Frivolous Friday: Gebhard Woods Gear Test

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care about that may not have serious implications for atheism or social justice. Any day is a good day to write about whatever the heck we’re interested in (hey, we put “culture” in our tagline for a reason), but we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun. Enjoy!

Well, I went out for my gear test weekend just as I planned. I went to Gebhard Woods State Park, about an hour and a half south of Chicago, in the town of Morris. I was hoping to test the gear I have for going with tent-free camping – a hammock and tarp, with my usual pad and sleeping bag. I also originally intended to do some hiking but blisters on my feet from work meant I changed that plan last minute to stay off my feet as much as I could.

The Park

When I say “in the town” I mean it – the park is tiny, and the camping area is literally surrounded by apartment buildings and houses. I knew the place was small, but I guess I didn’t know HOW small until I arrived. I suspect later in the summer/fall there will be more shielding from the neighborhood due to leaves on the surrounding trees and bushes, but nothing will keep visitors from hearing starting cars, cheering about sports on the TV, crying babies, and lawn mowers.

Still, for Friday night I had the grounds to myself, which was lovely. Saturday night I had some neighbors early in the night. One group was a couple intending on camping, but whose dog was vocally miserable about it, so they left. The other group was a bunch of locals with a cute small dog who sat around the campfire for several hours and then went home. I admit I was worried they’d be loud and annoying, but they weren’t at all. So while the campground was basically a small city park with fire rings, at least I had it to myself most of the time.

At least among birds there was quite a variety of birds, including ducks, geese, woodpeckers, sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals, red winged blackbirds, and probably more. The tree species here seemed very intentionally planted, but included oaks, maples, and a few beautiful large sycamore trees.

A large sycamore tree in the spring before it has leaves. There are additional trees and bushes in the background.
A large sycamore tree in the spring before it has leaves. There are additional trees and bushes in the background.

Grills, fire rings, a few picnic tables, and pit toilets are all available (though the toilets are a bit of a walk). Potable water is NOT currently available on site and the ranger I talked to said he didn’t know when the two water fountains would be turned on due to the fact that Illinois has no budget, so there’s no money for the plumber at the moment. I ended up picking up water in town.

Gear Test

I’m really glad I decided to test my new setup out on an easy weekend. I was testing my new hammock, with hanging gear and a tarp that used to be a tent rainfly. Now, in order for that hardware to work it turns out the trees need to be fairly small (the straps are only 5 feet long) and a very specific distance apart – just about exactly the length of the hammock. Otherwise additional rope is needed for the hammock to work. This park did not have any trees of the right circumference and distance, so I had to make do with trees that were several feet further apart and some cordage. No big deal – I know how to use rope and got my hammock up, but this tells me I may need to bring more rope in the future.

Overnight I learned another thing about the hammock. See, I attached one side directly to the tree strap and ran cord from the hammock to the tree strap on the other side. At first the two straps were at the same height on the trees, but this meant that once I was in the hammock one side was up higher than the other. The side with extended cord was closer to the ground. Even after I lowered the closer strap it was still uneven, but I couldn’t go any lower on that side without being on the ground and I couldn’t raise the far side any further because I am short. Trying to sleep in the slightly lopsided hammock worked, but my pad and I kept sliding down towards the foot, and I repeatedly had to pull myself upwards through the night – not the most restful activity. In the future I need the two sides of the hammock to be about equal distance from the trees to avoid this problem, but now I know.

The tarp I have SEEMED basically square until I put it up on the ridgeline. Then it became clear that it had too much shape to it, and when the edges were taught there was a lot of slack in the middle, causing it to sag inward. Since I was not expecting any rain I left it up and it did a great job of trapping warm air for me without any condensation problems, but in even a light rain it would have leaked. I will need to get an actual tarp instead.

Image is of a red tarp over a hammock (not seen). The tarp is over a cord run between the trunks of two trees. More trees are visible in the background.
Image is of a red tarp over a hammock (not seen). The tarp is over a cord run between the trunks of two trees. More trees are visible in the background.

As far as staying warm, the set up worked perfectly. It got down to about 38F on Friday night, and the combination of my sleeping bag and Therm-a-Rest with the saggy tarp kept me plenty warm. Pajamas and a knit hat helped too – always remember a warm hat for cool weather camping!

On Saturday night I decided to see if the saggy rainfly could be salvaged as a shelter tarp on the ground. I fiddled with a few options and ended up finding a pretty good way of using half the tarp as a groundcloth and the other half as a shelter. Like Friday night, the setup would not have been helpful in rain, but it did block a breeze and trap some heat. The best part of this shelter setup is that it does not require any trees, just my trekking pole and some steaks. I will definitely use this setup again.

Image is of a red tarp set up as a small shelter using a trekking pole and staked down to the ground. Visible inside the shelter is a sleeping bag and camping mat.
Image is of a red tarp set up as a small shelter using a trekking pole and staked down to the ground. Visible inside the shelter is a sleeping bag and camping mat.

As for using my regular backpack, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. My sleeping bag just takes up the whole main compartment, so while my load wasn’t too heavy, it was too stuffed in to be well organized or to get everything back in again in the field. Eventually I’d love to get a more compact sleeping bag or better yet a good quality quilt instead. Unfortunately they’re expensive so I will have to wait. Plus, being allergic to down decreases my options in terms of good sleeping bags and quilts.

Food

I overpacked food, and will remember that I don’t need as much when I’m not doing a lot of physical work. Still, my mac and cheese dinner was lovely. Want to know how to do mac and cheese with veggies without a cooler? Here’s my way:

Ingredients:
1 box cheap mac and cheese with powdered cheese
1 Tbsp powdered milk
1/3 to 1/2 cup dehydrated vegetables (any kind you like, the link is just to the ones I used)
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
20 oz water
Any camp stove and pot at least 32 oz or larger. I use this set.

Image shows dry noodles and vegetables in a ziplock baggie, with an envelope of cheese powder next to it.
Image shows dry noodles and vegetables in a ziplock baggie, with an envelope of cheese powder next to it.

At Home:
Combine noodles and veggies in a baggie and discard the box. I also put the packet of cheese powder in this bag and carry powdered milk and olive oil in small light plastic containers separately.

 

 

 

Image is of a small pot of water boiling with vegetables and noodles in it. The pot is surrounded by a metal windscreen and the background is light concrete.
Image is of a small pot of water boiling with vegetables and noodles in it. The pot is surrounded by a metal windscreen and the background is light concrete.

At Camp:

Bring 20 oz water to a boil in a small pot. Add noodles and veggies and simmer until noodles are done. If you like softer veggies, add veggies first and then the noodles after about 3 minutes, but I don’t mind them firmer.

 

 

Image is of a small pot containing macaroni and cheese and vegetables, with a spoon stuck in it. There is a bottle of water sitting next to it. The background is dirt and grass.
Image is of a small pot containing macaroni and cheese and vegetables, with a spoon stuck in it. There is a bottle of water sitting next to it. The background is dirt and grass.

When the noodles are done take off heat and stir in the cheese, oil, and milk powder. The excess water will reconstitute the milk powder. Stir until everything is combined and eat!

 

 

 

 

All Amazon links in this post are using my Amazon Affiliates link.

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Frivolous Friday: Gebhard Woods Gear Test
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