Hiking / Backpacking

First solo overnighter on the Knobstone Trail

The Knobstone Trail is Indiana’s longest hiking trail, spanning 47 miles through the hills of Southern Indiana. Used often as a playground for aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, it’s steep climbs and rugged conditions offers a challenging trail that’s close to home for many in the surrounding area. My first experience with the Knobstone Trail began at about 11AM on May 5th.

This hike would also feature my first solo overnighter.

Would I get spooked by the Blair Witch? Raped by Bigfoot? Luckily, no hauntings or forced acts of sex by any woodland folklore creatures took place on this trip.

I packed my comically overweight pack into my truck and headed towards the Deam Lake Recreational Area from my home in Madison, Indiana. As I got closer to my destination my excitement but also my nervousness increased. I pulled into the park, as directed by my GPS, and found two other vehicles at the trailhead. After a quick ‘patdown’ and check that I’ve grabbed the items that would be needed from my vehicle, I put on my pack and crossed Mile Marker 0.

Knobstone Trail Deam Lake Trailhead
Knobstone Trail Deam Lake Trailhead

The first three miles on the trail, easy. I hike stuff like that weekly at the nearby Clifty Falls State Park. The trail was mostly dry in these areas, with some instances of mud which was to be expected with the recent rains. At about two and a half miles in, I passed the first and only person that I’d see for the next 24 hours that I was on the trail. We spoke briefly about trail conditions and I continued north as he continued south. I solo hike often and always enjoy the peace, quiet, and solitude of being alone.

Miles three to four, a bit more burdensome but nothing ‘difficult’. More mud, yes. Some more overgrown areas, but nothing difficult to navigate. The Knobstone Trail is very well marked with white blazes along the path and consistent mile markers serve as inspiration to continue and push forward.

Miles four to five, getting to become ‘moderate’ in the difficult rating, but “hard”, as AllTrails and those with experience would claim? Nah, not really. At this point, I had already crossed one stream with running water where I would later set up camp upon my return (see featured image) and had encountered some mild mud, but nothing too serious. Really though, the first four to five miles were relatively easy, even with a large, overweight pack. I was feeling confident in my abilities and in good spirits.

Then came mile five.

Look, I do a lot of hiking but admittedly there isn’t a lot of elevation change beyond a hundred or so feet here or there over a distance where I generally hike. I’ll admit that I was physically unprepared for mile five to Barton Road, which is as far as I made it this day as per my trip plan. The steep descent back down into the valley from atop of Barton Knob and back up to Barton Road was, for lack of a better word, “hard”. With all of the recent rain, the trail was, as expected, muddy. This proved dangerous on steep declines where steel rods were pounded into the earth to hold wooden support steps in place that no longer exist. A slip here, and you risk getting impaled. Then, a crater in the trail caused by a giant root-ball of a fallen tree. You go to the right, you’re on a steep muddy hillside. You go to the left, a steep, muddy hillside with a downed tree to climb over. You go straight, and well, a 4 foot deep crater filled with mud and water. I opted for a quick ‘hop’ with loose footing on the hillside to the right of me and somehow managed to make it.

From below Barton Road to the top is yet another steep hill, but the valley proved to be a good resting spot and provided a stream for water. The climb to the road was a difficult one for me and I was quite happy to return back down the hill as this meant I had made it to my half way point and each step that I took now was a step closer to camp.

Resting somewhere along the Knobstone Trail
Resting somewhere along the Knobstone Trail

On my return, I was thrilled to pass mile marker three as I knew that just a couple hundred yards away would be where I would setup camp for the night. I briefly considered just hiking the last three miles out, and back to my truck as it was early and still had several hours of daylight available. I had only hiked 8 miles and wasn’t really all that tired, I’ve done longer hikes before. But, after sitting and relaxing for a bit I decided that I’d go ahead and setup camp and cook dinner and call this immediate area home for the night.

Boiling water with my SoloStove
Boiling water with my SoloStove

Camp was setup. Dinner was consumed. I still had a couple hours of daylight left. Honestly, I was bored. I had kept my cellphone off all day and on Airplane mode to save battery and to prevent distraction from calls, texts and app notifications but decided to check to see if I had service. With intermittent signal I was able to check in with the world and it was doing just fine. I called CQ on the US National Calling Frequency of 146.520 several times with my ham radio with no response, tuned to some nearby repeaters and listened in to old men talking about their days as I waited for the sun to set.

As far as sleep goes, I slept well. I generally sleep better on the ground, in the woods, than I do at home in my bed. I fell asleep to the sound of running water and insects. I was at peace, only waking once or twice due to being cold. My sleeping bag, though rated for ‘warm weather’, wasn’t quite warm enough for this cool May night but I survived.

The next morning I crawled out of my tent, packed up camp, ate a quick breakfast (Cliffbar) and then hit the trail. With just three miles to go, I decided I didn’t need to wear pants and hiked out in the basketball shorts that I wore to bed. This would prove to be a mistake.

You see, Southern Indiana has mosquitoes. Ticks. Bugs in general. Although I didn’t feel them at the time, the days after the hike, I discovered my legs were eaten alive as I hiked out. Lesson learned, wear long pants, even if putting on a pair of dirty, mud covered pants as I would have had to.

Deam Lake Recreational Area
Deam Lake Recreational Area

Upon my return to the recreational area, I walked across the dam to a nice, sunny morning. In the background of the above photo you will see the terrain that is offered in this part of Southern Indiana. These are not mountains, sure, but the area still serves as a good training ground for those who wish to tackle more challenging trails in their future such as those offered by our nearby states to the south in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Things I learned

  • I packed way too much shit. 

    This was partially on purpose, as I wanted to purposely carry a heavy bag for “training”. This was partially because I also brought stuff I thought I may use, that I did not.I brought not only a tent, but it’s floor saver and rain-fly. I could have done without the floor saver as I generally don’t pitch a tent in areas that would require one. With no rain, the rain-fly only served as a windbreak and slight insulation. On warmer nights, I’d likely have left it at home as I’ve done before and slept without it.I also packed a hammock, hammock straps, and a tarp/rain-fly for that system as well. I carried two sleep systems. Why? It was nice using the hammock as a ‘bench’ and as a place to hang gear to keep it off the ground. But I could have done that with paracord anyway.I didn’t need to carry a literal gallon of water (8.34lbs) in my pack and a separate liter bottle of water as well. Or the 32oz Gatorade that I took (2.08lbs). I consumed less than liter of water before my first stream crossing. I filled up at about mile four, and crossed another stream a little after mile 5. I brought way too much water during a time of year that it was completely unnecessary to do so. Combined, this was more than ten pounds of extra weight that I could have done without.

    I love being able to wipe down with aloe infused, biodegradable (still packed them out) large 8″x10″ wet wipe cloths. Wiping down my face, forehead and arm pits before bed and before leaving camp in the morning was as close to a shower as you can get in the woods. But I did not need to bring the entire pack of 30 with me, when I consumed only 3 wipes. These are also great for use as a “backwoods bidet” for when you’ve got to purge, but this trip would not feature this need. Next time, I can put some in a ziplock bag for use, without bringing the entire package.

    I’m a general class amateur radio operator. I usually carry a radio with me for emergencies and entertainment. This trip also had me bringing an additional 2M/70cm roll up “slim jim antenna” with 16′ of coax attached that I carried on the outside of my pack. This would allow me to hoist this antenna high into a tree so that I could transmit and receive signals on the frequencies/bands it was designed to work with. But I never ended up using it. This was a couple pounds that could have been saved, as the long whip antenna that I was using on the radio already allowed me to reach and hear the active repeaters in the region. I will consider packing the slim jim antenna in the future when I know I will be on long trips and if/when communication may be vital, as it provides significant signal gain over the whip antenna which would give me a better chance of being heard during an emergency, but alas, it went unused.

  • There is nothing scary in the woods.Maybe it’s because I’ve already been camping a lot, and have been on other, overnight backpacking trips before. Maybe it’s because I’m a realistic person and know that nothing is going to ‘get me’ in the middle of the night. Regardless, being my first solo-overnighter was relatively underwhelming. I fell asleep in my tent and woke up in my tent, as I’ve done many times before. Only difference is this time, no one was around me.
  • I prefer to hike and camp alone.A few days after this trip I went on another trip with a friend and I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather be alone. To set my own pace. To cook my own food. To leave camp when I want. I felt bogged down and realized that I go to the woods and go hiking to be alone. Not to be around people. When solo hiking, you’re free to push on past the next mile marker before your next break or stop every few hundred yards to take a photo. It’s your hike, and you’re not required to be considerate of someone else’s needs. You can wake up at 5AM and pack up and hit the trail to watch the sunrise or stay in your tent until 9AM and drag your feet packing up. It’s up to you.

In closing

It was a good trail, and the conditions were to be expected. I was surprised by how rugged the trail became, and I believe that terrain (uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill) continues for the next 40+ miles of the trail that I did not hike. I look forward to training more locally, at Clifty Falls State Park, with a loaded pack to condition myself for the type of trail that the Knobstone is so that I can confidently complete a thru-hike of it this year.

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