MR.Ponies along AT
Backpacking at Mount Rogers in Virginia

By Joe Miller

Let’s talk for a minute about backpacking.
You mean strapping a bulky, steel-frame pack with 60 pounds of gear to your back and hiking 20 miles?
No, I’m talking about slipping on a custom-fit, internal-frame pack with about 30 pounds and hiking 10, maybe 12 miles tops.
And eating cold pork and beans out of a can, and drinking water treated with iodine that tastes so bad you have to mask it with Tang?
No, I’m talking about feasting on entrees such as lasagna and chicken with wild rice, and washing it down with sweet mountain stream water treated with a modern filtration system.
And sleeping — or not sleeping — on rock-hard ground in a cloth bag that will leave you shivering if the temperature drops below 40?
I’m talking about a bed consisting of a plush inflatable pad and a cozy down sleeping bag that will make you forget all about that sleep number back home.
Are you sure you’re talking about backpacking?
Yes indeed, though I’m not talking about your father’s backpacking, when canvas tents became sieves at the slightest touch during a rain, when external frame packs made their mark, literally, on your back, and when we hiked in jeans, which were great — until they got a little wet and stayed wet for the rest of the trip.
I’m not talking about the character-building endurance test that was backpacking in the 1970s
I’m talking backpacking, 2014 style.

Backpacking, 2014 style

Backpacking 2014: Hot coffee and oatmeal within three minutes of waking up.
Backpacking 2014: Hot coffee and oatmeal within three minutes of waking up.

Ever since I wrote “Backpacking North Carolina” in 2011, I’ve been on a mission to dispel the myths of backpacking. Take that 60-pound pack. Sure, back when you did subsist on canned goods and you cooked out of a cast-iron skillet, you could wrack up the weight pretty quickly. But today, in 2014, nearly every foodstuff either comes dehydrated or can be dehydrated (check out this ice cream sandwich).  And titanium may be pricey, but it can also provide a complete cookset weighing less than a pound (peach cobbler in the Dutch oven, anyone?).
Or sleeping. Manufacturers have embraced open-cell technology to create inflatable sleeping pads that offer a plush lift rivaling your mattress at home. Plus, they weigh ounces and can be deflated to take up minimal room in your pack. And if you thought climbing into bed at home on a cold winter’s night was something special, wait until you’ve snuggled into a modern zero-degree sleeping bag for the evening.
And about those 20-mile days. If we were Marines on a mission, 20 miles in a day would make sense. But the goal of recreational backpacking isn’t to save the free world, it’s to be free of it. And that means adhering to your own schedule, one you can make as leisurely as you like. You don’t have to get 100 miles away to escape civilization. Often, just a mile or two will do.
Intrigued by what you’re hearing of this friendly new way of backpacking?
Then you’ll be intrigued by our new GetBackpacking! program.

GetBackpacking! Backpacking 101

GetBackpacking! is a five-week program intended to turn the backpacker-wanna-be into a bonafide backcountry explorer. Once a week for the first four weeks we’ll meet, strap on a full pack, take a 5- to 7-mile hike, then stop at some point to perform a backpacking task: break out the tent and set it up, get out the cookset and make a meal, quickly find essential gear in an instant.  We’ll also do a clinic or two at Great Outdoor Provision Co. to familiarize you with the gear required. The fifth week will be graduation weekend: we’ll leave leave on a Friday afternoon and head to the mountains for a weekend of backpacking.

GetBackpacking will share vital skills, such as how to filter water in the wild.
GetBackpacking will share vital skills, such as how to filter water in the wild.

About the gear: If you don’t have everything, don’t worry. Great Outdoor Provision Co. will make available a limited number of tents,backpacks and sleeping bags thru the GetBackpacking! Demo program for a modest fee. Not having a cookset isn’t a deal-breaker, either. The main gear (personal) you’ll need are a good pair of boots and trail-friendly clothes — basically, what you wear to hike.
On Tuesday, Sept. 2, we will have an introductory GetBackpacking! session at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. We’ll tell you about the program in more detail, we’ll show slides of some of the great places you can backpack in the region (including the trip we will be doing). We’ll have handouts, including a list of 10 of the region’s top backpacking destinations. We may even sweeten the pot with a giveaway or two. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about backpacking and see if this program is right for you.
To make sure each participant gets the specialized attention requires, the first five-week session will be limited to 12 participants. We’ll conduct another session in October-November.
We look forward to sharing our love of backpacking. See you on Sept. 2.

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What: GetBackpacking! presentation
When: Tuesday, Sept. 2, 7:00 p.m.
Where: Great Outdoor Provision Co., Cameron Village, Raleigh
The skinny: We’ll tell you all about our new GetBackpacking! program, designed to turn the novice into a confident backpacker. We’ll go over our six-week program, talk about our weekend graduation trip, discuss gear and have a slide presentation of some of the great places to backpack in the region.
To register for the kickoff: Go to our Meetup site, GetHiking! Triangle

* * *

Ten great backpacking destinations

Looking for a great place to backpack? You’re automatic reaction might be to look west, to the mountains of western North Carolina. And that would be understandable, considering the vast options in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. But there are also options to the north, in Virginia (and closer ones at that) and to the south, in the Uwharrie National Forest. Believe it or not, you can also find an option or two to the east, in the coastal plain.

Here are 10 great backpacking spots to get you started.

Content from GetBackpacking!

Mount Rogers National Recreation Area
Abingdon, Virginia
4-mile backpack to base camp, various day-hike options
No. of days: 2-5

Yes, it’s in Virginia. It’s also probably the most popular backpacking destination for North Carolinians, certainly those from the Triad and Triangle regions. The reasons are numerous. For starters, Mount Rogers is the perfect venue for a base-camp style approach to backpacking. From the backcountry parking area at adjoining Grayson Highlands State Park, it’s a 4-mile hike in — and up — to Rhododendron Gap, where you’ll find a spring and a near-endless supply of great campsites. Establish camp, then explore any number of day-hike options, starting with the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the gap. Head west on the AT (south in the AT’s north/south orientation), for instance, and a spur trail takes you to the top of Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet the highest point in Virginia. Ironically, there are no views from the wooded summit — ironic because the rest of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is one big view. Vast open meadows and craggy outcrops give the region a western U.S. feel, complete with panoramas. With dozens of miles of trail, there’s plenty of hiking to be done.
Caveat: The weather here can be tricky. Check the forecast before departing — then pack for any possibility. The shoulder seasons can be particularly deceiving.

More info: USDA Forest Service,  and (even a North Carolina-centric website can’t resist Mount Rogers), for a complete trip planner for Mount Rogers.

North Carolina Bartram Trail
Nantahala National Forest west of Franklin
50.1 miles
No. of days: 4-5

You might wonder how naturalist William Bartram spent four entire years, from 1773-1777, exploring the Southeast. After four days on this stretch of the North Carolina Bartram Trail, you’ll wonder why he ever ended his travels. This stretch of the Bartram starts just west of Franklin and climbs for 11 miles to Wayah Bald. It’s a challenging stretch, in part because of the climb, in part because there is no water until just below Wayah Bald. It’s worth it, though, for the near-continuous views, culminating atop the bald. A 7.4-mile descent to Nantahala Lake follows. There’s five miles of recovery along the Nantahala River before the mother of all wild & crazy climbs: up Ledbetter Creek to the Bartram’s terminus at the Appalachian Trail atop Cheoah Bald. It’s rugged, it’s steep, it’s not to be attempted by the novice and it is memorable. From Cheoah, head south on the AT and finish at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where hot food and cold beer make this an especially welcome stop for AT thru-hikers.
Caveat: be sure to pack in enough water for the first 10 miles; after that there’s water aplenty.

More info: offers a comprehensive guide to this trip.

Middle Prong Wilderness Area, Mountains-to-Sea Trail access
13.4 miles, with various day hike options
No. of days: 3

For years, I was determined to hike the Middle Prong Wilderness from bottom to top in winter. And for years I was repeatedly stymied by high water on its namesake creek. Then I got smart and decided to take NC 215 to the top and enter the Middle Prong Wilderness from there, via the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The 7,460-acre Middle Prong is the little-known next-door neighbor to the much bigger (18,283 acres) and better known Shining Rock Wilderness. For good reason, Shining Rock tops the list of many backpackers’ favorite North Carolina destinations. Open meadows, great views, mile-after-mile of trail, some great camping areas and, if you know where to look, water. The Middle Prong sits quietly to the west, offering a less-crowded entree to high-country wilderness. From the trailhead parking off NC 215 just north of where it crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway, the hike west explores balsam forests, meadows, more balsam forests. There are good campsites and more water than you might expect for a trail constantly flirting with 6,000 feet. There’s also access to trails that trickle down to the base, including the Green Mountain Trail, an especially nice day-hike option.

More info: Middle Prong Wilderness,, offers a comprehensive guide to this trip.

Appalachian Trail: Carvers Gap to US 19E
Roan Mountain
14 miles (one way; shuttle required)
No. of days: 2-3

Ask 20 North Carolina backpackers for their five favorite trips and doubtless they will all include Carvers Gap to US 19E on the Appalachian Trail: there’s more great scenery on this 14-mile stretch than you’ll find on any other 14 miles of trail Hiking south to north, you begin with three balds — Jane, Round and Grassy — in less than a mile. Views to the east as far as the Black Mountains, views to the west to the Cumberland Gap. For the next several miles you’re in and out of tunnels of mountain ash interspersed with ridgeline views. At about the nine-mile mark, just when you thought it couldn’t get much better, the AT climbs Little Hump and Hump mountains, more balds, more spectacular views (take a break atop Hump Mountain and see how many ridges you can count disappearing into the west). Camping options are many. There are three shelters — Stan Murray, Overmountain and Apple House spread equidistant — and numerous places to pitch a tent. Creeks aren’t abundant — much of this section is above 5,500 feet — but it’s not an issue, either: there are at least six springs alone along the way. To avoid a shuttle, you can hike out to the Overmountain Shelter on Day 1, day hike to US 19E and back on Day 2, and hike back to the trailhead on Day 3.

More info: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 23.

Shining Rock | Ivestor Gap
Shining Rock Wilderness Area
4-mile backpack in, various day-hike options
No. of days: 2-5

This is a great example of the base-camp approach to backpacking. From the Forest Service parking lot at the end of FS 816 off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 480, head north on the Ivestor Gap Trail. Four miles in, you’ll find yourself at the doorstep to the Shining Rock Wilderness, open high-country meadows and plenty of spots to pitch camp. Once base camp is established, grab your day pack for some of the best hiking in North Carolina. For instance, continue north and you’re soon at Shining Rock, with great scrambling and views (continue north along the Shining Rock Ledge to Deep Gap and there’s a spur up to 6,030-foot Cold Mountain, of Charles Frazier fame). Hiking one of three trails east takes you down rocky terrain to the Pigeon River, head south on the Art Loeb Trail to the eerily beautiful Graveyard Fields and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, or go west into the Sam Knob area and beyond that, the Middle Prong Wilderness. So many options.
Caveat: Since you’re camped so high up (you’re generally between 5,500 and 6,200 feet on this stretch), water can be an issue. There’s a reliable spring near the trailhead parking lot and a less reliable spring just off the trail before Shining Rock Gap.

More info: Shining Rock Wilderness,, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 15.

Neusiok Trail | Croatan National Forest
20.1 miles
No. of days: 2-3

The 20.1-mile Neusiok Trail is the perfect winter getaway (its window is roughly November through March), especially for the beginner. Running through a coastal forest, the trail is predictably flat (although you will find some short rollers on the north end). What also makes this trail attractive are the three shelters spaced along the way, all of which are served by running water. From south (the Mill Creek trailhead) to north (Pine Cliff Picnic Area) you hit the Blackjack Lodge Shelter just under a mile in, Copperhead Landing Shelter at the midpoint, and the Dogwood Camp shelter just under a mile from the Pine Cliff Picnic Area. The southern end of the Neusiok is more of what you might expect from a trail at the coast: flat passage through scrubby marsh and swamp. On the north end, though, the occasionally rolling landscape reveals the curious surprise of holly and galax, typically associated with higher, cooler climates. A surprise, too, are the occasional reminders of the area’s colorful human past in the form of long-abandoned stills. Don’t be alarmed by the occasional roar you may hear: while all kinds of critters call this habitat home (including venomous snakes, one of the reasons to visit in cold weather), fire-breathing dragons are not among them. Rather, you’re hearing fighter jets from the adjoining Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point.

More info:, and “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.

Deep Creek Loop | Great Smoky Mountains National Park
13.5 miles
No. of days: 2-3

New to backpacking and want to experience the Smokies but aren’t sure you have the experience for the Smokies? It’s true that there are challenging backcountry escapes that penetrate deep into the rugged Smokies. But there are also opportunities to probe the fringes and get a taste of this national treasure. One such opportunity is the Deep Creek Loop. From the trailhead, head up the old roadbed along Deep Creek. If it’s summer, don’t be alarmed by the legions of tubers walking in step; they’re only going about a mile up. You, on the other hand, will continue in solitude along Deep Creek on this foot-friendly trail. You’ll find your first dedicated campsite a little over 2.5 miles in, three more between miles five and six, all along the water. (Note: backcountry campsites in the Smokies are by reservation; 865.436.1200 for details.) Six miles in, take the Martins Gap Trail for a somewhat challenging (though not long) climb, to the trail’s namesake geographic feature, then return on the Sunkota Ridge Trail. There’s plenty of water along the first six miles, along the last mile or so as well. To turn this trip into a base-camp hike, establish roots at one of the three sites between miles five and six and explore any of several trails taking you deeper into the Smokies.

More info: “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.

Panthertown Valley
1-mile backpack in, 30 miles of day-hike options beyond
No. of days: 2-4

You should always have a map when you go backpacking; if you don’t have a map in Panthertown Valley, you could be in for the longest trip of your life. Which is somewhat ironic considering that Panthertown is a relatively compact 6,700 acres. Even with 30 miles of trail, you’d think you’d have to work hard to get lost, but not really. The reason: very few of the many trails here are marked. If you’re good with a compass and orient yourself well with recognizable landmarks, you might be fine. Otherwise, invest the $12 in Burt Kornegay’s invaluable “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown, Bonas Defeat, and Big Pisgah,” and go forth with confidence. This, of course, after your speedy, mile-long descent into the valley where you’ll find campsites aplenty close to Panthertown Creek. The day-hike options are too numerous to mention, but will expose you to some great waterfalls (Schoolhouse is a favorite) and great views, especially from atop Big Green and Little Green mountains. Got a fly rod? Bring it. Panthertown Creek is known for its trout waters. Because of the abundance of water and places to cool off, this is an especially good summer trip.

More info: Friends of Panthertown Valley, “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.

Appalachian Trail: James River to Punchbowl Mountain
Lynchburg, Va.
20 miles (round trip)
No. of days: 2

Everyone from the Triangle wants to hike the Appalachian Trail. But when they realize that in North Carolina the AT is about as far west as it gets, the prospect of a five- to six-hour drive gets them thinking of closer destinations. What they often don’t realize is that you can pick up the AT a whole lot closer to home — in about three hours — in Virginia. In fact, the AT just west of Lynchburg is the closest true Southern Appalachian experience to the Triangle. And it’s one good experience. From the trail access near the James River, the AT gains 1,625 feet in a little over two miles. It’s some serious dues paying, but once you reach Fullers Rocks, the heavy lifting (and breathing) is pretty much done. From there, its 3.5 miles of hiking along Big Rocky Row, through Saddle and Salt Log gaps and around Silas Knob before a less severe climb up Bluff Mountain and stellar views east, north and west. A mellow descent takes you to the Punch Bowl Shelter, which makes for a nice overnight. Water is scarce from the mile-mark until Punch Bowl, so plan accordingly (and while there is a spring at Punch Bowl, it’s unprotected and needs treating). You can either return the whole way on the AT, or take alternate trails down the mountain at Salt Log and Saddle gaps.

More info: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Birkhead Wilderness | Uwharrie National Forest
7.4 miles
No. of days: 2

This is the quintessential beginner trip for Piedmont backpackers. At 7.4 miles, it’s short. There’s some elevation, but not much. There’s water, and, if your first time doesn’t go well (you get drenched by rain, wind blows your tent away), you’ve got a quick escape. From the trailhead off Lassiter Mill Road, it’s a short hike to the Robbins Branch/Hannah’s Creek trail fork. Go left on Robbins Branch, which eventually picks up its namesake creek, but not before exploring a ridge. (There’s usually water in Robbins Branch, FYI.) At the Birkhead Mountain Trail, go right (south) and shortly, about 3.5 miles in, you’ll find the spur to the designated campsites, with a more reliable water source. Technically, this is a wilderness so you will find no improvements at the site, just relatively flat ground and water. Your return the next day is about four miles on the Birkhead Mountain and Hannah’s Branch trails. This is a most pleasant, unintimidating hike. No major creek crossings to freak you out, no agonizing climbs, no threat of marauding bears. In the Birkheads, a novice has the luxury of thinking only about practicing new skills.

More info: Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, Uwharrie National Forest, USDA Forest Service; “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press), Trip No. 42.