How to Start Backpacking

AKA An Anxious Person’s Guide to Ease into Sleeping in the Backcountry 🙃

Putting everything you need to survive for a few days in the woods can feel pretty daunting, especially if you’ve never done it. It can feel like an all or nothing endeavor.

The inspiration for putting all these words down on this page is for all my anxiety-suffering pals out there. Jumping into something like backpacking can be absolutely debilitating to think about (so many things to plan, think about and could potentially ‘go wrong’), even if hiking and camping are things you enjoy. For me, taking out as many unknowns as possible helps my anxious brain regulate. So, taking things step by step and introducing new things in smaller chunks is so helpful.

So, how do you prepare? How do you start your backpacking journey? While some just go for it, there’s a few things you can do to ease yourself into it and hopefully help in easing the transition from ‘regular’ camping or hiking.

  1. Gather Your Gear

First (and this probably goes without saying), you need to collect your gear. While hiking has a low cost barrier to entry, you obviously need some gear to venture into the backcountry and stay the night. Here’s a general list of what I take backpacking. There’s tons of different types of gear, but the most important thing to keep in mind is getting a backpack that will comfortable carry the weight of your gear. When I first started, I would just collect whatever gear I could that was inexpensive or on sale. I didn’t have a huge budget and I slowly collected all the gear I needed. My gear was much heavier than it is now, but I had a backpack that could comfortable carry the higher weight. Don’t feel like you have to strive for the super ultralight right from the beginning. Even now, my gear is lighter, but I’m not an super ultra-lighter. Also, make sure you know how to pack a backpack so that weight is distributed evenly. (Basically, you want the heaviest stuff near the middle of your back.)

Backpacking Checklist

  • Backpack
  • Backpack cover or liner (in case it rains)
  • Trekking poles
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag liner (colder months)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Tent
    • Footprint
    • Tent body
    • Poles
    • Tent stakes
  • Stove + pot
  • Lighter
  • Fuel canister 
  • Lightweight Mug (for coffee)
  • Long handled spork (or any spoon/spork for eating)
  • Waterproof roll top food bag
    • With food obviously!
  • Water bottles or water bladder (I usually carry 2 1L bottles)
  • Water filter + dirty water bottle/bag (I use Katadyn BeFree + 2L Hydrapack bag)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Toilet Kit
    • Kula Cloth
    • Trowel
    • TP
    • Hand sanitizer or soap
  • Toiletry Kit
    • UL toothbrush
    • Toothpaste tabs
    • Sunscreen
    • Chapstick
    • Body Glide
  • Paracord + carabiner for bear hangs (or bear canister)
  • Pocket knife or multi tool
  • Headlamp
  • Battery bank + charging cord
  • Headphones
  • One change of clothes for sleeping (not necessary for short trips, but it is nice to have “clean” clothes to sleep in!)
  • Extra socks
  • Raincoat
  • Hat (usually both a brimmed one and a beanie in the cold)
  • Gloves (cold weather only)
  • Lightweight fleece (almost always unless it’s dead of summer. Mornings can be chilly)
  • Puffy coat (I’ll bring if temps will dip to 40-ish degrees or below)
  • Bandana or small camp towel (like PackTowel)
  • Camp shoes like crocs or lightweight sandals (not necessary but nice to give your feet a break)
  • Map (either paper or saved on phone somewhere)

2. Practice at Home

Now that you have your gear, make sure you know how to use it. In your living room or yard, make sure you know how to set up your tent. Put your entire sleep system (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, etc.) inside. Pack your backpack up, then unpack and ‘set up camp’, then re-pack everything again.

Make sure you know how to use your stove and water filter. Practice filtering water (even if it’s just from your tap!). Go outside and set up your stove. (Not a great idea to ever use a stove inside.) Light it and boil some water.

If you aren’t relatively comfortable with your gear at home, you don’t set yourself up well to use it in the backcountry.

3. Take a ‘Faux’ Backpacking Trip

Once you’re familiar with your gear at home, it’s time to take it outside. Find a walk-in camp site (or drive-up site, but I like the walk in because it feels a little more like backpacking). Savage Gulf State Park has a few great walk-in sites (or sites within a couple tenths of a mile from the parking lot) that are perfect for this type of trip. Being close to your car lets you easily bail if you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Bonus points if you’ve camped at the spot before. Removing as many ‘new’ things as possible always helps me feel a bit less anxious or stressed.

Then, the next day, pack up your stuff and do some day hiking, but with your pack. Because, wouldn’t you know, hiking with 25+lbs on your back feels different than a 5lb daypack. (This is where trekking poles come in extra handy. I never backpack without them!) With more weight, comes more stress on your joints and bones and also my body just moves a little differently when I have a pack on. (Aka I fall a lot more because the weight pulls me down…)

4. Backpack a trail you’ve already hiked

Now’s the time to put it all together and camp in the backcountry. I always suggest doing a trail that you’ve already hiked so you know what to expect: in terrain, difficulty, water sources, etc. Again, removing as much ‘new’ as possible makes it feel a little less daunting.

Also, one thing that helps me feel more at ease is knowing where the water sources are, which you’ll have a better idea of if you’ve already hiked the hike. You can also always call park rangers or park headquarters to ask about trail conditions and water sources. Sometimes, water sources are seasonal, too!

To start off, I’d suggest a 10-12 mile overnight hike, whether that’s an out and back or a loop. Here are some of hikes in Tennessee that would also make great overnight trips. But, really any hike that you’re familiar with is a great choice.

  • Virgin Falls
    • Multiple sites along the trail depending on how you want to split up the hike (Reservation needed)
  • Stone Door + Big Creek Rim + Laurel Trails (or Big Creek Gulf for more of a challenge) in Savage Gulf
  • Montgomery Bell Loop Trail
    • Camping only in backcountry shelters (no tents) so this would be a little bit of a different feel (Call to reserve; info here)
  • Walls of Jericho
    • Site near Hurricane Creek/Clark Cemetary (Free; First come, first serve)
  • North and South Old Mac Trails at Frozen Head State Park (Or any combo of trails leading to Tub Spring)

5. Backpack a new trail and/or take a multi-day trip

You did your first trip! How did you feel? Ready to tackle something new?Maybe you’ve decided backpacking isn’t for you (totally ok!!), but if you’ve been bitten by the backing bug, now’s your chance to take another step into the unknown. Backpack a bit more challenging trail, or a new trail or try a longer trip (2 or 3 nights). The possibilities are endless.

I’m not saying this is the only way to get into backpacking or you definitely should do all of these steps. Some may find moving this slowly is ridiculous, while others may have to take it even slower. My best advice is to listen to your body, but also, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something that scares you a little. Even when I feel my anxiety is becoming crippling, once I actually get out on the trail, some of it usually subsides.

Going with a trusted friend or on a group trip — TN State Parks usually host some backpacking trips throughout the year. There’s also many hiking groups that do overnight trips — can also be a great starting point. (And if you don’t have any gear, some programs will rent you gear.)

I can’t really explain fully why I love strapping on backpack with all I need to survive for a few days and trudging through the woods and I think that’s why I love it so much. It both frees my mind and scared me a little bit. And I think all the best things do.

Hiking the Art Loeb Trail in One Night :: Pisgah National Forest

I distinctly remember putting this trail on my ‘to-hike’ list years ago. But, it was a little too far away and I was a little too scared to hike it by myself (literally me at every new hike I do…), so it kept getting pushed to the end of the list. But, the great thing about having friends who both love to hike and were living close to Pisgah is that you can semi-spontaneously decide to hike Art Loeb in the middle of the week. All I needed was a little push.

The Art Loeb Trail is a 30.1 mile trail (plus a little more if you do some short side trails) in the beautiful Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina with its termini at Davidson River Campground and the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp (yes, through a literal summer camp to get to the trailhead). By my numbers, the elevation gain was roughly 7,100 feet.

But, wow, what a beautiful, challenging and rewarding trail. We initially planned on a SOBO hike of 3 days and 2 nights but pushed to get done in 2 days trying to avoid potentially bad weather. Hiking 16+ miles each day with lots of elevation change and a pack (with bear canister, which are required in Shining Rock Wilderness btw; I believe you can rent one from the Asheville REI.) was a doozy but one I’d do again in a heartbeat.

There are many places to camp along the way. You can disperse camp in National Forests, meaning you can virtually camp anywhere you’d like, preferably 200 feet from the trail or water. Many people suggest NOT camping in Shining Rock Wilderness because of bear activity (and also why you need a bear canister), so that may be something to take into account as you are planning your sites. But, there are plenty of already ‘developed’ sites along the way, so you can really decide to stop whenever you get to a place you like. There’s also 2 very sketchy, but cool looking shelters on the trail, but I would not advise actually sleeping in them for fear of collapse.

Also, water can be scarce at certain times of the year on this trail, so fill up when you can. In the summer, you may need to carry most of your water for the whole trip. I hiked this trail in March and we didn’t have a problem, but we also filled up every time we saw any water. You may not be so fortunate in the warmer months. I used this post to help plan out my trip.

Here was our itinerary for a 2-day, 1-night hike of Art Loeb:

Day 0: Met Bethany late at Davidson River Campground and we slept in the back of my Subaru. (I have an air mattress that fits the back of my car and it’s a game changer for arriving at trailhead late at night so you don’t have to hike i and set up in the dark.)

Day 1 (16.6 miles): Woke up and drove one car to the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp trailhead and started hiking around 8:00am. Camped at a nice little spot just south of Farlow Gap. Features: Shining Rock, Tennent Mountain, Black Balsam Knob

Day 2 (16.96 miles): Started hiking around 8:00am and finished the trail around 5:00pm at Davidson River Campground. Features: Pilot Mountain, Sassafras Knob, Chestnut Mountain

We chose to go SOBO so that we would end near Brevard, NC, so we could eat a bunch of town food after we finished the hike. (The Boy Scout Camp trailhead is much more secluded.) They say it’s a bit more challenging going NOBO, but no matter what, you are going to climb, descend, climb, descend, etc. Also some say to do NOBO because you ‘save the views for the end’, but there are views throughout and the ‘best’ ones are just about halfway through. You do you though and HYOH (hike your own hike)

I was stunned by the diversity of the trail: the sweeping views, very narrow rhododendron tunnels, forest-like cover and shining rocks. A+ would recommend to any backpacker that loves beauty and a challenge. (And maybe falling. I fell a lot 🙈)

Distance from Nashville: 5 hours

Trailhead: Davidson River Campground near Brevard, NC and Cold Mountain/Camp Daniel Boone near Canton, NC

Trail: Art Loeb Trail

Length of trail: 30.1 miles (we clocked just over 33 miles)

Link to trail map: Art Loeb Trail (I also thought my Gaia GPS map was great)

Camping: Dispersed, many options that are already ‘developed’ as sites (cleared out and flat), also 2 shelters that no one should actually sleep in (Deep Gap and Butter Gap). Most say to avoid camping in Shining Rock Wilderness because of bear activity. Bear canisters required in Shining Rock Wilderness.

Overview: Super beautiful and challenging hike with sweeping open Appalachian views, shining rocks, thick forest cover, narrow rhododendron and laurel ‘tunnels’. I would recommend this to anyone who likes backpacking, but maybe just not make it your very first every trip. You may hate yourself.

Minimal UL Toiletry Kit for Backpacking

Going fully UL (ultralight) with all of your gear is often very expensive and exclusionary for many people. I wanted to share an inexpensive and easy way to shave some ounces and space in your backpacking setup: a tiny UL Toiletry Kit! (And unintentionally all one boring white color 🙃)

1️⃣ Garage Grown Gear UL Toothbrush
2️⃣ Huppy Toothpaste Tablets in .2oz Hinged Container
3️⃣ Sunbum Sunscreen in .33oz Dropper Bottle
4️⃣ Colorado Aromatics Body Powder in .1oz Dropper Bottle

Put it all in the tiniest bag sack you can find! I like to keep all this stuff together not only for convenience, but also so I can easily throw in my bear bag with my food. Remember to always hang or stow in a bear-safe container any products that have any type of scent!

Total weight: 34 g (1.2 oz)
Total cuteness: ♾


  • The UL toothbrush is super tiny and great, but it’s typical lifespan is about 7 days. So don’t expect to have this forever. But at 99 cents (or $2.99 for a 5-pack), I think it’s worth it.
  • These toothpaste tabs are great! They are virtually weightless compared to a mini toothpaste tube. Just stick one in your mouth and chew a couple times to make a paste, then brush away. It does take a bit to get used to because it doesn’t taste as strong as ‘regular’ toothpaste. But, I’ll never go back! (I actually use them exclusively at home too and I refill them at a local shop, so it’s zero waste for me.)
  • I love Sunbum sunscreen. It’s a relatively ‘natural;’ sunscreen that’s reef-safe and it works so well. Also, this combos as my face moisturizer too.I’m not going to bring separate skin care while I’m backpacking, but it is nice to have something that gives my skin a little love.
  • This verrrry mini bottle has deodorizing body in it and it’s my newest addition to this kit. I typically don’t bring a stick of deodorant on trail because you are going to smell and it’s just not worth the weight (and possible meatiness factor). This powder is great because it’s very light and I can pat it on areas that get sweaty or smelly. It helps absorb some moisture and also combats the funk a little bit.

Backpacking Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness :: Cumberland Trail

Located solidly off of any interstate, Laurel-Snow is a beautiful little pocket of the gorges of Walden Ridge in the eastern Cumberland Plateau. It gets it name from 2 waterfalls in the area and is also the first National Recreation Trail designated in Tennessee. Laurel-Snow also contains a section of the Cumberland Trail, although it doesn’t yet directly connect to any other part of the the CT.

The entire area has about 11 miles of trails situation in a ‘Y’ shape. About 1.5 miles in, the trail forks. The right fork takes you to Laurel Falls and Bryan Overlook and the left fork takes to you Snow Falls and Buzzard Point. You’ll find Henderson Creek campsite near the fork and a campsite near each of the waterfalls (water sources near all sites). Doing the entire trial system in an overnight is a bit of a push, but very doable. 

The trails are marked relatively well, but it’s very easy to get turned around or wander off on a fake trail, especially as you wander deeper into the area. I would highly recommend having the free Gaia GPS app, which helped us stay on track.

During the first part of the trail, you’ll find remnants of Richland Mine as you meander along Richland Creek. Even with water levels low, this waterway is stunning with its enormous boulders and trickling cascades. We veered left towards Snow Falls and soon came upon the longest metal footbridge I’ve ever crossed at 150 ft. Three connected bridges zig-zagged over the boulder-filled Richland Creek gorge. The trail gets slightly overgrown in this area, basically meaning that the poison ivy is all up on your feet and legs. Take the dirt/jeep road to get to Buzzard Point; it’s definitely worth it the 180 degree views of the gorge and Chickamauga Lake in the distance. 

We camped at Morgan Creek, a peaceful site near Snow Falls. You can access the base and the top of the small fall. Because the water level of Morgan Creek was low, we got to hang out in the creek bed and take it all in. 

The next morning, we retraced our steps back to the trail fork and headed then headed towards Laurel Falls. You’ll climb out of a gorge, traverse some pretty amazing rock structures and climb through a little rock tunnel, which was especially fun with a loaded pack on your back! Laurel Falls was just a trickle, but the shelf-like rock that formed it was stunning regardless of the water level. We relaxed on the car-sized boulders before heading back to the trailhead.

The only bummer about these trails is that you have to do a lot of backtracking to see everything. You end up basically doing every trial twice. Oh, and poison ivy and ticks. Lots and lots of poison ivy and seed ticks. (I may have found a tick TWO days later attached near my armpit 🤢)

There were lots of people coming to swim in the creek, so that means there was trash, especially along the first 1.5 miles. Please remember to #recreateresponsibly and #leavenotrace. PICK UP TRASH Y’ALL.

Laurel-Snow is a complete winner, just make sure you have a plan, a map and plenty of water (all things you should have for any hike anyways!)

Distance from Nashville: 2 hr 45 min

Trailhead: Pocket Wilderness Road off of Back Valley Rd near Dayton, TN

Trail: Laurel-Snow Trail

Length of trail: 3.3 miles (one way) to end of Laurel Falls Spur Trail, 4.8 miles (one way) to end of Snow Falls Spur Trail. My route was 15.5 miles, split over 2 days

Link to trail mapLaurel-Snow Section of CT

Camping: Henderson Creek (near split of trails), Morgan Creek (near Snow Falls – were I camped), Laurel Creek Campsite (near Laurel Falls)

Overview: Challenging, yet rewarding hike to 2 beautiful falls with a couple overlooks, neat-o rock structures, and a loooooong 150ft foot bridge.

Virgin Falls Trail :: Virgin Falls State Natural Area

At almost exactly 2 hours away from Nashville, the whole Virgin Falls out-and-back trail clocks in a just about 10 miles.

I honestly forgot how wonderful almost every mile of this hike is; something to see almost the entire time. Y’all know I love a good creek walk and, boy, Big Laurel Creek delivers. It’s such a peaceful walk where you pass by multiple waterfalls, beautiful, lush greenery that remind me of the PNW, and a sweeping add-on view of Scott’s Gulf at Martha’s Pretty Point.

Along the way, you’ll see a few small waterfalls including Big Laurel Falls, Big Branch Falls, and Sheep Cave Falls.

And of course, there is Virgin Falls, the namesake of the trail. The falls are formed by an underground stream that emerges just long enough for its 110 ft. drop, then disappears into another cave at the bottom of the sink it flows into. It’s some kind of geological phenomenon. There’s also a short trail to get to the top of the falls where you can see the cave where the stream comes from.

You should also check out Sheep Cave and the little waterfall that goes along with it. (Please note that all the caves are closed due to White Nose Syndrome. So, please don’t actually enter the caves.)

There are also plenty (four) of backcountry sites which make it a perfect trip for beginner backpackers. So, if you are looking to get in to backpacking and want a really great payoff, this is your trail. The sites range from being beside a waterfall to on top of a bluff, so there’s a lot of choose from. I’ve personally never camped here (all my hikes here have been day hikes), but I think the one atop Martha’s Pretty Point has the best views! Keep in mind that there is no water at this site, though. So, make sure to filter from Big Laurel Creek before you ascend up there.

The sneaky part about this trail is that the way in is a steady downhill, which you really don’t notice until you are on your way back and those miles are a steady uphill. Going in, I barely got my heart rate above a walk, which tricks you into forgetting that this trail goes steadily downhill a majority of the way in. But, you’ll get a nice workout on the way out. Commence much sweating on my part. I definitely felt my quads gain a few inches of muscle (and consequently my jeans fit a little tighter).

Be especially cautious of snakes in the spring and summer months. This area tends to have a lot of rattlesnakes. (It’s not like they are slithering all over everywhere or anything, but I always like to know what I’m walking into!)

On your way out, make the drive to Welch’s Point, just down the road. It’s a great spot to watch the sunset, if you’re so inclined!

Virgin Falls isn’t exactly a secret or anything, but it truly is a must-see on the Cumberland Plateau. Just be prepared for a long day hike or stay for a moderate overnight backpack.

Distance from Nashville: 2 hours

Trailhead: Virgin Falls Trail on Scott’s Gulf Road (small parking area)

Trail: Mostly an out-and-back trail with a small loop near the end accessing Virgin Falls and Sheep Cave

Link to trail map: Virgin Falls Trail Map

Length of Trail: ~10 miles including the trail to Martha’s Pretty Point, allow 5-6 hours

Camping: 4 different backcountry sites at varying points along the trail: Cable Crossing, Martha’s Pretty Point, Caney Fork and Virgin Falls. Martha’s Pretty Point and Virgin Falls are the most popular.

Overview: Multiple waterfalls, gorgeous overlook and a cumulative climb of 1100′.

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Collins Gulf Loop :: Savage Gulf State Natural Area

Savage Gulf is one of the most diverse places to hike in middle-ish Tennessee and obviously one of my favorites. 

I’d been wanting to go back and do the Collins Gulf Loop for a while now. It’s an under appreciated trail in my opinion and doesn’t get nearly as much love as the other trails in Savage Gulf. I am here to attest that this loop is one of the prettiest and most unique in the area.

The beautiful, powerful Collins Creek

Collins Gulf is one of the lesser traveled trails (Stone Door and Savage Day Loop being the most popular), but has some of the most diverse trails. You make the “Collins Gulf Loop” by joining the Collins Gulf, Collins Rim, and the Stagecoach Road Historic trail. There are a few blue blazed trails that stem off of the main ones (blazed white) which can add on a few extra tenths of a mile. One of the best things about Savage Gulf is how well-marked and well-kept all the trails are.  It makes hiking so much more enjoyable when you aren’t stressing that you missed a trail turnoff or blaze.

I made a goal to backpack once a season this year. I randomly had 2 days off in the middle of the week and was searching for a backpacking partner. I asked a few friends and, not surprisingly, they couldn’t make it work for their schedule. So, I took a chance and tried to reach out in the most not awkward way to an “Instagram friend”. Before I knew it, Abby and I were speeding along I-24 towards my favorite place in Middle TN.

I returned to a semi-familiar trail for my first overnight trip in a while. But, since I hadn’t been here in 4-5 years, it felt like a whole new trail. There’s a few different options for camping, but we stayed at the Sawmill Campground, off of the Collins Gulf portion.

We clocked in just over 15 miles for the entire trip. This included a side trails to both Horsepound Falls and Schwoon Spring, which is the water source for the Sawmill Campground even though it was over a half mile away. It is one of the craziest and most amazing places I have ever filtered water from. You have to hop from boulder to boulder across little waterfalls from this spring that sprouts from a cave. It was absolutely stunning and worth the side trail even if you don’t need water. I will say, we were a little nervous the spring was going to be dry. There is no inkling that there will be water until you come upon the boulders. One of the things I get most stressed about in backpacking trips is water sources, so we were both a little nervous we’d have to backtrack to Collins Creek to get water. But, I believe this spring is wet most of the year. 

So, to sum up, this loop gives you multiple falls, HUGE boulders, the stunning Collins Creek, a few gulf views, amazing history in the Stagecoach Road (be sure to read the info signs!), and multiple varied suspension bridges. While it’s a bit of a challenge to complete in one day (yes, I’ve done it), it is a great way to spend an overnight. It’s not kill-yourself challenging, but keeps you on your toes, especially with a pack on. If you decide to do it in a day, be sure to give yourself a good 7-8 hours, especially if you plan on doing the side trails for Horsepound Falls and Schwoon Spring, which in my opinion are not optional because they are both stunning.

Put this one on your list, kids!

Distance from Nashville: 1 hr 45 min

Trailhead: Off of 55th Ave near Gruetli-Laager, TN 

Trail: Loop formed by Collins Gulf to Stagecoach Road Historic to Collins Gulf (see route below)

Link to trial map: Savage Gulf State Natural Area (center of map)

Length of trail: ~15 miles, including side trails to Horsepound Falls and Schwoon Spring

Campsites: Collins West Campground, Collins East Campground (both near trailhead) and Sawmill Campground (about 5 miles from trailhead), both are backcountry sites

Overview: Suspension bridges, waterfalls, stunning spring and views of the gulf. A fabulous, challenging hike great for a semi-challenging overnight hike

A (Failed) Backcountry Camp at First Creek :: Mammoth Cave National Park

[This trip was taken almost 4 years ago and I am just now finally sharing it. 🙈]

I’ve been in Nashville for years and never made it up to Mammoth Cave, so one weekend, we decided to check it out. Why not camp, right? Backcountry camping is free and front country camping is $20+, so we decided to backcountry camp at a site that was the closest to the trailhead. So, when we arrived, we went to the Visitor’s Center and asked for suggestions on a campsite that was an easy hike and close to a trailhead. The national park employee was very unfamiliar with backcountry sites.

Cut to over one hour (the trailhead was 50 minutes driving from the visitor’s center) and multiple ferry rides later. (But, at least the ferries are neat, holding one car at a time and slowly chugging across the river crossings.) Luke and I are hauling FULL 55L backpacking backpacks, gallons jugs of water and a small cooler dressed in jeans and flimsy tennis shoes cursing the living daylights out of our choice to “backcountry“ camp unprepared. (Clearly, we did not pack light for one overnight.) As it turns out, this was a decently challenging and steep hike to the Three Springs Campground and I’m convinced it was longer than the 1.2 miles it was supposed to be. We were miserable and angry and hungry. Not a great combo for hiking.

Upon arrival at the campsite near a less-than-desirable body of water called First Creek Lake (slightly smelly and stagnant), I threw my backpack off onto the ground, ripped the (7 pound, may I add) tent out and angrily jammed the poles together as Luke started prepping our dinner. Of course, we brought our brand new Biolite Campstove AND portable grill add-on (See photo below) which felt like it weighed approximately one ton and took up about half of one backpack. The good news? We did get to grill brats and brussels sprouts in the backcountry. Did we care in the moment? Probably not.

The campsite itself was quiet and secluded, but that’s all it had going for it. It was just a clearing in the woods next to the river, which was pretty low and sad-looking. So, on top of our poor planning, we didn’t get a ‘payoff’ at the campsite.

I’m not sure exactly what we did the rest of the night, but it probably included laughing ourselves to sleep before 9:00pm because we already realized how ridiculous the evening had been. The hike back out the next morning was met with groans, but we had to make the hike out and the one hour drive back to the visitor’s center to go on our cave tour. Being highly claustrophobic, I was less than thrilled to descend to the depths of the earth. But, thankfully, it’s called Mammoth Cave, so I wasn’t feeling the dreaded panic I usually do when enclosed in tight spaces. We did the Domes and Dripstones tour and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw dripstone formations like Frozen Niagara and many stalactites and stalagmites. It’s truly stunning how large rooms of the cave are. Sometimes, you forget that you are completely underground, which is just fine with me (see above re: claustrophobia).

We considered staying another night, but why? With a less-than-desirable first night, we decided to head out right after the tour.

So, learn a lesson from us, either commit to the backcountry experience and don’t bring ~50 lbs of gear, or just suck it up and pay for a campsite. Also, it’s ok to have ‘bad’ experiences outdoors because you learn from them and also get to look back and laugh at the situation. And honestly, this is something that we’ll remember forever. So, get out there and make memories, even if they are hilariously miserable in the moment.

Oh, and don’t forget to take one of the cave tours because that’s probably why you went to this national park in the first place.

Below you will find the ONLY photos taken during the entire trip. And, wow, they aren’t great!

One redeeming part of the experience was our fancy and way too heavy Biolite setup (note the jeans and the not-hiking shoes)
Descending underground
Frozen Niagara

Distance from Nashville: 1 hr 30 min

Trailhead: Temple Hill in Mammoth Cave National Park

Campsite: First Creek 2

Trail: Part of First Creek Trail to First Creek Campsite 2 Trail

Link to trail map: Backcountry Map and Guide

Overview: A harder than expected short hike to a less-than-desirable campsite in Mammoth Cave. If you want to backcountry camp here, I would do some research, because we sure didn’t.

Hobbs Cabin via South Rim, Connector and North Rim :: Savage Gulf State Natural Area

This is the one last area of Savage Gulf I haven’t explored yet. So, with two days off in a row for the first time in a while, I decided to do a quick backpack over to Hobbs Cabin.

Well, it didn’t turn out great. A combination of heat, stress from the previous week, my aversion for taking rests and heightened emotions led me to a break down shortly before I reached the Hobbs Cabin campsites. Even though I have hiked and overnighted by myself many times before, this time felt horrible and lonely. I can’t really fully explain it but sometimes the outdoors just teaches you things you aren’t prepared for.

So, I started the hike at the Savage Gulf Ranger Station and took a longer and more difficult way to Hobbs Cabin via the South Rim, Stagecoach Road and Connector trails. I am not exactly in prime hiking shape, so 12+ miles with the last 3 of the Connector Trail being the hardest was a challenge. (And because I am so stubborn, I won’t rest for more than, like, 5 minutes.)

I’ve always enjoyed the history behind the Stagecoach Road – also called Stageroad on this sign- trail (a “highway” that was built from McMinnville to Chattanooga for wagons and such) and Savage Gulf isn’t lyin’ about the Connector Trial being the most difficult in the park. I just wish I would have slowed down and enjoyed it more.

The Hobbs Cabin campsite is a great place to stay the night with a large area with picnic table around the Cabin and 8 sites surrounding it with water a short 50 yards away.

Both the North and South Rim trails have plenty of great viewpoints of the gulf, one in particular is one of my favorites to date, mostly because you can see the meeting point of all three gulfs.

So, overall, in theory, it is a great loop. Maybe just don’t do it in the condition I was in…

Distance from Nashville: 1hr 45 min

Trailhead: Savage Gulf Ranger Station

Trail: Savage Day Loop, South Rim, Stagecoach Road, Connector, North Rim, Savage Day Loop (my route below in red)Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 2.53.15 PM

Link to trail map: Savage Gulf Trail Map

Length of hike: Just shy of 20 miles, allow at least an overnight

Overview: A decently challenging, great overnight backpack with views of the Gulf and a neat little cabin.

NBF 10 Mile Trail :: Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park

Honestly, I didn’t want to go to this state park  because of the terribleness of it’s namesake (brutal Confederate general, first grand wizard of the KKK).

NBF State Park is on Kentucky Lake and has the highest point in west Tennessee, a staggering 669 feet.


The park has a 3, 5, 10 and 20 mile loop trail, each one splits off from the previous shorter one. There’s a few shelters for overnight trips for the 10 and 20 mile trails.


Besides the one million spider webs I ran into and the spiders that got on my body, I was pleasantly surprised by this hike. It wasn’t necessarily strenuous (besides the fact that I try to hike everything as fast as humanly possible), but there were some hills and nice forest overgrowths to walk through. You’d probably also be able to see the lake if the trees weren’t fully leaved.


Distance from Nashville: 1hr 50min

Getting to the trailhead: Park at the Pilot Knob Interpretive Center/Museum for all trails. (20 mile starts across the way, nearby)

Length of hike: 3, 5, 10, or 20 miles

Brief Overview: Wander through forest and along creeks and maybe catch a glimpse of the lake as you walk over gentle hills. Overnight shelters available.

IMG_3533yellow: 3 mile, orange: 5 mile, red: 10 mile, blue: 20 mile

Bearwaller Gap :: Cordell Hull Lake, Carthage, TN

I’ve been hearing about this trail around the hiking folk and was waiting for the perfect time to do it. Since it was a kind of a longer hike, I wanted to do it as an overnight backpack.


The trial is a 6 mile point-to-point trail (12 miles total unless you have two cars) with a campground about halfway from either end. It’s a nice open campground with a covered spring for water (although it was a little low when I was there, but still could get enough to filter), an outhouse (nice try, but it was kinda gross, just went outside like a real camper), and firewood available. I had a nice little evening there and even got a good fire going.


The trail itself is decently difficult with lots of elevation changes (I think a total of over 2000 feet). It follows the Cordell Hull lake, which is a dammed up part of the Cumberland River. There’s some classic outdoor critters like ticks and squirrels and supposedly snakes. But, thank God I didn’t see any of those.

It’s an overall nice hike. It was a little overgrown and there were entire HUGE trees down over some parts of the trail, like so bad, you couldn’t see where the trail went and you just had to keep climbing over the logs. But all part of the adventure. I also lost the trail for a bit and had to climb straight up a 45 degree angle hill to get back to the trail so that was an adventure.

Trail OVergrowth

Trail Overgrowth


Distance from Nashville: 1 hr

Getting to the trailhead: There’s 2 sides to start from: Tater Knob Overlook or Defeated Creek Campground, the hike is great from both sides. I started at the Defeated Creek side, which is the post popular starting place.

Trail: Bearwaller Gap Trail (See my route below; started and ended at circle and camped at Two Prong)

Link to trail map: Bearwaller Gap Hiking Trail Map

Length of trail: 11.2 miles

Brief overview: Moderately difficult trail with lots of elevation change, lake (which is really just a portion the Cumberland River dammed up) and a nice backcountry campground.