A newbie experiences the good, the bad and the soggy of solo camping.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
I look the visitor center employee in the eye. I’m not sure, but I am stubborn and had been planning this adventure for weeks. I had driven hours from Columbus to visit my sisters in South Carolina and had found the ideal place for my first solo backcountry camping trip, Congaree National Park near Columbia, situated precisely between their respective cities. I refuse to let a little rain ruin everything.
“Yes. I’m doing this.” My voice is steady, and I even manage a smile. Thunder growls in the distance as the man explains most of the area I’d intended to hike through and camp in is flooded or washed out from recent rains. Congaree’s entire 20,000-plus acres is in a floodplain, so even a couple of inches of rain can push its rivers and streams past their banks.
Moments later, a park ranger appears out of the office with my permit, an eyebrow raised. “You’re not going to let me do this, are you?” I ask, my stomach churning.
The ranger repeats the warnings and mentions a nearby car-camping site. I explain why it has to be Congaree—that the whole point is backcountry camping, alone in the woods. I’ve always liked to push my limits; to me, being comfortable is a sign that I’m not challenging myself enough. After honing my camping and backpacking skills with my husband, Matt, over the last decade, solo camping feels like the logical next step. If car camping were my only option, I might as well get a hotel. I don’t know if the ranger sees my resolve or disappointment and takes pity; maybe he, a Newark native as I later learned, just wants to help out a fellow Ohioan. He shakes his head, sighs—and then surprises me.
“You can’t do Kingsnake,” he says, mentioning my intended camping spot. “It’s flooded too, and it’ll only get worse with these storms. If you’re going to do this, here’s what I suggest.”
I listen carefully, following his finger across a map, as he shows me a different spot along a bluff that should keep me above the waterline. My only real concern will be falling branches or trees in the storm, or maybe a wild hog sniffing after my food.
“Which trail do I follow?” I ask. The ranger meets my eye with a cool, level gaze.
“There’s no trail,” he says. “Just follow the bluff.”
Earlier that week, everything seemed much simpler. Matt, a backcountry pro, watched with approval as I set up a lightweight, two-person tent in our living room, without instruction or prior experience with that model. Then we assembled my gear, discussing items’ weights and my pack’s volume. It all fit, but barely. Matt packed efficiently for me—soft, lightweight goods in the bottom; heavy items on top; quick-access items in pockets—then made me pull everything out, explain what it was and how to use it, and repack it. I laughed when I got to the field tourniquet in my first aid kit. Matt has some wilderness survival training and takes pride in being prepared. He showed me how to use it, and I tried not to think about the series of events that might lead to me needing it.
At the Kingsnake trailhead in Congaree, those worst-case scenarios are much more palpable, though I still do my best to keep them out of mind. I leave my gear in my car and venture down the trail, just to see the conditions. The ranger was right; I barely make it 100 feet into the woods before the trail is completely washed out. I turn around to retrieve my pack and start hiking in the direction he indicated.
I find a service road—the only official trail in my journey—and follow it until the gravel path becomes a dirt one, which fades into the grass. There is a picnic table, and I’m tempted to set up nearby. The ranger’s warning about falling trees has me on edge. It’s muggy, and the air lies thick on my skin. The rain-soaked undergrowth saturates my pant legs the moment I step off the road.
As I walk, the sky clears more and the air gets heavier, the moisture from the ground evaporating but not rising above the forest—a mix of tall pines and shorter deciduous trees that I’m not savvy enough to know. The pine needles are soft underfoot, but I still manage to make plenty of noise as I clumsily trudge over fallen branches and through dense bushes. I wish I had my husband’s machete so I could plow through the thicker brush instead of having to circle around it.
The bluffs the ranger described are unimpressive. Expecting striking views of the sort you see in the Hocking Hills, I’m instead occasionally at a loss to discern if they’re even there. My only real landmark is a creek, so I keep it on my right to avoid getting lost. I have a cell signal and use Google Maps to select a goal point. It’s roughly a mile from that picnic table at the end of the service road—not quite the multimile trek I had planned, but still sufficient to say I hiked into the backcountry.
I make it less than half a mile before encountering a vast marsh. It stretched in front of me, north and south, as far as I could see from my vantage point on a meager bluff. I check the map—a northward fork of the creek had flooded, filling in the low-lying space between it and the main creek bed. It’s about 6 p.m., and the now-clear sky belies the thin but intense line of storm that the radar on my weather app says is imminent. The ground is still squishy from the previous storms. I can’t stay here. I backtrack some distance, looking for a clearing on high, dry ground. When I find it, I clear away the sticks and rocks and make camp.
Less than two hours later, my imagination is running wild. Inside my tent, with a light rain pattering above me, I’m left to my own unpleasant thoughts about tumbling timber and feral swine. (Do wild hogs have tusks? How big are they?) I wonder if the rushing-water sound I hear is the creek rising to drown me, or if it’s just the sound of rain hitting unfamiliar terrain.
At one point, I hear gunshots and panic. I text Matt, who reminds me that I’m in the south and the land across the road from the park is privately owned.That sound travels far, and hearing gunfire out here in the country isn’t like hearing it in our Old North Columbus neighborhood. It’s comforting, but only slightly. My nerves get the better of me, so I sheepishly write down a few important passwords and “if-something-happens-to-me” instructions in my journal. It’s awful to write, and it makes me feel foolish.
I feel even more foolish when the rain stops roughly an hour later. There had been no lightning nearby and only light wind. I bust out my camp stove and boil water for my backpacker meal: smoked salmon and pesto pasta. It’s actually pretty good. I eat it by the light of my headlamp, listening to evening birds singing and bats echolocating. An owl hoots nearby. The rain starts again; I couldn’t have timed that gap better.
I clean up, stowing my leftover food (most backpacker meals feed two people) under the rain fly but outside the tent proper, hoping that if it does attract hogs or other wild things, they’ll just grab it and run. At this point, it’s raining too hard to venture outside and stash it somewhere farther away. I try to sleep, but am periodically startled into alertness by common wilderness sounds: an animal rustling through the brush nearby, rainfall that sounds like floodwaters, imagined voices in the night. (Matt later tells me the latter is fairly common for him when he camps alone; he hadn’t warned me in advance because he didn’t want to scare me.) Eventually I drift off.
In the morning, I wake to warm light and more birdsong. I boil water for my breakfast—a pouch of powdered eggs and bacon—then make some instant coffee. It’s a wholly unsatisfying meal after the surprisingly good dinner. I change my base layer of clothes but don’t have extra pants—a shame, as the bottoms are still damp. I survey the clearing as I sip my coffee, reluctant to pack up. The sky is beautiful, the air is cool, and the humidity of the previous day has dissipated. The night’s paranoia seems silly now.
I manage to get a little turned around on my hike out. I’m farther north than I was hiking in, and I can’t see the creek, so I turn south in hopes that I will hit it. Eventually, I find my way back to the picnic table. Back at the car, I grab my toiletry kit from the trunk. I brush my teeth and hair, and scrub my face with a moist towelette. I have a few hours to kill, so I stow my gear and drive back to the visitor’s center, intending to hike the short boardwalk loop before I leave. There I see the ranger and the employee from the day before.
“I made it!” I exclaim, my pride unabashed and a little excessive, considering the circumstances.
“I was thinking of you when the storms came through last night,” the ranger says. “Where did you end up camping?”
I point my spot on the map, lamenting that I couldn’t get as far out as I wanted.
“So, what did you think?” he asks.
“It was wonderful,” I reply. “Next time, I’m hiking all the way out.”
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine, as well as our weekly newsletter so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.