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Introduction to Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking

Each year Alison and I look forward to our early spring backpacking trip. Usually a 3-day weekend in early spring, this trip is a key element for the success of our upcoming backpacking trips for the year. We thought others might be interested in the Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking, and possibly to incorporate some version of it into their own backpacking routine.

[Lead photo above: Alison overlooking an entirely misted-in Canaan Valley on a frosty spring morning.]

For us, early spring is the perfect time to get out for a shakedown trip in preparation for the upcoming year of backpacking. The primary Benefits of Early Spring Backpacking:

Benefits Early Spring Backpacking

See the AT Section Hike gear I was evaluating: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail

  1. Evaluate our physical conditioning to hike long back-to-back days. We planned to cover 40-45 miles with at least one 20-25 mile day. See the training schedule we follow: Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking
  2. Evaluate new gear we intend to use on upcoming trips. In this case, Alan was evaluating gear for an upcoming 100-mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. See: the Light gear he was evaluating
  3. Other benefits: Shake he winter blues, lack of crowds & cool temperatures make great hiking (& sleeping) conditions; spring wildflowers, no bugs, great views with leaves off trees.

Lack of crowds is a definite advantage to early spring trips: This lovely waterfall in Dolly Sods is by an extremely popular backcountry campsite. In high season it can be hard to find a place to pitch a tent. In early spring, this campsite area (day 2 of our trip) was nearly deserted and we got the best campsite in the place with this view!

Challenges of spring camping, at least on the east coast, include a higher probability of cold rain (we had 35 degree rain the first afternoon/evening), wet and muddy trails, and the possibility of quite cold nights (it went down to 20F our second night out). We managed all of these with the right gear and technique.

Our Early Spring Backpacking Trip Report

Living on the East Coast, many people think there are limited options for hiking. Not so! See: AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide To 30 Of The Best Multiday Trips From New York To Virginia. Although we don’t have the famous places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, there are plenty of options for a good weekend outing. This year, we chose one of our favorites, Dolly Sods Wilderness Area for our early spring backpacking trip. Even though we’ve been to the Sods (or “the Sogs” as this wet area is affectionally known) for over a dozen years. But there is always something new and different for us to explore. This year, not only did we discover a new trail with spectacular views (lead photo for this post), but we’ve never quite had such a magically misty morning like the one that greet us our second day out. It was a welcome antidote to sleeping in a 25-degree pine grove with the weather spitting on us most of the night.

Day 1 Friday – a 1/2 day to backpack about 10 miles

Day 1 was more late winter than early spring. This was a 1/2 day as we both worked in the morning. We arrived at Trail Head at 2:00 pm. By early evening it was 35 degrees, spitting rain, and skies were ominously dark while ridges and high meadows were shrouded in mist. The Dunkenbarger Trail, notoriously wet in normal times, was more lake/mud river than trail due to rain storm the night before. About 70% of the Dunkenbarger Trail was 6-18 inches deep in near freezing water and mud. Sections of other trails were only marginally better. We arrived in camp with soaking wet shoes and socks, and pants bottoms covered in mud up to the knee. We quickly got into all the down we could muster and hung our hammocks in a sheltered grove of pine trees.

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Downside of spring camping, at least on the east coast, is higher probability of wet and muddy trails. While moderately unpleasant on a sunny 60 degree day, hiking on a “trail” like this in 35 degree rain can be near misery (as was our hike along the Dunkebarger Trail on Day 1).

Backpacking Spring Training

Warm and snug in our hammocks sheltered in grove of pines. It was spitting rain when we went to bed and dropped to 25 degrees by the next morning. Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan on left: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts, and HG Cuben Hex Tarp Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts, and Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Hex Tarp] We both stayed warm, dry and happy in our hammocks.

Day 2 Saturday – our long mileage day

The day started cold. Temps were in the mid 20’s and there is no joy quite like putting on frozen shoes and socks onto already cold feet. It was cold enough that we had our tea and coffee while packing up but left without eating breakfast. Still wearing our down jackets we quickly hammered out some fast trail miles to warm up those frozen toes.

We hoped to hike around 25 miles on Day 2 since this trip was training for upcoming backpacking trips (based on our Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking). Getting the miles in was going to be a challenge with most trails either muddy or running small streams. But the sunny day semi-dried up the Sogs, and by noon the trails were in better condition than Day 1. We carefully chained together “drier” trails in the northern sections of the Sods, and managed to get 25 miles in before hitting camp that evening.

Benefits

Then the Spring Magic started to happen. We took an innocuous and faint tread of a trail to the top of a ridge and got a spectacular view of the Canaan Valley spread out below us filled with morning mists. It was a perfect spot to sit and watch the mists while we ate our breakfast on the frost covered hill side. Our REI Sahara Convertible Pants seem to go on just about every trip in every weather.

By the time we were done with breakfast, the mists were gone. It never ceases to amaze us how a trip can change from slogging along in near misery, to near bliss in just a few hours. Spring backpacking is like that.

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Mid-morning the grass is still covered in frost, and Alison is still hiking in her fleece and down jacket to stay warm. The mist is almost gone from the Canaan Valley.

Spring arrived around 11 am with sunshine, blue skies and temps nearing the 60s, just as the national Wx service had forecast—and the reason we had headed out this weekend.

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By mid-afternoon we came by this day-hiking couple eating apples under this tree. As far cry, from wearing a down jacket while hiking just a few hours earlier.

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Snuggled into our hammocks and warm down quilts for a great sleep on a cold night (20 degrees). No tarps needed as it was clear skies and we wanted to stargaze. Again, Alan was evaluating a very light hammock system for his upcoming Appalachian Trail Section Hike. [Alan’s hammock in front: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts. Alison on right: Hammeck Envy hammock, HG top & bottom quilts. Both hammock systems performed flawlessly on two nights, both in the 20s.

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Our Day 2 campsite is one of our all-time favorites with a great view of one of the nicest waterfalls in the Sods.

Backpacking Spring Training

It froze hard overnight, registering 20F on my thermometer. In the morning our socks where frozen stiff as boards as were our shoes (since we were walking out that morning, we transformed our “sleeping” socks into trail socks and started walking. Our shoes un-froze and our feet were warm in a few minutes).

Day 3 Sunday – quick hike out – brunch – home in time for an evening play

We did a quick 6-7 miles back to the car and our early spring camping trip was done and dusted. In keeping with a Dolly Sods traditiona, we stopped for brunch at a favorite local haunt, Cristina’s Cafe – Strasburg, VA, for whole grain, sourdough french toast topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and excellent, just-brewed coffee. Highly recommended! We were back in DC in time to unload gear out of the car, shower, take a quick nap, have dinner and easily make our evening play. That’s what we call a full and fun weekend!

-Alan & Alison

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Drying out all our damp gear from a couple of cold and wet nights. Actually, the down jackets and quilts were spread out in the back of our wagon and already drying on the way home.