At the end of 2018, my father and I made plans to hike the GA portion of the Appalachian Trail to celebrate my 30th Birthday (March 2019). Since I now live in central Tennessee, I thought I’d use one of the closer rugged trails as a training opportunity before the epic birthday hike.
I picked a clear, cool Friday evening in the beginning of March to try my hand at the Lower Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, TN. I’d been on the Upper Loop within the last year, but had been told that the Lower Loop had much more difficult terrain. I left work and noon and got on the road, in a few short hours I was on the trail and heading for my camp site that was just past the half way point.
The trail was rugged in places. with a descent just over 500 feet over the course of about a quarter mile. But the weather was mild and the sky was blue, so I enjoyed taking it all in. But, to my disappointment as I was nearing the midway point around dusk (about 7 miles into the trail), I found the bridge washed out. Usually this wouldn’t have been a problem, since the bridge only crosses a creek. But we’d had several inches of rain fall during the week and the water was now between 3 and 5 feet deep and fast moving in the center. After spending the next 40 minutes walking up and down the bank looking for a safe spot to cross, I turned back and headed back towards the nearest campsite. Even though it was still early spring and the weather was cool enough to keep most people off the trail overnight, this still bothered me for a few reasons. The first and biggest was that no where at the start of the trail, or anywhere along the 7 miles leading to the bridge, was there anything posted to let people know that the bridge was out, when it had very clearly been down for some time. The second feeds off of the first, the campsites in the backwoods area are reservation only, and I was now 7 miles into a trail at dusk only to find out that my campsite was now 14 trail miles away. To add insult to injury, all of the beautiful views that the Lower Loop is known for, and they are some spectacular waterfall vistas, are located on the western rim while I was now confined to the eastern rim.
The silver lining to this unfortunate trip was twofold. Once I got back to the nearest campsite, there were 3 open spots and the only other occupants were a father/son duo who were out testing their hammocks before an upcoming scouting trip. The second which was unbeknownst to me at this point, was that I was about to be handed my trail name. As I approached my chosen camp site, I started a polite conversation with the Father and Son to let them know that the bridge was washed out, and that they’d have to head back out the way they came in the morning. After a short conversation about the recent weather the father politely asked my favorite question “where are you from?”. Earlier this year I recounted with my wife that we’ve moved 8 times in the last 9 years, and moved between states on 4 of those occasions; Indiana to Alaska, back to Indiana, to Texas, and now to Tennessee. So I usually just answer with “all over the place”, but this time I explained our transient tendencies, the kid laughed and the father said something along the lines of “well, you’re quite the traveler”. The last word struck a chord and stuck. I’d been thinking for the last year about what possible trail names I might end up with, but nothing ever sounded as good to me as “Traveler”. So after a few more minutes of conversation I retired to my hammock with a smile, and a new name.
If you’re like me you’ve probably struggled to get a fire started on the trail due to adverse weather conditions, a lack of nearby kindling or any number of potential reasons. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat next to a pile of damp kindling searching my pack for scraps of paper and burning my thumb with a hot lighter (or wasting cooking fuel trying to use my JetBoil to get the fire started) just to end up going to bed cold and disappointed. It can be frustrating and outright demoralizing, especially when the weather is chilly at the end of a long day hiking or when you have friends that are counting on you to get the fire going for some much needed campfire socialization.
Today I’m going to share a super simple, easy to make and lightweight fire starter that you can take with you anywhere and that will consistently perform even in damp, windy or snowy conditions. So without taking up anymore wordspace – I’ll get to the how-to portion of the post.
All you need is a small pot, a jar of standard petroleum jelly and a small bag of cotton balls.
1. You’ll start by emptying the cotton balls into a container that you won’t mind dedicating to petroleum jelly saturation, or something that you can throw away. For this instance I chose a leftover tinfoil pan. Once they’re in the desired container, set it off to the side, in a sink or some other easy to clean area in case there is spillage.
2. The second step will be emptying the jar of petroleum jelly into the pot before it goes on the stove. You’ll need a silicone spatula or something flexible that can get most of the jelly out of the jar and into the pan on the stove. Because of its unique viscosity this can be tricky and messy. Once you get the jelly in and on and on the stove, set the burner to medium and watch as the jelly dissolves into its liquid form.
3. Once the petroleum jelly is completely dissolved. Remove it from the burner and slowly pour it over the cotton balls, try to fully saturate as many as you can as they will burn longer than partially saturated cotton balls. Once you’ve completed this step, let the petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls sit and cool for about an hour.
4. Once they have cooled you can store them all together or separate the fully saturated cotton balls from the partially saturated ones. The fully saturated cotton balls will burn in almost all weather conditions and will stay lit for anywhere from 5-10 minutes. You can extend this time by wrapping the cotton ball in tin foil and pulling a small bit of cotton out like a wick to make a lightweight trail candle. This will extend burn time up to 20-30 minutes generally but will be affected by. wind resistance. While the partially saturated cotton balls won’t burn as long or as well as the fully saturated ones, they work well as an anti-chafing aid, trail chapstick and as a barrier against windburn on your face. So don’t throw them away.
The picture below is after 2 minutes of burn time.
This is after approximately 7 minutes of burn time.
Thanks for checking out this post. If you found this information helpful please leave us a like and comment to let us know how the DIY goes for you.
2018 was a great year for a lot of reasons. I’m progressing in my career and I’ve never been in a better place in my life, I finally found myself in a job that I love waking up and going to every day that also happens to include the opportunity to travel for work periodically. This January marks 3 years since I got out of the cloud of VA prescribed medication that almost destroyed my life. My relationship with my wife and my family is better than ever and I have a genuine love of life that has been growing stronger and stronger since I started using the outdoors, and specifically hiking and backpacking as a way to safely ween myself off of the pharmaceutical industry’s teat.
With all that being said, 2018 was not a great year for me in regards to trail miles. I had a job transition in April that took our family from South Texas to Nashville, and even living in Tennessee (a backpackers mecca), I barely managed to fit in a handful of trips over the second part of the year while trying to balance my new responsibilities with the work travel opportunities that were presented to me. I frequently bat back and forth between the drive to be hyper ambitious, fueled by some recent success, and the desire to give everything up and make travel and backpacking my full time focus. Obviously it isn’t practical to leave a career that pays well and is genuinely fun and challenging. But it’s difficult to shake the urge to just take off and leave all the stress of modern life behind. No more deadlines, projects, office hours or typical responsibility to worry about. The idea of spending the days and weeks focusing on the beauty and simplicity of what’s immediately around you is a siren call to some of us. Living in middle Tennessee the drive to Springer Mountain, Georgia and the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is quick enough to be an extended day trip.
But for now I’m staying practical and taking advantage of the travel opportunities that my career presents. Most recently I had the incredible, and incredibly poor timed opportunity to visit Buffalo, New York in January. We lucked out for the most part and got to stay for a week that was relatively warm for the northeast and we avoided any major snow storms (by a matter of hours on the return flight). This trip felt like the perfect cap to a 2018, when we’d taken a few trips around eastern and middle Tennessee chasing the many waterfalls that snake through the local topography. It was a frigid day in the middle teens when we made our way to the American side of the falls, at dusk so that we could see them in the daylight and at night. We got some cool pictures and an amazing video of the falls, but Niagara is a wonder that is only done justice in person.
A few weekends ago I got the opportunity for an overnight adventure, and I decided to check out the Upper Loop Trail at Fall Creek Falls. The Upper Loop is about 15.5 miles with the current detour, it’s lightly trafficked and rated as moderate on Alltrails.
As far as Tennessee trails go, this is less than extraordinary during the summer. There really aren’t any noteworthy views, it is very overgrown, spiders and webs are a constant battle along the whole trail, the bugs are much worse than other similar trails I’ve been on in the state and there are a TON of downed trees that require you to squeeze under or make wide detours off the trail. With that being said, the back country camping area was the one redeeming quality from my short weekend trip. The established fire rings and ample space close to filterable water made camping alone, since all the other camp sites were vacant on a Friday night, very enjoyable. I would recommend this trail in Spring, Fall or Winter when there is more to look at. But if you’re looking for a quick 15 miles or a manageable overnight trip. The trail camp sites here make it worth the trip, just make sure to pack a lot of extra bug spray if you go during the summer months. The chiggers are out in force.
You can find directions and more information on the Upper Loop Trail by following the following link. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/tennessee/fall-creek-falls-upper-loop
As always, I’ve posted attached some of my favorite pictures from this hike below.
The Paw Paw Trail is a 3 mile moderately trafficked loop trail at Fall Creek Falls State Park near Pikeville, TN that features an incredible waterfall view and a scenic overlook that is breathtaking in its own respect. This is a great day hike, but access to the falls is via a very strenuous cable trail that is a mix between hand over fist rock climbing and rappelling (not really that intense but it seems like it) in some areas.
However, if you’re looking for a great weekend trip that can be completed in an afternoon, this is the trail for you.
As always, I’ve added some of my favorite pictures from the trip (and a couple videos) below.
Cane Creek Overlook
Cane creek Falls
After things had slowed down following our relocation to Nashville, Tennessee in the early spring of this year. We decided to take a trip up to the Bluegrass State and take a tour of Mammoth Cave back in June. I’d already been once as a child, but locations like this are always worth a trip as an adult. My wife had never been at all. For our first trip, we decided to take the 2-mile Historic Tour that focuses mainly on the portions of the cave that have been in use for tourism the longest. Since there are over 400 miles of cave in this National Park the scenery and history on this tour make for an incredible time. The historic tour enters through the original entrance to the caves and visits some of the most famous portions of the cave. While the historic tour is a great start, there are several cave tours ranging from wheelchair accessible to real spelunking adventures and everything in between. Mammoth Cave is a great family trip, but also has attractions and tours better suited to adventurous adults.
Directions and further information are available in the link below. https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm
While flash photography in the cave is prohibited. I’ve attached some of the better pictures from our trip. However, Mammoth Cave is a place you have to see in person to really respect.
The Savage Gulf Day loop is a moderately trafficked loop trail located in the Savage Gulf Natural Area near Palmer, Tennessee. It offers a scenic overlook and 3 to 4 waterfall views depending on how adventurous you want to be. The track that we took was about 5.5 miles when all was said and done, but this trail begs for off the main trail excursions. The trail was well maintained and mostly flat, so even in the August heat starting in the middle of the day it was still tolerable and well worth it for the views. There is a scenic waterfall overlook to the east of the access to the falls, but during the summer it’s so overgrown that it’s really not worth the quarter mile side trail to get to the overlook.
This trail also offers 8 primitive camping locations within walking distance of the falls, but they are first come first serve and must be paid for in advance. All in all this is a very cool day trip that is accessible for anyone that doesn’t have a difficult time walking up small hills and over flat ground. I highly recommend this trail to anyone looking for a little weekend adventure in Southeastern Tennessee.
Directions and further information are available in the link below. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/tennessee/savage-day-loop
Bakers Grove is a moderately trafficked 4 mile loop trail in Long Hunter State Park just outside of Nashville, TN. Walking at a leisurely pace and stopping to take in all of the great views of the lake we still finished in under two hours. But if you stay on trail and keep an average walking pace, this could easily be done in around an hour.
The trail is very flat and spends a good amount of time tracing the eastern bank of the J. Percy Priest Lake, but it offers a few hills and rock fields along the dirt path that make for some good pictures. All in all this is a great trail if you’re looking for a quick workout with access to water that is close to Nashville.
Since relocating to Tennessee in April I’ve been extraordinarily busy with travel and getting settled in a new place. But this will be the first of many trails that I’ll be exploring in the coming months, now that things are slowing down again. As always, I’m posting some of my favorite pictures from the trip below.
Directions and further details are provided in the link below. https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/tennessee/bakers-grove-trail
I really can’t praise Clark Hammocks enough for the NX-270. This Cadillac of the hammock camping world has kept me dry and comfortable in torrential downpours on the Lone Star Hiking Trail near Houston Texas, kept me warm on some of my favorite Indiana trails during the spring and fall and more recently gave me a much needed reprieve from the bugs on the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana. It’s roomy with plenty of storage space for gear, and very comfortable to sleep in even for bigger gentlemen like myself. But if you’ve ever spent an entire day walking through the wilderness you know the last thing you want to do when you stop for the day is spend 45 minutes setting up camp. This was one of the many reasons I switched to hammock camping in the first place. But some of the adjustments I’ve made to my hammock setup in the last year might help you save some precious time when you stop for the day to make camp after a long day on the trail.
(Below is my setup BEFORE modification. You can see the closest rope hanging close to the tree. Total setup time here was approximately 35 minutes due to the conditions.)
While my Clark NX-270 was pretty incredible right out of the box, I found that it was sometimes taking me upwards of 30 minutes to make camp at the end of the day because of issues with the nylon ropes tangling or my knots coming loose. Additionally, almost everywhere that I went hiking down south required tree straps to be used for anyone that was out hammock camping. So after dealing with tying and untying wet nylon rope in the rain on the Lone Star Trail I decided that I needed to make a change.
I started by getting a nice set of “atlas straps” and researching lightweight / high quality carabiners. Once I had done my research I purchased the gear and “cut the cord” with my Clark’s nylon ropes. By using atlas tree straps that give you a lot of leeway when choosing hammocking trees and sturdy lightweight climbing carabiners with screw locks I was able to cut my camp setup time down from around 30 minutes to about 5 minutes. Meaning that I can stay on the trail longer if I need to without having to plan for such a big window to setup camp before dark. It’s now as easy as looping the straps around a tree and clipping in my hammock. This also lets me make quick adjustments if I need to, without untying, adjusting and retying any rope. The carabiners also serve as drip rings to prevent rain from wetting the hammock during heavy rain storms. So far these modifications have made a world of difference for me, and I hope the idea can help you.
(Below is my setup after modification, very hard to tell at first look. But setup time is reduced significantly without impacting functionality)
For me, that extra time at the end of the day means getting to eat dinner in the remaining sunlight and, getting a nice fire going if the trail allows it. I’ve provided links below to the basic gear I’ve used for my setup.
Clark NX-270 ($389) – https://junglehammock.com/product/nx-270-tent-hammock-4-season-backpacking/
Domum 25KN Super Lightweight Carabiner Clip ($8.99 each) – https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01LVY1L1I/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
HangTight Hammock Straps ($16.95) – https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00YFH8498/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1