Gear Review: ZPacks Arc Haul Backpack and Duplex Tent

I’ve read so many reviews for gear that it almost seemed redundant to do another one myself, but since all the reviews for the Arc Haul and Duplex have been predominantly positive I figured I’d throw my two-cents worth into the pot.

ZPacks Arc Haul

Specs: The base weight for the Arc Haul is 24 oz. Mine weighed in at approximately 31oz with the added belt pouches, lumbar pad, top/side mesh pockets, shock-cord lashing, double top straps and side roll-top closure straps.

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I have now used this pack on four trips. It took most of the first trip up Tongue River Canyon to get the fit dialed in properly which can take a few miles since everything is adjustable and removable. I started with the shoulder straps sitting too low and they would rub my collar bone and pull down with too much weight on my shoulders. A slight adjustment in the strap attachment and they fit great. The other issue was the mesh backing where the top would rub against the bones of my shoulder blades. A few more adjustments to move the mesh upwards towards the top of the pack while still keeping the arc in the frame and it was again comfortable.

I have loved everything about the design and quality of this pack. The 62L capacity (main compartment, mesh back pocket and two side/bottom pockets, 49L main compartment) was adequate for all my gear and four days of food but I did find that the two side/top mesh pockets to be extremely useful for my water filter/squeeze bag, dog water-bowl and a rain jacket for convenience. I highly recommend them if you buy this pack.

The roll-top closure is very secure and I like the velcro closure aspect of the opening. It is not normal velcro that seems to pick up all kinds of debris and wears out, but some kind of hybrid that feels more durable. I chose to incorporate the side buckle closures on my Arc Haul as I like to carry a sit pad on top of my pack and the standard closure wasn’t going to work for me (plus is could catch overhead branches). I am glad I chose the side closures and they kept the pack closed securely and did not permit the entry of any rain water.

The belt pouches are HUGE and carried all my food for the day (except dinner), my phone, camera, car keys and still had a lot of room left over. The only issue I had was the tape used to seal the seams on the inside started to separate and left a very sticky and hard to remove residue on the screen of my phone. After learning that I made sure to keep my trash or snack bag between my phone and camera and the interior of the pouch (the side that is attached to the belt).  With this one exception, the belt pouches were great and sit comfortably on the belt and hips and don’t get in the way.

The lower side pockets are a perfect size for two 1 liter Smartwater bottles, and while it can be a pain to put them back in, it is possible to remove and return the bottles to the pockets while wearing the pack if you are limber enough. I can also fit my bear spray and bug spray in the side pockets with my 1L Smartwater bottles but that does make it difficult to remove and return the water bottles while wearing the pack…but that is my problem and not an issue with the pack in general. The elastic around the top of the pocket is tight and keeps things secure so I never once worried about a water bottle falling out, even when bending down to pick up a dropped hiking pole.

The only issue I had with this pack is the frame. I had it arced to just below the recommended 2 1/2″, and even with the additional lumbar pad I still had issues with pressure from the lower bar of the frame to which the belt is attached. I could not feel the bar itself, but the rigidity of the frame pushing into my back caused my legs and lower body to fatigue faster. Towards the end of the day I would have to loosen the belt and carry more weight on my shoulders to relieve the lower back pain and give my hips and legs a break.

I seem to be the only one with this issue with the frame and believe it is more to do with my size (very slender with almost no natural cushioning on my hips and back) than it is to do with the pack/frame itself. I have found no other reports or experiences of others having this issue, especially after adding the lumbar pad.

Overall, I have loved everything about this pack, but due to the lumbar/frame issue it is a pack I will have to retire for the foreseeable future. I would, however, recommend this pack to others since no-one else seems to have the issue I do. After contacting ZPacks, and receiving an email directing from Joe who made some suggestions and offered to make a custom belt for me (which I’m not sure would alleviate the problem), it is obvious that their customer service is impeccable. I have constantly been impressed by their responses and attitude to my questions and requests for help.

Edit 8/31/2016: After a little bit of research, experimenting and crafting I made my own modified lumbar pad that is thicker and slightly larger than the stock pad you can order from ZPacks. It works wonders and feels amazingly comfortable now. My Arc Haul is back on the trail and doing what it is supposed to do very well. Yay!

ZPacks Duplex

Specs: I ordered the Duplex in the heavier-weight 0.74oz spruce green which weighs in at 23.2oz. (This does not include stakes).

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This tent is my first piece of Cuben Fiber gear and I went with the 0.74oz material vs the standard ZPacks 0.52oz CF for the added durability and thickness. It only added $15 to the cost and 2.2oz to the overall weight; I felt that this trade-off was worth it for peace of mind and added life-length since this was a big investment.

I watched the ZPacks Youtube video for how to put this tent up as it is not intuitive, especially using the doors. Joe at ZPacks makes a very good and clear instructional video on how to erect the Duplex which I have linked to at the bottom of the page.

After figuring out how to put the Duplex up I have found that after a few times of practice it goes up very quick and easy. It takes a few adjustments once it is up to get the correct angles on the lines and the roof pitch, but these are often minimal and take just a few seconds.

The fluorescent yellow guy lines are solid and light, but I still manage to trip over them sometimes. Even as bright as they are, yellow still blends in with tall grasses more than pink or red. I have been using some stakes I got with an old Kelty tent and are similar to MSR Groundhog stakes in profile (Y-shaped cross-section), but not as light. I have found they work very well with the guylines and have been far more secure, durable and easier to get into the ground than the U-shaped stakes I had from Six Moon Designs, especially in some of the harder or rockier ground.

The biggest test of the Duplex was in a major thunderstorm the first night of my Walker Prairie hike. I was able to get it up quickly and all my gear and dog inside before it poured down on us. The nice thing about Cuben Fiber is that it is waterproof, not just water resistant. There were no seams or locations that water leaked into the tent during that deluge and my dog, my stuff and I all stayed dry, even when the wind picked up.

There is enough space in the Duplex for me, all my gear and two dogs with their cut-down CCF sleeping pad. Two people would find it a squeeze and wouldn’t recommend it unless it was an adult and child but I have seen them used for couples, and then all gear would have to be left under the awnings which are definitely adequate for dry-storage of gear.

The awnings are spacious and are high enough off the ground to permit a reasonable amount of airflow, but I have found that with two dogs in the tent (the first night in the Black Hills) plus me that I still ended up with a lot of condensation on the inside. Leaving one or both doors open or having the dogs sleep under the awnings makes a big difference in the condensation levels. My one night up in the Little Horn Canyon with one dog and an open door left me with a completely dry tent in the morning. Of course so much of this has a lot to do with campsite location and most of my condensation issues have been due to camping near creeks and at the bottom of valleys. The condensation issue is always going to be one of the trade-offs with a single-wall tent.

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The Duplex has become one of my favorite pieces of backpacking gear so far and despite the hefty price tag I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again. I love the space, the design, the ease of putting it up and stowing it away, and I love how much living area I have for the weight. Sitting out the storm was comfortable when you have enough room to move around and organize.

I would like to see ZPacks offer a net tent inner with bathtub floor to go with their Duplex tarp (an option not well known about) as well as the standard model with the attached floor and mesh as I believe this would be a great set up, and even more versatile.

ZPacks now offers a free-standing option for the Duplex tent, but with another hefty price tag for the poles plus a weight gain of 10.2oz which puts in the weight category of other free-standing but less-expensive double-wall tents. It would be a good option for those who don’t use trekking poles. Here is a great review of the Duplex tarp with the freestanding option.

ZPacks Duplex Set-up Video:

 

 

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Three Days Backpacking Walker Prairie, Horseshoe Mountain and Wolf Creek Trails

Day 1

The trail head for the Walker Prairie trail was down a mile-long rocky, primitive road. I decided to not torture my parents by driving to the bottom and making them drive back up. I started hiking about 1/2 a mile from the trail head. The road was easy for Kye and me to navigate on foot and the roads were well signed.

We started by crossing a log bridge over Ranger Creek and following short climb to the ridge line where we hiked along a nice and easy path through the trees for a while before dropping down to run along the bank of the East Fork of Big Goose Creek. The freakiest thing was coming across the carcass of a half eaten elk half in and half out of one of the minor tributaries running into Big Goose. It was covered in flies and I hurried away from the water crossing as fast as possible with a pack before the owner of the carcass came back to finish it off.

We followed the creek for almost three miles, making four fords of the creek in a short period of time. The water was bitterly cold and I had to carry my shoes and Kye’s pack while trying not to loose my footing and get too wet. It was irritating to have to keep switching out my hiking shoes for water shoes, but having dry shoes and socks to hike in was a priority. The shoes I chose, however, were pretty crappy and too big.

The creek itself was gorgeous and I kept having to stop to eyeball all the fishing holes (and the pretty big fish I could see in them), and was beginning to wish I had a backpacking fly rod and some flies with me.

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From Big Goose creek we hiked up the side of the valley to a place I lost the trail. Using intuition and having keen eyes (and screenshots of the guidebook pages) helped me locate the faint signs of a trail and climbed through a grassy “field”, past a granite knob and through a saddle. Looking behind me gave me some great views of the creek.

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Having made it over the saddle and to the ATV trail I was rewarded with stunning views of canyons, peaks and wide open grassland. This was a short but sweet section of the hike and soon we were descending down a steep and rocky section of road/trail that led us to the West Fork of Big Goose. Thankfully there was a bridge to cross this time and we took a break in the meadows alongside the water.

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Before long we packed up and hiked up another steep path, through more grassland with no trail and over yet another saddle to Prairie Creek. Unlike previous hikes, this trail definitely had plenty of water and I didn’t have to carry much which was nice for my pack weight

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We followed Prairie Creek down to where it joined Walker Creek which we forded by rock hopping instead of getting our feet wet, although Kye still insisted in wading through it, and took a few minutes to fill up on water before another steep climb into Walker Prairie, a huge expanse of grassland high in the Bighorn Mountains. Again here we lost the trail, but knowing which general direction I needed to be going we meandered up the valley above some massive granite outcroppings. The biting flies were a nightmare and we had to keep moving just to keep them from harassing us too much. Kye was on receiving end of the worst of it so despite wanting to take a break and rest and eat we just kept going.

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We passed She Bear Mountain and Walker Mountain and crossed a fence line before turning up a grassy draw with, again, no easy trail to see until we’d done some more trail blazing.

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Now we were on an exposed trail above the trees and the clouds just kept looking darker and darker, and unfortunately they seemed to be heading our way. Thankfully they were moving slowly and we hurried down the hillside to Quartz Creek, hoping I’d have enough time to get my tent up before the rain hit. We forded the creek and I tried rock hopping in order to keep from having to switch shoes again but one rock rolled and my trail runners ended up soaked. Hopefully they will be mostly dry by the morning.

A few sprinkles hit us as the tent was finally up and I threw everything inside, including Kye despite the delicate nature of the material my tent is made of…it’s not generally good to mix claws and cuben fiber. After I had things pulled out of my pack, and trying to get organized in such a small space, the rain started and the thunder and lightning came. One strike was almost on top of us and it freaked Kye out more than me and she almost jumped on top of me, although it did make me jump too. I ate a few snacks while waiting for the storm to pass and wrote most of today’s journal.

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A second storm came through about 30 minutes with a lot of intense rain but the thunder and lightning wasn’t as close. I finished dinner and fed Kye hers while waiting for the rain to abate, which it eventually did. When we could finally see the sun we went to the creek so Kye could drink and I could find a rock to throw into the trees to hang my food bag. I did better with hitting the branch this time, although the choices of usable branches was still limited.

With all the rain and the sun coming out there were two half rainbows above the valley and I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the stunning scenery, my campsite and the rainbows above it, and Kye.

Headed to bed around 8:30 but it was too light and I wasn’t particularly sleepy so I took the time to finish writing today’s blog.

Tomorrow should be another good hike, although it is looking steeper than most of today’s hiking. Hoping the weather holds through the night and gives my tent and shoes a chance to dry out…wet shoes in the morning will not be pleasant.

Day 2

No flies this morning but the tent was still wet outside from last night’s rain, and inside from condensation. Having camped near Quartz Creek I expected there might be an issue with condensation…it is the bane of single-wall tents, even with decent but not good ventilation. I tried lying in bed fpr a while, waiting for the sun to peak over the mountains but by 7am it was still not visible and I attempted to dry the inside of my tent with camp towel…it helped but didn’t completely cure the problem.

I had my sleeping bag, pad and pillow packed up before I exited the tent, and changed into my hike clothes so I could put my base layer/pajamas away. I put on my water shoes because they were, ironically, the only footwear that was not wet. I retrieved my bear bag and made coffee while waiting for things to dry…my tent dried quickly after I toweled off the exterior and the sun and breeze had their turn.

My trail runners and insoles were not so lucky and I resigned myself to hiking in my water shoes and socks for a while. I stuffed the insoles in the mesh pocket on the front of my pack and hung the shoes from my top straps. Thankfully the sun was at my back and a mild breeze was blowing. This still didn’t keep the flies at bay which started harassing us as soon as I disturbed them along the water’s edge while getting water. We were packed up in record time after that!

The trail followed a fairly easy trail along and slightly above Quartz Creek, which was good because hiking in too-big water shoes and socks was not conducive to anything more than a flat trail.

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A couple of miles downstream we could see the ford of Quartz Creek that led to the Wolf Creek Trail, and another which I was planning to take. As we approached the ford from downwind a small herd pf elk was crossing the creek. We stayed still and quiet and I managed to capture some great pictures. Being downwind meant they didn’t catch our scent and didn’t realize we were there until they were 20 yards from us. Kye behaved impeccably but still watched them intently as they took off up the slope towards the rocky outcropping of Big Mountain.

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With the elk gone we crossed the creek…I did it barefoot which was very cold but I didn’t want to deal with wet shoes again. On the far side of the creek I filled up with water, and finally my shoes and insoles dry enough to put back on.

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From the creek we climbed an incredibly steep hill for about 3/4 of a mile before it joined an ATV road. It was so steep I was stopping ever twenty or thirty yards…it was also incredibly which made things that much harder. At least out of the grasslands the flies weren’t as bad, although they were still somewhat irritating when we stopped at the top for a break and to eat some lunch.

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The ATV road continued to climb gently upward with some challenging rocks, at least for vehicles. They were a minor nuisance and the trail gradually flattened out. Within a quarter of a mile I was bored of the road and turned on some music (thanks to my friend Geoff who provided me with some Bellowhead…the perfect hiking music) to keep me company as I hiked down the tree-lined road. There was very little to look at and a couple of creek crossings, the last one of which we stopped at for a break and a nap and to fill up with water.

After four miles we turned onto FS 427, a trail that had some use but mostly disappeared in the grassy areas. At one point I lost it and then thought I had found it…a very well-groomed, well-defined trail that led north. It was even marked “TRAIL”. It was NOT the trail I wanted…and I ended up too far north and too far west of where I wanted to be. I had no idea what trail I was actually on or where it would come out but it did eventually dump me out about a mile west of where I actually needed to be.

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There was no way to easily cut across from my location unless I hiked on the road (not ideal) and I found myself bush-whacking across some very rough terrain to get to where I needed to be and even then the trail wasn’t sign posted, and the book was little help now the access road had been abandoned.

We finally got on the right trail, just below Steamboat Rock and south of the highway, and started climbing the valley after almost going the wrong way again. It amazes me how badly some of the major trails that are on the National Forest Bighorn map are sign-posted or marked.

All the bad signage of the day and off-trail hiking were made up for by the sighting of a rather large bull moose in a small clump of aspens which I never would have seen if I’d been on the right trail in the first place. Kye alerted me to its presence and it was certainly aware of us so I gave the aspen grove and the moose a wide berth and almost lost the path again. He continued to watch us as we got above him and I attempted to take some pictures which was hard since he was so well hidden.

The grade started out fairly easy but got steeper as we hiked and the sun beat down on us without any clouds to help. There was little breeze and my energy was pretty much spent by this point. We did make it to the top and chugged a lot of water. We passed an old brass NF boundary marker and continued down into another drainage towards the South Fork of the Little Tongue River, passing several cattle and fighting flies again…it must be an upper grassland issue because they were miserable.

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We made camp just below the strata of Horseshoe Mountain, filtered some water, hung the bear bag and relaxed while trying to fight off the bugs. I am currently hoping the cattle don’t run over my tent in the night…at least I have a cow dog!

I spent a few amusing minutes watching a wasp catch some of the really irritating biting flies that had caught themselves beneath the awning of my tent. It came in and out several times, it took several attempts before it consistently remembered how to get out again…no matter how many times it ducked under the door. I’m just thankful for the clean-up job it was doing. It went to bed as the light faded but showed up again at first light. I’d never seen a fly-eating wasp before!

Day 3

Unfortunately I woke up at 5:30 this morning and was out of bed by six, quickly packing things away. I was still tired and achy from the day before but I knew I only had six miles to go. I couldn’t stomach another chocolate pop tart so settled for last night’s cookies instead. I didn’t have coffee either and tried just munching on it…well that was gross!!!

We tried starting out at 7am but with no clear trail I tried a couple of different routes…actually there was no trail at all except for some steep cattle trails which the book explicitly told me to avoid. I was really beginning to cuss the book and the map. This time it was the map that came through and gave me a clearer idea of where I should have been going. It was all steep uphill, through grass and on sideways angle which just sucks to walk on, even with hiking poles. It was fairly miserable and my ankles were really hating on me, especially the Achilles tendon in my left foot which I’d already been having problems with.

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We finally reached what I thought was the saddle at the top and found the trail…who knows where it started but I was glad to have found it, especially since the top wasn’t really the top and I had another half mile of upward hiking to go.

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Finally we reached the top of the Sibley Creek watershed and meandered through grassy fields towards the junction with Wolf Creek Trail. While the upward climb had been hard, especially on my tendon, now it was all downhill, and once we reached the junction of the two trails it was steep and loose dirt and rocks and completely miserable. It had to have been one of the worst trails I have ever been on. By the time I completed four miles of this my legs were like jelly and I’m not sure I could have walked much further. The book had claimed the waterfalls were worth the trail but I’m not sure they were, at least from the direction I had come. They were pretty though and there were a couple of nice-looking fishing holes.

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I arrived at the trail head at Eaton’s Ranch to witness the wranglers running the horses down and off the mountain, and the subsequent cloud of dust, and made my way to the office to drop off a guest’s driver’s license I had found on the trail, to call my dad for pick up and to hope they had beer for sale…they did, but the girl behind the counter couldn’t sell it to me because she was underage.

I’m beat up, stinky and worn out but it was quite the three days of backpacking.


After-thoughts from the hike:

Sadly I think the super-lightweight backpack I’ve been carrying has been contributing to my fatigue due to the bar that sits along the lower back. I’m thinking I need to rent something different from a local store to find out in order to be sure before I order a new one. My shoes are also an issue and I think they are contributing to my Achilles tendon issue as it doesn’t seem to hurt when walking without them.

I also need to re-think my food strategy. I’m not loving on my breakfast choices but my lunch and morning/afternoon snacks are generally fine. Dinner is another problem as I don’t want to cook. I am finding a need to research a way to make pasta or rice salad from dried ingredients that I can add cold water too to make a decent meal. I am also done with trying to make coffee in the morning as it’s never been my favorite beverage and am looking into the caffeinated candy bars available on the coffee aisle for a combination breakfast snack and wake-up boost.

With no cooking or heating water on the menu I can now leave my stove and fuel behind to lighten up my pack even more…it’s kind of addictive trying to figure out ways to lighten your pack while still carrying enough to be safe and comfortable-ish.

A Weekend Hike up the Little Horn Canyon

Day 1

Today was the big 50K Big Horn Trail run. I parked at the trail head parking lot and hiked a few hundred yards up a two track. It was pretty crazy and I had no idea where the trail actually was with all the tents, vehicles, trailers etc. I ended up having to ask someone where the Little Horn Trail started.

Kye had her pack on and got of compliments as we meandered through the myriad of runners.

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Kye in her stylish pack with a view down the canyon

The trail followed the river for a few miles, mostly staying above it, but coming within a few feet of it on a couple of occasions. We took these opportunities to cool off and refill water.

 

The one and only water refill I did was at our first river stop. We had crossed so many springs and seeps that I didn’t think of refilling again at the second stop or when crossing the next creek. This was a pretty big mistake on my part and while the water lasted to within a mile of the next water source I had rationed it as much as possible, and Kye and I were both pretty thirsty by the time we reached Wagon Box Creek…that water was SO good. It was definitely our salvation.

 

Very little notable on the trail except for the small garter or grass snake I almost sat on and the amazing land slide area across the canyon near to where I camped for the night. The trail runners had pretty much disappeared by noon and a bunch of people were packing down bags of garbage…that looked like a lot of work. I also ran into a few backpackers, one of whom happened to round the bend just as I was done peeing and pulling my pants up…I honestly think he was more embarrassed than me; no one on the trail for an hour and then when I got to pee, THEN there’s someone walking by!!!

I also realize I brought too much food….again…but the decision to go stoveless was a good one. I am enjoying the lighter weight of my pack.

Kye and I camped just above Wagon Box Creek, in a sheltered (mostly) alcove, so I do ‘t have to worry about water. I had an amazing view and a little fire pit…it was too breezy for a fire, but maybe Sunday evening.

Tomorrow I plan to leave my tent and sleeping bag behind and hike up and back with just water and food. My pack isn’t really designed for such a small load, but I will make do since there’s no point in packing it all up.

Day 2

I had added strips of silicone to the underside of my sleeping pad, and even though I still don’t care for the pad the silicone kept the pad in place in the tent, and underneath me, and I managed to get a pretty good night of sleep. I had my beanie on and pulled down over my eyes so I didn’t wake up until 7:30am. I hadn’t realized how badly I had oriented the doors of the tent until the sun rose through the opening, blinding me even with the beanie over my face.

As decided yesterday I left much stuff behind, but I did pack it away since I was a little worried someone might come along and like the look of my gear. The problem with ultra-light tents and sleeping bags is that they come with a hefty price tag, and I didn’t want all that money walking off the mountain without me.

With just a few snacks and some water Kye and I continued to hike up the mountain for another mile, where I thought the trail split and came back together as they often do. Well, I was wrong, and I ended up taking the wrong fork. I studied the map and returned to the ford of the creek but there was no way I was crossing the raging torrent without water shoes or a companion. I’m not even sure Kye would have crossed it safely either, even without her pack.

With that route a no-go I had no where else to hike and made the decision to hike back to camp, pack up and hike the 10 miles back to the car.

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Beautiful raging creek. They had purposefully leveled this area as a fording place for horses

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This was the people and dog-crossing for the creek.

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Quite the log jam

I was definitely exhausted upon arrival at the car at 5pm, but it was definitely a worthwhile weekend of backpacking.

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Black Hills, SD: Backpacking the Centennial Trail

Day 1

I stayed with friends near Gillette so I didn’t have to drive 4 hours and then hike today; 2 hours driving was quite enough from Gillette to Alkali Creek Trail Head where I was to leave my truck and meet my ride who would be transporting me to my chosen start point, 47 trail miles away.

Kye, Cody and I started the hike at Rapid Creek Trail Head below Pactola Resevoir dam. It was a gorgeous spot and my ride warned me about the mega climb from the parking lot…and he was completely right. My pack was heavy with 4 days of food and 2 liters of water. Cody was unimpressed with his pack since it was new to him and he tried to bite it once and then turned into a bucking bronc for a few seconds as he tried to get rid of it. He got used to it quickly and became the lead on the trail with Kye following me as the caboose, just as she had done the previous weekend hiking Tongue River Canyon.

It was warm and sunny, quite the opposite of what I had been expecting and we were quickly going through the water. We hiked a short trail down to the reservoir to replenish and take break, and for the dogs to cool off in the water. Not the nicest looking water I’ve ever seen but that’s what filters are for!

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We hiked up gullies and down hillsides, and through a lot of logged areas. I kept hoping to find Deer Creek but it was dry and provided no water which meant we were seriously low on water for the over night. At one point I took a small wrong turn for a few hundred yards before checking my Black Hills paper map and Google maps together.

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Finally, at about 7:30 we could stop for the night, eat a meal of Ramen and put the tent up. My biggest fight with a tent site was the crazy rocky ground that didn’t want to be nice to stakes…and I didn’t want to bend any since I only have one spare. The other issue was the lack of suitable flat spots…without rocks and logs and tree stumps. I ended up putting the tent up in the middle of an old off-road track. I didn’t care, I was done for the day, and so were the dogs.

Day 2

Coyotes woke me at least three times during the night. At first they seemed a moderate distance away, then an hour later they seemed really close…the third time they were further afield and they finally settled down. For some reason I couldn’t get warm and slept really rough, despite wearing pajamas, a neck buff and a woolly hat, all inside a 10°F sleeping bag.

I finally crawled out of my sleeping bag at 6:30am and got dressed. I let the dogs out and noticed the walls dripping with condensation…the bane of a single-wall tent. I had thought there might be enough airflow under the walls to compensate for a human and two dogs, but I had to put the tent away wet and hope I could get it dried out before bed.

It took until 8:30am to pack up camp which seems crazy when everything fits in a small backpack, but I was hoping the sun might peek over the trees and dry the tent.

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Pilot Knob was the next stop for water, about 3/4 mile from camp. I filtered water and made coffee (Yay! Caffeine) and ate breakfast while the dogs explored, drank and rested. Finally I packed back up and made use of the trail head restroom before climbing up, again, following at ATV road.

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The trail from here to camp was almost nothing but ATV trails and that got old fast, especially with having to constantly step off the trail for the multiple machines.

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There was more water this morning and I had thought about camping near Box Elder Creek but it was not much past noon by the time I reached it after 8+ miles so I decided to load up on another 2 liters of water and push myself a little and try for Dalton Lake, 7 miles further on.

Of course, as always, the first obstacle after adding more water to your pack weight is a damned giant hill…and there were several of them. Many times as I reached another upward slog I was cussing at myself trying to hike so far, and after 4 miles I was physically done…but needing a camp with water I pushed on, doing some real zombie hiking. I don’t think I have ever hiked 14 miles in one day, let alone with a 30 lb pack.

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We arrived at Dalton Lake a little after 4 and despite my exhaustion I knew I had to set up my tent to dry out in the sun and breeze. We camped alongside a little creek for the fogs to drink from and I can filter a ridiculous 4 liters in the morning for the 12 mile dry stretch I have to get through.

We all ate dinner and the dogs slept…a lot. Not many pictures today as I just didn’t have the energy!

Day 3

Unfortunately the worst place to camp near is a body of water. Despite leaving two doors open and having the dogs on their beds outside, everything was soaked in dew this morning, including my sleeping bag and clothes…and Kye. She wasn’t happy, although Cody was fine. I’m not sure how she ended up so wet.

I finally crawled out of bed to use the trail-head facilities at 6:30am and the sun was barely peaking over the trees. I knew it would be a while before the sun reached my camp so I hauled all my gear except the tent to the parking lot to dry out. It looked a little trashy to have my stuff strewn everywhere, but what are you gonna do? I made coffee, including burning my finger on the pot handle, and ate breakfast while waiting for stuff to dry and finally got packed up by 8:30.

I filtered water and waited for the tent to dry as much as possible and left Dalton Lake at around 9:30am.

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Felt pretty good and strong for the first few miles. My legs were a little sore but felt strong and I powered up the hills pretty easily. There were few views but the trees were gorgeous and it felt like I was hiking the east coast or England with all the underbrush. The bike ramps became the bane of my existence and I quickly grew to hate them, as did the dogs, but they were easier than opening gates.

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I watched the grey clouds of a rain storm and thought it was circumnavigating us but God had other ideas and we got nailed with quite the hail/thunderstorm for at least a half hour. I donned my rain coat and hunkered down under a pitiful tree that offered very little protection, thinking about the perfect rock overhang a half mile back.

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After being pelted with rain and hail for a half hour, and with lightning hitting above us, the destruction finally abated and we could continue. The trail was now horribly muddy, I was soaked and cold and the dogs’ packs were wet and heavy. We hurried as best we could along the trail, going down off the mountain as my shoes attracted mud and pine needles like honey attracts flies. It was pretty miserable although I did manage to capture the odd view of the valley.

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A couple of hours later we got hit with another rain storm, but this time I had a little warning and was able to find shelter beneath a natural rock shelter. I’m not sure if this was a mistake, but it sure felt like it because that’s when my leg muscles started to seize up. We avoided the rain, but walking after that became my own kind of hell.

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My hamstrings and quads loosened up a little as I hiked but any time we stopped they would start causing problems. At this point I didn’t want to stop to drink or eat and was just plodding along.

The scenery was incredible and I appreciated the views of the gorge I was following. It felt like I was paralleling the South Dakota version of the Grand Canyon. It was a shame that there were few view points where I could get any good pictures and I hated that I wasn’t enjoying the hike as much as I would have liked…I really pushed myself too hard yesterday.

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We finally arrived at Elk Creek Trail Head, and after watching Kye limp for the last two miles I made the tough decision to end my hike there. The nearest highway was 2.5 miles west and Kye and I gimped along the road to hopefully hitch a ride. It was humiliating to have to quit but with Kye limping I wasn’t going to take risks, not to mention that I could barely walk with a hamstring and quad strain. I can tough myself out, but I wouldn’t push my dogs through that point.

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I have never hitch-hiked before and felt a little intimated but I didn’t have much choice. It started raining, and the dogs and I were pretty miserable. I started praying pretty fervently at that point…I needed help. Somehow, some way, two guys going the wrong way decided to turn around and offer me a ride…they barely had room in their car for me and the dogs but they were willing to find room for us all and deliver me and the dogs to mu truck; my first experience of true Trail Magic (Google it!).

We drove back to the Elk Creek Trail Head to spend the night in the truck and I had to life Kye in and out of the vehicle assuring me I had made the right decision. I was bummed I hadn’t been able to finish the last 11.5 miles but I knew it was the right thing to as I could always come back.

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In the truck we cleaned up a little and I watch Captain America: Winter Soldier before going to bed. I slept like a rock!

Day 4

It may not have been a hiking day but I decided to explore the Black Hills a little more. I had been here over Thanksgiving a few years ago but missed a lot due to the season.

I made the decision to go to Wind Cave Nation Park that I had missed the last time due to it being closed. It was well worth the $12 entry fee. It was a rare cave that contains 95% of the world’s box style etc mineral deposits.

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We stopped at a random campsite in the Black Hills NF for the evening to spend the night, enjoying a couple of beers and some old-time country while drying the remainder of my backpacking gear. The dogs were happy to run, relax and be free from the truck and dog packs.