My first solo trip & daypack trip - Backbone State Park, IA

Panoramic photo of Backbone State Park, IA
panoramic I took from the backbone trail.

Here's a map of this state park!

As much as I love traveling and being outside, I've never gone camping alone, or even stayed out of town overnight by myself before. This was something I had always wanted to try. It's not always possible to find someone to come with when I get the itch to go on an adventure - I would be out every other weekend or more, if I could. I decided to go to Backbone State Park in Dundee, Iowa over Friday night and hike all day on Saturday on Memorial Day weekend. Let me tell you, I learned a lot. Not everything went as planned, but I will still be doing solo camping again. 


I made great time getting to the park after clocking out. I had packed my car the night before, including shelf stable, hiking friendly food; the weather and traffic were perfect. When I first pulled into the park, I came through the lakeside entrance, and I knew it would be a good trip. The lake, the trees, the sandstone crags - all lovely.

 From here, things got dicey. First, I lost cell coverage, which made navigation tricky inside the park. (I’m on Verizon and had 1 or 0 bars most of the trip. You can get three bars at the state forest on the north side of the park though.) Luckily I thought to take a picture of the park map with my phone early on, because most of the park doesn’t have great cell phone service. I would recommend getting a paper map too, just in case. Once inside, I couldn’t find a walk up campsite at the modern campground. You can reserve most sites at Iowa state parks, but a certain fraction are reserved for walk-ups. I should have assumed that would happen on a holiday weekend. I missed my turn looking for the other campground, Six Pines, and ended up giving up on finding a campsite at all. (I found out the next day that there wasn’t any available that night anyway).

Someone who will not be named gave me a hint that I could sleep in my car at a nearby place, and so I did. Nobody knocked. I just set up my car camping stuff and went to bed. I will admit that it took me a while to fall asleep, because I was nervous about sleeping by myself not in a campground. But, I got a really wonderful sky of stars and a beautiful sunrise to make up for it. 

Crags at Backbone State Park, IA
Crags I photographed on the Backbone Trail

The Main Event - My first time Daypacking

I have been watching a lot of videos and podcasts about backpacking lately, while also trying to get more exercise in my life through longer walks. Naturally, I was set on spending most of my day daypacking on the many trails. I wanted to see how well I would fair against the mental and physical challenges of long distance. I carried my water, lunch and snacks with me, as well as a swimsuit, extra socks (highly recommend extra socks!), first aid, a headlight (to peak in the cave off of the main park road), bug spray, some hand sanitizer, and TP.  (I had no clue how well maintained the bathrooms were. I ended up only using the sanitizer, and only once. Most facilities have a sink.) 

Ultimately, the hills kicked my butt. I am so happy I got to see as much of the park as I did, which only happened because I took the longer trails, but man I still hurt a little from it. I was feeling the burn less than halfway through my route, which included Backbone trail, West Lake trail, and East Lake trail, and some extra walking to get back to my car. According to park maps, this was at least 7 miles total. My phone says it was over 10 miles.

There are three things I could have done to make that experience better. First, I could have gotten hiking boots. I was using my usual tennis shoes, which might have been fine on flat land. A lot of the pain I have now from overworking my muscles is in my ankles due to the inclines and declines. The second thing I could have done was be more comfortable taking breaks. When I was on the trail I started to get self-conscious because none of the people passing me had backpacks, most were not even carrying water. Sometimes I didn’t want to stop to refuel and have people notice me. I never did this to a point where it became a safety issue, but if I had allowed myself breaks purely to let my body recover once in a while, I would have felt a lot better. I had also planned to take an hour at the beach to soak and eat, and give my body a rest. When the beach ended up being closed due to algae, I took maybe half that time to rest. (In part because I was worried the clouds and sprinkles would turn into a thunderstorm.) A full rest would have been better. Thirdly, I could have found hills to train on or done ankle exercises to prepare. I used to be a dancer, so I think ballet bare would have been a perfect exercise. 

(I also probably should have taken some Advil)

A creek and surrounding shrubs at Backbone State Park, IA
Photo I took of the trout creek, not far from the spring at the north end of the park.

Post Hike Relaxing

After I made it back to my car, I sort of just stared into the void for a bit. I was tired and couldn’t even figure out what I wanted to do - because I didn’t take my long lunch break, I finished about an hour earlier than intended. I ended up driving to the north end of the park. There is a spring there that feeds a stream that is kept stocked with fish. It's very popular for anglers, and for just dipping your feet in. I can confirm from experience, It’s very cold and refreshing - the plaque at the springs says that the water gushing up stays at a crisp 48 degrees fahrenheit all year. I then sat nearby and read a book, then I left the park for ice cream (as of 2022, there is a local shot about a mile straight north from the park) and after that I went home. 

Revelations & conclusions

I’m really glad that I did a solo trip. Even though it wasn’t perfect, it was a fantastic trip Because  I learned so much. For example, I have learned that organization will need to be a lot different between our 2 person prius set up (which worked very well because every item had a neat and tidy home) and our 1 person set up. (I am a chaotic mess and I need to plan separate bags next time, I had assumed that my backpack would be enough of a container, but since not every item came with me hiking, items just spread all over the car.) I also realized that our 2 person set up would be no good for “stealth camping” because it requires some items to be stored outside the car. Also, because of bathroom breaks: I find that in the morning by myself, it's easy to pack up and find a bathroom before it's a problem. But since one person is usually pokey-er than the other, that would become an issue requiring onsite facilities or catholes. I also learned I need new shelf stable recipes. About half of what I made didn’t end up being as tasty as I had thought.


More importantly, I gained a ton of confidence in my outdoors skills, and a stronger sense of autonomy. This is a really big deal, in part because I have some mild driving anxiety when going to new places. I feel like I have a lot more control over how I travel regionally, and feel less reliant on other people being interested in tagging along and sharing the drive. I can’t wait to get out more often!


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