Shakedown Hike – Foothills Trail
About the Trail
The Foothills Trail is 77 miles stretching from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park in western South Carolina. The geography is very similar to the southern AT making it a great place for a shakedown hike.
My hiking partner (wife) had not done a weeklong backpacking trip as an adult but for each of the past few Spring Break vacations we spent 3 days backpacking near our home. With Spring Break approaching and our big trip just a year away, she thought we should go for a longer trip and the planning began.
Information on the Foothills Trail is not as easy to find as it is for the AT so we watched a lot YouTube videos and scoured the Internet. We discovered shuttle driver extraordinaire, Taz, and figured out our logistics. It is important to note that hotel and hostel rooms fill up quickly on both ends of Spring Break.
The trail is a bit shorter than the 100 Mile Wilderness, but we thought this would be a good test for carrying a week’s worth of food. With no room’s available anywhere near the trail start or end, we decided a six day trip, with short first and last days, should simulate the food carry of the 100 Mile Wilderness. We acquired the requisite two pounds per day of food and were amazed at how quickly large bear bags fill up. 12 pounds of food is a lot more than I thought it would be.
The Foothills Trail does not have any shelters or really anywhere to get out of the rain. Since the extended forecast showed cold rain all week we decided to purchase a large light weight tarp as insurance. The forecasted rain never happened. It did rain on the first full day of hiking, but never hard enough to get anything wet. The drops that hit me, were dry within a step or two. It also rained the very last day, more on that later. The key to preventing rain, especially during camp setup and tear down, is to spend a bit of extra time putting a tarp up over your tent.
My wife is not known for her knot tying abilities. If it was going to be raining all week, I wanted us to be able to set up the tarp pretty quickly. She spent a couple days working on knots before we visited a local, but closed, campground about a mile from our house. We ran to the campground from our house. There is a great trail system in the woods surrounding our neighborhood with over 20 miles of trail and a mountain to boot. It was a pretty warm day and there were several other people walking through the campground. I’m sure a few of them thought we were homeless people setting up camp.
Lots of Water
We decided to hike the trail from West to East. This should give us time to consume most of our food before hitting the steep climbs leading to Sassafras Mountain. In this direction, the first few days of hiking are along streams, rivers, and lakes. The scenery is beautiful. Every turn opens up new, fantastic views of rivers, waterfalls, and lakes.
We hiked along the Chattooga and Whitewater rivers for most of the first and second full days of the trip. The first day was dreary, not cold, but raining a bit. The river had a cold winter look to it that was especially beautiful since it did not feel like a cold winter day. The second day was hot. Never did the weather forecast predict 80 degrees. I was so thankful to be right next to a river most of the day. My only regret from the trip is not taking a swim in Whitewater river.
An added benefit to all streams and rivers is not having to carry much water. All but one night, we camped next to water. I don’t think I carried more than 1/2 liter of water until the last mile before our last campsite. All the food we were carrying, however, more than made up for the little water that was carried.
On the fourth evening we camped at the top of a huge waterfall. There was a nice pool leading up to the falls and I enjoyed a quick wade in the water. This was early April and the weather had been forecasted to be cold and rainy. While the water was bit cooler than cool but not quite cold, and I did not duck my head under, I did feel very refreshed upon exiting the water.
The skies finally opened up during the last two miles of the last day. The temperature was still warm and the car not too far away, so the torrential downpour was kind of fun. At one point a number of trails converged on the same spot and the signage was not as good as the on the rest of the trail, so we paused to get our bearings. A loud crashing noise caught our attention, something thudded on the back of my wife’s head and pack before hitting the ground between us. We were both thinking “branch” when the temporarily stunned squirrel hopped up and ran off.
So, I think I am in pretty good shape. I am competitive in mid-distance trail running in my age group, locally, when the really fast guys don’t show up. We were planning for around 15 miles per day, which, at two miles per hour, would leave plenty of time for breaks. My wife, however, does not take breaks. Oh, she will stop to take some photos every 15 minutes or so, but the pack stays on and as soon as the photo has been snapped she is off.
Every day, about an hour after lunch, my shoulders and back would start to ache. These were not aches from a poorly adjusted pack, they were aches due to not being strong enough in the shoulders and back. I love running, other workout activities, not so much. Since this hike I have worked hard at adding weight bearing exercises to my workout routine. I still prefer running.
On backpacking trips since this one, I have removed my pack for at least 10 minutes every couple hours. This has made all the difference in how my body feels after a long(ish) day backpacking. I would like to say all the weight lifting has fixed the issue, but I still prefer running. The weather has to be pretty bad for me to choose the weights over my running shoes.
With it being Spring Break week in many places, we were pretty sure the trail would be crowded. Naturally an introvert, but love talking about gear, backpacking, and other trails, I was looking forward to having a lot of people to meet and talk to during this trip. Our shuttle driver, Taz, said the trail would likely be “AT crowded” this week. He had already dropped one large and several small groups off at Oconee State Park.
The first night we shared the campsite with one other person. On the second night, three others showed up as I was drifting off to sleep, we left in the morning before they woke. Night three we were in for a treat as we caught the “large” group Taz had spoken about. They were from the mid West, somewhere flat, and travel for interesting backpacking trips several times a year. They said that they like to do the best parts of the trails during the best time of the year. There were two disciples of Andrew Skurka at the campsite as well.
I love Skurka’s backcountry philosophy. His recipes are excellent; I plan to eat beans, rice, and Fritos as often as possible while on the AT. His poop procedure sounds perfect, but I have not yet attempted it. While these two guys listen to his every word and have gone on several of his guided trips, they did admit that he was a bit over the top. They both had comfy camp shoes and did not do the bread bag bit. They also were very willing to share the huge bag of marshmallows and backcountry popcorn with the rest of the group.
Nights four and five were similar to the first two nights, with only a few others sharing our campsite. While hiking, we might have seen a dozen people.
We ended up hiking the trail in 4 full days, Monday – Thursday, and two short days, Sunday and Friday but carried 6 full days of food. We brought a bunch of that food home, in fact, we had so much extra food we could have stayed out for another two days and not gotten hungry.
The first night we had each eaten only one dinner out of our food bags, so they were only slightly lighter than the 12 pounds (each) when we started. I use the super thin line (1.75 mm) for hanging our bags and pull both bags up with the same line. At first just I struggled to lift the bags with the thin line. Then my wife decided to help and we both struggled trying to lift our food bags. We provided some great entertainment for our fellow campers sharing the campsite.
Other than the two short days, our longest day was 18 miles and shortest was 14 miles. Based on our fitness level at the time, how we felt each morning, and the lack of stiffness during the car ride home, our desire to average 15 miles per day on the AT should not be an issue.
Happy trails and Merry Christmas!
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