Outdoor Adventures: Backpacking the North Country Trail

Our Executive Director, Stephanie, recently backpacked the North Country Trail. She shares about her experience below!

Two girlfriends and I decided that we were not going to let 2020 stop us from opportunity, adventure and new challenges. So, while on a Facetime chat I found myself raising my hand to join in a three-day, 23-mile backpacking adventure about 2 hours north of Grand Rapids on the North Country Trail along the Manistee River.

I have camped a lot in my life but usually with some power, a bathroom, and at least running water nearby. But I have always wanted to try packing all I needed on my back and living off the grid for a day or two. Could I do it? Would I like it? Would it be so out of my comfort zone that I would never do it again…?

First thing I had to figure out: what would I eat that I can just add water to? Who doesn’t love a good MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat)?! I turned to Pinterest for food suggestions as well as ideas on other camping hacks. Y

ou would not believe the number of vlogs, blogs, websites, posts just dedicated to backpack hiking! It’s a good thing, too, because I used quite a few tricks! I turned an empty pill bottle into a makeshift First Aid kit, wrapped my lighter in duct tape to save room in my sack, and learned about all kinds of resources to help, including covering my blisters. 

But back to food. After three hot days of hiking in the woods, I’d eaten only half of the food I brought! Lesson learned: you won’t be as hungry as you think you will be.

I invested in a teeny-tiny cook stove that fits into the palm of my hand. It was my best decision for two reasons: it made heating up water for my meals super easy, and helped brew my must-have morning coffee. I’m not super fancy coffee drinker, but I do like creamer and I had to be creative! I don’t like the powdered kind of creamer so I grabbed some of the little plastic creamer cups that don’t have to be refrigerated (vanilla flavor along with some instant Starbucks Pikes Place, if you must know). It was a perfect combo and great treat in the mornings!

Some other things I learned about food while backpacking:

  • If you don’t like it normally, you are not going to like it camping! For me, that’s store-bought beef jerky.
  • Crackers will smash in your sack, no matter how careful you think you are being. Leave those breadcrumb-makers at home!
  • Bring some tortillas and make street tacos with your dehydrated Mexican Quinoa. Your friends will probably tease you about eating tacos in the woods, but they taste amazing! 
  • Trail mix was the very last thing I wanted to eat on the trail.
  • I was worried about starving in the woods and brought enough granola bars to last a month. The truth is, I never starved. I ate less than I do when I am home, which made me realize that I probably eat at home more out of boredom than need. 

As far as the rest of the things in my backpack, a sleeping bag, a one-person tent, a water purification system, one cup, one spork, two outfits, two pairs of socks, a rain jacket, water shoes, knife, a poop shovel, and a camping pad. Should have brought fresh socks for each day, having to put on dirty socks one day was not a great idea, especially because my feet blistered pretty bad. 

I also brought some butt wipes and toilet paper but I only used the butt wipes so I know I could leave the other at home next time. 

I packed all my clothes in a bag together so I could grab them out easily. I did the same thing with my food; I actually used a small dry bag to ensure if it rained that it would stay dry. 

For lighting I packed one headlamp, a flashlight, a solar lantern. The was way too much light, one thing would have been fine especially when I was with two other people who also packed 2-3 items for light as well. We did see a comet and shooting stars but we also made our own with all our incandescence. 

Things I did not bring, deodorant, you are going to be so smelly it won’t even matter so why bother. No soap, there is nowhere to really wash up anyway and getting soap in our water stream is a bad idea when you are working to Leave No Trace (LNT). 

I did bring a lot of water because the first day we were not planning to see a water source until after we walked 10 miles. I ended up carrying 6 liters of water which weighed 13.2 lbs. While I am glad I had that much water, it was a lot to carry for the very first time trekking with a pack. The next day I only filled up 2 liters of water which was much more manageable. 

The first step onto the trail was hot and steamy and after about one mile into the trip we were headed up a steep hill that never seemed to stop. It was hard, it was humid, it was invigorating to think that at 44 years old, I could do hard things. There were moments along the first ten miles that I had to only think about taking the next step because it was so hard at times. I had to distract myself to stop thinking about the hike and also be okay with being slow. It is easy to feel intimidated when things are hard and the feeling of can’t wondered into my head. The great thing about doing this trip was, there was no can’t, you had to keep pushing on because the only way to the end was to keep going forward.

We ended day one by making it to the dam at the Manistee River. It was a beautiful sight and we kicked off our boots and sat in the cold clear river to sooth our feet and legs. 

We set up camp with the anticipation of a storm that was supposed to roll in at 3am that morning. I slept in a one-person tent that I quickly realized it not great if you have any claustrophobic thoughts. My friends slept in hammocks which may have been a better option but I was happy to not have to deal with bugs while I slept. 

The tent was way too claustrophobic for me but was great to keep the rain out that rolled in about 10am. Sleeping outside during the rainstorm was so soothing, probably the best sleep I had in a long time. 

After the storm passed, we enjoyed some instant coffee and cream, yep my splurge for the trip. I highly recommend Starbucks instant packets. It was just what I needed, along with 3 ibuprofen to get my boots back on over my blisters and start out on our 5 mile hike for the day. 

Day two and I was feeling a lot more confident about my backpack hiking ability. Even repacking my backpack got easier.

We enjoyed the time walking by exploring the soil where some of it was clay, then sand and sometimes other things in between. We totally nerded out on dirt. There were a lot of spots with mini waterfalls or small brooks that were making their way to the larger Manistee River. We stayed along the entire river trail going up high on the cliffs and then traveling back down into the river valley. The views were spectacular. 

 

We ended the day by finding a perfect little peninsula on a bend in the river. We had a little bit of sun, some woods, and easy access to the river for swimming and refilling of our water bottles. 

That night there was no a cloud in the sky. We watched the sunset and later counted stars. About 2am we watched as the most recent comet NEOWISE made its way across the nights sky. It was an absolutely amazing sight to see and something I will never see again in my lifetime. 

The next morning more coffee was on the menu and then homeward bound. On 6 miles back to the road I reflect on the amazing memories I made, the tough steps I had taken with blisters to prove it, and the feeling that I had grown more closer to the earth all around me. But I am not gonna lie, by the time we made it to the concrete road towards the truck, I was very ready to go home.

 

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