd looked before online and at the book/map sections at outfitters and had only found shorter circuit trails. Fortunately, I must have just not looked that hard, because I had soon found a bunch of trails in Pennsylvania that fit our needs perfectly. With some help from older BPL posts and some BPLers themselves (KB from Backpackinglight even sent me his trail map and guide and warned me about recent bear activity in the area!), I'd soon picked one out -- a 42-mile loop in northern Pennsylvania called the Black Forest Trail, or BFT.

The BFT and elevation profile (the top one -- the bottom three are other trails in the nearby area) (source:

Nic and I planned to head out after our last classes on Wednesday afternoon (the day before Thanksgiving), stop by a grocery store to grab some last minute food, pick up some Heet at a gas station, and then hit the highway for Pennsylvania. The drive was long, totaling in at 5 hours, but definitely doable with the five days of Thanksgiving leave.

Getting ready to head out.

I was really excited from the trip, as I'd read and heard lots of great things about it. I was also excited to use a lot of new gear for the first time. Since the summer, a lot of my gear had turned over. I sold a bunch of items (tent, sleeping bag, cooking system, etc.) and bought a bunch of new ones, including an entire cookset from Zelph's website (Fosters can pot, Venom Super Stove, windscreen) and a case for it all (the Caldera Caddy from Trail Designs), a TarpTent Moment, trailrunners, clothing, a GoLite Adrenaline 1+ season bag, and a montbell UL Down parka. The new tent, cookset, and Nemo sleeping pad drastically reduced the packed size of my pack, as well as the weight.

We finally made it to one of the trailheads (right off the 44 North) around 10pm after driving for hours and stopping at a McDonald's to grab some last-minute calories. It was decided that we would hike clockwise around the trail so that we would have an easy first day and then build up the difficulty over the next two. Ideally, we would hike 14 miles a day, but we left some wiggle room in case we wanted to spend extra or less time on the trail.

After hiking for half an hour (mostly downhill) we made it to the first campsite right by a sizable stream. We quickly pitched our tents, put on warm clothing, and went to sleep. The first night dipped into the low 30s, and unfortunately my new pad just couldn't keep me warm. I wasn't freezing, but just uncomfortable enough to wake up 4-5 times in order to shift position and warm the cold body part. The pad was a Nemo Astro Air pad, rated to 35-40 degrees (no R-value given). It was long and comfortable and has a nifty pillow feature (the top tube of the pad -- near the head -- is larger than the rest and makes for a perfect pillow in itself), but simply wasn't true to its manufacturer rating.

Nemo Astro Air pad in the Moment.

We woke up the next morning and packed up while our alcohol stoves quietly heated water to a boil. It was absolutely freezing down in the valley, so we both put on lots of layers and started hiking. Fortunately, the gradient was low enough, or even non-existent, that I was able to hike while wearing the montbell parka for a good hour without building up a sweat.

The first ten miles of the first day were probably to coolest part of the entire trip. It seemed like every half-hour we transitioned into an entirely new set of surroundings. We went from typical Pennsylvania-Maryland AT woods  (rocky with barren oaks and leaves absolutely everywhere) to more open spaces filled with white birch, aspen, and green ferns (reminded me of the years I lived in Colorado) to streams trickling in the deep shade under large hemlocks and pines to open grasslands.

Near an old pump mill that fed water to logging machines in the early 20th (?) century.

Nic walking ahead, shortly after a section filled with white birch and aspen.

A perfect day for hiking.

I managed to not break a sweat at all the first day. It was an easy fourteen miles, and we settled at a campsite as the sun starting sinking lower into the sky. After we pitched our tents, we searched around for firewood (one thing I liked about the trail was that firewood was a lot more common and easy to find than at your average AT shelter) and got a nice fire going in a stone fire-ring that was already there.

Looks like a TarpTent advertisement. Set up at the second campsite.

Moment at night.

Warming our cold feet by the fire.

Though I usually don't bring pre-made freeze-dried meals (like Mountain House, etc.), I brought one for thanksgiving dinner -- lasagna. It was tasty and very filling. After just chilling and talking with Nic for an hour or two, we checked the time and were shocked to find out it was only 6:30pm -- I really dislike how early the sun sets during this time of year. I retreated to my tent and read my Kindle by headlight for another hour or so before going to bed.

After another fitful night's sleep, we woke up and immediately got another, albeit small, fire going. We sat around it until it was warm, and then would go pack up our stuff for two or three minutes before going back to the fire to warm up. Though this added time to our routine, we were much warmer and made up for it by eating a cold breakfast as we started that day's hike. Like the day before, we hiked for an hour or two with our insulation layers (Nic has a blue Nano Puff pullover) before taking them off.

I just want to note that, aside from a sleeping and wearing my puffy in the morning in order to stay warm, I wore a lightweight REI baselayer shirt and Eastern Mountain Sports Power Dry Micro-Fleece the entire time. I first heard about the EMS Micro-Fleece from a BPL post and ended up buying one after I found out it was very comparable to the Patagonia R1 pullover that I've wanted to get for a while (it's made of the same material and uses the same "technology" or whatever to wick sweat away from your skin). I have to say, it is the perfect mid-layer. It blocks just enough wind to keep me warm in a breeze, is warm enough to take a break in 30-40 degree weather without immediately getting cold, breathes incredibly well, and is the most comfortable piece of clothing I've ever owned (I've started sleeping with it on here at the dorms just because of how great it feels). I would highly recommend getting one.

Eventually, we worked our way downhill to a road and a beautiful river. We snapped a couple pics, crossed the river, and then left to hike alongside one of the many streams that fed into it.

Me standing on a bridge over the river.

Crossing the river before making an arduous climb.

The trail slowly became steeper until we found ourselves at the bottom of a very steep, very rocky (think big boulders) mountain. I'd checked the map that morning and knew that we had two notable climbs that day -- this was the first of them. According to the elevation profile (which I found over the hike to be accurate overall but not in detail), we would climb slightly less than 1000 feet in about three-quarters of a mile. It didn't take us too long to summit, and I decided that I much preferred very very steep, but short, climbs as opposed to longer, drawn-out ones with a still-annoying gradient.

We spent the next couple of hours hiking through endless patches of mountain laurel on relatively-level terrain. It was here that we met other people for the first time on the hike (apparently people like being warm and well-fed on Thanksgiving -- who knew?). Both groups seemed to be carrying rather large loads compared to our sub-20lb packs, but stated that they planned on doing the entire circuit. Unfortunately, both groups were also hiking counter-clockwise, so we wouldn't have any other company to camp with that night.

It then began to drizzle. And then rain. We donned our jackets and carried on.

After another hour hiking in the mountain laurel (which was by now very wet and continuously whacking me in my pants-less legs), we finally hit an old stone quarry before setting on a long descent down to Slate Run. On the way down, I checked the guidebook and was startled to see what it said: "If you are able to cross Slate Run without getting wet, then most of the trail's seasonal water sources will likely be dried up." All of the seasonal water sources and streams were most certainly not dried up, meaning that we would likely be getting wet in the sub-40 degree weather.

An interesting character we found at the stone quarry, seated on top of a hiker alter (or whatever those things are called that hikers make wherever there is an abundance of rocks). It looks like the Lorax with a pipe in his mouth.

We stopped for lunch -- trail pizza, trail mix, and cliff bars -- at Slate Run (I'll be posting about trail pizza soon -- it's a delicious trail food that Nic and I discovered on our last trip) and then spent twenty minutes in the rain looking for a way to get across the river without getting wet. That venture was unsuccessful and we soon found ourselves shin-high in the frigid water. I was then unable to feel my feet for the next half-hour even though I ran the trail for a few minutes in an attempt to warm them up.

After another climb (a larger climb, but not as steep), we hit the summit once again. The rain had slowed to a noticeable mist and we were treated to a great view of the fog-filled valleys all around us (the pictures don't really do it justice).

Near the summit.

We continued hiking for a few more hours and ended up accidentally passing our intended campsite. I was perfectly fine with that, as it meant more miles today and less the next, and pushed on another two miles (totaling to 16 miles that day) to the next campsite. We set up our tents just as the sent slipped below the horizon. I immediately went to grab my headlight in order to go look for firewood in order to warm up my frozen feet, but after minutes of fruitlessly searching realized that I had somehow lost it (I think it fell out of my hipbelt pocket earlier that day as I pulled out my camera). Nic was able to gather a bunch of firewood and after a very cold ten minutes, we were able to create a roaring fire out of wet tinder and wood.

After my feet were sufficiently warm, I filled my pot with water to boil it and make some dinner. However, the weather had other plans. Within five minutes of me rehydrating my food rain began pouring hard and sent us scurrying into our tents.I made quick work of my meal and slid into my sleeping bag. 

It was the warmest night on the trail. Ironically, the coldest day was to follow.

Snow was everywhere. Not a lot of it, but it covered everything in a half-inch of frozen, crystallized water. And it was still snowing. Nic and I decided to hell with making another fire or eating breakfast, and the priority became to get moving in our still-wet shoes as quickly as possible. I piled on all of my warm clothing and we hit the trial in no more than twenty minutes.

Sorry for the crappy picture -- my hands were shaking in the cold.

Appreciating the warmth of 850-fill down.

The last day was twelve miles of trail featuring two major climbs and a couple smaller ones. As we gained elevation, the wind picked up and it began to snow harder, creating flurries all around us. By the time we finished the first large climb, our surroundings had whited out and we couldn't see any other mountains except the one we were on.

The sleeping socks that I'd chosen to wear because they were my only dry pair soon wet out as my ankle-high trailrunners became covered in snow. I happened to look down at my ankles a few hours into the hike and noticed that they were bleeding -- the socks weren't tall enough to cover the back of my heels and the shoes were rubbing up against them. I figured it didn't really matter at the time because I couldn't feel my feet anyway, but once we finished the trip my socks stuck to the wounds for days and it was a painful experience to take them off every time.

Cold feet.

It was strange to see what the snow did and didn't touch. Some parts of the trail (mainly at lower elevations) were entirely green with only small drifts of snow here and there, while we were greeted with flurries and new blankets of snow (on the ground and on my feet) every time we reached another summit.

After five hours of non-stop hiking, we ran into one of the groups we'd met the day before. After a quick conversation, we started up again, but were perplexed by how they'd managed to get far enough to meet up with us again hiking in the opposite direction. On the AT, Nic and I can usually finish 20+ miles by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and have done 30+ mile days before. We debated for a while whether or not they'd actually outhiked us or not (a sedan parked nearby was the same color as one parked near the Slate Run entrance point they'd started at) but were soon distracted with the prospect of hopping in my car and blasting the heat.

A bunch of fallen trees selectively covered in snow.

My buff was one of my favorite items of the trip as it kept my ears, cheeks, and whatever else I needed it to warm.

Nic trodding forward as we neared the car.

As we did the final two miles or so, the snow began picking up once again. Fortunately, the going was very easy and we soon found the 44 North and my Honda Fit in site once again. I started the car and turned on the heat before unloading my pack and taking off some layers. Once we were in, I took off my shoes, adjusted the heat to blow on my numb feet, and started off. It only took 20 minutes or so to feel my right foot, but for some reason I wouldn't be able to feel my left foot for another hour.

On the 5-hour drive back we stopped at an REI to pick up another headlamp. I also snagged an REI Stratus Insulated pad that was on sale (after checking a bunch of review online) -- it was the same weight and packed down as small as the Nemo Astro, but had synthetic insulation and was rated to colder temps. Fortunately, I still have the Nemo Astro receipt and packaging, and will be returning it this weekend. It's not a bad pad, just not warm enough for my needs (or its advertised rating).

Overall, the trip was awesome. I had an amazing time and plan on doing the trail again, possibly in May when the trail will be warmer. I would highly recommend doing this trail; it's steeper and more difficult than the Pennsylvania/Maryland AT on average, but also has much more variety and is less traveled (don't worry, it's also marked very well with bright orange blazes).

Some notes on gear (I will post more in-depth review as I get some more use out of the items).

The TarpTent Moment is amazing. It packs down much smaller than my previous tent (Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2) and sets up a million times faster. It's also roomy for a solo tent and is very well designed. I bought a small camp towel (under 1 ounce) for the purpose of wiping up any condensation, but really didn't have much of a problem with it even though we camped in valleys next to rivers/streams every night.

I like hiking in my New Balance trailrunners. They're not the MT110s that most people wear (with the rock plate), but are more minimalist and flexible. I didn't have any problem at all with blisters or hot spots (you can usually tell within the first two days if there are going to be shoe problems) and in fact didn't even have tired feet at the end of each day or the entire trip.

The Zelph cooking set I got is awesome. Everything together, including 4 ounces of fuel, weighs in at under a pound. I wasn't able to get 2 cups of freezing-cold stream water to boil on an ounce of fuel without warming the water to merely cold by the fire, but that's understandable (Nic's alcohol stove wouldn't do it either). The Caldera Caddy is great because it serves as both a hard carrying case for the cookset (everything fits inside the Fosters pot and the Fosters pot fits very snugly in the Caldera Caddy) and two bowls that are the perfect size for freezer-bag cooking.

I was also very impressed with my new GoLite bag. Although it's only rated for 40 degrees, I was easily able to push it to the mid-high twenties (not really sure how cold it got, Nic's drinking tube froze up every night) by wearing the Micro-Fleece and montbell parka. I like the front zip, and the hood cinches down to the perfect size so that absolutely no body heat escapes. I was only ever cold because of the Nemo sleeping pad.

Not exactly sure what my next trip will be. Nic will most likely be in Ukraine next semester for a study-abroad program and Rem is currently recovering from shoulder surgery, so odds are I'll be doing a solo hike for Spring Break (maybe the Susquehannock Trail) in March. Who knows. 

I will definitely be doing the JMT this summer unless something comes up that I can't work around and makes the trip impossible. I've been wanting to do it for a long time and this next summer will be my last chance to do any extended trips until I get out of the military. I hope that it works out.

More posts coming up regarding gear, food, books, and other things. I appreciate any and all comments (I only have a few :(...) and hope that you enjoyed the trip report. But really, go out and hike the BFT -- it's awesome.