Shenandoah National Park, Southern Half, 54 Miles
This 6-day backpacking food plan and trip report are from the first backpacking trip that Dominique and I took as a couple. All of the recipes are in my book, Recipes for Adventure. I doubled the ingredients from the usual large, single-serving portions. In addition to dehydrated meals, I also packed a generous supply of snacks: nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, and pretzels.
I cooked and dried these whole backpacking meals: Chili, Ratatouille, Root Bark Stew, and Saffron Risotto with Mushroom. Other meals were assembled from individually dried foods. The rice and potato bark were precooked and dried in the usual way, using chicken or beef broth for extra flavor.
Six days’ worth of dried foods before I assembled them into meals, desserts, and snacks.
All of our meals were delicious. As it turned out, we only ate breakfast, snacks, and one main meal per day. Although I had packed meals for both lunch and dinner, the weather conditions were less than favorable for midday cooking. Dominique’s favorite meal was saffron mushroom risotto.
Backpacking Pots and Stoves used for 6-day-backpacking trip.
Left to right: Pot cozy, 227 gram Isopro fuel canister with Optimus Crux burner, 1300 ml and 900 ml Evernew titanium pots with fry pan lids, tea light candle cup and hardware cloth pot stand, denatured alcohol, aluminum windscreen. Not shown – two spoons, and one insulated coffee mug smuggled in by Dominique. All the components, except the alcohol bottle and coffee mug, nested into the small pot, which nested into the larger pot, with the cozy enclosing it all.
A unique feature about the Optimus Crux burner is that it folds at the stem for storage under the fuel canister.
I used the smaller pot and alcohol fuel to boil water for coffee
while breakfasts were cooking in the large pot. In the evenings, I
warmed and rehydrated fruits for desserts in the small pot, and cooked
dinner in the large pot. I also used the tea light alcohol set up a few
times to preheat the main meal during the soak phase. We used three to
three-and-a-half cups of water to rehydrate and cook our two-person
My intention was to use the larger fry pan lid for Dominique's portion, but we ended up eating out of the same pot. Nevertheless, the extra head room created by the fry pan lids allowed all the cooking components to nest together.
After this hike, we started carrying a thermos food jar, which allows us to prepare hot lunches in the morning before we leave camp. We also use the thermos to rehydrate dried fruit for afternoon fruit cocktails. Another two-person cooking kit that we like to use now is the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist II Cookset.
This was Dominique’s first backpacking adventure; our first as a couple.
I wanted her to enjoy it, so she would come again. Planning a trip with
a partner was, at first, a challenge for me. I had been comfortable
"hiking my own hikes." My usual style was to carry only the essentials
in a lightweight pack. Dominique had other ideas. After adjusting some
of our gear – and my attitude – we learned how to hike our own hikes –
The tarp and backpack that I had been using weighed only a pound each – both were homemade from kits sold on Ray Jardine’s website. Dominique wanted more privacy and separation from the elements than a tarp provides, so we purchased a three-person tent from Hilleberg, the Swedish tent maker. That added five more pounds for shelter. Despite the weight, we both loved the spaciousness of the tent. I used the homemade Jardine backpack again, but with my load now over twenty-seven pounds, not counting water, the shoulder straps tugged uncomfortably at my shoulders. Dominique wore a German-made Deuter backpack which she had owned for many years. I made a face when I felt how heavy it seemed for its small size. I knew we would be carrying more gear than in the past, and I doubted our two packs could hold it all. I was wrong. The Deuter pack expanded amazingly well, and its weight was justified by its excellent construction and weight-supporting design. Dominque started out with twenty-two pounds, not counting water.
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Dominique’s top priorities related to gear were to keep warm and dry. She gets cold easily, so we bought her a 25° TerraLite down sleeping bag from Western Mountaineering. I continued to use my 30° Zpack down sleeping bag. We purchased a second Klymit inflatable sleeping pad for Dominique that was a little wider than mine. Our other purchase for warmth was two Hole in the Wall DownTek Jackets from Big Agnes. We were careful to keep these items and our sleeping clothes segregated and dry in our backpacks. The down jackets stuffed into their own inside pockets to make excellent pillows.
Klymit Inflatable Sleeping Pads. Domique got the wider one, but the narrow width is better if using two in a small tent.
My usual approach to moisture management changed for this trip. Being
mostly a fair weather backpacker, I had been hiking for years in trail
running shoes and shorts. They get wet, but dry fast. Dominique, on the
other hand, believes in wearing sturdy, waterproof boots; an influence
of the Swiss culture of rugged mountain hiking. We purchased her boots
in Switzerland, and even though I tried to steer her to a light-weight
pair, she held her ground and purchased a pair of leather boots with
Gore-Tex lining from Lowa, a German boot maker known for quality
construction. Dominique was blister-free and happy the whole hike.
A few days before leaving, I checked the weather forecast and learned that rain was expected every day of our hike. Since it would also be cool, and I didn’t want to hike for six days with wet feet, I made a last-minute decision and purchased a pair of Merrell Moab Rover Mid Waterproof boots. I also bought a pair of Columbia rain pants. I liked Dominique’s Marmot PreCip rain pants better, because they had pockets. My new boots were comfortable and supple right out of the box, so I didn’t worry about breaking them in. Dominique brought her good quality rain jacket from Switzerland, and I invested in a Marmot PreCip rain jacket with pit zips. Rounding out our rain gear, we each carried an ultra-light umbrella. The umbrellas were especially useful one night at Loft Mountain Campground when I cooked dinner in the rain and wind.
As for personal care items, mine fit into two 4 X 6 inch plastic bags. One held a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, toilet paper, and a piece of unscented soap. The other bag contained first-aid supplies. Dominique carried a larger supply of personal care items, most of which she kept hidden from me for fear I might criticize the necessity of this or that. She was aware of my minimalist ways. What she carried for personal care and comfort, of course, was her business; I did not criticize. In fact, I benefited from several items she brought along, and was cleaner and better sanitized than I had ever been on a hike.
It rained every day and the fog was thick. Views of the fall-colored mountains eluded us. Occasionally, when it stopped raining and the fog lifted to treetop level, Dominique would let out a, “Jupi” and I would answer with, “Who-Who.” The forest was peaceful and subdued in the fog. Dominique called it romantic, but some of the deeper coves felt “spooky.” The path of leaves under our feet was in all the fall shades, and many plants in our near view still held late-season berries for migrating birds. Dominique was jubilant to be immersed in nature.
There was one moment of perfect timing at Blackrock Summit early one evening. Blackrock Summit is a rock-strewn mountaintop; the Appalachian Trail circles all the way around the tip with panoramic views. The fog lifted just as we arrived, and we got our one-and-only view of the autumn mountains. A thin strip of clear sky separated the mountain tops from the clouds, and the sun, from behind the clouds, sent rays of sunlight fanning broadly down to the mountain coves.
We wore our rain pants and jackets every day, taking them off from time to time when it warmed up. But it was mostly cool, and sometimes we encountered strong wind-driven fog. Our outerwear kept us comfortable. It rained hard several nights, and my nylon food bag got wet hanging from the bear poles. I thought the bag was more water resistant, but it didn’t hold up to the challenge. Fortunately, I had vacuum sealed all of our food, so a wet food bag was not a problem.
A mouse battle took place at Calf Mountain Shelter. Mice usually scamper stealthy in shelters, sneaking into packs for crumbs and such, but these mice squeaked loudly as they tussled.
We saw deer every day. They were not scared of us. I walked right past a big, antlered buck that was standing just off the trail, and didn’t even see him until Dominique pointed him out. There was bear scat all along the trail, but we did not see any bears. The shelters were equipped with bear poles for hanging food bags. We saw one baby snake and one long black snake who looked well-fed. While standing on a ridge, we watched hundreds of black birds fly in and fill the trees above us. They flew off a moment later and disappeared in the fog.
We got started later than I thought we would on the first day, so we hiked the last mile to Hightop Hut in the dark with our headlamps on. I could tell that Dominique was a little stressed about getting to the shelter; she wasn’t as interested as I was in chatting with a couple of deer we encountered shortly before the sun went down. We shared the shelter with four men. Two of them – Marine veterans – had challenged themselves to hike the entire one hundred miles through the park in five days. At three days into it, they sported blisters on top of blisters, yet were stoic in their resolve. The fire in front of the shelter provided light for me to cook a pot of rice pudding. We were not overly hungry, because we had cooked a pot of tuna mac casserole late in the afternoon.
As it turned out, we slept in shelters four out of five nights. I did not expect Dominique to like the shelters, but since we usually arrived with little or no daylight left, it was faster to roll out our sleeping gear, filter fresh water, and cook dinner at the shelters, than to fiddle with the tent. Plus, if we used the tent, it would weigh a lot more packed up wet.
At one shelter, rain poured over the roof gutter, which we collected and filtered for our evening and morning needs. The shelters were all damp. We spread a sheet of Tyvek under our sleeping pads. Our damp clothes and socks remained damp in the mornings. Thanks to Dominique’s stash of soap, wash cloth, and sundry personal care items, we ventured forth cheerfully clean every day.
We used our tent at Loft Mountain Campground. Arriving late in a soup of cold fog and drizzle, we got the tent up in ten minutes. The vestibule portion of the Hilleberg Nallo 3GT tent extended past the provided camping pad, but the area was flat, so it wasn’t a problem. We liked that we could enter the vestibule while it was raining and zip it closed before entering the sleeping quarters of the tent. The campsite had a picnic table and a bear box for food storage. Our resupply box, which I had mailed to the camp store, held our vacuum sealed food for the last three days of the hike, two single-serving bottles of wine, and two tea light candles.
It was dark when we cooked dinner with our headlamps on. The candles, which I placed inside Styrofoam cups, glowed like lanterns. Dominique had brought along foam fanny pads. They were light as a feather and warm to sit on. We blocked some of the rain and wind with strategic placement of our umbrellas over the table. When it came time to eat, Dominique held an umbrella over us while we ate our meal out of the pot – mashed potatoes with beef and vegetables. In the smaller pot, I rehydrated and warmed strawberries and chocolate sauce to spoon over dried cake.
The wet tent was indeed much heavier when we packed up in the morning. Dominique took some of our food in her pack to shift some of the weight to her. What a partner!
And that’s how our first backpacking trip as a couple went. “Jupi.” “Who-Who.”
Wearing our Hole in the Wall DownTek Jackets after the hike.