I left work early, got in my car and drove 900 miles to Alabama to attend an Advanced Backpacking training offered by Randall’s Adventure & Training. This may seem like an extremely long way to drive to go backpacking (and it was a long drive), but there were a couple of reasons I chose Randall’s. One of the reasons I chose to take this class was the content. It had a few things I didn’t feel I really needed to cover, but you can always pick up a thing or two under a different instructor. It also had a few things I was interested in learning or expanding my learning on. They also offer a jungle training that I hope to attend, and I wanted to check out the instructors before I spent a week in the jungle with them. It ended up I would trust them anywhere.
The biggest content draw for me was the rappelling. I’d rappelled before shortly after high school with a friend who just got back from the Army, but I now know that was a pretty jerry-rigged setup we had going. I wanted to learn the correct and safe way, so I can take the kids rappelling too. The second biggest draw was the off-trail navigation. I was somewhat capable of reading a map and compass, but I didn’t feel confident in my abilities.
Now to the class, I arrived in Moulton, Alabama the night before the class and, after registering at the motel, took a drive to the trailhead where we were meeting the next morning. The area looked pretty similar to what we have here in PA, trees, water, hills. I headed back to the motel and did a last minute photo shoot of what I was taking along for the five day trip.
The next morning, I arrived first at the trailhead and proceeded to look around for fire making materials. Part of the training was fire making, and I wanted to be prepared if it fell to me that first night. About a half hour later, a truck pulled in with three guys in it. I figured it must be the instructors. The first thing I noticed was they were joking and ribbing each other as soon as they got out of the truck. This could be a bad thing if they were good friends already and spent their free time separate from the rest of us the whole trip. That was the farthest thing from the truth! As soon as I went up and introduced myself, Patrick shook my hand, welcomed me and immediately made me feel at home. It turned out the same with the other two, Hugh and Matt. After I filled out the customary forms and waivers, the other members of the group started to show up.
As expected, not everyone was on time, but what I didn’t expect was that we waited around for them to show up. Usually the instructors just want to get started, but these guys were genuinely concerned that someone would get left behind and not be able to find us. While we waited, Patrick explained what we were going to do. We would look at the map, pick a spot near some water a few miles in and plot a course to it. Sounded great! He passed out a map to each of us, and we set about finding a spot to camp for the first night. It turns out that there were two of us really interested in the navigation part, so we worked together to find our way.
It took us a while to get to our camping spot for the first night; we were, after all, being led by two inexperienced guys who didn’t stop to ask directions. Patrick and Hugh were always right there, though, to answer questions and even sometimes offer up some cryptic advice. Never straightforward telling us what we did wrong, instead letting us figure it out. I definitely liked this style of teaching, as it helped me understand what I was doing instead of just blindly following instructions. I’m sure the other members of the group wished we would just break out the GPS after a while. We did finally arrive at campsite number one, and it was not too far off from where we had picked on the map. One of the nice things about not having a specific place to be is you don’t have to be exact when traveling.
The first evening, we talked some about campsite selection and the 4 W’s of campsite selection, (water, wind, wood, and widowmakers). Then we set off to setup our own shelters. There were two couples in the group, and they both brought tents. Someone had a hammock, and the instructors had a big tarp to cover all three of them and their sleeping bags. I had my tarp and wool blanket. The first night, I used my Tarp Tent with a Door and a Floor setup. Setup video can be seen here.
The first night, it was in the 40’s I would guess, and while this tarp setup is nice, it was not a good choice with only a wool blanket as a cover. I was cold most of the night, even with a fire. Mostly this was because only my head was exposed to the fire, so the rest of my body didn’t get much warmth. I wouldn’t make the same mistake the next night (just a different one).
After everyone got setup, the instructors went over some fire making skills. I missed the beginning of this, so I don’t know what they used for the fire other than a ferro rod. After the fire was going, they showed us how to make a swamp grill using the very abundant cucumber magnolia branches. We didn’t get into a lot of things that first night. After everyone setup camp, ate, filtered water, and collected firewood, it was dark. We mostly sat around the fire getting to know each other and planning out the next day.
In the morning, we got around, made our breakfast, and packed up our gear to be ready to move out. Since rappelling was a big thing for me on this trip, I was happy to hear we would be staying in this spot for a while and doing some intro rappelling. What we did first was a really good idea. Instead of trying to rappel off something from the get go, our first time was down an incline on a hillside. That gave everyone a chance to get accustomed to all the aspects of rappelling, from wearing the harness comfortably to proper rope placement to the ever important how to stop. After everyone felt comfortable with the slope, we moved on to a small ledge. The great thing about these guys was that they didn’t pressure you into doing anything you weren’t comfortable with. One member of the group wanted to pass on the ledge, so they did. The whole trip, I really felt that the instructors were there for us and what we wanted to experience, not trying to cram in stuff to fill a preset agenda.
Once we all had a time or two rappelling, we gathered our gear, found a new spot on the map, and started to navigate there. The other guy and I headed up the navigation again, today with me taking the lead. Five minutes into the hike, we ended up in a box canyon with no way out other than turn around (not looking good for me). While we originally hoped to ascend at a gradual pace, the box canyon forced us to take a steeper route. It was challenging, but it also gave us the opportunity to use our ropes and teamwork to get to the top. Hugh climbed up a steep rise, tied off the rope and dropped it down. We added a couple of prusik loops, and we were set to make it up. After a couple of stops to catch our breath on the way up, we made it to the top. We switched off and on leading the way, and someone, who will remain nameless, may have gotten us off course for a while. It was rough going through the brush on this day, and since we ended up off-course for a bit, it was kind of late when we reached the new campsite. After setting up camp, we surveyed the area and decided it was too late for a rappel tonight, but we definitely had to do it tomorrow.
We camped at the top of a waterfall and planned on rappelling off of it. Sadly though, it had dried up for the season. It was sad, because the only water we had for the night consisted of 2-3 stagnant pools of very brown water. One of the couples had brought an UV filter, which was great for speed and ease of use normally, but proved to not help on the slightly smelly, very brown water. We shared my Sawyer Mini that night, which worked out nicely for us all. I didn’t fill up when we got to the new spot the next day, so I was out of water very grateful when they zapped me some water with the UV filter.
I had learned my lesson from the night before, and I did not set up my tarp in the same enclosed way. Instead, I opted for a more open setup seen here. However, once again, I ended up cold. The sides of the shelter were left open, and a breeze started up in the night. I ended up sliding out onto the ground next to the fire to keep warm. The definite benefit of me needing the fire for warmth was that the group always had a fire ready in the morning. My sufferings were not wasted.
The third morning started out with some rappelling off the dry waterfall. It was also the day of my worst injury of the trip; I ripped a big hole in my Columbia zip-off pants!
This time rappelling, I was able to be more involved in setting up the anchor at the top. Jon and Jenn, one of the couples along, were great with showing me how it was done. They were very into rappelling, went all the time, and were great teachers, too. Jon headed down first to belay from the ground, and then it was my turn. This rappel was harder than what we’d done before, because, once off the ledge, there was nothing but air. Now, if you’ve never rappelled before, it is nothing like they show in the movies. When you get to the edge of the ledge, you don’t just jump off and brake yourself after a couple of feet of freefalling. You should make a controlled descent for the safety of you and the equipment. Cowboying it off the edge just puts unneeded strain on the rope and the instructors. Instead, you need to keep leaning back until your feet just kind of naturally come off the rock face.
That is easier said than done. It isn’t a natural response to lean into the 30 foot drop, and I had a hard time keeping my feet planted and leaning. That very thing is what led to me hanging upside down with my foot trapped under the rope. When I was at the edge, I pulled my right foot off, and my left slipped up, resulting in me hanging upside down. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing, since you end up mostly inverted at first off the ledge, but my left leg ended up trapped under the rope. Now, as long as you have a competent belay person, your chances of falling are about 0%, but that doesn’t stop you from slamming into the rock face. Since Jon had applied tension on the rope when I fell, I had to get in control and then have him give me some slack to get my leg free. It probably looked scarier from the ground than it felt while hanging there. Just like when anything unexpected happens, you just have to remain calm. Jon let me have control back, and I slowly let off the rope until my leg was free. The rest of the rappel was free hanging, vertical, and incident-free. Once on the ground, Jon told me I did the right thing staying calm and taking my time getting upright. That’s when I noticed my pants. The rope had torn an L shape in the pant leg (the only sad part of the trip). I rappelled down a few more times, still unable to overcome that natural instinct of moving my feet down instead of leaning into it. Consequently, I ended up slamming different body parts off the rock each time. After everyone had some rappelling time, we moved on. Part of the class was campsite selection, so we moved to a different spot each night. That day, I took the lead again.
After we checked the map for a new place to camp, we took off on a heading using terrain features to guide us. After 15 minutes, we ended up in a box canyon! Two days in a row, I lead out from camp and ended up in a dead end. The group discussed nicknaming me “Box Canyon” Art. Luckily, it didn’t stick. This day, the hike wasn’t too bad except it’d been three days of hiking already. and I was a little lax with my working out before the trip. By the time we reached the stream we were camping near, I was beat. The hiking, coupled with some dehydration (don’t forget the water last stop was nasty), meant I was ready for bed. It was 3:30 PM! The day ended up being one of the best of the trip. I climbed a massive mountain to try and get cell service to text home, and I finally did.
When I got back to camp, it turned out there was a sort of bowdrill fire completion going on. Just my luck! I would have loved to partake, but I just couldn’t muster the ambition to make a bowdrill set then try to get a fire with it. After the bowdrill lesson, we moved on to making some primitive traps. Watching things being made on a YouTube video and being there first-hand just aren’t comparable. It’s great when you have very knowledgeable instructors showing you and helping you make something. We made some figure 4 deadfalls, and they worked perfectly. They were tested only; no animals were hurt during this trip (other than the pigs, cows, chickens, and whatever else went into our Mountain House Meals). That is, if you don’t count the termites!
After adding a log to the fire, someone noticed bugs flowing out of the end of the log. We called Mike, the resident bug guy over. They were termites. As happens all the time on backpacking trips I’m sure, someone said, “Who wants to try some roasted termites?” Surprisingly, most everyone said yes. Mike put his steel pot under the end of the log, and the termites fell into it when exiting the log. After a bunch had collected, we roasted them and ate them. After anyone that wanted to had some plain, Mike added some seasoning to the rest. The first batch was a little over done, so I collected some in my cup and slow roasted them. They weren’t any better tasting. If you’ve never tried roasted termites, which I imagine most haven’t, they taste pretty much like warm sand.
After the trap-making session, it was getting dark, so we sat around discussing the plan for the next day. There was a great place to do a ravine crossing using a highline, and we could rappel off the other side. As the discussion died down, I crawled into my bed. That night, I changed up my tarp configuration again. After the breeze the night before, I decided to give myself a little more cover, as seen here The problems that night included the fact that it was the coldest night so far and that the tarp that I left down in the front blocked the wind well but also the heat from the fire. I ended up on the ground in front of the fire again that night.
In the morning after breakfast, we climbed to the gap between the cliffs to try the highline. Since I don’t have a particular love of heights, rappelling and the highline crossing were especially exciting for me, because I knew I was going to have to do something I wasn’t comfortable with. Rappelling was one thing; you are basically holding on to a rope and climbing down an incline. The highline crossing was a different story. The gap wasn’t very wide, but it was a gap, and the drop was straight down. Another thing I worried about was pulling myself uphill at the end. I may have been a little lax with my gym attendance in the preceding weeks. Luckily, when they set the rope up, it had a slight downward slope to it, and when I got to the end it didn’t take much hand-over-hand to reach the safety of land. Since we used a pulley to connect the harness to the rope, the ride was like a slow, upside down, backwards zipline. It was nice to have tried it, but it wasn’t as fun as rappelling. One time was enough. After everyone went a few times rappelling and crossing the highline, we moved on.
It was going to be our final campsite, but we had a little excitement before we arrived. Mike and I were leading the way, mostly by terrain association, and it seemed to be going well. One thing that happens when you get focused on navigating to a destination is that you don’t always look around you. While we were walking along a dried stream bed, I went to take a step and noticed a snake in the path. Mike must have stepped over it. It turned out to be a copperhead, but it wasn't much in the way of danger. That time of year, it was warm enough for snakes to come out and sun themselves, but they aren’t moving very quickly. That is usually why the second person in line sees the snake. It wasn’t able to move fast enough to go before we got to it. We took a picture of it and went on our way. The second sign of life we saw was shortly after the snake sighting. Coming over a ridge, I saw a group of wild pigs. We stopped for a minute to look at them and see what their intentions were. It only took a minute to find out; they didn’t want anything to do with us! They headed up over the next hill with 10 times more speed and fortitude then I could even muster going downhill. There would be no bacon that night!
After we arrived at our final campsite, we scouted out the area a little. One of the guys found a giant log composed of huge layers of fat wood. Around home, the only big quantities of fat wood I found were at Walker’s Hardware in a box. Down south, it really did grow on trees! We chopped at the tree for a while, but by that point in the trip no one seemed to have the excitement or energy level to get any large slabs of fat wood. We saved a few pieces for fire making and left the rest to nature. That night there were a lot of fat wood fire making sessions. We also setup one more rappel, and that time I set the anchor myself (always being double checked of course). After rappelling for 4 days, you would think I could get the hang of dropping over the edge, but sadly no. My last rappel of the trip ended with me crashing into the rocks again. A short video of me rappelling.
When it came time to setup camp for the night, I had finally learned my lesson and just setup on the ground next to the fire. Mike, who had slept the other nights in a hammock, decided he wanted to try sleeping next to the fire and volunteered to keep it going that night. That lasted for about an hour; after he fell asleep, that was it. Tending the fire usually falls to the coldest person in the group, better known as me. I didn’t really mind since I wanted to make sure the wood lasted through the night anyway. I’ve found that, even though I get considerably less sleep while sleeping out, it is a much better sleep, and I don’t feel tired in the morning. That last night we probably didn’t wind down until around 10 or so. It’s hard to stay up when it gets dark at 5:00. I was awake more than asleep, and I still got up at 4:00 AM and was good to go the rest of the day.
That final morning was surreal for me. I had only spent four days with this group of strangers, yet I felt like I would be lost without them in the coming days. After everyone was packed up, we headed off in a general direction aiming for the trail that we had avoided thus far. It’s funny how no one wanted to leave, yet, once we were on the way, we went full steam ahead to get out. After we hit the trail, it was just road marching to the truck, which seemed to take forever. On the way, we smelled wood smoke and assumed it was just a campfire somewhere, but when we arrived at the trailhead where the truck was parked, there were park rangers there. It turns out that there was a major forest fire in the park. After talking with the rangers, we found out the fire wasn’t near us. We did, however, persuade one of the rangers to take a group photo, which was nice. After what seemed like an eternity on the back of a pickup truck in the crisp October air, we arrived back at our own vehicles. There were a few pictures with the instructors and some idle chit-chat, but it was over. Or was it? It turns out that most of us had the same idea, food! So we decided to head to the same place to get some breakfast. By that time, most everyone was just ready to be on the road, including me (I had a 900 mile drive ahead of me), so there wasn’t much in the way of conversation. After about 20-30 minutes, there was no more dragging it out. The inevitable had happened. It was over.
As I drove home, I was already making plans to convince my wife that this should be an annual trip. Even as the miles dragged on, I was still hoping I could do it again.
So, this brief overview of my trip turned into a novel. It was hard not to write about all the cool things we did or things that happened, so I included them. If I had to narrow this down, I would say that I would recommend Randall’s Adventure & Training to anyone who has an interest in survival, bushcraft, rope work, or just heading out into the woods with an unforgettable bunch of strangers. You’ll never have a better time being cold, tired and sore!