Backpacking through Garden of the Gods on the River to River Trail



The idea of backpacking has always intrigued me.  To carry around on ones backs all the things they need to survive for a number of days in the wilderness seems incredulous or at least really hard.  I decided to give it a try.  I sent emails to a couple of friends asking for advice and they both warned against packing too much stuff, I took that under consideration.

I originally planned a more ambitious hiking trip of a at least 3 or 4 days but Shauna, always the voice of wisdom, urged me to try something shorter and close to home.  I decided to do a very popular section of the Illinois River to River trail, from Garden of the Gods to Lusk Creek.  I found some gpx files that reported it to be a 26 mile trip.  I would divide that into two days and have Shauna come and get me the second day.  I would only be camping out one night, but that would at least give me a feel for the activity.



I borrowed Luke’s big pack and filled it up with my stuff, tent, sleeping bag, cooking stuff, food, water, and lots of other stuff.  When I left the house it was weighing in at 30 pounds.  We stopped off at Wal-Mart and I added more food and a few other odds and ends.  My packed weighed 35 pounds when I got home.

When I first strapped the pack on I was sort of stunned, it wasn’t just uncomfortable, it kind of hurt.  When I started walking I was beginning to have second thoughts.  I suppose that I adapted to the pain, or maybe it wasn’t so bad, but I just kept going.  I developed a 2 mile marching plan, walk two miles then remove the pack and have a small snack and and a drink.  2 miles was an hour of walking so it seemed to be a good plan.





I arrived at One Horse Gap Lake around 5:30, dead tired and stumbling.  16 miles of hiking in for the day had reduced me to a zombie like stride.  The first tent sized clearing I found became my campsite and I threw down my pack.  Walking without the pack was the strangest sensation.  I felt like an Apollo astronaut, I was nearly leaving the ground with every step.  It took over an hour to get my camp set up, I could barely lift my arms and after spending some time resting it was a strain just to get up.



It began raining at 8 PM but I really didn’t care, my tent didn’t leak and I was having a hard time staying awake.  I was so tired I didn’t even bother getting my sleeping bag out of the tent.  Crazy bird and animal noises woke me up throughout the night.  A young man had died by driving a car into the lake a few months ago and I had briefly considered that maybe his spirit would haunt the area, but I was too tired to really care.

It wasn’t raining in the morning and I was able to get started.  I was surprised by how alive and awake I felt, and how much the pain had subsided, thought it could have been the 800 mg of Ibuprofen.  4 miles later I was moving like a zombie again, then the rain began.  I called Shauna and asked for a ride home, which she gladly gave.



I did some research after my overnight adventure.  The pack weighs 7 pounds and is expedition sized, my tent weighs 6 pounds, my sleeping bag 5 pounds, I carried twice the water and food I needed, an entire bottle of poison ivy wash when a few ounces would do, and several items that never even came out of the pack, like a spare flashlight or my 5 POUND SLEEPING BAG!  Most backpacking resources I read recommend a 3 pound pack, 3 pound tent, and 2 pound sleeping bag.  I could have saved ten pounds alone if I had gear of that weight.





I’m definitely going to try backpacking again, but I hopefully not alone.  I began to talk to myself after only a few hours, In a few days I’m certain I’d be looking for a soccer ball to be my new best friend.  I’m also going to shot for a 25 pound load next time I try.  In the past I have scoffed at lightweight titanium camping gear, but after lugging nearly 40 pounds on my back for 16 miles I can totally see the point of a 60 dollar titanium cookware set.  Every gram counts!


About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
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10 Responses to Backpacking through Garden of the Gods on the River to River Trail

  1. capejohn says:

    I have seen some wonderful movies about hiking. If you haven’t already try to watch “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon and “The Way” with Martin Sheen. They may be the inspiration for you to walk alone.

  2. K M says:

    Mr. G I had come here to ask you if you had seen ‘Wild’ with Reese Witherspoon yet and capejohn beat me to it, lol.
    I really enjoyed that film, will have to check out the Marten Sheen one now.

    BTW, cool article and loved the pics.

  3. Moe says:

    I too want to do this. I have a light tent, light sleeping pad and fairly light sleeping bag, but do not have a pack. I need to ask for REI gift certificates or just cash towards one for my birthday this summer. I’d like to do a few weekend backpacking events a year. The shawnee is a great place to start. JW has been on 2 substantial trips this spring. One to GA and one to eastern VA. The last one, he did 50 miles of big mountain trails in 3 days. But, he isn’t really human, so we can’t use that to judge how far we could go in 3 days.

    • Matt Gholson says:

      Right, if we used JW as a benchmark we’d never do anything. He’s some kind of activity robot! If you ever get the urge to try a day or two on the R2R let me know. Also REI has a pretty sweet 2 pound pack for 69 dollars. I think I’m going to get one.

  4. Jim Russell says:

    If your pack weighed 35 pounds after you got home with no food or water your pack was probably closer to 45 or 50 pounds when hiking. But 16 miles with a 40 plus pound pack is extremely impressive. Even the seasoned AT thru hikers who know what they are doing (sorry Matt) rarely do more than 20 miles a day. I went hiking with a guy once that completed the AT; he stated after about two weeks of steady hiking you start to develop your trail legs and things become easier.

    • Matt Gholson says:

      Thanks, I know it weighed 30 pounds when I left, and I added about 5 pounds of food, and a few more pounds of odd and ends. Just too damn heavy.

      I have never had legs sore in the locations that hiking made my legs sore, mainly my calves. It was difficult to walk the last couple of days, today is better but still sore.

      I’ll have to tell Shauna that I need a couple weeks away to get ready to hike. LOL

  5. Brian DeNeal says:

    Matt, I’ve hiked the trail twice knowing pack weight would be the thing that eventually would cause me to abandon the trip. Here’s what I learned: 1. Ditch the stove and cookware. They are not only bulky and heavy, they also take up valuable time cooking food that mostly is low in vital calories. I spread peanut butter on a bunch of bagels in a large Ziplock bag that I can pull out and munch on. 2. Ditch the tent. You will be so tired at the end of the day you can sleep on a boulder. Take along a tarp that you can string up between trees in case of rain. 3. Ditch the water purifier. It’s heavy and takes forever to pump water into your quart container. Take iodine tablets that weigh nothing and a Camelback water bladder so you aren’t stopping and having to pull out the water bottle all the time. 4. Take pre-cooked bacon, pepperoni, summer sausage. They are a good source of protein on the go, with no need to stop and prepare. 5. Invest in a Komperdell Shirmstock Umbrella Hiking Staff. It costs about $120 but it serves as a hiking stick most of the time and if it rains you just upend it and open the umbrella while warm weather hiking. No need to bring rain gear that you probably won’t use. 6. And I’m starting to doubt this last one, but both times I hiked I wore a Utili-Kilt Adventurer model. It has multiple pockets for holding quart water bottles, trail mix and whatever you want close without having to remove the pack. Only problem: Don’t go commando, the chafe is torturous. Spent way too much time sitting in Lusk Creek with the kilt pulled up. It definitely requires high performance wicking underwear.

    • Matt Gholson says:

      Thanks for the pro tips. One of the reasons I did the hike is so I could play with my little liquid fuel stove, but I’m all in on the kilt. I hear you may be doing another hike sometime. I’m wanting to try a longer hike before it gets too hot.

      • Brian DeNeal says:

        Where did you hear I may be doing another hike? I’ve only told my family just yesterday. But, yes, my wife told me I need to hike it. Not sure why she wants me out of the house and on the trail, but it probably won’t be happening until early June.

  6. Matt Gholson says:

    Mabye someone has your phone tapped?

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