Trip Report: Backpacking the Black Forest Trail

Let me open with a piece of advice to all the hammockers out there. This should go without saying, but here it is anyway… When you wake up in the morning and begin to break camp, always make sure you take your tree-straps off the tree and pack them away properly. Having a panic attack 15 miles down the trail and tearing your entire pack apart isn’t good for morale, and it’s tough to hang your hammock at the next site without those pesky straps. I’m a relatively new hanger, and succumbed to a rookie mistake. Lesson learned. 

I reached the trailhead of the Black Forest Trail (BFT) shortly after 6PM on Wednesday. Surprisingly, Amy’s car was absent from the trailhead. She was going to drive up and get an earlier start with Bob and Jerry. Since cell phone signal was nonexistent, I chalked it up to some minor change in plans and assumed everything was still OK. Pickle (my trusty trail dog) and I would have to hustle to hike 6.6 miles before dark. 

MY group had decided to hike the trail in the reverse of the typical direction in order to avoid a wet crossing of Slate Run on the first day. The trail started out with two smooth miles of hiking parallel to Slate Run before making a small climb up to Slate Run Rd. As I crossed the road, I spotted Amy’s car pulled off to the side. That question being answered, I hiked on. On the other side of the road, I was treated to a killer climb (1000′ in a mile), which is pretty rare for a Pennsylvania trail. Before reaching camp, the BFT would drop me into a few dark hollows, which definitely helped explain how it got it’s name. Even though I should have had plenty of sunlight left, the topography and tree cover made these areas very dark. Once you climbed back to the ridge, it was light again. 

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My first vista on the BFT

I arrived at our rendezvous point along Little Slate Run, relieved to see that my 3 comrades had already arrived and set up camp. With the last remaining natural light, I managed to get my hammock hung. We all ate dinner by headlamp-light, agreed to get an early start in the morning, and were in bed shortly after Hiker Midnight. With the temps dropping to around 48, I got a little cold without bottom insulation on the hammock, so I shoved a small bit of closed cell foam pad under my butt and lower back. It worked well enough, and I managed to get some sleep.

We woke up Thursday, ate breakfast, packed up, and hit the trail around 7:30AM. (This is where that whole hammock strap fiasco began.) We had a short steep climb out of camp, but were immediately rewarded with a stunning vista of the Pine Creek Gorge. The early morning sun lit up the foggy valley, and it was truly energizing. From there, we almost immediately started a steep, switchbacked descent into a deep hollow along Naval Run. I filled an empty water jug, waited for the others to catch up, and then started another one of the BFT’s signature steep 1000′ climbs. We were all tired, but were revitalized by another vista at the top. 

A view of the Pine Creek Gorge.

A view of the Pine Creek Gorge.

 

A few miles later: Callahan run and another 1000′ climb. This climb was different. It wasn’t a gut-busting steep climb up the side of the gorge, but rather a long, drawn out hump that followed the run upstream. The climb wasn’t as steep, but I think it actually ended up taking a lot more out of me. Luckily, the trail leveled out after this. 

About 12 miles into this 20-mile day, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. I immediately stopped and tore my pack apart. As I suspected, my hammock tree straps were nowhere to be found. I began calculating the logistics of finishing the trail that day. A 36-mile day would be tough, but not impossible. As I was running the numbers, the other members of my group started to catch up. We decided that we had enough utility cord between us to make me some temporary straps and still hang proper bear bags. Feeling a bit relieved, we continued our walk. 

We rolled into a huge campsite around 6PM. There were four college-age kids already there, but the site was big enough that we all had plenty of space. Turns out those kids were scouting campsites for a freshman excursion for Bucknell University, and we were lucky they were there. Amy was pretty beat up after our 20 mile day, and Friday morning she decided it would be in her best interest to bail. She hiked a mile with those kids, and they gave her a lift back to her car. 

I overslept a bit on Friday morning, so Bob and Jerry hiked out while I was still eating my breakfast. Since I was the faster hiker, we all just assumed that I would eventually catch up. 20 minutes later, Pickle and I were on the trail. After a while, I started noticing that the blazes were very worn out and difficult to see in the morning light, and then I hit a wall of wineberry and thorn bushes. After tearing my legs to shreds, I finally found a landmark clear enough to find my position on the map. I was nearly a mile and a half off trail. I turned around, grumbling to myself about those blazes. As I came up to one, I walked over to it. It was very faded, but I quickly realized my mistake. This blaze was red. The BFT is blazed orange. In the morning light, I couldn’t tell the difference and followed the wrong trail (which wasn’t even on my map). 

After losing an hour, I was back on course. Luckily, I had smooth trail ahead of me. Except for a steep rocky climb halfway through the day, I was able to average between 3 and 3.5mph for a pretty long time. By lunch time, I still hadn’t caught up to Bob and Jerry. With less than two miles to go in my 16(now 19)-mile day, I finally heard voices. There were my partners. We descended down into the valley together, forded Slate Run, and walked back to my car. Amy was there waiting for us. Mission accomplished!

The BFT seemed to be a bit bi-polar. When it is hard, it is VERY hard. Those 1000-foot climbs were no joke and were almost as tough as some that I have done in the Whites of New Hampshire. The easy sections of the BFT were also VERY easy. I ran parts of them, and I’m not much of a runner. All-in-all, I liked this trail and will probably hike it again sometime in the future. 

Hike Prep: The Black Forest Trail

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I’ll soon be hiking the Black Forest Trail. This 42-mile loop is considered to be one of the most challenging and rewarding trails in the state of Pennsylvania. Named for its dense hemlock groves, the BFT includes several steep, rocky climbs that are paid off with beautiful vistas. I plan on completing this in 2.5 days. 

Rather than carrying my usual backpacking pack, the Gossamer Gear Murmur, I’ve decided to attempt to fit all of my gear into what is essentially a day pack. As this pack is still in the prototype stage, I will not divulge any details beyond the weight, and will henceforth refer to it as “Mystery Pack” (I will reveal the mystery and provide a full review if/when this pack ever goes into full production). This pack is actually a little heavier than my Murmur but offers a few luxuries that my Murmur does not.

Another change from my recent gear lists will be my choice of trekking poles. I’ll be leaving my Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles behind and testing my brand new pair of Gossamer Gear LT4 poles. The LT4’s are over 4oz lighter (per pair) than my Z-Poles. I haven’t been using my poles as much lately, and I felt a lighter pair was in order because they were spending so much time strapped to my pack.

After several years of hiking in La Sportiva Wildcat trail runners, I just wasn’t happy with my last pair. They were relatively new going into my New Hampshire vacation and completely shredded after. I decided to try something new. I went into East Ridge Outfitters (my favorite local shop), and the manager Amberly pointed me toward La Sportiva Ultra Raptors. They felt good on a 100 yard hike around the store (the girl always knows what shoes I’ll like), so I figured I’d give them a whirl. They are a bit heavier than a lot of trail runners on the market (29.9oz for the pair), but they are almost a full ounce lighter than my Wildcats were. 

August in Pennsylvania is usually hot and sticky humid, so I’m hoping to be able to leave my puffy jacket, hammock underquilt, and most of my rain gear at home. My 40-degree Enlightened Equipment ProdigyX top quilt will be in the mix instead of my 10-degree Enlightened Equipment RevelationX quilt. Since it’s doubtful that I’ll be in the mood for hot food, I plan on going “No Cook”, which means no stove, fuel, or cook pot. These changes alone will shave over 2 pounds off my base weight. There will also be a significant reduction in pack volume, which will allow me to squeeze everything into this slightly smaller pack.

My food selections for this trip don’t exactly add up to a well-rounded diet, but they are calorie dense and will keep me fueled for my hike. The bulk of my calories will come from Power Butter (a fortified peanut butter intended for body builders). I got this for free as a promotion, so I figured I should use it for something. I packed a few tortillas to act as a Power Butter delivery system. I also packed some Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, almonds, Back to Nature Bar Harbor Blend, and Chex Mix Muddy Buddies. When I go no cook, I’m always on a lookout for fun new ways to get my caffeine fix. This time I decided to try Awake Caffeinated Chocolate. Each square contains the same caffeine as a half-cup of coffee. Like I said: Not exactly nutritious, but it will get the job done.

My complete gear list for this hike is available HERE!

All-New Gossamer Gear Mariposa

Gossamer Gear released the new version of their popular Mariposa pack. The weight is similar to the old model, but the new one looks much slicker. The Robic nylon fabric should be a bit tougher than the old Dyneema for similar weight (but it looks way cooler!). I’ve tested other packs that use the material, and I love it so far. I fell hard on some rocks, and the Robic doesn’t show a scratch.

The shoulder harness has also been upgraded. It should be more comfortable for everyone, but women will see a huge improvement over previous GG models.

I haven’t laid hands on this pack yet, so don’t necessarily take this as an endorsement. Check it out and judge for yourself!

DISCLOSURE: I’m a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador. They did not ask me to post this notice. I just thought I’d share because the new pack looks cool.

A Very Quick Hike to Dan’s Pulpit

Wednesday morning, I came right home and hit the sack after my last night of 3rd shift. I fell asleep around 8AM and woke up around 10AM, packed a lunch, and hopped in the car. My dog Pickle and I headed for the Appalachian Trail crossing at Hawk Mountain Road near Eckville, PA. The bottom part of the trail was moderately rocky, but the climb to the ridge was relatively smooth. Trying to hike after 2 consecutive leg workouts at the gym was probably a mistake. I was pretty sore and my quads were burning as I worked my way up the hill. They trail on the ridge alternated between very rocky and very smooth, with the majority of the hiking falling somewhere in the middle. Dan’s Pulpit is a modest little vista, and the views were hazy. I still enjoyed my hike though! This hike took be about 2 hours, including a little lunch break at the vista.

 

 

 

Unboxing my Gossamer Gear LT4 Trekking Poles

Today, I received my Gossamer Gear LT4 Trekking poles. I thought I’d let you follow me through the unboxing and initial impressions.

There were several factors that led to me buying these poles. First and foremost, I don’t use my poles all that much anymore. My natural balance has been improving, my hiking endurance is up, and my body weight is down. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but my poles are spending more and more time strapped to my pack. My Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles have been my favorite trekking poles to date, but, while lighter than many poles on the market, they weigh in at about 12.5 ounces for the pair. I felt that I needed to do better for an item that was essentially going to be dead weight.

A second factor was my past experience with carbon fiber poles. I used a pair of Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles (exacty the same as my “Distance” poles, except Carbon Fiber instead of Aluminum) on my Presidential Range hike in New Hampshire last year, and one of my poles was broken within the first two miles of the first day. After this experience, I had convinced myself that CF poles just weren’t durable enough.

The third and final factor was price. At $87.50 per pole (that’s $175 a pair), I’ve always thought the LT4’s to be a bit too expensive. I liked my Black Diamond poles a lot and couldn’t justify spending that kind of money on poles. As fate would have it, I had a bit of store credit from Gossamer Gear, as well as a standing discount through my membership in the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Program. This brought the price down significantly, so I took a chance and ordered these poles.

The poles arrived in a sturdy cardboard tube, with no excess packaging (plastic baggies, packing peanuts, etc.) inside. Gossamer Gear suggests that you save the tube for use as a case, just in case you ever need to check the poles on a plane or put them in the luggage compartment under a bus. The tube would offer some protection from the rigors of travel.

I was actually shocked when I pulled the first pole from the tube. These things were light. I knew that the manufacturer’s specifications listed the weight as 4.1oz per pole (the pair weighed 8.3oz on my scale), but I don’t think I was mentally prepared for what that would feel like. The answer: It feels like nothing. It’s like you’re just holding air in your hands. This über-light weight added to my durability concerns a bit, but I won’t comment any further on that until I log some miles with these poles.

The Kork-A-Lon grips (EVA made to look like cork) seemed comfortable in my hands. Actually, at first glance, I think they might be more comfortable than the grips on my previous poles.

The LT4 poles do not have wrist straps, although straps are available on the LT4S model. Gossamer Gear suggests that straps aren’t really necessary for such a light pole. At the base of the grip, there is a small loop for attaching a “keeper” cord. You can string a loop of utility cord through the loop and around your wrist. This would make it possible to use your hands for other things without putting your poles down completely. Gossamer Gear warns that this loop is not to be used for attaching more traditional wrist straps, as it will not hold up to that kind of use. I’ve never used poles without straps before, so I’m interested to give them a whirl.

These poles have 2 sections which can be adjusted from 90cm to 140cm in length (83cm when fully closed). I know from my recent experience with fixed-length poles, that 120cm is the optimal length for me. The LT4’s don’t have any markings on the shaft to denote length, so it might take some practice to be able to get the length dialed in quickly.

The last 8-10 inches of the bottom section seems to be reinforced with some sort of carbon fiber or graphite wrap. I assume this is meant to protect the shaft against being dinged and scratched by rocks, branches, etc. There is also a red rubber O-ring on the bottom section. This is meant to seal the tiny gap between the upper and lower sections of the pole, preventing dirt and moisture from gunking up the adjustment mechanism.

At first glance, I think that these poles will serve their purpose quite nicely, as long as they hold up. Durability is my primary concern, but i won’t be able to test that until I get these things on the trail. I will write a more in-depth follow-up review once I have some practical experience with the LT4’s.

Disclaimer: I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador and received these poles at a discounted price. The funds used in their purchase were, however, my own. Gossamer Gear did not ask me to purchase the poles, nor did they ask me to write this or any future reviews. All opinions contained in this review are my own.

My Hammock System (Version 1.0)

This year, my backpacking kit took an evolutionary leap that I never expected: I picked up a hammock. I’d always said I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine a hammock system that wouldn’t detrimentally affect my bottom line (read: “Base Pack Weight”). My friends’ systems seemed heavy, and some internet research didn’t yield very promising results. Sleeping on the ground under my Cuben Fiber tarp was lighter, no matter how you sliced it.

While planning my summer trip to the White Mountains, I started researching campsites for the Pemi Loop. The AMC Campsites were prone to filling up on summer weekends, and finding LNT-friendly “stealth” camping options (at least ones that were large and flat enough for our group to camp together) would have been tricky. One of my cohorts for this trip, “other” Dan, is a hammocker, and I began thinking that a hammock might be the answer. We wouldn’t need to find a flat spot to make camp, and that extra freedom would be lovely.

I began searching for a light and cost-effective hammock system. Either I’ve gotten REALLY good at gear shopping over the years, or I got really lucky. I had my entire system chosen and outlined within a few days. 

Hammock (17oz, $70)

I chose the Warbonnet Outdoors Traveler. This is a fairly straightforward gathered-end hammock. The 1.1oz Double-Layer version is rated up to 275lbs, which is plenty to support me(240lbs) and any stuff I may bring to bed with me. It also allows me to slide a CCF pad between the two layers for added bottom insulation in cold weather. I spent the extra $10 for the Whoopie Sling suspension, which is lighter than adjustable webbing straps, but still easy to use. The Traveler also has a Structural Ridge Line, which makes tensioning the hammock much easier. The SRL is also handy for hanging socks and things to dry. I picked up a few Metolius FS Mini Wiregate Biners (1.8oz for the pair) to connect the Whoopie Slings to the tree straps.

Tarp (5oz, $60)

I made out like a bandit on this tarp. I got a Mountain Laurel Designs UL Asym Hammock Tarp. I got this tarp at a closeout price because MLD wasn’t making the Spinnaker version anymore. This is just as light as their current cuben fiber version, but I saved a ton of money. This is a very minimalist tarp, which is designed to provide the best coverage when you are laying diagonally in your hammock. I made some slight modifications to save weight (cut off the LineLoc tensioners and switched to lighter guy lines. I haven’t encountered any real rain with this hammock yet, so I’ll withhold my opinions until I have a little more experience. 

Underquilt (12oz, $190)

I went with a Warbonnet Yeti 3-season under quilt. This torso length quilt weighs in at 12oz on my scales. It attaches very easily to my hammock (takes less than 30 seconds), and has kept me toasty warm down to about 40degrees with no additional bottom insulation. I used it in the 30’s once also (with a Gossamer Gear NightLight under my legs), and was also very warm. This quilt is very easy to reposition while laying in your hammock. 

This system seems to be working pretty well for 3-season use so far. I may need to adjust my bottom insulation when winter rolls around, but for now, it’s good. This setup is about a pound heavier than my old ground-based sleep/shelter system, but it’s worth it. I’ve never slept so well on the ground, as I do in my hammock. Do any of you hammock? I’m always looking for suggestions!

Another “Weekend” Hike

Yes, it was only Friday. Yes, I technically worked that night, but it was only an 8-hour shift! This was like a vacation day compared to the last week! I decided to head up and do an 11-mile out-and-back on the AT to Bake Oven Knob. This section alternates between relatively smooth “green tunnel” hiking and ridiculous Pennsylvania rocks. It’s not much to write home about, but I thought I’d share the pics. Enjoy!