*Photo heavy post! Write-up at the end! It’s also long!*
Prep and Planning
I think we picked the perfect weekend for introducing Forest to backpacking. It wasn’t our longest hike with him ever but we also didn’t want to be too far from the car should we need to hoof it back if something went awry. The weekend before I had seen the 10 day forecast and thought it looked like a promising one for a backpacking trip. The rest of our weekends through April and early May are pretty busy with commitments and Chris heading out of town for work, so unless we planned on doing this when the heat really ramped up, this was going to be our only window for getting out and going for an overnight backpacking trip.
When planning the hike I asked Chris where exactly he was thinking of going and he thought the Lone Star Trail in Sam Houston National Forest was good because it was close. He did want to hike a different section than we’d hiked before, however. The LST club has a helpful website with downloadable maps and a KMZ you can view on Google Maps/Earth so it was pretty easy to plan out the hike. There is a bigger guidebook which we may need to get in the future, but the printable maps and their concise guide for water sources and camping sites was all I needed for this particular section. I ended up printing the area for Section 9 – Big Creek, which goes from Trailhead 11 on the north end to Trailhead 13 on the south end. In the south is the Big Creek Scenic Area which I wanted to hike through. I added up the miles from Trailhead 13 heading towards a designated campsite on the north, just south of Double Lake campground. That mileage was a little over six miles which would make a 12+ mile round trip—totally doable.
Since we were doing a shorter hike and really had no end goal on where to finish for the evening other than a decent campsite with water access, we didn’t get started hiking until after lunch on Saturday. In fact, we didn’t pull our backpacking gear out until Friday evening to start going through our gear. We realized our Aqua Mira water drops, our go-to water treatment, were a year expired, but we had a pump so we packed that instead. We couldn’t find our headlamps either. Well, Chris found an older one of his and I used Forest’s—Chris misplaced his newer headlamp as we were packing and I haven’t seen my headlamp in months or maybe over a year or more. We also had idea where our metal sporks went. Instead, we ended up using two plastic forks we had in the kitchen and brought one of Forest’s little baby spoons for him to use. Our gear hadn’t been used since our attempted thru-hike of the Northeast Texas Trail in November of 2013, right before I got pregnant with Forest, so I was apprehensive about getting our stuff together so late in the game. Luckily it all worked out. We just had to figure out what to divide with whom.
As Chris was carrying Forest in the Osprey Poco Premium carrier I would be carrying much of the other gear. And it was just one overnight so it wasn’t like we had to go all out with carrying a ton of food or other extra clothing. Chris and I took no main extra clothes, just a change of underwear and socks, leaving a change of clothes in the car in case we wanted it when we got back to the trailhead. The main clothes in my bag were Forest’s because I didn’t know what he would do, particularly in regards to potty accidents. Forest has been pretty well potty trained since October (more on that in a bit) so I didn’t have to heft around diapers, just one for sleeping overnight, and I had several changes of underwear for him in case of accidents.
For food we opted to go pretty easy. We’d eat lunch at Chick-fil-A before the hike (Forest’s favorite place!) and just needed dinner, snacks, and breakfast on the trail. I was most concerned food-wise for Forest because he is still in a picky toddler phase, though slowly getting better at eating more diverse foods. For dinner we opted for Santa Fe Instant Refried Beans, which we discovered on the AT. Chris picked up a package at our local HEB grocery store, though you can them on Amazon. Forest likes beans so we figured he’d eat those (he didn’t, of course) and we took a few tortillas from the fridge and picked up a couple of packets of hot sauce from the Chick-fil-A condiment counter. Snacks were various bars, trail mix, snap pea and lentil pea crisps, and some animal cookies and Goldfish for Forest. Breakfast was oatmeal, again because I knew Forest would eat it (and he didn’t, of course) and it was an easy meal for all of us.
I’d been telling Chris for awhile that we needed a three person tent because Forest is too much of a crazy sleeper for all of us to fit in the two person tent. I think Chris finally realized this and opted for the time being to take a hammock for him, with Forest and I sharing the tent. Chris is going to research three person tents (if you have input, let me know!) and hopefully we will have that for the next time we go out for a hike. So, I carried the tent, a new endeavor for me, and Chris carried his hammock. In addition, Chris carried his light sleeping bag (I carried my heavier down bag to use as a blanket), his water, and Forest’s little potty chair, in addition to a few other smaller items. When your base load is a 26+ pound toddler you don’t want too much more added to that weight.
On the potty chair—over a year ago I bought a Oxo 2-in-1 Potty Chair for the back of my car. Since we were doing elimination communication with Forest I wanted the option to try to get him to pee if we could while we were out and about, and I knew that once we really started potty training that the travel potty would come in handy. It definitely has and we’ve taken it on countless day hiking trips already. I usually carry a refill bag if I know he’s going to go #2, but with #1 he just sits and tinkles on the ground. This time I left the bags at home and we just dug a hole when he said he needed to go #2—oh and thank goodness he’s now better at telling us when he needs to do either one! Next up is teaching him how to squat over a hole so we can leave the potty chair at home but I think that’s going to be a bit down the road!
In all, packing for this trip wasn’t terribly different than any other of our backpacking trips, just more of a reorganizing of items and trying to take less than usual.
We finished packing on Saturday morning and headed over to Chick-fil-A for lunch. Afterwards we hit the highway eastbound to the part of the national forest we hadn’t been to before, off US 59. We encouraged Forest to sleep on the way but he did not comply, despite his sleepy appearing eyes. When we arrived at Trailhead #13 there were several cars in the parking lot already, which was encouraging. It was good to see other hikers out but also because I don’t necessarily like being the only car at a trailhead—more cars feels like a little more safety-in-numbers.
Forest was excited as soon as we got out of the car because were “HIKING!” and because there was a giant muddy puddle that he really wanted to jump in. No muddy puddle boots meant no splashing about so we had to keep telling him to stay back. Eventually he couldn’t contain his excitement for going on a hike and was ready to get into the pack. Chris lifted him into his pack and I strapped mine on, and we set off down the trail.
Immediately we came across phlox and verbena and continued seeing various wildflowers blooming alongside the singletrack. It was bright and sunny with the perfect crisp blue sky above the tree canopy. Really, it was an awesome day and weekend to be out on the trail. There was a slight chance for a scattered shower later in the afternoon (we left the rain gear at home in favor of saving space and weight, deciding to just set the tent up if a storm came along) but otherwise the outlook was favorable.
The trail meandered through lobolly pine forests and down to hardwood bottomlands along creeks before reaching an elevated tramway that led straight to the Big Creek Scenic Area. We encountered two men heading back to the trailhead after doing some dayhiking; one of the men had an Air New Zealand tag on his pack and complete with their accents I figured they were from NZ and wondered if they had hiked the Te Araroa and some of their other long trails. I’m sure they had, but we kept the conversation to minimal niceties—they were intrigued by Forest sitting in his pack—and we kept on down the way.
Not long after we made it to the scenic area (no camping!) Forest decided it was nap time so Chris and I kept our conversation fairly quiet as we walked through the less maintained scenic area. It was thicker forest, more bottomland hardwoods, and had a wilder feel. A mile later we found Trailhead #12 and opted to continue on since Forest was sleeping. We didn’t walk much further because we came to a bridge over Big Creek and the area was ripe with wanting to be explored. Chris carefully put Forest down to sleep in the pack on the ground and I sat down for a break. Chris grabbed the camera and took off to explore the creek and adjacent wetlands while I laid down on the bridge to relax. This relaxing reminded me so much of our other long distance hikes, the breaks we would take and short snoozes I would steal while staring up at the tree canopies. Getting a taste of that again was divine.
I had no idea how much time passed while we lazed about there but it had to have been about an hour before Forest woke up. He was cranky when he woke so he took a few minutes to figure out where he was before being awake enough to eat a snack. Chris had found several interesting critters along the creek, including a water moccasin, while on his explorations. After our break we continued down the trail, tracing the contour of the creek as we meandered north. The bottomlands called out to both of us and we kept pausing to see what we could see across the way. Further up beavers had dammed the stream, creating a swampy pond above the dam. We were looking for signs of beavers when we heard a dog not too far away, across the stream. There were no trails over there so we were a little weary of a possible wild dog in the woods and we began walking north again, trying to keep our voices down so we wouldn’t entice a stray dog to chase us. Luckily, no dog followed or showed up later that night.
We left the scenic area, rising up to another tramway and down again, back into the wider landscape of the pines once again. The trail took off away from the edge of the stream but we weren’t more than a hundred yards or so from it and could see the edge of the trees that signified a wetter area. I knew the trail jogged even further from the creek at one point but would reunite closer after a short period so I kept waiting for that turn to gauge where we were on the map. I’d tucked the map into my zippered pocket on my pants and it was easily accessible. The trail has mile markers along the way which are a great help, too.
Somewhere along the way Chris asked Forest if he wanted to get out and walk for a bit. Chris wanted a break and Forest wanted out so this worked perfectly. Forest might have been a little exuberant because he would take off running and then splat on the trail because he’d trip over a tree root or stump. There was plenty of poison ivy lining the trails so I’d have to keep him from wandering into the vegetation too much. Forest had been walking maybe a quarter of a mile when Chris looked up and saw something to our east and thought it looked like an old washed up bridge. I stopped to look with him and after we surveyed the area we realized it was a cleared terrace with a fire pit. The ‘bridge’ was really a table. This was a campsite!
There wasn’t a designated campsite for another two miles so I was a little weary that this was perhaps on private property, just across the stream, as there was a white area on the map across the stream. I looked closer, later, and realized the white area didn’t have a boundary on it like the other in-holdings on the map, so I figured it might not have been an in-holding. Nevertheless, we walked downhill to the campsite to check it out and see which side of the creek it was on. It was on the west side, so, no chance of it being on private property and we saw no trees painted with border markers—we set up camp! What luck to stumble across this great site! It was clear at the beginning of the trail leading to the campsite that it was not used often as the trail was slightly overgrown near the beginning. We figured that it wasn’t a campsite that they (the forest service or trail association) wanted to be widely used; however, the campsite itself was relatively clear of new growth and the fire pit looked like it had been used in recent months, so I’m willing to bet it gets used more often than ‘they’ would like!
I’d forgotten how easy it was to set up our backpacking tent. Chris and I put it up like it was old hat, maybe with a few pauses to remember how we did something, but it was almost genetic memory. Then came the fun part of blowing up the NeoAir mats. This time I got to do both of them, which is no fun because I always get lightheaded as I’m blowing them up. Forest loved the tent and wanted to get in to play immediately but we had to reiterate a million times that he couldn’t put his shoes on inside and he couldn’t bounce on the mats and he couldn’t poke anything on them! He played like it was his nap mat at daycare and I gave him two of the books I carried for him to read so he could unwind after the hike.
Chris and I stretched out and set up camp, taking some time to wander around the site while we each took turns to stay with Forest. It was 4:30pm when we arrived at camp and with the late sunset it would be a long three hours to keep Forest entertained. It turned out to be pretty easy, as we explored with him—checking out the creek side, looking at ants, flipping over logs, and finally, gathering pine cones. He also entertained himself by running around in the leaves, trying to balance on the wood beam meant for sitting, and being an all-round goofy toddler. At some point I wished I’d carried my own book because reading at camp is one of my very favorite things to do. As the sun lowered on the horizon it produced a wonderful glow through the pines and reminded me a little bit of Ocala National Forest on the Florida Trail.
I kept getting antsy as the evening wore on, waiting for other hikers to arrive. I think this is a carry over from our thru-hiking days, where you’d get to a shelter or campsite and hope maybe you’d be the only one there only for someone to arrive just as you are getting ready for bed. No one arrived, which was much to our liking.
After dinner, to kill about thirty minutes before bedtime, we hoofed back up the little hill to the main trail and went for a little walk, continuing northbound. We realized we weren’t very far from the next mile marker, maybe a tenth of a mile, which was comforting to know and helped us figure out where we were on the map. Forest enjoyed the walk and did a little better with watching out for tree roots.
Finally it was bedtime and time to wind down for the evening. This was a frustrating task for me because it always takes Forest at least 30-45 minutes to wind down at night and I knew it wouldn’t be very easy because he’d be loose in the tent and not confined to his crib like usual. Of course there were the typical stall tactics, which included a trip back outside after dark to hang with the mosquitoes while he went to the potty. Sleep that night was alright but not comfortable. I mean, sleeping on those air mattresses never is that comfortable, but Forest was his typical kicking, squirming, rolling self and the mats kept slipping all over the tent. Thankfully he didn’t wake up before dawn so we all slept in a little bit.
Mornings at camp are another one of my favorite things. A light fog enveloped the forest, not too low, and the sun brightened the forest to the east. We ate our oatmeal (or bars and mish-mash of stuff like Forest) and began packing up camp to hit the trail back to the car. Part of me was ready for another 10 miles to go to another campsite but the other part of me had that feeling you get after being in the woods for a week, where you are antsy to get to town for your shower and giant plate of restaurant food.
Back on the trail we headed south once again, through the pine trees, up the tram and back down to the scenic area. No barking dogs this morning, thank goodness. In addition to the Lone Star Trail running through the scenic area, there were three loop trails that connected back up to the LST. For a change in scenery we opted to take the outer loop, the 0.6 mile Big Creek Trail. It winded through mesic woods that gently rolled up and down as we traversed across creek bottoms. By taking this trail we had a botanical discovery, finding trilliums and may apples! What luck! I’d wondered if we would be too far west for either of them—apparently not!
As we headed out of the scenic area Forest appeared sleepy and began leaning over in his pack. I think he was relaxing more than anything, but it gave us a reason to make extra effort to get to the car faster in case he wasn’t feeling good. He usually doesn’t nap in the morning. We weren’t far from crossing over Tarkington Bayou, a cautious crossing over piled up logs, when he asked to get out and walk. We told him to wait until we crossed and then he could hop out and walk, which he did once we were on the west side of the bayou. Thankfully he also asked for a snack. My stomach was beginning to gnaw at me, the oatmeal was long burned off, so we sat down in the middle of the trail for a snack while Chris searched for the snake he’d seen in the water before we crossed.
Forest did end up walking, he walked the entire way back to the car which was about a mile from the bayou! Chris led the way and I trailed the end and Forest walked in the middle in some varying state of running to dilly-dallying while poking at plants. There were plenty of splats on the trail when he didn’t pay attention and tripped over a root or stump (or tried to turn around to talk to me and while walking!) but each time he brushed it off and kept on going. Soon we heard the echo of cars driving down the road and before we knew it we saw the patches of phlox and verbena we had passed on our way in the day before. And not long after we arrived at the trailhead!
In Forest’s words, “Did it!” We’d survived the first overnight backpacking trip!
It is immensely satisfying to have that done and under our belt. All of my hiking memories came back to me, the different feelings from relishing the hike to being ready to get to camp—they were all there. It was funny how much I have come to associate Burt’s Bees diaper cream with backpacking because when I opened the baggie to move around some of our medical kit stuff, the smell of it wafted out and it was an instant flashback to the trail. Even getting inside the tent at night had me remembering so much about our long hikes. I’m hoping we can squeeze in one more hike before next fall and maybe by next backpacking season Forest will be ready for doing more hiking on his own. We may have to pick close sites at first to build his stamina but that’s ok. It will be fun to see where we get to hike in the coming seasons!
Part II will be a video of our hike but I have not had a chance to even get it edited and processed so that will be up sometime next week.