Ozark Highlands Trail: Backpacking Over Thanksgiving Week
It was a little hectic the week leading up to this adventure trying to adjust/finalize plans. We opted to start the hike at the North end vs. where we left off previously at the south end (ten miles in from the trail head at Lake Fort Smith State Park). Our group consisted of 5 people ranging in age from 15-37 years old and our backpacks weighed in range from 26-44 pounds. It was cold outside, colder than we expected or planned for. Weather in Arkansas is hard to predict and sometimes it feels as though you can experience all four seasons in one day. A cold front had moved in and nighttime temperatures were now predicted to be around the freezing point.
Mr. YonderLost’s dad, Leon had agreed to be our chauffeur and take us to our starting point. In our true fashion, we got a later start than planned, and only had a couple hours until sunset. The river was up too high for our vehicle to cross over to the trail head. This meant that our very first obstacle was walking across the very cold, knee deep Buffalo National River. The water crossing was a shock to the system and our feet felt numb from it. Our group walked close to 5 miles before setting up camp in the dark. We slept cold and were very restless but we got though the night.
Night #1 Sleep setup: rain fly, hammock, outer insulated cocoon, inner blanket and we wore thermal underwear.
The next morning, we made hot cocoa and coffee to warm our bodies. Everyone felt tired and we were slow to pack camp and get back to hiking. This end of the trail felt different that it did on our previous hike a few weeks before and we quickly learned that our trail miles would be much less than we had hoped for. The ground was covered in leaves making it hard for us to see the path and rocks were loose and felt wobbly under our feet. There were several steep hills and valleys along with many creek crossings. Despite the difficult terrain our surroundings were absolutely beautiful. Being so far removed from your everyday life and totally surrounded by nature is almost like being in an alternate world.
We stopped for lunch on top of a huge, mossy, house sized rock. It felt so good to let our feet air out and our bodies soak in a bit of warming sunshine. After the needed break we felt a sense of renewal and walked on until the next place that made sense for us to set up camp. As the sun started to lower itself the temperature was lowering too. Setting up camp we realized that sleeping in hammocks was not ideal because the air flowing below us made us feel colder. We tried to problem solve a better sleeping system to hopefully stay warmer than we had been the night before. Using our hammocks and rainflys, we made a makeshift tent on the ground. Changing our clothes and using the bathroom that evening was seriously challenging with the cold air around us.
There was no cell service (at least to this point on the trail) so we had no way to see how the weather forecast was changing. Eating a warm dinner around the fire felt really good before calling it a day and going to bed. That night IT GOT COLD! I knew it was getting to actually be dangerous for us after shivering through the night.
It was one thing for the adults to be cold, but I had my teenage kiddo with me, and that changed everything. We gave her all the extra warmth we could, and she said she had actually slept comfortable through the night. The next morning we hung our sleeping gear in the sun and around the fire to dry it out. We were all wet from condensation and our energy levels just as bleak and rough around the edges as we looked and felt.
As we were lifting our packs up to head back out on the trail a couple of people came by and asked for us by name. They had a message for us from Leon who was worried about the falling temps and had been trying to check on us. He sent word of where we could get cell service and left us a note further up the trail. We knew that our gear just wasn’t rated warm enough for the blast of cold weather that we were experiencing. Once we got to the area with service we called and asked Leon pick us up at the next trail head. As the saying goes, “better to be safe than sorry.” It was hard for us to leave early, and we all felt sad about it, but we were grateful for the overall experience that we had had.
We learned so much on this hike and know we will be so much more prepared for next time. Our goal remains to conquer all 165 miles in multiple weekend trips over the next year. The unexpected bonus from leaving the trail early was that we got to spend the rest of the week with family. We rested, ate lots of food, and challenged each other to card games. The trail gifted us with new perspective and gratitude for things we often take for granted. Having the ability to sleep in a cozy bed and have access to a hot shower felt like true luxuries. Over the next year we plan to hike the rest of the Ozark Highlands Trail in sections. It is a goal that we know is obtainable and we will be better prepared on future hikes. We are also happy to report that we have now purchased a backpacking tent.
If you’re backpacker or skilled at camping and have any tips or gear suggestions for us please let us know! We’d love to learn from your experience.