We were incredibly busy people this spring, and we have a tendency to put off packing until the last minute. This creates an incredible amount of stress for me, and I really need to stop doing it. I had planned for us to pack 4 days before we left, but it ended up being done the night before and the morning of… again. We were in the shoulder season – that time when it’s not really winter, but its not entirely warm yet either. This makes packing for a trip where gear space is limited is extra challenging. I bought a new 0 degree topquilt for the occasion. We’ve been using lighter topquilts plus sleeping bags for our winter car camping trips, and that just wasn’t going to be an option this time around. Still, I didn’t account for the extra space a heavier quilt would take up and my 50l backpack was barely going to manage to hold everything I’d need for the weekend.

Fortunately, we made it fit and weighed our packs with food and water included. Mine was 35 pounds and Arbor’s was 40. While mine was a lot better than the 45 pounds I carried on the River to River trail, I was packing for one night out – not multiple nights! Arbor made the best improvement from his 55 pounds down to 40. Still, we need to work a lot harder to get pack weight down because its just not near as much fun to hike with such a heavy load.

We drove out to Forest Glen and met up with 10 other hikers from the Corn Desert and Adventure Group. 3 of them decided to just make the trip a day hike, as the event was taking place over Easter weekend. We chatted and caught up with folks as everyone got suited up for the trail. I know we weren’t alone in wearing a pack for the first time in the season. It felt good to put it on, but I knew that sensation would pass as the day progressed.

That initial bridge was sketchy enough the last time we crossed it with the Hopeful Hikers, but with another 35 pounds on my back, it was especially concerning. Everyone made it across and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. We started the day at 40 degrees, and it was too cold for the frogs to be out. It’s a shame because they really add something to the atmosphere.

Still, it was warm enough that I was questioning my decision to wear my gortex hiking boots as I was starting to sweat in my wool socks. After enough unavoidably wet and mucky water crossings, I knew I had made the right call. Normally I would be ok getting my trail runners wet, but it was still cool enough that wet feet would have been a serious problem for me.

The great thing about this trail for training purposes is the steep pitch to the hills we encountered. Illinois is particularly flat and we just don’t get any sincere elevation in our hikes, so vertical hills over and over are a great way to prepare for the mountains in our future.

We had gotten a generous amount of rain earlier in the week, and I was concerned about one steep hill in particular – but the path was surprisingly dry. The sun was out and there was a small breeze that just made the whole day delightful.

The wildflowers were just starting to show themselves. In a couple of weeks, they should be out in force.

As wonderful as the hike was, I was feeling every ounce of those 35 pounds. My shoulders ached and I was developing bruises where my hip belt sat. I was starting to recall why we only hiked 8 miles a day on the River to River trail. We had taken an early break for snacks, but I was feeling ok then. By the time we hit 5 miles, I really needed just to sit down in my chair and rest my back. As much as my shoulders and hips bother me, what really forces me to stop is my mid-back. It starts to burn and develop shooting pains that are impossible to ignore. Even blisters are better.

Most of the group hiked on ahead, but a small band of us stopped and rested for 15 minutes. It was everything that I needed, and I was able to tackle the final stretch. It was even better when Kris found a camera on the ground near a bridge crossing that turned out to belong to a member of our faster group. I don’t know that anyone would have noticed if we had all pushed on together.

We got to camp and blissfully took off our packs and sat down to rest for a bit. There was some regular hiker banter with the group and then we set off to set up our hammocks.

With that out of the way, we came back together and ate dinner and made a fire where we spent the next few hours enjoying each others company. As we crawled into our hammocks, I went to sleep with my hot water bottle and the sound of coyotes howling in the near distance.

I slept amazingly well. My hammock was pitched at the perfect angle, my quilts were gloriously warm and I was ready to sleep the morning away. I heard movement outside and knew I needed to get up and join the living.

I was in no hurry to pack up and go, so I sat around and drank my coffee and ate my breakfast while people came and went from the main gathering spot. Kris was the last to get up, so he was my barometer for action. The faster group decided to hit the trail early, but I was enjoying my pace and we hung back for a while knowing that our hike out would be more relaxed as well.

It was nice to have a smaller group to hike with as well as its a change in dynamic from the day before. I like both experiences, and enjoy them on the same trip is a real treat.

I think the last 3 miles of the trail are the prettiest. They certainly have the most challenging hills, so its a great way to tackle them – after a good nights rest.

I was carrying a lot less water and food this time around, and my pack felt terrific. I had adjusted it differently too, and I ultimately felt stronger and incredibly happier for the remainder of the hike. After weighing it when we got home, it came out to 28 pounds. That’s my new goal for the future, because it completely changed the entire trekking experience for me. You hear it in theory, but to feel it one day after the next like that is a real revelation.

We made our way out of the hills, and back into the flat section of the park and I felt triumphant. First backpacking challenge of 2015 accomplished! Then it was back to chatting while walking and enjoying the surroundings. We passed the frog pond and listened to their wonderful chorus, and saw what we think was a badger skull and spine on the path. It’s always a surprise out there.

And then, just like that, the trip was over and we said our goodbyes and made our way home. I can hardly wait to throw on my pack again and test my limits on the trail.